So I can’t remember if I’m mentioned this already, but I’m currently working for the Adelaide Festival Centre, working on a community event called the Moon Lantern Festival, which celebrates Asian culture in Adelaide. However, this festival isn’t on until September, and most of my colleagues have been (rightly) focused on another big festival at the Centre – the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The Cabaret Festival has just finished, but I managed to bombard myself with as many cabaret shows as possible, ranging from Aussie gems like Bradley McCaw to international superstars like Kristen Chenoweth or cool New York jazz singers like Joey Arias.
A couple of shows really struck me, and even though they aren’t about children’s books, or even books at all, I felt I wanted to talk about them, as they are about stories, and sharing ourselves through art. Both shows that I am going to mentioned weren’t perfect, but there was something about them that struck a nerve. One was Compositions – A Musical Close Up, performed by Tyran Parke, and the other was A Guide to Unhappiness, which starred Sunny Leunig.
The reason both these shows, out of the dozen or so that I saw, stuck out at me, was that these two performers really used their own stories to shape their show.
Tyran Parke came up with the idea for Compositions when he gave a book of his brother Trent Parke’s photography to one of his mentors as a thank you. The mentor (for any musical theatre fans, it was Stephen Sondheim) looked at some of the images and told Tyran, ‘these pictures really sing’. This sparked the idea for Tyran to ask a whole lot of composers to select one of the images from his brother’s book and create a song about it. Five years later, I listened to Tyran sing these songs, while watching on screen the images that inspired the music. What I really loved was how Tyran talked to the audience between each song, telling them where the songs came from, what he thinks the images say about his brother, about his family, and stories of his family growing up. It was interesting how Tyran could take a song, which was written based on one of his brother’s images, and reflect on how that song made him think about memories from his childhood, memories of his brother, memories of his family. It felt very honest.
Sunny Leunig’s A Guide to Unhappiness was also very honest, in the end. It was half a magic show, half philosophy, half personal narrative. Sunny Leunig used magic tricks, comedy, and music to tell the story of him travelling to Germany to visit his cousin Marco, and the sad and challenging experiences he encountered there. The show started off amusing, with tricks and jokes, and the laughter continued through the show, but it ended with Sunny revealing very personal, very confronting experiences about his real life. To me it was so brave of him to use a magic show, a cabaret show, to tell a very personal and sad story.
So how does this relate to children’s books? I’m not sure it does, other than the way that both these shows used story. Personal experiences shaped the story of these shows, and made them all the more special to me. All books, all stories, have a piece of the author hidden in them somewhere, but to show your life in the way these two performers did meant that they gave their stories even more life (at least, that’s how it felt to me). I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, biographies, memoirs, but some of the most memorable children’s books that I have read have an identifiable part of the author spread through their pages. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, for example, or The Railway Children. The Red Pony. The Silver Sword. All these stories have a truth discovered by the author within in them, based on their own lives, and this is passed on to the reader. Just like how Sunny Leunig and Tyran Parke passed on a piece of themselves to me.
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