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Memories of Merrigong – Anne-Louise Rentell

Anne-Louise Rentell, Director of The Strangeways Ensemble

Director of The Strangeways Ensemble, Anne-Louise Rentell shared some of her fondest memories of being a part of Merrigong Theatre Company Productions. Anne-Louise is a theatre maker, producer and arts administrator who has worked at Merrigong in various capacities since 2003.

Anne Louise has over 25 years of experience in the performing arts, working as a director, producer, performer, dramaturg and arts manager.

“I have so many fond memories of Merrigong productions, working with wonderful people on great stories.”

Reflect back to when you first started at Merrigong. Do you recall any fascinating tales about Merrigong productions you’ve been involved in?

Our first production was a Van Badham play, Camarilla in 2006, directed by Kate Gaul. We really wanted the first work to have a local connection and Van was living here and teaching at the University of Wollongong at the time. I had also seen Van’s production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004, so it was great to be able to confidently put the work forward as an option for our first foray into producing, not just because she was a local playwright, but also knowing it was cracking writing and a relevant story.

Can you recall a time when a Merrigong production did not go according to plan?

It’s not exactly a story of a show not going to plan, but more a story of learning what not to do in future. We were in the preproduction stages of Alana Valentine’s play Dead Man Brake about the Waterfall train disaster of 2003. I was directing the work and had been up to the 10 year anniversary service in Helensburgh on the 31 January 2013 as part of my research. I was struck with how important song was during the service as part of the process of healing and we had the idea that the poems in Alana’s play could work as songs. But, it’s important to know that we had no extra development time for this. Daryl Wallis (composer and sound designer) turned up to the first day of rehearsal with a suite of songs and we had to start working them into Alana’s already solid 90 minute script. It was a fantastic but also hairy process and at one point, we had a play that ran for over three hours – eek! It was tough going but we got there in the end due to Alana’s generosity and creative openness, Daryl’s musical brilliance and an extraordinarily talented cast. Lesson learnt – next time, only do this if you know you have development time before rehearsals start.

What is the craziest thing you’ve witnessed or been a part of during a Merrigong production? 

The old theatre adage, never work with children or animals…the world premiere production of Mary Rachel Brown’s The Dapto Chaser required a greyhound on stage. It was quite clear from the outset that this wasn’t going to be an option (the budget didn’t extend to animal carers for one thing) so we set about creating an invisible dog, or more specifically, an invisible dog made visible by the clever performances of the actors and our designer fashioning a collar and lead to which it looked like a dog was attached. This was often the cause of much hilarity, but nevertheless made its way into the play’s next production at Griffin Theatre Company and is now part of the script.

What is your fondest experience of a Merrigong production? Why do you think it has stuck in your memory and how does it make you feel to reflect on it now?  

I have so many fond memories of Merrigong productions, working with wonderful people on great stories. To name a couple of highlights – my first Merrigong directing role on Athol Fugard’s Valley Song in 2007, the powerful and moving opening night of Dead Man Brake in 2013 with survivors and their families in the audience, and the language and atmosphere of Marcel Dorney’s Charcoal Creek in 2012 which was also a personal directing highlight for me.

But I am probably most fond and proud of the work we have done over the past twelve years to develop The Strangeways Ensemble. The three original works that we have created since 2014, The Man Who Dreamt the Stars, The Outside Man and Trash Talk, are testament to our maturity and confidence as a company to support, produce and present work which gives a professional platform to the voice and experience of marginalised members of our community.

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