This April, the powerful production April’s Fool, based on the 2009 death of Toowoomba teenager Kristjan Terauds, embarks on a national tour.
A startling work of sadness, loss and love, while laced with humour and ultimately optimism, April’s Fool has been based on interviews about Kristjan by local playwright David Burton, with friends and family of the popular youth, who died from complications from illicit drug use just two weeks shy of his 19th birthday.
After its debut season in 2010, young people, parents, teachers, youth workers and theatre critics alike, for its honesty and ability to engage its audience without preaching or lecturing, universally praised April’s Fool.
We asked Writer, David Burton, and Director, Lewis Jones, to tell us about what it means to re-visit this moving play and offer it up to a whole new audience. Rehearsals started last week. Jones said, “It is a little surreal coming back to something, where it is almost entirely the same cast – four out of the five cast members are the same.” The only change of cast we’ll see for this tour is Belinda Raisin replacing Kathryn Marquet.
Jones explains, “The initial creative development process came directly out of the events on which the play is based, in that David Burton began conducting interviews on which to base his verbatim work within four or five months of Kristjan’s death. There were then three intense creative developments between then and the final rehearsal period. The show premiered in July 2010, some fifteen months after Kristjan died. It was a very raw and immediate process for all involved, which I think made its impact very raw and immediate as well.”
Burton notes, “It was originally commissioned by the Empire Theatre Project’s Company. So Lewis Jones, the director, is the brains behind this whole project. I quickly caught Lewis’ passion for the piece and ran with it. When you sit down and hear the story for the first time it’s pretty astonishing, and we had Kristjan’s father’s journal as source material too. Lewis’ passion, along with the family’s desire for positive change in the community, really fueled the project and turned it into what it was.”
As Director and the person who had to instigate the production – it was a high-risk undertaking – Jones was not sure how the local community would react. “I knew that it was a story that was both innately theatrical but more importantly, it was a story that needed to be shared. And I feel that this is why it has been received so positively by audiences. It is a story that we share with the audience very gently and with a great deal of love. It is not sensational. It is not ‘dramatic’ in the usual sense of the word.
We have found that audiences appreciate the gentleness and the directness of the storytelling and young people respond very positively to the work, because it respects their ability to make up their own mind. At no point does the play tell them whether to take drugs or not to take drugs; it just tells the story of one boy who took drugs.
At a Conference I was talking to Nicole Lauder who is a close family friend of the Terauds family. At the time, Nicole was General Manager of La Boite Theatre and in asking her how she was, she shared that she had just been up in Toowoomba watching the son of a friend die. She asked if it was time to revisit Margery Forde’s X-Stacy and I suggested that it was probably time for a new work within this genre.
She put me in touch with David, Kristjan’s father who had written a journal entitled ‘April’s Fool’ chronicling the last days of his son’s life. It was a devastating read and I asked if it could form the basis of a new theatre work and very generously the Terauds family gave permission for the development of the work.”
Burton interviewed family members and friends to get the full story. I asked if this was a “difficult” process.
“Difficult is too simple a word. It was one of the most beautiful and awful experiences of my life. It’s still haunting. Obviously you’re sitting with people who are going through massive grief, so it’s very sad. But you really become aware of how much love is in a community, and how much a death can affect so many people. It was never difficult finding people. Overall, people were very willing to come forward and talk quite openly. The community was extremely gracious and generous with their stories.”
The result of such generous, courageous community sharing is a new breed of verbatim theatre. Burton notes, “If I can make up an entirely new label, I’d say April’s Fool is a ‘narrative verbatim’. We were always very focussed on the narrative. We don’t stop too often to really stop and smell the roses and reflect in this play. I always wanted to keep the story moving. So in that sense I think audiences shouldn’t expect a ‘discussion’ about the event that you can see in some verbatim plays. April’s Fool tells you a story. That was always it’s main goal.”
Not an easy story to share.
Even so, neither Jones nor Burton had any misgivings and they remained consultative throughout the process, allowing those interviewed to have a seven-day cooling off period. He says that the immediacy of the interviews was of utmost importance to allow it to be part of the grieving and healing process. Jones observes, “I guess that is how the rehearsal process is different this time. There is a distance from Kristjan’s death. The mood in the rehearsal room is somewhat more reflective. The premiere season had an urgency to it, this remount is perhaps a little gentler, though nonetheless powerful, and it is underpinned with the knowledge that this is a show that has proven its artistic merit and its ability to have a positive impact on the communities where it is performed.”
During the original rehearsal process, Burton says he was involved as much as any writer. “I would pop in every week or so to check in, tweak things and make changes. Lewis Jones and I work extremely well together, so there was the occasional phone call where we’d bounce around ideas. I was there when we showed the parents for the very first time. That was one of the most memorable days of my life. But overall, it was such a pleasure to work with the team. It’s a superb cast and crew.”
“There were a few key people with this script that really bounced it along,” says Burton. “The most influential was Lewis Jones, along with Christie Tickell and Michael Futcher. There was other advice from the cast along the way too. Theatre’s a collaborative art form, and especially with a piece like this it’s important to remember that you (the writer) actually has very little spiritual ownership of it. So if someone suggests an idea that’s brilliant, who am I to complain? Once again, the team behind this was brilliant, so I always felt the script was in good hands.”
As well as holding an open call for actors who would complete his cast, Jones handpicked Barbara Lowing and Allen Laverty, whose work he had known for many years. “I knew I could trust them with the material,” he said. “There is an added dimension to working on material you know to be real and immediate and all the cast met what I will call the main players over the creative development process, with David Burton perhaps operating as a conduit; he had, after all, conducted the interviews and built close relationships with the family and close friends. The most important thing for the family is summed up by Kristjan’s mother, Helena who said, when asked why she was prepared to let this tragic story be shared, said, ‘If I can stop another mother going through what I have been through, then it is worth it.’”
Interestingly, Kristjan does not appear in the play, nor do we hear his voice. Burton says, “It was an instinct. The very first thing I knew about the play was that it wouldn’t feature Kristjan in any real physical sense. The fact he’s not there is what the play is really about. And an attempt to reenact his life or have someone play him flirts dangerously with bad taste. I kind of really like that by the end of the play you feel like you know Kristjan, but you still feel like he’s incredibly mysterious. I think that’s really important to the piece.”
I wondered what that original opening night would have been like, as a member of that community, as a member of that family…
Burton remembers, “The opening night was huge. It was terrifying. But then the lights went down and it all played out and it was one of the best experiences of my life. We all hung around with the family and the cast and it was a really beautiful symbol of a community coming together. Kristjan’s whole community seemed to be really pleased with it. From there, the play’s had pretty amazing affects. We get feedback from every show that blows us away. It’s changing lives, which is what Kristjan’s parents originally wanted.”
I asked Burton if he thought April’s Fool should be mandatory reading/viewing for high school students. He said, “I’m biased, so of course I think yes. But I certainly don’t think it would hurt! We’ve had people come to this show and say things like ‘I never knew theatre could do that.’ We’ve had teenagers come and then go home to their parents and confess their drug problems that same afternoon. We’ve had several local politicians see the show and say that every teenager and parent should be exposed to it. I think it’s a vital issue, and I do think that there’s very little out there that talks about these issues in quite the way that April’s Fool does. I think it’s rare you get a play like this.”
Original audiences might want to see this production again. “They might want to bring a friend or a young person who is now in the age group who are most deeply affected by these issues, but who was not the last time it can around,” says Jones.
The response from school groups has already been phenomenal. When the government doesn’t show their support for the arts, it’s vital that schools and parents do and it’s pleasing to see so many families, teachers and principals prioritising a student trip to this show.
“They witnessed real characters, real feelings and real reactions. It shocked them, it challenged them, it angered them, it saddened them, it made them laugh and it made them cry. This was the first performance my students have been really passionate about.”
Michelle Radunz, Drama Teacher at Chinchilla State High School
“I was amazed by the rapt attention of the large audience of school students. They appeared to hang on every word. For me, this is clear evidence of the play’s success in reaching its target audience who will hopefully consider and discuss the issues long after the season has finished.”
Katherine Lyall-Watson, ourbrisbane.com
April’s Fool is a real, raw, affecting story but Jones would not describe it as “hard-hitting.” Rather, he explains, it is “remarkably gentle – profound, moving, beautiful, sad. From my perspective it is an act of love. The work opens up discussion on a difficult topic. This work will save lives.”
Kate Foy reviewed the world premiere in Oakey, near Toowoomba, in 2010 and likened the play to – “a piece of art and in form and intention” – a quilt, with its fragments of deep feelings and shared history. I was curious about what made the final cut.
“There were long and very confidential conversations between Lewis Jones and I about certain pieces of information. You’re going to encounter that with any verbatim play. There are some moments in the play that we took a small (and very calculated) risk by including, because we felt they were important. There are other moments that we sacrificed along the way. Sometimes this was because it was information that was too sensitive. But almost all of the time it was simply because a moment didn’t work because of fairly mundane theatrical reasons.
We have to wonder if the experience of telling a difficult story is a cathartic experience for those involved in its telling. Burton notes, “The six or so months that I worked with the family was fantastic. I can’t speak on their behalf of what their emotional experience was like, but I know a lot of them felt positively about it. I think it’s dangerous to assume these things can always be cathartic. Grief is a funny and mysterious beast. For one person it may be ‘cathartic’, for another it can be extremely dangerous. The only reason we ever went ahead with the project was that the family (who have been involved in theatre before and understood what would happen) were so enthusiastic for it. They really wanted it to happen. I feel humbled and honored to be a part of it. It remains one of the things I’m most proud of (creative work or otherwise) in my life.”
Burton is currently writing a couple of plays for school audiences with Grin and Tonic Theatre Company. He’s also writing a new work, which will premiere at the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba in September. “I have a weekly podcast that I do with a mate about arts in Queensland (stuffandthings.com.au) and I’m polishing off a couple of novels that will hopefully see the light of day quite soon.”
As Director of Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre, Jones continues to seek out work that “transcends the ordinary by putting us in touch with the intangible.” He points out, “Yes, that last sentence is not logical. Perhaps it sums up my artistic heart.”
Jones’ support for new work, new talent and the growth of the industry in general does not go unnoticed. He says, “I carry with me a belief in the ability of EVERY one – artist or not – to have their life enriched by the arts. There is a lot of shit that goes on around the arts, and so I like to focus on ‘the work’. In the end it is about connecting artists to audiences and audiences are our masters.
There are audiences out there with a hunger for productions that feed them – perhaps – spiritually and it is our task to make work that transcends the ordinary.
My hope for Queensland is that we continue to acknowledge that we have some brilliant theatre makers and that we have the capacity to take that to audiences near and far – and that we do not need to validate what we do by seeking approval from afar.
It’s about the work and supporting artists to develop business models that allow them to build genuinely sustainable practice.”