Meet Jerry Retford – the director behind Convict Footprints

Take a trip back in time and experience the rich history of Bella Vista Farm as told by the cast from Convict Footprints.

Performers will showcase the stories of the men and women who lived, worked and died at the historic homestead.

Jerry Retford, the director of the award-winning production, told FOCUS about the sweat and of course the laughter that goes on in a live theatre event, which includes plenty of audience involvement.

Q: How did Convict Footprints come about for you?

J: Convict Footprints came about in response to the Old Great North Road gaining UNESCO World heritage listing along with a number of other Australian convict sites. It suddenly struck me that our country’s colonial history was so much more about the individuals that were transported over here and built this country. I wanted to create a platform to tell their stories.

Q: What experience do you need to direct one of these productions?

J: I’ve been plying both sides of the stage and screen since I got politely asked to leave college some three decades ago. I’ve worked in touring theatre productions, dance, as an actor, director, lighting designer, videographer and sound recordist.

Funny enough, I’ve never had any inkling or interest in history. I totally flunked my school exams on the subject.

However, after hearing about the stories of all the men and women being dragged over here and how they were conscripted to build our very foundations, it really touched me – deeply. I had the realisation that I needed to tell their stories and to honour their lives. That’s a really big part of every show and the cast and crew are really on the same wave length. Because of their passion, heart and commitment, these stories tell themselves.

Q: Do you need to know the local history? If so, how do you do your research?

J: Oh that’s all the work of our amazing writer Mr Steven Hopley . He does incredible work. We’ve been working together on these shows since we started back in 2012. I find the locations and float around waving my arms and whispering stories, journeys and moments to be played with and Steven, well he patiently waits till I’m finished then goes away to hustle around dusty corridors and dark crypts for research. He comes back a few months later with some beautiful words for us to bring to life.

Q: To add to your role as director, you also star in the live stage production. Is it hard to switch between acting and directing?

J: Haha yes! So much!

I often forget and then suddenly the day of the show I realise I have lines to learn. And generally, it’s less words, more just being around, saves adding extra actors too. Although, in our Cockatoo show, there was this one monologue at the end and I’m not sure that I ever got all those words in the one go right! Seriously though, I think, for me, being actor makes me a better director, and being a director makes me a better actor too. I think, I less ‘direct’ anyway, more, create a space for our actors to play and find their way to where we want to get too. It’s a very collaborative process.

Q: What made you want to pursue a career in acting?

J: I think because I couldn’t be a fighter pilot as I was shortsighted. That was always my dream as a young teenager, even while I was acting at school. I wanted to join the Airforce. But when I think about it, I really don’t think I would’ve lasted long!

A friend of mine who was a stage manager decided to go off and join the Commandos. He lasted about six weeks before they found him climbing the wire trying to escape!

So, theatre and performance has always been a part of what I’ve done and I’ve always acted and either directed/produced or worked as a lighting designer, sound recordist or made movies. In fact, my first contract was a resident lighting director for a dance company, while I was also touring as an actor and technical manager for another theatre company in the UK. It’s one of those things that’s such a part of you. It brings me such huge contentment and joy. And then to be able to use that to tell these amazing stories – it’s a deeply moving deeply and resonating experience. That’s my place – out there, in character, playing around, rooted in a whole different person with a real history, being able to chat and banter with an audience. I think that’s my favourite time. Only downside is learning lines, but there always has to be a balance!

Q: What else have you starred in?

J: ‘Starred’ ahahha – not sure I’ve ever starred! But, last year was a busy TV year with a few small roles in Top of the Lake, Janet King and Doctor Doctor and some great dastardly villains in an indie feature film Fearless Game and a webseries Abandoned. I often get type cast as a villain, psychopath, drug dealer, second hand car salesman etc. Plus my partner, who is also one of our Footprints actors, she runs Films4Change, a film production company working in areas of social change/awareness and we work together on their ongoing projects too, so things are pretty flat out stage and screen.

What makes Convict Footprints different from any other colonial production?

J: I think it’s the unique style – up close and personal character-based improvisation, combined with a beautifully written and researched script based on true stories. We are also at the site where these stories had played out many years earlier and audiences to our shows are immersed in the sights, sounds, smells [coz those convicts can smell!].

I love to work, up close and personal with an audience that have come for an experience, not a ‘watch’ And with actors that can fly by the seat of their pants and live rooted in their character through the show and be able to create a scene out of no where with the audience. Wonderful stuff!

Q: Is the show kid friendly?

J: Oh yes, indeedy! And adult friendly too!

There’s a fair bit of bawdy sauce in our shows, but it goes over the little ones heads and lands nicely in the grown-ups laps. As do our convicts sometimes! And the kids love the interaction, the slapstick, the ‘realness’ of it.

We’re not going to tell them to keep still or be quiet, we want them to heckle and yell out and join in as they like.

Information: 

Convict Footprints will perform at Bella Vista Farm:

·         Saturday, 20 January, 6pm – 7.30pm

·         Saturday, 20 January, 6pm – 7.30pm

·         Sunday, 21 January, 2pm – 3.30pm

·         Sunday 21 January, 6pm – 7.30pm

Cost: Tickets start from $10. 

Information: www.summerseries.com.au.

 

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