In Praise of Elephants

August 5-21

Thursdays, Friday & Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm

Due to limited seating, reservations advised.

by Kevin Dyer; music & lyrics by Catherine Ireton

American premiere

A series of events upends a 60-year old man’s seemingly settled life, forcing him to question everything he thought once to be true.  His 20-something niece, an aspiring musician, is also struggling, yearning to find herself.  They make for an unlikely pairing: years apart but with so much still to figure out.  Told through story and song, In Praise of Elephants is about how one ordinary day turns life upside down.

The play was originally commissioned by and premiered at Farnham Maltings (Gavin Stride, director), located in Surrey, England.  Here's our recent conversation with Kevin and Gavin:

AOH: The play was written to be performed in rural village halls, what about this setting interests you?

KD: It’s the place where the audience and the performers come in the same door and go out the same door, where neighbours get time to sit and experience something together. That’s quite different to going to, say, Broadway or The West End where you sit mostly with strangers. In a small rural venue the work is an opportunity for neighbours to sit in the same room and talk about local things before and after the show – I think that is VERY important. It is like the summer fair or something – but with a play instead of jam and cakes. It also gives the people who come something in common to talk about when they next meet. 'Hi Faye I saw you at that play about the elephant that wasn’t really about elephants at all, what did you think?’  I’d like those conversations to go on in the grocery store a week after, a month after.  

   In Praise of Elephants   features James Occhine & Anna Stefanic

In Praise of Elephants features James Occhine & Anna Stefanic

GS: The thing about village halls is that the company is the visitor. They are often spaces that the community has their 40th birthday parties, their wedding receptions and Christmas fetes. In a village hall the audience and company enter and leave through the same door, drink in the same pubs afterwards and, often, use the same toilets. There is something more fundamentally democratic in a space in which the performance really can’t happen without the active contribution of everyone. It is also true that many people turn out not to see a play but because there is something happening locally. People are attracted to the event. I like that. I once sat next to a woman and before the show a couple of people came up to her and asked how she was. In the interval I offered to get her a cup of tea as there was a queue and she walked with a stick. We got chatting and I asked if she had been unwell. “No,” she said “my husband died two years ago and this is the first time I have been out in the evening since then. It reminds me how good it is to be to be with people.”

AOH: How did elephants come to play such a prominent role in the piece?

KD: At first Gavin wanted to take an elephant into village halls – because he wanted to make an ‘event’, a day that people would always remember. We soon realised that was not possible or maybe not even a nice thing to do.  We then made a huge life-size maquette that needed five people to operate it. But we realised it couldn’t get in through the door – or if we built it in the rural space we wouldn’t be able to get it out! (Most village halls do not have elephant sized doors).

So I wrote a few paragraphs about a man who liked elephants because of the quality they have. And I read books about elephants and their particular qualities that seem so close to ours – well the best of ours anyway. It was some time later, when a lot of words had been written, that we realised that Aubrey in fact is an elephant. More than a metaphor, actually is.

  Photos by B. Docktor Photography

Photos by B. Docktor Photography

GS: That’s all true. All I would add is that we were curious about the quiet people who live in a community but make things happen. The name Aubrey came from a man who lived in a village I lived in 20 years ago. He had spent his entire life digging holes for the council for road signs. Indeed he thought he was responsible for more than half the road signs in the county. I asked him once how old he was and he’d said ’57 and three quarters’ whenever the village had an event – church fete, bonfire, etc he would always be there to put tables out, tidy up, direct traffic. And I doubt if anyone ever thanked him. He just did it. Oh, and he lived with his mum…

AOH: The interplay between the text and the music is so delicately arranged.  How did you and Catherine, your collaborator & performer, develop the play together?

KD: Catherine was in the room all the time when we made the play. I wrote the script first, but I knew she’d be there, this sister who sang. She wrote the songs during rehearsals. Sometimes I wrote a poetic thing, a shambling steam of words, and gave them to her and said, that’s what I think is inside this woman at this time in the story and if they are of any use to you use them or don’t. I can’t remember if she did or not. She always said thank you, then wrote the music and words as she thought fit… then she brought them rough and unfinished to the group just as I took my written bits rough and unfinished to the group. So, by talking and looking into each other’s eyes, and sharing and throwing stuff away… we got to where we ended up. I am sure if we worked on it again, we’d continue the process.