Thank You for Being a Friend

WHEN director Neil Gooding invited actors to audition for a puppetry theatre version of The Golden Girls, he learned that not everyone was comfortable with having a puppet on their arm.

“It was torturous. Some great actors, people I love working with — some people can just do puppets and some people can’t,” he told the Star Observer.

“For the poor people that couldn’t, I would imagine it was a fairly torturous audition.

“We got them to read first, and if we thought they’d be really good at it, the next phase of it for us was putting the puppet on their arm and getting them to play around… It would have felt incredibly awkward for them, poor things.”

Along with co-director and puppeteer Luke Joslin, Gooding is bringing Thank You for Being a Friend by playwrights Thomas Duncan- Watt and Jonathan Worsley to Melbourne for the Midsumma festival.

Gooding and Joslin saw the original production of Duncan-Watt and Worsley’s script in Sydney last year, and immediately fell in love with the clever script and ridiculous concept. The title of the show also refers to the theme song of the original sitcom.

However, Gooding admitted that before getting involved he didn’t know much about the phenomenon of The Golden Girls.

“I had kind of had the impression it was about four quaint old ladies who lived together and had tea and ate cheesecake,” he said.

“When you’re 12, it is, but when you watch it through the eyes of someone who’s quite a bit older than that you realise how contem- porary it was and ahead of its time, and how ballsy it was in terms of what it discussed.”

The long-running sitcom about four elderly women living together in a house broke new ground for television, tackling issues like HIV and AIDS, assisted suicide, and coming out.

For that reason, and the show’s general campness, The Golden Girls has been a cult hit with the LGBTI community and last year’s production was a success with LGBTI audiences in Sydney.

Gooding said it was tempting to push a contemporary vision of The Golden Girls to ex- tremes, but argued it was important not to loose the heart of why people remembered the show.

“The reality is that The Golden Girls finished in the early 90s. They were pushing the boundaries in the late 80s and early 90s, but that’s not the same thing as pushing the boundaries in 2013,” he said.

“So we had to find a happy balance between keeping it fresh but also not going against the spirit of what was The Golden Girls, of what people’s fond memories of that are. So not pushing swearing too far and things like that.”

Gooding stressed the puppets were at the heart of why the show works, and said it had been a steep learning curve. Without Joslin’s experience, he said some of the basic challenges would have stopped the show in its tracks.

“It’s worked really beautifully, having Luke there to really educate all of us on what should be done with puppets, what shouldn’t be done with puppets,” Gooding said.

“Does an actor look at a puppet or not? How do you make the puppets breathe? How do they walk? How do they sit in chairs? All that kind of stuff is just puppetry 101 if you’ve done it, but if you’ve never done it you’re just flying blind.”

INFO: Thank You for Being a Friend is on at Theatre Works, St Kilda from January 7–18 as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma. For details and bookings visit  www.midsumma.org.au.

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