The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Costume design for a male bird from Journey to the Moon 1960
gouache, crayon and pencil on paper
52.7 x 41.5 cm
22 November 1978 [unknown location]
James Gleeson: Well, we can check on that. Well, now perhaps we’d better turn to the theatre design. We’re in the process of photographing every sheet.
Elaine Haxton: Oh, how lovely.
James Gleeson: But we have only gone a little way so far. It’s going to take months to do. So but perhaps if I ask you about the individual productions, that might recall things to you. We’re buying them, as you know, in a series of groups from you.
Elaine Haxton: Yes.
James Gleeson: In the first group there was a sequence of designs for Journey to the Moon.
Elaine Haxton: Yes, that’s the one I’ve got here. Yes. Well – let me see – I can’t remember the dates for these.
James Gleeson: No.
Elaine Haxton: But they would be the late fifties and sixties, yes.
James Gleeson: It was a ballet?
Elaine Haxton: Now, look, I went to China in ’56 and when I came back I did Journey to the Moon, so that would be ’56 or ’57. That sort of time, I think. I had done quite a lot of theatre before I went to China. But the Journey to the Moon was Borovansky’s company. And Paul Grinwis was the principal male dancer, a Dutchman really, but had been brought up in Brugge, in Belgium, you know, and lived most of his adult life in Paris. So one never thought of him really as a Dutchman, you know. He also was a very good choreographer.
James Gleeson: He did the choreography for this?
Elaine Haxton: Yes. Now, he did Romeo and Juliet which Bill, Bill—
James Gleeson: Constable?
Elaine Haxton: Yes. Bill Constable did that. I did The Three Devils.
James Gleeson: Oh, yes.
Elaine Haxton: Yes, which was his next ballet. Then I did Journey to the Moon. All these were full-length ballets.
James Gleeson: Oh, were they?
Elaine Haxton: All like, you know, four, five acts.
James Gleeson: I see.
Elaine Haxton: So one did the sets, the ground plans and the lighting plans. These things are done separately these days, you know, they have a special lighting expert. But then it was up to the designer to give a plan for lighting. You had many lighting rehearsals, because then we didn’t know that much technically about how to write down a lighting script, you know. So you tried it out.
James Gleeson: Through trial and error.
Elaine Haxton: Yes, yes. But mainly really it was the electrician who was most helpful in these. Really what I would give him or any designer at that time would be only suggestions. Of course, the director would do this too. Then you painted these, you designed the costumes, the sets, the costumes, and the lighting, you did the ground floor planning, and then you painted the set.
James Gleeson: I see. You did it yourself?
Elaine Haxton: Yes. This was an enormous job. They were 41 feet, 42 feet long.
James Gleeson: Where was it produced?
Elaine Haxton: The old Empire, I think it was called, down at the railway, you know. Wasn’t it the Empire?
James Gleeson: No, Her Majesty’s.
Elaine Haxton: Yes, Her Majesty’s, yes. It was, I think, then the Empire. The biggest theatre we had then.
James Gleeson: Yes.
Elaine Haxton: They were 42 feet long, every back cloth, and 24 feet high. When you have five acts, that’s a lot of canvas you cover. But it’s not only that, you do the wings, which there might be anything from three to six on either side, so that’s 12. So that’s really more than the backcloth. And, of course, the sky pieces, which would always be six of those in a theatre of that length, depth. So there was a lot of painting to do. One did it on the top of the Theatre Royal. It had the best, you know, scene painter’s studio. But you couldn’t work on Wednesdays because there was a matinee and they’d here the flop, flop, flop of the brush, you know. You couldn’t work at night, you see, because of the same thing. When you were very late you stayed up and worked in the early morning, you know, to get it finished.
James Gleeson: You did it all yourself? You had no assistance?
Elaine Haxton: Yes, I had – oh, what did we used to call them? Splodgers. Young students interested in the theatre and, you know, been through the Tech, and they would mix the paint for me. It’s all very smelly because you mix it with rabbit glue, you know.
James Gleeson: Oh, yes, yes.
Elaine Haxton: You have very big buckets, like that, or the old poi, which you can’t buy now. That was a very handy one to hold, you know, and it took the big brush. The canvas was hung behind the stages at the Theatre Royal on a roller and a winch, and you wound it up. We had continual fights because these boys were always extremely tall and thin and I, being short, you know, I was faster than they were and I always wanted it up a bit, so they’d put it up beyond where they wanted it, you know, or needed it. It was extremely hot up there because it had a tin roof and you used to nearly die of heat.
James Gleeson: It must be.
Elaine Haxton: Then there was another paint studio and that was over at the old Tivoli which doesn’t exist any more either. Although that was a more spacious and more comfortable one, but not as much gear as winches and things like that.
James Gleeson: I see.
Elaine Haxton: And not as good a light.
James Gleeson: What was Journey to the Moon about? A fantasy, I take it?
Elaine Haxton: Oh, well, you know, it was just about the time when going to the moon got going, the modern going to the moon. Well, this was a beautiful ballet and I think one of my most ingenious bits of designing. Everybody loved the look of it, but they thought they were going to see a modern Journey to the Moon.
James Gleeson: Oh, I see.
Elaine Haxton: Where it was a seventeenth century. A scientist who, you know, was working out how he would get to the moon, and so it was entire fantasy. Very beautiful.
James Gleeson: It wasn’t by any chance based on a book by Cyrano de Bergerac who wrote some sort of science fantasy about a visit to the moon?
Elaine Haxton: Well, it might have been. I don’t remember that. I think he might have based it on that, as you said, and then developed the story himself because he nearly always wrote his own story. Oh, it was a great success. But, you know, visually and in every sense musically, the dancing was beautiful, the choreography was beautiful, it just wasn’t a success. Oh, and of course, I think on the first night or the night before Borovansky died. That depressed everybody too.
James Gleeson: Oh, I see. What year was that?
Elaine Haxton: I would have to look it up, yes.
James Gleeson: I see, yes. Well, we can check.
Elaine Haxton: Yes, yes.
James Gleeson: But it would be in the fifties?
Elaine Haxton: I think it would be more near ’60. I think ’60.
James Gleeson: Who wrote the music, by the way? Or what music did they use?
Elaine Haxton: Various.
James Gleeson: Various sorts.
Elaine Haxton: Yes. I would have to look it up in my notes, which I couldn’t find for this morning. But it really was a beautiful ballet, but it was really the only one that didn’t run for any length of time.
James Gleeson: Is that so?
Elaine Haxton: Yes.