Thursday, 21 November 2013

Postcard from Perth

Theatre Reviews and Reflections from WA

A View from the West

I moved from Melbourne to Perth for family reasons fourteen years ago on the cusp of the new millennium. Twenty years previously I’d made a similarly open-ended move to the UK to live and study, but the move to Perth felt bigger. Even in the early 80s moving to England still felt like going home; Melbourne was a very European city, the dominant culture Anglo-Celtic, and my family heritage one generation back English on one side and ‘Continental’, as they used to say, on the other. Moving to Perth on the other hand felt like going to another planet: somewhere that didn’t even exist on my mental map, and therefore in some sense wasn’t real. Was there intelligent life there? I believed so, but had no evidence to prove it. My brother even gave me The Lonely Planet Guide to WA as a parting gift with the motto: ‘Go west, young man!’ inscribed on the flyleaf. As I set out self-consciously on the drive across the Nullarbor in my old second-hand mid-80s Volvo (how Melbourne can you get?), I felt like I was setting out on a journey to Australia itself, the country where I actually lived, for the first time. ‘Voyage within you,’ as McAuley wrote, ‘And you will find that Southern Continent, / And mythical Australia, where reside / All things in their imagined counterpart.’

For the first five years I lived and worked here but felt like an outsider. Partly this reflected the practical fact that I was coming and going between Perth and Melbourne for work; partly the emotional reality that Melbourne was still the repository for most of my previous life, friends, family, colleagues, community and sense of self. The Perth theatre community welcomed me as a newcomer from ‘over east’, but I was still ‘an alien’ as one colleague ironically described me several years into my stay. For my part I embraced the marvellous landscape and glorious weather, the easy-living modus vivendi, the strong Aboriginal presence, and a healthier, more physical, less narrowly cerebral existence. I was also lucky enough to find myself living in Fremantle: a multicultural hub and working port with magnificent beaches, heritage architecture, decent coffee and food, an arts centre, two local theatre companies (Deckchair and Spare Parts), an art-house cinema, a thriving independent music scene and a progressive local government and community where I rapidly felt at home. I rented a house near the beach, swam every morning, started doing yoga and eating more fish. I found a different perspective and balance in Perth: between my brain and the rest of my body, between theatre and the rest of my life, between culture and the rest of society, between where I was and the rest of the country.


When I arrived in 2001 the theatre scene was strong on diversity but weak in quality and (ironically for a mining town) lacking in energy and resources. 
Apparently a mining boom was underway but I saw no evidence of the profits trickling down into the arts or anywhere else. The strengths were greatest in the area of distinctive small-to-medium niche companies like Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, Barking Gecko Youth Theatre and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. There was also a thriving independent scene centred on The Blue Room (in my opinion the most productive, diverse and atmospheric small venue in the country, pace La Mama!) with sporadic project-funded forays into the larger but crumbling Rechabites Hall around the corner in William St, Northbridge (the Perth theatre and high-and-low cultural quarter, a kind of cross between Southgate and St Kilda, or Circular Quay and Kings Cross). There was no state theatre company, which was a cause for much grievance locally although I saw it as something of a negative asset in comparison with the increasingly generic state companies over east. Black Swan, Perth Theatre Company and Deckchair were the personal fiefdoms of long-term incumbents locked in a bitter struggle for limited funding and audiences. Each had a vision but struggled to realize it or connect with the broader community. In the corner was The Hole-in-the-Wall, once a dominant player but now homeless and still appearing at random venues like Perth College auditorium or the oddly named and shaped Effie Crump Theatre above the Brisbane Hotel. All these companies were housed in inadequate, insecure or temporary venues (if they had one at all) and none was producing more than two or three shows a year. The Blue Room was the exception, with two small but perfectly formed stages, an even smaller and more characterful bar (which seemed to host the entire Perth theatre community) and a continuous season of work throughout the year.

Around the middle of the decade long-overdue regime-change across the companies brought a breath of fresh air and a sense of reconnection to a new generation of artists and audiences. This reflected a renaissance in theatre across the country. From basements, garrets and warehouses to the stages of The Malthouse and the STC, theatre was cool again. In Perth the revolution was led by Matt Lutton, who emerged from the new Theatre Arts course at WAAPA (an institution lauded because of a few famous musical theatre, film and TV star alumini who’d made it internationally) to direct Black Swan’s youth initiative BSX and his own independent company Thin Ice. He was followed by a new wave of emerging independent artists and ensembles. Meanwhile the mining boom and long-awaited construction of the new State Theatre Centre gave the impression that Perth might be finally coming back into its own on the cultural mainstage as well. 

Since 2010 we’ve seen the onset of a period of restoration (if not reaction) across the national scene (theatrical and otherwise) following the age of revolution that preceded it. Theatre in Perth has likewise consolidated and arguably improved in quality if not diversity, in style if not substance. Globalization, anyone? A triumph of marketing over content? What has been gained or lost? A rebranded Black Swan State Theatre Company is now securely funded as a Major Organization by the Australia Council, partnered by Rio Tinto, installed in the new State Theatre Centre and delivering arguably the most successful brand of generic state theatre in the country, at least in terms of audience growth, box office and sponsorship, with product ranging from West End and Broadway revivals and classics to a trilogy of new plays by Tim Winton (a WA export if ever there was one) in productions featuring a blend of local and interstate talent mostly staged in the mid-sized, elegant but acoustically challenged Heath Ledger (who didn’t go to WAAPA) Theatre. Meanwhile a severely under-resourced PTC manages to deliver a Malthouse/Belvoir-style alternative in the Studio Underground at the same State Theatre Centre; Yirra Yaakin (partnered by a cluster of mining companies) is ambitiously redefining itself as a spearhead of Noongar culture, as is Barking Gecko as a cutting-edge contemporary youth company; while Spare Parts remains resilient and innovative on the smell of an oily rag. Deckchair has closed (due to insolvency), along with Thin Ice (due to the departure of Matt Lutton for The Malthouse); Hole in the Wall, Effie Crump, Rechabites and The Playhouse (former home of PTC) are long gone, demolished, derelict or sold. The independent scene continues to flourish, primarily at the refurbished and expanded Blue Room and extending across the laneway into Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), which recently hosted Perth’s second (and thus far Australia’s only) festival of one-on-one performance (including yours truly). Devised, collaborative, hybrid, immersive and interactive theatre is on the rise.


Recently I performed in a multimedia adaptation of Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia for Spare Parts in Fremantle. Of course Shaun is a Perth-born and raised artist and writer who now ironically lives in Melbourne (a more common trajectory than my own, let it be said). One of the stories in Tales is called ‘Stick Figures’: mysterious beings who haunt the suburbs (in which I now reside as a proud home-owner in Hamilton Hill, just south-east of Fremantle). ‘What are they? What do they want?’ the narrator (in the show, myself) asks. ‘Are they here for a reason? It’s impossible to know, but if you stand there and stare at them for long enough, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers, for some kind of meaning. It’s as if they take all our questions and offer them straight back: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?’ The other performers used forked sticks with eyes and manipulated them as puppets. At the time it seemed to me that ‘they’ inescapably represented the original indigenous inhabitants that had been cleared to make way for ‘us’. Now it strikes me that in a less obvious way they are shadows of us all; perhaps in particular ‘us’ artists, especially those of us who work in theatre. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing here? What do we want?

I still sometimes feel like an outsider, but I’ve come to feel that’s part of the cultural condition here, and perhaps in Australia generally, at least for non-indigenous Australians, and perhaps for them too. The English artist Anthony Gormley’s haunting installation on Lake Ballard in the goldfields northeast of Perth speaks of this condition: ironically titled ‘Inside Australia’ and consisting of a host of humanoid sculptures or ‘insiders’ based on infra-red scans of the bodies of the local townsfolk of Menzies and scattered across the salt-pan. I now see WA as a microcosm and perhaps even an intensified reflection of the country as a whole: a stranger to itself, remote, out of time, provincial, anxious yet complacent, vast, underpopulated, orphaned, looking back to England and forward to Asia, insistently drawn to the ocean and occasionally to its own interior, where its deepest mineral and perhaps spiritual resources lie. Beyond this I hesitate to define what it means for a work or artist to be ‘Western Australian’, or indeed ‘Australian’, other than that they are made or live here, notwithstanding the directives and claims of funding bodies and marketing departments to ‘tell Australian/WA stories’. Perhaps these names refer only to a metaphorical sense of place, or even what Kant called ‘the suprasensible ground’ of things. But then what distinguishes here from elsewhere? A certain intensification of the light? To predicate cultural identity in terms of content is a transcendental illusion at best; at worst, tribal ideology or totalitarian politics. As to form: is there a Western Australian species of actor, writer or theatre? Are they threatened with extinction? Or were there only ever individual WA actors, writers and theatres? But then: who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing here? What do we want?

In this column I propose to address these questions in reviews and reflections on theatre in Perth and its place in the national picture. My feeling is that this place is paradoxical, not unlike that which in visual art is called mise-en-abyme: the place within a picture that reflects the picture as a whole, and in so doing renders its capacity for reflection problematical, literally ‘placed in a void’ – not a bad description in fact for living and making theatre in Perth. I don’t mean the irony to be pejorative. One of the things I love about being here is the sense of being ‘in the void’, and the imaginative spur to action that provides. I feel this in my own work and in much of the work I see here. Certainly there’s plenty of intelligent life on this planet, which is perhaps not so remote after all. Hence I hope the validity of this personal ‘view from the west’: a window onto the bigger picture of theatre in Australia, and perhaps the art-form itself.

1 comment:

  1. I'm coming late to the party, I know, but as a recent subscriber to I've had my world rocked by the incredible narration of one Humphrey Bower - hoping you are one and the same person? If so, thanks for the many riveting hours of the best narration I've ever had the pleasure of listening to - compelling storytelling and utterly convincing accents (and I'm really picky!) that bring these tales to life. An artist indeed. Thank you. Fiona Hughes