Monday, 22 December 2014

Postcard from Perth 37


2014 Postcard Awards

I’m not a believer in star-ratings or ‘best-of’ awards in categories like ‘best actor’, ‘best play’, ‘best production’ or even ‘best company’. At the risk of repeating myself: I’m not really sure what such phrases mean, or how to compare or measure art in quantitative terms, as if it were some kind of sport. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in making qualitative aesthetic judgements per se. It simply means that I believe in making them by evaluating performances, productions or works according to their own criteria. So I prefer to give awards based on categories derived from the performances, productions or works themselves.

That said: here are my Postcard from Perth Awards for 2014 in chronological order, with apologies for everything I didn’t see – a substantial amount this year, as I was in more or less continuous work myself between April and November, for much of that time performing five nights a week. For those interested, longer reviews and discussions of many of the productions referred to can be found by searching the archives of this blog.

The year kicked off again in fine style with an even bigger and better Fringe World than last year, and with Perth International Festival hot on its heels. The True Grit Award for Non-Stop Treadmill Action and Stamina goes to Melbourne outfit Grit Theatre for Run Girl Run at PICA as part of Summer Nights: a relentless, edge-of-the-seat, alternately hilarious and hideous physical theatre journey to the dark heart of gender-as-performance. Also at PICA for Summer Nights, New Zealand devisor-performer Trygve Wakenshaw gets the Pied Piper Award for Inspiring Audience Participation (by eating invisible packets of crisps) and Evoking Multiple Characters, Narratives and Universes (using an endearingly ludicrous DIY costume) in Squidboy: a surreal one-man comedy show which I found irresistable. And last but not least, Mark Wilson’s Unsex Me for Melbourne company MKA at Noodle Palace/The Ken Dome (inside the former Picadilly Cinema) gets the Gene Roddenberry Award for Boldly Going Where No-Man/Woman Has Gone Before Onstage using drag, karaoke, Shakespeare and a well-lubricated microphone. Honourable mention should also be made of local writer-director-performer Will O’Mahony’s Great White, restaged at PICA for Summer Nights after an inaugural production at The Blue Room in 2013. Will gets the Trifecta Award for Writing, Staging and Performance (sharing the Award with co-performers Adriane Daff and Mikala Westall, set designer/producer Alicia Clements, sound designer Will Slade and lighting designer Joe Lui).

In the ‘main’ Festival, two theatre shows stood out that were perhaps more ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ but nevertheless ‘poor’ in the sense defined by Grotowski. Yaël Farber’s gripping contemporary South African adaptation and production of Mies Julie in the Octagon Theatre (with Hilde Cronje and Bongile Mantsai in the central roles) shares the Peter Brook Award for Poor Theatre Adapation with the fleet-footed and deftly touching version of An Iliad, staged in the Sunken Gardens at UWA by NYC-based two-person company Homer’s Coat (writer/performer Dennis O’Hare and co-writer/director Lisa Peterson). Mies Julie also gets the Last Tango Award for Rough Sex Onstage, while An Iliad conversely gets the Mahabharata Award for the Indirect Representation of Violence (in homage to the minimalist war scenes in Brook’s great production).

Three other outstanding Festival shows took place in non-theatre and gallery spaces and were in the realm of installation and visual art, although all I would argue were also works of theatre even without the presence of live actors. In the case of Situation Rooms – an immersive participatory work by German collective Rimini Protokoll about the ramifications of the weapons industry – the audience were themselves performers, armed with iPads, following instructions and moving through the interactive and hyper-real ‘set’ installed at the ABC studios in Claisebrook. This show wins the Augmented Reality Award, and also shares the Mahabarata Award for Indirect Representation of Violence with An Iliad – thus proving that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In fact if I could I’d probably give both works a Nobel Prize for Peace. Across town at Curtin Gallery, The Tenth Sentiment by Japanese artist Ryota Kuwakubo – featuring a tiny toy train with a light-source inside it travelling through a landscape of domestic found objects and throwing their shadows on the walls – was also an enchanting work of theatre for me and gets the Minimalist Lighting Award. Meanwhile South African maestro William Kentridge’s enthralling film/sound/sculpture installation The Refusal of Time in the central atrium gallery space at PICA (courtesy of a loan from AGWA) gets the Henri Bergson/Albert Einstein Award for the Philosophical Investigation of Time. Here it was the setting, formal multiplicity and durational nature of the event that made it a theatrical experience for me – an experience anchored by the animated machine sculpture (the metaphorical ‘elephant’) keeping time in the centre of the room. PICA itself (and curator Leigh Robb) also gets an Award for Courageous Curatorial Collaborations and Spatial/Architectural Interventions for their shows throughout the year – most notably allowing Perth-born, now LA-based artist George Egerton-Warburton to punch holes in the walls of the West End Gallery Upstairs revealing random glimpses of the cityscape outside for his provocative installation Administration is a Form of Oulipian Poetry.

It was during Festival time that Black Swan Artistic Director Kate Cherry brought voice training legend and Shakespeare expert Kristin Linklater to Perth for a series of workshops with various smaller and larger groups of local theatre artists. As a participant I can testify to the powerfully transformative nature of these workshops – but also to the sense of solidarity they inspired in a local theatre industry that can otherwise feel somewhat fractured along artistic and generational faultlines. For facilitating this work – and that sense of solidarity – Black Swan, Kate Cherry and Kristin herself share the E.M.Forster ‘Only Connect’ Award, for that famous dictum in Howard’s End.  ‘Only connect! Live in fragments no longer!’ This was a State Theatre Company doing its job and generously sharing its resources with Black Swan affiliates and others, young and old.

Shortly after the Perth Festival was over, the brouhaha erupted in March over Transfield’s sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale, and the group of artists who threatened to withdraw their work over the company’s involvement with the offshore detention of asylum seekers. Without rehearsing these arguments again, I give the Wesley Enoch Award for Leadership (if Wesley will forgive me for invoking his name and Platform Paper in the context of a topic on which we have slightly different views) to the artists concerned for persuading the Biennale to severe its ties with Transfield, and opening up a much broader debate over the nexus between corporate sponsorship, government funding, arts organisations, individual artists, art and politics.

Back to Perth, and theatre: while I felt Kate Cherry’s take on A Streetcar Named Desire for Black Swan at the Heath Ledger Theatre in March ultimately softened the edges of the play’s cruelty and underlying sexual violence, Luke Hewitt was a revelation as Mitch, and his scenes with Blanche stood out in sharp and painful clarity. Similarly, while I didn’t warm to Roger Hodgman’s dumbed-down production of As You Like It in May (again at the Heath for Black Swan), I doff my cap to Steve Turner’s intense, understated, uncompromising Jacques. Luke and Steve share the Rudyard Kiping Award for Keeping Your Head When All About You Are Losing Theirs: two fine mid-career all-round character actors who bless every production in which they appear.

Shifting focus to another of Perth’s four so-called Major Performing Arts Companies, the WA Symphony (the other two being the WA Opera and the WA Ballet): new Principal Conductor Asher Fisch has raised the bar in terms of programming and sound (especially from the strings) and the orchestra has risen to the challenge with flying colours. My first experience of Fisch and the ‘new’ WASO in action was their inaugural concert together in March, with a program featuring works by Mozart, Wagner and a thrilling performance of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem Death and Transfiguration; followed in May by a sublime rendition of Mahler’s immense 9th Symphony; and culminating in September with the monumental achievement of the Beethoven Festival, featuring all nine symphonies performed over two weekends. Fisch shares the Gough Whitlam Award for Vision and Ambition at the Helm with Paul Selwyn-Norton at STRUT Dance (see below); and the Beethoven Festival also shares the Dionysus Award for New Festivals with STRUT for the Move Me Improvisation Festival (ditto). With WASO’s Brahms Festival just around the corner next year, this is the kind of vision and ambition that justifies the existence and funding of Major Performing Arts Companies in the first place.

From Major Organisations back to local grass-roots theatre, my next two Awards go to productions at The Blue Room that were both directed by Joe Lui. Coming at the tail-end of Season One in June, Giving Up the Ghosts was a no-frills two-hander about mutually assisted suicide, written by local stand-up comedian and storyteller Sarah Young and performed with a commendable lack of judgement on their characters by Georgia King and Paul Grabovac. Ghosts gets the Harold Pinter Award for the Telling Use of Pauses, Ellipses and Silences Onstage. I don’t know how many were in the script, but they certainly enhanced its already terse, staccato vernacular eloquence. Later in the year towards the end of Season Two in October, Welcome to Slaughter was a devised work of Oz-road mock-horror with a text by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, co-devised and performed by Michelle Robyn Anderson, Jo Morris and Emily Rose Brennan, with a set design by Shaye Preston, sound design by Brett Smith and lighting design by Joe Lui – who also took the wheel as director at the last minute due to a previous cast-member dropping out and the original director-devisor taking their place onstage. I found the script a little two-dimensional but the performances, direction and design deliciously enjoyable. Slaughter gets the Halloween Award for Involuntary Audience Screams and Nervous Laughter. Together with Ghosts it also confirmed my suspicions that Joe is now a fully-fledged director of other people’s work as well as his own. On that score, he also gets the Tightrope Award for writing, directing and performing his own autobiographical solo work Letters Home at The Blue Room in September without falling into trap of being narcissistic or mawkish – a rare feat indeed.

Across the road at The Studio Underground in July, Declan Greene’s artfully excruciating 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography was a co-production between Perth Theatre Company and Griffin in Sydney, directed by Griffin’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis and featuring toe-curlingly truthful performances by Andrea Gibbs and Steve Rodgers. A courageous verbal and physical exploration of contemporary online addictions and the fear that underlies them of real as opposed to virtual connection, 8 Gigs gets the Award for Proving that Live Theatre is More Relevant Than Ever in the Age of the Internet.

Upstairs at the Heath Ledger in August, Black Swan’s traditional period-costume Seagull was graced by a sublime turn from Rebecca Davis as Masha, and featured a revelatory Act 4 scene change for the final duet between Nina and Konstantin. Director Kate Cherry and designer Fiona Bruce share the Heath Ledger Theatre Award for Using the Fly-Tower to Reveal New Meaning in a Classic Without Updating It; and Rebecca Davis gets the Heath Ledger Performance Award for Finding the Creature Beneath the Skin of a Character (I’m thinking of Ledger’s late, great breakthrough performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight).

Outside in the State Theatre Centre Courtyard in September, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre Company presented a revival of David Milroy’s King Hit directed by the company’s current Artistic Director Kyle Morrison. Vigorous performances were set within the carnival ambience of an old-style boxing tent beautifully designed by India Mehta, which completely eclipsed the usually penitentiary/corporate surrounds of the courtyard and the STCWA itself. India gets the Award for Imaginatively Conceived and Scrupulously Realized Set Design with this and her hauntingly atmospheric set for Black Swan’s The House on the Lake upstairs in the Heath Ledger earlier in the year.

At the PICA Performance Space in September–October, Perth indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt gave us visionary theatremaker Tim Watt’s latest excursion into the outer reaches of lo-fi animation, mask-work, projection and puppetry with Falling Through Clouds, created and performed by Adriane Daff, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim himself. This was a work whose formal virtuosity and thematic reach I felt ultimately exceeded its narrative grasp, but it nevertheless gets the Robert Lepage Award for Dazzingly Inventive Dramaturgy in the Imaginary Representation of Dreams. Fantasies about flying and being haunted by one’s double never looked so real.

Also in the field of animation, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in September–October completed an epic cycle of regional community-based development with their epic visual theatre work Farm, written by Ian Sinclair, directed by company AD Philip Mitchell and co-devised by two of the performers, Chloe Flockart and Rebecca Bradley. I reviewed this production critically at the time for its claims to represent life on the land and some aspects of the script and staging; but in retrospect I find myself wanting to honour the poetry of Ian’s writing, the humanity of the performances, the sheer scale of the enterprise and the vision and ambition of Spare Parts and Philip in bringing the whole thing to fruition. For all these reasons Farm gets the Paul Kelly ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ Award: a production that no doubt gave back in spades to the regional community that nurtured its development.

My next Award goes to STRUT Dance and its new director Paul Selwyn-Norton for a busy year taking the organisation to the next level as a National Choreographic Centre: initiating, supporting and hosting new work, residencies, worshops and classes, culminating in the inaugural Move Me Improvisation Festival which took place across Perth venues in November. As mentioned above, Paul and STRUT share with Asher Fisch and WASO the Whitlam Award for Vision at the Helm and the Dionysus Award for New Festivals. As with Kate Cherry and Black Swan bringing Kristin Linklater to Perth, these are fine instances of exisiting organisations large and small extending their reach and resourcing events that enrich the local artistic community and their audiences. In particular, I applaud the seeding of grass-roots, thematic and even one-off ‘micro-festivals’ – in contrast with the increasingly generic, globalized and institutionalized ‘mega-festivals’ that otherwise dominate the national landscape.

And finally, the Billy Bragg/Mao Zedong Great Leap Forward Award goes to Perth Theatre Company for their 2015 Season announced in November, with an increased output of five shows: two in the Studio Underground, one upstairs in the Heath Ledger, one in the STCWA Courtyard and one at PICA. These include three directed (and one also written) by artistic director Mel Cantwell, and two directed and/or devised and performed by local independent theatremakers. This feels like the realisation of a vision that’s been brewing in Mel’s head for a long time now as the AD of Perth’s alternative mainstage theatre company – one that reflects and connects with the city’s distinctive contemporary grass-roots theatre culture.

That’s it from me for 2014. Apologies to everyone I missed out on seeing or including in this list of Awards. As always, I’m circumscribed by the limits of time, space and of course subjective tastes and priorities. I hope this round-up gives local and national readers a sense of Perth as a place to make and see theatre, dance, music and art. Bring it on!

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For the record, Humph was busy rehearsing and performing in Perth from May till November with Wish (PTC/Night Train, Studio Underground), Jasper Jones (Barking Gecko, Studio Underground), Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Black Swan, Heath Ledger Theatre) and Overexposed (Danielle Micich/ Performing Lines WA, Studio Underground). Postcards from Perth will resume at the end of January with the onset of Fringe World and Perth International Festival 2015.


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Postcard from Perth 36


STRUT Dance: Move Me Improvisation Festival

Since his appointment as Director of STRUT Dance last year, the effervescent Paul Selwyn-Norton – South African-born dancer/choreographer and alumni of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt – has been busy transforming the organisation into a national choreographic centre, with invited residencies and workshops by interstate and international luminaries like Anthony Hamilton and Byron Perry from Melbourne and former members of Ballet Frankfurt and Batsheva Dance in Israel. Paul has described his vision as ‘mulching the garden’, which is a great image for a landscape like Perth, where the sandy soil supports a small community of tough survivors who support each other across disciplines and generations. In the context of our relentless economic and cultural obsession with global and national export, it’s good to focus instead on enriching the local scene.
Last week saw STRUT hosting its inaugural Move Me Improvisation Festival, featuring a raft of performances, workshops, lectures and forums by local, national and international dance, music and theatre artists across Perth venues including PICA, The Blue Room, King Street Arts Centre and the State Theatre Centre. It was an exhilarating week, and I made the most of it, especially as the city’s cultural activities were winding up with the approach of Christmas, and my own capacities were about to be reduced by impending knee surgery. In fact I’m writing this now in recovery, in bed, with my leg in a brace and pain killers at the ready; so forgive me for waxing lyrical about my memories of Move Me.
The Festival kicked off on Saturday 22nd November at PICA with an opening three-night season of a double bill: Beast #3 by local choreographers Jo Pollitt and Paea Leach – performed by them and six other local dancers with a soundscore by Mace Francis and lighting by Ellen Knops – and No one will tell us, an improvised performance by international Australian artist Rosalind Crisp in collaboration with her partner improviser Andrew Morrish, Swiss-German musician Hansueli Tischhauser on electric guitar and German lighting designer Marco Wehrspann. I saw the show last Monday night. The evening was introduced by local actor-improviser legend Sam Longley as amiable festival MC; waiting for the doors to open, we were also entertained by the Festival Imp, a silent, inscrutable, red-masked and body-fitted dance-improviser who made unpredictable appearances across town throughout the week. As for the shows themselves: as a 25-minute opener, I found Beast #3 engaging if a little underwhelming (and wasn’t sure how or how much improvisation was involved); but was then gripped and held for 55 minutes by three charismatic mature artists making a relentless work of substance, beauty, ferocity and delicacy on the edge of chaos with No one will tell us. If at times the sound-palette of the guitar was a little restrictive, and Andrew’s playful verbal interventions occasionally a little reductive, these (perhaps inevitable) restrictions and reductions only served to highlight the emotional and semantic richness of the dancer’s body as a vehicle of pure unbounded expressivity. I left pondering the fundamental differences and possible relationships between music, text and movement, as demonstrated and explored by three virtuosi absolutely attuned to each other in a performance that was also a master-class.
The following evening in Studio 3 at King Street Arts I attended Unwrapping Danse: a performance lecture by Ros Crisp about the history of her practice that folded together improvised dance, semi-improvised discourse, filmed dance footage and written text. Here the free-flow of meaning was gently underpinned by artistic and personal reflections, ending with a short reading from a journal entry about leaving the rural landscape of her childhood. The result was an infinitely generous gift to a small but privileged audience. It only went for 50 minutes, but we didn’t want it to stop. It gave me a context for the previous night’s show – and a level of depth, an economy of means and elegance of structure that ironically exceeded the show itself.
On Thursday night I unhappily missed seeing Ros Warby’s solos Court Dance and No Time to Fly due to other commitments and scheduling issues, but made it to PICA in time to catch Happy Little Accidents: a one-off, one-hour improvised theatre performance by Sam Longley and fellow local artists Shane Adamczak and Sean Walsh (all longstanding members of much-loved ongoing Perth improv comedy show The Big Hoo-Ha). I was a little anxious about how this performance would fit, in the context of a festival predominantly oriented towards contemporary dance. In the event, the boys rose to the occasion and delivered a well-judged mix of gentle comedy, poetry and pathos based on a tacit but profound understanding of the game, each other and their respective roles as joker, straight-man and puppet-master (or ‘pirate’, ‘robot’ and ‘ninja’, to use the terminology imparted to me by a fellow improviser) – including a stand-out cameo by an invisible (and inaudible) talking teddy bear which took the show to another level for me in terms of form, plot, emotional substance and imaginative engagement.
Friday night however provided my festival highlight with The Ferrymen: an improvised performance by Andrew Morrish and Peter Trotman, with minimal and perfectly judged lighting (again) by Marco Wehrspann. This was a truly sui generis work of improvised movement and text (spoken and sung) hovering like a moth between lightness and darkness, comedy and tragedy, life and death. If the sketch-bound situations and characters in Happy Little Accidents remained largely within the generic confines of pop culture, pulp fiction, film and TV, The Ferrymen took us deeper into the realm of myth and folklore, archetypal psychology and the animal dimensions of being human, ageing and mortality. This was a performance that took its time to unfurl in a manner at once genuinely unpredictable and utterly inevitable. Andrew and Peter began working together continuously in Melbourne back in the early 80s, and subsequently established an international practice; but they hadn’t performed together recently for some years until invited by Paul to reunite in Perth for Move Me; so the show had an added sense of occasion, which they graciously acknowledged after the last performance. (I also had the privilege of participating in a four-day workshop with them along with about fifteen other local artists, which I found transformative.)
The closing night of the Festival saw dancer-choreographer Michael Schumacher (also ex-Ballet Frankfurt) and cellist Alex Waterman (both from the US) perform Dans le jardin, a site-specific work originally created for the courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon – and here reconceived for the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre (sensitively lit by Ellen Knops). Notwithstanding its heavy-sounding credentials, this was an engagingly light-handed finale, with Schumacher moving around and through (and occasionally interacting with) the crowd of onlookers, while playfully appearing and disappearing in and out of the somewhat grim, penal architecture. Best of all was the involvement of three young children in the audience, who followed the dancer like a Pied Piper and became his spontaneous assistants. The event was followed by the closing party and launch of the STRUT 2015 program across the way at the PICA bar; but I made my way to Perth Station instead, weary from a long week and with one final workshop with Andrew and Peter the next morning.
I haven’t even touched on all the events in the Festival I didn’t attend, including new works by local performers Jacob Lehrer and David Corbet; workshops with Ros Crisp, Ros Warby and Michael Schumacher (the latter culminating in a group performance by local participants at The Blue Room); and a one-off improvised concert by local and international musicians from across the festival including Rachael Dease, Tristen Parr, Louise Devenish, Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Hans Tischhauser and Alex Waterman.
It’s too early to assess the impact of the week, both personally and on Perth; but there’s no question in my mind that Paul has initiated a major new event on the national and international stage. Improvisation is a great theme for a festival at the edge of the world. More profoundly, I’m convinced that – as a concept and a practice – it lies at the heart of all performance, and perhaps all creation.
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Move Me Improvisation Festival presented by STRUT Dance took place in venues around Perth from Sat 22–Sun 30 Nov. Parts of the program were developed in partnership with Dancehouse in Melbourne and Critical Path in Sydney. Ros Crisp, Andrew Morrish and Ros Warby subsequently performed in Sydney from 29 Nov–5 Dec; Ros Crisp also performed in Brisbane from 3–5 Dec courtesy of Ausdance QLD; and Ros Warby is at Dancehouse on–12 December.



Monday, 10 November 2014

Postcard from Perth 35



Postcard from Melbourne: Live Art Camp

I’m writing this Postcard from Melbourne on the return flight to Perth after a week in my original hometown. It’s over a year since I’ve been back: the longest I’ve ever been away. As usual, work was the official reason for my trip, in the perennial guise of narrating audio books for a company who’ve been remarkably loyal to me over the years. However I’ve also spend two days as one of 35 participants at Live Art Camp: an event hosted by Arts House in North Melbourne, and organised by Katerina Kokkinos Kennedy and Melanie Jame Wolf of Triage Live Art Collective, who’ve been the recipients of a slab of funding from the EU Commission and the Australia Council for a three-year international project entitled Hotel Obscura, of which this series of workshops and forums is the first stage – the second being the performance of works in hotel rooms across Europe in 2015, and the third seeing works developed for the Festival of Live Art at Arts House in 2016.

I missed the opening four days – a weekend of Open Space sessions on interdisciplinary performance followed by two days of workshops run by interstate artists (including WA’s very own PVI Collective) – because of weekend performance commitments of my own back in Perth, followed by two days of audio book recording here in Melbourne; but I was there for the forum on Monday night about developing and touring projects internationally, followed by two days of workshops facilitated by international artists. I also missed the final 24-hour group sleepover and live-art-making event, as I had to spend the last day back in the recording studio and needed what was left of my brain to be at least partially functioning. So my stay at Hotel Obscura at this stage of its construction was transient at best; more casual visitor than overnight camper. Nevertheless I found it a rich experience and came away with complex and conflicting thoughts and feelings about live art, international touring and the project itself.

It’s an immensely ambitious endeavour, and one that’s clearly consuming Katerina and Melanie Jame in their role as artist-producers in terms of time, energy and resources – a process they and other guests on the panel reflected on openly at the forum on Monday night. They spoke first about how the project had evolved, mutated and proliferated in response to funding opportunities, partnerships and the conditions attached to them – one consequence of which was the extended form of the project itself. This theme was taken up by the artists on the panel who spoke next and somewhat ironically described the serendipitous, time-energy-and-resource-intensive paths by which their own work had ended up on the international circuit, and what if anything this meant to them. The microphone then passed to Sophie Travers from the Australia Council, who’s recently returned to Melbourne from the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) in Brussels, and who was also commendably open about the options and uncertainties for Australian artists seeking to develop and tour work in Europe in a period of restructuring on the part of Ozco itself (not to mention tightening circumstances in the EU). Finally the Creative Producer of Arts House Angharad Wynn-Jones spoke about her own experiences as a presenter and facilitator of international work – including the possibilities and limits involved in rethinking the logistics of sustainable touring and collaboration in an age of digital technology and financial/environmental crisis. One tentative answer appeared to be Arts House’s forthcoming Going Nowhere festival – further details of which seemed however to revolve around making work via Skype and/or touring concepts or blueprints for shows rather than actual performers.

I couldn’t help wondering if these solutions were really the answer to environmental, economic or artistic sustainability. The internet after all relies on a massive backup of power and resources (not to mention hidden labour and exploitation) behind the scenes; while the virtual connection it offers artists – to each other and audiences – is no way comparable to their actual presence (which is surely the essence of live art, theatre and performance generally). The question loomed in my jet-lagged mind: as artists, why not literally stay home, work and make work where we live, in the context of our actual communities? The answer of course is that living and working in one place consistently or for any length of time is increasingly difficult to sustain (that word again) for artists and arts workers (not to mention those with even less means at their disposal) in order to simply survive. Here I was after all, in the rare position of being present at this very event because a (corporate) employer was paying for my (carbon-intensive) flights, accommodation and living expenses in exchange for my work in their recording studios. I duly returned to that studio the next day – weighing up the implications of narrating an audio version of a detective novel set in Kenya (complete with African accents) for CD and online distribution worldwide.

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On Wednesday morning I showed up at Arts House bright-eyed and bushy tailed (albeit at least twenty years older than most of the other participants) for a one-day workshop with Rosanna Cade: a performance artist based in Glasgow whose work deals in identity, sexuality and gender politics and is based in queer theory; she’s also co-founder of Buzzcut Festival in Glasgow, which presents live art for free to the general public in traditionally working-class areas and alternative environments. There were about ten of us in the workshop, and we were relegated to a wing of Arts House with two classrooms, one somewhat alarmingly laid-out with desks in rows.

We began by sitting in a circle on the floor in the other room and introducing ourselves; Rosanna described her own work; and then invited us to spend five minutes writing something beginning ‘the performance I want to make today is…’ I wrote a long list of adjectives and phrases and then a short list of unimaginative ideas, most of which were things I’d seen or done before. She then asked us to choose one of our previous sentences or phrases and write it on a new page; I chose ‘non-fictional’, because it seemed to describe the opposite of what I normally do working in theatre.

We then trouped into the classroom with the desks, each of which now had an envelope on it, face-down. I chose a random desk, turned over the envelope and was pleased to discover it had my name on it. Inside was a note with a series of instructions about using the next hour to create a 5-minute performance for one audience-member using the phrase we’d chosen as the title and involving a moment of physical contact. We could also use the table and 2 chairs, along with anything else we had with us. The most interesting instruction was ‘the audience member must be required for the performance to happen’. Alongside these general instructions was a specific message for each of us. Mine was ‘an orgasm’. I wondered briefly if she’d written this specifically with me in mind.

I went off to make myself a cup of tea and eat an orange I’d brought with me. We then split up into smaller groups and developed our performances with each other. I won’t describe the performance I made, except to say that the orange was involved. Suffice to say that the other two in my group made works that involved language and were much more courageous and revealing personally than mine was. Or perhaps not.

After lunch we collectively regrouped for a discussion about the notion of documentation. This raised an interesting paradox for me: how to document something – whether for archival, promotional or acquittal purposes – that’s inherently a transitory live experience between two people. It’s like Schrödinger’s cat in quantum theory: you can’t observe or measure the outcome without effecting or changing it. The only answer seemed to be to make a new work in another medium as a kind of response to or residue of the first one.

Before the advent of photography or sound recording, the most obvious example of this was the script of a play, or a musical or choreographic score, together with printed materials like posters, handbills and programs or verbal descriptions such as reviews. Since the advent of digital technology in particular, the notion of documentation has radically extended and intervened at every stage in the creation, production, reception and distribution of artworks, including pre-production, funding and promotion. It’s a fact of life, but something I struggle with. Perhaps I’m nostalgic for what Benjamin called the aura of the traditional artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction. Or perhaps I’m just scared of the internet, in the same way people were once scared of railways.

We split up into our sub-groups again to investigate ways of documenting our performances. In my case, perhaps perversely, I felt I wanted this to involve sound only, while the others wanted to capture things on camera as well. However, we began by recording our verbal recollections of participating in each other’s work. I found this process immensely rewarding, though I had no desire to keep a copy of the recording or listen back to it. We then somewhat quickly and mechanically documented our performances, visually or in my case audio only.

We reconvened and showed our efforts to the group. In the event, everyone else had documented their work visually, and I was struck by how inventive and tech-savvy they were, and how inadequately I felt mine represented my performance. On the other hand, I felt I had no idea what theirs were like either ‘in the flesh’. I finished the afternoon feeling frustrated, and a little anxious about my work being understood or judged, but with much to ponder about the relationship between ‘live’ and ‘digital’ art, presence and representation. The morning’s work, on the other hand, left me hungry to make more one-on-one performances.

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That night a friend and I went to the old art deco Astor Theatre in St Kilda for a farewell double-bill before the cinema closes at the end of the year. I’ve been going to the Astor since it started programming cult and art-house films in the early 80s, and it’s remained a regular pilgrimage for me whenever I come back to Melbourne from Perth. I took my children there to see ET and Poltergeist (which terrified them) – and my second wife to see Les Enfants du Paradis and Death in Venice (which she left bored after the first five minutes). On Wednesday night, my friend and I had seen neither film before, but Locke and Only Lovers Left Alive seemed like the perfect way to say goodbye.

*

The following morning began with a half-day workshop led by Emma Paintin from the UK collaborative duo Action Hero, who make performances based on material drawn from the inherently theatrical aspects of popular culture. This time, I was part of a much larger group, in a much larger space in the central Meat Market Main Pavillion; and we were invited to pair off and make work based on a karaoke YouTube of the original video clip for Queen’s I Want to Break Free. Again, I found myself swimming against the current, by devising a piece that didn’t involve either the video or the original track, and that referred to politics (or at least Tony Abbott) rather than sex (with Freddie Mercury or anyone else). This time I felt a lot happier about finding a way to present it to the group too, using indirect representation, live performance and neither video nor recorded sound.

After lunch we had to choose a final half-day workshop. I decided to face my fears, and cast my lot with Georges Jacotey, a young Greek visual and performance artist who uses the internet as his primary medium to explore gender identity, including his own. The workship was entitled ‘Videos of Affinity’, and we were expected to bring our own video and editing software, props and costumes. I had an iPhone, and decided to borrow anything else I needed. The first thing I told Georges was that I was afraid of the internet. He was amazed; for him the internet was liberating; if anything it was real life that terrified him. He looked about twenty, and was wearing a dress. I decided I had much to learn from him.

Our small group of about ten convened in one of the dressing-room annexes off to one side of the performance space where I’d spent the morning. Georges had set the room up with a couple of comfortable old sofas and a pot plant. Instead of introducing ourselves verbally, we were sent off to find somewhere private and make an improvised two-minute introduction on our devices that might or might not involve words but that he would be able to ‘recognize us by’. I found another empty dressing room and made a messy hand-held video of myself surrounded by mirrors explaining that I was afraid of the internet and felt more comfortable here preparing to get into character or onstage in front of a live audience than online or in person.

We reconvened and showed our videos on our various devices. Then Georges showed a couple of examples of video works by artists online that had interested him; he called them ‘friends’, although I got the impression he hadn’t actually met or communicated with them in the flesh. It struck me that both videos were self-referential – that is to say, that they were explicitly ‘about’ the artists, the works and the medium itself – and that both expressed the same kind of frustration and anxiety that I’d experienced trying to document my work yesterday, only this time directed towards their capacity to communicate their thoughts and feelings. I found this sobering: perhaps I wasn’t alone after all, at least in my sense of fear and inadequacy. I also couldn’t help thinking of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage.

Then Georges sent us off for an hour to make a more considered ‘work’ on our devices that we would then show to the group – and afterwards potentially upload and share as a virtual community. I got another cup of tea, went and sat outside with my iPhone and quickly found my subject. I wrote the script in about ten minutes, but it took me the rest of the hour to frame and compose the shot – a fixed shot which required no editing, but for which I eventually had to borrow someone else’s miniature iPhone tripod. I wasn’t in it myself, just my voice, but I still found it astoundingly difficult to shoot. The voiceover on the other hand was easy – after narrating in a recording studio six hours a day for two days, I recorded it ‘live’ into the phone as part of the shot, in a single take.

We spend the last hour back in the dressing room, sitting on the sofas and the floor, watching the videos one by one, projected onto the wall. I was nervous again when mine was screened, but I felt like it said what I wanted it to say, and didn’t look as bad as I’d feared. The others were clever, touching, witty, honest and – some of them – visually skilful and even beautiful. They were all without exception thoroughly watchable.

It was the perfect way to end my experience of Live Art Camp. I’d faced my fear of the internet, and didn’t feel frustrated or anxious; but I think this was at least partly to do with the fact that Georges had created a space in that dressing room – with its sofas and pot plant and cracked wall that served as a screen – where we could share a live experience together, and talk about it afterwards, in the flesh, there and then, as an actual community.

*

That night I went back to my accommodation in the city and spent the evening on my own, thinking about live art, the internet, travelling and working interstate and abroad. The following day I spent back in the studio recording the last hundred pages of the novel about the Kenyan detective. Afterwards I met up with the same friend, and saw a play I didn’t enjoy. I spent Saturday in my one-bedroom apartment, and started writing a new theatre work, which I’d been putting off, but quickly became absorbed in. Saturday evening I met up with another friend, and saw another play, which I liked more than the first one. And on Sunday, I had breakfast with a third friend at The European on Spring St (another Melbourne ritual), immersed myself in a matinee screening of Interstellar at the IMAX in the Exhibition Gardens, and then flew back to Perth. I started writing this Postcard on the plane, and I finished it when I got home.

So what have we learned? For me, live art is an opportunity to venture outside my comfort-zone as a performer and an audience member. It’s interdisciplinary, intimate, immersive, participatory, real, happens outside of conventional spaces and erases conventional boundaries and definitions. I’m still not sure what role digital technology has to play here, or in the context of live performance, or art generally. Perhaps that’s because I’m still not sure about the role digital technology plays in my life, or the world. Or perhaps that has more to do with how I feel about images and words than the internet per se. As another friend in another city pointed out on the phone that night in my one-bedroom apartment: I’m comfortable posting these words, and putting them out there, but images are another story.



Sunday, 19 October 2014

Postcard from Perth 34


Animated Landscapes

Moominpappa at Sea, Farm, Falling Through Clouds


Following on from my previous Postcard about Letters Home, King Hit and the theatre of identity, the other shows I’ve seen in Perth recently all involved puppets. The simplest and for me most successful was Spare Parts associate director Michael Barlow’s delightful adaptation of the great Finnish children’s author Tove Jansson’s classic Moominpappa at Sea. The show toured regionally earlier this year, but I saw it at the WA Museum as part of the Awesome Festival for Bright Young Things, which took over various Perth Cultural Centre venues over the last ten days.



I read and re-read the Moomin books obsessively as a child, so I was worried that I might feel quite protective about the material. In the best Scandinavian tradition, Jansson’s creatures inhabit a twilight world fractured by uncertainty. Adapting Moominpappa at Sea in particular as a puppet show seemed like jumping in at the deep end. It’s a melancholy, troubled, Symbolist late work that spoke to me deeply when I was a teenager. I remember being stirred by the ambiguous sexuality of Moomintroll’s encounters with the sea-horses; the incipient dementia of Moominmamma’s progressive disappearance into her wall-painting; Moominpappa’s neurotic mid-life crisis of impotence and failure attempting to ‘man’ his lighthouse; the clinical depression embodied by the frozen loneliness of the Groke; Little My’s psychotic feelings of rage and abandonment; and underlying everything, the uncontrollable forces of inner life inhabiting the island and the sea. Hardly the stuff of children’s literature or theatre, you might think – or perhaps on the contrary, precisely the stuff of children’s literature and theatre.

In the event, Michael’s Barlow’s adaptation captures Jansson’s subtle, whimsical spirit perfectly. It’s a virtually a solo show (albeit with a crucial double-role for stage manager Bruno Michel) which Michael now also performs (he originally directed Bec Bradley in the role for the regional tour). I’ve long admired Michael as a master puppeteer with a uniquely engaging stage-presence. Here he finds the perfect balance between endowing the simple puppets and minimalist paper set (both designed by Leon Hendroff) with life while also ‘animating himself’, so to speak, through his voice, face and body as he takes on the various characters.

The only false note for me was the use of narration, which I felt intermittently broke the spell. As with the previous Spare Parts show I wrote about earlier this year, Hatchiko, I wanted the story to ‘tell itself’ through action, image and minimal dialogue, allowing the performer to absorb himself in the puppets, and us to absorb ourselves in watching and overhearing them without having everything explained to us. Once again, I wonder if it’s a question of ‘designating’ the work of the company too much in terms of its audience – this time in term of preconceived notions about children and their capacity to attend, imagine and follow visual storytelling. I also wondered if Michael felt that he needed to avoid or dispel some of the book’s darkness and ambiguity for the same reason; but children can cope with darkness and ambiguity; just ask Melanie Klein.

This is a story about a family that’s externally functional, harmonious and loving but internally being pulled apart by centrifugal forces. The puppets are ideal representatives for the characters’ secret selves, their inner restlessness: Moominpappa’s desire for adventure, Moominmamma’s desire to escape, Moomintroll’s sexuality, Little My’s rage. Jansson’s genius was to recognise that these feelings and forces are a normal part of everyone, in every family. She embraced them by creating a unique bestiary of creatures who became emblems of our own secrets selves. It’s the unspoken aspect of this inner world that makes it ideal material for puppetry: a world that children instinctively understand because they live it intensely themselves and sense it in the adults around them. Puppetry makes this unspoken world of hidden emotions visible and tangible. As such, they can be discreetly acknowledged and shared.

*



Back at their home-base in Fremantle, Spare Parts were also presenting Farm, an ambitious epic work of visual theatre derived from research and development residencies in the Wheatbelt town of Merredin. Once again, I can’t review this show altogether impartially as I played a role in it, albeit only in voiceover, and was also employed by the company earlier this year on a visit to Merredin to set up a community installation for the Agricultural Show (which I wrote about in an earlier Postcard). However I had nothing to do with the script development and wasn’t involved in rehearsals, my work being confined to a day at the Show and an afternoon in a recording studio, so my experience of the production is largely as an audience member.

Farm has been written by Perth independent theatre artist Ian Sinclair and directed by Spare Parts artistic director Philip Mitchell, with a spectacular set by Matt McVegh (featuring large wheeled light-boxes on the surface of which images are traced by the actors and projected on a screen overhead) and equally spectacular lighting by Graham Walne, stirring music by company regular Lee Buddle, and energetic performances by Chloe Flockhart, Bec Bradley, St John Cowcher and dancer Ruth Battle (Chloe and Bec were also involved as co-devisors on the development of the show).

Ian’s script is poetic and allusive yet down-to-earth. It tells the story of a family farm from the perspective of a young girl, her grandfather, and her mother and father – along with a kind of native earth-spirit who also appears as a (non-native) sheep and later a kangaroo. Narration as such is replaced by the device of short-wave radio conversations between the young girl and her grandfather (a pre-recorded voiceover by yours truly); in fact these are the only two characters who speak. Notwithstanding this self-imposed limitation, I found the use of language in the script richly suggestive. However the story itself seemed a little schematic and even hazy at times.

The lack of narrative clarity or momentum was accentuated by occasionally cumbersome staging with the actors wheeling the light-boxes around into new configurations to designate literal or psychological shifts or scene changes. I also found the device of the dancer-spirit unclear (if elegantly realized by Ruth Battle), especially if intended as a substitute for any direct acknowledgment of the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants (apparently terra nullius except for the odd kangaroo or native spirit).

As with the treatment of sporting violence in King Hit reviewed previously, the representation of ‘the land’ and its hardships in Farm did not altogether escape a certain endemic Australian sentimentality (we do this with war as well, as current WW1 commemorations testify). Abstracted from historical or geographical specificity, ‘the land’ becomes (and remains) an alien, featureless and hostile zone inhabited by incomprehensible forces (a seemingly unchanging climate punctuated by apparently random dust-storms and bushfires) rather than the site where specific cultural practices (land-clearing, irrigation, patriarchy, colonialism, indiscriminately introduced animals and crops) play themselves out with devastating psychological, social and ecological consequences. After a distressing opening sequence of gung-ho tree-chopping, script and staging didn’t really follow through on this, perhaps out of deference to the good denizens of Merredin. The performers however endowed their characters and situation with a vivid particularity that spoke volumes despite the lack of dialogue or detail.

I think this lack of detail detracted from Farm in a way it didn’t from Mooninpappa at Sea because the former attempted to depict a realistic world (albeit using a lyrical script) whereas the latter is psychological and symbolic. The Farm family also don’t talk to each other (with the exception of the daughter and grandfather, whose relationship is the heart of the work) which makes them inherently less dramatic than the Moomin family, who communicate volubly (if ineffectually, after the manner of Chekhov) both with each other and the landscape. Ironically, this made the human characters somewhat two-dimensional in comparison.

For a puppet show, there was also a notable lack of puppets. Instead, it was as if the actors almost become highly animated puppets themselves. Perhaps that says something about how we experience living on the land, or even in this country: animated by alien forces, but spiritually dead inside. In the final analysis, I found Farm a spectacular, melancholy but ultimately dry and abstract work about failed interaction between people and landscape, which made it difficult to sustain itself dramatically. Maybe more puppets would have helped.

*



The last show under review is Falling Through Clouds at PICA. Perth indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt’s second show this year (following Elephents at The Blue Room, reviewed in June) is actually a devised work by four very talented members of the company. Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs (who all previously collaborated on It’s Dark Outside and Alvin Sputnik) are here joined by Adriane Daff, who’s currently going from strength to strength as an actor.

Like its precursors, Falling Through Clouds is a low-fi, multimedia, live and digital animation-filled work of visual theatre that seems to be driven by the creative inspiration of Tim in particular, although no-one is officially designated as the writer or director of the show. The story is told almost entirely using images, including puppetry, masks and the extensive use of live-cam projection. The scant dialogue is inconsequential and I’m guessing largely improvised in origin; skeletal narrative information mostly takes the form of titles projected on screens.

In a world where birds have (mysteriously) become extinct, Mary is a scientist employed to genetically re-engineer them and raise them to fly again. Somewhat arbitrarily she’s given a year to achieve this – failing which (again somewhat arbitrarily) her final duty before being dismissed from her job is to exterminate her hapless creations. At night she dreams of flight herself, and also (more disturbingly) of being haunted by her own double (these dreams are thrillingly staged).

This is theatre reborn from the ashes of cinema – or perhaps more specifically, live animation reborn from the ashes of its cinematic counterpart (which has arguably fuelled the fortunes of Hollywood for the last forty years from the puppet-shark in Jaws to the latest iteration of Madagascar). Words yield to pictures, actors to puppets, adults and children alike to child-adults, and human beings to animals with the souls of people. In the relative absence of language, music plays a vital role in communicating meaning – here provided in the form of a soaring score by theatre, film and TV composer Ash Gibson Greig.

Some gaps in the plot can be easily filled. The extinction of birds is presumably a consequence of human-induced loss of biodiversity (though other species go unmentioned). The precise nature of the biotech company who employ Mary is a little more obscure; her fellow employees are played for laughs, but there’s an intimation of something more Kafkaesque at work which is never fully developed. As a result the scenario feels a little sketchy, and it’s hard to feel that there’s much at stake, despite the best efforts of the soundtrack and cast.

In fact I experienced this show less as a story than as a sequence of images. As such, I found the dreams more powerful than their secondary elaboration as plot. Underlying the contemporary sociological theme of technology (digital and biotech) as ‘second nature’ are universal psychological phenomena such as the fear of the double or the desire to fly. According to Freud, the double or doppelgänger is a classic instance of what he calls ‘the uncanny’ or unheimlich – literally, the un-familiar that is in fact a split-off version of the self – while dreams of flight are (of course) sexual in origin. Mary’s masked double is thus a murderous sleepwalker who embodies her own projected sense of guilt; while exhilarating representations of flying (using projection and physical theatre) express the fulfilment of physical longing in a world that seems otherwise devoid of sex, reproductive or otherwise. Somehow the cute birds and crazy scientists of the surface plot didn’t quite match the power of these subterranean archetypes. In this regard Falling Through Clouds falls somewhere between Moominpappa at Sea and Farm in terms of the use of animation to represent internal as opposed to external worlds.

On a sliding scale of device-driven complexity though it’s a giant step beyond the elegant simplicity of Mooninpappa or even the stage-business clutter of Farm. In fact there’s so much going on technically and imaginatively here that sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. Perhaps this over-complexity and lack of unifying perspective can be attributed to the absence of a director or writer. The images and sequences themselves are astonishing, clever, exhilarating, beautiful, funny and poignant, but there’s something missing: a guiding thread, perhaps. The narrative lacks shape, and after a while (like so many Hollywood movies, animated and otherwise) I started to feel like I was being pounded by one damn thing after another.

Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the subject-matter in the theatrical form: the impact of technology on nature, the body and the psyche; and the increasingly media-saturated, disorientating, dreamlike, solipsistic nature of contemporary existence. In the end though, I found Falling Through Clouds a confusing work, and on reflection a divided one. In short, I felt as if there were two shows here: a goofy sci-fi parable (which recalls the apocalyptic framework of Alvin Sputnik) and a darker symbolic fairy-tale about doubles and flight (which perhaps has more in common with It’s Dark Outside). The two didn’t quite cohere, and as a result I was sometimes unsure of what I was meant to be watching or feeling.

This is perhaps harsh criticism of a work that’s still hugely entertaining and displays dazzling inventiveness and skill. It’s dramatically and emotionally anchored by a touching central performance from Adriane – as was the case with Chloe in Farm – with little help from the script in terms of dialogue or backstory. Tim, Arielle and Chris provide energetic support, but again, they have little to go on textually and one feels their talents are slightly wasted on such thin material. Perhaps such deficiencies of plot and character didn’t matter in Alvin or It’s Dark because the central character in the former was a puppet, and in the latter was represented using mask. As such, we were already in the realm of archetypes and dreams. This is properly the realm of puppetry and animation, which explains their appeal as storytelling devices for children, who move freely between this nocturnal world and the diurnal one of waking life. The characters and setting of Moominpappa at Sea also belong to this dream-world, unlike the externalized, all-too-human people and places that are the raw material for Farm. In comparison, Falling Through Clouds seems uncertain where it wants to land.    

The work of this company – and Tim in particular – is at an exciting crossroads. Imaginatively and in terms of craft, they (and he) can seemingly do anything: in particular their combined use of digital and live animation, projection, puppetry, mask and visual theatre is streets ahead of the pack – Lepage comes to mind as the obvious precursor – and there’s a home-made, DIY, indie aesthetic which is uniquely their own (though it owes a lot to the Perth vibe). Above all, I’m a huge fan of their commitment to ensemble-based work.

In terms of writing, direction and dramaturgy, though, there’s a sense that they’re turning in circles. Perhaps this is an inevitable stage for a young company in a small town, and a perennial risk with group-devised work. Based on my own experiences in ensemble theatre, my feeling is that stronger direction and writing is needed, either from inside or outside the group.