Monday, 24 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 13

Postcard from Brisbane: APAM Diary (Part One)

I’ve just spent the past five days at the biennial Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM), which this year shifted ground from its former home at the Adelaide Festival Centre (where it traditionally coincided with the Adelaide Fringe) to the Brisbane Powerhouse (where it now coincides with the World Theatre Festival – cynically abbreviated by some to ‘the WTF Festival’). The Powerhouse has additionally won the tender to host the next three events in 2014, 2016 and 2018.


For those who don’t know, APAM was set up by the Australia Council in 1994 to increase national and international touring opportunities for Australian performing artists. It’s now the biggest performing arts event in the Asia-Pacific region, attracting over 600 delegates from 32 countries, and 52 Australian and New Zealand companies and artists showcasing or pitching work.

Basically there are two classes of people at APAM: buyers and sellers. The buyers are known as ‘presenters’ (basically venues and festivals); ‘sellers’ are called ‘producers’ (which in this context includes companies and artists) and have to make a competitive submission to APAM for their show to be included in the program. This can take the form of a 15-minute pitch (for a show currently in development), a 25-minute excerpt (from an existing show) or a full-length showcase performance. Otherwise you can pay to attend as a delegate (for a hefty fee) on a first-come-first-served basis until allocations are exhausted.

There are also delegates who stand (to a greater or lesser degree) aloof from the imperatives of ‘the market’: let’s call them interested observers (for example, representatives of funding bodies or other arts organisations). I envied these guys. As one them observed to me on the first day of the pitch sessions: ‘I love my job.’

Successful applicants get one complimentary ‘delegate pass’ per show, which entitles them to attend all events and venues at APAM across the five days, including pitches, showcases, marketing booths, discussion forums, celebrations, dinners, drinks, bar and entertainment facilities, etc. In the case of producers, this free pass is meant to go to someone ‘representing’ the show throughout the five days (unless you’re an artist-producer ‘representing’ yourself, as I was).

Otherwise, artists and stage crew receive ‘artist passes’, which allow them limited access to the relevant venues for their respective activities (basically, rehearsals and presentations) on the days of those activities alone. ‘Delegates’ are issued on arrival with a red pass on a lanyard with their name and position in their respective organisation; ‘artists’ receive a blue pass. Access to venues and events is shepherded accordingly by APAM volunteers and security staff. It's a classic case of what Foucault called 'pastoral power'.

More on these red and blue passes anon.

Underlying the barrier between 'delegates' and 'artists' (which some mavericks like me managed to breach) – and the further division within the class of delegates between presenters and producers – is another, less clearly enforced or articulated distinction between the official market-aspect of the event (i.e. the business of actually buying and selling shows) and the more unofficial, indirect and indefinable process of ‘networking’ (which might or might not include what is euphemistically referred to as ‘building relationships’ or ‘starting conversations’). This somewhat more fluid process implicitly overflows the confines of any particular work, transaction, job description or indeed APAM itself in any given year.

Indeed, as I discovered, networking is arguably its principle social function as an ongoing event or evolving organism composed of interacting individuals and the network of relationships between them. As such, being there sometimes felt like attending an interminable five-day party – or entering a strange and exclusive club – and finding (or at least seeking) one’s way and place within it.

For the record: I was attending in a curiously hybrid capacity as an artist-delegate, having successfully applied to pitch a show and representing myself. I was also on my own, having no supporting artists, crew or management: so in effect a one-man-band.

I'd been financially supported by the WA Department of Culture and the Arts, who funded travel and accommodation costs for four WA shows, two of which were pitching, one showing an excerpt and one doing a full-length showcase. DCA also bravely manned a mobile booth with our marketing material (in my case, a pile of business cards and a bunch of USB sticks). I say ‘bravely’ because I’m not sure they saw much action at the booth. I’m glad I didn’t fork out and hire one myself. It would have been physically impossible anyway, given the task of pitching, networking, starting conversations and building relationships, all of which had to be done away from the booths at The Hub (about which also more anon).

In fact I’d been to APAM once before: only two years ago, as it happens. However, that was in Adelaide, and on a mere artist’s pass, for a mere two days (for an afternoon’s rehearsal followed by a morning showcase), while the show’s producer stayed on for the rest of the week as a delegate. Being in Brisbane for the full five days as a fully-fledged delegate and presenting a pitch was a totally different experience. Exhausting doesn’t begin to describe it.


I’m starting to write this Postcard on the long flight home to Perth, and I’m going to compose my recollections and thoughts in the form of a journal. This will help me revisit the events of each day, including what I saw, heard, felt and did. Consequently it’s going to be a somewhat more personally focused Postcard than usual. I’ll include short reviews along the way of some of the showcases I saw, at least when these were of entire works (but not excerpts or pitches, which would be totally inappropriate).

However, the experience also gave rise to some wide-ranging thoughts about APAM, my own work, and the politics of the performing arts in this country and elsewhere. Admittedly these thoughts are from my perspective as an individual theatre-maker based in WA. So this particular Postcard from Brisbane is still very much a Postcard from Perth as well.


Day 1: Tuesday 18/2

Having checked into my handy Brisbane heritage-housed backpackers the night before – after a weary four-and-a-half-hour flight from Perth – I lugged my dazed and confused, two-hour-behind time-lagged body down the road to the Powerhouse to register, receive my pass, deposit my marketing collateral at the DCA booth, and front up for the first day’s caravan of events, including a ticketed Welcome Lunch, Keynote Event, Opening Ceremony and opening night showcase performance (also ticketed). As I arrived at the Powerhouse, I passed a number of familiar faces dragging travel luggage to and fro, including one or two national and international presenters I’d diligently emailed in advance suggesting we meet (and in most cases never laid eyes on again).

On arrival I was given my red delegate pass and a carry-bag containing two solid tomes: the hefty Program Guide and even heftier Delegate Directory. I went to register as an artist as instructed and collect my artist pass and show-bag, but after a search it appeared there wasn't one with my name on it. 'Don't worry, you won't need one. The delegate pass will get you in everywhere, and there's nothing in the artist pack except a water-bottle.' I was now officially a delegate, and had left my artist-identity behind. 

I’d innocently expected ‘The Hub’ – the designated area for registration, information, lunch, celebratory events, cabaret evenings and the entire week’s pitch program (as well as the exclusive hangout for delegates to eat, drink and ‘network’) – to be located inside the lovely, ambient, air-conditioned, open-planned Powerhouse itself, with its sprawling complex of theatres, foyers, bars, cafes, restaurants, balconies, offices, rehearsal rooms and meeting places overlooking the Brisbane River. It’s the kind of venue, incidentally, that Perth is still crying out for, notwithstanding the barren, brutalist concrete bunker we got as our State Theatre Centre.

Imagine my dismay instead when we were herded inside a huge marquee across the walkway from the Powerhouse, with a raised stage at one end overlooking black tables and chairs arranged cabaret-style and blasted by industrial fans in a vain effort to counter the intense Brisbane summer heat and 100% humidity. This, alas, was The Hub: my primary workplace and play-space for the next five days. My heart sank as I imagined delivering my pitch here in three days’ time. Beyond was an outdoor area (also for delegates only) featuring a bar, some portable toilets and a few takeaway food and coffee stands. It was at least marginally less sweltering than the inferno inside the tent.

During the interminable welcome lunch speeches I became desperate, cracked in my resolve not to drink alcohol during the day and lunged for a bottle of sauvignon blanc. There was a ripping sound, and shortly afterwards a certain State Theatre Company artistic director who shall remain nameless gaily called out: ‘Humphrey, you’ve got a hole in the back of your shirt!’ Sure enough, I reached back and felt the gaping tear in my already threadbare public image. It was a sign. Despite my delegate pass, my hastily printed business cards and sticky-labelled USB sticks, there would be no escaping my unmistakable status as an actor-bum at this august gathering of dignitaries. I decided to live up to it, live it up, relax and make trouble. If some disdainful presenter treated me like Bruce Banner, I would become the Incredible Hulk.

After lunch we thankfully trooped across to the air-conditioned Powerhouse Theatre for the Keynote Event. This was a panel discussion rather nauseatingly titled ‘Make Every Conversation Count’ which promised to ‘explore the ideas of collaboration and co-creation’. I’m used to hearing terms like ‘collaboration’ or ‘co-creation’ used by artists. This was not the first time however I was to hear them appropriated by presenters over the next few days.

The panel was hosted by an SBS TV presenter (who seemed totally out of her depth) and featured Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art director Chris Saines, theatre director and founder of Arts Network Asia Ong Keng Sen, ‘independent curator and director’ Alicia Talbot and ‘independent indigenous Australian dancer and musician’ Eric Avery (I’m quoting their descriptions from the program guide). I sat with a bunch of delegates from the US and started chatting to a contemporary performance-maker from Minneapolis with a wry sense of humor who became my APAM buddy over the next few days, as we kept meeting up at shows and events and mostly agreed about what we saw.

Ong Keng Sen dominated the Keynote Event with considerable charm, wit, wisdom and experience. He spoke of how cross-cultural collaboration is possible between individual artists ‘as micro-action, not macro-politics’; was skeptical about the value of political correctness or identity politics; and encouraged collaborators not to avoid conflict or get bogged down in discussion (‘artists need to be able to talk, but it is not always about nattering’) but to work slowly and in stages:‘You need time
in between, so you make work in a modular way. There needs to be time apart. Time heals.’ He identified cross-cultural work in particular as providing ‘a space where two cultures move to a third space, not colonizing each other, both trying to move to a new aesthetic destination’.

As the youngest member of the panel, and the only performer or Aboriginal artist, Eric Avery carefully articulated the importance of ‘respect’ for any genuine collaboration. Finally another Aboriginal artist spoke up from the audience, passionately demanding he explain the situation in Australia to international delegates. Eric’s voice trembled as he tried to describe his own personal struggle to find respect and walk between two worlds.

It struck me that ‘collaboration’ as a creative term implies a sharing of power between artists; as opposed to the more hierarchical relationship between employer and employee, or other regimes I’m familiar with in my capacity as an actor in a traditional rehearsal room. What I was hearing about, and witnessing, at this moment was not collaboration, cultural or otherwise.

As if on cue, the TV presenter-moderator intervened to keep to the schedule and shut the conversation down, despite Keng Sen’s gentle insistence that ‘in this case, right now, we need to keep talking’. Instead, the session was wound up, and we all obediently went outside to watch the Opening Ceremony: a welcome to country, smoking ritual, and symbolic offering of traditional dances from Aboriginal, Islander and New Zealand artists, followed by the Opening BBQ.

There was no reciprocal symbolic offering from the whitefellas. I wondered what it would be, anyway. A scene from Shakespeare? A rock’n’roll act? Whatever I thought of felt contrived, borrowed, stolen or second-hand. I watched an Aboriginal kid dancing with his elders. He must have been about four years old, but at least in that moment, he knew who he was, and where he belonged.

Nevertheless, the Opening Ceremony felt tokenistic after what had occurred inside, and there was a feeling of unease amongst the delegates. I felt ashamed of the backwardness of my country, especially in the eyes of the international contingent. It’s a familiar feeling these days, whether in regard to our treatment of asylum seekers, our denial of global warming or our bullish championing of economic ‘growth’. I sought out Keng Sen and thanked him for his contributions, and likewise Eric Avery for his honesty and courage.

After the BBQ we trooped back inside the Powerhouse Theatre for the ticketed opening night showcase: a full-length performance of Shaun Parker’s AM I. Billed as ‘a ground-breaking new music and dance collaboration’ that ‘investigates the quintessential meaning of “I”, it involved 14 musicians, 7 dancers, Kathakali-derived hand gestures, hynotic unison movement, blinding lighting effects and a lot of glib New Age text. I thought it was beautifully danced but found the whole thing super-smooth, superficial and a condescending exercise in cultural appropriation after the previous events of the day. ‘National Geographic dance’ was the scathing verdict from Minneapolis. We said  goodnight and hoped for better days ahead.


Postcard from Perth/Brisbane: APAM Diary (Part Two) continues on Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment