Thursday, 27 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 14

Postcard from Brisbane: Part Two

APAM Diary (Continued)

Day 2: Wednesday 20/2

I arrive at the Hub the next morning and re-enter the sweltering tent to witness the first round of pitching. Robyn Archer’s hosting these sessions over the next few days, and thanks to her gentle but firm intervention the cabaret seating and tables have been quietly scrapped and the audience chairs arranged in rows facing the stage. I breathe a sigh of relief and settle down in the front row next to a relaxed observer delegate who works for an arts funding organization and tells me how much he loves his job. The heat and humidity are still oppressive but more fans have been installed and at least there’s now some visual focus as the show finally gets under way.

I won’t describe the individual pitches, but they’re good – very good. They’re only fifteen minutes each, the artists are engaging and show tantalizing videos, and the observer delegate and I agree we’d fund/buy/present them all. Afterwards I go outside for a takeaway iced coffee from a stall, and then saunter down to catch the free delegate bus that will take me downtown to the Judith Wright Centre, where there’s a showcase at noon. This is a twenty-five minute excerpt from a movement-theatre piece called Whelping Box by Branch Nebula, Matt Prest and Clare Britton.

At the theatre I run into my friend from Minneapolis and another dancer from the American delegation, and we decide to be rebels and sit in the single row of seats onstage in the round, rather than in the auditorium with all the squares where we’ve been directed by the ushers. The show is great: two guys squaring off against each other, pushing and dragging each other around, blindfolding and tying each other up, and generally horsing around in a vaguely sadomasochistic way, before getting their kit off, climbing up on the rostra behind us and parading around us like dogs, balls dangling, arse-sniffing, leg-cocking and looking for trouble. Then they re-enter the arena, start taping themselves up and tethering themselves together with clear plastic adhesive, and the gladiatorial fun and games begin.  Finally they put on ludicrous headgear, grab sceptres and bits of wafer and begin enacting some kind of insane sacrilegious rite. The whole thing is lit by a huge single yellow lamp hanging low from the ceiling. I’m exhilarated. I want to see the whole show.

I decide to hang around at the Judith Wright and see another showcase. This is The Walking Neighbourhood, a promenade piece in which children aged up to about twelve take you on a local walking tour with a theme of their choice. It’s a fantastic project by a Contact Inc, a group of interdisciplinary artists who collaborate with kids in order to empower and encourage them to reclaim the streets and their sense of agency. There’s documentation on the walls of the work taking place in South East Asian slums and Aboriginal communities. The neighbourhood of New Farm isn’t quite as exotic, but has its own grungy challenges.

My first tour is ‘The Freedom Tour’: an earnest and energetic tween takes me and two others around the block to a cramped, gloomy space beneath a stairwell. Here she tells us how she liberates battery-farmed chickens and keeps them as pets, before her obliging middle-aged minder feeds us each a free-range hard-boiled egg from a basket. Finally our tour guide gives us some coloured chalk to tag the wall with whatever we’re feeling. I write ‘Guilty’.

For my second tour, ‘The Express Yourself’ tour, I’m on my own with another, even more overexcited tween (and a minder who doesn’t look much older than her charge) who takes me somewhere down a sidestreet that seems pretty random, puts a One Direction CD on her ghetto blaster and shows me some dance moves. I discover I’m quite good at ‘The Kayak’, which is all about upper body strength, but not as good as either of my companions when it comes to ‘The Sprinkler’.

By now I’m feeling inspired. I head back on the free bus to The Powerhouse, chatting excitedly with other delegates. We’re like grey nomads on an AAT tour heading off on an outback safari. I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when.

Back at the Powerhouse I’m just in time to catch Forklift, a dance/physical theatre/circus piece by a group called Kage involving some scantily clad young women and, you guessed it, a forklift. The sun is blazing down on them and us in the Powerhouse Plaza, and I sidle into a patch of shade and feel my spirits begin to settle. I find myself standing next to a black-clad hybrid sound/performance artist from Melbourne and we compare notes on the politics of the piece, and archly observe how context determines content. As circus, it could almost be interesting; as contemporary dance, it wouldn’t pass muster; as for live art…we shake our heads and go our separate ways. I catch sight of Minneapolis in the crowd; she winces at me in agony. The girls are draped on the forklift now. I pity them, in the pitiless heat, in front of this pitiless crowd.

Back inside the Hub, it’s time for more pitches. One at least is brilliant, but they’re all interdisciplinary/hybrid/conceptual/large-scale/outdoor/site-specific, and/or involve interactive technology, and I begin to wonder how I’m going to fare tomorrow, pitching what looks like being the only small-scale theatre show involving an actor who plays a character in a story. I mention this to Minneapolis, who reckons it’ll work in my favour. We agree that iPads and iPods are the Achilles Heel of contemporary performance, but I can’t quite dispel the feeling that I’m swimming against the post-dramatic tide.

I head off for my one and only scheduled meeting with a regional festival director. He’s been newly appointed and proceeds to tell me how he’s completely restructuring the festival in question. It’s a little disconcerting, as it was the only festival I’d thought my show might have had a place in. Now I’m not at all sure how or even if I fit into his ambitious plans. We part amicably though, and promise to keep in touch. I wonder if I just ‘started a conversation’.

On my way out of The Hub again, I bump into a fellow artist-delegate, who’s doing multiple showcases at the Judith Wright. She’s come to have a drink at The Hub with a mutual friend, who’s doing the lighting for her showcase, and who only has a blue Artist Pass. To our embarrassed astonishment, the APAM ushers won’t let her in. We’re gobsmacked. They both head off to have a drink at the Powerhouse, which is open to the public. I’m sorely tempted, and there’s a show I want to see there tonight; but I feel I should go back to my digs and do some preparation for my pitch tomorrow morning. I’ve got a video and a nifty prop (a prototype set design in a suitcase actually), but I haven’t actually decided – let alone written – what I’m going to say.

I head back to the backpackers, grab my laptop, find a local bistro, order a light beer and a steak, and rattle off my spiel. In an hour, I’m back at the Powerhouse Theatre, watching Anthony Hamilton’s stunning full-length dance work Black Project 1. It’s everything I’ve been craving since I got here: rigorous, intelligent, distilled, wordless yet devastatingly eloquent of the world we live in, and the catastrophe we’re living through. Technology isn’t merely utilized or even incorporated so much as inscribed into the dancers’ bodies and movements, as they alternately merge with the set and tear it apart before finally vanishing. Living in Perth, I haven’t seen Anthony’s work for ten years; we shared transport from Brisbane Airport the other night, exchanged friendly greetings, and I recalled that much more light-hearted earlier show. ‘Oh, this one’s a bit different,’ he said. Nothing could have prepared me.

Once again, I compare notes with Minneapolis. Yep, the real thing at last, we agree. We climb up onstage as the audience disperses and inspect the remains of the set, like a crime scene. I want to linger and talk to Anthony, but he’ll be a while, scrubbing off the black stuff he was covered in from head to toe, skin, face, clothes and all. I need to go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.

I walk back through the balmy Brisbane night and run through my pitch in my head. I’m glad I came back and saw Anthony’s piece. I feel more confident now about my own. Even though they’re worlds apart in terms of form, content or sheer level of craft, I’ve been reminded that theatre can be real.


Postcard from Perth/Brisbane: APAM Diary continues next week.

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