Postcards from Brisbane: APAM Diary



Dear Reader: the following diary entries were originally posted separately on my Home Page. Here they are reproduced in chronological order as a single Postcard. Alternatively they can be found on my Home Page and read in reverse chronological order, if you're a fan of Christopher Nolan's Memento, Atom Egoyam's The Sweet Hereafter or Harold Pinter's Betrayal (all of which incidentally could serve as alternative titles for this APAM Diary).

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Postcards from Brisbane: APAM Diary


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.

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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.

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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.

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Day 1: Tuesday 18 February


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.

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Day 2: Wednesday 20 February


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.


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Day 3: Thursday 20 February


I rock up at The Hub at 10am for my tech rehearsal and sound-check. The temperature and humidity have dropped a little today, and I’m feeling relaxed and comfortable, as a former prime minister used to say. I’m fitted with a skin-coloured body-mike taped to my cheek that looks like a fat pimple in profile. I put my miniature set prototype on a handy stack of milk-crates, and walk up and down the stage, looking out at the rows of empty plastic chairs and feeling like a TV evangelist.

I’m first on the set-list, which is a relief; followed by two other text-based works, as it happens, both featuring cool younger men from Melbourne with beards. I sit in the auditorium and watch them rehearse with their laptops. I’m going to cream this. Let the old bull show them how it’s done.

I sit in the front row with my arts-funding-body observer-delegate friend. I share my anxieties with him about feeling like a dinosaur with my lack of interactive technology, my conventional-venue-located, character-driven show, and my conspicuous solitude onstage. He tells me not to worry: I’m the theatre of the future. I decide to use the line in my pitch.

The room is reasonably full now, and I’m given a great intro by Robyn Archer, who genuinely seems to remember who I am, and positively affirms the difference between me and most of the other acts, which hopefully puts the audience onside.

I won’t repeat my pitch here, but it seems to go down well. They seem to be listening, I get a few laughs, and a decent round of applause at the end. Then again, I’m an actor: what do I know? Robyn Archer even spontaneously sings a song afterwards, inspired by my content. I hope it works in my favour, and doesn’t make me look like even more of a dinosaur.

The other pitches go by in a blur. Someone taps my shoulder, and a voice from Minneapolis murmurs encouragingly: ‘How did it go? Sorry I’m late, I was on the ferry.’ ‘Ok, I think,’ I whisper back.

Afterwards, the tent empties rapidly. Probably the heat. A few people come up and congratulate me. Mostly friends. I climb back up on the empty stage and pack up my set in its little suitcase. Show’s over. I have a sudden urge to call a taxi to the airport and go home.

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I go outside to one of the food stalls and order some Japanese noodles in a cardboard tray. Then I remember I’ve paid in advance online to attend a lunchtime workshop hosted by the Australian Performing Arts Centre Association and Theatre Network Victoria. ‘Get With the Program: Curation, Commissioning and Programming.’ I head inside with my takeaway.

It’s a sit-down lunch at separate tables, surrounding a central sofa on which the guest panel are awkwardly arranged with their backs to half of us, waiting to be interviewed by the head of APACA. The picnic-style lunch-packs are pretty meagre for the price; I’m glad I brought my takeway. Most of the people at my table are presenters, as are all the guests on the panel: two festival directors and two venue programmers, local and international.

My mood begins to plummet. There’s more talk of the need for ‘collaboration,’ and there’s a lot of references to ‘us’, the need for artists to think about ‘our audiences’, and, at one point, the challenge for presenters to retain creative ‘control’ over work they’ve commissioned. When the interviewer presses one of the presenters on the question of how in practice she’s increasing her level of collaboration with artists, she responds: ‘I don’t know.’

Afterwards we’re invited to brainstorm ‘one big idea’ at each table. I lose my patience, and tell my companions that the elephant in the room is the question of power, and that in my book, ‘collaboration’ means sharing it. With regard to festivals and venues, I suggest that presenters commission artists to make whatever work they choose; otherwise in my book it’s not a commission, just fee-for-service, like paying a plumber. Finally I suggest that an audience only exists in front of an actual performance. Otherwise we’re talking about communities rather than audiences, and trying to end-game the process by programming what we think they want.

Specifically with regard to this workshop, I suggest that there should be at least one artist on the panel. My big idea is that the next APAM should give red open-access delegate passes to artists, blue day-passes to presenters, and have ‘them’ come and pitch their venues and festivals to ‘us’ in the tent, and then try and arrange follow-up meetings with ‘us’ afterwards.

An international presenter at my table from one of the plethora of festivals that seem to exist in Ireland tells me she thinks the word ‘power’ is divisive. She prefers the word ‘respect’. I want to tell her, it’s not the word that’s divisive, and that I’ve had it up to here with ‘respect’, but I restrain myself. She tells me that in the end it’s all about people; that in the end she only works with people she wants to work with; nice people; people she likes. I want to say, that must be nice for her; I wish I had the same luxury; but again, I restrain myself. She says she tried my big idea at a festival in Ireland once, for a day, and it didn’t work. I want to ask her if she thinks what we’re doing now is working; but again, I manage to restrain myself.

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Afterwards I go to the bar inside the Powerhouse and someone offers to buys me a drink. It’s my sound-art-performance-maker colleague from Melbourne. I download, and she commiserates, then heads off to watch more pitches.

Minneapolis sidles up to me, and observes cynically that the whole collaboration/networking thing is bullshit. Why can’t people just be honest about the fact that everyone’s here to sell or buy work and get on with it? She’s been trying to pin down a presenter from Paris who says he likes a work of hers but keeps playing cat-and-mouse instead of talking turkey. I tell her if he genuinely wants the work, she should say he can’t have it, but is welcome to commission a new one.

We agree that almost every conversation we have with anyone here is riven by a kind of double consciousness: should I be pitching my work to this person? Should I even be talking to them, or is there someone else I should be talking to instead? On the one hand it’s all part of the job of being an artist-producer, but on the other hand it feels incredibly corrosive, artistically, socially and even psychologically.

We start chatting to someone else at the bar. He’s here in his recently appointed capacity as the associate artistic director of a major dance theatre in Sweden. It’s a part-time job; he’s also the artistic director of his own dance group in the UK. He’s just choreographed a new dance work to music by Sigur Ros; have we heard of them?

We come from totally different worlds, but I tell him I love the idea of a part-time director of a venue who continues to work independently as a practising artist with his own company. We exchange business cards (he has two). He didn’t see my pitch, but when I tell him I feel like a boring text-based theatre dinosaur, he advises me to stick to my guns. I decide to take his advice.

An artistic director from Melbourne whom I know (and have emailed to arrange a meeting with) comes up to me and apologizes for missing my pitch. She’s in the middle of a meeting right now, but promises to catch up later. She goes back to her table.

Someone who works for a regional presenter approaches and apologizes for stalking me. She says she saw my pitch and wants to tell her boss about it. Minneapolis winks and melts away. I give the regional presenter my business card and USB stick. I remark that it’s probably the second time I’ve had an opportunity or even remembered to hand one out. She smiles nervously and leaves me alone with my drink.

I wander over to the artistic director from Melbourne and she detaches herself from her group and joins me back at the bar. We agree not to talk business right now, and chat about life and work generally.

I tell her about my feelings of disempowerment as an artist, and encourage her to appoint at least one actor as a resident artist with her company who also has a voice in programming decisions. She already has at least one resident director, a resident lighting designer, and even a resident playwright, but actors generally don’t get a look in as resident ‘creatives’. She takes my suggestion seriously; there’s someone she’s even thought of in this capacity. One concern she has is that actors will just want to program plays they want to be in. I say this doesn’t seem to be a problem with resident directors, so what’s the difference? I tell her companies make better work when actors are given a creative voice, and that as an actor I do better work too when I’m given collaborative power in the rehearsal room. She reminds me gently that not every actor is the same as me; that’s why I’m a theatre-maker with my own company as well as working freelance. It’s a good point. I thank her and wander back outside.

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I can’t bring myself to go back into the tent and watch any more pitches. I decide to catch a ferry and wander down to the local New Farm jetty near the Powerhouse.

There’s an evening forum on ‘Independent Artists’ at Metro Arts, a cool, grungy producing venue in the CBD. They’re running a nightly schedule of informal activities, including a bar with food, performances and DJ sets. It’s running concurrently with APAM but isn’t officially part of the program. It sounds perfect.

I board the ferry, take off my red pass with my name on it, buy a ticket and ask advice from the ferry lady about where to get off. Being on the river and anonymous feels glorious. I feel like I’m on holiday. I get off at Riverside and suddenly I’m surrounded by buildings and traffic. I ask a commuter in a suit for directions.

Metro Arts is another example of what Perth lacks in terms of venues. It’s similar to The Blue Room, but commissions work as well as presenting it, and is located in a hive of buildings. There’s a courtyard out the back, and a cool restaurant downstairs.

I head through to the courtyard. There’s a bunch of other delegates, mostly artists, and one or two familiar faces from the local Brisbane scene. I chat to a distinctively tall Brisbane-based independent movement-theatre artist whose work I’ve seen in Melbourne and admired.

I feel like I’ve escaped from the Magic Faraway Tree for a while, and landed back on earth.

The forum panel is once again stacked with glamorous international presenters (one of whom I hopefully emailed before APAM without getting a reply) though there is one local state theatre company artistic director (as it happens, the same one who helpfully pointed out the rip in my shirt at the Welcome Lunch two days ago) and one lone independent artist from Melbourne (whom I also know – we’re a small tribe) who specializes in promenade small-screen interactive location-based one-on-one theatre and has cracked the international touring market. The host is one of that new breed: an independent theatre producer – though actually she’s just come back from working for a theatre awards organisation in London and has now been employed by a funded producing body in Sydney). Not for the first time, I ponder the meaning of that word ‘independent’.

There’s yet more talk about collaboration, and whether the ‘value’ of independent artists is overdetermined by market forces. Afterwards the discussion is opened to the floor for questions or comments, and I pluck up my courage and put up my hand.

I propose restructuring APAM so presenters pitch to artists instead of the other way around. I suggest that inferior blue artist passes be abolished, and more artists appear on panel discussions and are involved in the planning of APAM itself. I assert my use value as an artist and human being as distinct from my exchange value as a commodity, which is determined by my exploitation by presenters (Marx, Capital, Chapter 1). I call for more artists to have positions of power on boards of management and as part-time associate artistic directors, like my friend from Stockholm.

Then I have a Road to Damascus moment. I publicly renounce the term ‘independent’ and urge others do the same, as it’s outlived its strategic political value and now just signals that we’re prepared to work for nothing and are somehow different or inferior. I suggest instead we simply call ourselves ‘artists’ and ‘companies’, as by definition we’re already independent, or at least struggling to be, both as artists and adult human beings.

Finally I claim that as ensembles of artists, groups like MKA from Melbourne or PVI from Perth (both of whom have given brilliant pitches at APAM and are here in the audience at Metro Arts now) have more right to call themselves ‘theatre companies’ than the administrative and marketing husks that currently do so and hog most of the funding. I compare theatre with dance or music companies, which take the ‘ensemble of artists’ definition of a company, orchestra or rock band for granted.

I rest my case, Your Honour. I hand back the microphone.

A salaried associate producer with a major performing arts company who’s in the audience demurs. She says having a salaried ensemble of actors would mean they’d be obliged to take work with the company that they wouldn’t necessarily do if they had the choice. I say, what do you think actors do now? She says they’d also be obliged to take on other responsibilities than just acting. I repeat my rhetorical question.

A member of an artist-company in the audience supports me. One of the presenters on the panel who’s from the UK (the one I emailed) also supports the idea. He talks about how the RSC revitalized itself artistically when it became an ensemble company. Another presenter on the panel who’s from Canada also pipes up. She says she’d like to see herself made redundant and hand decision-making power back to artists. The artistic director on the panel says he’s only going to hold his tenure for three years and then go back to being an independent artist.

You read it hear first.

Another, younger artist in the audience says she doesn’t want to be inside the system. She’s happy to do her own work outside it, with or without pay. The artistic director on the panel asks her if she thinks she’ll still feel the same way in twenty years’ time.  She says she doesn’t know or care: maybe she’ll have a baby and concentrate on other things. She says it’s all about self-empowerment. She cites Foucault, but I’m not sure if she’s read him correctly.

The meeting breaks up. I chat with friends. I look around for the presenter from the UK on the panel with whom I was trying to arrange a meeting but he’s disappeared, almost certainly forever. Some younger artists invite me to join them for a meal, but I decide to head home. It’s been a big day. The tall movement-theatre artist from Brisbane who used to call himself independent gives me a local tip: there’s a smaller, slower, free ferry that leaves from Eagle Point just nearby.

I head back down to the river and board the ferry with a group of locals who sound South African. Out on the water, it’s dark apart from the gliitering colour-synchronized lights of Briz Vegas, and there’s a refreshing breeze.

Something’s shifted inside me. It feels good to be here.

*





Day 4: Friday 21 February


I start the day with a breakfast catch-up/meeting with a friend from Sydney who used to be an artistic director in Perth, and Melbourne before that. Now he heads a small national touring organization who program mostly NSW work. He’s pretty much the only person who’s contacted me rather than the other way around, apart from the woman from the Queensland regional touring body who stalked me after my pitch yesterday. I discover it’s a little easier ‘networking’ or ‘building a relationship’ with someone you already know and actually have a relationship with. We both know it's all pretty hypothetical though in terms of actual work.

We catch a bus into central Brisbane together. Most of today’s activities are in and around the cultural precinct, which like cultural precincts everywhere for some reason is on the south bank of the river (except Perth which has a freeway there instead). It’s home to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), which houses the state orchestra, theatre, ballet and opera companies, and forms part of the sprawling and multilayered South Bank cultural complex (I choose the term advisedly) that also embraces the State Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, the State Library and Museum, and the Conservatorium of Music.

It reminds me of a brutalist concrete termite mound. I wonder how the locals find it – or indeed anything inside it.

I’m feeling pretty cruisy (though not in an Al Pacino way) after yesterday’s climatic ups and downs (ditto). I plan to take in a few showcases; spend some time at the Gallery of Modern Art; and then head back to the Hub this evening for the much-vaunted Australia Council drinks, which everyone says is a biennial highlight of APAM, at least in terms of what’s also known as ‘wetnurking’. I’ve even had an email from yet another Irish festival presenter (whom I dutifully buttonholed and awkwardly ‘started a conversation with’ after the lunchtime workshop yesterday) suggesting we catch up at the drinks. I emailed him back to say I’d look out for him, but at this stage I’m not too fussed; I just want to have a drink and unwind.

My Sydney colleague and I head into QPAC to see a 20-minute excerpt of a show by some colleagues from Perth: It’s Dark Outside by Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs for PTC. I’ve seen it before in full, I think it’s wonderful, and the excerpt does it justice. Dark Outside uses a mixture of puppetry, mask-work, shadow-puppetry and video projection, and has already been picked up on the national and international touring circuit. It’s flawlessly executed, is about something that affects us all, and has a big heart. During the show I find myself weeping.

I have a quick chat with the artists afterwards, but they’re already surrounded by interested delegates. I feel happy, and hope APAM goes well for them. Apparently they had some technical issues at the rehearsal yesterday, but it all seemed to go without a glitch. They’ve got a second showing this afternoon.

I wander out into the blazing sun. It’s the hottest day it’s been so far, and I’ve pre-booked for my next showcase, a full-length outdoor promenade live-art work on the Brisbane River, in the middle of the day.

I’ve got an hour, and I need to eat something, but the nearest café is clogged with delegates, and I can’t face any more wetnurking right now. I run into a delegate from Tasmania I’ve only met in the last couple of days. She compliments me on my pitch, and we wander down to the bizarre concrete artificial beach in the parklands by the river just past the Conservatorium to cool our heels. I leave her there and continue along the river to find some shops and grab a sandwich before heading down to the Goodwill Bridge, which is the rendezvous point for the show.

*

The Stream/The Boat/The Shore/The Bridge is by Dan Koop and Co from Melbourne, where it’s previously been staged; but it would work on any inner-city stretch of river anywhere (even Perth). At the rendezvous point I’m met by a host-artist and three other participant audience-members. We’re offered sunscreen and water, each choose a differently coloured texta, and collectively draw a blue river, a red boat, a yellow shore and a black bridge on four identical pieces of paper which became our maps. Then we’re each allocated three out of the four places as stages on our individual journey. I miss out on the bridge, which I’m happy about, as it looks clogged with people and traffic. Finally we’re each given a differently coloured sun-umbrella and set off in our respective directions, following a broken line of correspondingly coloured flags.

I won’t describe what happens in detail: suffice to say that I’m met at each place by a different artist who guides me through a one-on-one experience for about fifteen minutes and then directs me to the next place, exchanging umbrellas with one of the other participants on the way and following a new set of matching flags. The experiences themselves are site-specific, carefully conducted and differentiated in terms of participation, simple and deeply personal. Each of the guide-performers uses their real names; no one pretends to be anyone or anywhere else; each encounter feel unique and real; and I feel safe and free to say and do as much as I want at every point. Abiding themes include the experience of place and time; the meaning of home; leave-takings; decisions; crossings; and points of no-return.

At one point, on the shore just past the Maritime Museum at the end of the parklands, I’m invited to pick up something from the ground and put it in my pocket. I choose a piece of bluestone gravel, which has probably been transported to Brisbane from Melbourne, my original home. Later, in a rowboat, just before returning to the shore, I’m invited to leave something behind if I want. Without thinking I take out the piece of bluestone and toss it into the river.

Afterwards my fellow audience/participants and I are offered icy-poles and invited to hang out at a riverside café and compare our experiences. We’ve all had a great time; the bridge sounded like fun, but I don’t regret missing out. In fact, after the experience I’ve just had, I don’t regret anything.

*

I wander back down (or is it up?) the river with one of delegate/participants, who works for Queensland Theatre Company on touring and regional programming. Brisbane’s home for her. She tells me stories about the floods of 2011, how the river engulfed the artificial beach completely, shifted islands of debris downstream, endangered the lives of people on the ferries and inspired acts of ordinary heroism. 

I realize I’m completely drifting now, still under the influence of the show. I’ve had this experience before after participating in one-on-one site-specific theatre: it seems to continue long after the show’s over and transform my sense of reality.

My companion’s on her way to the Conservatorium to see another 20-minute excerpt. I follow her into the air-conditioned cool of the foyer, and we say goodbye.

In the men’s toilets, I run into the festival director from the UK who was on the panel at Metro Arts last night, and whom I’ve been persistently emailing. He looks a bit startled when I our eyes meet, and I’m about to say something, but think better of it; it’s neither the time nor the place. Besides I’m not sure how my contributions during the Q&A last night might have gone down. He certainly disappeared post-haste afterwards; and does so again now. There’s no trace of him when I go back out into the foyer, and I never set eyes on him again. (Two weeks later I finally get an email saying he was sorry to miss me and my pitch, but that to be honest my piece ‘isn’t really a fit’ for his festival. I’m not sure if it’s really the piece that didn’t fit, particularly given he missed the pitch, but who knows?)

Inside the auditorium I catch sight of Minneapolis, sitting with Ong Keng Sen (the Singapore cross-cultural guru who was on the panel at the Keynote Event) and a friend from Hong Kong with a Mohawk haircut, who’s the head of something in West Kowloon. Keng Sen glances back and blows me a kiss. I decide to accept the invitation (within reason) and join the cool gang, even though I feel like a bit of a geek in comparison. ‘He’s back,’ observes Minneapolis archly, as I settle beside the delegate from Hong Kong to watch the show, without any clear idea what’s coming.

Transducer by Speak Percussion features two percussionists and a sound guy/new media artist doing weird shit with microphones and odd bits and pieces, in a kind of sonic bricolage that reminds me of the musical equivalent of Braque or Picasso c.1910. They’re wearing black, in classical muso form, and the stage is black too; but the staging and lighting have a spatial and temporal dynamic that’s highly (and perhaps unnecessarily) theatricalized. Watching the choreography of the musician’s bodies while they’re totally focussed on doing stuff is like a lesson in Stanislavski, or the aesthetics of modernist architecture and design as applied to performance: form follows function (though the ‘ornamental’ lighting would probably disqualify it). I soon find myself bored and assaulted by the sound, and cover my ears after a while; but I’m delighted and mesmerized by watching the action. Afterwards Minneapolis and I agree that we’d like to see it staged in a living room, and with the musicians wearing normal clothes. In my case, maybe with the sound switched off. Mind you, I often feel that way about concerts, and a lot of text-based performance too.

I say au revoir to Minneapolis, Hong Kong and Singapore. They’re heading off to a showcase performance of Dirtsong at the QUT Gardens Theatre. I need to get away from APAM for a while and clear my head.  

*

I leave the air-conditioned blandishments of the Conservatorium and make my way further down (up?) the river through the concrete termite mound of the cultural complex to one of my favourite places in Brisbane: the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). They’re showing a solo exhibition by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang – his first in Australia – called Falling Back to Earth. The works are monumental installations in three separate rooms, and two of them, Eucalyptus and Heritage, have been newly commissioned by GOMA.

My interest is piqued in particular because the gallery’s director Chris Saines mentioned one of them in the context of the Keynote Event as an example of ‘collaboration’ between an artist and presenter. Apparently Cai changed his mind about the details of the installation when he arrived, and enormous demands were placed on the gallery at the last minute as a result. The example helped me to understand what was missing from other pseudo-discussions of collaboration, where presenters demanded things from artists based on their own preconceptions and insisted on ‘getting what they had paid for’. So I’m keen to see what a genuinely collaborative installation might look like.

I’m also keen to see it because it sounds like it might be a long time before the work is installed again, if ever. This gives an added sense of event, and even performance, to the work. (Something similar, incidentally, applies to the William Kentridge installation currently at PICA in Perth, which I’ll review next week.)

The first room I walk into contains Eucalyptus: two enormous spotted gum trees lying on their sides: one along the length of the room, and the other across the end and extending into the corridor. The one in the main room looks about forty metres long. Its trunk is supported from the floor by metal brackets, and the branches overhead are attached to the ceiling by chains.

The visual impact is colossal: even more so because they’re lying down. They make me think of felled megafauna: there’s something overwhelmingly sad about them.

I approach a gallery attendant and ask if I’m allowed to touch them. He tells me that as it happens this is the one exhibit in the whole gallery that people are allowed to touch, but that I’m the first person who’s asked, although lots of people do so furtively. He wonders if people want to touch them just to see what they’re made of. I tell him I just like touching trees, in the forest usually. He tells me someone asked him the other day how long it took to make them, and he answered: ‘About fifty years.’ I wonder how long they would have lived if left undisturbed: a hundred, five hundred? Apparently they were earmarked for clearing for ‘an urban community development’; he names a suburb I’ve never heard of somewhere on the outskirts of Brisbane.

I walk around the base of the tree. The roots are clogged with chunks of rock and hard red bunches of sap. I continue halfway along the trunk, stop and stroke its rough flank. A piece of bark flakes away under my hand, and I let it fall to the concrete floor.

In the next room is an older work, Head On. A column of 99 motionless artificial wolves advance along the centre of the floor, take off into the air (again, suspended from the ceiling), crash into a glass wall at the other end of the room, spill back down onto the floor and make their way back down to the other end in an endless frozen loop (or perhaps loop de loups). The wolves aren’t real or stuffed, but made of gauze and resin and covered with painted goat-hide. They don’t look real, but uncanny, and I have no desire to touch them.

I walk amongst the wolves in the direction of the glass, for some reason feeling a bit like Pierre when he’s been taken prisoner by Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow in War and Peace. All around me are people – I mean, real people, members of the public (though I often have to look twice in exhibitions like this) – posing and taking photos of each other. I reach the glass wall like everyone else and wander back through the wolves. 

On a wall near the door is an accompanying work called Illusion II. Two video screens show a replica of a house exploding and burning on a vacant lot near the ruins of a train station in Berlin that was bombed during WW2. Apparently Gai had the house constructed, stuffed it with fireworks, and captured the detonation on film.

I find the whole room deeply disturbing after the melancholy of Eucalyptus. The wolves are us; that much seems obvious; doomed to repeat ourselves again and again in the nightmare of history from which we’re trying to awake. But the contrived and manufactured quality of everything, including the violence, itself feels oppressive, and seems intimately related to the destruction of the real trees next door.

I head off to the third, most ambitious, spectacular and complex installation of all, Heritage. It’s the work that Chris Saines spoke about in the context of collaboration and making last-minute changes. Once again, 99 replicas of wild animals, but this time from all around the world – leopards, polar bears, monkeys, elephants, deer, zebra – are gathered around an immense waterhole. It’s been sunk into a raised floor, and its base is lined with blue plastic, so it looks like a huge swimming pool. It’s surrounded by sand from North Stradbroke Island, which is where the inspiration for the work came to the artist, according to the wall plaque. The animals are arranged on the sand, in frozen attitudes of drinking.

I ask if I’m allowed to touch the sand, but I already know the answer. I walk around the perimeter, sit on a bench, and stare at the animals, and the water. The surface is still, apart from a slow drip from the ceiling that I only notice after about ten minutes. 

Another gallery attendant joins me, and tells me I’m lucky: there’s no one else here. Only half an hour ago, the place was resounding with schoolkids. It’s about 4.30pm now; almost closing time.

I ask him about the lighting. Unlike the other rooms, there’s a false ceiling above the pool. It’s covered with a pale translucent fabric that looks like gauze and distributes a peculiarly even glow. He tells me Cai got them to install it after he arrived in Brisbane, and points out the special lights on top of the roof-beams pointing up to the real ceiling and bouncing back through the fabric so you can’t see the source of the light. I wonder if this was the last-minute change the director Chris Saines spoke about. It has a subtle yet precise effect, and would have involved a lot of extra work.


The attendant and I agree it’s a pretty special installation, and one that’s unlikely to be seen again for a while. There’s something both utopian and apocalyptic about it – beautiful, ominous, touching and faintly comic too. The animals are obviously fake. Their sizes aren’t quite accurate and are slightly out of proportion with each other. The faces in particular are a dead giveaway, especially the wombats. They remind me of the toy animals I used to collect from the shop at the zoo as a child. Only if you look at their reflections in the pool do they seem real.

*

I decide to have afternoon tea at the State Library café nearby. I run into a colleague from Perth there: the general manager of a major theatre company. She’s just finished a submission to a major sponsor on her laptop, and we decide to celebrate with wine and cake. We have a long chat about work and life, kids and schools, and she explains networking to me in the context of theatre company sponsor nights. For a moment it almost makes sense, and I glimpse the arts as a cog in a big machine of wheeling and dealing. (It’s a vision later reinforced by the current controversy over the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transcorp).

We find the nearest ferry terminal and head back up (down?) the river back to The Powerhouse. It’s getting dark, and the colour-synchronized lights of the city are coming back on as we pass illuminated bridges and buildings.

We stand at the prow and chat to a delegate with a production house touring multi-disciplinary performance work for kids and families. He’s based in Brisbane, but he’s almost never here; he’s always away touring or on the performing arts market circuit; in fact he’s only in Brisbane now because of APAM, and he’s enjoying the ferry ride like an excited tourist. He points out landmarks, and confides that he’s about to rent a house with some friends for the first time later this year, and marvels at the prospect of buying furniture and kitchenware. He says he’d like to tour to Perth, but there’s no suitable or accessible venue for them in the city; he tells me the new Performing Arts Centre in Albany is the best designed venue he’s ever played in.

We get off at New Farm and troop up to the Powerhouse for the Australia Council drinks outside at The Hub. My general manager colleague and I order pizza from one of the takeaway stands, grab the first of many plastic tumblers of free wine, and find a table. 

Soon we’re surrounded by a huddle of Perth artists, including (astonishingly) some I’ve never met before. I find myself chatting to a woman who runs her own commercial contemporary circus company, mostly doing corporate gigs. She tells me she did a show for Gina Rinehart and friends last week. She says the irony of it is that she has total creative freedom to make work that’s as cutting-edge and contemporary as she wants. I suspect that freedom might not extend to actual content; and that there’s a reason you can run a sustainable business model with circus more easily than text-based theatre. She says she’s never felt so empowered as when she recently went through her books and fired half her clients. I wonder who the ones she fired were (Twiggy Forrest perhaps?) and whether it’s too late for me to start a career in circus.

The Perth huddle round the table has intensified, and now we’re all talking about the lack of accessible venues and cultural infrastructure generally in Perth, in glaring contrast with Brisbane. I say I suspect the problem is that Perth is a mining town, and no-one who works in the mining industry actually lives there.

The team from It’s Dark Outside has turned up, and Tim Watts and I start talking about apocalypse movies, the history of quicksand as a cultural signifier, and how we’re going to start a performance venue in Northbridge called The End of the World. The humidity has broken, it’s starting to rain, and we head to the bar to get more drinks, even though I suspect I’ve had enough and am starting to rave.

After that it’s all a bit of a blur. At the bar, another presenter from a regional arts centre finds me and says how much he liked my pitch. I start raving to him about how audiences and communities aren’t the same thing, and how an artist (like me) can build a long-term relationship with a community (like his) for a presenter (like him). He looks amazed and offers to buy me another drink, as the Australia Council funding’s dried up and they’ve stopped serving free ones.

Somehow I’ve lost Tim, and Minneapolis has materialized instead. I start explaining about quicksand and the End of the World, and she nods encouragingly in the direction of the regional presenter who’s gone off to buy me a drink. I’m starting to feel like I’m in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, or possibly Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The next thing I know we’re back inside the tent with Keng Sen and the Mohawk from West Kowloon, and there’s some kind of cabaret about to start, or perhaps that was last night. I need to go home and get some sleep.

On my way out, I run into my arts-funding-body observer-delegate friend. He gleefully announces, ‘We’re playing swapsies!’, grabs my red delegate pass from around my neck and hands me someone else’s identity, which I retain for the rest of APAM. Fleetingly I wonder how Tim and the other Dark Outside artists managed to penetrate Hub security despite only having blue artist passes. Perhaps it involved masks or puppets. I must remember to ask him.

The last thing I recall is being walked through the streets of New Farm in the direction of my backpackers by the independent artist from Melbourne who was on the panel at Metro Arts last night and her partner (the ones who tour site-specific interactive promenade theatre using iPhones internationally). I’m still raving to them about something when we arrive at their guesthouse and say goodnight.

Somehow I find my way back alone to what I hope is my backpackers, eventually crack the front door code, followed (eventually) by what (I hope) is my bedroom door code, and finally pass out on what (I hope) is my bed.

*






Day 5: Saturday 22 February


It’s my last day in Brisbane, and I pack up my gear and leave it in a locker at the backpackers before walking down to the Judith Wright Centre to see my last two showcases. I’ll head back to the Powerhouse later for the Farewell Lunch, collect my other suitcase with my miniature set inside and my leftover business cards and USB sticks from the WA DCA booth before getting a ride back to the airport.

*

At the Judith Wright, I head upstairs for a 25-minute excerpt from Hello My Name Is by Melbourne artist Nicola Gunn. I’ve been following Nicola’s work for about five years now. It’s courageous, crazy, deeply life-affirming and walks a tightrope between sublime accomplishment and the risk of total disaster. She’s consistently worked with her collaborator Gwendolyna Holmburg Gilchrist as her lighting designer and stage manager, and there’s a sense of mutual understanding and trust between them that inspires faith in us too.

Nicola plunges in with her projects, throwing herself (and us) in at the deep end and developing the work in a genuine collaboration with venues and audiences. I saw Hello in its first incarnation at The Blue Room in Perth a couple of years ago before its subsequent season at TheatreWorks back in Melbourne. When she arrived at The Blue Room and saw the venue, she asked if she could do the work downstairs in the aptly named Kaos Room instead of upstairs in the theatre, and to their great credit they said yes.

Hello is ‘set’ in an imaginary community centre and involves audience participation in a workshop seminar with Nicola as an enthusiastic, slightly over-controlling, mildly neurotic but ultimately inspiring team-leader. We wear name-tags, are given tasks and activities, and share a unique communal experience that’s full of awkward comedy but ultimately surprisingly moving. In a twenty-minute excerpt, the experience is inevitably somewhat curtailed, but I do get to sing karaoke, and we do all get to do a nude life-drawing class with Nicola as our model.

They’ve done the show six times already this week, and have one more performance in half an hour, so I can’t stay and chat afterwards, but I tell them I loved it and head downstairs to the main space. I’m here to see another 25-minute excerpt from Lake, a contemporary dance–work directed and choreographed by Brisbane-based artist Lisa Wilson.

The stage is flooded with water, and upside-down leafless trees are suspended above it like an inverted reflection. Three dancers act out a romantic triangle involving a young couple on a camping holiday and a more archetypal anima-figure who could be the spirit of the lake or a ghost from the past. There’s a screen behind them with black-and-white photographic back-projections of a forest, and a recorded soundtrack.

I feel like I’m watching a contemporary ballet, really, with road-movie/teen horror flick overtones, but the whole thing’s in danger of falling into pantomime. There’s some great dancing, nice lighting and a lot of picturesque splashing about with wet hair and clothes; but the music is generic, and the back-projected trees seem redundant – as do the white cut-out digital silhouettes of the dancers which appear behind them in one sequence and ‘act out’ their thoughts.

All in all, I feel there’s too much illustration – too much exposition, in dramatic terms – and that narrative, characters, background and themes are too thin to sustain my interest for any length of time. The result is a softness and sentimentality that takes the place of intellectual rigor or emotional truth. I feel like these are common weaknesses in much of the Australian contemporary dance I’ve seen, and much Australian drama as well, including film and TV. It’s why I keep being drawn to European work, or alternative work from the US or UK.  An Australian colleague next to me murmurs breathless words of admiration. I wonder what Minneapolis would make of it. Not much, probably. The words ‘National Geographic dance’ drift unbidden through my mind.

*

I head back on the special bus to the Powerhouse, feeling like a grey nomad again, or at least a seasoned delegate who’s on the last leg of his tour.

Everyone’s congregating outside the Hub for the Closing Ceremony: another round of traditional dancing on the lawn. This time some of the delegates join in: a few intrepid white women, and a couple of fellow-indigenous men who also look like dancers, including Eric Avery. I remember his ordeal fielding questions about cross-cultural collaboration on the panel at the Keynote Event four days ago. He looks a lot happier dancing with this mob now.

Afterwards there’s a local band, and we all scatter for our free picnic lunch-packs. I sit on the grass and watch the band, feeling peaceful and in no need to socialize, the pressure to network finally over. I catch sight of Minneapolis, deep in conversation with someone, possibly her non-committal French presenter. I wander off to the wings and perch on a table to negotiate with my picnic-lunch, but it’s largely inedible, or I’ve lost my appetite. A producer and regional presenter from Victoria tracks me down. He makes vague noises about my pitch and I promise to keep him in the loop about my show.

Minneapolis saunters over, and we say farewell and promise to keep in touch. It always amazes me how you can meet a fellow tribe-member somewhere, and instantly there’s a personal, artistic and philosophical rapport, and then you never see them again. That’s the nature of working in the performing arts I guess, especially in remote and far-flung Australia. I suggest a couple of dance-related contacts in Perth, and we exchange business cards  – a box of mine having been returned to me earlier, along with most of my USB sticks, by a hapless DCA project officer who spent the whole week behind the DCA booth and missed out on most of the action at APAM completely.

I collect my set-case and score a ride to the airport with some fellow artists, including Nicola and Gwen, and two other artists from Sydney whose work I’ve seen in Perth and admired, but whom I’ve never met and didn’t even know were here. One of them tells me she’s just moved from Sydney to Melbourne, and I find myself offering advice on my original hometown, and how closed-minded it can be. I remember the piece of Melbourne bluestone I threw into the Brisbane River only yesterday. It feels like weeks ago, and Melbourne a million miles away, even though it’s actually a lot closer than Perth – the most remote city on the planet, as everyone keeps telling me.

At the airport we all make brief but awkward conversation; everyone just wants to get on their respective planes home. I’ve got time to kill, so I fork out for an extortionate cup of tea, and flick through the news. Bloody revolution in Ukraine. Asylum seeker bludgeoned to death on Manus Island. Starving siege-cities in Syria.

And another Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane comes to an end.

*

So what have we learned?

I’m officially no longer an ‘independent’ artist. My show hasn’t exactly been snapped up on the international market or festival circuit, but there’s interest in regional Queensland and South Australia – and possibly NSW and Victoria, if I continue ‘building those relationships’. If ‘collaboration’ means anything, it means sharing power. Quicksand is no longer a cultural signifier. And Perth is The End of the World.


*


Humphrey Bower travelled to APAM with travel and accommodation support from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. His new one-man show BUTTERFLY MAN fits into a suitcase, is eminently tourable and perfect for your venue or festival.

























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