Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Getting away with it – pvi collective’s adventures on the dark side of technology

'David goes to work' from pvi collective's panopticon: Sydney (MCA, 2004)

photo credit: tamera dean, from pvi collective's website

In order to celebrate the current production in Perth of pvi collective's latest work 'inform', here's some notes about their ongoing series of works titled 'panopticon'.

Perth-based media arts group pvi collective describe themselves in the following terms:

"responding to sociological, psychological, technological and legal perspectives on the relationship between risk and freedom. pvi often engage the public within their artworks - offering up survival tactics for living in the 21st century and activating viewers through eccentric acts of intervention, on the streets, on-screen and in any other spaces they can get away with..." (pvi collective website)

While they continually push the legal and logistical envelope, they don’t always ‘get away with it’, with these failures becoming a key part of meaning generation of the artworks. In other words, pvi’s work continually risks failure, and the failures this produces through the intervention of State agents (security guards, police, etc) or technological breakdown (exposing the limits of the technological investigated and/or deployed) make the subject of the work abrasively visible.


The panopticon project investigates personal privacy in an ever-increasingly monitored and surveilled public space. Referencing of course Michel Foucault's take on Jeremy Bentham's notion of the panopticon as a perfect prison in which the inmates would be able to be continually surveilled without being able to see their oversee-er, pvi collective's panopticon is an ongoing series of artworks responding most particularly to CCTV surveillance of public space. This surveillance is enacted in the name of public safety but has worrying implications for the privacy of citizens. While John E McGrath does usefully question the underpinning of many of the privacy-based objections to video surveillance in his excellent book Loving Big Brother (2004), in the panopticon project pvi collective nonetheless engage in a fascinating series of artistic interventions into public spaces and their control by surveillance, engaging in their own, often extremely eccentric acts of what McGrath describes as "counter-surveillance".

There have been several distinct outcomes of this project between 2002 and 2004 (subsequent to these there's also been panopticon: brisbane in 2007). The first stage was titled panopticon: scanning the big slab, and was performed in the company's home town of Perth. The performance recruited a number of volunteer informants to gather information on the movements of citizens through the city. Trained as 'operatives', each was given a codename inspired by the film Reservoir dogs, Mr Brown, Mr Pink etc, and costumed as what the company described as various "low level authority figures". These included, bizarrely enough, nurses, parking police, and Santa Claus.

Kate Neylon, the controller and narrator of the performance roamed the streets dressed as Santa Claus. She directs the performance by reporting into cameras hidden inside teddy bears around the city, including several in phone boxes surrounding the building in which the performance takes place (PICA, in James St, Northbridge). This could be seen as just plain silly, or perhaps as a tangential reference to the Soviet practice of hiding explosives in toys left on the side of the road that would be picked up by Mujahideen children during the 1980s war in Afghanistan (as far as I know the Coalithion of the Willing hasn't tried that yet). Perhaps this use of the 'teddy cam' anticipated the recent release of Microsoft's teddy bear that can maintain video surveillance of young children by their parents, and even, if deemed necessary, speak to the child through in-built speakers in the voice of the parents. It's clear that even the more ridiculous elements of pvi's work often have more disturbing undertones.

The action inside the theatre is a more of a gameshow, in which contestants also known by colour, in this case red and blue, struggle to retain their privacy. The loser at the conclusion of the performance has his home are raided by one of the anonymous members of the public, known only to the performers by their codename. This staged struggle to attempt to preserve privacy, and yet being unable to effectively do so informs the investigation of future stages of the panopticon project.

A residency in Taipei in 2003 saw pvi collective experiment with strategies to circumvent the extremely high number of security cameras around the city, cameras that continually monitored the movements of civilians in this highly militarised society (Taiwan is of course under continual threat of invasion from the People's Republic of China, at least psychologically). In the end they settled on something they saw on street every day, the humble umbrella. Using standard and modified umbrellas, the company provided what they described as a 'privacy protection service' with which they offered to escort members of public on their daily journey through public space. The final setup was an wearable bubble made from umbrellas which was designed to completely encase the torso of the member of the public in order to protect their privacy. Their identity is protected from the surveilling eye, but in order to achieve this they must sacrifice their ability to see for themselves, relying on the eyes of the artists to guide them on their way.

This setup was replicated in panopticon: Sydney, a project hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art for their Primavera exhibition in 2004. Five members of the public were invited to use the service to undertake journeys around Circular Quay area, possibly the most highly regulated and surveilled section of Sydney. The journey is ranged from visiting the local market, to posting a letter, taking a ferry ride, and attending a bar. I participated in the project by undertaking a journey to work, travelling the seemingly simple route from the Museum of contemporary Art to the Sydney Opera house, a trip that took over an hour (for context, its about a ten minute walk normally), and was ultimately terminated as the number of security personnel trying to order a halt to proceedings began to outnumber the artists and documenters. It seems that even threatening to interrupt the smooth flow of surveillance space is a problem for those who watch over us. Authority, it seems, must also be allowed to see all, but their agents do not understand jokes about transparency.

Documentation of these journeys, audio and video, as well as other ephemera from the performance actions, including the umbrella bubble itself, was displayed at the MCA. The curator of the exhibition, Vivienne Webb, described the work in the following terms:

“The lateral, even dysfunctional re-use of the ubiquitous umbrella in the panopticon series posits old technology against new, as well as the individual against the system. Instead of protection from natural elements, the umbrella is utilised as a barrier against invasive technology. Patently inadequate to the task, its very failure poetically highlights the extensive use of technologies of control within our public spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating both the vulnerability of the individual and their capacity for resistance.” (Primavera 2004 catalogue, p 21)

It is the failure of this home-made technology to effectively challenge the technological power it engages that provides the power of these works. It is only in the artwork's failure to enact social change, and to make this failure public, that the technological paradigm it critiques can be made visible - no longer part of the background of everyday life, but rather an abrasively visible problem that must be dealt with in the domain of everyday life. As Webb suggests, it is the very inadequacy of the artwork's materials and strategies that open up possibilities for everyday civic interventions into the systems that monitor and attempt to control the lives of citizens. The very ridiculousness of these methods - the teddy camera, the Santa suits, and the bubble of umbrellas - foreground the human scale of the pvi collective project. The fact of the human scale of these acts of ridiculous resistance makes the project endearing. That it can continue to be so given the seriousness of their political project makes the artwork even more special.

pvi collective's current work inform is playing throughout the suburbs of Perth until June 30. More details of this and other work by the company can be found online.

version 1.0 were guest artists on pvi collective's TTS: Australia in 2005.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Eisteddfod Season Part 2.2. Review: 'The Eisteddfod' by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing

'The Eisteddfod' by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing
B Sharp, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, 7th and 23rd June 2007

Warning: read Eisteddfod season Part 2.1 first, otherwise this won't make much sense, as it continues immediately on!

Gerture (a beautiful halting and vulnerable performance from Katherine Tonkin), by contrast, lives a fantasy job in which she is a teacher. Unlike Abalone's narcissism, it seems that Gerture's desires are far less ambitious. She's not gifted in any way, she states. But she can "just appreciate other people's gifts." But while Abalone lives for, and is ultimately consumed by the Eisteddfod, Gerture's projections extend into the domestic realm, playing out an abusive romantic relationship with the imaginary Ian, whose role is enacted by her brother Abalone. Immediately, it's clear that we've entered a dark and uncharted sexual realm, and it appears that the implied incest of Abalone and Gerture is the least of their problems.

It appears however that the confused sexuality of this pair is only allowed to be expressed when they are playing an assigned role. For instance, mid way through the piece Gerture sits on the tiny bed and quietly delivers a monologue detailing her relationship problems with Ian, and her attempts at getting other characters within her fantasy world (her teaching assistant Julia, and the computer technician) to help her work out what to do as they seem to "know Ian better than I do." As she does so, Abalone is curled behind her, dozing and apparently masturbating silently. Gerture interrupts her story to gently chide him: "Abalone, don't. I'm right here you know." It seems that some things are out of bounds in these games. As is pointed out earlier in the piece, this is their parents' bed after all.

At Gerture's request – "Be him!" – Abalone performs again for her, but his Ian is a truly monstrous misogynist, far more disturbing than his ridiculous Macbeth. Ian takes ever opportunity to belittle and humiliate Gerture, on the grounds that while he likes to fuck her, he no longer loves her. She's just an object to him, to be used only at convenient times and in convenient ways for him. She is disposable for Ian, just one object among other objects, just part of the other clutter onstage. It seems that Gerture expects and almost welcomes this abuse, believing that suffering will produce an authentic experience: "I want someone to hurt me for a reason". But Abalone's Ian is having none of this: "Gerture, get control of your head." To Ian, and perhaps to Abalone also, this is all just a meaningless game. But it seems that this is a game that Gerture desperately needs to play, even if it is deeply unpleasant for her.

When Gerture complains to Abalone that this performance is too relentless awful, he replies that it has to be this way. All love ends. "Do one where he loves me" she cries, and he responds, "But we have to make it real." Meaning, it seems, is always linked to pain of one form or another. As if to escape the need for such pain, Gerture throws herself back into the world of her imaginary classroom, a stage beyond the reach of both Abalone and Ian. Abalone, wakes to find her gone, and is momentarily in despair at losing his sister and his Lady Macbeth. But due to another narrative conceit, this time an author ex machina (in another sign of the truly odd psychology of the piece, Abalone insists that the voice of Lally Katz must be Mum, a title that she reluctantly accepts), he is able to be transported into the schoolhouse to win Gerture back, in order to finally compete in the Eisteddfod with his Lady M.

This much-anticipated event occurs offstage, and as in art, in this imagined life Abalone's Macbeth meets with a tragic end, at least from his perspective. In the aftermath of this offstage disaster, the siblings seem only to be able to make believe another death, this time that of another girl who lived on the cul-de-sac beyond their house, a story that may or may not be true. It’s a shared account of the girl's last moments, as she hangs herself from the monkey bars in the playground with a skipping rope, for no other reason than she was so very tired. In the distance, a car alarm, "soft, like a lullaby". It seems that even the play of innocents always comes back to death in the end, collapsing back on itself, reaching the point at which it far exceeds its status as a game. The piece ends quietly, and the worlds and stages fade to black. In a somewhat macabre gesture, a child's skipping rope sways gently in the exit door.

There's clearly much more that can be said about The Eisteddfod, and many others will and have already given highly favourable accounts and accolades that it well deserves. But the short version must be this: see it.

Notable happenings this week

Just a quick note to mention a couple of interesting projects being conducted around town this week for and by emerging artist types. Over in Carlton at Shopfront, a wild and stormy Tuesday night saw the first outing of the artists from their year-long "hothousing residency" ArtsLab 07, a program of workshops, training, mentorship, and lots of performance making from a very promising team of young artists. While some works appealed to me more than others, I was particularly impressed by the willingness of the team of artists to face up to tough questions and stern but also constructive feedback from a room full of peers and colleagues. I've never seen a post- work in progress feedback session in which works could be minutely dissected in such a calm and professional manner, and its a credit both to the maturity of these artists, and the generous facilitation of Shopfront's Artistic Director T J Eckleberg. While the elements raged outside, exciting arts practice was being debated in the perhaps unlikely environs of the Rockdale Hotel upstairs bar. A sign of the future?

The ArtsLab artists to watch are: Holly Thompson, Miriam Waks, Alesha Murray, Kevin Ng, Sarah Emery and Natalia Ladyko.

Meanwhile, at PACT in Erskineville, the second in their new initiative Quarterbred has been playing out all week. An extension of their training ensemble program imPACT, Quarterbred gives the theatre space to these artist teams themselves to curate a program of events without oversight to cut loose and choose their own next stage of emergence. Its a big program, full of residencies, showings, forums and performances, and I must confess that I have been lax and have not yet attended. However, its still not too late! There's a fascinating sounding panel at 4pm today on reviewing, and all the speakers are young and emerging artists who also write reviews for various media outlets like the Sydney Stage and fBI radio hosted by the always charming Tiek-Kim Pok, himself a 2005 SPARK mentoree. Sounds interesting, n'est pas? Well worth a look to catch some of the energy of the future of local performance practice. Who knows? Perhaps it will be infectious...

Also, tonight is the last chance for Sydney-siders to see the dark brilliance of Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod at Belvoir St before it heads down south to chilly Melbourne. I thoroughly recommend it, and promise I'll post part 2.2 of my response very soon!

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Eisteddfod season Part 2.1. Review: 'The Eisteddfod' by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing

OK, I promised Part 2, but due to time constraints it is going to have to be in two parts as well, because there is much more to say, and no time now. I wasn't joking when I said that compromise was our business! So in the interim, please enjoy Eisteddfod Season Part 2.1. Think of this as an episodic response to the singularity of the theatrical event.

'The Eisteddfod' by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing

B Sharp, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, 7th June 2007

Violence abounds in Stuck Pigs Squealing's production of Lally Katz' The Eisteddfod as well, though in this instance the violence occurs (mostly) at a far more psychological level than that occurs to bodies in Post's Gifted and Talented. The effect however, while also hilarious in its absurdity, is also ultimately very dark, like an over-sweet lozenge with a surprisingly bitter centre.

The eisteddfod of the title is the premise that underpins the claustrophobic imaginings of our protagonists, and the event itself occurs offstage, though its consequences are devastating and reverberate through the final scenes of the piece. In a tiny (and beautiful) physical space, the compressed performances of the actors play out the repressed stagings of the interior personal and narrative desires of two psychologically damaged grown children, who themselves forcefully playact to fill the time. On this stage, the characters conjure other stages, changing roles and identities to play out their desire to exist differently, a desire that they find themselves unable to implement in the 'real' world beyond play. The fact remains that they exist in this state largely for reasons of a narrative conceit, but it's no less effective or evocative for that. And so on this stage, the characters build their own worlds, worlds with their own stages, upon which they play all the players, players who are also themselves trying to play roles.

The play is introduced by the pre-recorded voice of the author herself, a perfectly pitched dramatic device. She introduces us to the characters, the brother and sister partnership of Abalone and Gerture, who existed "once upon a time". Clearly we have arrived in the land of the fairy tale and of make believe. These children have been traumatised by the death of their parents in a "tree felling accident" to the extent that they have never been able to leave the basement that was their home, because their parents, even while alive, were strict. So while they embark on fantastical journeys, they never actually leave the basement. Kind of like Hansel and Gretel, but the forest exists inside their minds, and they create the dangers and pleasures for themselves, wresting with monsters of their own creation rather than external elemental forces.

It's a clearly implausible scenario, and one with clear resonances of other deconstructions of fairy tales such as Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods (whose protagonist was also orphaned in an equally implausible "baking accident"). But the setting is laid out for us in such a charming way that it becomes impossible not to be taken in by it. Introduced to the players, we too begin to play the game. The trauma of parental death is suspended with an attempt to turn it into a playful joke, but this dismissal of past death as only a joke, only a narrative device that frames the game, is clearly inadequate. As Denis Hollier observes in his book Against Architecture (1992): "[o]ne plays dead so that death will not come. So nothing will happen and time will not take place." (p 36) Such attempts at stopping time to prevent death are rarely effective, producing instead new traumas, paranoia's and anxieties that also must in turn be banished through new acts of play. Despite attempts to remove its sting, this casually announced foundational death dwells uncomfortably in the immediate exterior of this stage world. It's little wonder then that these kids stay within the safe but claustrophobic confines of the basement in order to play.

It’s a very light and fun game to begin with. Lally Katz' command of zany cartoonish absurdity is near-absolute, and the dialogue is witty, sharp, and continuously sparkling. Complementing the text, the direction (Chris Kohn) and the performers (Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin) are absolutely precise, completely disciplined, and always compelling. No matter how strange the world's that Katz' language evokes, the performers inhabit them with gusto, and Kohn's shaping of the ever shifting stage worlds within worlds is always inventive, and regularly startling.

Abalone (Mullins) is practicing hard for what he sees as his overdue triumph at The Eisteddfod, in this case a drama competition in which he intends to perform the role of Macbeth. Talking about the Scottish play is supposed to be taboo in the theatre, and thus it is unsurprising that his pompous and precious rendition of the Thane who would be King is, like Macbeth himself, doomed. The fact that he plays out this doom in a drama competition that exists only in his imagination makes this all the poignant, even as it is really really ridiculous. It’s the force of his conviction that holds this very shaky premise together, and Mullins' performance is one of the best I've seen for years. Abalone drives himself ever onward with his ridiculous will to win, but he is unable to recognise that the only real obstacle to this goal is himself. Even in his forceful make believe, he can never quite seem to believe enough to make it.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of this review in Eisteddfod Season Part 2.2!

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Eisteddfod Season Part 1. Review: 'Gifted and Talented' by Post

Gifted and Talented, Post, PACT Theatre, 16th June 2007

There's something curious in the air, and it's not simply the wild weather that has finally heralded the onset of winter. The first sightings have been made of large groups of young people, mostly girls, in tights and leotards, sequins, lamé, hairnets, hair spray, and far too much make up. Yes, its Eisteddfod season! As the Rock Eisteddfod heats begin all around Sydney, it seems no accident that these bizarre cultural rituals of performance, competition, and sadomasochism have infiltrated the domain of theatrical performance as well, in the form of the fascinating and disturbing worlds of Sydney-based emerging artists Post in Gifted and Talented at PACT Theatre, and the much-lauded Melbourne-based Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod with a welcome return to Sydney for B-Sharp. More on that in Part 2 of Eisteddfod season.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, here in Australia we go crazy for eisteddfods, especially the monumental folly that to me comprises the national Rock Eisteddfod. In what seems a peculiar and sadly Australian phenomenon, artistic practice can only been seen as being a legitimate pursuit when it is framed as a competition. Art as it approaches the condition of sport. To triumph in the sporting arena, as we all know from hundreds of sports movies, one must be prepared to suffer. The same holds true in the competitive artistic frame of the Eisteddfod, and each of these works engage with the forms of suffering that must be undergone in order to properly compete at this alleged elite level.

In Post's Gifted and Talented, this suffering occurs to bodies, in this case the bodies of the three performers (Nat Rose, Mish Grigor and Zoë Coombs-Marr). Or rather this necessary suffering is inflicted upon these bodies largely through description. Performing the roles of their mothers, much of the performance has them watching from the wings as the girls compete in the Eisteddfod. The performers endlessly describe in hilarious and increasingly disturbing detail the measures that they have taken to make sure 'their girls' are ready to compete at their best. This of course means to win at all costs. It doesn't matter how they feel or how much they suffer, so long as one of those Parramatta girls doesn't take home the trophy.

This process of physical conditioning traverses the expected territory of food deprivation, weight disorders, forced flexibility, and denial of bodily functions. Perhaps lightly foreshadowing the violent humiliations to come, right from the start young Zoë is left by her Mum in a urine-stained leotard for the remainder of the day, because she waited until she was stitched in before she needed to go. It's clear that she needed to be taught a lesson:

"It's eisteddfod day. Today you are not a person, you are a dancer. You are number 294. You never see Paul Mercurio stepping out for a number one in Strictly Ballroom. In fact there are never any bathroom scenes in dance movies."

Later, in one of the most viscerally uncomfortable moments of the piece despite its patent ridiculousness as a gesture, Coombs-Marr slowly pours an entire can of Solo into her lap, as if re-enacting this moment of hitherto only reported shaming.

Apart from the humour (and the piece is painfully, laugh-out-loud funny), the casual brutality that underpins such seemingly benign cultural practices as the dance eisteddfod becomes increasingly palpable throughout the performance. Wearing colourful tracksuits, and consuming an endless procession of Solo, cigarettes, and sausage rolls with tomato sauce, the three seated 'mums' rhetorically dismember their children's performances, physical and mental attributes, body images, and perceived intelligence. "I just keep calling her stupid. I don't think she knows what I'm talking about." And later from Nat: "I told her teacher, it's not the dancing that's to blame for her bad marks, it's her stupidity." In between they engage in fractured musings on the culture of others, including Asians, Aboriginals, and Africans, thoughtlessly chopping and changing cultural signifiers, blindly and catastrophically misreading cultural practices, most often, it seems, in terms of mud and dirt. Their kids, by contrast, never play with mud. They are clean, they are white, and they are winners.

Like the banter in Kath and Kim this conversation induces squirms of painful recognition, but freed from the need of family television to not transgress too far, these carefully crafted offhand remarks turn as awful and offensive as can be imagined, and then some. The routine contempt for difference, and the symbolic violence done to this difference through misrepresentation, is as shocking as it is hilarious, raising the genuinely disturbing question - what does it say about us that we laugh and keep laughing, despite ourselves?

The work stays in this conversational domain for much of its duration, and the buckets the performers have set in front of themselves fill up with the contents and cans of Solo, half-smoked cigarettes, and half eaten sausage rolls. The description simply gets more over-the-top horrible, a perhaps predictable escalation. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the domain of description changes radically. Rather than the painful spectacle of the dance eisteddfod, the 'mums' begin to describe in great detail actual tortures. Some of these we in the audience begin to recognise as becoming conducted in the name of the war on terror in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, locations especially in mind after last week's Four Corners program on torture.

Somewhat shockingly, after the litany of casual horrors inflicted upon the children to fulfill a need to produce victory, it doesn't seem that much of a leap from the black box of the theatre space to the black holes of such extra-legal spaces where these acts of violence are sanctioned by our representatives. The painful suffering to produce theatrical spectacle such as the dance eisteddfod, Post somewhat riskily propose, perhaps reflects some of reasons why such spectacular presentations of violence and suffering as the various prisoner abuse scandals have become so mainstream, so much a part of the image-repertoire of the contemporary everyday. We're used to violence, degradation, and humiliation, Post declare, because look how we enact it routinely, for nothing but a meaningless trophy.

It’s a tough switch for young performers to pull off, and they do a credible job of it. After the can of Solo is used to as a urine substitute on Coombs-Marr, the other two drag her up facing a wall, strip her down and wipe her down with towels. Apparent from the fact that this is done to an adult body instead of a child's, this does not seem that strange an action for mums to do. However, after cleaning her they leave her against the wall with her shirt over her head, and she remains there for some time, forbidden to move. From eisteddfod to Abu Ghraib in a single, exceedingly simple, image. The image is multiplied as the other performers join the tableau, which they proceed to sustain for an amount of time almost as painful as many of the previous cruel jokes. Then, as a necessary catharsis they perform the much-anticipated and derided eisteddfod routine, a joyous spectacle of tack and absurdity, the credited assistance of the local maestros of beautifully bad dancing Emma Saunders and Julie-Anne Long clearly visible. There's a touch of Forced Entertainment in there as well, a dark, strange, and pleasurable rock and roll meets desperately disintegrating variety act. The soundtrack and the lights from Bloody Mess with the fixed smiles and dancing in the style of First Night, perhaps. The comparisons aren't exact, only echoes. While the stylistic influences and the lineages of practice and training are familiar (another success for PACT Youth Theatre's imPACT training program along with other recent emerging Sydney groups like spat + loogie, falling 32, and the now-defunct Shagging Julie) this doesn't feel derivative. Something new and very very strange is being transacted here.

There's obviously more work to do. Gifted and Talented the company may be, but polished and seamless they aren't quite yet. The production values are creaky but kind of fun in their own daggy way, the structure needs work, and the performers haven't quite the complete command of the performative transformations that their dramaturgy demands. However, this is exciting, intelligent, blackly comic, and confronting theatre. Clearly, Post are talents to watch carefully.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Coincidences and new releases

In another strange coincidence, of which there have been several lately, after reading Chris Boyd's plug (welcome back Chris!) for Sarah Noble's fascinating opera blog Soggiorno Amoroso I took a break from the writing (more re-writing at the moment really, fiddling and fine tuning), and in my (brief) wanders found myself at the UNSW secondhand bookshop. There on the shelf I found, much to my surprise, a book entitled The Company We Keep: An Intimate Celebration of Opera Australia by Annarosa Berman (Opera Australia in association with Currency Press, 2006). This in itself was a curious coincidence, coming as it did immediately after reading several of Sarah Noble's posts about OA productions. Curious, I opened the book to a random place (my favored research methodology) and found a section describing the technical staff of the company, most of whom I know given that I've worked at the Opera House on and off for the last 11 years. And at the bottom of the page, I found a description of a technical disaster that occurred during a show that I worked on in 2005, The Love for Three Oranges, in which the scenic hoists broke down during a matinée-evening performance changover. As Berman describes, by 6pm (for a 7.30pm performance), the lifts were still non-functional, and there was serious discussion about canceling the performance (as does happen from time to time, and not only due to technical reasons, though we usually get the blame... like the time the viola player arrived an hour late, and the show had to be held, that too was billed as 'technical problems'). Anyhow, by 6.30pm the on site maintenance guys had managed to identify and correct the fault, and the crew heroically set the show up in 45 minutes to make the show go up almost on time. A high stress, extraordinary effort, written off in a paragraph in which it was declared that the Opera Australia crew made this happen. No mention of the Opera House crew, who provided the overwhelming majority of the labour in this case. Now I know this is an Opera Australia book, but still, as a member of this crew I must say that I felt slighted.

But at $25, I couldn't resist buying the book. It's pathological, I know.

For those who are interested in such things, there are new issues of RealTime and Performance Paradigm online now. And for the theatrical Sydneysiders, tonight is a triple opening for the performance crowd, with Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod opening at B-Sharp, Nigel Kellaway's Sleepers Wake! Wachet Auf! opening at Performance Space@ Carriage Works, and the funky youngsters of Post opening their new show Gifted and Talented at PACT. Too much goodness for one week surely!

Monday, 4 June 2007

Archived Review: Dear All, Theatre PUR

in lieu of some thoughts on recent local performance work (including three trips to Carriage Works last week, which I will write about after finishing Chapter 6 of the thesis!), of which I do want to respond to but haven't yet had the time, here's a hitherto placeless review from the lost notebook of 2006 to maintain the appetite.

Dear All

Theatre PUR, Birbeck College, University of London, 19/6/2006

We're greeted with polite reserve in the foyer of Birbeck College, amid the flow of comings and goings. Our names checked off a clipboard list, we are led past notice boards, down a corridor and into an old-fashioned board or conference room, complete with busts and portraits of past men (all men) of perceived past importance, neatly set into the windows that surround the room. The actors await us sitting and smiling warmly. Once we are all seated amidst their positions, a young girl stands and closes all curtains, shutting off the distractions of the outside world. With everyone seated once again, the formal part of the performance begins.

Formally, the production uses very simple devices – the performers read from cards, turning them over in turn to deliver the next memo. It begins near the entrance door, proceeding clockwise around the table at which the actors and audience sit intermingled. Everyone remains still and seated, looking around the room warmly as if to welcome 'dear all' in each of our manifestations. There is a glorious restraint in the delivery of the mundane directives to 'dear all' – notice of building work that may or may not produce disruption and/or noise, endless variations to daily menus that conspire to all sound the same, increasingly plaintive calls for someone to host HOT TOPICS, and concerns about occupational health and safety. The content is utterly banal, but the frequent absurdity of its detail is by turns amusing and arresting. Micro narratives develop – Diane fails month after month to persuade someone to host HOT TOPICS, finally to give up in despair. Steve struggles to keep on top of the building maintenance, but there seems to be constant repairs required to the heating system. As hard as he tries, he will never be able to make everyone happy here at work. Elsewhere, a colony of mice expands, is culled, and later put up for adoption. Janine struggles to come up with endlessly new combinations for the daily menu. Various laboratory and biological agents are requested by desperate and seemingly disorganised scientists. In its matter-of-fact delivery around a large rectangular conference table, Dear All constantly casts and recasts its audience as an ever shifting community of 'All'. The performers make both reasonable and obscure requests via their simply read memos, as if just making sure that everyone is kept in the loop, kept up to date. It is important to note that the single passenger lift will be shut down for maintenance for three days, as the control panel must be moved.

These simple attempted acts of communication have a culminative effect. Despite being shorn of their context (most seem to refer to the everyday business of a hospital, but it could be any large institution), the memos and requests gently provoke an increasing desire to know the people that are the missing pieces of this puzzle, the embodied remainder of these micro narratives. How did Diane deal with the disappointment of failing to convince anyone to lead anything? Did the vulnerable bike get stolen? Did Steve ever find the problem in the heating, and who froze while he was fixing it? Were the lost mice really found in the lab fridge? Remaining consistently within this pedestrian dimension, Dear All demonstrates the simple desire for communication, for genuine contact, despite the institutional frames through which these simple acts must be mediated. As the piece continues, the performers begin to pass their cards to members of the audience – in this shared space it seems that everyone should have something to say. We all should want to reach out toward 'dear all', to make our own invitations and offerings toward community.

The communications gradually begin to blur into each other, wires crossed in the institutional filter. Slowly, the memos mutate, confusions, distortions, and complications set in. But even in these often hilariously jumbled communication failures, the intimate human need and desire for communication is never lost. In its failure and collapse, this need to reach out is amplified – in the collapse of meaning the desire for meaning becomes ever more urgent, and ever more poignant. Each of us once was and now is one of the 'dear all'; intimately differentiated within a community of listeners, each of us addresses and seeks address in turn, makes an offer to be heard and a reciprocal offer to listen.

In the end, none of the substance of these communicative ghosts matter to us, and yet all of them touch deeply. As might be imagined, dear all, this is a rare feat indeed.