Wednesday, 17 December 2008

'Love your work' report released

For those who are interested in staying abreast of federal arts policy, there's an interesting report just released from the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council called 'Love your work'. Researched by Jackie Bailey, the report analyses the theatre sector nationwide, focusing especially on the linkages between the fringe, the small-to-medium sector, and the Major Performing Arts organisations, including career pathways through each of the sectors. Written in refreshingly clear and commonsense language, this is a useful report that connects in interesting ways to the 'Make it New' framework from the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. I'll have something more detailed to say shortly, but the report can be found in its entirety here, as well as several interesting funding initiatives that respond to the reports reccomendations. One of the more interesting reccomendations is the establishment of a national theatre forum, to better maintain dialogue between difference scaled organisations within the sector, and the first such forum is planned for May/June. Which is great, except version 1.0 will be on tour through regional Australia until June 21, and so will probably miss out. Bugger.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

"OK, you should stand by after I enter in a tank. No, even better - when the dog drives off in the taxi"

Long time, no posts. I know that I've said it before, but I can be a very bad blogger. I can safely say however, that there have been many many things to do, and very little time to reflect upon it all. Hopefully there will be some such reflective moments in the alleged holiday that surrounds Christmas time. Perhaps I'll be able to string two days off in a row! Stranger things have happened.

But what to blog? That indeed is the question. The last three months have been action-packed full of cultural activities, to say the least. I've got half conceived responses to at least ten performances gathering virtual dust in various notebooks across my desk, works from Kristy Edmunds' final Melbourne Festival in October, a report on September's hugely significant Liveworks Festival at Performance Space @ CarriageWorks, an account of the symposium event This is the time...this is the record of the time hosted by pvi collective and Artrage in Perth in late October, and then of course reflections on the final demise of the alma mater of so much contemporary performance in Sydney and beyond, Theatre Nepean. I've also pages of notes on inspiring thoughts from recent artist talks and forums including the deeply impressive Critical Art Ensemble's Steve Kurtz at Symbiotica, Kristy Edmunds' Phillip Parsons address in Sydney, and collaborative artists David Haines and Joyce Hinterding at the closing of their installation Telepathy at Performance Space. Along the way I've been grant writing, teaching and university marking, invited to speak at academic and industry events, and confirming artists and presenters for version 1.0's 2009 season (about which I'm inordinately proud of the not-so-subtle half page colour ad in the current issue of RealTime...) And yes, my continued life as a theatre technician. I've just had a very enjoyable, albeit very busy fortnight working on a comedy double bill of The Umbilical Brothers and Jimoen at the Sydney Opera House. While I spent my time with Jimeon catching up on my increasingly overdue university marking, for the Umbilicals I was much more hands-on, appearing a couple of times onstage as a straight guy for their banter to bounce off (they refered to their production manager as 'Tina' and me as 'Cindy', and it always got a laugh). And I had to carry them offstage at the end. The title of this post is a quote from the briefing I received immediately prior to the first performance, which made absolutely no sense at the time. Their show Don't Explain is immensely skillful and deeply entertaining, and shows no sign that its been in repertoire since 1992. I'll point out in passing that like all bar three members of version 1.0, Shane and David from the Umbilical Brothers are Theatre Nepean graduates, and it is beyond sad that this institution, so long brutalised, is now totally extinct, with its custom-made studio spaces demolished to make way for an indoor basketball court. Ah, what fantastic priorities we have here in NSW!

Anyway, perhaps now the madness is subsiding. Somewhat. I have joked in the last month or so that I've become a spreadsheet-based artist, and that my practice now consists of the creative movement of imaginary money across virtual pages, but version 1.0's recent elevation to the ranks of so-called 'Key Organisations' sees this taken to the next level. I currently have on my to-do list a document that I affectionately refer to as the 'Spreadsheet of Death', a document I am contractually obliged to submit to the Australia Council by December 31, despite not being able to determine the true financial position of the company because Arts NSW still has not announced its funding results for arts programs due to commence on January 1, 2009. Yes, that is three weeks away. Yes, we are a state that is very well organised, well-managed, and characterised by effective planning, clear dissemination of information, and workable timelines. Or something like that.

Oh well, at least I'll have Christmas day off...

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A decade of critical upgrades

A lecture performance by David Williams. First performed at This is the time..., curated by pvi collective. Artrage Festival, Perth, 1st November 2008.

“Righto! Thank you. Righto. Ladies and Gentlemen: Please! Please! Please! Ladies and Gentlemen. My fellow Australians. Heh. Heh. Heh. Can I just say, please please, first of all that I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the Coalition. And the first thing I’d say to the Australian people in accepting their charge to lead the nation over the years ahead, the first thing I’d say is to re-dedicate myself, and all of my colleagues, to the service of the Australian people. This nation by, this nation, by reason of the circumstances of history and by reason of its great capacity, and the great capacity and dedication of the Australian people, this nation stands on the threshold of a new era of great achievement. This is a proud nation, a confident nation, a cohesive nation, a united nation; a nation that can achieve anything it wants if it sets its mind to it. And no Australian should ever shrink from a passionate belief in the ability and capacity of this nation, not only to provide a wonderful homeland for our twenty million people, not only to be a partner with our friends in our own region, but to be a beacon of democracy, of tolerance, and of hope, and of achievement all around the world. Ours is a great democracy, there can only be one winner when an election is called. We face that great moment of electoral judgment and electoral truth. We are happy, we are joyful that the verdict has been given by the Australian people but we never forget the fact that governments are elected to govern not only for the people who voted for them, but also for the people who voted against them. Heh heh heh…”

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

In the beginning, we accidentally called ourselves version 1.0, and the name stuck because none of us could think of a better one. For a decade now we’ve threatened to upgrade to version 2.

In our work we have explored material drawn from contemporary political discourse, using performance to interrogate the operations and language of power.

We believed that it was our civic duty to use the theatre to speak back to power using its own language.

We used performance to re-publicise forgotten and half remembered public documents – speeches from politicians, media interviews, news programs, opinion pieces, and parliamentary proceedings.

We believed that it was in the public interest to ‘perform citizenship’, and creatively engage with these dense, politically loaded, and defiantly non-theatrical cultural documents.

In 2002, we started working with the transcripts of a Senate Inquiry, and proposed to deconstruct it, like an updated Australian version of the Wooster Group’s LSD Just the high points….

We found that the material had other ideas.

David pours anddrinks a glass of wine

We became both fascinated and appalled by the ramifications of ‘verbatim’.

For us, it was always about representation.

We re-presented in the domain of performance the words of our representatives in the domain of politics.

We replayed the tapes of recent political processes, prising open the cracks.

We dug in.

We kept digging.

We called it ‘civic archeology’.

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

"Now is not the time to relieve the pressure on Iraq. And there is only one form of pressure that Saddam Hussein understands - the threat of military force.

We have tried sanctions and containment.

Sanctions can be a very powerful instrument of persuasion but have little influence over a dictator who cares nothing for the wellbeing of his people.

The brutal treatment by Saddam Hussein of his own people can be seen through his cruel and cynical manipulation of the Oil-for-Food Programme.

Tragically for the Iraqi people, Saddam Hussein has rorted the programme, violated its provisions and evaded its constraints.

It is the threat of military action which has proved to be the most effective, and perhaps the only, means of attracting President Hussein's attention."

We found ourselves at an interesting moment in history, and we took our chance.

We got mileage out of twelve years of neo-conservative government.

We built a profile out of twelve years of neo-conservative government.

Politics became the subject of our work over twelve years of neo-conservative government.

In the aftermath of twelve years of neo conservative government there were many many questions about what in the hell we would do next.

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

Very early on, we decided that we wanted to keep it real. We accepted that some of us weren’t very good actors, so we made a concerted effort to keep it real.

We got drunk onstage on sponsored booze, ate sponsored food, and never met either sponsor.

We imagined that global capitalism was a religion.

We sang Ave Maria while carrying Coca Cola.

We presented ourselves as Scouts in the Garden of Eden.

We cherry-picked parliamentary transcripts for jokes about theatre.

We became obsessed with Hansard and Lateline.

We became obsessive readers of Miranda Devine and Janet Albrechtsen.

We announced truthfully that “despite the rumors, in tonight’s performance the role of Senator Mason will not be played by Brad Pitt”.

We announced half-truthfully that “due to continuing threats of legal action, version 1.0 would like to declare that tonight’s performance is not about Sally Robbins”.

We announced untruthfully that “every word is this performance is true”.

“We had a lot of informal discussion within the AWB trying to think of ways in which this trucking fee could be executed. I believed it was a fee to cover trucking, but it wasn't a fee to cover trucking from point A to point B. It was a marketing cost. It was a fee. It was a few million dollars. Some part of that fee would be passed on to the Iraqi Government. Indirectly, or directly, yes.”

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

After the Australia Council demanded the return of $5000, we realized that reporting a surplus in grant acquittals was probably a bad idea.

We didn’t know what to do, but we didn’t want anyone to tell us.

We listened politely and argued vigorously.

We were terribly disorganized, but it always seemed to look like we knew what we were doing.

We were excellent liars and convincing self- deceivers.

We let things get out of control.

We lost our way, even though we didn’t really know where we were going.

On one occasion we tried to direct a scene blindfolded. We never let ourselves forget it.

We drank too much, far too often. We were various shades of green all the way to the airport, and had to stop the taxi to vomit in the gutter. On the long plane trip home, it was even worse.

None of the truly incriminating photographs ever made it to Facebook.

Sometimes, we shook so much that the nail walking scene was deeply deeply frightening.

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

Reading the newspaper, we found that someone thought we were “a refreshing new vision in performance”.

Apparently we “needed more time to dream”.

Apparently we were “challenging and hilarious”.

Apparently we had “more charisma and gravitas than the real thing”.

Apparently we weren’t “quite able to control the seven-headed hydra”.

Apparently we used repetition too much.

Apparently we used repetition too much.

Apparently we “had ideas, but told no story”.

Apparently we didn’t “have strong characters” and, as such, “had no clear character motivations”.

Apparently we were, from a distance, interesting enough. Close up however, we were “cluttered and unfocused”.

Apparently we used “lighting that added little to the creation of mood or tension and offered no direction "as to where the audience ought to focus its attention”.

Apparently we progressed through “a series of vignettes that had little cohesion, and failed to move towards a crescendo for the characters, who remained considerably underdeveloped”.

Apparently we "lit the way to the theatre of the future."

Apparently we went “the extra mile”: we entertained, informed and then contributed to the “betterment of our democracy”.

We made sure that we never gave up our day jobs.

We were a bunch of mother fucking c--t dogs.

We sang burn motherfucker burn, often for no reason.

When we fell asleep during the lighting plot we filmed ourselves using a mobile phone and spliced this image into the tech run that evening with the overlaid title ‘Sleep mother fucker sleep’. Some of us thought that this was hilarious.

We tried to steal a tank.

We planted advertising material for a show in the dioramas at the Australian War Memorial, focusing especially on the Vietnam war displays. The plan was that if anyone tried to stop us, we were to run off screaming: “FUCK OFF WAGES OF SPIN. STREET THEATRE, $24 CONCESSION.” Like many of our plans, this remained nothing but talk. We thought that this was probably for the best. We were amused a couple of years later when we discovered that this advertising material is now listed as part of the War Memorial’s official collection.

While we rehearsed, our family members died.

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

"Dear version 1.0,

How's it going?

May I preface this letter by saying that my ____was in the crew, though I haven't even spoken to ____ about this play, and for all I know ____ probably doesn't even care about it. I've met ____ once or twice, but wouldn't say that I know ____ at all.

Anyway, I felt I should write and let you know of my disgust upon hearing of plans for the play; truly a concept that is shit-to-the-core with bad taste, bad timing, and has an overwhelming stench of useless arty-farty endeavour.

Sure, the event was controversial, and raised questions about what was acceptable conduct in the sporting arena. Maybe it was a reflection of some deep-rooted aspect of being Australian? Who flamin' knows?! Perhaps these issues should be explored, but this incident should not be used as some sort of "type-example" or snapshot of the Australian psyche, because you have no understanding of the inner workings of the team, the personalities at play, the prior history, the pressure of the situation etc. To put it forward as a study of "un-Australian" behaviour (or whatever), without having full knowledge of the situation is ludicrous and, as stated above, in very bad taste.......shit taste in fact.

In closing, a general fictional play on the subject would be fine. Perhaps even a very similar situation, but in a different sporting field? But a specific performance of a very recent and, for many people, very tragic situation, involving people that are still trying to go about their lives, is indeed a disgusting and opportunistic farce. Shame on you.

Sincerely, ____ ____”

David pours and drinks a glass of wine

When asked on national radio if we were artists or activists, we said that we were artists. We often disagreed on this point, but then we disagreed on most points.

Sometimes nothing we said made any sense, but that never stopped us talking.

We were pathological, delusional, idealistic, and pig-headed. And that was on a good day.

An observer described our process as “Big Brother, but with smart people.”

We loved cheap gags, and not only for budgetary reasons. We kept joking that the next project would be a Chekhov.

We got away with it, and sometimes we had to be content with that.

We can still live with ourselves, and sometimes we had to be content with that.

We were forced to repeatedly embrace compromise, and sometimes we had to be content with that.

We lived in Australia, and we had to make sense of that.

Sometimes, we felt that we came pretty damn close.

"So again I say to my fellow Australians, thank you for the enormous trust that you have placed in us. I said at the beginning of this election campaign that it was about trust, it was who the Australian people had trusted to manage the economy, to lead this nation at a time of international peril, who did the Australian people better trust to keep the budget strong, who did the people better trust to lead it. In the first part of the 21st century ... The Australian people have given their answer, we thank them for that, and we start work immediately to justify and fulfill the trust that they have given to all of us tonight."

Thank you, and goodnight.

Jacob Patterson, Stephen Klinder and David Williams (onscreen) in version 1.0's The Wages of Spin (2005)

Beck Ronkson and David Williams in version 1.0's questions to ask yourself in the face of others (2003)

Rohan Thatcher in version 1.0's Preludes and Fugues (1999)

Chris Ryan, Yana Taylor, Harley Stumm, Deborah Pollard, Stephen Klinder, Nikki Heywood, David Williams and Shireen Magsalin in version 1.0's Unconditional Positive Regard (2004)

All photography by Heidrun Lohr.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Life on the inside

Bubble presents three unnamed characters (Anton, Alexandra Harrison, and Ingrid Kleinig) trapped in a mildly claustrophobic domestic space, each just hanging out. The space is cluttered with an armchair, a bed, table and chair, an old suitcase under the table, rugs on the floor and a crinkly paper-covered wall upstage. It is unclear what the relationship between the characters is, other than their being forced to share this space. Through some unspoken agreement, they decide to play a game, and chase each other around the room. This game ended, they try to talk, but rather than communicating they each speak over the top of each other. We can’t understand them, and presumably, they are also unable or unwilling to understand each other. The lights go out.

Read the rest of my article, Life on the inside, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #87, here.

Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

At war with war

Nigel Jamieson’s Gallipoli begins, appropriately enough, with a drill. The massed company, 35 actors strong, enter in khaki and stand crisply before us. A sergeant shouts them through their formal paces—standing at attention, bringing rifles to bear, presenting arms. Like all of the physical sequences throughout Gallipoli (movement director Gavin Robbins), this is a well-executed performance, a fine demonstration of the skills and commitment of the STC actors company augmented by the third-year actors from NIDA. They begin to march offstage, and immediately the dying begins.

Read the rest of my review of Gallipoli, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #87, here.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Collaborative communication and action: working languages

excerpt from the old Honours thesis, this time some musing on collaborative practice and its uses of, and relationships to, language. I'm interested in this one because there's some good, if simplistic, propositions about how groups develop working languages and performative shorthand. Another trip down memory lane, indulged in to (partly) fill the six hour return train journey to Newcastle today...

Shared agreement

Linguistic theory posits that language does not possess any intrinsic meaning in itself, but is an arbitrary pairing of signifier and signified (see for example Saussure 1974). Language then only becomes meaningful through the collective consent of a group or society, by agreement between the users (or arbiters) of that language. What emerges is a ‘shared definition’, a process by which all parties using the language agree that a particular linguistic unit represents a particular object, subject or concept. These shared definitions are constantly in a state of negotiation. This is the case within a collaborative performance-making scenario. Idiosyncratic ‘working languages’ emerge when artists from different disciplinary backgrounds collaborate on a project, or when a range of performative discourses are drawn upon to inform the production of performance work.

On the floor in the rehearsal room or the theatre, problems of shared definition are resolved through the creation of a shared ensemble language. Groups evolve highly complex and specialised languages over long periods of working together. In allowing my entry as an observer into the rehearsal room of Tristan (1999), co-director Nigel Kellaway warned that in all likelihood I would not understand all of what was occurring, due to the company’s development during years working together of “secret hand-shakes” that allowed the group to “short-cut certain structural and performative decisions” (Kellaway 1999:1) in the making of performance work. The working language provides the context in which action takes place, and is unique to the specific group of collaborators. A specific working language is developed within a collaborative process, and is not easily transportable to another working process. When working with a different group of collaborators working languages require renegotiation.

Creating working languages
These idiosyncratic working languages do not arise fully formed from a vacuum. They emerge through repeated encounters between the specific individuals that comprise the group in question, from and within a unique working context. The conditions for this interaction are influenced by wider social and political concerns, and also by the relationships between the art practices of the group members and the discourses of these practices. In other words, conditions outside the rehearsal room fundamentally impact upon the operation of the collaborative. The larger social and political influences are beyond the scope of this study, so this section concentrates on potential lines of influence through outside art practice that may affect work on the floor.

The following is a discussion of some art-practice related influences upon these working languages that have emerged through my research and practice. These headings contain a small number of the elements that shape the development of collaborative languages. In gesturing towards a theory of collaborative practice, the following issues around language and communication need to be considered:

Cultural specificity
All language usage is culturally specific. It has regional variants, and accents both metaphorical and actual. Specifically referring to the use of language in performance discourse, as most Australian work is performed in a single city only, and for a short duration, the local in terms of performance discourse can be extremely small indeed. My personal understanding of performance practice in Melbourne, for instance, is incomplete because of my unfamiliarity with the performative discourses that have shaped the environment in which it is produced. The nuances, the recognisable traces the tiny details that I find significant in much performance work in Sydney I find often incomprehensible in work from other parts of Australia. This is inherent to performance, which is by definition ephemeral. (There can be a global culture of cinema, for example, because of the ease of the re-presentation of the cinematic product. A videocassette or a couple of cans of film are far more easily portable than a live performance.) Terminology used in discussions around and within performative practice tends to have acquired local connotations and implications over time. Local histories of performance have shaped the ways in which particular language is used and what meanings are assigned to, or cluster around, specific terminology. Local cultures of performance make certain things speakable, and others unspeakable.

Cross-artform slippage
Different artform practices often assign differing meanings to terminology. Usually this difference is a matter of emphasis - different artform practices (and indeed differing schools of thinking and practice within disciplines) prioritise different aesthetic qualities, and have different histories of usage. Slippage potentially occurs when a cross-artform dialogue is entered into to. From my own experience working one-on-one with a mature dancer (Wendy McPhee in Woman in Wig Man in Fishbowl, Hobart 1998), artists from different disciplines talk about similar performative elements in different terms, and attempts to bridge this gap by attempting to adopt a terminology not one’s own can confuse matters even further. This can lead to confusion and misinterpretation, but also possibly to new understanding and insight. The surmounting and understanding of these differences of emphasis allows other possibilities for practice beyond the bounds of a single artform. In a collaborative practice a working language establishes functional definitions to allow the performance work to develop through these cross-artform slippages.

Idiosyncratic use of terminology emergent through practice.
Artists often ascribe non-standard meanings to existent language, and can create completely new terminology with which to describe their practice. If this non-standard usage of language is influential, it can lead to the local adoption of that particular non-standard usage. Language usage within performance practice is constantly evolving in this way. Idiosyncratic language use describes aptly a ‘working language’ used by a collaborative ensemble. These idiosyncrasies may be entered into from a need to find a common language in which to discuss the performance product under development, ie. a working language.

Misrecognition, misunderstanding, or misquoting.
This could be either accidental or deliberate, but these occurrences lead to new definitions, new usages of terminology and fundamentally influence the working language of collaborative ensembles. A notable example of this phenomenon is the repeated misunderstanding of traditional Asian performing disciplines by European observers. Both Brecht’s mis-recognition of Mei Lang Fang’s performance intentions (giving rise to Brecht’s influential notion of the ‘alienation’ effect) and Artaud’s of Balinese dance (contributing to his ideas of the Theatre of Cruelty) have impacted on performance discourse and practice. Melrose states:

"Brecht, Artaud and Barthes, we can now recognise, have imagined Asian theatre, making of it the scene for the imaginary playing-out of their own desires for the theatre with which they were familiar." (Melrose 1994:150, emphasis in original)

Etchells, rather than seeing mis-recognition as a negative exercise of power reinscribing the desired meaning over the ‘true’ meaning, places this misunderstanding at the very core of collaborative theatre practice, proposing a model of collaboration as:

"Collaboration then not as a kind of a perfect understanding of the other bloke, but a mis-seeing, a mis-hearing, a deliberate lack of unity. And this fact of the collaborative process finding its echo in the work since on-stage what we see is not all one thing either- but rather a collision of fragments that don’t quite belong, fragments that mis-see an mis-hear each other. " (Etchells 1999:56)

Personalities involved.
The final item in this list is the most obvious: the specific individuals involved in the group at a specific moment of time. As I have stated several times throughout this study, in collaborative performance practice the interests, skills and obsessions of the group members drive the production of the work. The members of the group control the development of a working language fundamentally through the simple acts of deciding what they will talk about in the first place, the uses to which the language will be put, and the sort of work that the language will be used to make. Each of these decisions is driven totally by the personalities of the group members and the manner in which these group members interact with each other and with the work. The wants and needs, obsessions, interests and desires of the individual members comprising any working group can never be identical, in the same way that no two people are identical in every detail. Thus any working language adopted by the group is a product of the personalities of that group.

Powerful personalities
ARIANE MNOUCHKINE:…"in order for the arts or the artists of each art to be able to commune, they must not look to impose hegemony or even superiority; the arrogance of arts and artist has to disappear, one must yield. […]
BEATRICE PICON-VALLIN: Yield to help each other?
M: Yes, to help one other, one must yield. If not, one is in a power struggle."
(Picon-Vallin 1999:207-8, full names added)

As stated above, the performance is a manifestation of the combined interests, skills and obsessions of the members of that specific group. The manner in which decisions are made as to the direction the piece takes, the choices made, and the specific material selected and rejected within the rehearsal room, is dependent on the personalities of the individual artists within that group, their relationship to one another, and the logistical structures which frame the performance-making process. Alison Oddey, speaking of the decision-making process of The People Show, aptly sums up a collaborative decision-making process that possesses the dual concerns of expressing individual voices and serving the work:

"Artistic decisions are made out of a constant re-assessment by company members of the work, and a ruthless determination to preserve both individual interests and the development of the product." (Oddey 1997:44)

Every group has its own personal politics, and evolves structures by which to mediate these politics and focus attention on the making of the performance itself. Transparent decision-making processes with no hidden agendas, and strategies to enable conflict resolution, are necessary for generating an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, the basis of any collaborative project. Whatever these strategies are, be it an extended period of group discussion at the end of each session or an impassioned argument over a beer in the pub after a rehearsal, they need to address directly the concerns and desires of the group members. To do so in a critical and constructive manner an appropriate forum for disagreement, debate and argument needs to be found that is mutually acceptable for the group members.

A trusting environment
An environment must be established based on listening to and respecting the opinions of all of the group members, and the ability to subsume personal tastes and choose the most appropriate direction for the work to take rather than the idea one likes the best is essential. Without shared trust, nothing can be created, despite the best of intentions. Often this trust takes a long period of time to develop, but it is also possible in some circumstances to develop a trusting atmosphere rapidly or even instantly. Again, this is dependent completely on the participants, and a unique combination of their wants, needs and obsessions of the given moment..

An example of this shared trust mediating personal politics in practice, this time from my observations of The opera Project’s Tristan (1999):

"The performers are very familiar with each other. Communication of ideas and performative concepts is never complicated. There is a sense of trust and familiarity between the bodies. The performers are very comfortable with manipulating, and moving closely around the other bodies. […] The performers are highly aware of their own performance, and are able to direct themselves. Each of them knows what ‘feels right’ or ‘not right’, and is able to take responsibility for correcting the ‘problem’. The performers contribute solutions, or better options to ‘gaps’ in the performance. A given sequence is reworked until it feels satisfactory." (D. A. Williams 1999:5)

Here, it is the familiarity of relationships built through performance over a long period of time that generates this shared quality of trust, and facilitates a critical yet productive creative environment that allows the voices of the participants to contribute in a mutually satisfying manner. The precise conditions necessary to generate this quality are totally specific to the group in question. It is this quality of shared trust that provides a space in which the personal politics of the group members can be focused responsibly and productively on the work.

There are no rules
There is no single manner in which a working language can be made, just as there is no single way in which individual artists can successfully collaborate. There is no single path to make performance work through collaboration. Effectively, there are no rules. Every group must discover their own rules. Particular strategies have been used successfully by different groups (there are a number of examples in Oddey 1997 of work in the UK, and Savran 1986 is a detailed study of the evolving process of The Wooster Group over a ten year period), but this in itself is no guarantee of these strategies working a second time with a different group, in a different context. These ways of working, these ‘working languages’ are not portable. They are dependent on the particular combination of individual artists choosing to work together at a particular moment in time in a particular place. If any of these factors change, everything else changes also.

The ‘rules’ of collaboration boil down in the end to whatever works, a pure pragmatics of performance. Groups adopt particular strategies and tactics because they enable the production of performance, or in other words they are adopted because they work. A working language must be rooted in the work otherwise it is meaningless. In the same way a collaborative process only exists in action, on the floor. The work is a way of discovering how to make the work, ie. the work and the process of making this work are inseparable. The work is the reason for action, the grounds for collaboration. The work may be driven by the interaction of the powerful personalities of powerful performers, but the focus is on the work and the process of making it. Whatever facilitates the production of the work is therefore used, and continues to be used until it is no longer effective. Then the ‘rules’ evolve once again.

Images: David Williams, Danielle Antaki, and Stephen Klinder in the creative development for version 1.0's CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident). Photos by pvi collective.

This is what you missed…

“If theatre’s privileged document has largely been the precedent texted play, Live Art’s legacy for the archive has generally been the documentary photographs and narrative accounts that appear to follow in the wake of an act. Still, in most instances of Live Art, the photograph is a supplement, a stand-in for the event itself, or an instance of its traces or detritus. In such cases the photograph is usually given to say: This is what you missed, and thus the image stands as a strange proof that you, viewer, were not there (even if you were). That is, the documentary photograph intones: You will have missed this (even if you were in attendance).”

Rebecca Schneider, ‘The Document Performance’ in The Live Art Almanac, edited by Daniel Brine and Emmy Minton (London: Live Art Development Agency and the University of Leeds, 2008) page 118-119.

Image: The aftermath of an installation by Yana Taylor in the creative development stage of version 1.0's Hurt and Damage, May 2008. Photo by Heidrun Lohr.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Arts NSW new funding program now released

NSW artists and arts organisations will be greatly relieved to know that Arts NSW's long-awaited new arts funding program guidelines for 2009 have finally been released, details here.

For those who haven't been following the extended saga of the Arts NSW funding policy changes, there was a grants review initiated by Arts NSW themselves in late 2007, with some 49 arts organisations contributing submissions to the report's writers. The report was publicly available in early 2008 (but seemed to disappear off the website in July), but didn't exactly have much attention drawn to it by the State Government. There have been great problems with the way the arts are supported in NSW, and the report of the Cultural Grants Review provided some clear answers to some of them.

The most significant recommendations of the Review were:

- to establish a ticketing company to operate on a cost recovery basis and stop so much arts funding being siphoned off to commercial ticketing agents that theatre artists in particular are almost always forced to do. (the report cites the example of the Sydney Writers Festival paying $70,000 of its box office income of $500,000 to a ticketing agent in 2007).

- to devolve funds to the Regional arts development boards so that funds for regional arts can be better allocated

- to expand the number of companies funded on a multi-year basis (eg. triennially), and to provide a clear pathway for entry to this category (an 'emerging key orgainsations' idea that aligns neatly with the Australia Council's 'Make it New' policy shift for 2008)

- to rethink the purpose of project grants. This will be the most contentious, as it'll make it even harder for newer artist teams and individuals to be funded by Arts NSW. However, the report's logic is that part of the increase in the number of multi-year funded companies will be to require them to support some of these sorts of activities, which to me makes much more sense that forcing a bunch of small companies to vigorously compete for tiny scraps of grants which are insufficient in size to actually make the projects work anyway. Anyone who's been funded by Arts NSW on a project grant that was 20% less than you asked for (a regular feature of the last five years) knows exactly what I mean. This will be painful, but I believe that its necessary.

- to enable artform managers to engage more in strategic planning and less in grant admin. This seems unbelievably obvious, and I don't know why we needed a review to tell us this.

There was more, including developing an Indigenous arts policy (unbelievably, this was absent), and developing stronger links with existing policies in the ares of education, innovation, and heritage. Its not a long read, but a fascinating one.

Many of us in the arts have been eagerly waiting for some indication from the state government as to which of the report's recommendations might be acted upon, and what implications this might have for the sector. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the absence of any sense of how things might change, for better or worse, has caused a large degree of anxiety amongst artists and companies. Six months after the release of the Cultural Grants Review, all that happened was vague promises that an interim grants structure for 2009 would be announced by the end of June. Then July passed, and August passed, and many of us turned blue from holding our breaths. Now we might yet be able to return some colour to our cheeks, and get on with the business of making art. Applications for the new arts grants program are due to Arts NSW on October 10.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Some thoughts on collaboration and group-devised performance

Due to my new sessional lecturing gig at the University of Western Sydney, I've had to dig through a lot of my writing archives to find material for lectures, and much to my surprise, some of my older writings are actually quite interesting. At least to me. This passage is an excerpt from my Honours thesis, submitted in 2000, and while I probably wouldn't write in this way today, I'm quite taken by the perspective of my younger self. Perhaps its simply nostalgia. You be the judge. This section is a prelude to a description of the workshop stage of version 1.0's The second Last Supper (2000-2001), and as such is an interesting record of the early stages of us working out what the hell it was that we were doing, and our possible place(s) in the world of performance. Enjoy.

A model of a devising process

"'Collective creation’ is not some miracle process which erases all difficulties. On the contrary, it invariably brings them together every time that an actor enters; and on each occasion, everything has to be revised and reinvented." (Caubere 1999:75)

All performance work made by a collaborative group is made through a devising process. The group constantly makes strategic and tactical decisions about what material is needed in the construction of the piece and why. From my experience of this process in a number of collaborative groups, I have formulated a seven-step model of a devising process. In practice one is not necessarily conscious of this process, and may not represent the internal workings of the project in this manner. The ‘steps’ do not occur as discrete identifiable objects in themselves and the boundaries between steps are permeable. They bleed into one another. These steps are designed to illustrate the shape of a collaborative process.

It is important to note that this model is not designed as a teaching aid or a list of ‘how to devise performance’. For models designed to illustrate a devising process with an educational focus refer to such publications as Tarlington & Michaels 1995 and Bray 1991, and also to the later chapters of Oddey 1997.

Step 1: Initial concept/frame
Every project starts somewhere, but the actual stating point for each project is never identical. This initial concept may be an image, a piece of text or music from any number of sources, or a theoretical concern. The starting point might be as simple as a working title, a phrase or single word with a cluster of implicit meanings and connotations. Or any combination of the above. The starting point of version 1.0's first three pieces (The Dream Index, Where the garment gapes..., and Preludes and Fugues) was a title that was conceived by myself and approved by the group. This title provided a frame on which a series of ideas and images could be hung. For another group the starting point would be different, dependent on the combination of personalities within that specific group. Whatever the initial concept, it is highly likely that the initial concerns of the project will shift through the process and the resultant performance will contain no trace of the initial notion around which it was made.

Step 2: Group discussion
“At some point in the creative, collaborative process, you do arrive at a group certainty. That is not to say that are all necessarily driving towards exactly the same objective, but there is a line of agreement.” (Long as cited in Oddey 1997:43)

The next stage of this process is that the group reaches some form of loose, flexible consensus or shared agreement about the project concept through extended discussion. Agreement is reached upon at least some of the primary concerns of the piece, and initial strategies to facilitate the generation of material are decided. A collective understanding of the project is established, leaving space for individual’s specific concerns, knowledges and interests. The group discovers a common ground, from which they can begin to make performance.

Whatever position is reached through initial discussions is likely to change repeatedly throughout the process, following the evolution of the performance material. Also this process of discussion is not contained tidily to the beginning of a process but occurs repeatedly as new positions are clarified, new possibilities identified, and old material re-interrogated.

During this initial discussion process shared or individual exercises may be set to start generating performance material, and specific group reading material may also be set. Specific avenues of research may be suggested, and members may set themselves individual tasks based on their expertise or interest. For example a group member who skills base lies in classical singing may investigate appropriate musical material for the project. A group member skilled in writing may set themselves a number of writing tasks, and so on.

Some fundamental questions that are likely to be raised during this part of the process are:
What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
Where are we doing it?
What are we talking about?
How can we talk about it?
Why is it important for us to talk about it?
What does it mean for us, in the here and now, to be talking about it?
What performance strategies can we use to represent it in a manner satisfying to the group and stimulating to a potential audience?
What do we want to achieve by undertaking this project?

Step 3: Personal reflection/research by individual group members
The members of the group work individually and reflect upon the concept under investigation. Interesting and relevant documents are identified and followed up. Members develop material in response to initial discussions and in some cases make responses to exercises and/or provocations set during initial meetings. Any specific group reading material that may have been set is undertaken.

Members return to the group with images, texts, staging concepts, props, theoretical concepts, music, etc. This new material is fed into group discussion and from the process of showing this material potential new material is suggested or made possible. This individual research is ongoing, and continually throughout the process group members will present new ideas and material that arises outside of the rehearsal room. Of course, this notion of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ becomes problematic here, due to the fact that while within a devising process all of one’s life becomes about the work.

Step 4: Improvisation/ play on the floor of the rehearsal room
Improvisation and play are the primary tools of a devised process. It is through free and structured improvisation that material is developed, ideas and personas tested, and solutions to problems found. Improvisation and discussion often go hand in hand, with one feeding into the other, suggesting strategies by which to proceed.

The evolution of material occurs tangentially, not necessarily in a linear fashion. One thing certainly does lead to another, but not in a logical cause-and-effect way. The impulse for an abrupt change in pace/direction/focus may come from a look, or a position of a performer’s body in relation to another’s. This ‘trigger’ need not even be understood by the other member or members of the group that follow the impulse. Tim Etchells’ gives a list of some examples of such episodes in the work processes of Forced Entertainment, suggesting a notion of collaboration that is fundamentally based around mis-understanding, of taking up and following an action from another group member and creating something fantastic, only to discover afterwards that they were doing something totally different:

"Collaboration then not as a kind of a perfect understanding of the other bloke, but a mis-seeing, a mis-hearing, a deliberate lack of unity. And this fact of the collaborative process finding its echo in the work since on-stage what we see is not all one thing either- but rather a collision of fragments that don’t quite belong, fragments that mis-see an mis-hear each other." (Etchells 1999:56)

Step 5: Shaping
A process of shaping, editing and assembling the material generated through improvisation now occurs. Structures and frames are developed, and material is reworked and re-shaped until it is able to ‘make sense’ in terms of the emerging internal logic of the piece. As new material is developed and fed into these newly established structures, the structures and frames are re-interrogated to ensure that they continue to serve the interests of the work, and those of the group.

There is also a need to fit the material to the mechanical necessities of the production, which may mean altering sections slightly to facilitate the movement of performers within the space, adding necessary technology or staging elements such as microphones, and many other possible permutations.

It is here that a process of ‘reverse dramaturgy’ is utilised. This process may involve the creation of filler pieces or transitions that make ‘sense’ of (or at least follow a consistent internal logic) often arbitrarily derived material after it has been assembled, to ultimately create a coherent collage. Such a process of reverse dramaturgy is often as much concerned with the act of performance itself as it is with a performative ‘narrative’.

Step 6: Feedback from ‘outside eyes’
Essentially an ‘outside eye’ is someone who grants a fresh perspective on the performance work generated in the rehearsal room. This person (or persons) may have a designated role within the work, such as a dramaturge, or may be a friend or colleague invited into a rehearsal at a particular stage for this purpose. This provides a critical eye that is not immersed within the process, and is able to look from an audience’s point of view. The outside eyes may be able to identify structural problems or elements that don’t make sense in terms of the whole performance, but have been taken for granted or simply forgotten by the performers, elements that have become invisible or ‘natural’ in the process. They may also propose suggestions for solutions to stumbling blocks or dead ends reached by the group in rehearsal, or a second opinion that resolves an unresolvable argument or difference of opinion within the group regarding a particular performance element.

An outside eye is an important function, no matter how self-reflexive a group may be. Often it is only from outside the group, with no personal investment in the work, that the performance can be seen clearly. Of course the group must choose what feedback is useful or constructive and what feedback is ignored, based on the tastes, beliefs, needs and experiences of both the group and the outside eye(s). The outside eye is a tool that is used to benefit the performance process. How that tool is used in practice is entirely at the discretion of the group in question.

Step 7: Performance
The process of developing and shaping the performance doesn’t come to a halt when the performance reaches opening night, but continues to develop as new ideas and structures emerge through contact with an audience. Elements that don’t work are edited out of the performance. Accidents that propel the work in an unexpected but inspiring direction become incorporated into the piece. New elements suggest themselves to the group during the performance season, and are tested out. If they work, they may become part of the performance. In this way the performance never becomes a finished product, but always remains in process. Because the performers themselves have control and responsibility for their own actions, they have the licence to explore new possibilities within their own performance, and do so. Therefore the work continues to evolve as each of the participants increase their depth of knowledge as to the manner in which the performance operates. This evolution only occurs through repeated encounters with audiences in a performance situation. The work is never complete until the performance season is complete.

Images: Danielle Antaki, Rohan Thatcher, Stephen Klinder, and Yana Taylor in version 1.0's The second Last Supper. Images by Heidrun Lohr.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

the job-ready graduate: on the right path

Over the last decade there have been a range of policy initiatives to support young and emerging artists to develop innovative practice, for example the dedicated funding categories at the Australia Council and mentoring schemes such as Youth Arts Queensland’s Spark program. What appears unexamined in this focus on artist emergence is the university sector, from which many of these young artists begin their careers. Support programs from funding bodies offer pathways into professional practice, but how do young artists find their way towards these pathways in the first place? What routes do performance graduates take from university study to professional practice, and what strategies have universities adopted to assist their graduates to prepare for and manage this transition?

Read the rest of my recent article, The Job-Ready Graduate: On the Right Path, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #86, here.

Image: Rebecca Cunningham,
1 Litre of Blood, 1000kgs of Bullets, photo by Sharka Bosakova.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

From the archive to serve as a preview: Taking it far too far – the awkward artless art of The Fondue Set

One of my favourite performance groups in the country, the sublime dance trio The Fondue Set, opens their new show No Success Like Failure at the Studio at the Sydney Opera House tonight. I can't hardly wait! After a couple of months of desperately mediocre performance work in Sydney, this week we're blessed by not one but two amazing works, the other being the exhilarating spectacle of Branch Nebula's Paradise City playing at Performance Space @ Carriage Works until Saturday, and then at Casula Powerhouse next week. You'd be mad to miss it people!

Anyway, back to The Fondue Set. I've written about them before, and reviewed their show The Set (Up) for RealTime back in 2004 (link here). For the later version of that show, Amanda Card at the now-defunct dance company One Extra asked me to write a program essay about the Fondues, and here it is, just to whet your appetite.

Taking it far too far – the awkward artless art of The Fondue Set
"In seizing on awkwardness as a territory worth exploring, young artists have hit on something: awkwardness is the artistic temper of the times." (Shawn-Marie Garret The Awkward Age, Theater, 31.2, Summer 2001, page 50)

"the performance of failure unleashes an indeterminate and irrepressible force, which momentarily consumes its witness, causing them a joyous, convulsive and physical opening to the unknown." (Adrian Heathfield, Last Laughs, Performance Research, March 2004, page 61)

Like the Sheffield-based theatre collective Forced Entertainment, their recent work has begun to demand that the audience not merely watch, but instead witness this work. Their current line of investigation is in the choreographic uses of awkwardness, an artless artifice exposing the collapse of pretence – an artifice of honesty. The work is just enough under control to be able to be presented, and just out of control enough to threaten the boundaries of its presentation, threaten the safety of the dancers in the face of the audience. This is an eccentric and extraordinary form of choreography, a dancing structured around the (apparent) unravelling of structure, the staging of awkwardness and failure. The Fondue Set are not alone in investigating failure in performance (indeed, it is a key principle of Forced Entertainment’s dramaturgy, as well as for other companies such as the US groups Elevator Repair Service and Goat Island). But no other group is quite so glamorous in its staging of failure. Indeed, absolute failure has rarely looked this good.

The art of The Fondue Set carefully stages itself as awkward and artless, built through close observations of social behaviour, obsessively embodying the places where personal anxieties transform into group paranoia. The Fondue Set deploy bafflement and embarrassment as key principles of their theatrical dance language, a dance language that actively conceals its craft to the point that the presenter of the first stage of The Set (Up), The Australian Choreographic Centre, inserted a program note to assure audiences that this is indeed dance. Mark Gordon, the artistic director of The Choreographic Centre, felt it necessary to reassure audiences that despite appearances, despite leaving ”much of the vocabulary of traditional dance behind”, this performance was indeed dance, and was able to be safely read and experienced as such. Despite The Fondue Set enthusiastically and impertinently producing what surrealist artist/theorist Georges Bataille might refer to as 'bad form' or formless, Gordon anxiously attempts to recuperate their work within the paradigm of dance. He notes that their work is “soundly based in choreographic principles, where space, shape line and rhythm are the messengers of the work.” So while it may appear that these are bunch of likable but dysfunctional dancers continually failing in everything that they attempt, and unravelling both their performance technique and stage personas, Gordon reassures his delicate audience to remain calm, and know that everything is OK. There's no need to panic. The chaos is carefully controlled. The dancers will not hurt themselves. They are only pretending. It's all a craft, even though the craft may seem invisible.

But while the collapse of form is deliberately staged, its effects and affects really take place. The bruises are real. The shame is only partly feigned. The repeated failures staged in the choreography of The Fondue Set produce dangerous ruptures in its construction, and these shock the spectator out of the belief in knowing what is to come, out of the comfort of believing that this is all pretending, all representation, that these performed actions are not real. Through their stammering choreography, their choreography afflicted with social failures, The Fondue Set open up their audience, bringing them close to the work through the remaking of the performance into an intimate encounter. The collapse of pretence mid-gesture, the crisis of character identification, and the continual failure of the act of theatre, the unravelling of illusion in the performance act create immediacy – a very human contact. The audience is opened, not to identification with character, but sympathy with the person undergoing this ordeal; a co-presence, an engagement that brings the audience into play, not in the role of ‘an audience’, but as individual human beings, not merely watching something, but sharing the process of going through something.

Mark Gordon's assurance correctly identifies, but strategically misrepresents the central operation of The Fondue Set's dance practice. This is not merely untraditional dance or 'anti-dance', but far more dangerous than that – this is impertinent dance, bad-form dance, dance that collapses the both dancing form and the dancing body in the performance act, demanding a frenzied, exhausted and intimate audience relation. In the case of The Fondue Set however, this frenzied exhaustion is also a lot of fun. Through an eccentric blend of anxiety and laughter, glamour and calamity, vulnerability and dazzling skill, the work of The Fondue Set gets deep under the skin of their audience. Tonight will indeed be a wild ride, so hold on to your chair. Finish your drink. Your hosts anxiously await your company.

Intercultural harmonising: a conversation with Citymoon's Ta Duy Binh

In December 2007, performer and director Binh Duy Ta and video artist Peter Oldham travelled to Vietnam to undertake research and development for Citymoon’s latest work, Yellow is not yellow, a work-in-progress showing of which was presented at the company’s Bankstown home in late March. Ta describes the early days of the trip, driving the streets of Hanoi, with Oldham filming and hanging on for dear life. “He (Oldham) was very brave. Before we left, I told him that we would film around the city on a motorbike, and he didn’t believe me. But he coped with that very well.”

Read the rest of my recent article, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #85, here.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Fierce! Festival voting closes today

The Fierce! Festival, in the West Midlands of the UK, has set an idiosyncratic curatorial task for this year's festival, to be held from 23-26 May, 2008. Taking a leaf out of reality television's pseudo-democratic book, they've asked the audience to vote for their most desired acts to fill the program, with the act which receives the least votes being eliminated each day. Its been fun logging on each day, voting, and seeing the process play out online over the last few weeks. Now we're down to the last day, with the top three acts in each category being declared the winners, and thus appearing as a part of Fierce! Its a fun concept, and probably one that might appeal to local and much-beloved conservative commentators such as armchair arts festival programmer Andrew Bolt.

In the final round is the fabulous Sydney-based performer Rosie Dennis with her Love Song Dedication. Rosie's work is always exhilarating and evocative, and I urge everyone to vote for her before the ballot closes in a mere 20 hours!

Image Credit: Sylvia Zajkowski & Rosie Dennis

The quick and the dirty

Our host Candy (Victoria Spence) descends the steep aisle and is greeted by great applause. She’s “emerging from 12 long years” that has involved some “deep undercover work called Motherhood”. But now she’s back. It’s been nine years since Taboo Parlour, itself a successor to the legendary Club Bent, appeared during Mardi Gras at Performance Space, and finally Quick and Dirty has arrived to fill the void.

Read the rest of my recent article, The quick and the dirty, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #84, here.

Gwenda & Guido in Quick & Dirty, photo by George Voulgaropoulos

The rise of the west

While the resources boom appears to be feeding an arts resurgence in Western Australia, an equally significant artistic boom seems to be reaching critical mass across Western Sydney. With the emergence of a diverse range of new and revitalised spaces, new collaborations, and exciting new visions, could we be witnessing the rise of Western Sydney as a major player in the national arts scene?

Read the rest of my recent article The rise of the west, published in the online and print editions of RealTime #84, here.

Image: Still image from the exhibition
Australian currently open at the refurbished Casula Powerhouse.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

RealTime #83 is on the streets and online...

... and of course was so almost a fortnight ago. But its been a big fortnight, at least for me. If anyone was wondering what the hell I was writing during January, here's the links to my published responses in RT#83 to the National Theatre of Scotland's Blackwatch, Meow Meow's Insert the name of the person you love, as well as Powerhouse Youth Theatre's City Quest and PACT Youth Theatre's The Lotus Eaters.

As for more recent performance, I've just returned from Adelaide where I attended the APAM, catching glimpses of a wide range of performance works ranging from the intimacy of Aphid's exquisite Underground, a hypnotic interweaving of the sonic and the sculptural, the calmly outrageous coercive niceness of pvi collective's reform, the thrilling spectacle of Dance North/ Splintergroup's Roadkill and much much more. While in the City of Churches I also managed to see yet another iteration of Post's brutally hilarious aspirational performance Gifted and Talented, The Border Project's riotously funny and ridiculously ambitious interactive choose-your-own adventure performance Trouble on Planet Earth, and found myself thoroughly bored by Brink Productions' dry and monochromatic epic When the rain stops falling.

Back home in Sydney I urge all to attend the fantastically bizarre performance The Whale Chorus, playing at PACT until Sunday. More on that soon, I hope. Also playing down at the Wharf is the mesmeric duet performance from Tess de Quincey and Peter Snow embrace: Guilt Frame, also closing Sunday. A couple of openings too this week, firstly Mayu Kanamori's Chika: A Documentary Performance at Performance Space @ CarriageWorks last night, and secondly Theatre Kantanka's Bollywood spectacular Fearless N at the Newington Armory, Homebush Bay, on Friday. Too much to do! Get out there and embrace some art!

Image: pvi collective in action on the streets of Adelaide in reform. Photo by David Williams.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 2: The Ghost in the Suitcase

The second show on the bill at Chalkhorse was the premiere of Suitcase Royale's The Ghost of Rickett's Hill. For one reason or another I've always managed to miss the Suitcase Royale when they've come to Sydney, but there has always been a good buzz about their work out there on the local contemporary arts grapevine. Apparently Ghost... represents a change of direction for the company, and tonight's performance was the very first outing of the work. It was a warm and friendly crowd for this auspicious occasion, and the bulk of the audience seemed clearly familiar with the Suitcase oeuvre and highly appreciative of the disintegrating spectacle that followed.

Three aviators crash in the desert whilst ferrying a mysterious cargo, and two of the party set out across the desert in the direction of a mysterious blinking light, in hope of rescue. The captain, already half-mad with some unfathomable obsession, stays behind, guarding the cargo. It's a classic pulp mock-heroic fiction scenario, performed with an appropriate degree of self-conscious bombast, finely calibrated for comic effect. The blinking light turns out to be none other than Lighthouse Man, once surrounded by lapping ocean but now condemned to a dry and dusty existence due to the curse of the supposedly malevolent Wolf Man. The curse can be broken by the possession of a magical amulet, which for reasons of narrative convenience happens to be the mysterious cargo of the stranded aviators. The rest off the happenings within the show constitute a parade of encounters with increasingly absurd characters, none of whom actually advance anything which might be thought of as a 'plot'. Instead, what Suitcase Royale present is themselves in the process of losing the plot.

Clinging to their patently ridiculous personas within their nonsensical pseudo-narrative for far too long, each performer is confronted by escalating disappointments and betrayals from their fellows. Overall, the company stage themselves as a drunken and unreliable lot. From faulty costumes (Lighthouse Man's spectacularly over-the-top headpiece complete with blinking light, which he is largely unable to hold upright), to collapsing scenery (cardboard sculptures of mountains delicately balanced and easily upset), to missed textual and sound cues, forgotten lines and inept costume changes, missing props and the allegedly unexpected cutting up of a sentimentally important piece of clothing to construct someone else's costume that results in a near-altercation onstage. This is accident and incompetence re-presented as entertainment, and it is certainly a load of anarchic fun.

These are most successful when there's a clear attempt to hold things together, to bodge the already bodgy show just enough so it can get to the end and everyone can get back to the bar. The third performer is always trying to move past the current crisis or obstacle, and force the show to go on, even if this requires upstaging his recalcitrant fellow artists. Sometimes however, these staged crises don't seem overly convincing, with the playacted breakdowns and mock-drunken chaos seeming contrived and while highly amusing, borders upon indulgent at times. At the end of this unraveling spectacle one performer announces: "Ladies and Gentlemen, that was Suitcase Royale", implying that the group has destroyed its ability to continue, as if this performative disaster has killed the will-to-group-ness of our hapless trio.

Of course, this is clearly untrue. They're all having far too much fun to stop, and anyway, the audience keeps egging them on. With so much love in the room, why would they stop? I couldn't help but wonder how much more confronting and thrilling the work might have been if we in the audience had been allowed to believe, even for a moment, that this crisis of competence and company was actual. I remain confident that the assured playing style and clear talent of the performers will be able to deepen the dramaturgy of the performance as they continue to take Ghost... on the road, but I do question whether the company can really enter the dark spaces that they so playfully and casually evoke. The results of such an exploration might be extraordinary indeed. Check it out.

Stay tuned for Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 3: No Pig is an Island, coming to a blog near you soon!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 1: Gifted and Talented

Logging on to my Facebook account, I found it filling up with invitations to events that claimed to a part of something called The Imperial Panda Festival. Intrigued, I head along to the launch at Black and Blue Gallery, and find myself part of the humid swirl of the festival - two weeks of art, alcohol, and conversation in an intoxicating and highly satisfying blend. Due to my own commitments to the tour of version 1.0's The Bougainville Photoplay Project to Canberra, I was unable to attend every event, but nonetheless I felt very much as if I had been witness to something significant.

Part of the joy of the idiosyncratically named Imperial Panda Festival (January 31- February 9) has been discovering, and in some cases re-discovering, what might be not entirely satisfactorily be termed the 'emerging artist scene' of Sydney. Driven ever-further underground for various financial and compliance issues (no one with an OHS certificate should open their eyes in these venues until they've had at least three drinks), much of these cultures of practice have failed to appear on my radar as they've shifted away from more established contemporary arts hubs such as Performance Space, and contemporary arts developmental spaces such as PACT and Shopfront. My loss, not theirs. Imperial Panda, ramshackle and chaotic as it regularly was, is nonetheless an initiative of welcome ambition.

Crammed into artist-run spaces that seem to adhere to planning codes less than the Lanfranchis space that was the former epicentre of this scene (if that can be imagined!), the Imperial Panda festival events were sweaty affairs. However, fueled by buzzing enthusiasm, cheap booze, and loads of goodwill, these were great spaces to be in. If nothing else, it was great to see crowds of people (mostly) younger than myself excited about art! Contrary to Nick's experience, I didn't see a lot of that in my Sydney Festival travels (but then I must confess that my work schedule precluded visits to the Beck's Bar or the Spiegel Tent. In fact, I didn't get to Hyde Park all January...). It made me excited to be a maker of art again. (A tangent on this point, remind me to never put my occupation as 'theatre maker' on entry documents to the UK ever again. It's a real hassle to explain yourself and your art practice at Heathrow when jetlagged and faced with an odd mix of serious disdain and suspicion. My most irritating border crossing in many years. But I digress...) Anyway, it made me feel like continuing to be an artist, a calling that has seemed more and more impossible to maintain. Academia, policy, and administration have all become tempting full time careers, much to my existential horror. But Imperial Panda, and the enthusiastic and disparate community of artists it gathered, proved a very welcome and timely reinvigoration. It wasn't all great art, but it was indeed a fantastic place to be. Viva la shambolic revolution!

Seated upon milkcrates topped by cardboard, almost shouting to be heard over the chatter, I eagerly awaited the reprise season of Post's Gifted and Talented, for me one of the performance highlights of 2007 (just to give you sense of what else would be in my very provisional top ten, this includes Jerome Bel's The Show must go on, UTP's The Folding Wife, Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod, the Maly Theatre's Uncle Vanya, Dood Paard's Mediea, and maybe STC's Season at Sarsaparilla and Deborah Pollard's Blue Print). I'd just given a big talking up of the show to Nick as we squeezed with our beers into the confines of the downstairs gallery at Chalkhorse, so of course I was nervous about expectations. (One of my favourite ever shows, Hotel Pro Forma's Operation: Orfeo was transformative at the Sydney Opera House in 1997, then frustratingly imprecise and even sloppy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999, so I'm aware than expectations can indeed be crippling).

The verdict? Well, the cramped confines of the gallery did the work no favours, severely limiting the movement that erupts out of the brutal conversations that form the core of the piece. Despite this, the work retains, for me at least, its dark, hilarious, and appalling glory, with the ability to shock, amuse, and surprise. I look forward to seeing in back in a more appropriate theatre space in Adelaide next week (I'll be attending APAM to spruik version 1.0's Deeply offensive..., and will hopefully have time for a few nibbles of the Adelaide Fringe in between networking functions.) Look out for Post's Gifted and Talented in the Fringe program - its truly a gem, and is thoroughly recommended.

Stay tuned for Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 2: The Ghost in the Suitcase!

Friday, 1 February 2008

version 1.0's The Bougainville Photoplay in Canberra next week

The Bougainville Photoplay Project
A slide show with fireside chat

Devised and performed by Paul Dwyer
Directed by David Williams
Video artist Sean Bacon
Technical production Russell Emerson

1. An eminent Australian orthopedic surgeon makes a series of trips to Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) during the 1960s, just as the era of Australia ’s colonial mandate is drawing to a close. The doctor is presented with dozens of crippled children and lepers; his operations allow many of these people to walk for the first time.

2. The giant Panguna copper mine is established against the wishes of Bougainville’s traditional landowners. Environmental destruction is caused by the mine, and the struggle for Bougainville to become independent of PNG leads to a brutal civil war during which roughly one in ten of the island’s inhabitants die.

3. An Australian academic begins fieldwork study of reconciliation ceremonies on Bougainville in the current period of post-war reconstruction. He carries with him a book of photographs.

Three narrative threads are delicately interwoven in an intimate, moving, and constantly surprising monologue performance from acclaimed performance group version 1.0. Combining field notes, oral history, slides, Super-8 film, video installation and the display of various artefacts, The Bougainville Photoplay Project grapples with the ethical, epistemological and practical dilemmas of making art and conducting research in post-colonial, post-conflict settings, particularly when the artist/researcher is a citizen of the former colonial power. This is politics and performance at its most personal.

The Courtyard Studio,
Canberra Theatre Centre
London Circuit, Civic

3 performances only:

Saturday, 9 February, 9:00 PM
Sunday, 10 February, 9:00 PM
Monday, 11 February, 7:00 PM

Tickets: $20/ $15

Bookings: 02 6275 2700 or

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A propaganda of the truth

From Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe (The New Press, London and New York, 2007, p 20):

For years progressives have comforted themselves with age-old biblical adages that the "truth will out" or "the truth will set you free," but waiting around for the truth to set you free is lazy politics. The truth does not reveal itself by virtue of being the truth: it must be told, and we need to learn how to tell the truth more effectively. It must have stories woven around i, works of art made about it; it must be communicated in new ways and marketed so that it sells. It must be embedded in an experience that connects with people's dreams and desires, that resonates with the symbols and mythologies that they find meaningful. The argument here is not for a progressive politics that lies outright, but rather for a propaganda of the truth. As William James once wrote: "Truth happens to an idea."
I've just started Duncombe's book, but I'm finding many of his ideas resonating with some thinking that I've done about the construction of truth as a practice of storytelling - the side who tells the better stories possesses a stronger claim for truth. See here for more details of this, basically a discussion of ideological framings used by political actors (politicians) in their performances of policy, with a discussion of version 1.0's The Wages of Spin wrapped around this. Duncombe is far more explicit in his call to embrace dreams and fantasies, and I look forward to seeing where his analysis travels.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Thinking through festival time

It's always difficult, at least for me, to think too hard for too long through a Sydney summer. Too much heat and humidity seems to turn my brain to mush. So its somewhat of a relief that there are others out there doing some thinking on my behalf. Perhaps they have ongoing access to air-conditioning.

First up, Nick Pickard is, somewhat insanely, blogging his way through the entire Sydney Festival. I know, pick something more ambitious next time lazy man! His blog on the Daily Telegraph site is updated several times daily, and is well worth dropping into regularly.

Over at the website of Urban Theatre Projects, whose new production The Last Highway opens as part of the Sydney Festival next Wednesday, there's a fascinating update to the ongoing 'Critical Dialogue' section, an exchange between director Deborah Pollard and writer Paschal Berry about cross-cultural artistic experiences in Indonesia and the Philippines. Deeply thought provoking stuff about the nature of collaboration, cultural identity, and the function of art in different cultural contexts. This exchange formed part of the research dialogue for UTP's The Folding Wife, one of my theatre highlights of 2007. Rumour has it that there may be a tour of this work on the cards for late 2008, and if it travels near you, I urge you to attend.

Lastly on the thinking stakes, at least for this week, the annual Rex Cramphorn lecture will be held this Sunday 13th January, with Scott Rankin of big hART presenting a lecture provocatively entitled DIY Virtuosity vs Professional Mediocrity. The lecture will be held at The Mint, 10 Macquarie St, Sydney, from 1-3pm. Admission is free.

In other festive things, my personal Sydney Festival kicked off on Tuesday, attending the opening night of Force Majeure's fascinating The Age I'm In. Being the start of the major Festival focus on Australian contemporary dance titled 'Movers and Shakers', supported by a $200,000 initiative from the Dance Board of the Australia Council, it was perhaps inevitable that there was a high-powered drinkies session afterwards in the Utzon Room. I managed to sneak in, and in between gossiping and scoffing finger food, listened to speeches from Kathy Keele, Fergus Linehan, Frances Rings, and the new Minister for the Arts Peter Garrett. Lots of nice words, nice catering, and nice wine, so I can report that a good time was had by all. The night continued on with yet more drinks at the Opera Bar, followed by a cab full of drunken inner west-dwelling artists debating vociferously the merits and flaws of the show, much to the bemusement of the taxi driver. (And no, he didn't say "Are you talking to me?")

I'm planning on taking a second look at The Age I'm In tomorrow, and will blog a response after that. Tonight is the National Theatre of Scotland's Blackwatch, and Sunday night Tanja Liedtke's Construct. Beyond that there's still The Last Highway, Aalst, Mortal Engine, Aether, Insert the name of the person you love, and This show is about people to look forward to...

Luckily, all of these theatres have aircon, so perhaps I will be able to engage in some thinking after all! Stranger things have happened...