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!


Benito Di Fonzo said…
Sounds like a hoot David, sorry I missed it.

By the way, as far as best shows of 2007 are concerned how could you go past Uncle Semolina (& Friends) production of "Gilgamesh" at The Studio. A five thousand year old Sumerian tale told with superhero figurines in a pit of mud! (see

Oh and of course Version 1.0's "Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue" at The Carriageworks, naturally.

I hope you children are satisfied - your deeple seditious work probably helped bring about the end of the great Howard government. You'll be sorry when the ACTU have in pinko-terro-commo-chains of poverty my boy!

oh, I should stop mixing so much Baileys into my afternoon caffeine...
dpollard said…
I loved the Imperial Panda Festival- for all its energy, lawlessness and daggyness. It gave me hope that Sydney still has a gritty underbelly.

Long live the Panda, Imperial or otherwise
David Williams said…
Thanks Benito. Yes, we are appropriately sorry for ourselves in assisting in overturning our bread and butter. Like when you drop toast, it always lands butter side down and you have to chuck it in the bin. Looks like pretty grim times are coming for the arts in the May budget...

I'll have to agree to disagree with you on Gilgamesh, as my response to it on this blog might attest. Perhaps if I'd seen it in a context like Imperial Panda I might have had a different response, but isolated in the middle of the pristine sterility of The Studio it all felt like a desperate attempt to fill a void with energy. Charming, but pretty empty. I liked your preview piece in the SMH though.

And of course I can't mention one of my own shows in a best of list! What kind of ego maniac do you think I am? Besides, I didn't have a chance to see it, except on DVD.

Pity we didn't win at the Sydney Theatre Awards, but then that was always unlikely given that only 3 of the 7 judges had seen the show... Maybe if we'd won Gale Edwards might learn how to say our name properly... Still our Cate was lovely.

Dump the coffee, keep the Baileys.


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