Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reviews: Sisters of Gelam; Life is a Dream


Ilbijerri Theatre.

In the past few years there’s been a pretty hefty push for a national Indigenous theatre company. I’m not that qualified to talk about the specific pros and cons of such a proposal, but I was thinking about it after seeing Ilbijerri’s Sisters of Gelam.
My initial response to the call was a bit sceptical. Even though I don’t know the fine print, as I mention, it does seem to me as if a national company could have negative impacts. The first is that consolidation can lead to a lack of diversity and opportunity. If one organisation was designated as the national body in any area it could lead to reduced funding and attention for smaller state or local bodies – great if you’re in with the major player, but not so much if your regional or community company is on the outer. I don’t know if this would in fact be the end result, but I don’t think there’s a need for a national theatre company or a national arts festival or a national opera company, for example. We have state companies doing that work. I’d rather have a bunch of such companies than a single one. Centralisation can be a problem as well as a solution.
We have state-based companies producing excellent Indigenous theatre – is my reasoning – and we should have more rather than fewer of these. Watching Sisters of Gelam, I began to question this logic. I can’t deny that there are times when size matters. The production is a decent one but it’s limited in scope and scale and for me personally accented a greater absence in Indigenous theatre. I’ll get to that in a sec.
The work itself is a gentle, effective retelling of the experiences of Lisa Maza and Rachael Maza Long, sisters who embark on a road trip to better understand the famous father who overshadowed their childhood. It’s presented in a magical realist manner, weaving in two other mythical/historical tales along with puppetry and live music. It’s understated but not unambitious; I did find it a little underwhelming, however. This isn’t everyone’s response – Cam Woodhead’s Age review described it as “a slick and lyrical celebration of Indigenous culture. It is performed with such presence and feeling, and speaks to such a profound and universal desire for homecoming and human connection, that it is impossible to remain unmoved”.
So: Sisters of Gelam does pretty well what it’s trying to do. My problems don’t really stem from the production itself, but from the wider theatrical frame in which it occurs. Indigenous theatre in Australia faces a kind of glass ceiling of its own – while companies and individuals create wonderful work, budgetary limitations mean that we don’t see work that crosses a particular boundary.
I want to know when we’ll see our Indigenous War of the Roses, our Aboriginal Lost Echo, or our five-hour Cloudstreet where blackfellas take centre stage. I’m all for personal stories as the basis of contemporary storytelling, but it shouldn’t be the only option on offer. War of the Roses, Lost Echo, Cloudstreet – these are “national” shows , ones which define our idea of what theatre can be in Australia, and the world, today. In the case of Cloudstreet, they also help define a particular national identity. Why isn’t there a black equivalent?
In part, I suspect, because those producing Indigenous theatre simply can’t afford it. Belvoir and Malthouse, for instance, have demonstrated an admirable commitment to Indigenous programming for some time, but there’s a limit to what they can do. Perhaps a national company would allow the creation of something able to redefine our notions of what Indigenous theatre can be – perhaps not. And again, if it’s at the expense of those smaller, more intimate companies, would this be a good thing? I don’t know. But I’m getting more and more interested.
Sisters of Gelam. Season ended.


Daniel Schlusser’s Life is a Dream is the perfect complement to this argument. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of theatre. Astonishing. Original. Respectful and irreverent. I urge everyone to see it twice.
But it’s also an oddity: it began as a VCA production developed over months of rehearsal. You’re at drama school, so you have time to play with the possibilities of a piece. That’s what you’re there for. So the development period for Life is a Dream is waaaay longer than almost any professional production would dare to hope for. Is it so surprising that it’s so much more polished and confident than so many professional productions?
You just can’t afford to spend three months (more, if you consider that this is a remount) rehearsing and honing the potential of a work when you’re on a tight budget. If you’re a non-professional company, people have day jobs and lives. If you’re pro, you’re answerable to boards and funding bodies and investors. If you’re at school, hell, let’s take our time.
Schlusser and his cast have torn apart a 17th century Spanish classic with such fine detail that the result is an entirely new tapestry composed of the most minutely filigreed strands. I won’t give away the story, as part of the pleasure is reconstructing your own version of what’s going on from the performances presented you. Enough to say that it’s a wonderful story, and the treatment it is given here is both brutal and affectionate.
Life is a Dream is the kind of work that can only be the result of that most precious of commodities, time. And we all know that time is that other thing, too. The Malthouse residency programs of the past two years have resulted in equally rich productions. And maybe, to return to my original point, it might be time to give just that – time – to an Indigenous theatre company.
Life is a Dream ends Sunday at the Store Room Theatre, Fitzroy North.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

MTC to appoint Equal Opportunity Officer

Today's Age reports that Melbourne Uni has requested that Melbourne Theatre Company appoint an equal opportunity officer and committee to address the lack of opportunities for female directors.

The initial response from MTC was to be expected - pulling out its empty pockets and wearing a sad face. Creating new positions can cost money, so it's likely the positions will be filled by existing staffmembers.

And it is curious, I'll admit, that unimelb asks for further roles to be created at MTC when most of its own departments and faculties look like shooting ranges right now.
But if the MTC does follow through on the recommendations it will at least raise the bar for similar organisations around the country, as well as provide vindication for the very large chorus of voices who have been calling for change for a long time.

The other development just as interesting is the demand that MTC advertise positions, especially associate director jobs. This won't just open up those roles to previously overlooked folks (if it really does that at all) - it'll allow the industry to scrutinise the appointment process itself. I'm expecting a fair bit of debate over who gets jobs from among those who apply, which will make for some hearty - even fiery - conversation.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reviews: Strassman; Africa


By David Strassman.

Is David Strassman a plagiarist? There’s a bit in his new show that had me knitting my brow and considering the possibility. He brings out a baby puppet, one of many who are auditioning to replace the soon-to-be-departed Ted. E. Bare. After a few gags, the baby sings Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma".

I took me a minute to work out why I was experiencing such a sense of déjà vu and then I figured it out:

(Song starts at 3.10)

What? How could this be? How could two ventriloquists (themselves pretty rare) do a variation on the same act in the same town in the same year?
Strassman’s bit was slightly different: his puppet didn’t pronounce the words but just sang in nonsense baby-talk. Close enough, though.

There were three or four options that came to me.

1: Strassman knew about Conti’s act and was passing it off as his own (bad)

2: Conti knew of Strassman’s bit and was passing it off as her own (bad)

3: Neither directly knew of each other’s bit but had coincidentally come up with the same idea.

This might sound a bit unlikely but it’s worth thinking about. There’s an interesting essay by Jonathan Lethem that addresses this idea of cultural syncretism. It’s not surprising that two artists would come up with very similar acts occasionally because they both live in a culture of sign exchange.

Lethem’s article begins by describing the novella Lolita – not Nabokov’s famous tale but a 1916 short story by a forgotten German which is bizarrely similar to Nabokov’s. Both feature a middle-aged traveller who falls in love with a child and is emotionally destroyed as a result. Both give the child the name Lolita.

Lethem wanders away from this curious case but others have tried to work out what happened here: coincidence? Outright theft? Or something else: cryptoamnesia, by which Nabokov knew of the earlier story but forgot it, thinking that he was writing something completely original.

I like this possibility, and it explains why familiar lines so often appear in song lyrics or films, or why writers and actors sometimes offer something that seems a direct rip-off of something else but do so in such an unselfconscious way that you can tell they think they’re being original.

Strassman and Conti might have heard of or seen the other’s work but forgotten about the Puccini bit on a conscious level – when they thought up a puppet singing Nessun Dorma it was really a memory.

4: One knew of the other’s bit and borrowed it but that’s ok.

This is a tricky one. Further into Lethem’s essay he writes about the way some kinds of artistic creation are “open source”: jazz and blues musicians frequently riff off other musicians’ compositions, for instance.

Stand up comedy is not open source – recycling another comedian’s jokes is a cardinal sin, in Melbourne at least. But in the older variety show world, standard acts were commonplace and it wasn’t unusual to see performers pulling out old favourites that long preceded them. This was, in fact, what a lot of audiences wanted.

Conti and Strassman are at a strange nexus of comedy and variety, really. Ventriloquism has its roots in the latter but these days is more commonly situated in the stand up world. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen two puppets sing the same song by Puccini this year. Hell, maybe countless puppets have been singing exactly that song for decades and both Strassman and Conti are nodding to a much longer tradition.

This is why Strassman’s show works for a lot of people and why it didn’t really do much for me. His shows are almost entirely what you expect from “a ventriloquist show,” and his puppets are absolutely archetypical (foul-mouthed wooden dummy, dopey bear, take-my-wife-please-style beaver). His artistry is extremely conservative – he fulfils your expectations rather than defying, subverting or questioning them. This has provided him with a very lucrative career and a massive fanbase. You know what you’re getting with Strassman.

But calling this conservatism isn’t a slur: we’re all guilty of it in various ways. If I’d rather see someone who challenges my expectations, that in itself is an expectation I want to see fulfilled (rather than challenged).


By My Darling Patricia

My Darling Patricia’s Africa is such a puppet show. It takes after bunraku, the Japanese style of puppetry in which puppeteers are usually visible to the audience (this caused a stir at Avenue Q, too, although that show featured onstage puppeteers for a very different effect).

Africa is unusual for a Melbourne audience for this style (which is put to incredible beautiful use here), as well as its subject matter. It follows three preteens living in a house of overwhelming neglect and abuse who develop their own fantasy worlds out of the chaos around them. It’s deeply depressing and cautiously hopeful at the same time, and I can highly recommend it.

It’s not a better show than Strassman’s, however; the two just have very different intentions and very different audiences, too. I know which I prefer, but can’t dismiss the other.

Africa features a gorgeous set, strong and difficult performances from both actors and puppeteers and a tight, often surprising narrative. The puppets themselves are magnificent and handled with an unexpected confidence and attention to detail - if you're not a fan of puppetry you'll still be wowed by what they do here and the freedoms their use open up for new ways of exploring a situation (it would be a much less of a show if these roles were played by humans).

It packs a lot into a brief hour, although the resolution is a bit quick and neat for me, and the final moments of the piece could have been drawn out a bit longer to leave a more lingering impression on the viewer. In fact, it's odd that a work that really respects imagination, both in children and its audience, doesn't give you much space to contemplate and fantasise yourself once the lights go down. That's my only quibble, and if those lights could stay down for another five or ten seconds before curtain call I'd be a happy fellow.

Here’s a neat twist: Strassman actually has made artistic inroads in one direction that goes well beyond the traditional practices of ventriloquism. For a while he’s been introducing automata and robotics into the show and there are several sequences in his new show that do away with the ventriloquist entirely, as electronically animated figures with prerecorded voices take over from the old hand-up-the-bum ones.

And these automata come from precisely the same historical institution as the kids in Africa – the Japanese ningyo that directly led to mechanical puppets and later robots. Plagiarism, homage, open source culture or tradition – it’s all mixed up in the ecstasy of influence, innit?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Kin; and a meandering essay on other stuff

Man, crappy families get a lot of publicity. Why doesn’t anyone ever look at the positive side of having a bad clan? Without dysfunctional families we’d be starved of so much great literature, sensational news headlines and 80s sitcoms. Not only that, we’d have no need of such things to help take our mind off our own domestic life and its disappointments. Hurray for emotionally-scarring families!

Drama schools are a bit of a family. I’d like to scold whatever parental authority decided to program the latest round of VCAM Masters showings the way they did – not for the inadequacies of their children but for the way they were all presented simultaneously in the same time slot. You had to choose which of the three shows you wanted to see and if another piqued your interest you had to come back another night. It’s like lining up your beloved offspring and telling them that only one can be your favourite so they better start selling themselves. It’s not a lot like that, but when two of this year’s offerings are 40 minutes or less it would have been pretty easy to give punters the chance to see a few or all in one night. It’s not like VCAM shows are fighting off hordes of eager theatregoers with sticks.

I saw Rinske Ginsberg’s Kin last week, and if it was anything to go by I’d gladly have walked straight into another show by one of her VCAM peers afterwards. It’s an unusually clever piece of theatre with some very impressive elements – great performances, a terribly effective lighting design and, most of all, a careful balance of experiment and entertainment. Ginsberg shows a commitment to formal innovation, emphasising movement and image-based techniques and the creation of an almost chiaroscuro effect, while maintaining a clear focus on narrative and developed characters that give you a reason to actually be interested in all the playful guff going on.

The work portrays the relationship between a mother and her grown son, with the matriarch sometimes split into three bodies. He visits her for dinner and it’s immediately clear from her disapproving, distracted insistence on particular dining rituals (where the cutlery is placed, how it’s held) that she’s had an awful effect on the development of this fella. Later, she visits him at his home and the anxious monster she’s created wreaks a reluctant but inevitable revenge. The whole thing gestures towards the gothic, towards myth, Freudian thought, child psychology, religious iconography, irony and penny dreadfuls. All of these are only blinkingly hinted at, and at no time does the piece do any roosterly strutting. It’s accessible on a very surface level without being reductive or condescending.

The dynamic between parent and child here got me thinking about an old notion I’d had of the family dynamics of Australian theatre. This is just rambling stuff and the review is basically over so feel free to tune out and admire the wallpaper, but here’s what I was musing on:
In classic attachment theory, how a caregiver responds to a child’s concerns establishes the foundations of their future development. If a kid is distressed by new situations and the caregiver acknowledges that fear before going on to reassure them that they’ll be safe, the child will develop the strength to be confident in exploring their world. If the caregiver responds by trying to quiet the kid down without acknowledging the validity of their concern, the child learns to internalise their worry. If the caregiver is more preoccupied with their own problems, or worse, provides erratic and confused responses to the child’s pleas, the child will develop a generally chaotic sense of the world that they live in. 

In all but the first of these cases, the result is an anxious person. This can take different forms – anxious-avoidant (unable to make connections with others), ambivalent (seeking validation but anxious when it’s offered) or disorganised (confused and inexplicable responses). Looking at the arts scene in Melbourne today, I can’t help but characterise it as a State of Anxiety.
This is totally metaphorical and it’s cheap pop psychology, but it seems like a slightly fruitful analogy. It rests on the idea that emerging artists have a relationship with various higher-ups – funding bodies, curators, administrators, programmers, directors etc – that puts the latter in the role of caregiver. The responses provided during years (or even decades) of awkward first steps will shape the later artist in fundamental ways. It’s for this reason that even hugely established and respected artists that I’ve met have spoken in ways that suggest a not personal anxiety but a professional anxiety that runs deep. It’s as if they can never feel secure in their practice, even after winning countless awards, earning frequent public praise and building up an enduring and well-paid career.

You could argue that this is because so much of artist’s life early on is defined by rejection – applying for jobs, auditioning for roles, putting in grant applications that go nowhere. That’s fine, and of course it can’t change.

But I think that what this attachment-theory-lite perspective can offer is an alternative vision of an arts caregiver’s responsibility. Of course artists will be rejected, but the way in which that rejection is framed is crucial to their later development. 

If your submissions are met with resounding silence, with pro forma apologies and lack of direct attention, it’s no surprise that you may well become avoidant (giving up on funding and treating yourself as an outsider) or ambivalent (desperate for attention but feeling unsatisfied if it ever arrives). And too many artists have a disorganised relationship with their caregivers, simply not having a clue how it all works.

Part of this is due to the cold and impersonal vision these caregivers have – even using the term ‘caregiver’ is very likely causing a few readers to don an ill-tempered sneer. It’s a fluffy huggable word that couldn’t really have a place in business, in industry.

But the terminology we use in that industry shapes the culture itself: if you demand ‘transparency’ you are implying someone’s desire to obfuscate; when you demand ‘accountability’ you are implying someone has done something wrong. Nobody asks who is accountable for an act of wonder or charity. You might ask who is responsible, but that word’s lost some currency. Suspicion defines the economic mindset of today. (And re. the ongoing gender-inequity-in-theatre debate: there’s a huge difference between saying ‘this is something that needs addressing’ and saying ‘this is something I want to address.’)

I don’t mean to slight Brett Sheehy here (some think I have a beef with him but he’s done plenty of laudable things with MIAF) but his definition of the caregivers I’m discussing as ‘gatekeepers’ is exactly what I’m talking about. ‘Gatekeeper’ isn’t a title I would ever want, since it implies a chill and impartial authority with little responsibility for those prevented from passing through the gate. Using a term such as caregiver instead is precisely unacceptable because it implies that responsibility, which no gatekeeper wants.

I’m not saying that gatekeepers need to fling open the gates and let everyone into their boardroom/festival/venue, or that funding bodies need to just start flinging dollars off the top of the battlements to the assembled throng below. One of a caregiver’s primary roles is to say no.
But it takes real talent to be able to tell someone that their art is really dreadful and undeserving of a few of your pennies. And it’s a truism that as long as there are humans on the face of this planet there will be some who exist with deluded fantasies of artistic genius inversely proportionate to their abilities. Most of them live hand to mouth and contribute a fair whack of CO2 by gasbagging on about how hard it is to get the attention of the higher-ups. The deleterious effects on our atmosphere are about the only real harm such bloviators cause, however, so it’s hard to see why people get worked up about artists whose only crime is overestimating themselves.

If sub-par artists actually received responsible attention from caregivers – explaining that their anxieties are understandable and valid, but that there are artistic problems they need addressing – then surely the result would be artists who actually improve instead of developing a sense of mistrust and fear towards the industry at large.

But is it a revolutionary idea to suggest that an average artist could actually become something else if they were provided with the right guidance? Sure, nobody wants to take on that responsibility, and most of us would respond that these artists are best off either enrolling in a course or just slogging away at their practice and getting back to us when they have something decent to show for it.

Fair enough. It’s worked that way forever. It’s how society operates, and not just in the arts sector. It’s called capitalism. We don’t want to be responsible for anyone beyond our own nearest and dearest. Industries may talk about themselves as families, but any real family that treated its members the way industries do would result in massively damaged offspring. What’s the alternative?

Well, we could start with the famous line from Eugene Debs, who was otherwise a bit of a doofus. “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” How about this: while there is shitty art in Melbourne, I am responsible for it. And while there are anxious artists in Melbourne, I will blame myself.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reviews: Corpse of Hamlet; If You Lived Here...; Solipsis

One of my favourite phrases: "So now then". Each word in it is packed with possibility. Whoever thought of putting them together is amazing.


By Mutation Theatre. Trades Hall, ends Sunday.

If some 16th version of Parky had asked Shakespeare which of his characters would have the most enduring impact on 400 years of theatre, he probably would have said Coriolanus or Pericles or Titus Andronicus because all of their names are a bit rude-sounding and Bill was pretty much the Elizabethan Benny Hill. This is corroborated by the original titles of many of his plays: Carry On Up the Canal, Windsor Wives Gone Wild and Henry IV: Assignment Miami Beach.

But if you’d asked the real author of his plays (Kit Marlowe) you’d get a different response. Marlowe would have said Hamlet because Marlowe was a sooky baby, but Marlowe would also have been right because Marlowe was always right. Even though more people today have probably seen some version of Romeo and Juliet than a full production (or film) of Hamlet, the Dane is still that great Everest that all serious young actors aspire to take a crack at one day or another. This is a pity since Hamlet is generally the least interesting of Shakespeare’s leads and has been freakin’ done to death a million times over.

This is part of the beauty of Mutation Theatre’s current effort The Corpse of Hamlet, and by beauty I of course mean problem. It begins with Bill, a guy who claims to have been there when Hamlet died and who has lived 400 years watching actors donning his dead corpse and paying disrespect to the guy. This is an intriguing beginning, hinting at cursed immortality of figures like the Biblical Cain or the Wandering Jew; framing things within a nice pomo self-reflexivity about the death of tragedy; and promising an investigation of the legacy of Hamlet in theatre history, rather than just trying to wear the dead corpse himself.

It doesn’t really live up to this promise, though. The vague narrative is driven by the journey of this Bill fella from an undying and unchanging Hell to some kind of redemption, but the show’s playfulness also makes it very difficult to follow. Sometimes Bill becomes Hamlet, sometimes he appears a deluded young actor who thinks he’s Hamlet, sometimes he seems completely unlocatable. He sings songs, converses with an overpowering God-like figure, performs snatches of text from Hamlet. There are some very fine sequences: one in which male suicide is discussed, plus an ironic recurring motif in which scenes end with fantasies of murder which reveal the essentially juvenile aspect of Bill/Hamlet. But there are other scenes that aren’t necessary. We’re treated to not one but two elongated sequences of dressing and undressing. I came to a show with the cool title of “The Corpse of Hamlet,” not “The Changing Rooms at Roger David”.

Patrick McCarthy devised and performs solo in the piece, which explains some of the lack of perspective that’s common in such works. McCarthy’s company has pulled off some very highly-regarded works in the past couple of years, but this one would benefit from further development and focus. There’s a good show in here, but it’s still wearing the corpse of something else.


By I'm Trying To Kiss You. Season ended.

This excellently-named show from an excellently-named new company tackles the age old question of what a person should do when they wake up in a strange house after a big party with no memory of the night before and only a crazy woman to help you piece together the jigsaw. In my experience, the answer to that question is this: when she offers to make you a cup of tea and then just proceeds to throw a soggy roll of toilet paper at you, politely make your exit and just consider the night a write-off.

A girl waking up and then having a wet dunny roll flung at them isn’t really enough to justify an hour of theatre, though, so this play introduces a few more elements. Crazy lady slowly reveals some truly horrible events from the night which hangover lady may or may not have caused; there are intimations that this isn’t a real conversation at all but something more metaphysical; there’s an exciting bit with a water bottle that contains vodka.

Everyone involved throws themselves into this show with gusto, and most are between 20-25. It sort of shows – the space between what they’re aiming for and what they achieve is always apparent, and while the narrative doesn’t necessarily unfold in a predictable way, there are only a few options that seem available for its trajectory and it dutifully sticks to these. It doesn’t aim too high, which is both good and bad.

One technical quibble I had with the show was the performances, which were both independently strong but lacked something when matched together. The character who Knows All is what an acting teacher would call a high status character – she has power over the poor girl who just wants to know what happened. But usually a high status character doesn’t need to lord it all over the lower status folk, because they already they have that power. In this piece she’s acting as if she’s the one depending on the other for validation – I realise this actually makes sense by the end of the piece, but it’s a dynamic that seems initially jarring and doesn’t alter throughout the show. When you compare it to something like a Pinter play, which this is very close to, you can see how power relations can be all the more chilling when they aren’t about flouting power but are about its absence of warning signs, the way emotional violence can be casual and seem effortless.

Anyway, on with the show.


By Spill Collective. Season ended.

Some of the I’m Trying to Kiss You folks had a hand in this piece at fortyfivedownstairs, too. It’s a very different beast: more of a performance art thing (which nobody says anymore – live art has taken over there, though that’s a very troubled and abused term too which isn’t necessarily appropriate here). Solipsis basically consists of a big bubble hanging from the ceiling in which a creepy post-human dude dwells, and five mutant apocalyptic figures who hang around the outside of the bubble. There’s some really great sound art, a few projected images, an impressive and organic set design and a bit of talking and movement. I couldn’t hear a lot of the spoken stuff and the movement was interesting but not what you’d call choreography. 

I don’t know that anyone involved in the production could have coherently summarised what they were trying to achieve. This isn’t a criticism – as performance art it’s perfectly healthy to create an open-ended environment with no knowledge of the results. It seemed a lot of fun for all participants, too. But a lot of the imagery employed and themes of mutable bodies, oozing viscera and contamination are pretty familiar.


I’ve linked these three mini-reviews because they collectively seem to indicate a couple of things to me:

Firstly, they all show how younger performance makers usually have to get a certain range of things out of their system, which is why they’re about things that are interesting to theatre folks in their early twenties (partying, body horror, their relationship to theatre itself). Indeed, all of these shows are about all of these things in certain ways.

Secondly, they all show what a great network of younger performance makers there are in Melbourne right now – it’s really, really encouraging to see people energetically mounting productions such as these. More on that in a later post.

Thirdly, they all suggest to me a bit of a crisis these performance makers face. They’re all influenced by theories of postmodernism, but all face the stalemate that undergrad pomo courses leave students with. They all know that we can’t simply return to models of naïve realist theatre and remain interesting to anyone with a serious interest in performance, but they’re also unclear where to go from here. They’re either too aware of alternatives, so that it seems everything has been tried before, or they’re not aware and therefore try to invent something new which has already been invented.