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.


Anonymous said...

Hi John, not intending to throw a spanner in the works but as a cast member of Life is a Dream I feel I need to correct one of the arguments you presented in your review. Contrary to your statement, we were not afforded oodles of that luxurious commodity, time, at all. During its original season (at the VCA) we had only four weeks rehearsal (some of which Daniel was directing his simultaneous project, The Zombie State) and the rest of the time was divided to allow for voice and movement classes.
In leading up to this remount we had only 9 days rehearsal, as some of our cast were flying specifically from interstate for the production. The quality and detail of this work must be attributed to Daniel Schlusser's unique ability to combine speed and precision in his direction, affording his actors just enough responsibility to really engage in a collaborative effort and transcend the boundaries of student training. This production could easily have become a last-minute shambles but thanks to Daniel's careful and patient eye, we have thankfully deepened the work we began oh so long ago. I am glad that you felt that it was a polished product, as at times it was hastily applied.

Born Dancin' said...

Ah, this is news. Thanks for the comment. I'd also then add that the cast deserve more credit, too, for being able to take on Daniel's direction so well in a shorter period than I'd realised. From the outside it certainly looks as if everyone here was working in incredible synchronicity.

Daniel Schlusser said...

hi John, I'd understand what my colleague is trying to say in the response to your review but I feel that the main assertion is worth correcting.

Your key point that, "Life is a Dream is the kind of work that can only be the result of that most precious of commodities, time," remains true despite an error of fact.

The show's strengths are absolutely attributable to the time and resources available in it's creation.

True, we didn't have three months. What we did have was a group of performers that had already worked together for almost three years. What we did have was six weeks rehearsing in situ, that is, the rehearsal space WAS the performance space. The first of these conditions has obvious benefits, as you wouldn't have the kind of ensemble work as seen in this production without it. The second is the most important.

When I am in discussion about bringing this work into major theatre companies, or when applying for grants to try and reproduce the method of creation, the biggest obstacle is that there is no way that anyone can afford me the "luxury" of rehearsing on a set, to scale. Ideally, all aspects of the design, the performance choices and directorial decisions are made directly on to the stage, in a similar way to a painter working directly onto the canvas. You can’t make this sort of work in temporary rehearsal spaces, where the set is often fictitious until the last minute, for example. This could be called a luxury of time but is a fundamental practice in many other theatre cultures and certainly essential for my process.

Lastly, the year that has lapsed in between the student and the public version of the show has indeed deepened the work. While the remount was very fast, the vca training that these young graduates have, includes a very strongly developed kinetic, or muscle-memory and so were able to recall the work very precisely. So while I thank Anonymous for the comment that I am able to “transcend” the training, the training is in fact extremely useful for my practice.

My thanks go to them for that. I can imagine that being a student within that system of training has its frustrations – there is a distance between the stated ideal and the reality – but as an older practitioner I can safely say that this kind of work is impossible within most existing models outside of vcam. My ongoing challenge is trying to find producers/theatres that can understand and help solve this quandary so that we can bring this work to the wider public.

- daniel schlusser