Category Archives: circus

Audio Stage, s.2, ep.5: Esther Anatolitis & Angharad Wynne-Jones

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In our momentous final, fifth episode on responsibility, Fleur and Jana spoke with two great women of the Australian performing arts: all-round cultural leaders Angharad Wynne-Jones, Artistic Director of Arts House Melbourne, and Esther Anatolitis, Director of Regional Arts Victoria (formerly CEO of Melbourne Fringe). In an emotional ending to the series, we touch on some important, often neglected questions: how do we create an ecology that supports the artist, as well as the arts?”

“Risk is not so risky. It’s a necessity. It is how forms develop, how we find new audiences, new artists, how cultural conversations happen.”
– Angharad Wynne-Jones

This is a very special episode. Angharad and Esther spoke with an authenticity and feeling that is rare in public discourse. We felt very privileged to have them with us, and we all left in tears.

Discussed in this episode:
George Brandis, being a person with a ‘decision-making potential and capacity to be confused’, the future, ‘creating new artistic frameworks for established arts companies’ and what that could possibly mean, the difference between advocacy and lobbying, audiences, the importance of having rigorous conversations about art, being accountable to the rate-payers of the City of Melbourne, bushfires, Kat Muscat, burn-out, and what is cultural leadership anyway?!

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

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Audio Stage, s.2, ep. 2: Jane Howard & Richard Watts

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“One of the interesting things about theatre criticism… is the breadth of works that theatre critics are supposed to see…. A literature critic isn’t going to review 50 Shades of Grey unless it’s a joke. Most of them aren’t reviewing commercial fiction; they’re reviewing literature. But theatre critics must review both small, independent, artistically difficult work and we review musicals.”
– Jane Howard

In our second episode on responsibility, Fleur and I are talking to arts journalists, critics and advocates Jane Howard and Richard Watts, in the lovely 3RRR studios. What you will get from this episode is an insight into how some of our prominent arts advocates understand the responsibility inherent in their work. What you WON’T get from this episode is any sense of the incredibly hot weather we had on that day! We were all exhausted!

Discussed in this episode:
processing difficult art, writing about famous people whose work you have never seen before, conscious and unconscious bias in writing about certain people, Cameron Woodhead, feminist comedy, how bad art can make for a very good review, Strictly Ballroom, drunk Saturday night crowds that laugh at anything, Margaret Pomeranz, Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, being a feminist reviewer, so many white voices!, issues of race and gender, and whether 200 words could ever be enough.

“My rule of thumb is, if they’ve been to my house for dinner, or I’ve been to their house for dinner, I’m not going to review them.”
– Richard Watts

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

The Critic #03

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This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading “The Critic #03” »

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The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)

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This text was first published in June-July 2014, in The Lifted Brow 23 – The Ego Issue.

1. IN WHICH WE ARE INTRODUCED TO DAVE

Dave the Comedian was an everyman; which is a tautology, because every man wants to be a comedian, and there is very little space in Australia for a comedian who isn’t an everyman. The space of stand-up comedy is defiantly masculine in the most traditional sense. Adrienne Blaine compares the stand-up comedian to the personification of erection: the man conquers his audience with laughter the way he would sexually subsume a woman; it is “a social area where patriarchal promise of dominion can be easily realised.” Comedian Pete Holmes compared the daily challenge of stand-up comedy to the ongoing work a man puts into confirming his masculine, non-homosexual, non-effeminate identity in these, crude, words: “you have to keep doing it and keep proving it every day — get your comedy dick hard every day and fuck audiences.”

Every woman who has spent time with comedians off-stage has felt the terrifying, laborious pressure to find them funny, to laugh, to let them feel that they are strong, victorious, alpha—even though the affirmation of women is never as valued as the respect of other comedians, other men. Comedy, like politics, is patriarchy condensed. Christopher Hitchens, who always seemed to identify with the alpha male, and uphold the values of patriarchy, wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that women could not be as funny as men, because they did not evolve with the constant, evolutionary need to impress females at all cost. The ones who were funny – he conceded some existed – were “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” In other words, too masculine to fit neatly into patriarchal gender roles, sorry.

“Dying on stage” is that exactly: a strangely mesmerising witnessing of someone’s social power crumbling entirely into nothingness. Dave the Comedian died on stage in the first five minutes. His jokes about finding clitoris were terrible. He kept asking how much time he had left (much). He berated the audience for not laughing. He vomited, fell, and started bleeding. He got confused and repeated his act twice. He made fat jokes, rape jokes, gay jokes, Julia Gillard jokes, and made it abundantly clear how much he was trying to impress Wil Anderson. In terms outlined above, according to which stand-up comedy is the world order, the comedian pure erection, and the audience a vagina to be conquered, Dave the Comedian was a spectacle of emasculation.
But Dave the Comedian was the joke itself, woven together out of gunk of masculinity by Zoe Coombs Marr, member of Sydney-based female performance collective post and apparently excellent in drag.

Coming from the intellectually rigorous and mature culture of performance in Sydney – where, unlike in Melbourne, the link between independent performance and academia is strong and fruitful – post had created a body of work that made elaborate formalist jokes about what is supposed to happen in theatre, deconstructing formal devices of traditional dramaturgy and stage design, of character and text. In Gifted and Talented in 2006, they improbably blended over-ambitious mothers’ programs for their daughters enrolled in a variety of appropriately feminine activities with the torture routines at Guantanamo Bay. In Shamelessly Glitzy Work in 2009, they overlaid a conversation recorded, seemingly, during an acid trip, with every device of drama and illusion that theatre had, making a bizarre variety show that had an undeniable and persuasive, if entirely artificial, dramatic force. And in Oedipus Schmoedipus, at Sydney Festival 2014, they staged every important death in the Western dramatic canon, one after another. Coombs-Marr’s solo work, on the other hand, emphasised extreme awkwardness, of which Dave must have been the pinnacle of possible.

It was hard to pinpoint what made Dave feel like a work of genius. Coombs-Marr’s feeling for pacing, tone, and structure destroyed Dave’s masculine ego in every way possible – he was even revealed to be gay – without once coming across as mean. If anything, Dave accumulated sympathy as he accumulated failures. It was hard to tell if a woman could not bring the kind of hate to her drag that a man could, or if the audience, given a portrait without overt commentary, defaulted to pity instead of ridicule, a gesture of generosity they would not necessarily have extended towards failure of femininity. However, it was the exuberance of the ridicule that seemed significant: because Zoe Coombs-Marr herself was a small, queer woman who nonetheless filled the stage to the brim, Dave and all the men he represented were never the centre of the piece, but simply a pretext for dressing up, for play-acting. The more that the show departed from garden-variety awkwardness into bizarre, the more inventive Dave’s questionable comedy choices became, the more we were settled into watching a woman take the piss out of masculinity. Paradoxically, it was precisely in the act of drag that Zoe Coombs-Marr asserted a female voice in the room, a voice that became all the more distinct, the more accurately she was pinning down the image of the unsuccessful male comedian. Unlike much of feminist comedy playing around Melbourne Comedy Festival, the flavour of this show was not oppositional, not angry, not pushing against a narrowly defined female role; instead, it was as if it swallowed a narrowly defined male role and showed how much a woman can encompass. It was this generosity, ultimately, that resonated. It seemed premonitory and indicative: this is what feminism 4.0 would look like. Continue reading “The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)” »

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The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)

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This text was first published in April-May 2014, in The Lifted Brow 22.

1. IN WHICH EPISTEMOLOGY IS DISCUSSED

The Critic always saw theatre from the first-person point of view, because there was no other way. Perhaps because, as a woman, she never felt she was able to assume the universal point of view. The idea of it – that she could see the world unmarred by who she was – felt impossible. The Critic saw beautiful, young women on stage, often in various states of undress, and could see that these were erotic stage images, but not for her. She saw hysterical women, men who would sooner commit suicide than admit an error, she saw manly banter and regret, she saw many things the meaning of which she knew, but did not feel. Theatre being theatre, she also saw many extremely rich people treat servants or people of colour badly, while they themselves revelled in relatively trivial problems, and sometimes thought about how those servants or people of colour represented her ancestors more than the protagonists, how the story of her people was only ever told on the margins. The Critic, in other words, always knew that the theatre was not meant for her, that her eyes were not the bull’s eye of the audience target, even when the message arrived. Even when she was greatly moved.

Why did the Critic like theatre, then? Why did she make it her life to see theatre three, four, five, sometimes even ten times a week, if she felt like an intruder? Because the Critic, like many – perhaps most – women, felt like an intruder in most discursive social situations already, and had become accustomed to feeling like she was sitting slightly to the left and down in the audience – a feeling that did not disappear in those prestigious, central seats. Sometimes she was elated, or crushed, sometimes her life changed while sitting in those seats; but it was an expected gift, because she had not been the target audience, because the magic that was done on her was done almost by accident.

It is said that privilege is marked by assuming that your views are representative of everyone’s. Speaking with various male critics after shows, ready to judge always slightly faster, the Critic often asked: “Why are you so sure that your opinion is the right one?” It was a strange question to many. “I know what I like,” they sometimes answered, tautology imperceptible to them.

“But you aren’t everyone”, the Critic might offer, uselessly, because in a certain sense they were everyone: they were the bull’s eye, the eye that mattered, the eye to which the art was offered. Oh, the Critic was able to pontificate with the best, argue her opinions, be sometimes insistently praising, sometimes cruelly harsh, but it was qualified intellectual bravado, always aware of where fact ended and personal opinion began.

It was with great relief that the Critic found Nataša Govedić, European dramaturg and performance critic, writing: “I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values, ideology if you prefer – and there doesn’t exist, not has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participiate in them.”

It is paradoxical, then, that the Critic had studiously avoided having opinions on supposedly ‘minority’ arts, such as Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival of LGBT arts, considering it and her mismatched. They were, of course, but less than feared. The queer audience arrived to the theatres with the same layered thinking, palpably so – everywhere around her the Critic could feel a suspicious, reserved energy of distantiation, of mistrust. ‘Is this work going to hurt me, or will it finally say something I can agree with?’ To the extent to which the audience mood can read, this is what the Midsumma audience seemed to be saying. Continue reading “The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)” »

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minus signs (reviewed: Artshouse season 01/2010: works by Rotozaza; Mem Morrison Company; Helen Cole; Acrobat; Scattered Tacks)

Silvertree & Gellman, Scattered Tacks. Photo: Alicia Ardern.

THE NEXT DECADE IN THEATRE AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE WILL BE A DECADE OF PHENOMENA, NOT OF SIGNS, OF EXPERIENCING RATHER THAN READING PERFORMANCE. THE FIRST ‘SEMESTER’ OF THE ARTS HOUSE 2010 PROGRAM COULD BE NEATLY DIVIDED IN TWO PARTS: AUSTRALIAN CONTEMPORARY CIRCUS AND UK-BASED RELATIONAL PERFORMANCE.

The latter (where the audience become performers and co-creators) is a backlash against 20 years of over-mediatised postmodern theatre. These new works are theatre minus stage, performance minus performers and spectacle minus the spectacular. The audience experience is the event itself: tactile, immediate, immersive, anti-ironic. The semiotic component is minimal, sometimes altogether absent, as the performance exists mainly in the mind of the spectator. It appears, perhaps, as our era abandons questions of meaning and engages with amplified possibilities of doing. It’s almost like a direct answer to Deleuze’s dream of the new non-representational theatre, in which “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit.” And although tested by performance-makers both here (bettybooke, Panther) and elsewhere (Rimini Protokoll), the UK, building on its rich variety of live art, is something of a leader.

This form is too young to have encountered much meaningful criticism in Australia, but every form quickly accumulates knowledge. While I don’t think everything we have seen at Arts House could be called successful, the failures are just as interesting, like the results of an experiment.

Take Rotozaza. Their two shows, Etiquette and Wondermart, promised a new form of expression, ‘autoteatro,’ but delivered a half-hearted combination of pomo referentiality and demanding, mediatised interactivity. Both are no more than voices inside a headset, giving instructions to a single audience member. Wondermart is a walk through a(ny) supermarket. Etiquette is 30 minutes in a café, in which you and another audience member perform an encounter, a conversation from Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the final scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and much else—sometimes by talking to each other, sometimes moving figurines on the chess board in front of you.

Wondermart, Rotozaza. Photo: Ant Hampton.

While very engaging in those few moments when the narration matches what’s happening in space (such as when theories of shopper behaviour are confirmed by innocent bystanders in the supermarket), most of both shows consisted of a series of mundane and tiring little tasks. Despite the interactive pretences, they were not so much an experience for one audience member as a performance by one audience member, with the concomitant stage anxiety—even if nobody was watching. The problem was not just that many aspects of the situation cannot be sufficiently controlled by the audience-performer (my noisy supermarket trolley forbade me from following shoppers as instructed; or the concentration required to both quickly deliver lines and hear your partner-in-dialogue). Rotozaza underestimate our anxiety not to let the performance down: a compulsive need to please the dictatorial voice inside the headphones by performing everything right.

.Mem Morrison, Ringside. Photo: National Museum of Singapore/Chris P.

If Rotozaza forgot how unpleasant structured events can be, Mem Morrison went all the way and staged the worst aspects of a wedding ceremony in Ringside. Its entire conceptual spine is the sense of alienation, monotony, meaninglessness and loneliness one feels at a collective ritual. The performance starts before it starts — audience groups are arranged into family photos, well-dressed and carnation-studded as per instructions—and seated around one long table. An infinite number of black-clad women, both attendants, family and brides-to-be, deliver food and crockery. Amidst the flurry Morrison is the only male, unhappy, confused, 12 years old, jokingly told it’s his turn next, sometimes playing with a Superman toy and sometimes MC-ing with his shoe instead of a microphone.

Ringside’s aspirations are sky-high, but the performance never manages to reveal much of its topical menagerie: ethnicity, gender, tradition, multiculturalism are signposted rather than explored or experienced. Morrison’s entire text is delivered through headphones, creating a mediatised distance that in 2010, after 20 years of screens onstage, is as déjà-vu as it is genuinely disengaging. There is a paradox within Ringside: it purports to bring forth an aspect of Turkish culture, but the distanciation intrinsic to the method condemns it as facile. The experience is ultimately of witnessing a whining 12-year-old, loudly airing his discontent at being dragged to a family event.

Helen Cole’s Collecting Fireworks, on the other hand, a performance archive and an archive-performance, is as simple as it is brilliant. A genuine one-on-one performance (a dark room, a single armchair, recorded voices describing their favourite performance works, followed by recording one’s own contribution), it exemplifies the opening possibilities of this new form: no stage, no performers, but a deeply meaningful experience. I suspect the end result will be a genuinely valuable archive of performance projects, as we are encouraged to remember not only the details of these works, but also the effect they had on us.

The reasons the two local circus performances were on the whole much more successful are complex: Australia’s long tradition of contemporary circus and Melbourne’s close acquaintance with both the form and the artists are not the least important. If with relational performance, imported from an emerging artistic ecology overseas, we occasionally felt both short-changed and ignorant, with circus we could comfortably feel at the world’s cutting edge.

Propaganda, Acrobat. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

Acrobat’s long-awaited new work, Propaganda, points to the long tradition of circus used as Soviet agitprop, educational art dreamt up by Lenin in 1919 as “the true art of the people.” The company’s take is both ironic and deeply earnest, and it takes weeks of confusion before concluding that, yes, their open endorsement of cycling, eating veggies and gardening nude was serious. The tongue is in cheek, yes, when spouses Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates heroically kiss in the grand finale, centrally framed to the tune of Advance Australia Fair like the ideal Man and Woman in social-realist art. But it is a very slight joke indeed.

The specificity of circus could be defined as the pendular motion between crude and dangerous reality and the illusion of spectacle: relying on physical strength more than on representational techniques (it is impossible to just ‘act’ a trapeze trick), it can never completely remove the real from the stage. Acrobat’s previous (and better) work — titled smaller, poorer, cheaper — created tension by opening up the spectacle to reveal the hidden extent of the real: social stereotypes and obligations, physical strain, illness. Propaganda foregrounds circus as this family’s life: from the two children pottering around to the unmistakable tenderness between Lancaster and Yates and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the beliefs they propagate. The dramaturgical incongruence between the ironic self-consciousness of the Soviet theme, with its inevitably negative undercurrent, and the performers’ trademark lack of pretence, remained the least fortunate aspect of the work. From the message to the magnificent skills on display, everything else was flawless.

Scattered Tacks, by Skye and Aelx Gellman and Terri Cat Silvertree, stripped away spectacle to reveal the essence of circus: awe. Circus is a naturally postdramatic form: its narrative arc fragmented, aware of its own performativity (what Muller called “the potentially dying body onstage”) and constantly anxious about the irruption of reality on stage. Scattered Tacks is raw circus, naked: at times it felt like an austere essay in thrill. It revealed that the rhythm of audience suspense and relief hinges less on the grand drama of leaps and tricks and more on visceral awareness of the subtle dangers and pain involved. Eating an onion, climbing barefoot on rough-edged metal cylinders, overworking an already fatigued body—these were the acts that left the audience breathless. Yet they also achieve poignant beauty. The Gellmans and Silvertree bring Australian circus, traditionally rough and bawdy, closer to its conceptual and elegant French sibling, but in a way that is absolutely authentic.

Australia offers a good vantage point from which to observe the human being. Visiting Europe recently, it struck me how dense the semantics of the European theatre are in comparison. Performing bodies there are acculturated and heavy under the many layers of interpretation, history, meaning. The body here, on the other hand, easily overpowers the thin semiotics of Australian culture, emerging strong, bold and without adjectives, without intermediary. Body as phenomenon, not as signifier. It will be interesting to observe how the emerging interest in theatre as presence, rather than representation of meaning, unravels—and how much this country will participate in this trend. In this season it’s circus, one of the oldest forms of performance, that emerges as the more successful. The relational performance works only rarely overcame the trap of referentiality.

Arts House: Rotozaza, Etiquette, Wondermart, co-directors Silvia Mercuriali and Ant Hampton, Arts House and around Melbourne; Mar 16–April 3; Mem Morrison Company, Ringside, writer, director, concept, performance Mem Morrison, sound & music composition Andy Pink, design Stefi Orazi, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-21; Helen Cole, Collecting Fireworks, director Helen Cole, technical consultant Alex Bradley, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-19; Acrobat, Propaganda, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, also featuring Grover or Fidel Lancaster-Cole, Meat Market, March 27-April 3; Silvertree and Gellman, Scattered Tacks, created and performed by Terri Cat Silvertree, Alex Gellmann, Skye Gellmann, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 16-21.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 33.

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Humanist art

Little thought on the occasion of Crack a Fat Circus show at The Spiegeltent. I’m sure this is not particularly original – in effect, it would be strange if no one has written a book on this already – but I wanted to jot my thoughts down anyway.

Circus may be the most humanist of all artforms – certainly of all the performing arts; and by humanist I mean something like atheist.

Circus is crafty tricks and a huge amount of skill, a spectacle of the human body, infinitely capable human body trained as close to perfection as one is ever likely to see. To watch circus is to feel awe in front of the animal that is homo sapiens sapiens: how agile, how strong, how dextrous..! To watch circus is to feel the sort of silent admiration of someone who isn’t me, but who is of my kind, therefore a version of me, someone who represents me – in their anonymity (circus performers are never stars), in their muteness and any-man-ness (there is rarely character in circus), even in the generic nature of the tricks (there is a repertory). To watch circus is to watch a hymn to the capabilities of the human species – no different from watching a well-oiled factory full of workers, or an IKEA warehouse in full productive swing. No wonder that Trick Circus, in their most philosophical show a few years ago, quoted largely Nietzsche. What other philosopher could suit the art of circus better than the one who refuted God and talked about the ubermensch, the superhuman, the one who has overcome the any-human?

Even clowning; if the physical tricks are circus celebrating the human as a body, as non-divine, as pure matter, as not standing for anything but itself, as non-metaphor, then clowning, with its inherent absurdity and sadness, is the Camusian, existentialist, melancholy side of the coin. The humour of the circus, when it’s not about piss, shit and sex, is the terrible humour of death and meaninglessness, its bleakness, its fleshy finiteness, completely un-alleviated by a transcendent or immanent divine.

I feel very 19th-century in the circus – not because of costumes and mood, but because circus is a 19th-century form, and the 19th century was one long panegyric to human ingenuity and effort. The circus trick is the precursor to the Nazi gymnastics and the Soviet slet (rally), to Tito’s Relay of Youth, and the entire boom of athletics and sport that came at the turn of the century, together with garden cities and seaside holidays. I don’t know if circus contains within that original seed of fascism (it possibly does – what a thought!), but it seems, to me, to be the only artform viable without God; in fact, one that has never had to consider it this way or the other.

I like circus. I like it very much, and I particularly like it in Australia. I like its relationship with the audience: the element of execution, the possibility of it going wrong, the gasps, the successes and failures, the rapturous applause. I like the predictability, the lack of narrative, the lack of uncertainty about where it is all going, what it is trying to say. In that sense, circus is like Olympic ice-skating, baseball, Dancing with the Stars, David Hare’s plays or Damien Hirst’s art. But unlike any of them, there is pure tangible poetry in the material of circus: the naked human body, young or old, awe-inspiring or laughable. Circus is never cliche, even when it sort of is, because that human body is always there, hanging precariously a metre or two off the ground, always able to fall and break into pieces.

Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

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Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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RW: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd

To call Lally Katz a surrealist would be correct, but imprecise. She is certainly the only widely-produced playwright of her generation to be squarely settled in a very personal world of half-digested fairy tales, misunderstood urban myths, and personal anxieties. This is not that dissimilar from Black Lung productions; however, while Henning’s writing features pastiche characters bereft of a play, a sort of channel browsing embodied and searching for the lost narrative thread, Katz stretches her pop incoherence over sociohistorical confusions (from Ern O’Malley to suburban rivalries in Melbourne, to the history of local vaudeville), overlays it all with an anxious suburban sexuality, and wrings hard.

Katz’s characters are always vaguely aware of their fictitiousness and, like suburban teenagers, less fight it than try to manipulate their own image, make willful exits, evolve, delude: and yet, they are always trapped in the strict girdle of a Lally Katz play, a self-aware machine of its own, that gallops with the unrelenting mercilessness of the grown-up world. Levels of discourse intermingle, predictable plotlines start and finish against all odds, while the unpredictable ones drift off, and the characters, like the repeatedly erased Daffy Duck in that seminal cartoon, struggle to assert themselves. Abalone and Gerture, the two suburban orphans in The Eisteddfod, get trapped in an entire soap-opera of intrigue and ambition, despite cracking under the conflicting pressure of their own alter-egos. In Black Swan of Trespass, Ern O’Malley cannot find consolation in his brief and tortured life, despite being just a literary hoax, while Ethel O’Malley is a psychological cripple, a tragic puddle of incomplete characterization (like some David Williamson character magically granted self-awareness). In Smashed, two teenage girls are on a time trip through their own fantasy, confusing themselves and each other. It is this wild democracy of reference points that makes Katz’s productions, usually directed by Chris Kohn, a respected translator of her ideas, something of a treat for Australian stages.

Julia Zemiro and Christen O’Leary. Photo by Jeff Busby.

None of this magic, mind you, could be deducted from their last collaboration, now playing at the Malthouse. There is a 15-minute chunk towards the end of the second act, when Katz’s usual voice cuts through the conflicting ambitions of the play so far, and suddenly all the botched possibilities are made visible. Ethylyn Rarity (not the first one to embody the role), while wrestling Charlie Mudd, the owner of the unsuccessful vaudeville house she is trying to leave (I have retold you the previous act and a half just there), finds an exact copy of her wig and dress under the stage. “How long have I been here?”, she cries, and gives a repeat of one of the first phrases we hear her utter in the show: “I don’t know my lines…” After that, she somehow coerces Mudd into killing all his characters, and it’s all meta- and confusing and utterly beautiful. And somehow, you see how high the performance could have flown.

Instead, the 125 minutes beforehand are a pretty studious failure; and less so because of any precise decision, than the cumulative effect of so many moves in many directions. A large part of Vaudeville is a low-key, low-intensity, terminally slow and dramatically flat vaudeville performance. Racist and sexist jokes are shot at us, repeatedly, with a painfully consistent lack of audience enthusiasm. Had this gone on for 140 minutes straight, it wouldn’t have been the average Katz/Kohn production, but would have been interesting nonetheless: it would be an unflinching look into the eyes of the past, untainted with the cushy nostalgia that so ruined a similarly-minded A Large Attendance in the Antechamber in 2007 Tower. As Stuff White People Like has succintly pointed out, there is a diffuse and mute sense of guilt over so many things in certain Anglo-Seaxon societies that apologies become a sort of thin veneer on the everyday life. The dissection of what exactly we get so nostalgic about that drearily drags across those planks is a marvelous goal: Mark Jones in blackface, Christen O’Leary’s horny ventriloquist puppet, Jews who lend at zero interest?

Unfortunately, Vaudeville then cascades into a stage version of Dr Quinn the Medicine Woman; a psychologically slim docu-drama on the backstage of history that cannot escape its own absurdist impulses. In purging nostalgia, it seems to veer towards revealing unpleasant historical truth, but trips over its own hysterical fantasies instead. A ventriloquist has slept with her father, the magician with two midgets, and the until-then squirmy humour turns genuinely humour-like – it still isn’t funny, but it stretches its own playing field, simulating an honest attempt at inducing laughter. Perhaps Katz has been outdone by the self-parody of cinema. While the unmasking of characters as paper dolls trapped within the play is nominally her territory, I can think of a bucketful of Sunday afternoon films in which circus freaks reveal a saccharine human face in digestible, family-friendly doses (and it merely starts with The Wizard of Oz).

Ultimately, the tripartite coalition of tendencies doesn’t quite lead us anywhere: it is not an absurd inside-out of a play that Katz likes to write; not a crude dissection of nostalgia that the program notes roundaboutedly hint at; and the part that most easily absorbs these two failed trajectories is the third slant towards rather unremarkable nostalgic setpiece. The result is wildly uneven. Like John Bolton’s recent The Masque of the Red Death, it is neither representation nor pure presence, neither vaudeville nor a well-made play, and certainly not the Katz/Kohn theatrical lunatic asylum. Its majestic, spectacularly boring offensiveness neither lasts long enough nor steps into territory slippery enough to seriously challenge the audience (the way This Is Set in the Future, with its unrelenting vulgarity, did at La Mama last December). It looks, more than anything, like an MTC-esque crowd-pleaser, and as such it clearly fails, due to the above-mentioned surrealist and offensive tendencies.

These days, I rarely book myself into performances that completely disappoint me. After Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, I had to apologise for dragging my +1 along, which is very rare indeed. The last time this happened was at the equally praised, and equally ill-conceived The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another promise of a quirky tale that couldn’t quite decide how close to middlebrow to trot. Perhaps Katz and Kohn work better off on small, semiotically already oblique stage. Perhaps it could have all been saved by more spirited acting. Not mine to tell. I am just hoping that next time will be better.

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd. Written by Lally Katz, concept and direction by Chris Kohn. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, music composed by Mark Jones, sound design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Mark Jones, Alex Menglet, Christen O’Leary, Jim Ruseell, Matt Wilson and Julia Zemiro. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until March 28.

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