guerrilla semiotics (GS) is a theatre blog documenting, remembering, ten years in Australian theatre. Contained here are the reviews, published and unpublished, formally tidy and formally experimental, created by me, Jana Perković, between 2006-2016.
This decade, which I believe will be remembered as one of the most important decades in Melbourne theatre, both for theatre-making and its criticism, deserves not to be forgotten, not to disappear in the internet debris. I have the luxury of coding knowledge, and will be able to keep this small archive of my writings in a tidy, organised state, for some time to come.
There are many reasons why GS has to be discontinued: some are profoundly personal, others are rigorously professional, and some are an odd mixture of both. In 2017, I have had a series of conversations, with Alison Croggon, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Andrew Fuhrmann, Alex Griffin, Declan Greene, and Bek Berger, all running along the exact same lines. Each time, we queried each other on our mutual feeling that something special to us has ended, or changed, that a particular ecology delicately holding us all together has dispersed. That it was time.
I started writing about theatre in 2006. I had just moved to Melbourne from Europe, and I found familiarity in theatre: here I found cultural open-mindedness, a sense of joy, intellectual rigour and moral honesty, while the rest of John Howard’s Australia perplexed me with its lack of all of the above.
Theatre was always my side thing, but it is a beloved side thing, and over these ten years it has given me a lot more than I had hoped for: numerous close friends, extraordinary experiences, and the opportunity to see some good things through.
Between 2006 and 2016, I did my best to play a good role in this delicate ecology. Carl Nilsson-Polias (of Hayloft Project) and I built the VCA student publication Spark Online into a theatre portal, in a concerted effort to bring together theatre bloggers around Australia. I was a member of Green Room Awards from 2011-2015, at a time when live art appeared in Melbourne, and we spent considerable time developing a local language suitable to this form. Carl and I created the first serious website for Green Room Awards, paving one small paver in its legitimisation as a Victorian theatre institution. I served on Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Counsel from 2013-2015. From 2012 until 2015, I was Literary Manager at MKA Theatre of New Writing, where I read hundreds of Australian bad plays, discussed them in-depth with Glyn Roberts, and finally wrote an essay about them for Australian Script Centre. I became a lecturer at the highly regarded Theatre Department at VCA, where for four years now I’ve been allowed to torture up-and-coming theatre-makers with both theatre theory and philosophy. I helped develop Dancehouse Diary for Dancehouse Melbourne, which has easily become one of the most important publications on contemporary dance in Australia. Within MKA, we even made an effort to rethink playtext publishing. These have all been wonderful experiences.
Most importantly, however, a ton of work went into creating and supporting good criticism. During these years, I wrote for RealTime, The Guardian, The Crikey, New Matilda, TimeOut, The Conversation, as well as internationally, for Exeunt, Tanzconnexions. I tried to write good criticism in all these places, but GS was always the place where I had the space and time to be really considered, as well as formally brave. I wrote in-depth about independent artists whose work, I thought, deserved considered reflection. I challenged and pushed other independent critics to be more formally experimental, and was in turn pushed by them.
We will remember 2006-2016 for its phenomenal independent theatre, but I do hope we also remember it for its phenomenal independent criticism. In this pocket of self-published long-form blogs, free of editorial control but full of critical dialogue, between the insular safety of theatre and the brutal parochialism of the mainstream Australian culture, a vast number and variety of converging voices gave rise to formal and thematic experimentation that, I think, was unprecedented in the performing arts. We did good things. We wrote dot-point reviews, Socratic reviews, we wrote rants, we wrote theatre criticism that referenced Super Mario. Ming-Zhu Hii and Lee Lewis led some early conversations on race in Australian arts, and Augusta Supple opened up the overdue conversation about gender; the fruits of these efforts will be felt for some time to come. In Spark Online, Carl and I commissioned experimental criticism before experimental non-fiction was a thing. Some of Andrew Fuhrmann’s early, most radical writing has survived only on my server, pulled in by Spark’s early use of RSS (and how strange to think that RSS is now outdated technology). I started writing a slightly insane column for The Lifted Brow, that mixed serious theatre criticism with narrative fiction. And in 2014, fed up by the lack of long-form conversations with artists, I created Audiostage so that we could have deep thoughts about theatre practice for a whole hour uninterrupted, thus creating one of the first theatre podcasts in the world. We really did well. In the conversations I’ve had this year, it was repeatedly said that the art of these years was as rigorous as its criticism. And more than one person repeated Michael Kantor’s words: “We’re all only really making work in order to please Alison [Croggon],” who has over these years become not just a role-model, but one of my dearest friends.
In between everything, I fell in love in immersive theatre performances, theatre zombies attacked me and Declan Greene in Berlin, my face was on very large MKA posters, I had Hayloft Project meetings at my house, and dinners with Black Lung on the roof of their possibly-squatted house. I saw Zoe Croggon’s very first collages chez Croggon-Keene’s, made gnocchi for all the theatre critics in Melbourne, workshopped games with Rob Reid and Sayra, drank till dawn with Steven Armstrong in the Malthouse forecourt, sat in James Waites’ living room reading through the clippings of his writings, and held Andrew Fuhrmann’s newborn baby. These, too, have been wonderful experiences. And if there is anything I have understood about this decade of art and arguing, it is that the only thing we can carry into the future – theatre being as ephemeral as life itself – is precisely our friendships, our camaraderie, our shared pride in having made something special together.
My one regret is those artists whose work I’ve never found the time to write about in a considered fashion – I owe an essay to Zoey Dawson, at the very least. Then there are all those things I didn’t write about, out of politeness – I couldn’t find a way to talk about being an ethnic woman in a culture often unaware of the depth of its racism, sexism, and cultural imperialism. If there is one change in independent culture that I love, it is that I no longer feel like the one wog voice in a sea of oblivious white.
That aside, however, I feel very creatively satisfied, and proud of everything we have done. I think history will be very kind to us all. It didn’t always seem like it, but we were a good team.
The convergence of many delicate accidents that made this decade possible has dispersed again. A blog, which once offered editorial freedom, is now something to monetize. The wonderful community-building potential of This Thing Called The Internet has become a criss-crossing web of self-promotional channels. With the panopticon of social media has come a self-consciousness we didn’t quite have when we were little, and increasingly I speak to young people for whom Sisters Grimm are ancient, and Hayloft Project positively mythological.
It’s important not to fall into the same trap as those who regret not investing in Apple in the 1980s: new risky ventures are as present now as they were then, they just look different. The closing of one theatre world doesn’t mean that there aren’t artists who continue to make beautiful work: Adena Jacobs’ Fraught Outfit, Penny Harpham, the various members of post, The Rabble, a whole up-and-coming generation of black voices. And something new might be starting over at Witness. So let’s clear the old from the deck, for the new.