Tag Archives: programming

Review: J.A.T.O.

Until mid-July, I was in Zagreb, a place with a big beautiful central square, a predisposition to extraordinary negativity and bitterness (on which in another post), and an excellent theatre scene (but try telling that to a Zagrepčan, and they do look at you like you have just deeply embarrassed yourself by disclosing the lowness of your standards and the narrowness of your horizon).

But, while there, I had the opportunity to acquire one of the more recent issues of Frakcija, a very good theatre magazine, dedicated to the last decade of Croatian theatre writing, which included a generous fragment of Vedrana Klepica’s J.A.T.O., a play I would later have the opportunity to see staged in Melbourne, at the MKA. The world is at times a manageably-sized place. Continue reading “Review: J.A.T.O.” »

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Interview: Matthias Lilienthal, AD of HAU (Berlin)

I am cross-posting this very interesting interview found at Performing Arts Network Japan, with Matthias Lilienthal. Lilienthal re-established Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz, in former East Berlin, in the early 1990s, turning it into an important experimental stage (and giving a platform to a number of directors that would become very important in the German-speaking theatre, such as Christoph Marthaler and Christoph Schlingensief – which is how I found the interview).

I am cross-posting this in contravention of reasonable copyright, and I envisage having to pull it down eventually. But I am posting it, because it’s tremendously interesting, and because PANJ’s website is impossible to browse – if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it. (The original interview is currently hosted here.)

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Presenter Interview:
Berlin’s HAU as an epicenter of the performing arts – What are the ideas behind its aim to “Create friction in the world?”


(24 June 2009)

Matthias Lilienthal is a vibrant “warrior” of the German performing arts world who re-established the former East Berlin’s Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz as an experimental theater after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in 2003 took the post of artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU), an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which is home to a large immigrant population today. Working with performance groups like Rimini Protokoll in the pursuit of reality and documentary theater, Lilienthal has given birth to chain of performing arts projects unapologetically aimed at creating “friction” in the world. These activities have made him one of the most talked about figures in his profession. With 2009 marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is now in the midst of a rush of commemorative events and festivals. Lilienthal is also involved in the planning of a “Japan Festival” scheduled to take place in Berlin this October. In this interview we talked with Lilienthal about his stance of always presenting projects that look at contemporary society with a sharp and insightful eye, HAU’s activities and his outlook on culture generated by cities like Berlin or Tokyo.
(Interview: Makiko Yamaguchi)

Early in the 1990s you worked with director Frank Castorf in founding and leading the re-established Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. This theater is considered one of the theaters in Berlin that presents more experimental and more political productions. Could you tell us about some of the important re-orientation and changes that went on during that time?
That was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and one of our important themes was how this theater in the former East Berlin be re-positioned amidst the dramatic social changes of the day. At the time, the people of the former East Germany were trying desperately to get closer to the standards of West German society, while on the other hand, within the process of re-unification, there was a tendency to ignore the former East’s own unique issues. In light of that situation, what we tried to do was to say that the people of the former East Germany had problems that shouldn’t be ignored and pose the question of whether the re-unification of Germany wasn’t actually a colonization of the East by the West instead of liberalization based on democratic principles as one nation. For that purpose we employed metaphors to induce debate concerning the issues of East Germans. One of those was to use the retro-design style that was used in East Germany in the past. Using visuals of that type we tried to promote interest in the problems of former East Germans who were suddenly unemployed and the other social conditions they were subjected to.

Can you tell us about some of the specific theater works that dealt with the problems of the people of East Germany?
The most successful work in that sense was Murx den Europaer (“Bump Off the European!”). It was written and directed by Christoph Marthaler and developed around songs that were often sung in Germany’s Nazi era. The surrealistic stage art was designed by Anna Viebrock, creating a strange sort of waiting room, like a Salvation Army waiting room, or it also had the appearance of something in a home for the aged. On stage there were ten actors, each sitting at their own desk and each in their own world, not speaking to each other. And the concept was that their only consolation came when they sang together. The perception was that within this surrealistic setting Utopia could only be attained through coral singing, as a kind of negative consequence that could only be born in the context of German re-unification. Marthaler achieved his first big success with this work and it has been performed regularly in the 14 years since its premiere. This is an exceptionally long run that surely can be considered a record in the German theater world. Also, Castorf brought King Lear to the stage during that period. As a story about power struggle and holding power, he used it to explore his thoughts about the East German regime.

You served as director for the 2002 Theater der Welt festival. It’s an international theater festival organized by the German center of ITI (International Theater Institute) since 1981 and, as the name suggests, every holding invites theater works from around the world. It is held once every three years in different German cities, and in 2002 it was held in the four cities of Cologne, Duisburg, Bonn and Dusseldorf. We would like to hear about that festival. In particular, we hear that you had an “X-Wohnungen” (X-Residences) project where artists did installations at private homes and unused buildings and audience members went in twos to visit different residences.
This festival is basically one that invites foreign works that meet certain international standards, and in 2002 we invited productions like theater company ZT Hollandia’s Euripides’ Bacchae directed by Johan Simons. At the same time we wanted to make it a festival with local orientation, and we did a numerous of projects with that aim. One of the projects that we started at that festival is the “X-Wohnungen” project, which is still continued today. We did this in Duisburg, which used to be an area where poorer Ruhr valley coal miners lived and today has a large immigrant population.
We made private homes in this area the sites for installation works, and when members of the audience visit these homes they are confronted with realities that are very different from the preconceptions they brought to it. What I like most in this projects was the installation by the Polish artist Krzysztof Warlikowski. He used an abandoned building that had been a grocery store for coal miners in the 1950s and ’60s and later housed a Mosque for Turkish laborer in the 1970s and ’80s and did an installation based on Sarah Kane’s play Phaedra’s Love. In this installation a naked man lay on a bed and a woman walked around the room, which had a Polish Catholic shrine, reminiscent of the large numbers of Polish immigrants who came to this region in the era of the industrial revolution. At the same time it revealed potential interest in homosexuality and sex in the subconscious due to the presence of around twenty Turkish children who were always gathered outside trying to get a look at the naked man.
We asked not only directors but also painters and video artists to do installations, which not only inspired their imagination but also asked whether or not the audience would be encountering unexpected realities in the works.
The audience departed in twos at 10-minute intervals and spent three to four hours visiting eight different houses. There were also measures taken to provide encounters on the streets in between, and there were surprises prepared, too. It also provided a good opportunity for encounters between German directors and foreign directors. As the directors worked on their installations in neighboring houses, there were opportunities for exchanges to develop. Unlike a 100% protected theater space, the houses created situations where a performer would be alone in the same room with one or two audience members, which led to a situation where you could not anticipate what was going to happen. In some cases erotic situations developed as well. After that Theater der Welt the same project was conducted three times in Berlin, and once in Caracas and in Switzerland. We also have plans to do it in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Waiting in 2010 are Johannesburg and Warsaw.

Do you think you could do it in Japan, too?
Aren’t people in Japan reluctant to let other people enter their houses? Also the houses are small, so it might be difficult to get adequate conditions. However, Tokyo has very modern areas and other areas that are small village-like neighborhoods. I think it would be very interesting to do the project in a place with such marked inconsistencies. My impression of Japan is that of a rather closed society with a strange sort of insular mindset common to islands. In other words it seems distant. And it is strange, because it is just a 10-hour flight from Berlin to Tokyo and the only country you have to cross is Russia. These kinds of discrepancies it fitting for the project and I think a truly Tokyo-specific project could be held that doesn’t lose Tokyo’s uniqueness.

Since 2003 you have been serving as both the artistic director and administrative manager of HAU (Hebbel am Ufer). HAU is a consortium of three theaters (Hebbel-Theater [HAU 1], Theater am Halleschen Ufer [HAU 2] and the small Theater am Ufer [HAU 3]) located in the downtown Kreuzberg district of Berlin where many Turkish immigrants live. How did you come to this position?
At the time I was recommended as the next artistic director of Hebbel Theater and I was given the job after the usual application and interview. The 500-seat HAU 1 theater is not really suited for inviting international productions, either from the standpoint of building facility or its size. The addition of the 200-seat HAU 2, which is well suited for invited international productions, and the 100-seat HAU 3 made it possible to conduct a wide range of programs.

Can you give us a rough outline of HAU’s budget?
Each year we receive a budget of 4.5 million euro from Berlin State. There is a separate 400,000 euro budget for programs. Together that comes to just under 5 million euro. We also make efforts to supplement this by obtaining outside funding, and the 1 to 2 million euro we gather from these efforts is added to the program budget.
We have a staff of 24 people. We have separate curators for the dance and theater divisions. Despite our limited staffing, we do 120 projects a year, and this means that each staff member has to perform a wide range of duties. For example, the publicity specialist may also be involved in festival curating. Our annual theater attendance is about 70,000, and on average we fill about 70% of the seating capacity.

Could you tell us about programming at HAU?
Our aim with the HAU program is to try to constantly create friction. For example, in the work Hell on earth by Argentine-born, Berlin-based choreographer Constanza Macras, half of the cast was dancers and the other half children of Palestinian, Arab and Turkish immigrants. We deliberately chose to stage this work at HAU 1 because of its traditional building.
There are two main focuses of the HAU program, and one of those is issues relating to immigrants. Fifty percent of the population in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin where HAU is located is of immigrant origin, and half of those are Turkish. So, at HAU we have projects involving young Turkish directors, curators, stage artists and actors and we have been successful in our attempts to treat the immigrant situation in our program through these projects. Opening our doors to this community through our programs dealing with the issues and meaning of the immigrant situation at our theater is still in itself quite a sensational thing.

Do members of the immigrant come to HAU as audience? Do you see many immigrant residents or foreigners at German theaters?
In Germany’s Turkish immigrant communities the ties of the family unit are very strong, so when the curator or director of a production or the actors are from the Turkish community, their families, relatives and friends come to the performances as audience. The determining factor as to whether they come to HAU or not is not the contents of the program but whether their community friends are involved or not. This fact is very clear. Although they tend to be reserved in terms of response, they are very interested in these programs.

What is the second of the HAU’s focuses that you just mentioned?
It is a joint effort we have been involved in for the last six years with the Rimini Protokoll. They are a group of artists from the performance movement who have continued to create works that present questions directly concerning their reality as a realm of the unknown. The Rimini Protokoll group is involved in the same type of process as Bruce Chatwin and Claude Lévi-Strauss undertook when they traveled around Australia encountering unknown people as a form of research into cultural phenomena.
Just recently Rimini Protokoll performed Das Kapital in Tokyo as a joint production of the Dusseldorf’s Schauspielhaus and HAU. It is a fact that Karl Marx was a central figure in the history of German humanities. On the other hand, he is very strongly connected to all socialist thought. Despite this fact, very few people have actually read the book Das Kapital. The Rimini Protokoll production investigates the flow of capital and its movements in today’s society are explored through the life experience of ten people and shows how money is spent and invested. For example, Thomas Kuczynski, the son of an East German editor who published the works of Marx and Engels, makes an appearance in the play to lecture the audience about the work of editing those manuscripts. Another appearance is made by an investment consultant from Hamburg who tried to make money through a pyramid scheme by collecting money from rich members of tennis clubs. The system collapsed and all the money was lost, and you can see this as a kind of precursor to the present economic crisis.

The Rimini Protokoll production of Cargo Sophia – Berlin was also a great work. The audience get in a freight truck outfitted with audience seats and it takes them to a number of places like a parking area for long-distance trucks on the Autobahn, a wholesale market for fresh produce and warehouses. During the trip the audience looks at unknown parts of Berlin with new eyes through the full-wall window of the modified truck’s cargo compartment. At the same time they listen to long-distance truckers talking about their work and lives in a two-hour experience. It is a fresh theater experience full of discoveries that show the audience another face of the city of Berlin.
This is a work that was born originally in Sofia Bulgaria. A German long-distance trucking company acquired a Bulgarian nationally-run company. That company employed 8,000 long-distance truck drivers. They ended up doing long-distance trucking at dumping-level rates for European corporations. Rimini Protokoll’s Stefan Kaegi got a long-distance freight truck and modified it. He put high-tech equipment in and outfitted it with passenger seats. He also installed a one-way glass window across one side wall of the truck’s freight compartment that allowed the passengers to see out without being visible from the outside.
In effect, for the audience, the city they drive through becomes the stage set. The audience sits in parallel with the road and experiences the world of the long-distance truck driver. They are shown the kitchen-fitted driver compartments built into some of these trucks stopped at gasoline stands, learn about the drivers’ low salaries of just 500 or 600 euro a month and other facts about how this previously unknown world functions. The truck also takes the audience to warehouses and a port with shipping docks where the cargoes are unloaded and thus experience the city as one large theater set. Furthermore, the two drivers in the drivers’ compartment tell the audience about their lives. This work has been performed at Avignon and other cities around Europe. We want to find some Asian truckers and do this work in Asia, too. Presently, Singapore and Yokohama are two candidate cities for this.

I heard that Rimini Protokoll’s newest work has premiered at HAU.
Yes. It is Kaegi’s Radio Muezzin. When he was in Amman for a performance of Cargo Sophia, he learned about the plan to integrate the “muezzin.” The muezzin is a chosen person who calls the faithful to prayer in Islam. The muezzin traditionally makes this call over large areas with loud speakers from the top of the minarets of mosques in cities. Since there is difference in the voices of the muezzin, a total of 36 muezzins were selected to make the call from one mosque, which would then be broadcast by radio to all the other mosques. The decision to integrate the muezzin was also made in Cairo, Egypt.
Kaegi created this work about the muezzin for a joint production by the Goethe-Institut Cairo and HAU. He had four muezzins and one radio technician tell their thoughts about this muezzin integration plan. It begins with the chanting of the “Adhan” (call to prayer). Then they tell about their daily routine, how rising at 4:30 am to open the mosque, and about their faith, about the fact that Mohammed said that only men should be muezzins, and about the strict separation of men and women. They also talk about being selected as one of the 36 central muezzins, and about not being selected.
The four muezzins talk about their lives and their daily routines, about the blind muezzin of Egypt, about a muezzin who used to work as a construction site technician, and about the fact that it is hard to get by in Cairo on the low muezzin salary equivalent to just 50 euro a month. Although it is not an often-noticed job, for those who get it, it is a job that assures their passage to paradise after death. For those who lose their jobs because of it, this integration of the muezzin is a very grave matter.

Are there other artists besides Rimini Protokoll that you have been working with on a long-term basis or in close collaboration with?
There are always about 10 to 15 such artists and groups. The Argentine-born choreographer Constanza Macras does works with dancers and children. The young group Andcompany & Co. emerged with a work titled little red (play): eherstory’ that used the Little Red Riding Hood fable as a framework to present anew interpretation of the history of the communist party. Starting with that work, a trilogy of works about communism has now been completed. Other artists we work with are Gob Squad and She She Pop. We also work with Hans-Werner Kroesinger. He is a veteran in the genre of documentary theater with a very deep sense of issues and a strong political commitment. He recently wrote a work about the genocide in Rwanda and made a play out of it.

In your Volksbuehne years you did themed weekend projects. You set themes and invited the unemployed or 3rd-generation Turkish immigrant young people and held discussions and workshops with philosophers and you did concerts as well. Do you do projects like this at HAU?
We do projects that take a journalistic approach to various phenomena. Recently we did one on the music industry. Because of the growth of the internet, people can now download music, so CDs are not selling anymore. This has been forcing the music industry to reconsider their business model. We explored this issue with concerts and discussions.
Lately, electronic music is very popular in Berlin, and every weekend from Friday till Monday morning the clubs in Berlin are packed. Young people fly in by the hundreds on cheap flights of carriers like “easyJet” from cities like Barcelona, London, Paris and Moscow. Berlin is a sort of capital for them, although very few of the artists performing at the clubs are actually from Berlin. EasyJet now connects the major cities across Europe. It’s like taking the train from Tokyo to Yokohama. We did a project based on this phenomenon. The idea was my own actually and the curation was done jointly with the former chief editor of the music magazine Spex, the critic Christoph Gurk. We organized a concert with artists including Matthew Herbert Big Band and Young Marble Giants.

In a 2004 survey by the German theater magazine Theater Heute polling theater critics, HAU was voted the best theater in the German-speaking world. Is this because you have a different system from existing public theaters?
I wonder. One thing I can say is that, a specialized theater like ours that doesn’t employ the traditional theater system and doesn’t have its own company or stage staff is naturally better suited to creating works with groups using non-professional casts like Rimini Protokoll or “professionals of daily life.” Our new system offers us greater freedom. The traditional German theater system requires large budgets. In Berlin each theater gets an annual budget of between 12 and 15 million euro. But in our new system as well, creating works requires a lot of money.

What effect has the re-unification of Germany and the integration of the EU had on HAU?
We are strengthening our relationship with the important theater world of our neighbor, Poland. Also, it has become very important for theaters to establish their presence within Europe. The idea that after unification under the EU its member countries would still retain distinct policies is a complete myth. So much is being controlled from [EU headquarters in] Brussels. Europe has become in effect a single country like North America. All that is left in terms of separate governments in the individual countries amounts to little more than provincial puppet governments.

Nonetheless, the German theater world does have its own unique cultural sphere even after the integration of the European Union, don’t you think?
With regard to dance, Europe definitely does form one cultural sphere. In terms of theater, the German-speaking part of Switzerland, Austria and Germany do form a distinct German-language cultural sphere. However, Johan Simons (Note: Dutch director, incoming intendant for the Munich Kammerspiele) and the British artist group Forced Entertainment are becoming more influential in the German cultural sphere, as they are in the rest of Europe. And in Berlin there are now many artists from other countries performing in English, and in fact it is now possible to live in Berlin using English. There are movie theaters that show only English-language movies and there are a growing number of English-language newspapers. Berlin has perhaps become a more international city than Tokyo. And when you look at the various international projects going on in Berlin, you will see immediately that it is no longer just a German cultural sphere.

What is the underlying concept running through the HAU programming as a whole? I have heard the words “a hysterical longing for reality.” Is that the theme?
I think it is boring if you believe that theater has to be based on a particular kind of performance or has to always involve internalized artistic process. For me it is important that theater attempt to make some kind of statement about reality or connect to reality, or put forth a debate about it.
The expression “a hysterical longing for reality” is one that was born when I began working on the X-Wohnungen project. What this project attempted to do was to create a conflict between the people who lived in a building or the condition of the rooms in an apartment and the director’s artistic approach. At the same time, there was the aim of freeing the works from the theater environment. And, with regard to the term “a hysterical longing for reality,” can say that it is indeed a concept that runs through all the HAU programming.
Also, there are the terms reality theater and documentary theater. Since 20 years ago, Hans-Werner Kroesinger had been writing quite dry documentary theater. Then there is Rimini Protokoll, who create works that explore realities that are unknown to us by putting real people on stage. When we add X-Wohnungen to these two, we see that documentary theater certainly has an important place in HAU’s activities. But that is not all we do.

What do you try to communicate to your audience through these types of works?
I don’t really know. At the very least, what we are trying to do is to make things that can be differentiated when seen from the outside. Especially, in may case, I want to see us put things out there that are unknown, or that involve issues that still incomprehensible. I am interested in bringing focus on problems that the society has not expected. I am not interested in taking issues that I already know about and making a statement on them.

Why do you wish to see reality in theater works so strongly? What is it about documentary theater that interests you so much?
For someone born and raised in Germany, theater has always been deeply involved in ideology or the collapse of ideology. When thinking about ideology, the important thing is to have a grasp of reality and researching the nature of the realities we are confronted with. The important thing is to grasp realities and put them in forms that can be seen.
The project “Foreigners out! Schlingensiefs Container” created by director Christoph Schlingensief was one where he put actually foreign exiles seeking political asylum in a shipping container set up in the square next to the Vienna National Opera House and allowed spectators to peek in at the process of selecting those among the exiles who were to be deported. This was done as an extreme version of the popular reality TV program Big Brother that broadcasts footage of people living on closed quarters 24 hours a day. I abhor works that present reality just as it is, or naturalism. I believe that we rediscover reality when it is put into mechanisms or film, for example the video images in games.

Could you tell us about what projects HAU will be undertaking in the near future?
We will continue our projects on the theme of immigrants. We are thinking about projects with the Vietnamese and Arab communities. In September, we are having general elections in German, so we are taking this occasion to run performances of a work on post-democracy and hold discussions. The theme is the hollowing out of democracy with the behind-the-scenes activities of lobbyists. It may be the same in Japan, but in Germany the people are losing interest in politics and elections and in fact it is mostly the media that is playing out the campaigns by remote control. The work to be performed is Rimini Protokoll’s Wallenstein. This is a work in which politicians who have actually run for office in regional elections will appear. We will also invite the British political scientist Colin Crouch who promotes post-democratic thought for lectures and an installation project.

You also have a festival that programs cross-over works, video and dance works. Can you tell us something about the contents?
As a cross-over project involving multiple genre, we did a project with a group of unemployed architects called Traumlabor (dream lab). This project involved flooding part of the former East German “Palace of the Republic” (Diet building) and having visitors paddle through the building in inflatable boats. It was a joint project between Sophiensaele and HAU and it ran for six months. Could we do it in Japan’s Diet Building too? (Laughs)
For the festivals we usually have a theme. In the festival held in June the theme is family structure and immigrants and child education. It tells stories about the system in which poor immigrants are used for educating children and stories of some families. The title is “Your nanny hates you.” It deals with the situation where wealthy North American families hire poor South American women as nannies to care for their children and the way these women work hard far from home and send as much as they can back to their families. In this way, we set a different theme for each festival. But we avoid the common pattern of inviting a selection of the best works from a given region or country and instead do research into subcultures in search of leads.

You also have regularly held festivals.
For dance we have our Tanz im August festival and our Brazil Festival. We also have one involving Poland. We would also like to have a yearly Japan festival as well. (Laughs)

I understand that HAU is the center of an independent art scene, but are there other similar centers in Berlin?
We sometimes do collaborations with public theaters, such as works by Johan Simons with Munich Kammerspiele, but that is the exception rather than the rule. HAU is indeed the center of an independent art scene. As for other such centers, there is the Sophiensaele for theater, DOCK 11 for dance and RADIALSYSTEM V for early music and contemporary music performance.

Do you have a network or particularly strong ties with other European theaters?
We have ties with the KunstenFestivaldesArts and the Kaai Theater in Brussels, Theater Frascati in Amsterdam, the Theater Rozmaitosci in Warsaw, the Nowi Theater in Moscow, and in New York, we have Performance Space 122 in New York and in Tokyo, Festival/Tokyo and others.

In October, you will have a Japan feature scheduled and this is your third visit to Japan for that.
We have gotten funding from Berlin State for a Japan Festival within the framework of the Asia Pacific Week 2009. I am here in Japan to do research for that. Seeing Festival/Tokyo and the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, I realized that young theater people here seem to be experimenting with new things. I suspect that in the last few years they have come in contact with theater scenes outside of Japan and have been stimulated in ways that have broadened their perspective and sense of theater. The young theater people’s works deal with street culture and sex almost to an extreme. One of these is a pop work by the young performer group Fai Fai. It asks questions like can’t a price be set on the body and the value of sex in this globalized world. While recognizing the treat of having a price set on the body, it also wants to show the naked body. It portrays Shibuya, techno culture, sex robots and the commercialization of sexuality.
The work Love’s Whirlpool by the Potudo-ru company is a play telling a story about group of men and women at a secret club and giving the audience a peek at a world of orgiastic behavior. It portrays society’s obsession with sex as a form of terror against sexuality. While on the one hand it shows a hard reality in which there is a clear division of sex and love, on the other hand it brings to mind images of Bruegel paintings, like a scene from the Middle Ages with bodies piled on top of each other. Furthermore, it deals with individual action regarding the approach to love and sex. What was intended to be purely sex ends up evoking feelings close to love, and jealousy. It was very interesting to watch, like a section cut straight out of the Shinjuku nightlife.
Like last year, we will be inviting Toshiki Okada and his Chelfitsch company again this year. I think he is one of the most important directors in Japan today. His work Air Conditioner is a story about two people working in an office where the air-conditioning is always on too strong and the two gradually draw close to each other with dance-like movement. If this can be seen as another form of sexuality, then I think the suggestion I made half jokingly before the start of this interview that one title possibility for our Japan feature might be “Sex and the City” isn’t actually too far off.
Also, amidst the background of the realities of Japanese society and the issue of the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, I got the impression that a small but significant movement of social commitment is occurring. For example, there is the “Amateur Rebellion” of Hajime Matsumoto. He runs a shop that repairs and sells second-hand household appliances in Koenji and I had the opportunity to meet him and hear about his anti-consumerism “Amateur Revolution” movement. He is someone who is trying not simply to keep rising prices down but to search for new values outside the framework of consumerism and liberal economics. I am thinking of inviting him to our feature and having him participate in a dialogue with the German philosopher Guillaume Paoli. Paoli is promoting the concept of “happy unemployment” and criticizing the idea of constant development of labor. I also want to have the music and literary critic Atsushi Sasaki come and talk about his vision of cultural development from the 1990s to the present. He speaks of the ’90s as a decade trapped between the death of the Showa era and Nostradamus prophecies. This is a view that you won’t find often in the West.
I also saw the video Super Rat by the artist group Chim-Pom. It is about catching the rats that feed on the garbage of Shibuya and stuff them to make dolls the animation character Pikachu. All of this, the pop culture, the Shinjuku-Shibuya-Koenji settings and the sexual obsessions are things born of the unique metropolis that is Tokyo.

Does this mean that your Japan feature will be an attempt to bring the expressions of the images and phenomena of Tokyo to the stage?
We put them all on the stage. And then we think about what we do when we have no more money for consumption. Wouldn’t it be a fine party of desperation? We have no money but still we dance. And I am also thinking that maybe we can connect Berlin and Tokyo through a bond of electronic music.

It may be a question out of the blue, but can I ask you why you are doing theater?
I don’t know. I don’t know the answer myself. It just happened this way.

What do you think you have gained and achieved by doing theater?
I haven’t gained anything. If there were anything, it would only be that to some small degree I have opened the theater to the immigrant population and got them to come to the theater a few times. I can say with certainty that they have been given the opportunity to encounter art in a broad sense. Or, by showing the near-sighted German audience something of the things that are happening outside their world, we may have succeeded in opening the possibilities for internationalization. That’s about all. I don’t think that art can change society or the cities anymore. Thinking that it can is nothing but a dream.

But you will still keep doing it, won’t you?
Of course.

For the sake of world revolution?
It is true that I have sought to resist the realities of society in the past and it is still an important thing for me. But for me world revolution sometimes means doing an art project.

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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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Malthouse season 2

Michael Kantor’s last season (just announced) looks strangely like a Best Of Malthouse 2005-2010 (subtitle: The Kantor Years), or a Tribute To… CD (Melbourne indie theatre does Malthouse OR Malthouse does Melbourne indie… you choose). And not just that, but a Christmas edition with two bonus tracks (Great International Name + the understudy makes an appearance).

All the people that Kantor’s Malthouse has been supporting are gathered again: here are the local darlings Hayloft, again working with Black Lung on Thyestes; there is Ranters with Intimacy (a sequel to Affection?), there is Lucy Guerin’s new pop-cultural dance (with set design by Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, another friend of the Malthouse); there is 1927, again after Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Barrie Kosky’s most restrained and elegant The Tell-tale Heart returns after a sold-out season back in 2007; and Meredith Penman, a recent VCA graduate, frequently seen in Hayloft projects, and an absolutely exquisite actress (see her in Richard III currently playing at the MTC) brings her 2009 Sydney show, A Woman in Berlin, back to Melbourne. Is almost makes you feel outraged that she would have been allowed to open it there, and not here.

Then there is the new bright boy, Matthew Lutton, casting the new bright star Ewen Leslie in another dramatization of Kafka: The Trial, both for the Malthouse and the STC. Boy heroes make me yawn, but I am as curious to see Mr Lutton’s famed direction as anyone else, so good on the Malthouse for bringing him over. Meg Stuart is being brought over in the first international guest performance really worth its salt: Maybe Forever is only 3 years old, Meg Stuart is acclaimed, but has not quite finished saying what she has to say, and I am quite marvelled that the Malthouse would be so ambitious as to invite her over. It is also the only performance of the season I will miss (by being in Croatia), alas. The final bonus track is the pre-introduction of Marion Potts with Sappho… in 9 fragments (as ‘stager’, not director), before she takes on the artistic direction of the Malthouse in 2011.

I’d also point out that Things on Sunday, Malthouse’s talk program, looks particularly good this year, with a performance/interview with Heiner Mueller, rest in peace, and the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture delivered by said Marion Potts on the turnover in artistic directors that is sweeping the country. And why not?

All in all, it’s a bit of a last ball, where we want to see all our friends perform something little. And it’s good like that. One characteristic of Kantor’s Malthouse has been a strong sense of community: there was a house way of doing things, there were friends of the Malthouse, a number of people got a lot of space to do work. It has bred some bitterness around town, by those who felt left out of the inner circle, but it has been not altogether unsuccessful. At the end of the Kantor era, Malthouse is not a lukewarm and/or beige place claiming to represent everyone while being nondescript and of no interest to anyone in particular. It is a distinct theatre, full of character, with a programming tradition that has an audience, a palette, strengths and weaknesses. And vision, which is very unusual for an institution its size in this country.

I am looking forward to a change of direction with Marion Potts, but I suspect the second half of the 2010 season will be very successful as a nostalgia-inducer. We will sit around the pit and reminisce about Paul Capsis, gollywog puppets, and the missed opportunity to turn the Gallipoli story into a musical.

All the details of the Malthouse season 2 can be gleaned here.

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Malthouse Season One 09

The Malthouse Theatre launched its first season of 2009 last night, with some bagpipes and smoke, but overall less frill than I am normally accustomed to, fewer musical numbers, shorter speeches, all much more business and much more enjoyable than usual. Perhaps they just wanted to hurry up and present their baby? I would understand. For Season One 09 looks incredibly exciting. And not they-gave-us-free-booze exciting. No no. It must be one of the most interesting-looking launch seasons I've seen in a while, by any theatre in any country. I am taking precious time off my other three hundred thousand duties to rave about it.

The flagship show, the blockbuster opening the Merlyn in January, is Bűchner's Woyzeck, with an all-exciting cast of people like Hamish Michael and Bojana Novaković, and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (performed by Tim Rogers, also in the cast; hm), after which the Merlyn will host Dance Massive, a tiny little (not massive) dance festival for those who live outside the dance ghetto. Obvious choices: Chunky's Mortal Engine and a mini-program of Rogue (who are, in a radical departure from the usual Melbourne dance business, fundamentally those same dancers that evenly spread themselves between Chunky and Guerin Inc.), but also Lawn, by Splintergroup, which looks great and comes with a raving recommendation by the polemicist. Finally, Tom Wright rewriting Voltaire's Candide into an Aussie battler, the whole called Optimism, to be all picket fence and lawn. But, unlike Kantor's previous, more suspiciously overwrought concoctions of high and low, this looks like a sound, smart idea, particularly apt for our times of market crashes in front of incredulous witnesses. And will be possibly the last instance of Anna Tregloan's design for the Malthouse, as she heads up to the S-city (in the only sad news of the evening). Weep, Melbourne. Weep.

Beckett opens with a new commission by Lally Katz (dubbed our theatre princess) and Chris Kohn, Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, which explores the pre-war vaudeville scene in the city and will have people like Julia Zemiro on stage. Oh how beautiful to look at a dubious concept and feel you trust your people to shape it into something wonderful. Lally could write on dishwashing and it would make riveting theatre.

Next, Kafka's Monkey, a Young Vic production with Kathryn Hunter playing a monkey playing a man – getting to the Malthouse via Sydney and looking all scrumptious. Finally, a new Peter Houghton piece, “driven by wit, cynicism and tight-slapping humour”. Unlike anything Houghton has ever done.

The Tower, apart from the abovementioned Rogue, will host Adam Cass's I Love You, Bro, which opened and closed at Fringe 07 with clamour and confusion, as we briefly agitated, trying not to miss yet another recommended show in the Fringe mania that takes over in September, and subsequently failing. The Malthouse program-makers, to illustrate the difficulties of sifting through Fringe, saw I Love You, Bro in the UK. Although I'm not sure that the one independent production of 2007 that needs to be rescued from oblivion is this one precisely, I've heard a lot of good about it, and what sort of argument am I making here, really? A confused one of a person who goes to bed late, gets up early, and misses beginnings of conference networkings in order to write blogs.

Within the genre restrictions of medium-scale theatre programming, with all the concerns about long-term financial sustainability that running a viable institution of this kind entails, this looks like a very, very promising program. Perhaps even quite brave. Nothing, except the Houghton piece, strikes me as same old, same old. While things have been looking vaguely down for the local theatre, with Brett Sheehy looming on the horizon and everything being a little bit disappointing, all of a sudden I feel quite hopeful that the next year may be the best one yet. Or something like that anyway.

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2007 in theatre;

My realisation at the end of 2007 was not dissimilar to what my dear nomadic friend Shif wrote me from Europe, around the centre of the year. I thought I'd be where it's all happening, she more-or-less-said, but instead I feel like I'm missing out on everything exciting happening in Melbourne. Looking backwards, looking through the notes in my notebooks, but, most significantly, looking through the European press and blognotes, I feel the same. Melbourne has had a remarkable year in theatre. (Although, to pursue honesty before a nice poetic logic, Shiffy was living in Italy, the land of non-theatre, at the time.)

So what has it been? It's been a year of dance, particularly dance re-runs. It was a year when I missed nothing I could afford not to miss, and was rewarded with a wide and deep introduction to Lucy Guerin, a revision of Chunky Move's deliciously macabre Glow, and a whole range of other Australian dance, ranging from the collaborative Tense Dave, through the clever camp of Malthouse-presented Brindabella to the often glitchful, but nonetheless exciting Fringe pieces (such as Simple Life by Think C.O.N.T.E.M.P.T., where the ending to the show was decided by an audience poll). An entire Merce Cunningham program was a present to the city by Kristy Edmunds for the annual Arts Fest; from the initial impression of Space Invaders in lycra we graduated to a mass standing ovation for Sigur-Ros-fuelled ending of the Festival. Honour Bound, a piece of dance full of angst and concern (although somewhat didactical), visited Melbourne in 2006 and spent 2007 touring Europe. The most significant dance event, in my personal opinion, however, was Sankai Juku's Kagemi, finally in Melbourne; pity I am not qualified to say anything about butoh that goes beyond the bomb, the gravity and the both feet on the ground.

Speaking of physical theatre, circus was a bit let-down: nothing exciting has happened unless we count the re-staging of Di Vino for the Arts Festival and the entire Northcote Town Hall becoming a circus hub for the Fringe Festival (getting Daniel Rabin a ticket to Edinburgh '08). With Acrobat touring Elsewhere, the most highly anticipated show for this circus-aficionado, Candy Butchers' existentialist Bucket of Love, wasn't quite sufficient. However, while in 2006 it seemed physical theatre was the only kind that Australia could make with success, this year proved me wrong. The so-called 'straight theatre' was stronger than ever. And I mean straight. Mixed media seemed on their way out; there was much less of random puppets with people, music with images, dancing while playing music. While such hotchpotch theatre-making often simply camouflages a lack of substance (as in My Darling Patricia's Politely Savage, all shiny surfaces and mysterious atmosphere), it also produced 2006's best show, the Lally Katz extravaganza Slanting Into the Void.

Nothing as overwhelming was seen in 2007. Delightful puppetry was present in the 2006 revival Apples and Ladders, and puppets were tossed around in VCA's The Perjured City, but nothing on the scale of the 2006 mix-and-match carnival was seen. This was the year, it seemed, in which instead of the actors, the techniques and the audio-visual landscape of the stage, it was the space and time of the performance that was explored, particularly the space and the time as experienced by the audience. The form was well-poked and the thoughts were well-articulated, with many happy outcomes.

Anna Tregloan, as the artist-in-the-Malthouse-residence, put on the single most exciting thing of 2007, the installation-performance Black. Black was a nightmare staged, a 3-hour loop of images, sounds, movement, and four people performing fragments of desire, sadness, needs and fears. If we accept Barthes' off-handed remark that modern poetry attempts to regain an infra-signification, a pre-semiological state of language, transform the sign back into meaning, then this is where theatre came closest to poetry, in Melbourne in 2007. Ranters Theatre's infinitely subtle Holiday was a dissection opera made entirely of empty time. All white light and white noise, it may have been the purest, most honest confrontation with human existence one was likely to see on Melbourne stage this year. Chambermade continued doing their thing with an opera version of infotainment TV, in plainsong and with some excellent music. The last show to get an honorary mention, and here I am surprising myself, is the winner of Fringe '07, the Sydney theatre morceau Gifted and Talented: although in terms of craft it wasn't the most polished thing out there, it weaved a story that went through a loop of impeccable emotional logic, from ambitious mothers through Kath&Kim to Guantanamo Bay, ending in a fury of rock Esteddfod. The way in which these three girls – because this was a show by three girls perhaps younger than me – manipulated time and space of the performance was simply breath-taking.

It was the year in which the major theatre company on this end of the continent, MTC, offering nothing but disappointment. Apart from the already sufficiently lauded Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the overrated Thom Pain, the MTC program appeared sad and useless like light beer. (There is no reason to expect anything to change in 2008.)

Melbourne International Arts Festival, to use its current name, has finally been classified as serious and dignified by Robin Usher the press, mainly due to the Cunningham retrospective (since not even R.U. would claim M.C. to be fringe, one imagines). It has also been the least exciting one I've seen so far, although I'm aware it could be worse many times over: I believe there is a serious case for splitting MIAF into a Greatest Hits of Good Family Fun and an Eurokaz. That, however, would require some more funding, and it is hard to even argue that theatre ought to exist in a country that has just come out of the tunnel of 12 years of free-market fundamentalism. I speculate that M.C. has only happened to MIAF as a direct result of the State Government finally committing to long-term budgeting for the festival in 2004, giving the artistic directors a greater certainty in booking big gigs ahead.

Australia is cursed by this attachment to the middle way, by the obsession of doing everything Proven Right at the same time: the government both wants a high-profile arts festival that brings the tourists and the dollars and the image of a civilised, sophisticated country, and a budget non-committed to funding those dole-bludging, free-market-adverse, champagne-socialist, inner-city art types that certainly aren't part of any working family. (State Government could learn from its own roads department that results are achieved only with sustained passion to a cause.)

And while on the topic of money, I wouldn't know if Malthouse Theatre has been showered as it should have been, but the ticket sales are certainly up. As the actual major theatre company, the lighthouse of Where Things Should Go, Malthouse was standardly good, with a string of well-made plays (Exit the King, Criminology) and a whole program, well-thought-through, of guest performances (The Pitch, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, The Eisteddfod). The tactic it seemed to have briefly adopted in 2006, that of putting on a great range of monodramas, has mercifully given way to a much more astute combination of near-blockbuster collaborations (with Company B in Exit the King, Adelaide Festival in the 2008 hopeful Moving Target), which combines splitting costs with extended nation-wide touring, local indy gems, and extracurricular activities.

All the theatres that we in Melbourne pathetically consider medium-sized, such as Red Stitch (which finally moved out of The Shack and got an indoor toilet) or Theatre@Risk, were sticking to a theme, a successful model in their 2007 programming, presenting an even selection of somewhat uninspiring shows; or, to be more honest, not as inspiring as the previous years. VCA, on the other hand, has wrestled out wider attention with its carefully curated strings of student shows: from big and ambitious (the infinite Perjured City by the crazy Cixious) to the classical triptych with a directorial twist (in which King Lear met reality TV under Brian Lipson, film kissed theatre in Yes based on Yes, and Nora didn't walk out of A Doll's House). Student productions are a rare treat in this city for those among us who love big casts, reasonable budgets and more than one act (even if the uniform youth of the cast still elbows the eye).

The most exciting theatre in Melbourne, as usual, happened in rented garages, alleyways, at the back or on top floors of pubs, and in the still drafty, still underused Meat Market. Fortyfivedownstairs gave a room to the wonderful Spring Awakening, Gasworks hosted the quietly brilliant Brisbane-duet One More Than One, Black Lung didn't quite sweep the Fringe floor, but nonetheless gave us the best independent oeuvre in 2007, the magnificent Antidote, and La Mama ended the year with the excellent Kreutzer Sonata and Apples and Ladders (that had previously been staged at the Malthouse). The way these crafty people put on extraordinarily beautiful little shows in most disparate venues, word of mouth goes around, people show up, nobody makes any profit, but nobody makes any loss either, is just mind-blowing to someone like me, naïvely accustomed to the bickering and bile of cushy government support, thickly ensembled theatre houses as far as eye can see, connections and positions and spiderwebs that shall not be dismantled by trying to do something different. By this I don't mean to say government funding is a bad thing that results in stale theatre. Just that I have nothing but admiration for indy theatre in Melbourne, which seems to simmer with creativity, passion and enterprise fuelled by apparently nothing.

The most consistently inspired program, as usual, seems to be the City of Melbourne's Arts House: this year it gave us small metal objects, Ranters Theatre's Holiday, Sara Juli's traumatic Money Conversation and Lucy Guerin's Love Me among others, all excellent shows, challenging both in form and ideas; thoughts and turns of phrase. Receiving the Arts House's theatre program still regularly has me excited right in front of the mailbox.

In terms of scandals and debates, it was a quiet year. Kristy Edmunds was not publicly attacked for mounting yet another Arts Fest without Sir Ian McKellen and the Royal Shakespeare Company, perhaps because RSC was brought over for another occasion and performed the allegedly disappointing Lear. Bell Shakespeare ventured into Gogol territory in the biggest theatrical shame of the year, which was predictably hailed as an unqualified success. There were no funding scandals like in Croatia, appointment scandals like in Sydney, or even debates on what theatre should look like, like in the UK. Even if the play should still be made well, you wouldn't have known it from the strangely unargumentative press. The reviewing standard has gone up a bit, mainly due to Ms Theatrenotes jumping on The Australian ship, and Esoteric Rabbit jumping off the Australian Stage. To sum it up: nothing shocked, nothing outraged, no mass abandonment of the auditorium was recorded. Hopefully next year will be better.

I, meanwhile, am left quite satisfied with the results. I have missed, alright, all the Belgian dance/performance out there, the Ivana Sajko threesome in Zagreb and the new Biljana Srbljanović play. But plenty of good theatre has seen this city nonetheless and, quite honestly, I think that in global terms Melbourne is probably as fortunate as them liveable places get.

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