Tag Archives: story-telling

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 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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Reviews: NO-SHOW and Invisible Atom

1. A really, really long preamble (scroll down for the reviews)
Contrary to the popular opinion, I really like a good story. There are exactly four entry points into the explanation why. The first is perhaps obvious, and I have mentioned it many times: human experience is organised narratively, we understand the world through story-telling (as anthropology and folklore studies tell us), we even experience our own lives as an unfolding story and, in fact, one of the more reliable signs of mental illness is the inability to understand one’s life as a coherent narrative. Stories are not pop, in other words, no more than oxygen or a functioning bladder would be.

The second relates to bedtime stories, my memories thereof. My parents reading me whatever was at hand, in their case large books of Greek myths. Jason and Medea being my favourite, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear. At one point my clever parents started recording these stories as they read them to me in bed, and then would present me with a pile of tapes to listen to instead. I don’t remember having any problems with that – recorded fairy tales, narrated by actors with beautifully rounded voices, sometimes with music and singing, were all the rage in children’s pop culture at the time. I eventually developed my own collection by recording, every evening at 19:45, the bedtime story on the national radio, and listening to it a little later, in bed. Great stuff: stories from Goscinny’s ‘Le petit Nicolas’ were only one of the highlights. Then came other stories, told by my parents: stories of life. My dad’s stories about his childhood in the country, my mum’s stories about her high school years, the graduation dance, and then even better stories of grown-up life: how they once moved from a tiny town in Istria back to Rijeka by driving an entire house, piece of furniture by piece of furniture, in their little Renault 4, even if it meant going up and down a tall mountain, on a narrow and windy road; how they went to Prague and had to spend the night in the car because all the hotels were booked; how they went to Italy to buy CDs and jeans, hiding money in their clothes because only a certain small amount could be taken out of Yugoslavia, how they once got searched because all the customs officers knew everyone crossing the border was lying, and how the customs officer let them go once he found the money, because he was more interested in seeing whether he could find it, than punishing anyone for it. These were great stories, and they didn’t spoil with repetition. I played my favourite tapes over and over again, knowing perfectly well that Medea becomes priestess after killing her children. I would ask my mum: „tell me the story of how your friend slept in and came to school with hair going in all directions!“, because I liked to hear my mum impersonate the class laughing, the teacher laughing, the boy saying „Sorry, I didn’t wake up on time“, the teacher laughing harder, and him saying, „But I really didn’t!“, confused. It was the telling that mattered, not the surprise. A good story was like a couch of sorts, getting better with every sitting.

The third is brief and psychologically revealing: I cure my existential crises, which are many and frequent, by watching Hollywood movies. It’s all very simple: I don’t have crises of meaning, those big ‘is this all there is to life?’ quandaries. I have small crises of doing: ‘how does one hit the right balance?’ The last time it happened, I saw The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 3D, and I came out in a much better shape than I went in.

The fourth is nostalgic, and will strike some as Euro-centric, or just maladapted. It’s alright. I’m not Australian, and if I say it so often it’s not because I feel the need to enforce the boundary between Australia and myself, but because people are genuinely unaware of the extent to which I am from somewhere else. This is possibly a result of not many people here knowing much about any place, certainly very little about Croatia, and also a result of me being white and reasonably fluent in English. I am probably not as lost in Australia as I would be in South Korea, say, but in South Korea the distance would be made easier by Koreans’ expectations of distance. I imagine, some attempts would be made to bridge the gap, attempts which Australians don’t make. In any case, I come from a place where people tell stories a lot more. Life is communicated through stories. Jokes, rather than the witty one-liners, take a more narrative form.


Dear Santa, in 2009 you took away from me my favourite singer, Michael Jackson, my favourite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favourite actress, Farrah Fawcett. I’m writing to you just to remind you that my favourite politician is Tony Abbott. Thanks!


Bear walks through the forest when he stumbles across a camping site. The campers run away, the bear starts rummaging through their things. And so he finds a packet of viagra and eats the whole box. He goes home, when after a little while he starts getting a hard-on! What to do?, nothing else is possible!, and our bear starts screwing the forest folk. Two days into the situation, the bear sees the fox. He wooes her and talks her into it. After the big shag, while they’re having a cigarette, the bear asks:
“Was I good?”
The fox answers:
“Yes, it was fine, but, man, you’re really hairy down there…”
The bear looks down and exclaims surprised:
“Ooh shit, I still have the rabbit on…”)

This communication of life through stories if all-pervasive: just like I found out about my parents through the stories they told of their life before me, so I find out about my friends these days. One of the highlights of my last trip home was my dear Srdjan telling me the long and exciting story of how one morning at 6am, just before going to work, the police arrived at his door and he got arrested for not showing up in court as a witness a few weeks earlier. Another dear friend had great stories about his workplace falling apart and the firm finally going under, everyone had great stories about the corruption in the government, and I had a few stellar ones of my own about divorce. The point is not simply to make someone dear to you laugh, although it is that as well: it is to inform, entertain and instruct, all at the same time. To tell a funny and sad story about a horrible divorce is to say: this is how it happened (the mechanics), this is what it was like in all its unique and horrifying glory (the anecdote), and this is what I think it meant (the conclusion). Just like those tapes from when I was little, these stories are enjoyable when reheated: I told the story of how my friend Srdjan got arrested at least another five times, so good it was.

Australians don’t do any of this. You people don’t tell stories about your life. You serve each other witty one-liners, you sigh and offer short, discrete summaries of what you’ve done and how, and you nod in return. I, in all honesty, have not yet discovered how people here transmit information about their lives, how they tell each other what’s going on in their relationships, in their families, at their work. Do you infer it all from the casual comments and try-hard one-liners? Are you people so skilled at reading between the lines that what results is a full story, with the funny detail and the moral and everything? Do you feel that you know the people mentioned in it by the end, your friend’s workmates and grandparents and classmates from high school? Do you feel that you know how the other person felt when this implied event happened? I know that my friend Srdjan is the sort of man who, when locked up at 6am with no explanation, tries to make friends with the evil-looking policeman, because he is trying to procure himself a lift back home when whatever is happening finishes, but also because he feels the need to convince the policeman that he is not a criminal; I know this because he told me. I know that my friend Rene’s grandpa is a nasty old man who remembers me as ‘that girl whose arse is like the back of a bus’, but I also know that Rene loves both me and his grandpa, because otherwise he wouldn’t have told me that particular story. Without the stories, how do you know who other people are? Is it all implied and, if so, how do you know when you’re wrong? How do you know that life is more complicated than you thought (for example)? How do you know that what you’re being shown (not told) is exactly what you’re seeing?

I miss stories because I like people who are honest about life, and Croatian people overwhelmingly are honest about life, their life, and then life generalised. I miss a story being told because it’s a good story, and a necessary one, not because it makes the narrator look good or because the punchline is great. I’m reading Aleksandar Hemon right now (Hemon is Bosnian-Ukranian) and his work is full of it: however post-modern (very) and however clever (very), Hemon’s writing is also humorous and full of soul, and it truts along like a steadfast train taking characters somewhere distinct, and there is a story in it to get immersed in even if the journey is manifestly intellectual. It reminds me of another extraordinary book, Bora Ćosić’s The role of my family in the world revolution, which is Serbian, ridiculously funny, and a story about surviving World War II. It is possible to be smart and simple at the same time, and that is how.

2. Reviews
I was watching Invisible Atom and wondering if Australians don’t do narrative very well because they don’t tell stories about their life to their friends, and their jokes are short too.

Invisible Atom, by a Canadian company called ‘2b’, but largely a work of a single man, Anthony Black, is essentially a staged story. A first-person, single-voice story of Atom („not as in the apple, but as in the bomb“), an orphan who grows to be educated, rich, working in finance, a success story, and then has a crisis of conscience. One man, no props, some lighting changes, less than an hour on stage. A lot is woven into it: physics, history of economics, philosophy. (2b present themselves with these words: „Our work reflects the urban intellectual climate of our city, a city that boasts five universities.“ Melbourne boasts more universities than Toronto, but I have never heard a local theatre company talk of this as an asset.) Ultimately, however, what makes Invisible Atom a great evening at the theatre is that all this thinking is integral to the story, and it’s a great story, with twists where they should be, changes of heart whenever plot turns should decelerate, and moments of thinking when the accumulated information demands sifting through. It is thoroughly entertaining, informative and instructive, in the sense that I want to tell you exactly how he starts and how he gets to the end, the way I wanted to tell Srdjan’s story to everyone I know. But the details are too finely picked, the narrative too satisfying, and the thinking too crystalline, for me to do it justice.

If Invisible Atom is a finely crafted and balanced dish, akin to Fincher’s The Social Network, Richard Pettifer’s NO-SHOW, on the other hand, is a delicately woven wonder, very similar to what Spalding Gray achieves with a glass of water and some notebooks. Pettifer has so little to start with („I have no show“ is what he first says, and he is being entirely honest) that Invisible Atom, with its tight script and obvious months of development starts looking like a bloated whale in comparison, but the two one-man shows have a great deal in common nonetheless. They both spin a story almost without theatre: a little bit of light, a little bit of sound, some words. But where Invisible Atom tends towards Hollywood almost against its better judgement, instinctively – and this is fine, if you’ve read my rambling preamble – Pettifer turns the other way, towards a deconstructive anti-theatre, and tells a story without even perhaps knowing that that’s what he’s doing.

There is no fine weaving of theme and motif here, text and subtext. Pettifer tells the story of another theatre show, Smudged, which had a text, four actors, Twitter incorporated („Brecht and all that“), which Pettifer directed. The story is of the show we’re not seeing – resounding hints of Forced Entertainment, here, as Pettifer describes what happened on stage – of the process which led to the show, of the process failing, of the shows failing in their effects on the audience, but it’s ultimately Pettifer’s story, and he tells it with the same authenticity and investment with which my friend Goran told me of how his firm once again miraculously didn’t fail. One of the greatest problems of Australian theatre is this corrosive need to conflate a good story with some special event: death of a child, end of the world, massacre, war, history. NO-SHOW tells a simple story of how a piece of theatre was made, and there is more basic, essential human truth in it than an average recent year of Australian dramatic writing would muster if piled up in one large heap. If it’s gripping, engaging and rewarding, it is because it tells how it happened, shapes anecdotal and amusing detail with great gusto, and finishes touching upon the question of what it meant that it happened. It finds its structure, its skelleton, in a deeply personal place – it holds together because it makes sense to the narrator – and in that sense resembles the autobiographical works of Spalding Gray, works which showed a deep and strong internal coherence despite Gray’s own chaotic process.

Here, another anecdote: I learned almost nothing while studying theatre – theatre studies were a place where, by and large, there were no attempts to learn nor to teach – except that Spalding Gray got it right. One day, we watched him on DVD, talking about his doctor, his mother, losing sight, going to Cambodia, being neurotic, and so on, for hours, and then had to go away and write and perform a personal monologue. Every single person in the room came back with an excellent piece of dramatic writing, and an excellent performance thereof. People with no training in writing and barely any training in performance did a series of short performances that were absolutely top notch, talking about things that were personal, funny, paradoxical, but always interesting, interesting because they made sense to the person telling. NO-SHOW gets it right in the same way. Even though it looks like a very Pirandellian essay on what theatre is, it really functions as a story.

Both shows, no need to stress, are really worth seeing. Both are ending very soon after really short runs.

Invisible Atom is presented by FULL TILT and showing at The Arts Centre. Ends on Saturday, 12 February.

NO-SHOW is showing at La Mama and ends on Sunday, 13 February.

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