conversation, interview, My own plays, Theatre

danny delahunty in conversation: on casting, balance and sharp elements

Danny Delahunty is one of my most beloved and trusted collaborators. He is co-artistic director of Attic Erratic, an outstanding director and producer and he owns too many pairs of shoes. He is also exceptionally good at casting. One night last week we sat down in a park to talk.

Ingredients: A clear night, trams, horses wearing feathers, random tourists and two slightly tipsy theatre makers.

Photos by Sarah Walker

All photos by Sarah Walker, as usual

Fleur: Now we’re going to try and talk about casting in a way that doesn’t name names or make us feel uncomfortable. So you cast for TV and adverts as your job but this is a separate thing. This is casting for your own theatre. How are these two roles different?

Danny: When you are casting for screen (and what I do for screen is TV commercials, that is 95% of my job) you’re casting essentially for a look and a moment. As a casting director, you are trying to get the actor to hit that single three to five second moment absolutely perfectly. And it has to ring exactly as it does in the director and the producer’s head. If you get that then it is done. When you are casting for a theatre show, you’re looking for a sustained effort over many minutes if not hours of performance. It is a very different set of skills and outcomes.

Especially with TVCs it is such a quick turn around: within a few days of auditions you cast and within a couple of days of that they’re shooting. So you are casting a finished product. With a theatre show you are casting the prospect; what could grow into the finished product. You want someone who has the perfect mixture of styles and skills that can grow into what you need.

Fleur: Do you have an image in your head when you’re casting theatre?

Danny: Always. Always. With the exception of casting for a devised piece where you are just looking for the right brains to work on a project. When you’ve got a script – something with fully fledged life already in it, which is what a good writer should hand you over – you should get a feel for who these people already are. They’re not just words on a page. They are characters. The thing that I love when I’m casting is that person who completely changes my idea. They need to fit into my concept but if they are exactly what I want, then it is going to be boring because they’re not going to be challenging my own artistic idea. The actor brings a lot of themselves into the role. They need to be 80% what I expect and 20% completely left of centre and something I would never have thought of myself.

Fleur: Have you had someone who has been 80% not what you were expecting and only 20% what you were expecting? Has that kind of ratio ever worked?

Danny: Yes! Sometimes it does work like that! They’ve got a tiny little element of what you’re thinking this character should be and everything else is completely different. On occasion you go ‘that’s the right person for the role’ and then you completely re-orientate every other character that you’re looking for in order to balance them out. The more change they bring, the more you have to adapt the other people that you want to cast. Every actor has to balance out the other actors on stage. If you get someone who is completely changing your concept then the others should probably be changing as well.

From Sarah's CLUTCH photo series

From Sarah’s CLUTCH photo series

Fleur: You talked about balance quite a bit when you were casting The City They Burned. You were talking about the actors in terms of ‘cool’ and ‘warm’. Can you explain a bit about playing with that balance?

Danny: I can try! When I think about directing a piece it’s not all about narrative or storytelling. So much of it is about feeling the rhythm and the pace of a piece and the innate elements of a person – not even the actor! The person behind the actor – the things that make up their personality that they can’t change, hide or alter. So much of that is going to show in the finished product. An amazing actor can have their three-plus years of drama school and another five or ten years of performance experience but perhaps there is something in their core personality that doesn’t fit in with that particular role or doesn’t balance out with the other actors. If you have all the actors on the stage and they have a very similar feel to them then you are going to end up with a block as opposed to a lot of contrast. Sometimes you want that and sometimes you don’t.

When I was talking about that with The City They Burned, I was specifically looking for actors that would contrast each other. It was a play that was a lot about tension and control and you needed to have differences in the room in order to establish sharp elements. There was a jagged feel to that piece. If everyone involved were a little bit warmer or a little bit cooler, that jagged, sharp tension would have been a little bit more contrived.

Fleur: Okay. So suddenly you’re standing here with a megaphone in front of all the actors in Melbourne. What do you most want them to be bringing into an audition? Regardless of the project, what do you hope to see?

Danny: So they’re all arrayed before me?

Fleur: Yes, they are.

Danny: And I’ve got a megaphone?

Fleur: Yes. The horses, the cars, the trams and all the actors of Melbourne.

Danny: Oh hey! I’d say come in as prepared as you possibly can and be prepared to throw that out the window the second you step through the door. Having an actor come in unprepared is so obvious and so frustrating. You know that they are wasting your time because if they can’t prepare for an audition you can’t expect them to prepare for a rehearsal, let alone a performance. It’s like a job interview: if you can’t step up at that part of the process there is no trust that they will ever be able to do it. Unless you’ve worked with them before, you just have to go ‘they probably won’t be able to get to a rehearsal or make it all the way through to opening night.’

But at the same time, you want to be able to play with them as much as you can in that audition room. You want to see how they react to your direction. If they can throw out everything they’ve prepared when you say ‘okay, that was great. Now do it this way’ then it shows that they’re easy to work with. That’s all you need to bring: proof that you can prepare and proof that you can play.

From Sarah Walker's photo series, CLUTCH

From Sarah photo series, CLUTCH

Fleur: There were two things that I really learnt from The City They Burned casting. One was that we’re so aware of whether or not the actor is tuned in to what they’re auditioning for. Come in and show that you get what a new work is and what contemporary Australian writing feels like!

Danny: Yes. Don’t bring in a classic monologue for a contemporary work because it just shows a misunderstanding of the work itself or that you have such a narrow repertoire that all you have to rely on is this piece of Shakespeare. Again, it comes down to preparation. Come on! Give yourself a few hours at least to work on something contemporary! And we didn’t say ‘bring a contemporary monologue’. We said ‘bring a piece of your choice’ but if it is a contemporary performance piece, you should bring something that rings true to that.

Fleur: The other thing from The City They Burned auditions – and this was perhaps quite specific to that show – was that we wanted to find a group who would look after each other. Everyone we cast was someone who walked in and made the room feel easy. It was clear that they would work as a group and would bring so much joy, love and support to the process.

Danny: Absolutely! Part of that was the content of the play. We needed to make sure that it was a safe space because there were the elements of sexual violence within the piece and then just – bloody hell! – we had a four-month period in front of us! We had one month of creative development, two-and-a-bit-months of rehearsal and THEN a month solid of performing. It had to be the right group of people who had perseverance, the right constitution and –

Fleur: Weren’t cunts.

Danny: And weren’t cunts. When it comes down to it. (To invisible assembled actors) Hear that?

Fleur: Don’t be cunts.

Mind you I was talking to Bridget Mackey the other day about my new script, Blessed and I said “it feels like, who you want for this role is someone you fear is going to drop out halfway through the process. Someone you just spend your whole time going ‘will they to make it to stage?’” That’s totally not a realistic way to cast but in my head there is something of that.

Danny: You need someone who can feel like that but isn’t that. The rookie mistake in casting is to cast a boring actor to play a boring person. Hell no! You have to cast an interesting person to play a boring person.

Fleur: Any parting words to our assembled actors?

Danny: I’d say to all these actors gathered around my megaphone –

Fleur: Hi guys. You’re all very pretty. It’s a bit intimidating.

Danny: I have so many actor friends out there who think they nail an audition and then don’t get the part. The fact of the matter is you probably did nail the audition. It’s not in your head. You probably did freakin amazingly. Everything I’ve ever cast has come down to the person next to you, not you. You may have been one of the two or three or four people I’m considering for that role. You getting it or not has nothing to do with what you did in the room. It is entirely about who happens to be cast as your brother or your boss or your daughter. It all works in tandem. Nothing is isolated. You can’t be cast as a silo; you’re going to be cast as an entire farm.

Fleur: Love a silo analogy.

Danny: Yeah. Let’s end on the farm. dannyflying Massive thank you to Sarah Walker who first suggested that I record Danny’s thoughts on this. Her years of documenting Danny’s life (they are housemates) also meant that I had the most entertaining time choosing photos for this post. Considering what was available to me, I think I was actually quite restrained. 

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Dramaturgical Analysis, Responses, Theatre

the note on my arm read: applause is the ogre of poetry/smasher of phrase and disruptor of metaphor/fuck you*

The secret police are knocking on Shostakovich’s door. Those three sharp, dissonant chords ring through the State theatre and jolt me to the core. ‘All is not well. Never relax. Never let your guard down. They will come for you, Dmitri, as they came for your friends.’ On stage, a man picks up an inanimate body and, with difficulty, drapes it across his shoulders. The prone woman, limbs askew, presses him towards the ground. He gathers a second body. His knees shudder. He gathers a third. His whole being is shaking now. Brittle, broken limbs emerge from every angle. His burden outweighs him. The dead pile up. The police knock again – those heart-stopping chords. And the audience applauds, congratulating the performer on his physical strength.

opuscarry

Listen: I feel that in writing about OPUS I am hovering dangerously close to a ‘stupid audience didn’t get it’ post and my respect for audiences is something that drives both my theatre and writing. I don’t want to write that they didn’t get it because I think that they did. Any ‘getting’ is valid. You don’t have to know how many of Shostakovich’s friends were disappeared during the Stalinist purges. You don’t have to know how he lived in fear for years and how brave he was to continue writing his music, music that said again and again ‘all is not well. Something is rotten here.’ You don’t have to know this to feel for the twisted, juddering bodies onstage and to feel hear the urgent desperation in his music.

I think the incongruity I found between audience response and my own was because OPUS is more than a mix of genres: it is a mix of learned etiquettes: circus and classical music. I could feel Circa fighting against this. Their choreography deliberately distances itself from the ‘Ta-Daa’ moment, which is such a traditional part of the performer-audience interaction in circus. One image flowed into the next, working with the movements of the music. They endeavoured to create something that we process as complete entity, rather than a series of separate moments punctuated by our hands. Yet still, this is how it was punctuated.

opus all

A woman rises out of a sea of bodies. Rather than strike that ‘Ta-Daa’ pose, her arms claw at the air, as if she struggles against not only gravity but the inevitability of sinking back into the mass of people below. And applause. And that is fine. I keep telling myself that is fine…

But lay this image on the music of an incredibly brave political composer, who grieved through his music – grieved when it was still dangerous to do so – and I wonder if applause is adequate. Shostakovich survived the Stalinist purges and World War II. He survived and he wrote his 8th String Quartet in 1960 in the still-rubble strewn Dresden, dedicating the work to “victims of fascism and war”. The feared nighttime knocking still haunted him and those three sharp chords intrude again and again.

… And “Bravo!” yells a man somewhere to my left.

circa and debussy string quartet opus

Is it that I am more trained in classical music than in circus? Is this why I am preferencing my own polite, well-trained music audience response over that of the height-equals-applause audience? In doing this, am trying to strip circus of its very circus-ness. Isn’t recognising and rejoicing in human possibility the very essence of this art? Certainly Circa retain spectacle and those dangerous, breath-catching moments. It was some of the most stunning circus I have ever seen and the Debussy String Quartet made me tear up multiple times. I just wonder whether audiences’ expectations and learnt behaviours are going to hold circus back from becoming a medium that transcends shock and awe. Circus-makers are ready to transcend it: Circa’s Artistic Director, Yaron Lifschitz said in the program “I want (our work) to exist beyond words – an actual, powerful, seismic theatrical event that moves you, without you being able to say why.” The medium has become one of complexity, maturity and depth. But I feel there is still an echo of the crowd pressing into the freak show tent, unaware that the bearded lady is singing. What they are seeing has closed their ears to the possibility of beauty.

The ‘knocking’ starts at 12’36 in this recording. But listen at least from 6 minutes at because 6’18 begins one of the most heart-stopping motifs in 20th Century music.  

All production photos are by Justin Nicholas. 

*Drunk Fleur got melodramatic with her note-taking.

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audience conversations, audiences, Politics, Theatre

in conversation: on richard ii, julia gillard, sexualised language and why we are so a-political

RICHARD II made me incredibly proud. I was proud that this work was being made in Melbourne, being made by an independent company, MKA, and being supported by programs like Speak Easy. Most of all I was so very proud that Olivia Monticciolo and Mark Wilson just won’t shut up. I was proud that they grabbed Shakespeare’s text with their teeth and dragged it into our ugly present. This is independent theatre at its best: vicious, dangerous, entertaining, hilarious and completely of this moment in time. Not to mention that both performers are incredibly addictive. You just want to see more. 

RICHARD II surprised, delighted and angered me at every turn. I think the quality of the dialogue that emerged from it shows just how hard these theatre-makers are working and how hard they are making their audiences work. So here is my contribution to this conversation. I grabbed two lovely young women I’d never met before and put a microphone in their faces. The two were Tori Ball and Louise Mapleston and they had plenty to say. Thank you to both these two, to Josiah Lulham for doing the introduction, to Sarah Walker WHO TYPED A THIRD OF THIS AND MADE ME INCREDIBLY HAPPY IN DOING SO and, of course, a massive thank you to Mark and Olivia. Seriously. Thank you. Keep fucking shit up. 

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: Tell me what you just saw. What happened to you just now?

LOUISE: I had a bit of a giggle and a lot of thoughts. It kind of brought me back: it was very obvious about Julia Gillard and the Labour split and I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in a long time, and it’s kind of cool now we have the space and a way we can kind of look at the whole ordeal in retrospect.

TORI: I think it was very Australian. They were so passionate, and then towards the end they were just like “Ah, we’ll just have a cup of tea and not worry about it”. I think they were really making a point about how we think about politics.

FLEUR: As in we build up to something great and then undermine ourselves?

TORI: Yeah, by just choosing to not actually follow through and do anything.

FLEUR: Why do you think we do that? What makes that uniquely Australian?

TORI: I’m not sure we’ve ever had any motivation to actually have to put ourselves out there. I dunno. I feel like for a couple of generations, it’s been pretty safe here, relative to other countries.

FLEUR: There’s been a thought that I’ve heard thrown around this year that part of the reason we are as we are as a nation is that other countries have been defined by fighting against a colonial power, whereas our defining moment as a nation was fighting for that power.

TORI: I think that’s relevant but, even though we’re still fighting for others people’s power, that moment was so long ago. I don’t know if we still identify that way.

LOUISE: I think we do. If we’re looking at the English coming into Australia and colonising things, in Richard, she [Olivia Monticciolo as Gillard/Henry] was there already. She was already there, and he was like “Fuck off bitch, fuck off bitch, I’ve already got this”, like, taking something. I think that showed the greediness, and I think it showed extreme sexism. I mean, sexism’s just everywhere, but there’s a real vocabulary of slang and words that we use in this show that really show that as well.

FLEUR: What sort of words? Say some bad words for me.

LOUISE: Oh, mate. (Laughter) Like ‘cunt.’ ‘Cunt’ is huge. ‘Fucking bitch,’ and things like that. After travelling a little bit, I’ve noticed that we definitely use those words a lot more than other countries. I don’t know if we use ‘cunt’ a lot more, but it is in a very aggressive way.

TORI: Totally. Our culture is so absurd in the way that we’re so willing to use those terms derogatively.

LOUISE: But everyone went silent when they made a joke about “Oh yeah, well my dad’s alive”. Everyone was laughing at calling her a fucking bitch and things like that. This person is right there in front of us but this guy’s already dead. Why do we have more respect for the dead than the actual humans living here right now who are being discriminated against?

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: The moment that I found really interesting in terms of the sexism was when I’d forgotten she was female. As you do, because it’s not particularly extraordinary. They started the play by saying “I have a vagina, you have a penis” so they wanted us to remember but then I just slipped back into thinking of her as a character – as a leader – rather than as a woman. Then there was the moment when he got the numbers. He started yelling, “I’ve got the numbers, bitch. Suck on that! Suck on my numbers, bitch!” And suddenly it was so overtly sexual and degrading again; inescapably man vs woman in that moment.

TORI: That’s interesting. I didn’t even think of that. For me it was more a reflection of what I think a lot of people are frustrated by: how temporary our politics are.

LOUISE: It just seems so childlike. I guess that’s the whole point is that our politics is still so child-like. It is still a whole lot of adults insulting one another.

FLEUR: I guess it reminded me of that moment in politics when you go “really? Is she still having to be the Woman Leader and not just the Leader?” Yeah. Yeah, she is actually.

LOUISE: In terms of relating it back to the story, I think it is so clever. King Henry who took over, he was seen as a decent human.

TORI: I could see it coming. The change. How the power would change but I didn’t expect the transition to the Julia Gillard thing. That was really interesting.

LOUISE: Except her dancing! That was where I went “what is going on?”

TORI: I thought that was like her day-dream/nightmare moment.

FLEUR: The lap dance moment?

TORI: With Mark dressed as Julia Gillard. Yeah.

LOUISE: And sort of oddly arousing as well.

FLEUR: Oddly arousing? I’d call that extremely arousing. Laughter. Scrap that. [Totally didn’t scrap that.]

I feel that moment was where we got to go “here is the image of this woman” and it is all butt and tits. And nose but she came out butt first. It was just reminding us, this is how this woman is portrayed. Was portrayed every day in the newspapers; every day in the cartoons.

TORI: I guess it is going to be a long time before we can talk about politics without physical differences coming into it.

Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

LOUISE: Whenever Mark was onstage as King, it was always rather grand – spotlight and ‘look at me’ – and he had those gold pants on but it wasn’t overtly sexual or anything like that. I guess that really shows the difference between this ‘female king’ and the ‘male king’. The seriousness of it. You didn’t take her seriously but you took Mark seriously –

TORI: Even though he was acting like such a child?

LOUISE: Yeah because he had that grandeur and this authority about him.

FLEUR: Someone said to me as it ended that we in theatre have this conversation all the time: “why isn’t more political stuff happening on the mainstage?” and then we come here and this is perhaps the most political stuff I’ve seen on the stage in years.

TORI: Yeah. To represent a former political leader as they did, that’s pretty ballsy!

FLEUR: Yes and to be so in this moment! And in last year but so much of it is this week and in this moment, right down to the mention of the terror alert. Why do you think we’re not seeing more people confronting politics head on in our theatres?

TORI: Short answer? Part of me wants to say that the majority are quite disengaged by our politics. Maybe it is that the section of our demographics that are engaged are quite polarised. It is hard for them to unite to make or see something.

LOUISE: Yeah, the first thing that really comes to mind for me is accessibility. Personally I have no issues with seeing political theatre but I’m probably considered a left wing, yuppie-type. But are people going to be offended if they see these things?

TORI: It’s like “why not? Why not make this?”

FLEUR: I think that is partly about our Australian-ness. I think it comes back to what you said at the start about “oh this is a big point we’re going to make! Awww actually let’s not quite make it.”

LOUISE: Tim-tam and a cup of tea.

FLEUR: Yes! There is something there and there is something about our reluctance to show how seriously we’re taking ourselves. I’m sure this isn’t just an Australian issue but issue-based theatre has kind of a dirty name here because people go “I don’t want to be beaten over the head with an issue”.

TORI: Yet this is actually a space where people are invited to experience it in their own way. It is probably one of the best ways to talk about it.

FLEUR: Yes. It is a metaphoric space. It allows us to create the space we need for these questions.

LOUISE: I guess another risk is looking at the newspapers and larger audiences who aren’t just involved in the little Fringe niche is how they will react to it. It could potentially bring a bad name –

FLEUR: Mark has done worse.

Lou: I heard.

TORI: I just want to see it again because there was so much I didn’t have space to think about because they had so much to say.

LOUISE: I’d recommend it to my mum. She doesn’t know a thing about Shakespeare but she’d really engage with the content and the politics. She’s not particularly arty but I think she would get a lot out of this show. It would make her think.

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: And one more question absolutely to finish: could you just say your name and what you do. So like “My name is Fleur and I’m a playwright and theatre director and I fell down last week and grazed my knee and it made me feel like I was eight years old.”

TORI: I’m Tori. I’m an arts student and it was really windy when I cycled today. It was tough.

LOUISE: I’m Lou. I’m a social work student and I really love jazz music.

FLEUR: Thank you so much guys. Holy shit.

You can find Louise here, MKA here and Sarah Walker’s photography here. 

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Politics, Theatre, writing

on angry sexx, tripped, racism, feminism and urgency

It is that time of the year when I miss more theatre than I could ever possibly see. To make up for my absence, I asked two young theatre makers about their new work, why it is urgent and what Australian theatre needs more of. These are both works with such driving passion and they feel so necessary. They are born of Australian culture both past and very, very present. I’m so thrilled this kind of work is being made, even if I can’t see the blasted things. Enjoy and go see some blistering new Australian theatre. 

Rachel Perks, playwright and performer, ANGRY SEXX

ANGRY SEXX is a dark trashy comedy about the frightening places women find themselves in. It uses both spoken text that I have written and physical text devised with Bridget Balodis and the actors. It has bad dancing, pop music and very very very adult themes.

ANGRY SEXX, promo image by Sarah Walker

ANGRY SEXX, promo image by Sarah Walker

Why was this the story you needed to tell? What is urgent about it?

The other day, while waiting to start the tech for ANGRY SEXX I was sitting with fellow human being Bridget Balodis, minding our own business and having a coffee on Errols St. A man walked up to us, paused, looked us up and down and said “hello ladies.” I just stared at him- speechless. You see there is a scene in the play depicting a very similar encounter that ends very badly for the man.

This man, sensing he was unwelcome, started to walk past us but turned back to yell “You should say hello back! It’s what makes Australia a great country.” I cracked and giggled a little at the absurdity of the scene- who was this man and why did I owe him my attention?

At that point the man turned, filled with bruised ego vitriol and yelled “Fuck you, you fucking cunts!”

The whole encounter happened in the space of about thirty seconds in broad daylight outside a cafe.

A few of you will probably think I should have just said hello- that I provoked him, that I was being rude. Perhaps you’ll wonder what I was wearing that so caught his attention? A part of me thinks the same things too. And that’s why I’m making this show. Because the logic is warped, the standards are double and the lines have been blurred. Because I’m figuring this stuff out as I go and I want to talk about it. It took me a long time to adopt the name of feminist and I’m making up for lost time.

How has this production changed you?

This process has showed me the joy of true collaboration. Of working with strong rebellious and outspoken women and with beautiful, intelligent, compassionate men. It has also helped me understand what the hell a dramaturg does. Sort of.

The most challenging part of the process has been trusting my own writing. To be performing your own words, to be fighting for them and believing in them and throwing yourself off the cliff with them is hard. But it feels good when you manage it.

What does Melbourne theatre need more of?

New writing. Political choices. Stubborn attitudes. Female leadership. Laughs. 

To book for ANGRY SEXX, click here.

Fiona Spitzkowsky, assistant director, TRIPPED

The seeds for this play were planted in playwright Nick Musgrove’s brain when he was in high school, after studying Norm and Ahmed in class. No one in his class predicted the violent ending and yet everyone accepted it.

A year ago, he found himself thinking of the Buzos’ play after race relations become a major playing card in the 2013 elections. He began discussions with director Celeste Cody about the idea of theatrically ‘checking in’ with Norm and Ahmed 30 years after they first appeared on Australian stages, to see just how far we’ve come.

TRIPPED promo image by Sarah Walker

TRIPPED promo image by Sarah Walker

Last week the Australian government raised the terror alert level to high. A short time later there were massive police raids on alleged Islamic terror groups. Since then there have been multiple incidents of racially motivated violence.

Tripped tells a story that is urgent, but not just because of the events that have happened in the past week, or in the past year, or in the past thirty years. Racial discrimination, violence and aggressive masculine culture have plagued us for centuries. We need to tell this story because it’s the same story we’ve been telling all this time, and we still haven’t found a happy ending.

What have you learnt from this production? How has it changed you?

This play tells us what we already (should) know: racism is just a form of ignorance, and that extremists exist in every culture, and should not be taken as a representation of the beliefs and behaviours of the greater cohort. But what Tripped has taught me is how quickly we can allow ourselves to be distracted from underlying issues. We see two men onstage, bristling with rage and the potential for violence, but after a light moment, a moment of laughter, we relax and think that everything will be fine now that we’ve had a laugh together, not realising that the core issues are still there, ready to explode to the surface again, with dire consequences.

This is how the play is structured for dramatic purposes, but this may also be how we function in real life, how our media feeds us information: we sit through the news of war in the Middle East and raids in our cities, but it all finishes with a fluff piece so that we can continue with evenings unperturbed.

Also, I learnt that it is impossible to give prop guns to a male cast without there being a lot of hollering and dick jokes.

What does Melbourne theatre need more of?

Personally, I would say new Australian writing. It is so important to be empowering young and emerging artists by allowing them to present their voice onstage. It is empowering for the community as well, as they get to hear voices that are current and relevant to them.

But, having worked with Ezel Doruk on this project, and comparing his experiences in the industry with that of the other two (white) cast members, I would also say that we need more diversity in the stories we tell, and colour blind, yet culturally aware, casting.

To book for TRIPPED, click here

Both plays opened last night in the Fringe hub and run until September 4th. 

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conversation, criticism, My own plays, Theatre

in conversation: cameron woodhead on the city they burned, hetero-normativity, the bible, how i got it wrong

A play of mine, The City They Burned, is currently drawing to the end of a very popular Melbourne season. Overall, it has been received incredibly well by both critics and audiences but on the 9th of September, Cameron Woodhead, senior theatre critic for The Age, reviewed it. Whilst he said that the second act “stands tall among the best indie theatre has to offer”, he called the first act “intensely problematic”, saying that I sidestepped “the homophobic impact of its chief interpretation, which led to the persecution of countless homosexual men throughout history.”  So we sat down in a café to talk about it. 

The conversation was very friendly and respectful but it is hard to be both the artist and the arts writer in the one conversation. When it came time for me to respond to Cameron’s criticism I was surprised by how little eye contact I managed and I’m glad that you can’t get the awkward pauses from this transcript. It is also a strange thing to be the one to put incredibly eloquent criticism of your work on the internet for any googling festival director to find in the future but I believe that conversations such as this are vitally important to our industry. I feel very fortunate to have received such thorough, thoughtful and multi-faceted responses to this work. As with all of this blog, I hope that this contributes to the conversation regarding art, criticism and interpretation.

CAMERON: When I wrote my review of The City They Burned, I actually expected that no one would touch what I was saying with a ten-foot pole. What I’m saying is very confronting and difficult and thorny and hard to hear and hard to talk about.

FLEUR: The cast and the director are all really excited that this conversation is happening.

CAMERON: I think what artists should want is something that makes them look upon their art from a different set of eyes. It is not what artists necessarily do want; they end up wanting as many stars as possible. Art is not art unless you can read it in different ways so from that point of view it always invites conversation. If I can make the artist go “oh wait, I didn’t think about that when I wrote this piece and had I thought about it in this way I might have done things a little bit differently”… Well, that is valuable. It ceases to be a conversation when you ignore the reviews and concentrate purely on stars and tweets.

FLEUR: I’ve had a really interesting relationship with what I’ll call The Negative Review because

CAMERON: It’s not entirely negative!

FLEUR: Oh no yours isn’t! No, no, not at all!

CAMERON: Oh right! You’re talking about The Negative Review!

FLEUR: Yes, THE Negative Review as an entity. No, I really appreciate that you did separate the two halves and said “I really fucking loved this and this totally missed the mark for me”.

But I remember the first time I got a really negative review. I think I’d just somehow luckily stumbled out of university and got good reviews and I just thought that was kind of how it worked. I did Insomnia Cat Came To Stay as a development in Adelaide. I went “I’ll just do this little showing and get some good reviews and use them to put it on in a festival”. Then I got a terrible review and I was so… surprised. And devastated. Totally devastated. It had never occurred to me that I was going to get a bad review from this thing. Ah, youth.

The next one that I got was one of yours on Awake, which I hope you don’t remember.

CAMERON: What’s the show about?

FLEUR: Do I have to? Okay. Well I’ll tell you what you said because of course I remember.

CAMERON: Of course you remember! The artist never forgets.

FLEUR: Okay. You said that it reeked of hypochondria and idle hours spent on Wikipedia.

We both laugh. Quite a lot actually. Cameron even claps.

CAMERON: Did I? Did I really say that? That’s not very kind, is it?

FLEUR: But at the time I was devastated but six months later I was able to look at that review and it did change some really big things about my art, one being that I don’t direct my own writing any more and the other being that I stopped doing medical-themed shows.

CAMERON: Well it’s not that you can’t write a very good show about Fatal Familial Insomnia or –

FLEUR: Oh you DO remember!

CAMERON: Or whatever! Some vanishingly rare condition that is only suffered by three people in the entire world! But… chances are probably not.

FLEUR: But it is interesting that I’ve gone from there to sitting down with you and a microphone. But then a review said of a show I co-directed last year that it was like being stabbed to death with a potato. I thought that was hilarious and shared that quote but I’m not going to sit down and chat with him about how he thought it was like being stabbed to death with a potato because that doesn’t mean anything.

CAMERON: Well I have a bit of an issue with people who say things like that because, yes, it is highly coloured but it is not very specific. The main thing you get from a sentence like that is the reviewer drawing attention to him or herself. Everyone is going to do it from time to time. Everyone has an ego but it shouldn’t primarily be about the reviewer. The reviewer is there to talk about the art. You should do that as clearly, precisely and evocatively as you can. What does it mean? It just means he didn’t like it very much.

FLEUR: I think you’ll find it means it was like being stabbed to death with a potato.

Jessica Tanner in THE CITY THEY BURNED, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Jessica Tanner in THE CITY THEY BURNED, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Okay. So to turn to this ‘hetero-fying’ of Australian theatre – can I call it that?

CAMERON: Well the word is hetero-normativity and I hesitate to use it because it makes you sound like a pretentious Under-Grad. Look, the vast majority of the theatre that we see takes heterosexuality as a basic assumption and we deal with that. Most of the time we wouldn’t even remark on it because the vast majority of people are heterosexual. That’s fine. If it doesn’t overtly evoke a non-heterosexual theme or idea then why would you mention it? But that’s not the case with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which, fairly centrally invokes men who have sex with men.

FLEUR: Tell me your interpretation of that story in the Bible.

CAMERON: My interpretation of that story? It’s not really a question of my interpretation of that story. The dominant interpretation of that story through all three major monotheistic religions has been to use it to assert that male homosexual relations are wrong and are the subject of divine punishment. I’m not saying that is the correct interpretation but I am saying that is the dominant interpretation, which has been used to horrific social affect for a very long period of time. You can’t read that piece of art without being aware that this is the history: this particular story has had a very serious impact on a marginalised group of people in our society. I don’t think you would do it with any other marginalised group of people. I do not think that you would take a myth that had had a terrible effect on women or indigenous people or migrants and entirely write them out of the story and re-balance the sympathy of the thing so that a different group came to the fore. I don’t think you would do that.

What I’m interested in and why I agreed to talk to you today is to find out why you did that.

FLEUR: Okay. Do you want me to say why I – why I – um…

CAMERON: Yeah, sure.

FLEUR: Okay.

I guess a good place to start is with word ‘Sodomite’ because we deliberately left it in the script. We had a big talk about it. Danny was like “doesn’t that make people think that it is something other than what it is?” “No, because we want people to remember the history of this story but also realise that, whilst the majority of people think that this is a story about how horrific homosexuality is, the Judaeo-Christian version of the story doesn’t have that.” That’s not what the word ‘Sodomite’ originally signified. It was a city first and the Judaeo-Christian Bible doesn’t say why God is damning the city.

CAMERON: It is implied. It is implied. The Biblical exegesis from Ezekiel onwards that claim that it wasn’t to do with male homosexuality all fail. They are all apologising for the blatant homophobia of the legend. None of them deal with the fact that the men in the story at no point indicate even the slightest sexual interest in women. Any interpretation that doesn’t have homosexuality at least somewhere in there, fails to take into account a very particular aspect of the story. An aspect of the story that you wrote out.

Dushan, Scott Gooding and Kane Felsinger in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

Dushan Phillips, Scott Gooding and Kane Felsinger in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: For me it was this idea that God decides before getting to the city that these are Bad People. It is this judgement from afar. A higher power deciding that an entire group of people aren’t worthy of living. And it doesn’t say in the Bible why. They had turned away from God and God has decided that they are going to die.

I felt that it did the story a disservice to agree with that interpretation that they were all going to die because they were homosexuals. I wanted to re-claim it as the story of a higher power deciding from afar that people are bad for no clear reason. I wanted to remind people of how we now view this story but also modernise the concept of ‘evil’. [Note: For those who haven’t seen the play, our Sodom is modelled on the industrial city of Shenzhen. The Sodomites are damned because they cannot keep up with the demands of their CEO and company executives. Canaan brings in twice the revenue. They are discontinued in the most brutal way.]

There’s what I call ‘Biblical fan-fiction’, stuff written probably around 18th Century. There is this Book of Jasher (and Jasher is a lost book so it is certainly not original), which describes why Sodom was bad. It describes a traveller coming to the city and a Sodomite hits him in the head with a rock and he bleeds. The Sodomite is like “now you have to give me money ‘cause I got rid of that bad blood out of your head.” And the guy is like “I’m not going to pay you for hitting me with a rock.” So he gets taken to court and the Judge is like “yeah, you totally owe him for getting rid of the bad blood.” So that is what the 18th Century thought of as a Bad City.

Through different stages of history there have been different explanations of what made these people bad. I thought that maybe it was time to do a representation (and maybe I was wrong), which acknowledged that it never states why they are so evil that they should all be destroyed. I feel like it would do more of a disservice to say, “yeah, this is a story about how bad homosexuality is.”

CAMERON: I don’t object to it not being a story about how bad homosexuality is! How could I? I don’t want that! No one wants that! It’s the way you’ve re-written the story. You’ve created a theatrical world where homosexual desire does not exist. It doesn’t exist. You’ve got an upper-middle class dinner party with various bogan workers invited, all of whom talk about their wives and families to no great purpose. You’ve got angels who exist purely for work and don’t seem to have any kind of sexuality at all. Then you’ve got this fabulously complex vision of female sexuality played out through the daughters. I think that what you’ve said is an evasion. You can’t get out of hetero-normativity by saying that “if we’d included homosexuals it would have been homophobic.” Hetero-normativity isn’t that much better. Would you rather have rocks thrown at your head or be ignored totally? Of course you would rather be ignored totally but, all things being equal, there is a better option than being ignored totally. Why not take it?

From what you’ve created, having as complex a vision of male sexuality as you do of female would make it a stronger piece. You’ve written very strongly for the women and not so strongly for the men. And the women do have focus for a long time in act two in a way that the other characters don’t necessarily get, but if you wanted to actually horrify us… Well it (the attempted rape in Act One) erupts out of nowhere. Even the most un-desiring homosexual rape still has sexual desire in there somewhere. You don’t get it. You don’t get sidelong lusty glances from the men to the angels. It is by far the most brittle aspect of the entire performance.

As a gay man sitting there watching, I had grown up with this story. I grew up when sodomy laws were only just beginning to be repealed. It has gone from something that was reviled and criminalised to something that we now, superficially at least, accept as normal, almost in a too eager way so that we don’t have to think about how awful it was before. It is a very confronting piece to watch from a gay man’s perspective. You probably have lots of gay friends and I’m sure they will all come up to you afterwards and say “I thought that was a really great piece, Fleur” but if you put this review in front of them, they would probably say “he’s got a point.”

FLEUR: My thought with both the rapes in Act One and Act Two is that they came from a position of wanting power rather than sexual gratification. And that line of thought has been talked about through studies such as the one where they asked rapists to describe what clothes their victims were wearing and them having no idea, which points towards it being less about sex appeal and more about power. Although I’m sure they could still tell you the gender of their victim.

CAMERON: Look, I don’t buy it. I know there is a big fat movement that wants to distance rape from sexual desire and talk about it in terms of power and I think it wants to do that for a couple of reasons, some of which are genuine and some are a bit dodgy. The dodgier side of it is that it makes sexuality a sort of squeaky-clean thing and makes the act of rape monstrous. I don’t think that helps either the victim or the victimiser nor does it accurately reflect what is going on. In every act of rape there is at least one person who wants to have sex. Always.

Although, having said that, I really liked the fragment in Act Two where she [the eldest daughter] talks about her rapist crying. I thought that was awesome. I really loved that: the idea that someone is doing this stuff and is nevertheless pathetic and knows what he’s doing is wrong but does it anyway. I thought that was quite insightful and powerful. It is complex. It’s not what people expect.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: There was Menagerie and… What was the other piece you mentioned in the review?

Cameron: Menagerie and On the Misconception of Oedipus. The myth behind Laius, Oedipus’ father, is that he abducted and raped the youth Chrysippus and everything that happened to Laius’ family – the curse, him being killed by his son and the son sleeping with the mother and blah, blah, blah – was down to this act of homosexual abduction and rape. Hardly anyone knows that aspect of the story. Homosexual abduction and rape used to be called, in the ancient world, The Crime of Laius, and it was then, as it is now, a really taboo subject. I think Tom Wright was gutless for not exploring that aspect of the story. However he made that decision and I had to judge him on the basis of what he’d done, as I had to judge you on the basis of what you’d done. You can’t stop people from making these decisions. All you can do is say “I noticed you made this decision. Isn’t it interesting that you, a heterosexual playwright, should ignore this?”

As for Daniel Schlusser’s Menagerie, don’t even get me started. Tennessee Williams’ homosexuality was portrayed as this hideous, loveless, fleeting thing. Daniel Schlusser would never have done that to a heterosexual playwright where their sexuality was integral to their work. That was one of the reasons I really didn’t like it and that didn’t come through in my review of that show but I was angry after that show.

But it’s not like I think the Melbourne theatre scene is overtly homophobic. Hetero-normativity is much more subtle than that and it comes about through an erasure, through a blurring, through an unwillingness to engage. I’m not laying down any laws. I’m saying, “this is something to be mindful of when you’re making art on subjects that invoke non-heterosexual acts, people and themes.”

FLEUR: In the last few weeks there has been The City They Burned and there has been The Sublime and the responses have been very personal to the people that responded to them. In The Sublime it was mostly the female reviewers who were the most offended and you were fine with it.

CAMERON: I don’t know if I was fine with it but I hedged my bets. I think some of the female reviewers are right to be deeply uneasy or even outraged by the way this material has been presented and performed. However, I note that some of those same reviewers looked at your piece and completely missed that –

FLEUR: But they could say the same of you though, Cameron.

CAMERON: Everyone has blind spots and that’s why it is important to have diversity of opinion. Art is there to be ambiguous, to give us a chance to bash out ideas against each other and see what falls out. The fact that works like The Sublime and The City They Burned overtly encourage that is fundamentally a good thing. You can’t really write a play that explores power and write homosexual characters entirely out of the story. That is an act of radical disempowerment in itself. There would have been ways of addressing your themes that were even more complex and challenging than what you ended up with.

As I said, I loved the second half of this piece! If the first half had been anything like as powerful and meaty as the second, I would have given it gobs of stars and told everyone to go and see it. I still said everyone should go and see it! I still think everyone should!

You’ve written a really good play. I think the review would have been blander if I didn’t think you were a really talented writer. It got to me that someone who was as talented and educated and with it as you are could come at this problem and not see that this was an issue.

Many thanks to Cameron and the entire cast and crew of The City They Burned for their passion for and belief in this work, which is robust enough for me to use it as a very public guinea pig.

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conversation, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: cat commander on collaboration, questioning yourself and australianess

Cat Commander is a beautiful playwright and actor. Her upcoming show, YOU TOOK THE STARS, will mark the first time that she has been the writer rather than the writer/performer/producer/everything else. It is a massive step for us as playwrights, when we first place our words into the mouths and hearts of others. Cat and I sat down over liquorice tea to talk about this new stage in her life and career.

cat-pilot

The first image that comes up when you google search ‘Cat Commander’

Fleur: Turning on the recorder. They are informal. The one I just typed up ends with “I’ve got to go because I need to eat some chips” so don’t feel that it’s like “NOW WE ARE TALKING!”

Cat: Okay. Okay.

Fleur: So tell me, Cat, what have you been thinking about this week?

Cat: The new sensation of what it’s like to be the playwright who is not onstage. I’ve done my job. I don’t have to do anything else. I feel like I could have done with a distraction this week to keep my mind off the fact that I don’t have anything to do.

Going into rehearsals today, I added an extra line. Maybe I did it because I felt like I needed to be involved. I also think the line needs to be there but I wonder if it was a bit of me going “argh! I don’t have anything to do and I feel a bit left out!”

Fleur: Are you loving that though?

Cat: Yeah! That’s good too! Part of me is going “oh you’re going to really miss it when you see it onstage and the people are applauding” but part of me is also going to love standing at the back every night.

Although there’s nowhere to hide! In rehearsal today, Kasha (Kaczmarek) delivered one of the monologues to me. It was this surreal out of body experience of going “I wrote that!” But it is also something I would say! So somebody has taken shit that I’ve said and is saying it back to me but making it make sense for their own brain! Kasha and John (Shearman) are such good actors. Even though I know what’s happening, I’m surprised by the way they make it real for themselves.

Fleur: Do you find your nerves different – you haven’t got to opening night – but are you actor nerves different to your writer nerves?

Cat: I actually feel pretty secure about this play because the bit that I enjoyed doing, the writing, I’ve finished. If it had gone on at first to third draft I think I’d still be panicking. “Fuck! I don’t know what this play is about!” But there was a massive jump between the third draft and the fifth or sixth or whatever this one is. I’ve figured out why I’m writing this and why I think people should see it and why I feel like it is worth of actors putting their time into. I think that is the thing I’m asking myself constantly about theatre: Why should people see it? Why should they pay to see it? Why ask actors to give up their time? I know what it’s like. I don’t want to give an actor a piece of work that’s not worthy of their time and energy.

Fleur: I’ve always thought that about your writing: what a delight it is for actors. I feel that comes from you knowing what feels good and hard to experience on stage but I hadn’t thought about it as also being this sensitivity to of what it’s like to invest months of time in words when you don’t know why you’re saying them.

Cat: I’ve thought a lot about it recently. I guess there is so much debate going on around theatre in Melbourne. So much of what gets up in Australia is largely irrelevant to us. It is overseas writing.

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

I was just in the States and I had someone ask me – and he was so curious and excited – asking me “what sort of theatre do you put on in Australia? What kind of plays?” And I was like “well… a lot of your plays. A lot of American plays.” And he was so genuinely shocked. “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you put Australian plays on?” That’s the question I keep asking myself. I’m really interested in American writing but I want audiences to experience our life on stage. I want actors to act without the falsification of using an accent. It is such a barrier to actually creating something beautiful, actors worrying whether they are getting their accent right. Or you are seeing an actor struggle with a text that’s clearly not meant to be spoken in this languid Australian accent.

Fleur: I ask those questions much more of independent companies, I must say. Why aren’t you producing local writing? It pisses me off when I see independent companies staging another production of LaBute. Look around you!

I’m sure that’s partly my ego as a local writer going “there are amazing writers here! Look! Right in front of you, fuckers! Why are you trying to make work that feels like mainstage? Why are you not digging your hands into the earth of Melbourne and pulling something out?”

Cat: But isn’t it interesting that we have this perception that it’s the funded theatre companies’ prerogative to put on overseas work and it is us, the struggling battlers that have got to put on and support our own stuff. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we lived in a world where amateur companies were going “let’s have a go at some overseas stuff” and it was the flagship companies were going “find me a new work! Let’s pump money into a writer.”

Fleur: Oh I absolutely don’t think it is the mainstage’s prerogative to produce all the overseas work! I would fucking love if one of them went “do you know what? This is our season of new Australian work.” I guess I just want independent artists to be trusting and supporting each other.

Cat: It is just a shame that we don’t have the population or the interest to support a wider range of programming from both mainstage and independent companies.

What I would really like is to have time and support to make sure it’s right before it goes on stage. To know what right feels like. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

I think if Melbourne could do with any more theatre it would be really meaty Australian work that up there with the dramatic structure of what’s being produced on the world stage. I don’t think conventional theatre is dead. I don’t think we’re ever going to want to stop seeing two people talking to each other; being outside of it yet still part of it. You are because you’re a meter or two meters or ten meters away.

I’m learning to think more thematically. To go “if I could sum this play up in a word or sentence, what would it be? What is it really about?” It’s not about two people talking to each other. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about people dealing with anxiety and trying to make love exist in the world where love seems so fucking impossible.

Last week I was thinking about myself the way an actor might think about a playwright. If I were the actor doing this play, I would google the playwright and I would find out what had been happening in the playwright’s life. That made me think.

I lost a friend last year and that sent me into a spiral of existential l doubt and questioning stuff. That made me go “oh, the word ‘death’ comes up a lot in this play.” It is clearly about a fear of dying and love is kind of all about a fear of dying. We’ve gotta make meaning out of this weird existence of ours otherwise why are we here?

Fleur: Oh dear. I’m just imagining my actors trying to google me to figure out what made me write The City They Burned. “Well she got naked a lot then got angry at God. Hmm.” That wouldn’t work. But I keep having these conversations with audience members who are asking just that. Where did this come from?

Cat: Yeah, I’m interested to have those conversations because I’ve never had them. I’ve never had that objective conversation where it’s not about “what did you thing of me? Was I doing a good job of the thing I wrote and acted and directed and did all the fucking sound cues?” Now it will be “hey, what did you think of this thing that I helped create.” I feel like I’ve been a part of something rather than an instigator of everything. It feels a bit more like what the artistic process should be like. I’m into this collaboration thing. I’d like to do more of it.

Fleur: It is an amazing feeling. It feels like such a privilege to have all these brains focus on your work with such love. I don’t think you can do new work – and indie, unpaid work – without a lot of love. Theatre is too hard to make without love. You make it with people you are in love with.

Cat: I think there should be ferocious debate and I think you should have intellectual respect for each other. I don’t think it should be 100% yes.

Fleur: Oh it should be hard! Hard isn’t a bad thing. But find those people who challenge that challenge you because they want it to be good. They want to be part of something good and they know you can be good.

Cat: The thing that I like about indie theatre is that part of the process is me cycling to South Bank on a Saturday morning to pick up some monkey ears from an old friend. “You’re a drag queen! You know how to sew! Why don’t you make me some monkey ears?” And there are probably lots of people who could have done that but, again, I want to be working with people I like. And people who make them regardless of the fact that I don’t reply to emails because I’m totally strung out and have no idea what’s going on right now.

That’s why I can’t do Tinder. People go, “you’re a writer, you should be really good at that!” No! I’m good at writing both the voices! When I don’t know what the other person is going to say I’m like “No! No! I don’t want to be a part of this!” You’re expecting me to give you the part of my brain that I’m using for the thing I care about! Anyway. That’s the next play, clearly. How much I don’t care about relationships. You Took The Stars is a play about how I’m really interested in them and now it is like “I’m completely disinterested because I am burnt the fuck out.”

Fleur: Well that’s a way to end it:

But, you’re fucking excited! You’re about to have your play open! How does it feel?

Cat: I’m over the moon. I couldn’t be happier.

Fleur: Congratulations. That’s really special.

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

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conversation, criticism, dance

in conversation: gabriel comerford on critical culture, brisbane and why dance

Gabriel Comerford and I recently spent six weeks living and working together in regional Queensland. Gabe is a contemporary dancer, an amazing artist and a joy to collaborate with. He inspired our students so much and kept me (relatively) sane. Towards the end of this project, we recorded this conversation whilst driving at 100kms an hour somewhere between Toowoomba and Dalby. This follows on from many conversations we had about the state of criticism in Brisbane. He’s not a fan.

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin MacKenzie

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin MacKenzie at Melaka Art & Performance Festival, Malaysia 

Fleur: As someone who lives in a city that is almost devoid of arts commentary, how do you think this affects you?

Gabriel: The fact that our reviews that are so emotion-based and lack commentary means that there’s no conversation happening between artists and audiences that goes any deeper than “did you like it? Yes or no.” Good commentary gives audiences perspective and lets them connect with artists. They feel like they can be open about their reactions to and interpretations of the work. They realise “oh, it’s okay that this is how I felt about it” and that goes beyond “I didn’t like it”.

Fleur: I think as artists it puts us on such a back foot to be waiting for the reviews with this feeling of defensiveness. If all you’re getting are those accusatory why-did-you-put-me-through-that responses, it is hard to keep valuing that response time and time again. They’re not giving you the respect you want to be giving them.

Gabriel: I can really only speak for Brisbane. I think that defensiveness has become so ingrained. There’s a great deal of people who say that they want that constructive criticism but, when they get it, their reactions are not those of people who are seeking a dialogue about their work.

I want people to tell me that they love or hate it and then why. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change it but we need to be able to understand why an audience member reacts a particular way… Dramaturgically, we can only see a certain amount of our work because we’re so entwined in it.

Fleur: When you value your audience’s opinions, they’ll discover opinions they didn’t know they had. I find this all the time with the audience conversations. At the start they’ll be a couple of quite vocal people and a someone going “I don’t know what I thought. Don’t ask me.”

Gabriel: “I didn’t think anything!”

Fleur: Exactly! And as it goes on most realise how many opinions they have. Even if they don’t come to the theatre often they know how something made them feel. And you don’t just have to respond to theatre or art within the context of other theatre or art experiences. You can respond within the context of life because you have lived. Sometimes that’s all you need.

It’s also difficult at Q&As mind you because… well we’ve all been in the audience when someone has asked a question that’s not a question. That eye rolling moment of “oh you’re just – ”

Gabriel: “You’re just telling us your opinion.”

Fleur: Yeah! But that’s because the framework is such that we say, “you will sit there and ask us, the undisputed experts on our own art, questions. We have the answers and you have the questions.” It is actually a very different thing to create a forum where we say, “don’t even pretend that’s a question! Put that out there as a statement! Own that!”

Gabe somewhere in a paddock outside of Dalby during the project we just completed.

Gabe somewhere in a paddock outside of Dalby during the project we just completed.

Do you think about stepping up to perform that job of critical commentator yourself?

Gabriel: Yeah, it is definitely something that I’ve started thinking about and talking to people about; how I feel and react to the way art is talked about in Brisbane, particularly in the dance world. There are really only two dance reviewers in Brisbane that get published. Often I don’t agree with their views. Perhaps they write great reviews but they can be so out of touch with contemporary dance and what’s happening with the independent work being made around Australia. I don’t know if it’s a generational gap thing or something that comes from our isolation in Brisbane. I’ve definitely started talking to my peers and saying, “this is something we need to take ownership of.”

In the last two weeks I’ve seen two or three theatre shows, some circus and some dance. Obviously I have opinions about everything I see and I have experience and exposure to all three of those genres but I don’t know that I’m situated to review or critically respond.

Fleur: Fuck that. Do it.

Well I say, “fuck that” and “do it” but when a reviewer is coming at it with a very conservative expectations born of ballet, like you mentioned, they can end up with a defensiveness when they talk about contemporary forms. “I didn’t get this! Why didn’t you make my kind of work?” I wish they would declare their bias. Don’t go in expecting one art form to be like another.

But I also, I do believe whole-heartedly that you don’t have to have done a theatre degree and post-grad to be able to respond to theatre.

So moving away from critical responses… Why dance?

Gabriel: Biggest question in the world. For me.

Fleur: Good. It should be. Otherwise why are you doing it.

Gabriel: I think all of the reasons and none of the reasons.

The dance that I am passionate about is guttural and emotive and incredibly raw. I appreciate beautifully crafted, technical dance but it’s not what moves me. I want dance that feels human. It doesn’t feel like these crafted, chiseled bodies: it feels like the imperfection of humanity. You put that onstage and give the audience the power to connect to that humanity and see something of themselves onstage. The majority of your audience see and understand beauty but they don’t relate to those lithe bodies with legs flying everywhere. But they relate to this guttural, human clashing of bodies and running and jumping and power.

Fleur: What it is to have a body.

Gabriel: Yeah. It’s that ability to express things that can’t be put into words. There are a thousand adjectives to describe an emotion but sometimes not one of them can express it the way that a simple movement or gesture or moment of connection with another human being can.

Fleur: What do you think that Australian dance needs more of?

Gabriel: Money would be nice.

Gabriel in The Danger Ensemble's CALIGULA

Gabriel in The Danger Ensemble’s CALIGULA

Fleur: What do you not see happening?

Gabriel: What I don’t see is the work that I love. So many of the European companies like Ultima Vez and Ballet C de la B make these big, unpolished productions. They are amazing and the dancers are amazing but they don’t need to be a clean-cut show. There’s ugliness. I think there’s a lot of perfection and beauty put on stage in Australia at the moment. I don’t know where that comes from. I think it’s Australia trying to find its own voice, which is great. I don’t want us to be trying to copy the great European companies or feeling that we have to mimic but –

Fleur: But Australia as a culture is also not this refined, pretty, abstract thing. It can be all of those things (because we are fucking complex) but it is also raw and rough and comic. This isn’t getting onto our stages?

Gabriel: Not the mainstages, anyway. There’s this sense of making dance for the upper-echelon crowds, who perhaps are the clean-cut and the refined, and not for the general public: not for the masses. I guess what I want to see is stuff that reflects that Australian culture a little more organically. I think there are choreographers who are doing that stuff in Australia. I think Antony Hamilton’s work is not necessarily the guttural thing but it has a connection to its people – its audience. You leave going “that was about me!”

I think there’s great work being made in Brisbane and there’s an incredible bunch of artists who believe in great work. At the moment our lack of infrastructure makes it so hard to make the work we want to make and need to make. Lizzie and Zaimon Vilmanis at Prying Eye Dance Company just did their first show as independents. They’ve been building it over about four or five years. It was fantastic. It had that sense of human-ness and ugliness balanced with some beauty. I think we need more work like that in Brisbane.

I think there’s a growing audience that loves the break in narrative and not having had their hand held through a story and through a show. The Danger Ensemble’s Caligula was a really good example of that because it really divided audiences. Some absolutely loved the lack of narrative and the lack of clear progression through the work and some hated it for the same reasons: “Where’s my story? I didn’t understand what was going on!” People will find their niche and that will dictate what they go and see but I think there is a big mix in Brisbane as far as work that crosses the dance and theatre line – the music line. Multi-disciplined work. But what Brisbane needs is just to make more work.

Fleur: I’m going to stop this because I literally need to eat some chips.

Gabriel: Yeah, you haven’t eaten yet!

Fleur: No, I haven’t.

Gabriel: I see you speed camera. So discreet.

Gabriel Comerford is part of MakeShift Dance Collective

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