conversation, criticism, interview

laura davis: on comedy, personal attacks, reviews and misogyny

I write so much about the beautiful, positive aspects of critical culture but last week I was at a friend’s house and Laura Davis, award-winning comedian, bonsai grower and all-round fantastic lady, started speaking about how she experiences criticism in the comedy industry. What she said was so compelling that less than a week later I was sitting opposite her with a microphone. This isn’t about the joys of critical culture.This is a different story. And it is important. It is about what it is like to be a solo performer in an incredibly brutal industry. I wish I could convey her tone of voice, which was so blasé as she spoke of rape threats and reviews rife with misogyny. She just gets it done. She makes comedy. And she is fucking good at it.

Laura’s most recent show, Ghost Machine, recently won Best Independent Show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) and is returning to the Butterfly Club for a brief season June 2nd to June 7th. If you are in Melbourne, go and see her work. She is a fierce and hilarious storyteller. I’m so happy to bring you this interview.

GHOST MACHINE

GHOST MACHINE, photo: Esther Longhurst

FLEUR: In the early days of your career, how did you cope with the opinions of others?

LAURA: I realised what I was walking towards. I won the Raw Comedy competition in Perth and was being sent to the national finals here in Melbourne. It is a huge part of the industry and yet it is a very small thing. Essentially it is just people trying five minute sets, doing their first, second, third gigs and being judged on that. I won and there was just a tiny little news article online announcing it. Friends started saying, “Don’t google yourself. Don’t look anything up online. Don’t type your name in.” And I was like “Why? Why not?” “Just don’t.”

So I didn’t. I didn’t until I got back form the national finals but when I got back it just felt a little bit unfair that everybody had been reading these things and I was not involved. So I googled it. And about half an hour later I vomited.

It was probably people that I knew, people in the industry and friends of people who didn’t win. It is a very small community in Perth and it was just a very long thread of hate speech: very misogynistic disgusting opinions on my body, some threats, “I hope someone rapes her so she learns a lesson” and stuff like that.

I’d just turned twenty. By the time I did the Raw final it was my fifth gig. That has – It has never happened when a man has won that competition. That scrutiny was because a woman had won. People didn’t like that. And, you know, if they didn’t like me that is totally allowed but I remember at that particular point going “Ah. This is going to be personal forever.”

I speak with my voice. With my face. That’s what I like about the art form but, at the same time, any criticism is very targeted and very personal.

FLEUR: Yes. I feel like the difference between theatre criticism and comedy criticism is that if someone doesn’t like your show in theatre, they don’t like your show. If someone doesn’t like your show in comedy, they don’t like you. As a human being.

LAURA: Yep. As a person walking around in the world. As the product of your parents.

PILLOW OF STRENGTH

PILLOW OF STRENGTH, photo: Stevie Cruz Martin Photography

FLEUR: How did that early experience inform how you went forward?

LAURA: I think it was good in a lot of ways. It just felt… It was a shallow lesson to learn. It wasn’t cutting or brutal. I remember it did hurt and it did make me feel sick that people had been so preoccupied with me. But in your first shows, you get reviewed and you still don’t really know what you are doing and they are very personal criticisms. I think I just got to learn fast that it really doesn’t matter. It is one person’s opinion.

I remember doing my first solo show and being nervous about getting the reviewers in and then going “Oh. It’s just one guy.” Like, they sit in the front row and it is just one man. And if we hung out, I might not like him either.

This year I told the reviewers “no” a whole bunch. All the other years I’ve always gone “Everybody! Everybody come! Of course, please review for your blog!” I’ve had a few negative experiences of that. One said, “With her brightly coloured poster and high-pitched voice you would expect Laura to be this and she’s not.” I can’t help what my voice sounds like. It’s just my voice. I’m not comping them to come and write what they think I should talk about.

FLEUR: To me, a lot of what criticism is about is having this documentation of your work and audience and engaging in this critical dialogue. I feel like you don’t trust them to have a dialogue that you have an interest in participating in.

LAURA: There is a comedy reviewer, Steve Bennett. When he comes to review my shows, I’m interested in his opinions because he reviews all the shows in Edinburgh and all the shows in Melbourne. He is one of the only people in the industry that actually reviews comedy. I know he has seen my previous work and I know that he has seen everybody else’s work in the country and the UK so I’m interested in what he thinks of it. If what you’re trying to make isn’t translating and you get reviews that are all confused than it is fair enough to doubt yourself.

FLEUR: What don’t you want to see in a review?

LAURA: Please don’t mention anything that I can’t help. Please don’t mention that I’m young unless you have a point as to why that relates to anything. Don’t mention that I’m female: my name is a girl’s name so people will be able to infer that themselves. Don’t mention what I’m wearing. Don’t refer to me by my hair colour! “The brunette enters the stage!” Don’t refer to any woman by their hair colour!

Don’t critique the venue. I didn’t mind people mentioning it for Ghost Machine because it was part of the show and added a lot to the experience but if it is just in a little theatre, just know that the comedian is paying a ridiculous amount of money to hire that space. There were 580 shows in MICF this year and that’s how many venues we need to find. You get what you get.

Don’t just compare them to other comedians that you like or don’t like. Don’t go “Oh she was good but she was not like this one that I really like!” That’s fucking useless. Don’t give away my punch lines. Don’t butcher them if you do.

Don’t make assumptions. Last year’s show was a personal story about an abusive relationship but don’t write extrapolations on my character based on that: “Laura must be this now because she was this.” “Because of her nature as this, Laura was in this relationship.”

LOOK OUT, IT'S A TRAP!

LOOK OUT, IT’S A TRAP!, photo: Stevie Cruz Martin Photography

The Age this year gave me 4 stars, which was nice but there were big gaps in her attention. In the review I could tell that she was not listening for parts of it. There’s one part where I’m drinking from a large bottle of ‘wine’ but it is water and I say that. I say, “This is water, by the way. I can’t drink any alcohol. It makes me too introspective.” In her review she writes “Laura stands there shrieking and swigging from a bottle of cheap wine” and you’re like “No. No. I relationally explained exactly what was happening and, whilst I’m loud, I’m not hysterical.” She wouldn’t participate. There are a lot of audience questions in that show. They are not mean and they are not intrusive but they are part of the show. I had asked several people around her and I turned to her and asked “How about you?” And she goes “Oh no!” and points to her notepad. So you can’t participate in the show that you’re reviewing?

FLEUR: You can’t be a part of this thing when the whole experience is being a part of it?

LAURA: Yeah. That really frustrated me. To have her ignoring the show because she was focusing on writing the review.

FLEUR: Going back to that incident after the Raw Comedy. I just think it is fucking gutsy to read all of that and just go “well, this is what my industry is” and keep going. I can’t imagine enduring that at such a young age.

LAURA: I wanted to do stand up so badly. It just felt unfair to go “Well these people think this so therefore I can’t do what I want to do.”

The industry is brutally personal so you just have to learn to deal with it. It has only been seven and a half years that I’ve been performing. These days there aren’t a lot of social consequences that you can deter me with. I’ve had a room of 2,500 people hate me when I know that I have to perform for fifteen minutes to get paid and I’m only at five. You just have to accept that 2,500 people don’t like you today. They don’t like you and you’re not sure why but you’ll work it out later.

It is the same with reviews. If you tweet at me and say something nasty and then ask me out, I can make a pretty good guess about what you’re like as a person and whether or not I value your opinion. If you are too uptight to participate in my show when I ask you a question, I’ll factor that in when I read the review. That feels like the best way to do it: factor in someone’s personality. If you have an old creepy man who wants to ask you out in a review, factor that in when you read his criticism saying that you were short, shrill and frumpy but he would still like to bang you. And if a woman is screaming at all the venue staff that she is menopausal and then writes that you are too young, it is probably because she is menopausal and she hates the fact that you are “too young”.

The only joke I had for that was that if I’m too young she should come back and see it again because I’ll be older then. She’ll like it more and more every night by a fraction.

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conversation, Guest Blogger, interview

acts of violence, part 2: guest blogger bridget mackey in conversation with theatre-makers about violence

Part 2: Conversation with Chi Vu

Chi is a Vietnamese-born writer and director. Chi and I did our Masters together at the VCA and I really appreciated this opportunity to talk to her about the use of violence in her work.

Chi starts our conversation by telling me that she doesn’t actually enjoy watching horror.

Chi: I think I’m only willing to put myself through the process of watching horror movies, to get my emotions messed with, if there’s a purpose to it. If I feel like the director and the screenwriters have a point they’re trying to make through the violence. If it’s just gratuitous violence then I get really angry. I try to avoid seeing those kinds of movies by asking around before hand: have you seen this movie? Is there a point to the violence? I do that to make sure that what I put myself through is for a reason, rather than simply feeling disturbed about it, but then not getting anything more out of it. I guess in some ways it’s like people who go through an ordeal. You would go through that, take that big risk, if you thought it was worth it for some reason. So I think movies are like that.

 I ask Chi about her approach to horror and violence in her play, The Dead Twin.

TheDeadTwin-3371

An stunning image from Chi Vu’s The Dead Twin, photo by Jave Lee.

Chi: Director Deborah Leiser-Moore and I are exploring the trauma of war, and how when the older generations have gone through trauma, it’s actually quite violent to ask them, ‘Hey what happened, can you tell me?’ Because they often don’t want to re-live that, which they would have to do in order to tell you. But the younger generation wants to know: what was it like during the war and why are we here? That search for the truth can be a real act of violence against the older generation, even though it’s not done with malice. So sometimes there is just silence around the whole topic. Sometimes the older generation thinks that this is better for the the younger generation – because it will set them free of the horrors of the past. But it doesn’t work that way, because the children are haunted, regardless. Marianne Hirsch studied the children of Holocaust survivors. She came up with the idea of postmemory: that the second generation ‘inherited’ memories that the older generation experienced which are so vivid it’s almost like your memories. So you are haunted by that trauma. Deborah’s other performance works also look at war trauma, especially those of ex-soldiers from around the world. I’m really excited to be working with her on this piece.

But also, the secret story to The Dead Twin – and I don’t mind if people don’t interpret it like this at all – is about repressed identity, whether it’s cultural or linguistic, or some other repressed identity. I feel like the Vietnamese side of me is like a twin that some people with a mono-cultural or monolingual mindset don’t want to acknowledge as a really important part of me. And they could be Vietnamese or Anglo-Australian. For example, you might get some first-generation Vietnamese person who’s conservative who thinks you should be writing in Vietnamese or else it’s not valid. And it’s like: well I don’t. I can read it, but I don’t write it in the way a monolingual person would. I will write in a way that a bilingual or ‘translingual’ person would. And does that make my work not relevant to people around the world? I don’t think so. So one of the traumas I’m exploring is the expectation that ‘You should be one of us, and only one of us, and not also part of something else,’ which I find really violent to my psyche.

Chi explains that the use of genre in her work is not about the horror or about the violence.

Chi: I’m using horror because it’s a genre that allows me to explore how people cope with being really vulnerable. The Dead Twin lets you feel what it’s like when you live in another culture, or when you are part of an oppressed minority, you do feel this extra level of vulnerability. So the horror genre works when you’ve got generally likeable characters who are put in vulnerable situations.

Bridget: There’s a review of your novel Anguli Ma that was published in The Australian that identifies the way you fuse two worlds together, which I find interesting. The review says “Chi finds a perfect chemistry between Australia’s history of serial killers in decrepit suburban wastelands and a refugee community’s repressed memories. It is genuenly terrifying.”

Chi: Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely not writing within a Vietnamese lineage. Like if you compare me to someone who’s in Vietnam writing about anything to do with ghosts, the supernatural, killing, etcetera it’s very different. So it is very much this way of trying to talk about issues, but being somewhat responsible to a minority community as well. So, on one hand, you can spend your whole life just writing celebratory works that say ‘culturally diverse people are lovely, multiculturalism is great, look at us get along together’ and you know, there’s certainly a place for that. But I just got to a point where, for that particular work, I wanted to write about violence in the community, but in a way that wasn’t going to give the Andrew Bolts of the world free rein to say ‘look at these horrible people, why do we let them into the country?’

Chi: How do you achieve violence in your work?

Bridget: I think Kindness is violent in a sense that there’s no catharsis in the piece. There’s a character who’s clearly suffering but the other characters ignore her suffering. For me it is important to tell that story that way, in order to put the audience in the older woman’s position. There’s no relief from her suffering. The play is set in an office and I think there’s violence in doing a repetitive job day in day out, that in order to do it you’re repressing something about your humanity.

Chi: So, how have you seen theatre do violence differently to film?

Bridget: I think it could be something about the spectacle that theatre can achieve. What I like about Romeo Castellucci’s work is the atmosphere that he creates. You sometimes don’t know why it’s violent. It’s kind of like watching a David Lynch film and you’re watching it going, I’m so terrified right now and there’s nothing actually terrifying on screen.

Chi: Or they are all terrified of a fingernail.

Bridget: Exactly. But I think at the moment in my work, I’m not really using violence – or horror – as a narrative device. But my characters have violent urges because they want to get out of the situation they are in.

Chi: I think in theatre people don’t expect to actually see the gore or the monster, whereas in film, we are sort of expecting it at some point. I made myself watch Seven recently.

Bridget: I’ve never seen it.

Best images for facebook timeline cover Se7en Movie Se7en,Movie

At the scene of the crime in David Fincher’s 1995 movie, Seven.

Chi: I mean, it was out in the nineties. And I know people who’ve said: don’t watch it, it’ll change you forever. The fear of actually watching the film is quite massive. So I made myself watch it. And really, you don’t actually see any acts of violence. It’s the consequences of the violence that are so terrible. It’s totally like Oedipus Rex in that way. The violence happens off screen, we hear about it. And Seven, sure, there are some images of people who are dead, but we don’t see them being killed. So, in a way, that’s probably more theatrical than other films, like The Shining.

Bridget: I actually love The Shining.

Chi: I think it’s actually an amazing metaphor of colonisation of Native American Indian land. But yeah, in The Shining we are there with the characters as they’re being chased by a guy wielding an axe.

Bridget: Yeah.

here's johnny

…Here’s Johnny! (The Shining, 1980)

Chi: We’re in that present moment, we don’t just hear about it afterwards. So yeah, The Shining’s probably more like a horror film whereas Seven feels more theatrical – it’s still an amazing film with an amazing script. I remember watching The Shining with someone who was about ten years younger than me, and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a bit slow’. I think in some ways that points to why Seven is slightly dated, in that back in the mid-nineties there wasn’t YouTube, so these things in the film were truly shocking, but now…you can just go on Youtube and…

Bridget: Watch a person’s head get cut off.

Chi: Yeah, you know? It’s almost like you have to be really conscious to avoid seeing these things if you don’t want to see them. So then somehow that changes what an artist has to do to comment on violence.

Bridget: Yeah. Maybe this is an impossible question for anyone to answer. What would you like your audience to come away from The Dead Twin thinking about?

Chi: Just to back track a little bit. I remember being dragged to see a zombie film, and the subtext of that zombie film was The Iraq War. And I remember sitting there in the cinema, sitting through watching people being eaten, no cut-aways, just remaining with the humans being eaten alive by the zombies. And I was thinking: I can only remain in this seat because these are zombies and I’m watching a zombie film. If the movie was a realistic version of what is going on in Iraq, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it, I would have had to walk out. So in some ways, the artificiality of a genre helps you to experience things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to sit through.

Bridget: Yeah, I think that’s true.

Chi: So, I guess I would like the audience to be engaged with the characters and the story and the stunning visuals that Deborah and the actors conjure up. And that’s it. If people want to find other meanings in the work, we can have that discussion too.

Chi Vu’s play The Dead Twin will be presented as part of Flight: A Festival of new Writing (Yes, Fleur and I are both presenting work in the Festival too!)

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creativity, criticism, Theatre

on the ethics of criticism, hurt and making yourself vulnerable

This first appeared in Dancehouse Diary, Issue 8: Dance and Ethics

Listen. This is the hardest part: we, the artists, spend weeks, months or years creating something, crafting it as carefully as we know how. We offer it to the audience and we are proud. Then a critic comes in. They spend an hour with our work and become the authority.

This never stops being difficult but it is also incredibly beautiful. To me, this transfer of power, this ultimate act of vulnerability and generosity, is what live performance is all about. It says that we are willing to start a conversation rather than end it. It says that we do not make art for ourselves but for those who step into our space for one night only. In that moment, as we offer up our art to strangers, the work becomes live.

THIS CAN'T BE STOPPED, Chunky Moves, 2014, photo by Sarah Walker

Benjamin Hancock’s PRINCESS as part of IT CANNOT BE STOPPED, Chunky Move, 2014, photo by Sarah Walker

The ethics of criticism are complicated by the notoriously fraught relationship between artists and critics. I believe this stems from the mortality of our work. Live art is defined by its demise yet artists continually seek tangible proof of the impact of their work. A visual artist can return to their collection a year after their reviewers and, with time, perspective and a sleep cycle that has returned to normal, be able to form their own objective assessment of both their work and the dialogue that surrounded it. When all that remains is a critic’s condemnation, it can be difficult to hold onto your own understanding of your art. Making art makes us vulnerable and that is fine, we have the right to feel wronged. But do we have the right to demand silence? Do we have the right to request that a critic respond in a particular way?

The ethics of criticism is a two-way exchange between artists and critics that must take into account the rights of the audience to know what they are paying for.

What we expect from our critics depends very much on what we believe the role of the critic to be. If we believe it to be ‘pull quotes in exchange for free tickets’, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and truncating a potentially valuable cultural exchange. If instead we look to a critic to continue a conversation that the artist began – to provide historical documentation of the work – to meet our art with the same intellectual rigour with which we created it – to provide a point of communication between artists and audience, we will be empowered to engage in a critical dialogue. We will also hold our critics up to a higher standard.

Personally, I want a lack of bias and writing that does not come from a place of anger. I want them to avoid cruelty. I want them to be in touch with the artistic landscape and I want them to love art, specifically the genre they are reviewing. I expect them to think hard and intellectually examine their emotive response at every turn. I do not want them to apologise for their opinions and I do want them to hold me to as high a standard as I hold them. I want us both to acknowledge that no single voice can declare a work a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ for to attempt to categorise performance in such a way undermines the fundamental purpose of art as a nuanced, emotive, response to and provoke for the world it issues from.

MARY POPPINS

MARY POPPINS

Yet writing such a list of requirements makes me feel like the Banks children in Mary Poppins singing what they want in a nanny with all the earnestness and naivety of youth. I write this knowing that I will, throughout my career, have my work critiqued by many, many people who will not live up to these expectations. I have been reviewed by people who consider themselves gatekeepers, surveyors of quality or purveyor of witty, sniping jokes at the artist’s expense. I have also been reviewed by a real estate writer who notoriously (but accurately) wrote of one of my plays that “the actor relies on her face and voice to express emotion.” (The Advertiser, 2013) Of course this is frustrating but I accept these reviews as part of the cultural noise surrounding art. Frequently such reviews can provide a starting point for further dialogue with my audience and the more conversations I can have, the better.

So if the ethical responsibility of the critic is to meet the artwork with all the nuance and self-interrogation that their ability and word count allows, what is the responsibility of the artist? Well, to let it happen. To encourage it and engage with it if we can. To look after ourselves and our collaborators. It can be easy to feel disempowered by the process of criticism but engaging with it as an equal, an an intelligent maker with their own voice outside of the stage, can help restore a balance and bring a sense of humanity back into a process that can feel de-humanising. But this is hard. Always.

In January the artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, culled dissenting critics from the company’s invite list. This is not a new strategy. Many critics have told me of writing a negative review of a company and then “not being invited back until the leadership changed”. What is newsworthy is not Terracini’s actions but his position as a cultural leader, for as head of the most subsidised performing arts company in the country, he surely bears that title. What does it say about the state of our culture if the message coming down from such a leader is that questioning his artistic decisions is not allowed?

I do not believe that we have the right to silence our critics but, more importantly, I do not know why we would want to have such a right. ‘Culture’ is not art; it is an artistically engaged community and arts writing, dissent and argument are crucial components in this. A critic is a part of your audience and attempting to silence them is symptomatic of disengagement with and disinterest in your audience’s voice. I fear the long-term impact that such disengagement would have on Australia’s cultural landscape.

DOKU RAI, Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, Galaxy and Liurai Fo’er, Arts House, 2012, Photo by Sarah Walker

DOKU RAI, Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, Galaxy and Liurai Fo’er, Arts House, 2012, Photo by Sarah Walker

Note: I have a secret, slowly growing collection of unsent letters written to critics by various, often prominent Australian artists. These remind me that experience does not make it hurt less. If anyone has one of these letters tucked away on their computer, I am always grateful for the opportunity to read them and always incredibly careful to keep them secret. It helps me think about what people most want and are most hurt by in criticism. As someone who writes and speaks on criticism regularly I truly appreciate the privilege of being let into those moments and emotions. If anyone wishes to send me such letters or tell me what their criticism wish list, my email is fleurskilpatrick @ gmail.com.

Thank you to Angela Conquet for requesting I write this for Dancehouse Dairy. It brought me much delight. Thank you also to Sarah Walker for her beautiful photos.

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conversation, interview, Politics, Theatre

in conversation: riot stage on adolescence, global warming, frozen yoghurt and the end of the world

I saw Forever City mid-Comedy Festival, when the only time I could make it was during the school matinee. Every time I laughed, the four students sitting in front of me turned to stare, bemused at my reaction. The show was beautiful, complex, subtle, cynical and witty. With a cast of fifteen to nineteen-year-olds, Forever City told of the last days of our species, when planes fall out of the sky, survivors wash up on islands of rubbish, teenagers sell frozen yoghurt at malls and a dinosaur politely waits to be asked what extinction feels like.

Afterwards, I spoke to the cast about the creation of their work. I was very sick during this show so I must own that it was not the best interviewing I’ve ever done, but the artists said beautiful things. I think it is wonderful to hear passionate, intelligent young people talk about making theatre and the world around them so it was a delight to capture these words. Thank you to the cast and to their director and writer, Katrina Cornwell and Morgan Rose.

FOREVER CITY, promo image by Sarah Walker

FOREVER CITY, promo image by Sarah Walker

Fleur: How can I do this? I’m going to have no idea who is talking.

Mieke: Do you want us to say our names before we say something?

Fleur: Yes. Say your names before you say something and then we can hopefully drop it and I’ll just… randomly attribute stuff.

How does it feel to perform something like this?

Mieke: Not all of it is improvised but it is from improvised scenes that we’ve done in rehearsals and stuff. It’s really nice to feel like you are the characters. Well… except for Daisy and Marie. Daisy’s doesn’t copy me all the time and Marie’s not actually a dinosaur.

Fleur: No?

Yash: Really?

Mieke: Believe it or not.

Alanna: For some of us it has been a year basically since we’ve done the first workshop and it’s like “oh we really helped create this.” We were there for the beginning bit and now we’re here for the end. And even the people who weren’t there for the very, VERY beginning bit, we saw it through. That’s really nice. We created the script.

Fleur: And what do you want people to understand from it?

Mieke: I guess that, like, teenagers have thoughts too. I think a lot of people seem to assume that because we’re kids we don’t care about anything but ourselves and it’s actually that we do care about things. Yeah. If that makes sense. We are actually conscious of things and we do care.

Yash: Yeah and our obsession with the end of the world in our age.

Daisy: There are so many zombie movies. So many alien movies. As a culture, we think about this stuff all the time but we tend to think about it in very abstract ways that aren’t actually likely to happen. We tend to ignore things like Global Warming and the giant plastic island in the middle of the sea, the rubbish that we created, all that sort of stuff that could actually cause the world to heat up and… die.

FOREVER CITY, image by Sarah Walker

FOREVER CITY, image by Sarah Walker

Amelia: Yeah. It’s kind of like, as young people, we have to face adulthood and we have to face the global problems that have been put upon us. We are growning up and now we’re in a world where global warming is pressing and there are all these wars happening and the world is in a place of strife and we’re expected to be the next generation. We’re expected to be the future

Someone: “We’ve fucked everything up. Now fix it.”

Amelia: Yeah! We inherited these problems and we do feel a responsibility to have to change things but no one has taught us how to because no one knows how. I’ve always sort of seen it (the play) as a coming of age and who can handle coming of age into a world where we aren’t really prepared for.

Fleur: There is a sense of this epic scale to it all. Like, “yes, we’re working at McDonalds and we’re on the verge of extinction”. This isn’t going to be a question. I think I’m just making a statement that won’t lead to anything but that scale is beautiful. That you’ve got both these sort of tiny little moments and also this whole epic stuff and this sense of doom throughout. I loved the alarm going off the first time: a test for the alarm that signals the end of the world and everyone goes “oh no, it’s fine. It’s a drill. Now we can just go back to work. Have some more fro-yo.”

Where to next for you guys? If this was an introduction to making theatre from scratch, what do you want to do with those skills now that you have them?

Another someone: Do more of it.

A third someone: Work in Melbourne’s theatre scene. That would be great.

Yash: I’ll just grab any opportunity after this. Riot Stage gave us an opportunity but I don’t think others will. I think others will stick to a playwright. I don’t know but I think other plays are just “script” and “say it” and “emotion”.

Fleur: What do you want to make theatre about? What do you think is important to make theatre about?

Mieke: Something I would really like to write a play about is gender identity. Gender identity is something that (because I’m gender queer) is quite an important thing for me. It is something that I think a lot of people don’t understand. So that’s something that I’d really want to work on one day maybe when I’m a little bit older: writing a play about gender identity.

FOREVER CITY was made by Riot Stage youth theatre and performed at La Mama. 

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conversation, interview, Theatre

in conversation: jess gonsalvez and tom middleditch on creating an autistic world through theatre

Them Aspies was first made and performed by students at Monash University Student Theatre last year and, whilst I was interstate and unable to see it, I’ve been fascinated by the project ever since. I want to see the show about autism that is made by a team living with it, incorporating it into their art and proud of the identity ‘aspie’. I love interviewing emerging artists and giving them the respect and consideration that I believe their work deserves and Them Aspies is a particularly delicate and ambitious project. It returns for a season at Monash, April 15-25, and last week I spoke to its creators, Jess Gonsalvez and Tom Middleditch in dappled sunlight on the lemon scented lawns at Monash.

THEM ASPIES, photo by Jarrod Rose

THEM ASPIES, photo by Jarrod Rose

Tom: One of our actors has this beautiful metaphor for autism: somebody’s walked up to the sound desk that is your personality and flipped a couple of things up and down to levels that they’re not usually meant to be at. The mild autism is where they’ve been moved a little bit and extreme or severe autism is where they’ve been moved so far that you get feedback and you can’t actually process the world properly or at least not in a way that would be deemed ‘properly’.

Fleur: What is it like to work with a cast that is both on and off the spectrum?

Tom: I think it has kind of been reflected through the directorial process because I’m diagnosed aspie and Jess isn’t.

The trick with getting both autistic and non-autistic actors to work together was simply just to be completely blunt about who was autistic and who wasn’t and what we were going to do.

Jess: I think I always approached it as “Okay, do whatever you need to do to look after yourself.” There has been a thing of, “it’s okay to step out of the space if you need to” and what we’ve found is that people are so much more enthusiastic about stepping back in because they can take that moment that they need.

Fleur: It strikes me as an incredibly complex and delicate rehearsal room to run as young directors. Why did you put yourselves through that?

Jess laughs.

Tom: Because I think we needed to. The fact that Rain Man is considered by many to be an autistic character is just… that baffles me. The experience of autism within the world is so varied and people generally only focus on the quirky stuff. Characters like Abed (who is a good representation), Sheldon (who is a complicated representation), Sigourney Weaver’s character from Snow Cake, Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), these are all people who are defined by their quirks. Nobody ever asks “well, why do they do this with their hands? Why do they like seven cars and green food?”

The cast and directors of THEM ASPIES, with their injury count.

The cast and directors of THEM ASPIES, with their injury count.

I’m not just autistic. I also have an autistic brother. I treat him like a brother. That is to say, mean. Because I think that’s fair. He is autistic but he is also a little bit of a shit. That’s something that people get offended by. Like “no, no, no! He’s autistic! He just has trouble with the word ‘no’.” Autism isn’t a moral quality. It is the car you drive. It’s the system you run.

Jess: It’s whether you’re using a Mac or PC.

Tom: Yeah! They still work! But people get frustrated with Macs because they are different! Why are they different? It makes no sense!

Jess: It only makes no sense if you are coming at it with that mindset of PC.

Tom: But to draw it back to your question, I think it was possibly because we don’t have as much experience as directors that we weren’t as scared going into this process.

Jess: Yes. And the fact that we are young people meant that it is more permissible for us to make mistakes.

Fleur: That is also beautiful. I mean, I direct from a place of uncertainty and in some ways I aim to only have a few hours more knowledge of my show than the cast. There is a beauty to figuring it out with them and that is really acceptable in a university-studenty context. It is so invigorating to work together in that place of uncertainty.

Tom: It is kind of the benefit of student theatre. There are a lot of bad connotations put with the term ‘student theatre’. What was that quote that was thrown around? “A whole lot of young things with pants on their heads, running ‘round ruining Shakespeare.”

Fleur: Hot.

Tom: Yeah. I’d love to see that. Also with student theatre – I’m talking a lot.

Jess: That’s okay. I will butt in when I have something to say.

Tom: The theatre style we are working with is brand new. It is something that we are developing and is still in its student stages. It kind of makes sense that it is going through its student period.

Jess Gonsalvez and Tom Middleditch, photo by Jacinta Anderson

Jess Gonsalvez and Tom Middleditch, photo by Jacinta Anderson

Fleur: I think there is something really beautiful about interviewing you guys, not just about the show but about this moment in your careers when this stuff is all bubbling away –

Jess: (squeaks) She said ‘careers’!

Fleur: I totally said ‘careers’. Where to now? How do you think that doing this incredibly ambitious, complex, emotive, ever-evolving project so early on will affect what you do in the future and how you think about directing?

Jess: It has given us a bit of a framework. It has been our playtest of what we are calling ‘Spectrum Theatre’, which is using autistic elements in the building of the show.

Tom: Which is not new to theatre. Robert Wilson actually used his experience of working with autistic children to inform his theatre style. If you look at Einstein on the Beach, there are quite a few elements of the autistic, with repeated visual stuff and obsessive detail.

Jess: You never know where you’re going to end up with autism. We do have a couple of ideas for what comes next but they are still in the ‘let’s dig up the veggie patch we haven’t really planted yet’ stage.

Tom: And I need to get better at not pulling the seeds up. Is it ready? Is it ready? Why isn’t it ready?

Jess: It’s a root vegetable, Tom! Let it grow!

Tom: I’ve given it ten minutes!

Jess: I think for me it is about the stories that we want to tell and the stories we want to hear and experience. We did this because we wanted autism to be the material for stage. We wanted it to be the action that happens. Whereas a lot of the autistic theatre that you get is either ‘we will make regular theatre accessible for autistic viewers’ or ‘we will invite autistic performers in to play characters’. It’s not usually about the characters being autistic –

Tom: Or the world being autistic.

Jess: But it is difficult. Last year some people looked at our cast image that we used to advertise the show and were like “That’s offensive! They are all pulling funny faces! You’re making fun of autism!” Then we changed it and they went “That’s not right! They don’t look autistic!”

Tom: You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Ironically autism has no body and a very specific body.

THEM ASPIES, photo by

THEM ASPIES, photo by Piper Huynh

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audiences, dance, Responses, Theatre

on failing as an audience, atlanta eke, philippe genty and wordlessness

I write a lot about the joy of being in the audience – how I love to love theatre and how often I lean over to the person beside me and whisper “I’m so fucking excited” as the lights fade to black. Today I want to talk about my failings as an audience member.

Back in 2009 I saw Philippe Genty’s Lands End. It was a performance of exquisite grandeur: an eloquent, wordless love letter to the imagination. At the end of the performance, the young couple beside me tentatively offered their hard-earned meaning making.

“Is that right? Is that what it meant?”

“Absolutely! If that’s what it meant to you!”

Genty's LANDS END. Photographed by Pascal François.

Genty’s LANDS END. Photographed by Pascal François.

I remember how philanthropic my words felt at the time. I was standing at the gates of Possibility, barefoot and smiling, my words a sweeping gesture at the castles and hills around me. “My kingdom is yours!” I proclaimed. “Wander where you will! The only rule is No Rules.” I went home imagining the adventures the pair would have with my words as their permission slip. (All the metaphors!)

I thought of this exchange two weeks ago when I saw Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work at Dancehouse. The piece is stunning; equally as eloquent as Genty’s but without the grandeur. This was small, tight, fierce, uncomfortable, mesmerising in its persistent self-examination, witty, distressing and obsessive, with a deep undercurrent of wrongness and impending destruction. Body of Work is the foreshocks of a human earthquake. It is rats fleeing, dogs howling and a sky full of birds. It did things to my body, knotted my gut, locked my joints and left me a raw, miserable ball.

But here’s the thing: I was already that miserable ball when I walked into the theatre. I will always feel like an outsider in dance. The fact that I’ve become something of a resident outsider for Dancehouse in recent months – as the non-dance member of an assessment panel, host of a forum and writer of an article for Dancehouse Diary – hasn’t lessened my feeling of being the alien in the room. If anything, the more I learn, the more aware I am of the disconnection I have from my body and my inadequacies at translating dance into a verbal or written responses.

Eke's BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Eke’s BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Now I do not write about these two incredibly different shows to draw a comparison between them – for they were worlds apart and aimed to elicit very different emotive responses from their audiences.

It also doesn’t matter why they produced in me such incredibly different emotions. Lands End was wordless (I think: it was a long time ago) and I happily drifted through its visual poetry without their familiar tether but when Atlanta exchanged nine words with her tech mid-way through Body of Work, I clung to them like a lifeline. I counted them. Literally. I treasured them. I emblazoned them on my brain and across her body. But many days I’m fine without words. It could have been that one was part of a dance festival instead of an arts festival or it could have just been that I was having a bad week; a week in which again and again I asked myself what possessed me, an introvert, to push myself into a field that demands extroversion; a week in which I envied visual artists their quiet galleries. Perhaps it was that, as an arts writer, I feel responsible when I lack an instantaneous eloquent response to art.

Whatever the reason, I was made Other by Atlanta’s work and it is good to be Other. It reminds me of the bravery of those who take a punt on an artist or art form they have never experienced before. Art worlds develop their own dialects, verbal, visual and physical, for which there are no dictionaries or travel guides. In asking someone to enter these worlds, we are asking them to prepare to feel underprepared.

Eke's BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Eke’s BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

I think of the people I interview for this blog: those travellers sans Lonely Planet, under whose noses I wave my mic recorder mere minutes after they have crossed the boarder back into their home land. “What happened to you? What did it mean? Be the anthropologist!” I ask, well-meaning jerk that I am. If someone had done this to me after Body of Work I probably would have burst into tears. “Don’t ask me. This isn’t my first language.” After a calming gin and tonic, I might venture an interpretation immediately followed by the self-depreciating “Is that right? Is that what it meant?”

I know I entitled this “my failings as an audience member” and I know that I did not ‘fail’ Body of Work. It made me feel. A lot. Almost too much. And I am engaging with it, questioning myself and interrogating my intellectual and emotive responses perhaps more ruthlessly than a sane person should. But it made me feel like a failure. A shaky, foolish, voiceless heap taking up a seat that should have been given to someone more deserving. And you know what? I have room in my heart for work that does this to me.

So shake me to the core. Leave me the outsider. Batter my ego. Knot my gut, lock my joints, catch my breath. Anything that leaves me still picking up the pieces two weeks after the fact is a wonder. Fucking bring it.

PS. I had a friend read this to check if it was self-indulgent self-flagellation. It passed his test but I apologise to anyone who found it like wading through an ocean of angst.

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conversation, creativity, Guest Blogger, Theatre

acts of violence: guest blogger bridget mackey in conversation with theatre-makers about violence

A word from Bridget:

I believe that there is a restlessness to modern life, an overloading of the senses and that this leads to an unhealthy suppression of emotions. I’m a playwright. In my work my characters find escape through violence and I often have them commit violent acts. As an artist using violence as a narrative tool do I have any responsibility towards my audience, my work or myself?

Topping my list of Best Theatre Experiences of All Time are two pretty violent shows – Thyestes by The Hayloft Project and Tragedia Endogonidia by Societas Raffaello Sanzio. Did I enjoy these shows because they allowed me to access and purge repressed emotions? Or was my enjoyment more to do with aesthetics? I think back to Roy Orbison’s vibrato, theatre babes brandishing guns, the way the stage blood took its time to pool and expand across the blinding white stage space. I also remember enjoying how sick the shows made me feel. Maybe cool aesthetics gave me access to a deeper emotion, led me into the nightmare.

For the most part, I hate screen violence. I am extremely over seeing women portrayed as victims. I get pretty bored in action movies. My brain switches off. There are some exceptions to this (for example, I just held a David Lynch themed birthday party) but mostly when I watch yet another person killed on screen I wonder what the hell it’s doing to my psyche.

Baz Luhrmann demonstrating the appeal of babes, weapons and drama in his 1996 film Romeo+Juliet.

Baz Luhrmann demonstrating the appeal of babes, weapons and drama in his 1996 film Romeo+Juliet.

Thankfully, I grew up in a violence free environment both at home and in my wider community. This is a fact I find problematic when it comes to my enjoyment of violence on stage. Does my violence free past mean that for me violence on stage is a fetish? Is it dangerous? Or is it totally valid? Maybe even a necessity?

I have interviewed three Melbourne based theatre-makers: Daniel Lammin, Chi Vu and Rachel Perks about the different approaches to violence that they take in their work. These conversations will be published over three blog posts on School for Birds. Thanks Fleur!

Part 1: Conversation with Daniel Lammin

Daniel Lammin is a playwright and director. He also works as a film reviewer. Daniel’s work for the stage often explores real-life incidents of violent crime. We meet in the Malthouse courtyard for a chat but men in sequinned G-Strings keep running into our line of vision. This provides to be too distracting for the both of us so we settle for a park bench on Sturt Street.

Bridget: At one point during our dramaturgy internship with Playwriting Australia last year you said ‘I love violence’ and I was like, ‘I love violence.’ So, I guess I just want to talk to you about why you love it.

Daniel: I think that violence is one of the most exciting, dangerous and delicate emotional tools, or narrative tools, you can use in order to tell a story. A show I did last year, The Cutting Boys, ended in an act of murder, cannibalism and sex. I had to spend the entire time asking: am I justified in making this as blunt and extreme as it is? And if I had come to a point where I couldn’t justify it, not that everyone would agree with me, then I would never have done it. I feel that a lot of the time when people use violence it’s just to shock, because it’s kind of sexy. But, if your intention is just to be edgy or disturbing, or confronting, you’re only going to make work that only serves that purpose.

I’m keen to talk to Lammin about his thoughts on the difference between violence on film and violence on the stage. I tell him that Snowtown is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen but that I regret watching it because I found the violence so distressing.

Daniel: Violence doesn’t mean anything unless you’re seeing it through the eyes of someone else, through the eyes of a character, or the eyes of a community. If you were just watching the brother being killed in the bathtub in Snowtown, you would go ‘oh that’s horrific and disgusting’ and turn off. What makes that sequence so affecting, and so horrifying, is that his younger brother is watching, and then participating, and you’re watching the act through the relationship and the history that they have. It feels very dangerous making people watch a horrible act just for the purpose of shocking them.

snowtownicecream

A gentler moment from the 2011 movie Snowtown.

Bridget: You mentioned that you thought that violence on film could be more effective than stage violence?

Daniel: Yeah, I think that film can reach a level of reality a lot easier than theatre can. I don’t think you ever want a piece of violence on stage to really be completely realistic because that kind of turns people off. Maybe it’s that I’ve never found violence as much of a problem on film. Film also has the ability to play with genre. You can watch a film like Hostel even though that violence is stupidly graphic, but you can revel in that, because that’s what that genre does. Plus, with film there is a sense that it’s removed from you. If you watched Thyestes, on screen, you’d be like, oh that’s disturbing, but watching it a few feet in front of you? It’s right there, you’re watching living, breathing things sweating and reacting. It becomes something quite different.

Bridget: I loved Thyestes.

Daniel: It was one of the best things ever.

Our conversation moves to Ugly Mugs a show that was part of the 2014 Malthouse season.

Daniel: Making a piece of theatre that shows just the idea of violence towards a person, or a community, or a minority is kind of blunt if it’s not shown through the eyes of an actual person. Ugly Mugs was on at the same time as my show The Cutting Boys, and was about very similar ideas. I felt Ugly Mugs would have been a far more effective show if I had actually been made to confront the act. You’ve got a show about violence against sex workers. I want to see a show that makes me feel sick to my stomach about violence in the community against a sex worker and how horrific that is as opposed to –

Bridget: What about the argument though. Say, if you’re making an anti-war film, you run the risk of sensationalising war to make that anti-war film. Do you think maybe in Ugly Mugs, to have the depiction of violence could be seen as –

Daniel: Exploitative?

Bridget: Exploitative in a way.

Daniel: Yeah, I mean definitely, I guess it just comes down to how it’s handled. I think that it’s the job of the creator to sit back and ask if they are being exploitative. I did a short play years ago about the murder of James Bulger, the two year old who was killed by two ten year old boys in the early nineties. It was something I had always wanted to do because I found the whole thing so disturbing. But I skipped that step of actually questioning: is what I want this to do working? Is it effective in the manner by which I’m doing it? By accident it kind of was, but I learnt a big lesson. If you want to show that an act of violence is something that’s wrong, you need to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that it doesn’t exploit, and that your intentions are clear.

Bridget: When did you have the realisation that maybe it was exploitative?

Daniel: When it was in front of people, basically. When I was watching it with an audience, and seeing an audience react. I mean, there was no violence in it. It was the manner that the content was given to the audience that was uncomfortable. Enough people enjoyed and responded to the piece to suggest to me that I hadn’t made a massive mistake, but it scared me enough to go, there is a level of interrogation that I need to make sure I have if I keep wanting to do this.

Bridget: What’s the best use of violence that you’ve seen on stage?

Daniel: Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. It’s funny, because it was the first thing of his that I’ve ever seen and I’ve learnt that his shows are usually a lot more flamboyant and colourful and this was under fluro lights, stark, cold, blunt. There was a sequence in it where a woman was dragged into a locker, while the rest of the women were singing a Mozart Aria, she was trapped in there and raped by one of the guards. The woman comes out, she stands on a box with her underwear down around her knees, covered in blood, stands there and vomits –

Bridget: Fuck.

Daniel: – and by itself, well, that’s the point where you see most of the audience just get up and walk out. But he’d invested us in the plight of the characters, and in the plight of the narrative to the point where that happened and my brain just broke, because it was like seeing a succession of images that all amounted to something far more powerful.

Bridget: Were you in our dramaturgy class when Patricia Cornelius talked about needing to ‘earn moments’ from the audience?

Daniel: I think so.

Bridget: She said, you can’t give an audience a thing and say ‘deal with it.’ You have to lead them to it.

Daniel: I have this rule, with any of the disturbing things that I keep going back and making, that you have to make the audience laugh in the first five minutes. Because you’ve got to relax them to the point where they actually can ease themselves into what it is you have to tell them. And then they’re more susceptible. They’re more prone to listening to you. And they’re weakened so the punch in the face is going to hurt more. That’s what Stephen Spielberg does in Schindler’s List. He eases you in, makes you feel comfortable, and then assaults you with the most horrific images in humanity that you can imagine. And it is that thing, of earning the right to be able to do it. And I think generally in theatre that you have to earn big moments. You’ve got to earn a pause, you’ve got to earn a climax, and you’ve got to earn a twist. Patricia is completely right.

Bridget: Um, I’m really sorry to bring out a review of your work. The Rebecca Harkins-Cross review of The Cutting Boys?

Daniel: Yes! … Oh?

Bridget: At the end of the review she asks: What drives a theatre maker to lower us into the abyss? And I was wondering, from the way that you are talking, it doesn’t sound like an intention you have with the theatre you make, or is it your intention?

Daniel: With that particular show, it was a case of wanting to pull the audience right to the depths… because an act of two twenty-year old boys killing and cannibalising a sixteen-year-old girl is an act of complete inhumanity. I felt the only way to convey that inhumanity effectively was to take the audience to the darkest place I possibly could. I wanted it to be an unforgiving show. I had no illusions that people were going to enjoy the show. I couldn’t even watch sections of the thing because I found it so confronting. And it came out of my fucking head. When that review came out I thought, that is the question that needs to be asked of the theatre maker, certainly of me. In that particular instance, I felt like I had a justifiable reason. I loved that review. It was initially terrifying, but then it’s like, good, it’s an engagement with the work.

The Cutting Boys

The Cutting Boys. Image Phoebe Taylor.

Bridget: I’ve been wondering about Aristotle’s writing about catharsis in the Poetics, in relation to violence on stage. I’m a bit suspicious about whether or not catharsis can actually be a thing that has a social function. Do you think that violence in art creates a space for people to purge emotion?

Daniel: I think it definitely does have the capacity to do that, for people who want that. I don’t think everyone wants that. I do. But in terms of violence, it’s not just physical acts of violence, it’s emotional levels of violence. To choose the lamest thing off the top of my head. Something like, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s preposterously emotionally violent, but I want to sit through that, because I want to have that catharsis. Some people don’t want that, and they are completely in their rights not to want that. And I would never want to force a violent show on someone. With anything I’ve done, I always make a point of making it very clear to people that this is not going to be fun. So you’re prepared enough before hand to know whether or not the show is right for you.

Bridget: It’s funny, my Grandma saw my play Hose and I was worried about how she’d feel that I’d written something so violent, and afterwards I asked her what she thought and she said ‘I saw things in nursing that you couldn’t even imagine.’ And I was like, ‘thanks Grandma’. But you know, humanity does have this darkness.

Daniel: Yeah, and that is the big reason why I love working with it, because it’s there. I actually want to be able to talk about the fact that yes, the world is a wonderful place, there are beautiful people in it, there are wonderful experiences, not everything is depressing, but you know what? Some people do really fucking horrible things to each other, and sometimes the way to learn how to deal with that is to actually just show it.

Just as I’m about to thank Lammin and let him return to rehearsals he throws a question back that shouldn’t catch me by surprise, but it does:

Daniel: Why do you love violence?

Bridget: Oh…!? … I think that’s what I’m trying to work out… Sometimes I get really angry and I throw shit and sometimes I have urges to physically hurt other people. Like, I have that, and I’m really ashamed of that, and I wonder if when I see violence on stage it allows me to express that.

Daniel: Stephen King wrote this book about horror, and his thesis is that good horror allows us to experience something that in a normal, moral society, we would not be able to. It allows us to actually be an enactor of violence, and to be a victim of violence and through doing these things, purge ourselves of the desire to do them. I’ve come up with the concept that as a theatre maker I want to hear what the universe sounds like. Everything I do is just built to answer that question. I’m writing a show about Ed Gein, he’s the guy that Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs and Psycho are based on. He was suspected of having murdered these women, and when the police confronted him about it they found his house was full of artifacts that he had made of women’s skin and body parts, but they were ones he dug up. I’m fascinated by how lonely someone must be that this is how they choose to fill their world. It’s inhuman, it’s impossible to comprehend, it’s like listening to the destruction of a star, or listening to the darkness that exists in the heart, because if I listen to this, if I can touch it for a fleeting second, I might understand the potential for violence between me, and potential in my friends, or my family or within anybody… … That’s a very big wanky concept.

Bridget: No, it’s great, it’s great.

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