audiences, criticism, Dramaturgical Analysis, My own plays, Responses, Theatre, writing

brutality, brittleness and some merciless gods

So I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what we can ask of our audiences. About hardness, culpability and the hurt that words can bring. A few weeks ago I saw Roslyn Oades’ Hello, Goodbye, Happy Birthday and I felt so grateful to see a piece of theatre that was new, innovative and at the forefront of its field just be gentle. New and innovative so often means jagged.

I’m aware that theatre happens both onstage and in my body – the body of the audience – and I am aware that the theatre that is me goes through phases: sometimes I can take whatever you have going and other days, for whatever reason, I am more brittle.

Last night, at Merciless Gods, I was brittle from muscular pain and painkillers. This brittleness (and my fun drug cocktail) in no way clouded my vision: I saw a stunning production. I saw actors perform with incredible control, intensity and generousity. I saw a lighting design that made me gasp and I heard words that cut. And I was shaken because it was hard and jagged and I was brittle and tired.


Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods. Photo: Sarah Walker.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this scene (edited down here) for my new play, Whale. I doubt it will make it to the final or even third draft because dramaturges seldom have time for this sort of wanky self-doubt, but this scene was in my head last night.


I think I need a break

Does anyone else need a break?


Are you okay?


How much is too much to ask of theatre?


I’m not –


Not following



We want it to be relevant and have a message

We want it to say the big things but


Right now relevant means fucked

It means

Give them a shitty night

I just

Think that maybe there needs to be a moratorium

Maybe we need to ask our audiences

Do you want us to be relevant and frightening

To put shitty decisions on your lap and force you to feel culpable

Or do you want to come here and forget about it?


Okay I hear you

I just think

Now you’ve started

Maybe you need to finish this one


You can write a comedy next year

Would that make you feel better?

Yeah, that’s definitely not going to make it to draft three.

Every time I ask people these questions, their answers blow me away. So – prompted by Merciless Gods but in no way entirely about that show – I wanted to give people a chance to answer the questions that I keep coming up against. Here, in an act of beautiful generosity, artists and critics answer my questions:


Photo: Sarah Walker (again)

How much is too much?

Sarah Walker: You know, I think there really isn’t an answer to this question. Because I’ve seen shows that have depicted horror – true horror, but they’ve cared for the audience in that space. Given them a sense of power. Whether it be to politically empower people – say, this is happening but it can be stopped and you can do something to stop it, or to just fight horror with love, with hope – to say, just feeling is an act of rebellion. Loving is a weapon against hate. Those are the shows that have justified their brutality. I think the problem comes when a show brings you darkness but doesn’t give you a way out. That is the work that shuts people down. That makes them feel powerless.

Myron My: I don’t believe there can be such a thing in theatre because ultimately it is all make-believe. As long as it’s done with care and respect. I think it’s important that while we yearn for love and happiness it’s really important to explore and reflect on the darker elements of life, and what better way to do it than through theatre.

What purpose does brutality serve of our stages?

Eliza Quinn: I think sometimes its the escapism of theatre that can feel brutal – like “Oh, I just spent two hours in this nice warm theatre and I went into a totally different world that made me feel something that might have been vaguely euphoric or sublime, and now I’m outside and it’s cold and wet and I don’t know how to reconcile what I saw in there with what I know is happening out here.”
Sometimes it’s like a performance is asking too much of me by being so wonderful and joyful. Then I exit the theatre and go home and turn on the news and there is no joy.
Like I feel as though the performance or text or whatever didn’t give me any tools with which to navigate the world outside. And I ask myself if that’s the point of theatre? If it is there to give you the tools to deal with the real world or if I should just be grateful that a whole lot of people put in so much effort to entertain me. Sometimes it feels like I am asking too much of theatre.

Sarah Walker: I think of all artists, theatremakers particularly feel this responsibility for their work to interrogate, to challenge and to reveal. We’re okay with film being entertaining and silly and comforting, but I think theatremakers feel like that isn’t enough – feel like they have to ask the big, awful questions with their bodies and their text. Perhaps it’s something about the liveness of theatre – the reality of the human figure sweating and fretting and heart-beating in front of you. Something about that dynamic seems to force us to try to create work that makes people feel, and it feels wrong or cowardly to just make people laugh or feel delight. It’s not, of course. The ideal work is one, I think, that acknowledges that the world is terrifying and brutal and cruel, but reminds us that there is beauty, there is hope, and that we can cultivate those energies and emotions in a way that isn’t just ignoring the bad.

What did the brutality of Merciless Gods do to you?

Bridget Mackey: I think that we should see brutality on our stages. There’s a brutality that exists in our world and I think that we should be made to look at it. I think that Christos Tsiolkas is a writer who makes us look at things that we, as a society, don’t want to look at. And Little One’s production of Merciless Gods has skilfully dramatised the quality about Tsiolkas that I appreciate. To be honest, there’s a brutality to my own desires. I’m talking about both sexual desires and things I’d like to do or say when I’m angry or frustrated. Of course, I am sometimes ashamed of these things and don’t act on them. Sometimes I act them out in a safe way. I figure other people are the same. So, I think the stage is a good place to explore darkness and brutality. Sometimes when we look at things closely we see them for what they are, and realise we are not alone in our experiences.

Sarah Walker: When Stephen and Dan were interviewed on Smart Arts, they both used a word to describe the stories that made up the show, and that word was ‘tender.’ And I feel like that was what I took away from that production – this sense of profound tenderness. I will admit that I watched it partly through a camera lens, which always distorts my experience of a production. But what I felt during those vignettes wasn’t the stark, clinical slap of brutality. It was the ache of love, of longing, of people desperately trying to figure out what it was to be human. What it meant to be alive in a cruel world that took things away that you cared for. So many of those characters were just aching – aching, but in the space that absence or pain carved in them, that ache became something of substance. Became love that filled the hole and defined it. My overwhelming takeaway was that humans can be hideous, but they can also be so, so tender. So human. And that that love and tenderness wasn’t just a response to pain. It was a force just as strong as the horror. There was something I found comforting in it, because I’ve felt that pain, that loss. Not in the circumstances of the characters in the show, but I recognised those feelings. And knowing that we all feel those things – it helps to make us feel a little less alone. And the more complex pieces – Petals, for example, still had moments of profound beauty. Pete Paltos singing, his voice filling that huge space, brought beauty to a monologue that is otherwise horrifying. That a character who could be so brutal could also be so beautiful was meaningful, and complex, in the way that the world is complex.

Have you seen a show that has asked too much of you?

Jessica Bellamy: I have seen shows that asked too much of me, but for me, that “too much” was along the lines of: pretend you can empathise with the couple trying to buy a house, give a shit about that wedding, laugh at those jokes that to you are not funny, not relatable, not coming from a world that empowers you. The last show that asked too much of me was The Odd Couple. I sat in the middle of the theatre, surrounded by a room of half-tittering and half-snoring white hairs and I felt tears run down my face because I knew this sort of theatre and this sort of “comedy” is what so many people want, and what I should be reaching for if I want to make the sweet big money out there one day, but does it have to be within a tapestry of middle class sexist bullshit? When I see plays like this, where the wise and witty and weird are mocked and ignored, I think: theatre can be a bully sometimes. Theatre should be a refuge and a solace, but plays like this just remind me I am not welcome. There is no place for me in a canon like this. I did not find Merciless Gods brutal. I found it refreshing, honest, sad, ugly and beautiful. I heard voices that we do not often hear, do not listen to, that get lost under the weight of those who are amplified too often.

Merciless Gods is by Dan Giovannoni from the book by Christos Tsiolkas​ and directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. It is playing at Northcote Townhall until August 5th.


Brigid Gallacher, Photo: Sarah Walker (as always)

audiences, criticism

‘everyone’s a critic’: a talk

On Sunday I spoke at Scratch Warehouse’s second Artistic Spread event: bring a plate of food and they will bring three visual artists, three performers and three artists to speak about what they do. Because I’m a shameless self-documenter, I recorded it and today I thought I would share it as a sort of audio School for Birds post, as it is mostly about what I do on this blog and why I do it.

Those who regularly read me will see that I plagiarised myself terribly and at the beginning I also sound a little hesitant as I’m not reading from my notes but I really enjoyed putting this together. I think it may have kind of surprised everyone with how ridiculously poetic and academic it got but all the more reason that I think you birds will like it.

Covered in this talk: criticism, empowering your audience, how I conduct post-show audience conversations and what I’ve learnt from them, The City They Burned and how to engage with criticism as an artist.


Speaking at Scratch's Artistic Spread #2

Speaking at Scratch’s Artistic Spread #2. Looking pained about stuff.

“Artists don’t set out to make work that is either good or bad. Most set out to make you feel stuff. Think stuff. To knot your gut, to dry your mouth, to water your eyes, to clench your fists, to find words and images and sounds and sensations to express those things that are either too big or too small for us to realise on a daily basis.

… With this in mind, know how inadequate a response ‘Yeah I really liked it’ is.”

Why does the word ‘critic’ denote a professional and ‘enthusiast’ reek of amateurism? I think ‘enthusiast’ is a much better word for what I do: I enthuse about art. I think it is sad that enthusiasm sounds like a less intellectual or rigorous response.

Thank you to Kieran for helping me with this audio.

audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Theatre

shit: an audience conversation

Theatre in Melbourne is good right now. Painfully so. Shit, which closed yesterday, is not an easy play to watch but it is urgent, funny, vicious and heartbreaking. I loved it so much and wanted so badly to imprint it on my brain that I went back a second time to see it, bringing my friend (the producer of the Audio Stage podcast), Kieran Ruffles, with me. At the end of the show we sat down in the foyer and, with Paul Simon crooning away in the background, reflected on what we had just seen.

SHIT photo: Sebastian Bourges

SHIT photo: Sebastian Bourges

Kieran: The bit that particularly got to me was when one character asked the other two “When’s the first time you had sex?” and they both completely arced up at her: “You never fucking ask that. What’s fucking wrong with you? You never fucking ask that.”

I started thinking of all the reasons you wouldn’t ask that of a woman in that milieu. And then I thought more about it and thought maybe you shouldn’t ask that of any women – or maybe you shouldn’t ask that of anyone. But the prevalence of sexual abuse, rape and attacks amongst women is statistically demonstrably much higher.

I remember that point in my mid-teens or early-twenties when some women started to open up to me about attacks or abuse or rape that had happened to them and I realised that they were not in the minority. It is in fact something that happens to most women growing up: some form of sexual abuse or inappropriate touching by a relative or a close family friend or straight up date rapes. Guys that they trusted that they still see!

Now we’ve really diverged off the show but to stir that up? That’s… that’s something.

Fleur: That’s what you walked out of there thinking about?

Kieran: Yeah. That was one of the stronger moments for me. I also really – I found it really cool the way that the writing was able to imply that one of the characters was transgender and yet again the milieu that the character was existing in was not one that would be able to recognise that or acknowledge it for what it is. Instead they did that thing that’s you’re really, really not supposed to do with transgender people: “Show us your genitals and prove it”. That was a pretty hard-core moment of transphobia. That was kind of intense. But to get to the point where the character could express it? Just enough to get torn down? Yeah.

Fleur: They’ve created this atmosphere, this world, where they’ll never take themselves seriously. Any moment of revelation, fragility or honesty is dismissed instantaneously.

Kieran: I think they can take each other seriously but sympathy and compassion are not in the lexicon and a nuanced understanding of issues is actively discouraged.

Fleur: I thought Peta Brady’s performance was remarkable the whole way through. All of them were but Peta I found particularly fascinating because she balances that roughness and a similar level of street toughness but it is so much bravado. There is desperation and neediness under it. She vocalises what the others won’t: “I thought we’d be together. I thought they’d let us stay together! We need to stay together! I can’t – Can’t – ” There is this absolute desperation – this need to have someone tell her what to do and take control of her life.

Kieran: That moment of realising that they might be separated from each other represents almost the maximum cruelty that you can imagine being visited on these characters: to be denied understanding of a peer. Yeah. And. Yeah. The most hopeful character is the one who can’t believe that would happen and the other two are equally but oppositely convinced that that is exactly what’s going to happen.

Fleur: I think she names her plays so well, Patricia. I know it is a funny thing to mention but she does. That this title, SHIT, is plastered over these three women is such an interesting provocation to the audience as they come in. Like, go on. Think of them as shit. Think of them as total shit. They do! They think of themselves as that.

Kieran: Yeah. I didn’t realise that’s where the name came from until today. Until I was reading the one-paragraph blurb about the show. I sort of thought “alright. Wow. We’re going to be confronted by something that is very much about class as well as whatever other – “ and perhaps it is entirely about class!

Fleur: And the invisibility of a particular group of people! I think in a way she wants them to feel quite foreign on this MTC stage and to this audience. There’s a sense of “we’re going to stand in front of you, talk in Aussie accents and be so clearly of this place and time and yet dare you to judge. Dare you to question yourself as you judge us.” I think she wants us to make them alien and other, so that once we’ve pushed them as far from ourselves as possible, hopefully we’ll stop and ask how we can justify this alienation and their invisibility.

Kieran: Yeah, yeah! Within this hardcore vernacular we’ll reveal these layers of nuance to these characters, reveal –

Fleur: Such humanity!

Kieran: Such humanity, yeah!

Fleur: Such ravaged tenderness.

Kieran: Mmmm. That’s good. I like that.

Fleur: Yeah. So do I. I must remember that. Yeah.

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Kieran: Yeah. The presence of men throughout – the absent presence of men –

Fleur: Yeah, how is that as a man to watch? Represent your whole gender, please!

Kieran: Yeah! Sure! No worries! No. Fairly early on I realised that the men that were going to be talked about in this play were the type of men I’ve had to grow used to hearing about and not taking it personally. You can drive yourself completely nuts with that shit as a guy. Constantly trying to go “No, but not all men!” There’s a hashtag now and by its use you will be known to be a bit of a douchebag. I don’t need to stand up and yell “hashtag notallmen”. I can just go “enough men that this needs to be talks about again and again and again. Clearly enough.” So, yay there’s exceptions! Boo there’s a rule to have an exception to. Like, fuck. I I I I don’t have to take it personally but I do have to let it show me my gender. Show me the acts of people that share my gender. Yeah.

Fleur: It also doesn’t paint a good picture of women, either. The women that they speak of other than themselves? These bitches that try but aren’t sincere…. I’m not saying that they talk about women in quite the same way but everyone who is an outsider to them is such an outsider to them. They’ve created this team – this tiny team – and – Not “they’ve created”, the world has made them into this tiny team and everyone else is on the other side. Which is understandable when you’ve suffered the kind of abuse, neglect and trauma that young people coming up through the foster system are regularly exposed to.

Kieran: Yeah, look I think the work doesn’t like any men or any women particularly. The work does not like the central characters, those central characters do not like other women and they don’t like men particularly either. That’s the whole point of the ‘Caitlyn’ character, right? They invent a person who is just nice. She is mythical. She shares some characteristics with some real women that they’ve met but is in no way based on any real women that they’ve met.

Fleur: But one of them has met a Caitlyn before and found her a bit weird when she did meet her. Caitlyn is a caricature of someone who tries to hold you – to love you and save you – in a really futile, symbolic way that means nothing to you when you are so far gone that acts of love are just confusing.

Kieran: No I think they posit Caitlyn as a genuine possible solution. Just one that has never happened. I don’t think she is posited as the mirage of comfort. But no one is coming off well. Male or female. Humans are all a bit shit.

Fleur: Well I don’t think it is that humans are all a bit shit. It is that all humans these women have come into contact with are shit. Like in that part where they talk about: “Is anyone really kind?” “I think they might be.” “Well name one.” “I can’t.” Somewhere out there is kindness but it’s never going to brush up against them. They know that it exists – they’ve seen it at a distance – but never been able to put their hands on it and really get a true understanding of what it actually means to be treated with kindness or dignity or love or respect.

Kieran: I don’t know, it feels more like some kind of societal myth that they are participating in: The Good Person. They know that they definitely are not good, that no one they’ve ever met is and yet it comes through that they still kind of believe it is possible. But it is in some rarefied other world that they don’t participate in. They don’t live in.

Fleur: Let’s leave it there. That’s heaps for me to type. You’re not allowed to say anything smart after I turn this off.

Kieran: That’s good. I really tried to concentrate my smart comments.

Fleur: So smartness ends right – three, two, one – now!

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Kieran Ruffles is a musician, radio producer and producer of the podcast, Audio Stage, which I host with Jana Perkovic. We are currently in the second season and are focusing on responsibility and ethics in art. The first episode of the season featured the playwright of SHIT, Patricia Cornelius, along with fellow playwright Melissa Reeves. The most recent episode, launched today, features Jane Howard and Richard Watts talking about the ethics of criticism. 

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.

audience conversations, audiences, Theatre

in conversation: a love letter to sisters grimm

Look. I know this reads as a love letter to Sisters Grimm. I know that it runs the risk of becoming an “I-liked-them-before-they-were-cool-if-there-was-ever-a-time-before-they-were-cool-because-OMFG”. I know this. And I am fine with it.

This post is part of my ongoing series of audience conversations, recorded mere minutes after the applause. Often I try to grab strangers but yesterday Cat Commander, Daniel Lammin, Joe Brown and Elisa Ghisalberti were so animated by Calpurnia Descending that they started spouting outstanding responses before I had even looked around for interviewees.

“Okay, just hold that thought. No, just – Shut up! Clearly you are already being super smart so can I pull out the recorder?”

So this is a biased document. I haven’t grabbed randoms, I have recorded people whose love for this work and this company meant that they couldn’t shut the fuck up. And I’m fine with this. I’m fine with this because Sisters Grimm means something to emerging theatre makers on a personal level and because their success on national stages feels like a validation of what makes Melbourne’s theatre scene so unique, vibrant, ridiculous and important.

Here be spoilers. Here be biases. Here be excitement and some damn fine responses to an hilarious, complex and wonderfully trashy piece of theatre.


Ash Flanders and Paul Capsis. Photo, Michele Aboud

Fleur:  So, what just happened? What was that?

Daniel: Calpurnia Descending. The new Sisters Grimm show.

Elisa: A multi-media explosion of – I don’t know! – of everything! It is kind of everything!

Daniel: It just starts off as a – as a – pastiche honouring of films like All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard and the 30s diva dramas and then turns into this really biting social commentary/satire and then there’s just an explosion of… stuff –

Cat: Which then kind of accelerates through time in our visual-cultural associations.

Daniel: The moment it started with that cut to black and then blare of sound and just that – that reminder of what you are in for! You’re about to walk into something that is big and ridiculous. You’re going to have to re-align your expectations based on that and it’s not going to give a fuck whether you’re up with it or not. It’s just going to do its thing.

My whole body hurts from watching it. That always happens when I see one of their shows. At the end of it, I’ve been kind of assaulted by ideas and images and feelings and just screaming with laughter the entire time and you just walk out going —- You need a moment to kind of physically realign yourself.

Fleur: How to transcribe Daniel Lammin doing his little zombie walk to demonstrate the physical exertion of Sisters Grimm?

Daniel: Whenever they do something intelligent they have to kill it at the very last second. Like “don’t – DON’T forget what we are doing. It is trash. It is camp. It is ridiculous.” They always just have to have a little sting in the tail.

Elisa: But then not at the end! Not at the end when you completely feel for Paul Capsis’ character. They could have easily killed that with a gag and they chose not to.

Daniel: It’s always the extraordinary thing with their shows: you always forget that there will be a moment when suddenly your heart will break. Like the moment in Little Mercy where you see that the wife is genuinely out of her depth because her child is the spawn of Satan or in The Sovereign Wife when everything is going to shit. There is always the human moment in it and I can’t wait to see what that’s going to be each time. Yes. By the ending you’re not laughing! It is devastating. The sight of Paul Capsis standing onstage for a good two minutes not saying anything, in his underwear and you’re like –

Fleur: Looking so strangely innocent in that moment, after being this knowing, calculating, if crazed diva throughout.

Daniel: But also taking advantage of the fact that what we’re watching is someone who we associate as an icon. The thing of seeing Paul Capsis take his costume off… It stopped being about the story and for a moment it was just watching this incredible performer we all know so well from such an incredible career just be… There.

Cat: And the visual trickery of both drag and just costume in general. Watching him in the beginning I was like “look at his fucking tight body. Look how ripped he is” and the way he holds himself, he just has this – like he – like he just lifts weights all day long. Then he takes his clothes off and you’re like “wow. There’s a soft, real human there.” And you feel so tricked and it just makes you empathise even more with him because you’re like “wow. Everyone is really, really human.”


CALPURNIA DESCENDING photo by Brett Boardman. I think.

Fleur: A couple of you have mentioned the big ideas it is saterising or the big concepts going on. Talk to me about what those concepts are. What’s it about?

Cat: Well femininity –

Elisa: The performative aspects of femininity.

Cat: Or gender as a whole. And I love seeing a woman cross-dress. Love it.

Elisa: Oh god! More! Please. Yeah.

Cat: I think it allows you to comment more on gender when it’s not just your stereotype of “drag is men dressed as women and that’s funny!” No. Drag is social commentary because it allows us to reflect on how performative gender really is.

And I think it is about popular culture as well! Declan and Ash are such connoisseur of popular culture from way back to the beginnings of cinema that they are able to satirise what people value and what they find entertaining. And they are such entertainers.

Daniel: The expendable-ness of – Having watched the first three quarters of the show which is about an era and a time where to be a star, to work on a particular text, to be onstage, is such a sacred thing and then to have that assaulted with the most expendable, consumable shit? Like the sight of having Paul Capsis running through a video game? It was both incredible and utterly disturbing. All of a sudden the richness of the world you’ve been spending time in is just obliterated. Like at this particular point, fame, art, creation, everything is just kind of pointless and disappears at a moment’s notice. A click of a screen and all of a sudden it disappears.

Fleur: Joe, you’re sitting there looking thoughtful. What’s going on for you?

Joe: I’m hideously out of my depth. It usually takes me a little while to kind of digest. Yeah. I’ve never seen a Sisters Grimm show before.

Elisa: Neither have I!

Fleur: So tell me about seeing Sisters Grimm for the first time. I’m guessing you have heard a fair bit about them.

Joe: I’ve heard so much about them. So much about them.

Fleur: Is that what you expected to see?

Joe: Um… No. I expected the beginning. But then that slow, steady – not decline but – movement into this bat shit crazy territory caught me by surprise because it was so… It was more visceral than I was expecting. Far more visceral. It was… It was more than I was expecting as well. I was kind of expecting camp fun but it turned into something pretty real by the end.

Fleur: I think that is why we love them as a community: because they don’t just go for the gasp or for the laugh. If that was the case then they wouldn’t have stuck around. If it was only that joke. Like in the musical I saw last night, La Cage Aux Folles: the whole joke was just “they’re men! But in drag!”

Joe: Yeah. The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was Little One’s Neon show this year, Dangerous Liaisons. They stayed with that joke. They stayed with the “people in drag” and it was funny and I really liked it but looking back I’m realising that it didn’t have the movement that this one had.

The Production Company's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Photo credit unfound.

The Production Company’s LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Photo credit unfound.

Daniel: Has seeing Sisters Grimm at full force changed your perspective of what this style of theatre is capable of?

Joe: I think it has changed my perspective of what theatre can be. It was one of those ones.

Daniel: I think that’s the reason why they stick out in our cultural landscape: other people try to do what they do but Sisters Grimm knows where they come from. They know that trash and camp theatre come from being reactionary and being angry. It didn’t come out of being clever. It isn’t just about “hey, there’s men dressed as women and women dressed as men”. It’s about an idea that you have to rebel against something and every time you see their shows they make you feel. They make you think. Most people who play with camp and trash don’t understand that basic concept.

Cat: It’s not just queering of a classic text. It’s ripping apart layers upon layers of our own preconceptions of society and of culture. That – that – that’s what I get off on.

I met someone recently who said they left at halftime of The Sovereign Wife and I was just like “you are a fool. You are a fool.”

Elisa: Like if you left halfway through this, you’d just be like –

Fleur: “Yeah, I’m not really into that whole Noir thing – ”

Elisa: “I’d rather just see Joan Crawford.” Yeah!

Fleur: So it was also your first time seeing Sisters Grimm. Do you want to tell us about what you were expecting and what you got?

Elisa: Well see, I know Ash’s work. I know Declan’s work. I just haven’t seen Sisters Grimm before. But I think it was kind of what I was expecting because I know what they’re capable of. And because it is at The Malthouse I know I’m not going to come out traumatised.

Fleur: Is that a level of safety that you appreciate?

Elisa: I don’t need theatre to be safe. I don’t want to be scarred by it but I don’t even know how I could be. I don’t know what it would take! The stuff that I’ve seen! It’s like, if I was going to be scarred it would have happened already.

So they are doing their own thing but it is a safe theatre that they are playing in.

Daniel: The difference between seeing Summertime in the Garden of Eden in a shed as opposed to on the stage was extraordinary. In Theatre Works it just wasn’t quite as extraordinary because it wasn’t the same. I didn’t get to see Little Mercy at STC but I can’t imagine that not being in a shitty car park. It has been interesting thinking about this compared to their early work. In their mainstage work you probably couldn’t see Ash with his balls hanging out like in Cellblock Booty or a nun pissing in a priest’s mouth like in the original production of Little Mercy. It has been interesting seeing how they have transitioned and how they’ve been able to slip in their anarchy whilst also having to adhere to the requirements of a mainstage audience.

Fleur: I think ‘adhere’ is an interesting word with these guys because I don’t – I don’t know – I – I actually think – I feel like their work as a whole has definitely matured. I didn’t feel that same kind of depth and complexity back six – seven – however many years ago when I saw Mommie & the Minister

Daniel: Yes! Yes! Mommie & the Minister! That was extraordinary.

Fleur: Yes, it was a fucking delight! But I do think that this is a much more mature work and I’m fucking delighted to see it on that stage. I don’t feel like it has damped it. I think they’ve found a complexity that has moved beyond that gasp.

Daniel: They’ve had to find different languages.

Cat: It’s not just Sisters Grimm With Money; it is Sisters Grimm who have really thought about how they can really transcend that shed experience.

Fleur: Yet there is still an echo of the shed at all times. Part of what makes going to see Sisters Grimm so special for so many Melbourne people is that, even if you haven’t seen them before, you know that they have been massive part of our history throughout the last decade. The rise of these two creatives epitomises our re-invention as a community. They have come up through their car parks and sheds to the mainstage. And have worked fucking hard. I feel like it is such a validation when I see these guys on a mainstage. I feel like it is a validation from the mainstage theatre companies. Programming this company is them saying “yeah. We get what Melbourne is about. We get what is so unique and special about Indy theatre here in Melbourne. It is people like these guys.”



Daniel: It is interesting to see how Sydney audiences take them. Talking to my friends in Sydney who have seen “all their shows”, (They’ve seen three! Just the three they’ve had up there.) But there is that difference in terms of their perception of what Sisters Grimm is. To them, they are a mainstage company. They’re big and they’re polished and they LOVE them but it is a different perspective. They talk about Summertime and how big and beautiful and fluffy the set was and it’s like “well, you should have seen it in a shed with a broken down washing machine in the corner.”

Cat: With the “donation only” wine.

I think their work hinges on deep, deep intellect and skill in writing and skill in constructing theatre that works on many layers. That’s what I admire more about Declan’s work and specifically about his work with Sisters Grimm. I think him and Ash have the most incredible partnership. I can’t wait to see where they go.

Daniel: They demand that you participate. You can’t just sit back, be complacent and let it wash over you. When the screen is bursting with pictures of Ash flying over the world in a pink wig, you have to sit there going “what the fuck am I seeing” but also you have to go “where is this coming from? I have to engage with this work! It demands that I do because it is intelligent and important and exciting.”

Fleur: Final thought?

Cat: Pleasure.

Fleur: You all talked really, really fast. It’s going to kill me transcribing this.

Sisters Grimm, photo by Claryssa Humennyj-Jameson

Sisters Grimm, photo by Claryssa Humennyj-Jameson

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. 

audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Responses, Theatre

in conversation: on theatre, football, indigenous leadership and walking into the bigness

I love conducting audience conversations. I love that moment of walking up to strangers in a foyer (or as they leave a tent) and asking if I can stick a microphone in their face for twenty minutes. But in truth, they are seldom strangers. Not really. Even the English comedians I spoke with about Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It had people in common. Because, of course. The world isn’t very big and theatre is very small. But the people I grabbed after Richard Frankland’s Walking Into The Bigness were truly strangers; that elusive ‘real General Public’ that I’m always searching for, who see art as audience members rather than makers, friends, lovers. It was a beautifully mixed group: four middle-aged women and two elite athletes, recent retired AFL star, Aaron Davey and olympian Kyle Vander Kuyp. This conversation was wonderful. I love that it captures a meeting between strangers and by about the second minute of recording I all but disappeared as the participants began to interview each other. So here we go. Theatre, football and Indigenous leadership: the conversation you didn’t know you needed. As one of the woman, Sue, said “see what this show brings out?”

'Walking into the Bigness' show photography by Pia Johnson.

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography by Pia Johnson.

SFB      What just happened in there? What did you see?

BETSY  A life story. A life story of a very incredible man. Five different people assumed the same character.

KYLE    I think the characters really brought out the language – the indigenous language that me and Aaron had a bit of a laugh about. We’ve heard that in our own aunties, uncles and cousins. You hear that language come out. And the racism that he suffered. There are so many layers to his life.

I think they did a great job of bringing the whole audience in, whether they were Indigenous or non-Indigenous. It was a story about a man and yeah, he happens to be one of our Indigenous leaders that we all look up to.

AARON  Yeah, obviously there’s still a divide in this country between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It was fantastic to put that in a play and make it a cultural lesson. It’s a culturally safe place where everyone can sit down and have a laugh –

SFB      And a cry.

KYLE    And a cry, yeah.

AARON And if we can get a lot more well-respected leaders within our mobs to tell their stories, I think that goes a long way of educating not only the people in the theatre but the whole country. If we can get it in art and performance like that where you can see the fun side and sense the seriousness of it, I reckon that’s amazing. Myself and Kyle are both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men and there were a lot of more non-Indigenous people in there tonight, which was special for us guys walking out.

LAURIE Can I say, it does remind us that it is such a current story still. That’s the heartbreaking thing. It grabs my heart and makes me sad and makes me cross. For you guys, how do you watch it and come out smiling? How do you do that?

AARON  It motivates you. We’re working with a lot of young people and I’m doing a mentoring role with young trainees and helping kids get into employment and education. And maybe you can start to break the family cycle if you can maybe say the right words to a young kid.

I was on the phone at work today to a mum for about an hour about her son. I think that is a lucky gift to be able to have a conversation with a mum or a trainee or even the host employer and say “hey look, you need to give this guy a little bit of a break at the moment.” It bites you a bit hard. You have days where you’re really flat but having a show like this just gives me a spring in my step again. Let’s re-load. This is what we’re all about.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

SFB      I think for me, the overall feeling I left with was a sense of pride rather than despair. To see a strong Indigenous man standing up and telling his story. And that it ended with that beautiful scene where he asked the kids “do you want to be boy-men, do you want to be boy-boys or men” and having them say “nah, I want to be a man.”

BETSY   It helps the young people to embrace their culture, doesn’t it? Not be ashamed but be proud.

AARON  Sometimes people struggle with their own identity. I sort of done a talk at my kid’s school a couple of weeks ago. Never assume that the darkest Indigenous Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander person is a lot more traditional or knowledgeable than the fair-skinned ones. That’s not always the case. My daughter is pretty fair and someone in the class said “that’s not really Michaela’s dad”. My daughter’s got blond hair and my other kids have got brown hair. It’s just one of those things. It’s still about educating the country.

I had a young guy ring me. He’s fourteen-years-old and his teammate called him a – a – an ‘Abo’. The young boy texted me two nights ago and said he’s going to walk away from footy because he don’t feel like he can go anymore. They’ve only got one game left and he wanted to come watch me play. I said to the young fella, “you can either shy away from it or you can nip it in the bud and show how strong you are.” So he went to training last night and rang me afterwards to say “I done it”. This young kid’s got a pretty tough upbringing and so that’s where Kyle and I can play that role in the community.

KYLE    And we would have had that when we were young. We had people give us the right message at the right time. It becomes a cycle. Aaron’s had ten years in footy and he said today to a group of people “it hasn’t been smooth. It’s been bumpy and I have to be honest.” I think that honesty hits kids too. They go “oh I thought AFL careers are all dollars and spotlight” and it is hard. It is hard work. And there are great moments but there is hard work. I think Richard’s story really talked about hard work. Getting up. Dusting yourself off. What was that line? “When life knocks you down, get up and smack it down” something like that. That’s what we gotta keep doing.

BETSY   Like that young kid. He got up and smacked it down.

LAURIE Did he retaliate to those kids that said that to him?

AARON  He got really defensive and told the coach “I’m going, I’m not coming back, I’m gonna quit footy – ”

LAURIE  But physically?

AARON  Nah, nah, nah. Nearly. But he was good. When he rang me – you can tell in their voice. He said, “I went to training” and I said “I’m proud of ya. I know how much courage it takes.” For someone fourteen years old and they’ve played footy with each other for years! And it might have been a slip of the tongue but yeah.

Same thing happened at Melbourne with one young guy. I took him and another guy out for dinner – both non-indigenous – and the asics boot had just come out. They’re black, red and yellow. And this young kid is real respectful. I’ve got a lot of time for him and he goes “oh you see these new boots I got? Got the ‘Abo’ boots!” And he didn’t realise. I said to him “look, I’ll tell you now, you’re lucky you’ve said that to me. If you was to say that to another Indigenous person you would have probably got your mouth punched in.”

But they just assumed it was short for ‘Aboriginal’. It’s one of the most offensive words. And we can hear it in there (in the theatre) but if someone walked up now and called me an ‘Abo’ I’d get real defensive. In there you’re in a culturally safe space that’s all about learning but you come out the door…

SUE      This Dipper guy (Robert DiPierdomenico), he said it

AARON  Yeah, he said it to my cousin. Gavin’s (Wanganeen) mum and my dad are brother and sister.

ANNIE  You look a bit alike!

AARON Probably got similar chins, I think. They call it ‘the old Davey chin’.

LAURIE I always thought he was such a lovely looking young man. And so are you, you see. So there you go.

SUE    You know Dipper said “I didn’t mean it offensively because I’ve been called a ‘wog’ my whole life and I didn’t mean it like that.” What is the difference? Is there a difference?

AARON  I think it is because of the history behind it.

BETSY   It’s more derogatory. It’s much more derogatory.

AARON  I live in Oakleigh South and there’s a big Greek community and one of my neighbours walked up when I was down the street and he goes “hey Aaron, what did you think about the whole issue?” He goes “surely it’s not that bad. I used to get called ‘wog’ all the time when I played soccer.” I said “look, I don’t mean to be real negative on it but it’s a lot more different because we’ve had so many challenges.” It’s not to say that the Greek people haven’t but if they only knew half of the history. It is a form of ignorance as well. Everyone says, “be strong”, “be tough skinned” but…

BETSY   It’s challenging.

AARON  Exactly right.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

LAURIE That’s the other thing that I thought the play brought out as well. There’s a line in it that said “you’re walking in the footsteps of your grandparents for one thousand – “

All join in: One thousand and fifty generations. Yes. Yeah!

LAURIE For me, it wasn’t just about his life. It was the story of a people. It was everybody’s story.

SUE      Is that something that the younger people struggle with? That power of the Elders? Do they listen to the Elders, the young people now?

AARON  I reckon respect for Elders is probably the biggest value of our mob. I’m doing a bit of stuff now with the Koori Court as a ‘respected figure’. So I’ve sat in a room for three days in a forum and I’ve had all these old people – and I’ve always been told to respect Elders. So after we had a bit of a de-brief and they asked, “what did you take out of the last three days?” And I said “to be honest, I was pretty intimidated first day, sitting in that room. I didn’t obviously give too much because I didn’t feel it was my place to be speaking over people a lot older and more experienced. That’s just not how I’ve been brought up.” Your Elders are Elders no matter what mob you’re from. So you have all these old people sitting on the Koori Court and some aren’t even from the Wurundjeri land or Bunurong land. I’m from Darwin. I’m from NT but it’s all about respecting your Elders. Those young kids are real intimidated and they’re embarrassed because they’ve brought our mob into disrepute.

BETSY   AFL has done a lot.

AARON  Yeah. I walked in ten years ago as a real shy kid. I was always proud to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander but I’ve learnt so much in my ten-year journey. I can walk away and give back and really encourage guys to get to know about their own mob. If you could have seen me do an interview when I was in my first, second, third or even up until about five years ago, I couldn’t even string two words together. I always thought I was the shy kid but you just develop and when you’re placed in the role of the role model…. Now I say to the young guys “you can be someone” and to the people around them I say, “it’s about you reassuring them.” You keep telling someone they’re no good at something, they start believing it. If you start telling someone they’re good at something, they’ll start believing it.

SUE      See what this show brings out? It brings all of this stuff.

SFB      Doesn’t it? I don’t want to hold you guys here, and I know that you want to get over and congratulate Richard, so I’ll just get you to go around and say where you’re from and what you hope people will get from this.

AARON  My name is Aaron Davey. Recently retired AFL player, originally from Darwin but my father’s family is from the Kokatha tribe, southwest of South Australia, north of Ceduna. And my grandfather is a Torres Strait Islander man from the western islands up in the Straits.

I guess this show is all about education. You can take a lot of things from it and all you need is for one of the people in that room to go and tell their friends about it and it spreads. Culturally, it is a journey. We’re all on a journey. There was a lot more non-Indigenous people in there tonight than Indigenous so hopefully one day everyone will learn about our great culture. Which will be near impossible. But take what you can out of it and spread the word, whether it’s to your grandchildren or friends, and eventually we’ll get there.

BETSY   I’m Betsy Laurence. I live in Hampton, Victoria but from California originally. I’ve been in Australia for twelve years and have been fortunate enough to go out Bush and work in some communities for short times. I feel very privileged to have been able to do that. So many Australians have not had an opportunity like that. I think that seeing a show like this raises awareness for people. You’re bringing it to the people. You’re bringing that cultural experience of people’s lives to the general public so people can give back and get involved in Australian cultural history. Be more aware and open and help our fellow Australians.

SFB      We just did an interview recently with Julian Meyrick, who is a theatre historian. He said that Australian theatre has a deep fear of our past and I said that I think that is not just true of theatre. Australians in general are so horrified by our own history that we’d rather not confront it.

BETSY   Your history is very new and what’s happened to these lovely people is a recent thing. It is very raw. I think ‘how can we have treated people this way’ and ‘how can we still be treating people this way’. They are people. It takes one match to light a room.

Most people have wandered away by this point. Laurie whispers to me.

LAURIE Did you know that those two people (Aaron and Kyle) are really – he’s really big in the AFL and he’s an Olympian?

SFB      I had no idea.

LAURIE He was Vice-Captain of Melbourne Football Club. Very big deal.

SFB      Look at me, I’m the biggest theatre geek ever.

LAURIE Oh yeah, of course you didn’t know. Anyway what was the question again?

SFB      Your name, where you’re from, what you hope people will take from this.

LAURIE Okay. Got it. My name is Laurie Evans and what I take from this is that I just want to learn more about the Aboriginal culture. I wish that I had that culture and that history of 1500 generations fishing from the same pond.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

Richard centre stage, ‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

Kyle has come back.

KYLE    Kyle Vander Kuyp. I’m from Melbourne but I’m an Indigenous man from the Worimi and the Yuin tribes, New South Wales. From Richard Franklin’s show, I’ll take away how Richard kept getting up from any set back. Any time he got knocked down it was a matter of dusting off and keeping on going. The many things that he was willing to try and have a go at is something I’ll take away. We’ve also got to encourage our young ones out there to try things out. You’re not going to learn about yourself unless you come out of your comfort zone and make yourself vulnerable. Richard makes himself very vulnerable in all of the layers of his life. That’s how I relate to it.

Thank you very much to my participants. They were incredible generous and heart-felt. I apologise if I attributed things to the wrong speakers. Betsy’s Californian accent was much appreciated but there was some guess work going on there.