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.

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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.

WRITER:

I think I need a break

Does anyone else need a break?

MAN:

Are you okay?

WRITER:

How much is too much to ask of theatre?

MAN:

I’m not –

Sorry

Not following

WRITER:

Like

We want it to be relevant and have a message

We want it to say the big things but

Like

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?

MAN:

Okay I hear you

I just think

Now you’ve started

Maybe you need to finish this one

Okay?

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:

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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.

bridget

Brigid Gallacher, Photo: Sarah Walker (as always)

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audience conversations, conversation, criticism, personal, Responses, Sex, Theatre

in conversation: f. by riot stage youth theatre

When I came to record audience conversations of F., (my first in a long time, apologies) my SD card was full of a previous conversation: 

Interlude 1: Setting, an outdoor courtyard of a Geelong cafe. A confused 90-year-old sits with her granddaughter. 

Her: What’s that?

Me: It’s a microphone recorder.

Her: Oh really.

Me: Yeah. You were telling me such good stories on the –

Her: Pardon?

Me: You were telling me such good stories in the car on the way here so I thought –

Her: Was I?

Me: You were.

Her: I don’t think I was.

So my SD card was full the night I recorded with random audience members for F. and I only recorded two incomplete conversations, presented here with interludes from my grandmother. 

Know that this production resulted in some beautiful conversations, not all of which I was able to capture. Know that I feel privileged to have had these conversations with these articulate young people, reflecting on growing up with the internet in the 21st Century. Know that I was thrilled to have been so provoked and unsettled by the teenagers of Riot Stage and that it was a delight to see them owning their voices and stories. Know too that my grandmother would never in a million years understand any of it. 

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Conversation 1: Setting, sitting on the floor of a corridor outside the theatre. Two eighteen-year-olds, who have never seen theatre like this before, sit holding hands. They have just finished year twelve exams. 

Me: So what just happened in there? What was there?

Nelly: That was confusing at times!

Me: What do you think happened to you?

Zac: Just discussing issues sort of facing teenagers and that. Yeah. And just the chaotic vibe of it and yeah it’s… you can sort of relate to it I suppose. Um. Yeah.

Nelly: We’ve seen school musicals and stuff but it’s not like that at all. Our school plays are like Pride and Prejudice and stuff. This is like, really different.

Zac: Seems much more relevant and real I suppose. Much more relatable than the perfect pictures that TV and that paint.

Me: Big question but how do you feel about the internet? It’s our whole lives, I know.

Zac: Me and her sort of started being friends on the internet. We were in the same class but I was really shy. I just won’t talk but online I was really loud.

Nelly: Like he had two personalities.

Me: So if it was thirty years ago, when introductions were all walking up to someone and asking them to dance at a mixer, you’d never have talked.

Zac: Nup. That’s why the Internet has a lot of negative aspects but at the same time, it’s very useful in connecting people. We wouldn’t have this connection without it.

End conversation 1.

dsc_1830

Photo: Sarah Walker

Interlude: 

Me: You were talking about Nelson and your uncles playing cricket.

Her: Was I?

Me: Yeah. Did granddad play any sport?

Her: Oh… He usually played golf.

Long pause.

Me: Did you ever try golf.

Her: I don’t think so.

Me: Those sons of your must have got it from somewhere.

Her: Do they play golf?

Conversation 2: Setting, a square of lawn outside the venue. My legs are pink with grass allergy and will continue to sting for an hour afterwards.

Me: What happened to you in there?

Jules: I think I was reminded of the distance between being a young adult and being a teenager. And what it’s like to be a teenager. It’s amazing how much you forget even in a couple of years. I’m twenty-two and it was amazing just to be like, there’s definitely –

A parade of motorbikes roar past.  

Me: We’ll give them a moment.

More motorbikes.

Jules: Okay. Rude.

We wait. They pass. We resume.

Jules: I just thought it was a really beautiful representation of being a teenager.

Doug: To me it was sort of this mish-mash collection of snippets, just reminding you of what it’s like to be a teenager. And I mean, I’m 19 so I’m closer to being that teenager but there’s still that incredible distance that forms when you hit uni and you leave that whole high school mentality. I think this did a really good job of reminding me of that and how it feels to be in that claustrophobic environment. It reminds you of all the weird things teenagers do and how their brains work.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

When I was a sixteen-year-old I didn’t know how to express myself very well. It was a lot like in the show, you’d have characters just switching topics almost on a dime, just talking awkwardly. It was a lot like that. Now I find it a lot easier to structure what I’m trying to say and separate my thoughts.

Me: Could you express yourself better online?

Doug: Yeah, I think so. It was useful because it sort of gave me time to think about what I was trying to say.

Jules: It is this weird Schrodinger’s Cat thing of being heard and not heard. You can scream into the void but there might be someone listening. If you feel like you can’t express yourself properly at high school or with you friends or family, you end up with this strange sort of dynamic where you simultaneously might have someone hearing you and understanding you and saying ‘it’s gonna be okay’ but you also have this freedom just to say whatever you want because there might not be anyone listening. It is a strange dynamic.

Interlude: 

Me: When you were a teenager, working on the farm. What did you do for fun?

Her: I think they took me shopping with them. Thursday was a shopping day. I don’t know if it was much fun.

Me: Did you like reading?

Her: I never did very much reading.

Me: What was your favourite thing about Granddad?

Her: Granddad?

Me: My granddad.

Her: Your granddad? He was away at the First World War, granddad. He didn’t have a very happy life afterwards.

Me: That’s your dad? Is there anything you remember doing with him?

Her: No, I don’t think so.

dsc_1928

Photo: Sarah Walker

Conversation 2:

Me: I really loved the scene early on: the two boys chatting with the text behind them and just how understated it was: ‘I came out to my parents, we had tacos,’ that kind of thing. I’m 30 and this was a great reminder how, in such a short time, what was a big deal has changed and become a regular part of adolescence. Still, there are people for whom coming out is a big deal and is traumatic and has frightening and very real consequences, but for a lot of young gay people, that’s not the toughest part of being a teenager. The main difficulty for that teenager was just being a teenager: being caught in that land between autonomy/self-realisation and that childhood dependence on others.

Doug: I remember when I came out to my mum and she just turned to me and said ‘oh I know’. I was like ‘oh okay.’ I was fifteen or sixteen. I’d been expecting more drama I guess. She’d always been very accepting but yeah it was… odd.

I think the scene that’s sticking with me the most is with the two girls that were sitting watching porn and just that raw discussion of sexuality and their vaginas. When you’re a teenager with a trusted friend and you haven’t really explored these things before, you just talk about it. She was talking about how she wanted to change how her vagina looked and stuff – that really introspective stuff that adults are a lot less likely to just let out because it comes rooted in insecurities and things like that. I used to talk a lot about things I didn’t feel great about. Mostly to close friends, a lot of them I only knew through the Internet, which I think really helped. Like, I don’t really know this person, so it won’t matter as much if I just talk openly with them.

Me: The first time I saw porn I was talking to this guy a couple of years older than me on Nine MSN. He was this gay guy –

Jules and Doug: Oh MSN!

Me: And he was like ‘this is the kind of guys I like’ and he sent me this link. Suddenly my screen was covered in all these naked women. I worked out ages later that I must have got a pop up but at the time I was like ‘he’s a gay guy, he would know what men are’ so I was looking at them going ‘so these are men… so he likes men with make up and… boobs and small thingies’. They were so clearly female bodies. Very naked, very female. But I didn’t have any idea what gender they were. The colour scheme was not what I associated with naked women. It was all pink and gold and shiny and slippery and just… didn’t look like the naked women I’d seen in my life. And I wrote to the guy and was like ‘this is the kind of men you like?’ And he was like ‘yeah’ and I was like ‘men with boobs?’ and he was like ‘what? Men like the men I sent you!’ We worked it out after a while. But that was my first experience of Internet porn: just not even knowing what I was looking at.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Doug: I got tricked. This was in primary school. It was one of those gags that was going around. People were saying ‘if you go to redtube.com, it is like youtube but it’s in HD!’ So I hopped on our family computer that was out in the living room at the time, typed in redtube.com and up came these… not youtube videos. It took me a second. I scanned the page and I started scrolling down and I was about eight or nine, I think. I’d just been given permission to use the computer –

Me: And you blew it, straight away.

Doug: I blew it straight away! I scrolled down and I saw all these images that I didn’t really understand. My dad came over and understandably he was sort of ‘what are you doing?’ I told him that I’d been told this was HD but it didn’t look like the youtube videos I normally watched. He closed out of the browser and we had a little talk about what porn is. I think he just said ‘it’s videos of people having sex on the internet’. My parents never glossed over things. They never talked about genitals with weird words, it was always ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’. I think I was probably four or five when I asked where babies came from and they just straight up told me.

Me: I remember asking what ‘cunt’ was and my mother said ‘it’s another word for vagina’ in such a matter of fact way that I thought for years it was a more polite word – like the medical terminology! Not that it came up in conversation because it didn’t but yeah, I was like ‘oh, that’s the grown up way to talk about vaginas! Good to know!’

Interlude:

Me: Look at that. They’ve got a chandelier hanging in the greenery. Looks like you might be able to find some monkeys here.

Her: What’s that?

Me: I was just saying, it looks like you might be able to find some monkeys here.

Her: Oh.

Silence. Knives and forks clatter. 

Me: What are you most proud of?

Her: Oh. (A long pause.) I guess… most proud of family life. Mum and dad and the family. Mum kept the family together really. Dad was good too but… aftermath of the war, I think. He drank a lot of alcohol which was a worry, not only to mum and myself but the rest of us.

Me: Was that part of the reason you never drunk alcohol?

Her: I suppose it might have been part of it but I never took a liking to it anyway. Anything I tasted I never liked. You wonder how anyone could ever like it.

Conversation 2:

Me: I think the scene that really wrecked me was the scene with the two actors on opposite sides of the stage. The first night I was sitting with two straight men and they were watching the boy and I was watching the girl. I really noticed the different ways our heads were turned. I think that is a scene that is so heartbreaking for both characters but you do experience it very differently as a male or female. I don’t know. And I don’t know how different it is as a gay man either. I think a lot of heterosexual men move through the world with this deep fear of taking advantage of a woman.

Jules: I didn’t know where look: whether I should watch one of them, whether I should not watch any of them and just listen. I thought it was really interesting that they chose to make it very dubious as to what actually happened but very clear that she didn’t want it. I feel that that’s a situation that happens all the time and far too –

End conversation 2, with a full SD card.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Interlude:

Her: We had two or three horses we used to ride. Might have been more than that at times. The neighbours – they lived four or five miles up towards the boarder and eh – they had a lot of shetlands. They were half broken-in and they used to pass them on to us to ride. Some of them were very good to ride but others were very cheeky.

Me: Yeah. Yeah, that sounds hard work.

Her: I forget how many we would have ridden all together.

Waiter: Spinach and feta borek?

Me: That’s me. And the lamb is here.

Waiter: And would you like a knife and fork with that one?

Me: Would you like a knife and fork, grandma?

Her: No. Thank you.

Waiter leaves. Silence.

Her: A knife and fork would be handy.

End interlude. 

F. is by Riot Stage and was presented as part of the Poppy Seed Theatre Festival of 2016. It was directed by Katrina Cornwell, written by Morgan Rose, performed by a cast ranging from 15 to 19. 

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criticism, Fragmentary Response

fragmentary/inadequate responses: antigone, perhaps there is hope yet, jurassica, separation street

These days this blog doesn’t see a lot of writing about specific shows. (Actually it doesn’t see a lot of writing full stop because argh.) The bulk of my show responses now end up on Triple R’s Smart Arts, where I do a regular segment with Richard Watts. In preparing for this, I usually write several pages of notes and it recently occurred to me that perhaps artists might enjoy having some of these notes made public so as to have something in writing.

I do not want to contribute to the plethora of too short reviews so I have decided to deliberately present these as fragmentary thoughts. I want to acknowledge that the one paragraph of space I will give each show is inadequate. I will reach no conclusions in this word count and form no judgements but I hope these add something to the conversation. Call them love notes. Call them whispers. Call them poorly punctuated. Call them inadequate, fragmented responses to a tiny portion of the immensely thought-provoking art this city and its artists are producing.

ANTIGONE, photo by Pia Johnson

ANTIGONE, photo by Pia Johnson

ANTIGONE

This is what I walk in with. Politics. The horror of politics without room for human dignity/compassion/awareness of suffering.

This is what I walk out with. “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” Anne Carsons.

This production feels urgent/relevant/pressing, cheek-flushingly/mouth-dryingly/knuckles-whiteningly so. No, not because of phrases like ‘off-shore’ (which are a direct translation from the Ancient Greek) but because this is a moment in time when grief/rage resonate. The city/state/country throbs with it. So should our theatres. This one does. Tonight, this one does.

PERHAPS THERE IS HOPE YET, photo:

PERHAPS THERE IS HOPE YET, photo: Theresa Harrison

PERHAPS THERE IS HOPE YET

This is what I walk in with. Dissatisfaction with the spectacle of large-scale circus and its audience’s manic need to clap at every moment of splendour as if to say yes/yes/i saw/you did that and i saw it/you flew high. Applause stops thought/breaks phrasing/rewards performers and audience alike for the completion of their task/concludes our emotional/intellectual investment. I also bring with me a curiosity as to how circus could speak of climate change.

This is what I walk out with. What happens when you make circus small/immediate? What is the impact on the audience of ‘chamber circus’? We see/feel/empathise with the fragility/vulnerability of their bodies. We ground the spectacle in humanity. Every joint crack/sweat drip/jaw clench is registered in our own bodies. Framed as a dreaming on climate change, this vulnerability/deliberate endangerment/repeated callousness/ignorant disregard for their own/each other’s well being becomes an analogy for humanity in all our wilful ignorance of the future and what the shattering of glass/rising of oceans will do to us all.

JURASSICA

JURASSICA

JURASSICA*:

This is what I walk in with. A memory of my grandmother’s last night of consciousness. Sitting with her waiting for morning and her children to arrive. I didn’t say “goodbye”/“I love you”. I kept thinking there would be another moment. Her last words were mine alone.

This is what I walk out with. What would it be to watch this work through a different set of eyes/hear through a different set of ears? Ones that hadn’t heard a grandparent’s last words. This work hits/stabs/strikes a place within me that makes it impossible to deny how much our viewings of family narratives are shaped by our own narratives/families.

Red Stitch’s new focus on Australian writing places freshly developed scripts on the same stage as international works with much more money/time poured into their development. A big ask. The readiness of this script/how it sits beautifully within their season is a testament to the writer and the company’s process.

Seeing a bi-lingual play presented without apology or subtitles temporarily puts the audience in the position that many migrant families exist in on a daily basis. Households with a cavernous divide running the length of the living room/an unmissable crack in the plaster/snarling gap in the stairs. Parents who came to this country to provide for/protect/shelter their children and, in doing so, sacrificed their own relationships/ability to communicate with these children.

SEPARATION STREET, photo: Greta Costello (I think)

SEPARATION STREET, photo: Greta Costello (I think)

SEPARATION STREET:

This is what I walk in with. If your understanding of children’s theatre is still pantomime, you are living in the wrong century. And the wrong city. Melbourne is bringing it.

This is what I walk out with. An acute sense of being the outsider to the story and to childhood. This work begins with a literal separation. Adults take one path and kids another. It was a beautiful analogy for parenting. We are a step out of time/behind/in front of/creating/shaping the world for them. When they step into it we sit behind glass and watch them explore its alien surface alone. We can only watch. And cry. We can do that. I did that. I cried at the bravery/curiosity of these tiny/playful explorers.

Mr and Mrs Darling and Nana rushed into the nursery too late. The birds were flown.

SEPARATION STREET, photo: Greta Costello (perhaps)

SEPARATION STREET, photo: Greta Costello (perhaps)

*I saw Jurassica on a preview night and spoke about it with the permission of the company and director. 

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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.

Enjoy.

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.

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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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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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criticism, My own plays, Politics, Theatre

on arts funding, ‘idlers in art’, anger, survival and free tickets for media

I want to do something a bit different today. I want to respond to two things about money in the arts previously raised here and in the wider arts community.

Thing One: What arts funding looks like

This thought came out of Dave Lamb’s amazing letter to Mitchell Browne, which was posted on this blog back in September. The letter received a massive amount of interest and the comment section was fascinating (and include one very impressive conspiracy theorist). I am not going to re-hash why we need arts funding or what a tiny contribution taxpayers are required to make because Dave covered this beautifully. What I want to address is something that really intrigued me: in the comments I saw a lack of understanding about what arts funding actually consists of. It was expressed best by an American woman called Marie:

  • “Funding for the arts creates a false divide between “artists” and “everybody else”. He (Mitchell Browne) points out — correctly — that many, many people with ordinary day jobs are profoundly creative and artistic, but are unable to pursue those passions/interests/talents because the bulk of their time and energy goes to keeping food on the table. Then, compounding that frustration, a portion of their wages are confiscated to help support others who are fortunate enough to make their living doing what they love…. For a select group to set themselves apart as “artists”, and suggest that everyone else should limit their participation to the role of audience members, is highly offensive to the millions of gifted musicians, sculptors, playwrights, dancers, etc. whose circumstances require them to spend 50+ hours a week laying cement or staffing the local daycare centers.”

Marie responded very graciously when Dave and I wrote to her and much of what she talks about is discussed in the original letter but what comments like this one say to me is that there is a profound misconception about arts funding.

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Here in Australia there are a tiny handful of fellowships (very hard fought for and incredibly well deserved by those who get them) that will fund an individual in their work. This is what the Australia Council website has to say about them:

  • “These Fellowships are a major initiative to support the professional development of outstanding artists working across the sector and across Australia. Over five years between 2011/12 to 2015/16, the Australia Council will award 10 fellowships for emerging artists (each valued at $100,000) and 13 fellowships for early career artists (each valued at $60,000).  These Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowships will provide financial support for artists across all artforms to undertake a program of creative or professional development.” – Australia Council 

So we are talking only 23 people in the country across all artforms getting such support between 2011 and 2016. Their money is paid out over a two year period so emerging artists are on $30 000 a year and established artists are on $50 000. By comparison, the average Australian full-time wage is $74 724 a year before tax.

But this isn’t where the vast majority of funding goes. It goes either into companies or individual projects.

To use the Melbourne Theatre Company as an example of a funded arts organisation, last year 9.3% of their income came from government funding (both State and Federal). 71.5% came from ticket sales. The rest is philanthropic, hires and corporate. (This information can be found here and I also exchanged emails with someone from the company in person.)

So less than 10 percent of their income is from funding and more than 70 is derived from tickets. This means the company has to work incredibly hard to keep their subscriber base subscribing. They are constantly being held accountable for their programming decisions. They do not have a safety net of a substantial income separate from their sales. If people don’t buy, they don’t exist. This, of course can means that it is very difficult for them to take artistic risks. So a state theatre that had, say 20% funding, would be able to make twice as many risks and would be able to lower their ticket prices further. Both of which would be bloody good things.

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

It is also worth mentioning that having company funding means that you are unable to apply for project funding. Which isn’t such a big deal for companies like MTC but for little companies, such as MKA, which is staffed almost entirely by volunteers and now receives tri-annual funding, this is the difference between being able to pay the creatives vs. everyone fitting shows around their part-time catering jobs. This is the current situation for any company receiving Organisation Infrastructure Funding from VicArts. Most grants come with a clause that you cannot apply for them if you receive multi-year government funding. This means that small companies have to chose between getting funding which covers their insurance, flights and taxes or money they can put directly into their productions and artists. Still not looking much like the fantasy of artists living comfortably off the taxpayers.

As Dave said, to get individual project funding, artists must clearly establish why they need funding in order to make the project happen, demonstrate their capability to bring such a work to fruition, explain exactly how every dollar will be spent and, crucially, justify how this project will contribute to the artistic landscape and the Australian community.

This year I spent a few months in regional Queensland, working on a funded project through La Boite. My role was to teach more than 80 fifteen-year-olds how to write plays. With these students as my collaborators, I wrote four plays in eight weeks, which the students then performed for their community. Among the participants were students who struggled with basic literacy levels, students with behavioural issues including verbal aggression and students who were completely disengaged from school. We created an opportunity for them to express themselves creatively and tell their own stories. They guided the process and were so proud of themselves. When people rail against taxpayer funded arts, this is the kind of work they are attacking.

And being part of a project like this doesn’t mean that I’m not working other jobs. Like almost every other artist I know, I am living below the poverty line and am constantly in search for that illusive flexible workplace that will permit me to run off to regional Queensland for eight weeks of theatre creation when the opportunity arises. Last year I worked for one of the most established and respected theatre companies in Australia, Bell Shakespeare and then, when that show had ended, I cleaned a bakery for $15 an hour cash in hand. This is about what I was getting paid thirteen years ago as a fifteen-year-old working in Pizza Hut when I lived rent-free in my parents’ house. Now I am an established artist and arts commenter with a Masters degree and rent to pay.

The perception of a community of artists comfortably living year in, year out on taxpayer money is very far from the truth. It is individual projects. It is horrible length gaps between commissions – too short for other employers to hire you and too long to live off what little savings you managed to acquire on the last show. It is working during the day and performing at night. It is immensely hard and the dilemma of how to balance of paid work and passion does not go away once you make art your main career and focus.

And we love it. Of course we do. On those days when we write plays with 80 teenagers or have people tearfully clutch our hands at the end of a performance to tell us how we changed something they thought unchangeable in their hearts we feel incredibly fortunate. But on other days, it can be difficult to feel fortunate. Those moments of pay off – both financial and emotional – are few and far between. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith told my class last year that being a writer is a constant battle between your ego and your self-doubt. You have to make sure that your ego just comes out on top or you’ll never pick up the pen. When this self-doubt is coupled with crippling poverty, the battle can feel pretty uneven. Not David and Goliath, for that is the story of a little guy who only needed to throw one stone; artists must build and throw that stone again and again in-between waitressing jobs.

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Thing Two: The Tickets

I want to give one other example of project funding, which will then lead into the other Thing I’ve want to re-examine.

The City They Burned received $10 000 from the city council. In practical terms, this knocked $10 off of the price of every ticket. In the Pre-Fringe season, this meant $24 a ticket compared to $34. That’s a big difference. It was also the little bit of financial cushioning we needed in order to be able to run a ‘pay as you feel’ night to ensure that no one was missing out on the work due to financial hardship.

Audience members saw the show without paying and, at the end, were asked to contribute what they could afford or what they thought the show was worth. The average ticket price that night was $19. Of course, some people paid much less than this, which was fine, but the interesting part of the experiment was that the people who would otherwise have received industry or media comps that night, decided to pay because the option was presented to them.

This leads me to the next point I want to re-examine. This was raised at a forum I hosted at Theatre Works, the ridiculously named Why Can’t We All Get Along Like We Did In Middle School: should critics get free tickets and, if they receive a comp, does that mean they are entering into a deal which states that a comp equals a review?

Plenty of artists have opinions on this, which is absolutely fair enough. As I’ve already stated in this article, making art is costly and hard. But. But. But I’ve seen over 80 shows this year and paid for perhaps 20 of them. (My running tally in my phone says I’ve paid for 14 but I expect that I forgot to record a few.)

Now, before you presume this makes me an arts writer who isn’t holding up my end of the bargain, let me assure you that any time I was given a ticket as an arts writer, I wrote something. This week I also emailed the artistic director of a theatre to ask about getting a media comp and, when I found out that the show was struggling a bit, instantly retracted my request and paid. The vast majority of my comps come from being someone’s plus one – someone working on or writing about the show/festival – or they come from the fact that I work three festivals a year, which gets me into most shows at Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne Comedy and Melbourne Fringe for free provided, I’m not taking the place of a paying audience member. You know how it works. You have received such comps too.

I am not writing this to end this discussion. I hope we continue to think about and discuss how we value and pay for our art and what the intellectual transaction is. But I think we all forget about our own free tickets when it comes to talking about critics.

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Now, to state the obvious, I could never afford to pay for 80 shows a year. I am acutely aware that I am very, very fortunate to be the recipient of these tickets. Having access to this amount and variety of art helps broaden my awareness of what is happening in my industry, my understanding of what art is capable of and illuminates in a very immediate and practical way what does/does not work on stage. It benefits my art and my arts writing. Every time we put ‘artists passes free’ on a festival show or send someone we respect a comp, we aren’t only boosting our audience numbers or promoting ourselves, we are making an investment in the intellectual complexity and artistic wealth of our fellow makers.

And we are too generous. I’m all for artists at the very least asking for a donation from their fellow makers at festival time. I also think it is acceptable to offer reviewers only the one ticket, rather than two. But I do wonder, when we give so many of our tickets away to each other, why do we bitch about giving them to the people who may spend hours writing about it? And even if they don’t write about this show, they may write about the next one with an enhanced awareness of our artistic journey.

The City They Burned generated over 10 000 words of critical response (not including my own conversation with Cameron Woodhead) and the majority of these came from unpaid reviewers. I’ll always champion these people. I’ll always support “so-and-so with their blog that barely anyone reads anyway” because most of our best arts writers started as that so-and-so. And because I believe we need them. We want our arts writers to benefit like we do from seeing as much art as possible. We want their responses to deepen and complexify (not a word but I’m into it). I’m willing to invest in their artistic understanding, just as my fellow artists invest in mine.

Sarah’s photography can be found here. 

On a personal note: I’m heading to South Australia for a few months to save money whilst writing a new play. If you are reading this from Adelaide, yell out! I’d love to build more of a network in my home town and I am also planning on running a series of forums on criticism, gender and new writing there before Fringe takes over the city. 

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