creativity, education, Monash, self care, Theatre

on starting your own company and working with friends

It is that time of year where students are leaving us and we are all just really hoping they don’t take our jobs too soon. 

Most years, as they get ready to leave us I send out an email filled with self-care tips sourced from the broader arts community. But this year’s cohort have had me rattle on about self-care a lot and since they are already filled with excellent collaborative teams I decided that this year’s parting email could be crowd-sourced tips on starting your own company. And I thought I would share it here too because the wisdom of the crowd is beautiful, thoughtful and generous. 

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AFTER HERO, photo by Sarah Walker

To kick them off, a couple of tips from me: firstly, talk about money! I think the biggest mistake I made early on was not spelling out what things like ‘profit share’ actually meant: it doesn’t mean we split 100% of the box office takings, we split 100% of the profits, so all the costs of the show are taken out of that. One simple conversation could have made that clear.

I would also advise that you follow up phone conversations with venues and organisations with an email:

‘Thanks for the phone call. Just to put in writing what we discussed…’ Leave a written record of everything.

Now for smart words from some generous artists:

Anastasia Ryan, production manager:

Contracts! Even if you’re doing it with your best mate, just a super simple 1 page thing saying what each persons job is, the expectations and the agreed money (if there is any) helps so much.

Nithya Nagarajan, neo-classical Indian dancer, producer and arts educator:

Go to grant writing info sessions, often hosted for free by City of Melbourne, Australia Council for the Arts and Auspicious Arts. And if you go into arts work, keep your arts administratior and performance maker hats very, very separate.

Rebekah Montague, playwright and (strange combo) financial educator:

Have a separate bank account for your art.

Izzy Roberts-Orr, poet, playwright and artistic director of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival:

Clear communication, structured meetings if that’s your style, and a record – get things in writing (e.g. minutes / letters of agreement / emails clearly stating what’s happening) it feels silly having meetings / agendas / defined roles as you’re starting out, but before you know it you might have actual money on the table and need a bank account or be running projects at a scale where everyone needs to know their role in order to do it. Also if they’re your friends, make sure you have friend hangs outside of work! Plus space as friends to talk about your work practices if needed, and make sure you’re still nurturing each other in both your role as a collaborator and your role as a friend.

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FIGMENT, photo by Theresa Harrison

Tim Byrne, arts journalist:

Try your very best to temper ambition with a tiny bit of clear-eyed perspective. One (or two at the most) little shows a year, honed into perfection, are worth far more than some grand vision of cultural dominance. That ties into money too: the greatest art comes from thinking your way around obstacles, so treat lack of funds as a challenge. Oh, and don’t give all your time to your work, even if your work is your love. Get a walk in there, or some lying about watching trees. Perspective.

Patrick McCarthy, director and playwright:

I’d say most of the problems people run into early on (and even later) occur because not enough time was spent talking in the lead up to the project. Spend as much time as you can talking with your collaborators, about practical things like money, schedules, venues, personnel, marketing, publicity, insurance, etc. But also spend as much time, if not more, talking about methodology. How are you going to work together both in and outside of rehearsal, how will you communicate with each other, who has decision making responsibility around what elements of the work? Have some rules about how your process/room will operate (including things that need to be zero tolerance, even if they seem like they should be obvious). Schedule time to sit down and talk throughout the process, to see how everyone’s tracking and problem solve things that aren’t going well. Eat together. Have alone time if you need it. Have a review process once the season’s done to figure out what worked and what didn’t so you can adjust for the next show. Don’t let things fester.

Mohammad Hash, theatre and film producer, now living in Cairo:

Delve into diversity and create minimal sets that spell big works. Understand grant applications and go to as many arts talks as possible. Australia Council is fantastic support and always look for international opportunities. It worked for me.

Indira Carmichael, visual artist and community arts administrator and advocate:

MOUs (memorandum of understanding) are great if contracts between mates seems a bit heavy. It’s a good way of getting everyone on the same page. Sometimes you don’t realise that your motives for doing a show are different to others until it all falls apart.

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THE DRESSMAKER: A MUSICAL ADAPTATION, photo: Sarah Walker

Goldele Rayment, director and company director:

Don’t be afraid to let projects take time. There is less rush than you think. It’s less stressful and more satisfying to take a bit more time with development and forward planning. Be kind, be gentle, be generous but also learn it’s ok to say “no”. I don’t like that creatively, that’s not for me or please don’t treat me like that.

Pippa Bainbridge, venue manager and production manager:

Values. Interrogate what they are for you, and make sure they are aligned with those of your collaborators and of each project you work on. Values. Articulate them, share them, uphold them, tend to them…and you’ll never be disappointed with what is returned.

Mike Greaney, animator:

I think the thing that is really important to work out early on is set in writing the structure of ownership over the venture. Have the hard conversations at the start when you are talking about % ownerships of nothing, because once money and ego get involved down the line, those conversations become very difficult. Talk about these things with your collaborators as well, and make clear what they are trading their time for/ getting out of working with you.

Stephanie Speirs, producer, production manager and venue manager of the Fringe Hub:

When you agree to anything (a new venture, the mission/direction of your project, helping someone out, donating stuff/money/time) be explicit in what that agreement entails. If you can’t stomach writing things down yet, at the VERY LEAST make sure you’ve all said out loud what you understand by what’s been said, and clarify exactly what that means to you. Any project will possibly mean hundreds of hours of work for those involved – so be sure that everyone with a stake understands WHAT those hours of work are and WHO has agreed to do them. (Or if NO-ONE wants to do the work, then the project shouldn’t happen!)

Libby Klyse, performer, writer, manager:

Know who is the boss for each project. Someone needs to be the director and/or producer, with the ultimate decision-making and budget control.

Georgia Carter, performer:

Understand budgets and pay attention to the numbers. You need to have someone that understands it… and audiences don’t just happen. They take work and strategic planning is essential.

Ramona Barry, artist and writer:

Written agreements – I’ve seen many a friendship fall foul of business mistakes. Even if you are the very best of friends get it all in writing

Natalie Wadwell, arts administrator:

Get a shareholders/partnership agreement, friends don’t always make best business partners and skill sets should compliment not duplicate, talk about money. To add to that really talk about your personal and business values. Where do they see themselves and the biz in 1, 3 and 5 yrs time? Do it separately and then discuss. Have an exit strategy upfront and a plan of what milestones you need to hit to maintain working together.

 

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ALL THAT IS RIGHT, photo: Sarah Walker

Individually, these are great tips for professional practice. As a whole, they mean something even better: they mean that all of these artists want to see you succeed. They want to see you build partnerships and careers that are sustainable, caring, productive and healthy. It is easy to think that you have to fight your way into the industry (and it is a tough industry) but remember that people wish you well. Great artists support artists, advocate for artists, mentor artists and enjoy the successes of artists. Remember you’re not alone out there. Hold onto the relationships you have made and get ready to meet some amazing new people who are excited to see what you make next.

Wishing you all the best,

Fleur

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personal, Responses, Theatre

on waiting, loving, competing and the bachelor s17 e5

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of The Bachelor but I must have imbibed it somewhere along the way. Because every time a rose appeared on the stage of the Mechanics Institute in The Bachelor S17 E5, every time the music stated the exact magnitude of the drama, every time The Bachelor asked ‘can I steal you’ or a girl turned to the camera to call another girl ‘fake’, I recognised it. This world is simultaneously alien and deeply familiar.

It is July, 2018. I am in Australia. On the other side of the world The Bachelor is between seasons and Bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jnr. is engaged to Lauren Burnham, the runner up of Season 22. As they plan their wedding, a motley crew of contestants in Melbourne stare into the audience. They are here for love. They are here for a rose. They are here to win and they are “not about to be bypassed by some other lady making a better connection with him.”

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Watching them, this video pops into my mind: David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Dancing in the Street with all the music stripped away. The sound of breathy lip syncing and the shuffling of their feet make their once explicable actions (they are shooting a music video) ridiculous, hollow, painful; two grown men writhing, sexlessly in the night.

Katrina Cornwell and Morgan Rose’s production sits in the silence, the waiting and the weirdness of love as game show and lovers as candidates. In this version of The Bachelor, the images that burn aren’t the kisses – performed on loop like terrible gifs, two beings lip at each other, too little and too much – it is the contestants waiting in silence.

It reminds me of images of American high school dances: the girls not chosen, the rejects, sit in a row along the side of the gymnasium. But this is worse than that: Each time Sean leaves (‘can I steal you away?’), The Others are made non-people by his absence. We feel how disinterested a TV camera would be in their silent, uncomfortable wait. Without the presence of the man they are competing for, these women will be left on the cutting room floor. But in this production they are centred. The Bachelor told through the female gaze is all about the waiting, the silence and the unasked questions:

Why him? We see nothing to recommend Sean as a human being. In fact, this production makes him and everyone around him barely human. The stage is full of half-people: more role than reality.

Why her? For the duration of the show, I forget that there will in fact be a winner of this season of The Bachelor. (Catherine. It was Catherine. She sat on his lap.) There was no way in which to distinguish the competitors on that stage and no reason for him to chose one over the other.

It reminded me of a brief stint on OkCupid: each time I went home I would think to myself, “yes.. I could see him again.. Or, never again.”

37095150_10155153967871362_2300415059609780224_o“Habitualisation devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. “ Viktor Shklovski

After 22 seasons, The Bachelor is part of our DNA. That’s why I recognised the music, the straight-to-cameras, the yearning. Our habitualisation to its tropes has made it seem like a reasonable form of entertainment and made us accept that, when someone says ‘this is the man/woman you’ll be competing for’, we’ll be ready: we will not be bypassed by some other lady/man/lovesick human building a better connection than us. This production makes us all David Bowies and Mick Jaggers dancing in silence.

Last night, frying zucchinis, I had a moment of shock. Shock that there was a man cooking beside me and that, of all the people in the world we could have cooked zucchini with, we had chosen each other.

Later. We went to bed and read our books beside each other. Later – this morning – I wrote these words when I was meant to be drawing a naked woman but my astonishment at love outweighed my desire to get my money’s worth from my Sunday life drawing class.

I think of Sean and Catherine. What a power imbalance they started their relationship with! Six months of being told ‘I could chose someone else.’ Could you ever cook zucchinis with the man who put you through that? What is a relationship like when the competition has been so obvious? When you have been lined up again and again with a group of ever-diminishing women, knowing that this man may be about to send you away from him, can you read a book next to him in bed?

She is in this relationship because she auditioned, fought hard and won. He is in this relationship because he was the one she fought for. So maybe that’s the difference: in the real world you both audition. You both fight hard and maybe, if everything lines up you both win.

And I think of the moments we’ve all been left on the cutting room floor. I mean, at least Lindsey, Ashlee, Desiree, Lesley, Tierra, Daniella, Selma, Robin and Jackie got to milk a goat, see Glacier National Park and drink champagne along the way. At least they got to look in the camera and say ‘I’m angry’, ‘I’m shocked’, ‘that bitch’, ‘This hurts so bad’. In life we lose in silence.

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All photos by Sarah Walker

I am friends with Katrina Cornwell and Morgan Rose but don’t worry: I would have written self-indulgently about cooking zucchini and competitive love even if I had never met them. 

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climate change, My own plays, Politics, Theatre, world events

on fiction and climate change

This is something I wrote for the symposium Narratives of Climate Change at Newcastle University, July 2018. It is part of a longer speech using my new play Whale as a way to talk about the role of theatre in climate change and the responsibility of the playwright. I thought this bit was nice and stand alone. Also I had to trim it a fair bit for Newcastle so wanted to share this full thought. Enjoy.

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I want to talk about the role of fiction in narratives of climate change. It may be a bit of a dirty word here, I’m not sure but the word ‘narratives’ already suggests both a shaping of story and a multiplicity of ways in which we could shape it. Shaping does not mean fictionalising but it means controlling. It means choosing your weapons. And my weapon of choice is fiction. So this is a question I’ve had to ask myself: when the facts are so urgent, is there room for fiction?

I’ve gotta admit: I’m really not much of a researcher when it comes to my plays. I used to be. I once filled two journals with research on objectum sexuality before deciding that no one needed that play. These days my plays usually start from fluff like ‘memories’ and ‘feelings’ and ‘images’.

I wrote a play called Terrestrial for State Theatre Company of South Australia. The poor woman putting together the education pack to accompany the work asked me for any research I had used and I told her I mostly just googled how to spell words.

Which isn’t totally true. I also stalked mining towns on google satellite view. I’d start zoomed right in on them – Leigh Creek, Roxby Downs – then zoom out and out until the desert around them looked like mars and the mines were a deep blue gash on the surface of the planet. ‘It looks like a wound,’ I thought. And I’d write.

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With Whale I was offered a scientific adviser and I said ‘sure I’d love to chat but you realise the islands are largely made up and… have you read the ending?’

And to clarify: when I say ‘fiction’ I am talking about a play that reveals just how fictional it is. The rules of this world leave no one in doubt. I am not trying to pass fiction off as fact. That stops the instant the Host explains the rules: ‘we’ll hold a vote and whichever island loses will be sucked into the ocean instantly, no time for evacuation’.

But the Host also tells you ‘none of this is real’ whilst denying one of the realest facts of this century: ‘The oceans aren’t really rising and no communities will vanish into the water’. And she tells us this again and again – Judas to Jesus in the pre-dawn light – these denials make fact of our fictions. Make that encroaching whale an amalgamation of blubber and fantasy.

I want to tell you about a play called Stoning Mary by English-Afro-Caribbean playwright, Debbie Tucker Green. In it, a couple – both desperately ill with AIDs – fight over the one prescription they have for AIDs medication before their argument is cut short by a child soldier who kills them with a machete. He is, in turn, killed by the couple’s daughter – Mary – who then is sentenced to death by stoning.

At the front of this play Debbie has slipped an instruction: this play is to be performed by an all white cast, in the accent of wherever it is performed.

Older sister: 12

12 people signed.

Put their pen to your petition. 12.

Younger sister: 12’s after 10, right?

Older sister: After 11

Younger sister: Which is after 10, right?

How many did I need?

Older sister: 6000.

S’after a lotta tens Mary.

In a parallel universe, there exists a non-fiction version of this play and a Debbie Tucker Green who threw herself into research and characters each modelled on a real person. This play is almost certainly performed by a cast of people from African nations. But this play says something different to the play she wrote. It says ‘this is happening in Rwanda and tonight we are going to sit in that fact.’

What Stoning Mary says is something quite different.

Debbie wants the visibility that comes with whiteness. And she wants to interrogate it. 90% of HIV positive people live in developing countries. Who these stories happen to changes the narrative. And it can be the difference between being heard and not being heard.

“I’m a black woman,” she says in the Guardian, March 2005. “I write black characters. That is part of my landscape. But with Stoning Mary I was interested in questioning what we don’t see and hear. The stories of people who would be in the headlines every day if what was happening to them was happening to white people.”

There is an alternate reality version of Whale too. One in which I have been to each real island, consulted, maybe asked a representative from each to come up on stage and have a bunch of – largely white – audience members vote whether or not they survive. That play is gripping, and potentially pretty traumatic for all concerned.

So what do I lose in this fact-based Whale?

I make the problem far away. Suddenly there are kilometres involved and maybe what fiction can do in this moment is remove those kilometres. Make these global neighbours your actual neighbours. I make it a problem that exists and potentially is solved in your suburb.

Here’s another thing: Islander leaders have already come here and pleaded for the right of their island to stay above the water. And the response was so quiet. I think it is our turn to plead on their behalf.

Cyclone Pam Batters South Pacific Islands

Kiribati, Getty Images, 

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mental health, Politics, Sex, Theatre, Uncategorized, writing

A moratorium on the killing of actresses

Okay. What if, for one year, no actress was killed or raped?

I’ve been thinking this for a while. For the last two years I’ve been looking around, often on opening nights, often with wine in my hand, and wondering ‘If I were to ask her right now how many times she’s been killed on stage, what would her answer be?’ Often. I forget. The first time I was 18. Strangled. Stabbed. Shot. Drowned.

Two years ago, I decided to stop writing her death and violation. I didn’t suggest that others do this because there are plenty of valid reasons to depict these horrors on our stages. These stories are a massive and hideous part of our society and isn’t it the role of art to examine darkness and demand change?

Well… yes.

But maybe my awareness is already raised. Maybe I’m reading enough accounts of real assault and violation happening off our stages and on them. I am bearing witness. Maybe paying money to see that actress have her knickers pulled down or that one pulled by her hair (carefully choreographed of course) feels gratuitous when a man really could assault actresses in front of an audience of 2000 on a Melbourne stage in 2014.

Actors are gutsy people. And most know how to look after themselves in the wake of dramatised violence. I have nothing but respect for the women who can do this and stay sane. I couldn’t. So I’m not saying this because they need my protection, by any means. But maybe the support would be appreciated.

Because ours is not the only industry where violence against women happens. But for better or for worse in the last 12 months female actors have been on the front line. They have been incredible and we have all benefitted from their courage and determination. And some people have praised them. Others have called their courage a desperate attempt to make money, grab fame, jump on bandwagons.

Now I know my ban won’t happen. Theatres have programmed their seasons and you’ve signed your contracts. Maybe you’ve even pre-booked. But for a second just imagine a world where we said to female actors ‘thanks. I think you’ve done enough. We won’t ask you to not only be the loudest voices, not only to put your jobs on the line and risk your professional relationship but also to physically represent the violence of our society nightly. How about we do this other play. These other twenty plays in which you get to survive and thrive. Take a break. We’ve got this.’

It won’t happen. And fuck, imagine how much of the canon would disappear instantly if it did. But I like imaging a world where it might.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Fragmentary Response, history, Theatre

on years passing, cleansed and what i brought to sarah kane

Dear Birds,

I’m sorry I haven’t written in so long. Part of the reason is that any entry takes me a whole day, which is kind of a ridiculous use of my time. So today I have set a timer. I have exactly forty-five to write a first draft. This will be written fast and perhaps stupid. We’ll see.

Ready, steady… Go!

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Photo courtesy of the National Theatre, Copyright: Birgit Kahle

CLEANSED by Sarah Kane, directed by Katie Mitchell. Preview show at the National Theatre, London.

I think that my usual question – ‘what did I walk into this with?’ – is particularly interesting when asked of Sarah Kane.

I entered the theatre with this:

Sarah Kane’s name feels like shorthand for two key things in theatre.

1: For the modern. So cutting edge that it bleeds. Sharp, visceral, of this moment.

2: If you don’t see the genius of it, you are on the wrong side of history. You are the old, the squeamish, the weak, the establishment and you will eat your words some day.

With this in mind, know how surprised I was to have my friend turn to me at the end and say ‘it felt sort of old’. And I realised, I sort of agreed.

I say ‘sort of’ because of another thing that I brought into the theatre: a night spent in Aradale Mental Asylum, a massive, empty building that had not housed patients for more than ten years by the time I camped out with a sleeping bag, friends, my camera and more lenses than we would ever need. The instant I saw the set, I was reminded of that night and that space. The colour of the walls, rampant trees pressing against the window, the peeling paint, the damp floors, all of it called mind that building that was, above all other things, abandoned. This meant I viewed the entire work as a sort of echo. The power suits, the dated drug of choice (heroin), and the hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it-but-not-quite-of-this-moment-ness of it all made sense to me because unconsciously my night in Aradale had turned the figures before me into the echoes of sadness and madness past.

But I also understood what he meant. And I felt a strange guilt within me that I was not reacting to the work as I believed I was meant to: as something that spoke to me at a pitch too high for the old establishment types to hear.

I think that works like Kane’s play out in the bodies of the audience as much as in the theatre: the asking why we are so repelled or not repelled enough, asking what it would take to shock us, noting the moment when twelve people at various places in the theatre decided simultaneously to leave, asking why I did not leave then and what it would take for me to ever do so.

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Cleansed at the Royal Court, 1998, photo credit not provided

The work is immensely rhythmic – even acts of sex all seemed to last exactly the same amount of time – and acts of violence followed very specific patterns: guards enter, they bring in one prisoner then the other, there is a squeaking, the doctor rings an alarm, a guard walks to a corner, draws a pistol and shoots a rat, the guard brings back the dead rat and places it between the prisoners, a short exchange of dialogue, words like bullets, my shoulders tense, my face screws up and a prisoner’s fingers or toes or tongue are removed, the alarm is rung and the prisoners are taken away. It becomes a bit like a horrible cuckoo clock, on the hour popping out to sing its song and lop off toes. It is strange to view such extreme violence as predictable but Kane’s writing works in circles and we see the violence as an uninterruptable pattern.

Maybe I am on the wrong side of history. Maybe in five years I will return to this play as others have and I will see the urgency of it all. I’ll say, “Yes. Yes. This. Thank you. Yes.” Or maybe in five years it will feel five years older – five years further away from its moment of newness and importance. I wonder if the name ‘Kane’ will still conjure for young theatre makers the sense that this is meant to be a work for them and, if they don’t see how it speaks to this moment in time, that they have failed some test. Or maybe the name ‘Sarah Kane’ will mean a different thing to them. Maybe they will enter the theatre with ‘this was an important moment in theatre history’ rather than my (perhaps dated) baggage: this is the New and if I don’t think so I am the Wrong. Which is an unfair thing to attach to both a fourteen-year-old play and to myself.

I must also mention one other thing before my timer runs out: I saw this on a preview. I am sorry to be writing about a preview performance but I like to think my writing is so far from a review and so self-absorbed that I have not committed too large a sin. But I will say that I spent a fair bit of the play being condescending about the woman sitting two seats away from me, typing away on her laptop. I did my “a good reviewer never takes notes!” thing. My “how can you review if you are not allowing yourself to be part of the experience of the theatre?” thing. My “AND it is preview” thing. Naturally, at the end, when I walked past her, I realised that the woman was Katie Mitchell. I did not recognise her face (because I barely recognise my own face) but I certainly recognised her expression: the expression of a director at preview, and the way that she searched my face and that of others who passed for signs of how the work had played out in our bodies and minds. Well, Katie, it did strange things in there. It made me grope for words and question my every grimace and lack of grimace. It made me feel both too old and too young. It left me uncertain, which is the right way to leave the theatre.

Time is up.

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