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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Uncategorized

acts of violence, part 3: guest blogger bridget mackey in conversation with theatre-makers about violence.

Part 3: Conversation with Rachel Perks

Dear School for Birds Readers, it has taken me far longer than I would have liked to get this conversation with playwright Rachel Perks out into the world, please forgive me. Rachel Perks is a kick-arse feminist and all round talented human. I met up with Rachel back in March to talk about her play Angry Sexx for which she received the 2014 Fringe Discovery Award.

I began the interview by asking Rachel about her use of violence in Angry Sexx.

Rachel:  I guess I have a difficult relationship to violence. I consider myself to be a pacifist and I don’t advocate any form of violence in the real world. So, the fact that I write violent characters is definitely problematic for me. However, I feel like physical violence perpetrated by women is so unusual and controversial that it has such potency as an idea. Through the characters ‘Cathy’ and ‘Cybelle’ in Angry Sexx I was exploring the radical idea that in order to have a world of equality we would need to scrap everything and start again. Angry Sexx is this pretty sad story about characters who fight against their perpetrators in the same way they were oppressed. I get terribly nihilistic sometimes and I look around and I think there’s no way to change the system from the outside. You have to work within the system and use the ways that they are already set up.

Bridget: I think theatre is powerful because it offers a space where we can, at least on the world of the stage, shift dominant power structures.

Rachel:  Yeah, I mean, it’s a very subversive medium. I read recently On Rage by Germain Greer, which I found deeply problematic for a lot of racial reasons, but at the beginning of the book she talks about how by societal definition ‘rage’ is masculine and that our world is set up to perpetuate this idea from a legal standpoint – that men have inner rage and that women, I’m generalising, that women will provoke that rage and therefore, should have known better. And the Provocation Defence, I believe, no longer exists in a lot of societies. The point being that there is no such defence of women. Even on a societal, not just a legal level, rage is seen as unnatural for woman. Whereas I think – I am a woman and I am engraged regularly.

Bridget: But it’s like, if women are enraged it’s perceived as hysteria or psychosis.

Rachel: I’ve been reading this article about medication for mental health issues and having lots of discussions about that. And statistically women are more likely to be medicated for mental illness than men are. I don’t know if that’s because women are more open to being treated. It’s difficult to judge statistically those kinds of things. But yeah, it’s like that kind of underlying misogynistic idea that emotions are unacceptable and women have a lot of emotions. There are a lot of ideas coming into this. Someone raised this really interesting idea about self-harm with me. Statistically women are more likely to self-harm than men are. This person suggested that male self-harm is more about going out and finding someone to hit you – like punching a wall, this is male self-harm, this kind of expressive rage. Whereas female self-harm is internalised and inflicted on the self in a much more focused way.

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Ollie Coleman in Angry Sexx. Photograph by Sarah Walker.

Bridget:  There’s a distressing scene in Angry Sexx, where the character ‘The Wife’ talks to herself in the mirror while she’s self-inducing vomiting. I found this a really violent scene. It seems to me like ‘The Wife’ is what women become if they don’t have another outlet for their rage. Rage seems to be a toxic thing. And you don’t get rid of violence by perpetuating it. It seems people get addicted to violence so it happens in cycles.

Rachel: Especially if you are violent in response to the world or to a situation or a system, you’re going to continue to have those feelings. Violence might save the immediate emotion but it won’t change the problem. So you’ll continue to feel that anger and injustice in relation to the problem. I guess the play is semi-autobiographical, which is a dangerous thing to say considering the content. And at the time I was writing Angry Sexx I was running on this path where there were reports of women being attacked and molested. And these were repeated attacks over a series of months and writing this play was my act of violence. I will yell at people on the street if people yell at me. I know that must be really dangerous and stupid but I refuse to be limited in my expression in that way. And I think if more women did it we would have a different world. I just scream back at people. And actually, that act is so impotent and all of the actions that I could have are impotent, and so this play was my act of violence. In that I feel like an actual physical act of violence, like I said, doesn’t actually change the world or satiate the feeling. Theatre is often similarly impotent.  But it is my attempt to actually change something through expression.

Bridget: I think we’re constantly being told stories of female passivity.

Rachel:  I read this article about how a strong Female Hero character has to exhibit almost borderline sociopathic qualities in order to be ‘believable’ in a position of authority.  If a male character was like that you’d be like ‘that person is crazy.’ Then there’s the Female Character who is unnecessarily sexualised, where you’re thinking um… why is she not wearing anything? And then the one that I think is the most insidious is the Male Saviour Complex. Which is that narratively, a woman will be strong for a period of time and as reward for her strength she is given a man who will look after her so she no longer has to carry the burden of individuality. It’s every rom-com happy ending. It’s every fairy-tale. I think that it is in most stories we consider good stories. The only thing I’ve seen where I was struck by the diversion of that storyline was in Boyhood.

Bridget: I haven’t seen it.

Rachel: – I won’t spoil it.

Bridget: Do you think violence has a place on stage generally?

Rachel: I think literal representation of violence on stage is often awful, because it’s so hard to do well in any convincing manner. I, like you, really struggle with violence perpetuated against women in film.

Bridget:  There’s so much of it.

Rachel: There’s so much of it. It’s fetished, it’s glorified, it’s disgusting. It’s violence porn most of the time. I’ve really struggled with it recently, to the point where I’m not interested in consuming any of it. Because I feel it’s so often there without any discussion. If you have to put it there do it because you want to have a discussion, not because you want to shock people. I recently watched The Fall, with Gillian Anderson. I initially struggled because it’s the oldest crime story in the book, it’s a male serial killer, sexually assaulting and killing women, but the way that it’s structured and discussed is so beautiful. This is a bit of a spoiler but there’s this bit where Gillian Anderson, the head cop, is talking to a serial killer. He is not portrayed as this glorified, sociopathic, white male ego, where we’re all meant to have a crush on him, while being disgusted while he violently kills women. Which is the way that most of this stuff is done, either that or it perpetuates the monster complex, the idea that he’s somehow outside of society, instead of within society. Gillian Anderson’s character has this speech where she says to the serial killer ‘what you are doing is nothing more than age old misogyny. It is hatred against women and it is something that men have been performing since the dawn of time, and it’s disgusting.’ And I’m like fuck yes! No one has this discussion on screen. I guess, unless you’re going to investigate on a realistic level, why society continues to perpetuate and glorify violence against women, then don’t talk about it all.

Bridget: I’ll definitely watch it!

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Gillian Anderson in The Fall. 

Rachel: I struggle with violent stories being shown on stage if they’re shown in a way that isn’t trying to do something with that. But I write political theatre and I’m interested in political theatre. I’m disinterested in anything that uses anything in a way that isn’t trying to make a comment on the world, so that’s my prerogative.  Otherwise I don’t see the point of doing it, I really don’t. I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to put on a play, that isn’t making strong commentary. It takes so much time, it costs so much money and so many favours, and so many friendships are tested in the processes. Why would you do it unless you really really really really wanted to change the world? As stupidly aspirational as that is.

Bridget:  Have you ever seen theatre which has motivated you to change the world? Or do you think, like we’re saying, in just presenting narratives that shift the power dynamic – well, for me anyway, that’s the way that theatre is powerful and political.

Rachel: I think I have. I think I’ve seen works that do it in more of a nebulous fashion, where they are more like a meditation on an idea, like Nicola Gunn’s Green Screen. I walked out of that and I felt like it was worth continuing to care, because I felt allied with someone else who was so honestly caring. I’d love to be able to make work like that, work that meditates rather than screams. And I think that’s just about continuing to make work. I remember someone telling me that you’ll only ever have one idea and you just keep making more and more sophisticated versions of that idea. Angry Sexx was my first play, the first play I ever put on and that was kind of the first way of talking about this stuff, and I’ll just keep making the play. And eventually it will become more sophisticated and more and more capable of changing people, where people will be less kind of affronted or put off side.

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Green Screen by Nicola Gunn. Photograph by Pier Carthew.

Bridget: Were people put off side by Angry Sexx?

Rachel: I guess the work was a lot about me having an opportunity to say stuff because I just couldn’t contain it. I had a lot of strangers writing to me, people who tracked me down and found me on Facebook, people saying that they felt in some small way changed by it. That they felt more aware, or a lot of women saying stuff like that had happened to them and it didn’t even cross there mind that it was something that they could protest, which was good and valuable and incredibly humbling. It’s a very scary feeling that you might have given someone an idea because it’s very hard to believe that you’re actually right. I felt really right that I was putting ideas out there but I started feeling really scared that maybe I was lying to everyone. Look, it went better in every single way that I could have possibly expected. And I felt like it made a tiny little ripple. So that was good.

Since this conversation Rachel has co-written the critically acclaimed We Get It with Elbow Room, and along with collaborator Bridget Balodis, has been selected as an artist for Next Wave 2016. You can see her skills in action at 45 Downstairs where she has been working as a dramaturg on Vicky Jones’ The One as part of the upcoming Poppy Seed Festival.

Afterword: I am incredibly grateful to Rachel Perks, Chi Vu and Daniel Lammin for speaking to me about their opinions on violence in theatre. Their insights have stayed with me throughout the year as I’ve watched, performed and written for the theatre. An important point that was brought up by all three writers was that theatre-makers must be able to justify the use of violence in their work, otherwise it’s just gratuitous. As to my own enjoyment of violence on stage, I think I’m still working that one out. Thanks Fleur for having me as a guest blogger on School For Birds. 

 

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My own plays, personal, The Red Book Series, Theatre, thoughts, Uncategorized

on learning, listening and leaving the dead behind

So I’ve been doing this since 2009. When a journal is finished, I go through and take moments from it – things I’m working on or notes from a class or scribbles in the margin. It helps me remember where I’ve been and what meant something to me as the years fly by. I am currently about five journals behind. This has been a deliberate choice. You see, the last one I collated was from December 2012. It was a document of deaths, both fictional as I wrote Unicorn and real as I sat beside my beloved Grandmother and watched her die. So I’ve been holding off.

No one in history has ever been more dead than my grandmother. I listened to the changing textures of her breath. I studied the minutiae of her final moments. I dressed her for her funeral. My hands were on her and she felt like ice. She is the most dead being to have ever existed for me. And yet… and yet I still feel that I could jump on the Traralgon train and, in an hour, be sitting at her kitchen table, chatting with her and cutting her finger nails.

I try not to think about how much time has passed but it has been months and months and journal after journal has been filled and it still hurts such a lot that she isn’t here.

Yesterday, I decided to acknowledge that time and to collate the next journal. I’m glad I did. As painful as it felt to start with, it did make me remember what a beautiful, beautiful year it has been and how many amazing artists I have around me. This picks up just a month after Granny died, January 23rd and finishes March 27th. It contains the words of Raimondo Cortese, Robert Reid, Paul Cox, Patricia Cornelius, Stephen Cleary, Richard Murphet, Sarah Cane and a whole lot of me working things out. Thank you to all these incredible artists. Enjoy.

The Red Book Series, Part Six

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Unicorn, Oxford, England 27th January 2013:

KIT                    This – this moment right now – is the furthest I have ever been from you. Silence. Now this is.

A note to myself, Oxford, England 23rd January 2013 (I was hanging out with a lot of neuro-scientists)

There is nothing intangible left about humanity. Even memory is now just a cluster of proteins. Nothing more romantic or infinite than that. We are changing. I am not the same person I was five years ago. Not a cell of that person remains.

Unicorn, Oxford, England 25th January 2013

ALBA               I’m going, Kit. I am going tonight and it’s not a touristy, greyhound round trip there and back again. I am going There and I’m staying There.

KIT                  Where’s There?

ALBA               I don’t give a damn. Somewhere near the seas. I think I’d like that. I’ve never seen the sea before.  A beat.

KIT                  I saw it once.

ALBA               I know.

KIT                  The week dad –

ALBA               I know.

KIT                  I know you know!  A beat It was beautiful, Alba. It was totally – We stopped and mum brought us ice-creams and we ate them just staring at it. Then we got back in the car and we kept driving and the ocean…. It kept pace with us. Like it was just there – just filling the left window of the car hour after hour until it wasn’t special anymore and all it was big. And blue. And it made me feel very small. And pink. And a long, long way from home.

Considering Monet, Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris 1st February 2013

Individually, no brush stroke is genius. Just as no single words written by Shakespeare is truly profound. If you stand close to the painting, each individual brushstroke is apparent: the thickness of the paint, the separate hairs, the flick of the hand. It is a bit like reading a play that was written to be lived aloud: you see the bones – the structure – of the thing and each individual syllable that went into its creation. Then you step back. You step back or you read it aloud and the riot of paint, the mechanics of the art, becomes one picture. One immense image.

Notes for yours the face, Paris, France, 5th February 2013:

It is about temporary things – moments, beauty, passion – all of which will be outlasted by the image they create. It is about being alone even when you are holding someone’s hand in a city of millions.

Notes from class, Raimondo Cortese, 5th March 2013 (If the phrase is in quotation marks, it means I got the exact phrasing and am quoting Raimondo Cortese. Everything else is paraphrased or a tangent my brain took.)

–       “Suspension of disbelief is just an excuse for ‘stuff doesn’t work.’”

–       Beckett is a poet of words but today we must be poets of actions. We and our forebears have different relationships with what is pertinent to now.

–       “If you want to write, you must be abnormal. Find your aberration. It’s weird. It is very, very odd.”

Notes from dramaturgy class, Robert Reid, 6th March, 2013:

–       “Dramaturgy is the art of being professionally interested in stuff.”

My adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five, 8th March 2013:

A beginning. There is no part for John Wayne in this story. No. No John Wayne or Frank Sinatra. No tans. No flashing teeth. Barely any words even. A long silence. I mean, what’s there to say after a massacre? Another silence. Everybody is supposed to be dead. Everything is supposed to be very quiet. And it always is. Except for the birds. Silence.  The actors consider the silence. One shrugs. So it goes.

Notes from a lecture by Paul Cox, 7th March 2013

–       This is the danger of researching today: you used to research by looking at the yellow pages, dialling a number and speaking to a Society. Today, the Internet can take you to the other side of the world without human interaction. Have we lost the ability to concentrate on a face? To make a connection? To ask ‘who is that person’? This is not progress. This is the dark ages.

–       “You must caress the eyeballs. The eyeballs don’t matter any more… Cinema is an abstract medium. ‘That’s entertainment’ is such a damaging slogan.”

–       “We are all travelling to die. But we are also travelling to live.”

Notes from class, Richard Murphet, 18th March 2013

–       Theatre’s strength as an art form is not dialogue so much as image… it is about creating memorable moments and interactions between people. The story is only eh vehicle for this… the Ancient Greeks told the same story again and again. The newness of the story isn’t important. The depth is what matters.

–       Sarah Cane: “I keep coming back to the theatre in the hope that someone in a darkened room will burn an image into my mind.”

–       Peter Hatton: “The image is a possibility rendered present. Images are at best a clarification, not only of what is there but what is more than there.”

–       “Stories walk, like animals or men”. There are gaps between elements. The story is the stride over something not said… choosing deliberately one word or another, knowing that the gap between them is unique.

–       Every word we ever say has a history stretching out behind and in front of it.

Notes from a film class by Stephen Cleary, 19th March 2013

–       Narrative point of view: how you manipulate the audience into seeing the story from a particular perspective. A story is just that. It is how the writer conveys the story, when they reveal what, when they let the audience know more or less or as much as the characters. Groups of characters work because through them we experience their different points of view. Sherlock is far ahead of us intellectually but emotionally behind while Watson is intellectually behind but emotionally ahead. Hermione is ahead intellectually, Ron, ahead emotionally.

–       The shower scene in Psycho: The long shot on her eyes to show that yes, the star of the film, Lee, really is dead. A new protagonist is needed and all we have is this strange boy. He takes the money, which has been the entire plot up to this point, and throws it away along with our former protagonist. Hitchcock is adept at this fast transition that, by the time the car gets stuck in the swamp, we are on the strange boy’s side. We want the car and the evidence gone.

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Fragmentary texts, 20th March 2013

Two women.

– It doesn’t feel like me talking. It’s not me talking.

– Your mouth is moving.

– So it is. Touch it. My mouth.

– I… can feel your teeth through your lips.

– Teeth are just bone. Put your fingers in.

– Sometimes mine hurt. My teeth hurt. Smiling all day.  Do they have (what you call them?) pain thingies? Your teeth are wet. Your mouth is wet. Your tongue. … Ouch.

A love letter in the form of a multiple choice questionnaire.

Question 1:

What colour are my eyes?

  1. Blue as the ocean. Blue as the sky.
  2. Green as a forest. As a leaf. As a leaf in a forest.
  3. Black as sin. As lust. As wanting.
  4. I don’t give a fuck. They are yours. They are yours and that’s all that fucking matters. Be blue, be green, be black, be blind but let me gaze into them.  Let me study their depths. Let me –

Two women.

– I don’t want to use words. I want to use some other… some old, old long dead form of…

– You’re scaring me.

– Am I? I’m sorry. I am. Have you ever heard a horse scream? A pig? A goat? The most ageless sound. Like – it’s like –

I can’t do it. Sorry.

 

Interview with Patricia Cornelius in PWA magazine, undated

If I wasn’t a writer I’d be a farmer. I’d wear gumboots and dungarees. My hair would be worn in a no nonsense basin cut and my gender would be indefinable. Actually I’d look like a bloke. My life would be a constant drama – a race to harvest before the rains, up to my elbows in a pregnant sheep’s twat, beating wet bags against encroaching fires. My hands would be thrown up in despair, cursing God. My hands would be thrown up in the air, dancing joyously at the birth of a dozen piglets. I would be dog tired at the end of the day and I’d sit back and smoke, yes, smoke a big fat cigarette and think ‘I really should get out and go to the theatre one day.’

Extract from a play I started writing and then abandoned, The Architects of Warsaw, 25th March 2013

Three architects are drafting plans for the buildings of their city as bombs fall around them.

–       I’ve never noticed the gutters on the post office before. Shame to spot them now as it burns. Beautiful craftsmanship. A nice feature.

–       My chest hurts.

–       Deep breathes. Embrace plain. That’s what your generation does. One day you will draw a square – an empty cube – and hold it up for all to see. A tribute to your faith in humans to inhabit any space. To fill even the starkest room with their humanity and make it breathe. But remember the gutters. You won’t want to but try. Think of how the tiniest feature will illuminate your restraint. Otherwise it will just be a square. Four brick walls. How’s the chest?

 

An exercise, Isolation is, 27th March 2013

Like the sensation of hollowness in the centre of your chest, like there is a cavity inside your ribs and your lungs and your heart and your organs are not large enough to fill it.

Like not quite knowing how to move your arms. Like looking down at your hands and thinking them alien. Like holding another person’s hand in a crowded city and feeling a chasm open up between you. ‘There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I can’t help but fall.’ Like sitting on a tiny desert island – one cartoonish palm tree – and watching the ships sail past and having nothing to flag them down with. Like cooking for one. Like not bothering to eat it. Like tumbleweed. Like not getting the joke. Like the Iron Curtain. Like distance. Like the Australian landscape. Like naming a town Nhill. Or Wail. And placing it in the middle of flat nothing. Like masturbating without a climax.

Like taking valium. Like procrastination. Like not screaming. Like deliberately not screaming. Like trying to merge on a freeway. Like no one letting you in. Like blindness.  Like deafness. Like puberty. Like forgetting how to read. Forgetting a face. Like reaching. Like striving. Like grasping. Like failing.

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Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre, thoughts, Uncategorized

on loving to love and hating to hate

Programming notes:

1. I had absolutely no idea what pictures to pair with this so Sarah Walker supplied these production shots of MKA’s The Unspoken Word Is Joe (Zoe Dawson, directed by Declan Green, the actor is Nikki Shiels). I think they work almost too well. 

2. I feel that posting this will open me up to criticism because, now that you know what I am aiming to do, you’ll be able to tell when I fail. I apologise in advance. As I acknowledge in my post, good criticism is bloody hard work and we all learn as we go. 

Here we are now, entertain us. 

It is all too easy to sit in the theatre exuding an aura of dissatisfaction and demanding to be entertained. It is all too easy to turn to your friends and mutter ‘this had better be good’ or ‘they’d better earn that $15’ or ‘$70’. It is easy to carry the panic of finding a car park into the space with you. Easy to ask ‘who the hell makes theatre in Yarraville anyway?’ We’ve all done it. I used to be particularly guilty of this with long shows. I love 50 minute theatre – concise, breathless storytelling – and I have in the past sat down with resentment and a silent challenge to the creators that they had better justify every one of their 240 minutes. The excitement when a company wins you over is delicious but it has been years since I’ve entered a theatre in the ‘entertain me’ mind set.

It goes without saying that I am passionate about theatre but a few years ago I decided to change how I entered a space*. I decided to be the most excited person in the room. Today, I am Pavlov’s dog: my ticket is taken, I find my seat and my heart rate goes through the roof. Honestly, I am pretty much bouncing in my seat by the time the lights go down. It never ceases to thrill me that someone is about to tell me a story. I try to view every show whilst asking ‘what are these artists doing that I could not do myself? What ideas are they thinking that I have never thought before?’ Be it student theatre or main stage, I try to come seeking.

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I know how naïve and pretentious this sounds and I know that many theatre makers will be reading this and thinking ‘give it another decade, sweetie’ and that’s fine. But I really hope it lasts. I love loving theatre. I acknowledge that when you demand to be entertained, sometimes you will be entertained and similarly, when you go in ready to learn, sometimes you are punched in the face. But it means a lot to me that I enter ready to love. Even when I have heard nothing but terrible reports of a show, I walk in hoping that I will be the person it wins over. Alison Croggon wrote in Theatre Notes that when someone creates art, she can “offer in exchange the gift of (her) attention” and later her intellectual response. I think that is beautiful.

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But I say all this only as a preamble to tell you what it is like when a play doesn’t work for me. A few months back I was explaining to a friend why I didn’t like a particular show and I found myself becoming very distressed because I couldn’t intellectually grasp the show as a whole. I want to be a good dramaturge and to be able to articulate what is and isn’t working (for me) in every project. When there is nothing that redeems the show for me, I self-flagellate like crazy. Good criticism is hard to give, particularly if you are an artist yourself. What you should not do is talk about the play you would have written: ‘I mean it would have been great if they had focused on this sub-plot, scratched this character and set it in a convent.’ That isn’t the play they have made. You must work with what you’ve been given and it is bloody hard. Chris Mead says that playwrights often make terrible script assessors because they can’t help but re-write the play. I hear this in my head every time I sit down to do an assessment or write a dramaturgical analysis.

How to give and receive criticism are two of the toughest things to learn in art. Good criticism should make an artist want to race back to their desks and keep writing. It should start a conversation rather than end it. I want to be good enough that my response is never as unhelpful as ‘change everything’ but sometimes I do believe that a writer must step away from the body of their play, grieve a little and start something new. Perhaps that just means I am the wrong person to write about or dissect that particular project. Perhaps in three years I will look back on what I perceived as an unsolvable mess in 2013 and say ‘oh easy! They were almost there and only needed to focus in on…’ and my conscience will be cleared. Perhaps I just take it all too personally and need to let some plays crumple without seeing it as my personal failing that a project I had nothing to do with didn’t engage me. For the moment I will simply keep silent on such plays because I am not the right person to talk about them. I am not here to give verdicts. I want my responses to always be of use to the artists. If I think it will be useless to hear what I have to say I won’t post it**.

I want to leave you with a few more beautiful thoughts from Chris Mead on dramaturgy. (Perhaps paraphrased a little because my pen couldn’t keep up.) “(Some artists) fear that dramaturgy is an academic endeavor rather than an active creative process. It is both a technique and technical. It is the connective tissue of the play. A constellation of practices. It makes potential energy kinetic… it is the process of being undecided because art exists in uncertainty. It is the process that reflects on the production from the production. A memory of possibilities. At worst it is meddling. At best, inspiring; nurturing” (Chris Mead, 2013).

*Note: If you see me before a show, I often look downright terrified because I’m an introvert and, about sixty percent of the time, I’m just trying to remember to do basic things like smile at people or remember their faces. Once I get into a theatre, I lose my shit.

**Note: this is specifically about what I post here. Reviewing for publications is a different act but, naturally, I still try to do it with love and consideration.

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Uncategorized

on booze, racism and being fucked in an alley

Melbourne Fringe Part The Second: MKA’s Side Effect. Please note: these are not reviews. They are responses to work. However, the artists may use these words however they please. Know that I am always up for a discussion and I thank you all for creating your work.

I was THERE for the first half of Side Effect. Capital letters THERE. Side Effect is part of MKA’s contingent of shows at this year’s Melbourne Fringe and, true to their mission they are continuing to produce an excellent array of challenging work by emerging writers from across Australia. Side Effect was the darling of Anywhere Theatre Festival in Brisbane and, in keeping with the tradition of the festival it was created for, performs in Melbourne in an alley at the back of the Fringe Club. Side Effect offers glimpses of life from sequined, cum-stained, rough, raw Fortitude Valley. It reeks of rum, sex, vomit and unwashed socks. It is glamour and sadness and regret and lust and, at times, is totally offensive.

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I’m not talking the good kind of offensive. In the third act I found myself composing my face into a mask of blankness and just ‘enduring’. It lacked the energy and drive to pull off its extreme racism and ended up feeling like crassness for crassness sake. They hit their peak too soon and the reveal of Miranda’s indiscretion was passé compared to Olivia charging men $5 to finger the Japanese exchange student, Jui An. I know I am basically a nana stuck in a twenty-six year old body but I believe you have to work much harder to justify such shock and awe language. It did not feel earned. The cast intoning the stage directions also felt unnecessary, like a device instituted so that the actor didn’t have to physically throw her mobile phone across the alley.

But I don’t want to dwell on it because, as I said, I was THERE for the first half. The short plays by Maxine Mellor and Eloise Maree were exquisite. In the tradition of Keene and Cornelius, they have not tried to beautify or smooth out the ugliness to be found at the dirty heart of our culture but, if you listen closely, you find the poetry. It vibrates in the space between the words; in the energy passed between the stumbling Benjamin Jackson and his audience; in the hopeless E-fuelled love of Dale for Wren.

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Look, I loved half. For a night of four very different writers attempting to fit into a single theme and site-specific location, I call that a win. A chance to see emerging Australian writers working bare and dirty is also not to be sneered at. All four pieces used the space wonderfully. Moving about to face the various acts was messy and awkward but so were the stories. The production embraced its venue, and every part of the alley was put to use. MKA is such a uniquely Melbourne company. Its touring and national pool of playwrights doesn’t change the fact that this is a company that knows Melbourne. MKA fucks this city in a back alley, whispers dirty secrets and stalks off into the night.

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My own plays, Theatre, Uncategorized

on adelaide fringe, festivals, advice, magic and ordered chaos

Presuming I get my act together, 2014 will be my sixth year in a row at Adelaide Fringe. In addition to bringing my own shows over from Melbourne, I’ve helped a lot of other shows over and assisted with venue programming. I am a Fringe groupie. I love getting to introduce Melbourne artists to Adelaide at its best.

Adelaide hosts the second biggest Fringe festival in the world and, being a small city, it completely takes over and it is an absolute joy to be a part of. Totally chaotic but a joy nonetheless.

I get asked a lot of questions by artists wanting to take shows to Adelaide and, recently I got asked via email which means now I have written responses to the questions I keep getting asked so I thought I would share them. Feel free to share or post your thoughts.

Just a bit of background, I come at this from a theatre background and I am specifically talking about bringing shows from interstate to Adelaide but hopefully there is some advice that might help anyone. Enjoy!

Adelaide Fringe, Opening Night

1. Regarding venue size / number of seats, am I right in thinking that as long as we feel we have enough stage space, smaller is probably better?  My feeling is that a fuller audience, is better than the same number of audience and spare seats.  And do you think that location has a big impact on the number of bums on seats?

I go small. You have to expect that you have at least a couple of nights with very low numbers. I tend to book venues with a bit of an ‘I want something will make an audience of ten feel exciting and intimate rather than sad’ mentality. A cosy space for 35-40 people can actually feel just fine with ten but if you have 60 unfilled seats out of 70 that starts to be hard work on the actors. We try to make a habit of relishing those nights and talk a lot as a group about them being a chance to tell a really intimate story but venues help so much. Naturally, the price of producing a show goes up the bigger the venue gets so I would err on the side of caution and stay small and intimate. I think that is something that really works for Fringe audiences: they like feeling that they were the lucky ones who just witnessed something tiny but polished, professional and thoroughly entertaining.

Location definitely has an impact on bums on seats. For Adelaide you must try to be within walking distance of a lot of Fringe activity. This means being down the road from the Gardens or getting in on a space with a bit of a hub feel. Venues like Tuxedo Cat, The Queens Theatre and Higher Ground have done that really well in the past. (Although not all of these spaces will be around this year but it is worth looking them up to see what kinds of things they were doing.) You want to be a part of a buzz. The more shows surrounding you the better. If a punter can make a night of it without moving more than 50 meters, they are happy.

Most importantly you want to be in a space that suits your show. The Garden of Unearthly Delights is a lot of fun but very, very few theatre shows would suit its carnival atmosphere. It is mostly for circus, cabaret, music and sideshows. Bars can be wonderful for some theatre shows but most are expecting only comedians and are set up to cater for this: maybe one par-can and a sound system. If you this works for your show, terrific but you’ll also want to think about noise bleed and if your show will thrive in a relaxed pub atmosphere. Most spaces are happy for you to bring in your own equipment if it is tested and tagged (we’ve done this most years) and you can really transform a space but you must also acknowledge the pre-existing vibe of the place.

2. Venue hire.  What’s normal practice?  Do they take a cut of the door, or a flat fee – or a combination of both?  And would you say that smaller venues usually have lower overheads? 

It varies depending on what you are after. If you want a theatre, you will pay a fee that is fixed and based on how many nights you are in there for. Places like Tuxedo Cat also work like this. Prices will range depending on what the space provides. If they come with a lot of gear and decent seats and a bar and an in-house tech, it will be more expensive. Your life will be easier but it will be more expensive. If they are set up more for lo-fi comedy gigs it will be cheaper, possibly funner, but a bit harder to make magical and unique.

The only spaces that will that only a cut of the door/free tend to be bars (and some generous shop fronts) and mostly they are relying on your punters’ alcoholism to make it worth their while. I would probably only beg for free space if I had a show which actively encouraged drinking throughout or had intervals during which you could encourage binge drinking. You have to be able to sell it to the venue as a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Such venues do reduce some of the stresses and risks in terms financial investment but it mean that the venue can’t be expected to help a lot. They want you to come in as a very self-sufficient outside hirer and pull in punters. It is do-able but you should go into the season knowing that there will be a relaxed atmosphere and not a polished theatre vibe.

Promo image for ‘Insomnia Cat Came To Stay’, Perth Fringe, Adelaide Fringe, The Malthouse Theatre, Geelong Fringe and Brisbane Arts Festival 2013. Photograph: Sarah Walker. Actor: Joanne Sutton.

3. What sort of costs do we need to factor in other than venue hire & registration fee? Accommodation & travel costs for those involved is obviously something that I would like to be able to cover, but is that only possible if we have some kind of successful fundraising stuff going on? Any other hidden costs I may not have thought of (other than set, transport, venue hire, promotional material, accommodation, costume ….)

I think you have the main areas covered. There may also be insurance. We (and pretty much every other theatre company) use Duck For Cover. Insomnia Cat Came To Stay cost us about $350 for The Malthouse season and that will then carry us through our Geelong and Brisbane seasons because the contact lasts about five months. Some spaces will cover you with their insurance but, particularly if it is a non-traditional theatre space, some may want you to provide your own.

We also budget in a contingency stash (usually a couple of hundred dollars), just in case we get any surprises like cars breaking down, set being damaged or broken, projectors or computers getting angry.

Transport: if you can drive and split petrol costs, amazing! Do it. It is also really useful to have a car around.

Accommodation: Relatives are a blessing as is coach surfing for braver people. Backpackers aren’t bad and some people I know have hired a house for a week if they have enough people/people willing to share beds.

I’d also set aside something to buy bus passes for cast members and non-Adelaide-tap-water water, so everyone feels well looked after and appreciated. It is stressful being in a new city. We try to work always with the acute awareness that our actors are barely getting paid and are probably losing money by not working their usual jobs for a few weeks. Most will have such a blast that they won’t mind but we try really hard to let them know how much we love them for what they are doing.

(This has nothing to do with budget) For this reason I would also recommend against having actors perform too many other duties for the production. I know it is hard in indie theatre and we all pitch in where needed but I’ve seen many incredibly stressed artists rushing about printing their tickets twenty minutes before shows or dashing into the city on 40 degrees days to replenish edible props. It is so exhausting. If you can have at least one person with you who isn’t onstage, your lives will be so much easier.

4. Promotion. What’s worked best for you in the past? Constant flyering? Facebook onslaughts?

There are a lot of publicity opportunities through Fringe: opening night parade, interviews at The Caravan and things like that but think about whether it will help your cause before you commit. The Caravan is in the middle of Rundle Mall and is best suited to circus or (clean) comedy. Doing a scene from a play is useless but if there is a couple of snappy but casual stand up bits or a great song, rad. Last year the hosts were amazing at keeping the audience engaged but you do get the feel that everyone is just waiting for the next backflip. Keep an eye on the Fringe website as every year they add new ways to promote your work. Last year there was a bus taking people to venues and you could get on, perform a bit, flyer a bit and point out your stop to people.

Promotional material: we print only about 30 posters. Unless you are paying a distributor, you can’t put them in a lot of places so we just do enough to cover our venue then print a lot of postcards. 400-1000 depending on the run size and how big the cast is. No point in printing if they won’t be distributed. Make sure the image is gripping. (If you are in Melbourne, hire www.sarahwalkerphotos.com, I am only a little bit biased.) The year of Skinhouse, just about everyone we gave a flyer to told us that they had seen our posters and we had only put up twelve. It was just a memorable image and stuck in their minds.

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Poster for ‘Skinhouse’, Adelaide Fringe and La Mama, 2011. Photographer: Fleur Kilpatrick. Poster design: Sarah Walker. Model: Harmony.

A promo video is terrific for sharing on facebook and there are some stunning artists working to create these. In Melbourne there is (again) Sarah Walker, batchedit.com.au and storybottle.com. There are amazing and really understand theatre.

(For an example:  Insomnia Cat‘s trailer, created by Sarah Walker and Roderick Cairns.)

Facebook is really helpful. Less so when you are in a strange city but there will be a lot of artists over there and it is great to be able to share your event with them. On that note, I’d also advise that you offer comps to Fringe artists or at least artists sharing your venue. It just helps to create a community and gives you a guaranteed supportive audience but most importantly, they are the people you want to form connections with. That is the wonderful thing about festivals: you get to know what your fellow artists are doing and who you might want to work with next.

Radio interviews are good. (We love Radio Adelaide.) Flyering is great, particularly if you have eye-catching costumes. We haven’t done it so much with for the shows without exciting costumes as it can be just really tiring on the cast, particularly in the heat. For those shows the crew have just distributed flyers around town  and checked every few days to see that they are topped up. Make sure that all cast do have flyers on them at all time so that they can give them out if they get into conversations with people.

Media:  Send out media invites no less than two weeks from opening night. Three weeks is great. Your emails should have the media release attached to a (slightly) personalised email inviting the person by name, telling them clearly all the dates and times and a brief description. Media also don’t mind being reminded again if you haven’t heard back from them after a few days. I’ve heard a lot of them say that a polite follow up email is great and helps them schedule their hectic fringe time.

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Show photography, ‘Skinhouse’, 2011. Photographer: Sarah Walker. Actor: Fleur Kilpatrick.

Lastly I just want to say that the staff at the Fringe are just amazing. They are so helpful and really go above and beyond. The venue staff are particularly helpful and, if you are coming from interstate, they will be the people you find yourself really relying on. They have saved us so many times, averting both minor and epic catastrophes.

So that is it for now. If anyone has any other questions, yell out. Fringe is so vibrant and thrilling to be a part of but just make sure you go into it prepared so that you can enjoy the ride.

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Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre, Uncategorized

on time, einstien, glass, wilson and childs

I worry when I head into shows known for their duration.  If the most titillating aspect Wagner’s Ring Cycle is its sixteen hours, I have no desire to see it.  Einstein On The Beach does come with a warning, whispered with all the relish of a scandalous secret: ‘It last almost five hours – and NO interval! Just think!’ Holding this against a work makes me feel like a belligerent old lady, but the duration of Einstein is a different beast altogether – and it was the first element of this magnificent production to win me over.  This is not theatre that happens to have gone on for five hours; rather it is five hours of your life during which you disappeared into a rabbit hole and entered a world where nothing was as it seemed. What is more, from the very beginning of this epic night, it became clear that the creators truly wanted their audience to be hyperaware of time.  It is a far cry from Wagner, whose masterpiece comes with the echoes of an egomaniac‘s delirious shout: “I shall tell the GREATEST story that has ever been told!  It will be so amazing that I shall hold them spellbound for ten – NO! –  SIXTEEN hours!”  The work of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs has a sense of calm deliberation: a desire for the audience to slow their metabolism down to the pace of the performance, to immerse themselves in a world where rules we took for granted such as time, narrative hierarchy and even gravity, work differently.   Rather than hoping that the viewer will be so engaged that they will be held in thrall, the collaborators deliberately make you hyper-aware of the passing of time and allow you to go and go as you please.  Motifs such as clocks, a slowly waxing moon and music of metronomic precision keep it ever-present until, at a certain point, it begins to warp: the clock runs backwards, the globe you have watched slowly creep down from prompt-side halts its descent and remains invisibly suspended in both space and time.   This suspension could perhaps be the perfect metaphor for the opera.

Einstein’s treatment of time beautifully emphasises the perfection of this collaboration.  The key contributing artists came together at a point in their careers when they were fascinated with time and duration: Robert Wilson was known for creating epics sometimes lasting as long at seven days, while much of Philip Glass’s music feels like an auditory trick: the musical equivalent of running on the spot, frantic but remaining motionless, defying conventional ideas of climax and resolution, crescendos and cadences.  It is often said of modern audiences that our attention span – due to the pervasive influence of television and cinema and the 140 characters of tweet – is shifting and shortening.  With this in mind, I was fascinated to note that – more than thirty years after it was first premiered – Einstein on the Beach still knows how to hold its audience.  Indeed, these artists seem like scientists working in the field of human concentration: they know just how far to push us before offering a shift, a joke, or augmenting the image.  For this reason, I was very surprised to hear that, during rehearsals for this re-mount, Robert Wilson is said to have leant over to the co-director of the tour, Ann-Christin Rommen, and commented that it was ‘was long’.  Fortunately, he was dissuaded from changing anything and so the integrity of the original production remains intact for this re-mount.

The unification of this production was remarkable and certainly must be ranked as one of its greatest achievements.  In dramatic theatre the plot is god and a director, its high priest.  In this post-dramatic masterpiece, however, no single element was elevated above any other: dance, music, set and lighting all supported each other as equals.  This was brought home to me through the singers’ use of solfege.  Commonly used in the learning or sight-reading of music, solfege is about precision and technique and provides singers with a chance to work devoid of meaning or creative expression, giving their complete focus to the purity and accuracy of the notes.  The choreography was the kinaesthetic equivalent of solfege and the dancers, the physical match of the singers’ voices: exquisite technicians, clean and stripped back, all serving the work without ego, flash or flourish.  Lucinda Childs’ choreography saw her troop dance with the bare elements of ballet: pivots, leaps and quick, skipping steps with no dramatic arch, seeking no empathy from the audience.  As with Glass’s score, there was no climax or resolution.

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In stripping away that most human of all elements, narrative, the performers were dehumanised (although I will come back to this point) and again, all elements of the production supported this decision: Glass’s phrasing left no room for the required breath, Childs’ choreography was mechanically unrelenting and Wilson’s staging made the human bodies merely another part of the picture.

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Einstein on the Beach was not created in a vacuum, and it works with the expectations created by what came before it, giving us a cheeky wink, even as it crushes those expectations.  This is in keeping with the writing of Hans-Thies Lehmann (who, incidentally, places Robert Wilson’s name at the top of his list of influential post-modern practitioners). In struggling to define post-modern theatre, Lehmann wrote in 1999 (published in English, 2006) that the very term ‘post-modern’ acknowledges the memory of the modernists:

“The prefix ‘post’ indicates that a culture or artistic practice has stepped out of the previously unquestioned horizon of modernity but still exists with some kind of reference to it.  This may be a relation of negation, declaration of war, liberation or perhaps only a deviation and playful exploration of what is possible beyond this horizon.”

What I didn’t expect from this inhuman (as opposed to inhumane) theatrical experience was the humour.  Aside from the face pulling – sudden grimaces and soulless, toothy beams – there was a certain amount of laughing at the opera’s own form and the audiences’ expectations of narrative and form, for which I was most grateful.  An example of such referential humour could be found in Train, perhaps the most oppressive act.  Coming early in the piece, the music is Glass at his most insistent and the audience watches Katie Dorn’s unrelenting ‘perpendicular dance’ for so long that it almost feels cruel. From time to time, however, the music would falter, the lighting shift, Dorn would stop and that flagpole arm of hers would lower.  She would step out of her well-worn path and walk smartly away.  Then, just as suddenly, the lighting and music would re-assert itself, the arm would go up again and she would resume her dance.  There was a wonderful cheekiness to it.  A sense of ‘and you thought we were finished with you’, and every time I laughed aloud.  It felt a little like the Hofesh Schecter company’s Uprising, which begins with its seven male dancers marching to the front of the stage and solemnly striking a pose – arms in first, feet in passé – which they hold for a good minute as if to say ‘this what you want?  Some mother-fucking ballet?  There.  Done.’  From that point on there is nothing remotely traditional about their movements.  Similarly, there was a moment during the stunning technical duet of Night Train in Einstein On The Beachwhen Gregory R. Puruhagen and Helga Davis entered what I refer to as ‘the Showboatembrace’, a go-to pose older than musical theatre, the man behind, arms around the woman’s waist as they joyfully sing out to the world how they are ‘so in love’.  Stripped of all empathy, as the pair intone nothing more passionate than ‘fa si la si’, the pose seemed like a jab at our expectations of what a man and woman, alone on a moonlit stage are ‘meant to’ do, rather than any sincere or emotive gesture.

Perhaps this projected cheekiness (for all interpretations of Wilson’s intentions must surely be in part the individual audience member’s projections) is also why I loved the ending.  It was completely at odds with the rest of the event and I understand the frustration of some observers: after four hours of defying all dramatic expectations it gave us a ludicrously simple story of love but this ridiculousness was what I loved.  It was as if the creators were reaching out of the stage and waggling a finger: ‘Narrative?  Is that what you’ve been missing?  Well, we’ll give you narrative.’  But what they gave us was so impotent and diminishing that it only emphasised how delicious its absence had been and how incredibly generous the creators were: they had given us hours of mystifying beauty over which we had complete control to take, to leave, to interpret or accept as we saw fit.  Having an (almost) cohesive narrative at the end reminded me of putting a full stop after the final word of a beautiful stream of consciousness poem. It did not make for a neat conclusion: rather, it made us revel in its complete irreverence for such conventional punctuation and revealed the full stop to be nothing more than a meaningless spot of ink.

In a strange way, by de-humanising the ‘elements’ (ie, the ensemble of Einstein on the Beach), its creators actually humanise them – but as ‘performers’ rather than ‘characters’.  They dare us to view their creation in a state devoid of empathy, but their audience is only mortal, and we seek out humanity wherever it lies.  I dare anyone to watch Train without thinking at least fleetingly of Katie Dorn’s arm muscles and her control as she determinedly performs minute after minute of her perpendicular dance.  But the piece lasts too long for this to be our sole take-away.  I quickly found myself moving past this and settling instead into a state of breathless experiencing in which I did not fight for meaning but simply allowed the images to be layered one on top of the other.  There is a tremendous sense that you are not experiencing it alone.  Katie Dorn is with you.  The entire ensemble is with you.  The entire packed-out auditorium is with you.  The original creators, Wilson, Glass and Childs, are certainly with you.  It is as if we had all travelled together in an Einstein-worthy hypothetical spaceship far above the Earth.  We had taken a knife and severed ourselves from the world and its usual patterns and laws and, when we were set down five hours later at the doors of The Arts Centre, we could only stare in wonder at the streets around us, as if startled by its normality.  Oh, and we could talk.  We could talk about it and we will talk about it for years to come.

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