audiences, conversation, criticism, dance, Theatre

in conversation: on criticism, tangible feedback and a secret language of exclusion

Third and final installment of my conversation with Sayraphim Lothian and Robert Reid. I love this one such a lot. It taps into all my thoughts about criticism and trusting your audience. Thank you once again to these two for their generosity. Thank you also to Sarah Walker who proof read all three episodes. I’d look like an idiot without her. 

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SFB: You are both making work that almost feels like it circumvents the critics or the ‘expert’ commenting on the work.

Sayra: Well the problem for me as a public artist is that public art never gets reviewed. My stuff is tiny, temporary works. It is more towards the street art side than the public art. Nobody every wanders over to Vault to have a chat in The Age about the extraordinary angles or the specific colour of yellow. Nobody reviews that stuff, which is sort of a burden and a freedom. Occasionally internet people talk about my work, not as reviewers but as people who like craft or craftivism or joy or random acts of kindness. I know that critics are problematic at best and it is just an individual’s opinion but I won’t mind being reviewed by someone.

Rob: With Pop Up Playground, there is no language for what we do.

Sayra: Well Anne-Marie came to the first This Is A Door at Theatre Works and loved it and reviewed it. She’s not trying to understand it as theatre. She understands it as ‘this is the awesome thing I did and you should go!’

Rob: Which is just about an ability to read the framework that the experiences is being presented to you in, as opposed to coming with a notion of ‘I am a theatre reviewer. I must review it on these grounds.’ The same people have the language to review a circus performance or a dance work or a cabaret work and all of these things are different and distinct and they have the language. It is because the notion of play as performance is relatively new and under-served here, that they haven’t been forced to make the effort to understand ‘how do I understand this as performance’ that they haven’t developed the language. This is a reflection of how slowly the intellectual process behind analysing of performance happens, not only here in Australia but everywhere.

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Robert Reid working on a magical kangaroo for Nylon Zoo’s ‘i see magical creatures’

Sayra: We’re still having that argument with people. When we present the ideas behind Pop Up Playground and they ask ‘yes, but how is that art?’ or ‘How is that theatre?’

Rob: Less and less. Partially because we’re moving away from trying to establish ourselves within the arts community. Not that we want to move out of the arts community but the question is starting to become ‘why are you doing this?’ which is fundamentally the same conversation just with a different value set.

Though the games and play as performance can absolutely be reviewed and critiqued by critics, the best feedback is through the play-testing process or getting Emilie Collier (our writer in residence) to respond. She writes fictional responses to the games, which is wonderful. I think the reason that we have, to an extent, circumvented the critical process with Pop Up Playground is because the critical process here in Australia and probably around the world is broken.

We as artists get so focused on what Cameron and Anne-Marie and Alison and those guys think because it is the only tangible feedback we actually get. I would guess that a lot of the artists who are really focused on that stuff would often have difficulty sitting in a room where their work is being performed and being able to pick up the cues from an audience to be get feedback. Or maybe they won’t even sit there. Or they do it on opening night – which is again a skewed kind of feedback anyway – and then maybe go back on closing night and miss all the feedback from an audience as to whether or not a thing is funny, whether it is working, what the impact is.

Sayra: I think people feel the critics are super educated in their own art form so if the critics get it you get some kind of certificate saying ‘I am actually a Theatre Maker. I am actually an Artist.’ For me in public art and Pop Up Playground, it is really important that the general public can instantly get it.

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Sayraphim Lothian creating a creature for Nylon Zoo’s ‘i see magical creatures’

I don’t come from a theatre background and so when I first met Rob and started going to theatre, a lot of it confused the hell out of me because it is a learned language. It took me years to understand what it was I that I was seeing. For public it was really important that we circumvent that. People can instantly get it. It’s a fake cupcake and it is here purely to make your day or make you smile.

When I was studying art in Year 11 or Year 12, my art teacher presented us with a blank canvas and explained the whole story and all the meaning behind it. Once you understand the huge amount of literature behind it you can go ‘oh my God, that’s awesome’ but still, when you stand in front of it, it is just a blank canvas.

I don’t read the program before I go into a theatre work because if it has to be explained to me before, I feel that it is a failed piece of theatre because I want to sit there and understand it from purely the piece of art that is being presented. So I think it is more important that the general public can get the stuff I’m doing than the well-educated art critic.

SFB: Makes me think about one of the essays you gave us (in the Masters of Writing course at VCA), Rob, which said that in art-like art, your experience is deepened by having this whole backlog of knowledge. You walk into an art gallery and you know what happens in art galleries, whereas in life-like art, you don’t need to know art, you just need to know life. Just live some life and you’ll get it.

Sayra: I went to the ballet once when I was all young and Gothic. It was Dracula and I knew the story but I remember two specific things: One is that they were very bendy – they were boneless – which worked really well for vampires. The other thing was that there were all these certain move that I knew were really meaningful but because I’d never been to the ballet before I had no idea what they were. I had three friends there and we all came out going ‘nope. No idea.’ And we could sort of see the story in it because we knew the story but it was very difficult to find because of all the Meaningfulness that was happening and we weren’t a part of it.

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Tulsa Ballet’s ‘Dracula’, photographed by Sharen Bradford

Rob: We forget that. Not only do we forget that but we don’t like it being pointed out to us that not everybody has had the conversations about Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg. Not everybody has had the conversations about post-dramatic theatre and adaptations and, for the most part, they don’t give a fuck either.

Sayra: Although everybody might not understand theatre or ballet or something, everybody knows how to play.

Rob: And everybody can be told a story. Everybody can tell a story. These are the basics of the art form that we all share, that we have spent a lot of time as artists rarefying and saying ‘no, no, no, you can’t do that the way we can do that. That makes us special.’ That tells 80% of the country that they are not involved and that they shouldn’t come because this is only for Special People who understand. It takes a basic human need away from humanity in the service of our ego.

Sayra: Alright, last story! Last story I promise! In our first public performance for Pop Up Playground was at the NGV studio and it was on Grand Final weekend. As artists we were going ‘we’re going to get beaten up! All of the football fans are coming in to the CBD and we’re going to get beaten up!’ Which we didn’t. But not only that –

Rob: These things are exaggerations for colour.

Sayra: Shhh! We had a family in football jerseys come in and play games. And we’ve never had anybody in football paraphernalia come to any of the theatre shows we’ve ever been to, let alone anything we’ve ever done.

Now we promise we’ll stop.

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audiences, conversation

in conversation: cupcakes, motor bikes, knitting nanas and reclaiming the streets

Part 2 of my conversation with Sayraphim Lothian and Robert Reid of Pop Up Playground (and many other things). This one is all Sayraphim and all about craftivism. What is craftivism? Short answer? Awesome. Long answer:  

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Knit Your Revolt Tricycle Gang

SFB: Last week someone asked me what a craftivist was and I tried to explain. I said ‘it is Sayraphim!’

Sayra: Well, nice and succinct, craftivism is using craft for activist purposes. That is the short and non-fluffy answer. It is about using craft to change the world, either change people’s perceptions of an issue or change someone’s world on a personal level; making someone’s day with a piece of craft or beautifying the world around you; reclaiming public space for the actual public rather than corporations or the government.

SFB: What is it about craft?

Sayra:  I can do it. One of my super powers is that I can make anything out of anything else. Craft is a way that I can create in the world. I’ve never been any good at drawing or painting but I’m awesome at knitting and sewing and crocheting and I drift towards the things that I’m good at, which sort of makes it sound like ‘well if I can’t paint then at least I can knit’ but it’s not really about that. It is more interesting and it’s more tactile and it’s 3D. I’m more interested in 3D than 2D stuff.

Sarah Corbett, who runs the Craftivist Collective in the UK, talks about just sitting in a public space and sewing. People come up and ask ‘oh what are you sewing?’ and then you can gently introduce them to the idea rather than standing there and shouting about things. It is a very domestic, approachable, gentle form of protest.

There is also a group called The Knitting Nanas Against Gas. They are a legion of older and younger women in New South Wales near Grafton who are protesting against the coal/gas seam and they go and knit, which completely disarms police and other protestors. They don’t really know what to do with these gentle old ladies who are sharing cake and knitting.

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Knit Your Revolt Tricycle Gang

And there’s an awesome one called The Knit Your Revolt Tricycle Gang. They are in Queensland where there are these incredible draconian laws that are referred to as ‘the Bikie Laws’. The government are trying to stamp down on motorcycle gangs so anyone who rides a motorcycle can be stopped. Anyone who has tattoos can be stopped. Anyone who associates with these people can also be stopped. So by you sitting here talking to me, you could be stopped by the cops because I have tattoos. So there are a couple of women who have decided that they are going to protest. They get tricycles and they yarn bomb them – cover them in crochet and stuff – and they have banners that say ‘I associate’ and they go and tricycle along next to these bikie gangs which I think is awesome and they’ve gotten a lot of press recently. They are bringing attention to these ridiculous bikie laws in a really fun, tongue-in-cheek way. These grown women riding around on children’s tricycles with all these bikies! I love it! I’m a proud member too. I got my Knit Your Revolt gang patch and I’m just deciding what to sew it to.

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For You Strange, Sayraphim Lothian

I do craftivism on a much more personal level. When I leave stuff out on the street, like the For You Stranger cupcakes, it changes the day of the person. The niceness behind it ripples out through the photos. People see it online and they get heart warmed and the photos get shared. I’m making the world a nicer place one hand-crafted item at a time.

I didn’t actually think it was craftivism at first because it is such a new thing. It is still evolving and still trying to understand what it is. Betsy Greer coined the term in 2003. I was a big fan of her work but I’d never really thought of my work as craftivism until she contacted me September, 2012. I was walking down a London street and an email came in from Betsy Greer – and you’re like ‘Fuck! Betsy Greer!’ – saying that she’s putting together the first book on Craftivism and she wants me to write a chapter for it and I went ‘I will do that!’ And since then there’s been a lot of talk about what craftivism means and the ideas have expanded out.

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Yarn Bombing as anti-war protest. The squares are contributed by crafters in Denmark, the US and England as a protest about their countries involvement in the Iraqi war. It’s called M.24 Chaffee by Danish artist Marianna Jorgenson.

The other one is beautifying public space. Reclaiming it. Mainly yarn bombing. Yarn bombing is knitting thing and crocheting around trees and stuff and a lot of people don’t like it because they see it as street art for chicks. Although I’m a bit bored of it because it has been around for a while and it is a very safe form of street art (and councils are using it, which pretty much mainstreams it right there), I think it is a really low barrier for entry for street art; for changing your environment and re-claiming public space as your own space. So I think it is great. It is such an easy way for people to go out and add something to their environment so I’m all for it.

Thanks once again to Sayraphim, Rob and Sarah for her proof reading. Also a look at this gorgeous video of Sayra talking about her art:

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Yarn Bombing, uncredited

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audiences, conversation, Theatre

in conversation: on joy, magic, accessibility and dropping your thing

Programming note: I love interviewing couples. I barely have to speak and they riff off each other, enthuse together and are just generally cute (in a frighteningly intellectual way, of course). One of the first things that I recorded for this conversation was Sayraphim saying to Rob “when I first met you years ago, you said people just got dragged along in your wake and you turned to me and you grinned manically and you said ‘so keep up’.” Rob counters that “for more than a decade, she has. The only person in the world who has managed to. Hence, getting married. And now I’m slowing down and you’re only getting faster, which is good.” Don’t you just want to force a meditation retreat on them and watch them explode?

So this is part one of my conversation with Robert Reid and Sayraphim Lothian. It is broken into three parts. So keep up. 

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‘This is a door’, 2012 at Theatre Works. Photography by Sarah Walker.

SFB: Both of you have a really strong focus on joy and making work that is accessible; that will improve peoples’ days, engage them or get them really excited. Can you talk a bit about that? Why joy?

Sayra: Why should artists share joy?

Rob: Well Sayra can talk more to the joy aspect of it. My focus is the immediate experience. Experiencing the moment in the now!

As an audience member, I find that I’m very aware of the exclusion that happens. It is two thousand years old… well actually you could argue that it is only in the last two hundred years that the audience has been pretending that they don’t exist. I find that an odd thing and a misrepresentation of what I think performance is for, which is a ritualised social event: we all come together to support this story, to tell this story, to listen to this story. When you are shut out of that process you lose a lot of the benefits. Theatre comes with a set of rules that say ‘you sit there and do this’. Recently we have been working on trying to turn theatre into more of a game –

Sayra: Since we met. Awww.

Rob: Yes, since we met! ‘Games’ and ‘play’ imply a lack of complexity. In particular the rules of games reduce abstract experiences down to very structured ways of experiencing a moment, which tend to reduce or at least trap complexity in one particular form whereas improvisation or ‘play’ onstage create a space for emergent complexity without having to formalise it.

What I don’t like about things like the live art experience is that the live art experience promises you agency and doesn’t deliver it.  It says ‘you will have this immersive experience exactly the way that I (the artist) say you must have it.’ Bollocks to that! If you’re going to put me through a thing that is immersive and give me that experience, I want to be a part of that experience, rather than a subject of it.

Sayra: It’s important that your participation matters. In live art, you have the same experience as I will have, as everybody else will have. In games, whatever you decide is important because it changes the game. Nobody else has your experience.

Rob: And I suppose the thing about the live moment, as opposed to the repeated moment or the rehearsed moment, (Sayra chimes in: Nice!) is that in the rehearsed or repeated moment you are trying to re-vivify or give life to something that the life has already fled from. That notion of ‘for the next two hours we are going to craft and sculpt exactly how these hundred and twenty minutes occur’. It is an interesting notion of sculpturing time and reality. With the games what you do is facilitate people to sculpt the Now, which is not the same as sculpting reality. Theatre re-creates. I think it was Meredith Rogers who used to say ‘it ain’t art until you can repeat it’ and I don’t know about that! It ain’t a product until you can repeat it.

The people who come to your event should be involved in your event, not excluded from your event. It is not enough for me anymore and frankly was never enough, to simply be a witness to the process of making art. I want to be a part of the process of making art, even if it is only in a minimal way.

To Sayra: Talk about joy!

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‘This is a door’, 2012. Theatre Works. Photography by Sarah Walker

Sayra: When you were younger, the whole world was populated by magic and creatures and fairies and trees had personality and when you grow up you sort of lose that and you think about bills and you do your 9-5 job and there’s not really enough space for all that imagination in the same way anymore. So that’s what I’m interested in bringing back.

One of the things that I’m interested in is allowing people to run around in their imagination. That’s why in the games we have shitty cardboard props as opposed to mocking up perfect swords or whatever. Cardboard props invite you to participate.

Rob: It provides a blank enough space for you to fill in the actual details, which makes your brain actively part of the process. You’re engaging a very different part of your brain when you sit down and watch something. It is cooler and more critical, closer to Brecht’s smoking theatre, which is all well and good and very useful and very interesting and is very, very, very well served by the theatre in Australia at the moment. What we do doesn’t engage that part of your brain. It engages the part of your brain that’s going ‘what’s that going on over there? Who’s that guy over there? Oo, I’ve dropped my thing!’ Sayraphim laughs. What? Did I – Oh, it was cute.

Sayra: Very cute.

SFB: Yeah, it was cute, sorry. That part of your brain. The ‘I’ve dropped my thing’ part of your brain.

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‘2.8 Hours Later’, Leeds.

Rob: Well it is true! I’ve told the story of 2.8 Hours Later, haven’t I? There are zombies – actors who I know are actors – but I feel actual fear and elation like I am running from actual zombies.  Adrenaline doesn’t know the difference.

Sayra: Rob had twisted his ankle really badly a couple of days before and he’d been limping around on it. So we’re sort of limping through Bristol. We come around the corner and there’s an actor dragging himself up, all covered in blood and stuff and – okay, I scream, I don’t know about you – and we run. Rob leaps down five stairs, lands on the ankle and keeps running and doesn’t feel it for three hours as we run through Bristol. Felt it the next day!

Rob: Yes. And this is after running for three hours, dancing like a teenager for all of a song and a half before remembering ‘actually I’m thirty-five’. Adrenaline takes over in those situations.

The way people remember playing these games or having these experiences – it is interesting when you listen to them relate those experiences – it’s not ‘today I played this and then we did that’ it is ‘tonight I was a Valkyrie. Tonight I dodged lasers. I was a jewel thief.’ It’s never ‘I pretended to do this’. You lose yourself in the experience. You’re completely absorbed in the task at hand. Whether that’s trying to trick other people into revealing their secrets to you or running from zombies, one way or the other it’s about achieving optimal experience. For most people that isn’t achieved by sitting and watching silently.

Sayra: And your butt gets sore and the guy next to you has nicked your armrest –

Rob: And what did that guy say while I was complaining about my armrest? To enjoy and experience traditional theatre properly, you have to be trained. Eighty percent of the population are not trained to experience – or to achieve optimal experience by going to the kind of professional theatre that happens in this country.

Thank you to Rob and Sayraphim for their beautiful words and minds. Thank you also to Sarah Walker for her proof reading and gorgeous photography. 

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‘This is a door’, 2012. Theatre Works. Photography by Sarah Walker

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