MELANIE MUNUNGGURR - WILLIAMS
Last year’s winner of the Australian Poetry Slam.
Story-Fest: Performing Writer’s Festival, returns to Sydney for a five day live literary explosion. Story-Fest’s main event is the Australian Poetry Slam - National Final at Sydney Opera House.
Indigenous Australian slam queen Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, was crowned APS National Champion last year for her stunning slam on Aboriginal identity. She recently toured North America including Banff Art Centre, Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal and the Nuyorican Poets Café, her first poetry book will be published by Penguin in 2020.
Melanie is a Djapu woman from Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land. When I spoke with Melanie by phone from Darwin we began by speaking about her early influences.
Judith: Have you always had a love of words? Or is more the rhythms and the ideas that drew you to poetry as a young person?
Melanie: I think it was probably a combination of the love of words, and how they stream, that I found beautiful, powerful, but also the need or the want to express something in a way that will be understood or heard by certain groups of people. So was I really anxious to write really quite powerfully when I was writing Uni essays or writing to get my point across when I was younger.
But, then, you know I really love the metaphor and the imagery that comes into writing for the stage. There’s something different about writing for the stage than writing for the page. I really enjoy being able to stand up and perform something that I bring, in the way that I intend for it to be heard.
Judith: Did you start at first with pen and paper before Slam Poetry was a thing?
Melanie: Absolutely, I’ve been writing since I was young. I can remember one of my very first poems was when I was about 10 or 11 and I wrote about the removal of Aboriginal children. It’s always been pen to paper. I am really shy and suffered from really bad stagefright and so getting up on stage was never something that I was good at. But it’s only since watching this new form of performance and spoken word poetry that it's really become something that I got interested in.
And my reasons for becoming interested are, as I said before, around the fact that my poem, the way that I've written it, is being performed and shared with audiences the way it's supposed to sound; rather than something I've written being read by someone else with me thinking … that's really nice but I would have read it differently.
Judith: That’s very interesting because I often ask playwrights how they feel when they have to give their play to a production company. Is it hard to give a poem away?
Melanie: It sure is and, I remember, someone, I can't remember where it was, but someone read one of my poems out and it was written for the page. But obviously, when I wrote it, I read it out loud and the pauses and the performance of the poem was read completely differently by another person to how it was when I wrote it. And so, I guess, that's one of the things I love about performance poetry … I write it and then I perform it. And it sounds like I want it to sound and the reaction from the audience and all of that is based on what I've done. So it's a real confidence boost to be able to perform your own poetry.
It was really, really helpful for overcoming my fright; you know, times of low self-esteem and low confidence and everything. Because, when I'm up on the stage all that disappears and it's the first time I've ever really been able to do that. To be able to leave whatever I'm feeling behind and get on the stage and be able to perform without feeling completely overwhelmed and frightened.
Judith: And it must be true that the content drives you as well … that you need to get these ideas out of you and across to other people.
Melanie: Yeah, absolutely because I wanted to do the issue, or the poem, justice as well. Like when I perform poetry about my son, who is autistic, I want to do him justice. Like, make him proud and I want to really get a message across to my audience, or my listeners, this is what it's like for us. This is what it's like for him! And if I'm not confident in portraying that message then I fear that it doesn't come across as genuine.
Judith: I understand, I'm wondering about your audience actually?
Melanie: It’s interesting, I recently got back from Banff Canada where I did some readings and workshops and one of the conversations that arose while we were there was about … what's our responsibility as a poet? And about the balance between worrying about offending your audience and getting your point across and visa versa… worrying about what you're saying and how you're affecting the audience.
I'm big on ending my poetry on a positive note. Like, I really feel like it doesn't matter how difficult the issue may be, I always try to end on a positive note. But sometimes that can be difficult for some issues where you want the audience left with something thought-provoking. As a First Nations woman, I think I definitely try to educate. As a Djapu woman; as a First Nations woman; as a woman. Everything that’s in my poetry is stuff that I know.
Judith: I can see that in the work. Your poem Double Threat is from the perspective of being a mother to a new daughter isn’t it?
Melanie: Yes, yes. And it was written for my daughter, she is the inspiration for that poem. But Double Threat … when I wrote it I had three groups of people in mind. So, I had black women or women of colour; I had women; and then I had people of colour. Which is why I separated the poem into the two strikes - one that is being a woman and another one is being person of colour, not necessarily a woman of colour. I feel like what I really wanted was aimed at getting people to understand that there are overlapping issues as well.
I do think closely about my audience when I’m performing; I think about what is the message I’m trying to get across … who am I trying to get this message to? It's the same thing as, you know, looking at my audience and thinking … okay, so which poems am I going to perform tonight or today?
Judith: Looking ahead to ….. do you know what you will be performing yet?
Melanie: Sort of. Obviously I am going to be performing some new stuff that I've been working on over the past year… I've got a couple of things in mind. But there’ll definitely be some poems on identity. There’s always poems on identity. I’m also starting to look into current issues and trying to write a poem where I have to do a bit of research. Like to give it a little bit more time, a social issue. So that people are, like, oh I understand that because, yeah, I read about that in the news or from YouTube or Facebook or whatever people can relate to it and they understand where I’m coming from. Whereas if it’s always the same kind of stuff, it's like being an actor and being type-cast a little bit.
Judith: That's a very interesting analogy. Just as a last question, it must be exciting to have your first book of poems coming out next year.
Melanie: Yeah. I'm really excited about that. Because it’s such a big deal knowing that … this is my heart, my world, that’s going to be out there for the public to be able to see. And, you know, there's going to be people who disagree with some of the things I say and there’s going to be people who agree with them - that is just going to be another exciting challenge I have to work through.
See Melanie’s prize winning performance of Double Threat here.
Story-Fest: Performing Writer’s Festival, returns to Sydney 16-20 October with the Australian Poetry Slam - National Final at Sydney Opera House on Sunday 20 October. See more at World Travels’ Website and Facebook and Australian Poetry Slam’s Facebook and YouTube.
Stepping out of rehearsal to talk about Caroline, or Change.
Mitchell Butel is a four time Helpmann Award winner and when news came through that he is directing the Australian Premiere of the Olivier Award-winning musical, Caroline, or Change I leapt at the opportunity to speak with him by phone. Once again, cementing my reputation for taking up the lunchtimes of busy artists.
1963, Louisiana. The president is dead and America is on the verge of one of the greatest social movements of the 20th Century. The Gellman’s maid Caroline, a single mother of four, shares a special bond with eight-year old Noah, who is heartbroken after the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage. Sneaking down to the basement laundry to spend time with Caroline and a range of fantastical, anthropomorphic characters, Noah will find his relationship with Caroline tested by an attempt to put more money into Caroline’s pocket, devised by his stepmother, Rose.
Mitchell was great fun to speak with about this show which is loosely based on Tony Kushner’s (Angels in America) own memories of growing up in Louisiana and which features a score by Jeanine Tesori.
Judith: You've just stepped out of rehearsal ... you've got an amazing cast there!
Mitchell: Yes, it's incredible, we're so blessed. Elenoa Rokobaro is playing Caroline; she was just in the Book of Mormon and was in a production I did a few years ago called Violet. And then the supporting cast is also phenomenal … lots of emerging talent and lots of veterans, like Genevieve Lemon and Tony Llewellyn Jones, as well.
Judith: I loved Violet.
Mitchell: I'm glad you did, it’s such a beautiful show and this one has the same composer, Jeanine Tesori, who writes such incredible, kind of, blues and gospel and folk music. It's gorgeous.
Judith: Caroline, or Change was up against Wicked and Avenue Q and Taboo for the Tony in 2004 wasn’t it?
Mitchell: Yes. There was a documentary made about that. (ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway) I saw it then on Broadway and it was wonderful … incredible.
Judith: So you've been sitting on it for a while. What made you decide to bring it to the stage at this time?
Mitchell: Um, a few things. Working on Violet was such a great time because as I say, I love her music so much. And I did Angels in America a few years ago at Belvoir Street, which is written by Tony Kushner who wrote the book and libretto for this one. And so I thought it would be great to do it somewhere like the Hayes where you can do something that's a bit interesting and a bit off the wall like this. And, also, given there are so many great diverse performers in music theatre in Sydney at the moment, I thought would be wonderful to showcase some of them in a show like this. So the show itself and providing a vehicle for these fantastic people was the main inspiration. And I'm thrilled that the Hayes decided to get behind it and support it.
Judith: Is the fact that it's sung-through part of the attraction?
Mitchell: Totally! I mean, I was talking to the guys this morning ... it's, in many ways, like an opera. There's a little bit of spoken text, there's some recitative, but the main thrust of the show is all musical. So it's wonderful for that reason and very unusual as a result, for a music theatre piece.
Judith: And a huge range of music as well, isn’t it?
Mitchell: Yeah, yeah. Everything from gospel, rhythm and blues, Motown, Jewish klezmer music to more traditional soaring music theatre ballads. So it's a really great canvas.
Judith: What about the period, how are you going to evoke that?
Mitchell: Well, it’s set in 1963 in Louisiana at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. So what we've done actually …. many of the designs in the Hayes go minimalist in the space… we're going the other way!
We're putting the full house, you know, that old kind of Louisiana house, on stage! And all the various rooms. A lot of it is set in the basement, in the laundry basement where Caroline does her daily laundry routine and then upstairs. The main relationship is between Caroline, the African-American maid, and a ten-year-old Jewish boy. Noah lives upstairs with his recently bereaved father who's now remarried, to Rose, his dead wife's best friend. And so everyone's in various states of crisis when the show begins … Caroline's a single mother with four kids.
So there’s a tension between Caroline, she only earns 30 bucks a week, and the kind of neoliberal, supposed tolerance, of the Jewish family comes into question. So it's a super kind of powderkeg situation.
Judith: And the title’s meaning?
Mitchell: Well … two meanings. One of the main narratives is that Noah keeps leaving change in his pockets and Rose, the new wife, says … Caroline you can take the change! You’re poor; you've got four kids, take the change that’s left in the pockets. And Caroline is like …I don't want to take the change of young child. But she's poor so eventually she goes… okay, I will. And then he's given $20 for Christmas by his grandfather and he leaves that in his pockets and suddenly that causes a whole different other ball game.
So the loose change is one thing but also, the show is about how we change as humans … in the context of sorrow or roadblocks put in front of us, how do we change? How do we move through life with grace and kindness even though everything seems to be against us? So it works on a metaphorical and a plot level.
Judith: That sounds all very narrative, but there's some quite surreal elements aren’t there?
Mitchell: (laughing) That's right. That's right. That’s what’s so great about it. You’ve got that personal change, the actual change, civil rights change which is going on in the background, but at the same time, because the washing machine and the dryer and the moon and the radio, all sing like a Greek chorus, there's a notion of a more supernatural change going on in the show as well.
The fact that people are interacting with nature and with objects, we sort of do in our daily lives. Like the dryer, for example, is thing that causes Caroline incredible pain because it's hot and makes the basement burn like hell. So when that comes to life and sings a song about how evil it is in basement … well, it's the kind of thing you could only see on stage!
Judith: And the moon’s pretty important. Is it a spoiler to tell us how you are going to do it?
Mitchell: Wellllll, it’s not Cats or Starlight Express! A beautiful actress called Ruva Ngwenya is playing the moon and, basically, it's kind of the spirit of the Moon and she may well be dressed in white and at a higher level on the set as she empowers the space with her lunar magic. It’s very beautiful what she's doing. And with some fantastic costume designs by Melanie Liertz, a wonderful up-and-coming designer in Sydney, and so incredibly evocative and looking beautiful as well.
Judith: What are you hoping the audience will take away from this unlikely friendship?
Mitchell: A young Jewish boy and this tough African- American maid… in times of grief or with sorrow, sometimes we do look to strangers or people who are unlike us because there's much we can learn from difference. That unlikely friendship is the central relationship in the show and it's a super interesting one.
Even though Caroline, or Change is specific, spatially and temporarily, I do think it's a kind of laboratory example of … how do we move forward? How do we change when things are oppressing us? And that's something I think we all face; we all get our moments in our life where we are like … Oh God, I'm trapped. I'm oppressed. I can't get out. Nothing's going right for me. How do I actually get up in the morning and keep going? How do I find hope? Some people have faith, some people have their work, some people have love … what do you do?
I love shows that have good writing and make people laugh and cry and this does … I mean, in rehearsal, everyone's been in tears by the end of a run so … that’s good. This is working! And I hope people have a similar experience seeing it. And because the music is so beautiful. It seems very cliche to say but music is a very powerful way of unlocking people emotionally, when you're listening to music as a community, as a group, as an audience. So I really hope audiences are moved in that way by it.
Judith: Last question! I often ask this. What's the earworm? What song will people hum going to go out?
Mitchell: Oh, that's interesting. Maybe the boppier stuff, the popular stuff when the radio comes to life… It's voiced by a trio of fabulous African-American women. So they are the catchiest tunes, the radio’s 1960s pop tunes. My favourite song is the final song ‘Underwater’, which is a beautiful lullaby. That’s my earworm!
Rehearsal photos: Phil Erbacher
As Rainbow’s End nears the end of rehearsals, we speak with the playwright.
In association with Moogahlin Performing Arts, Darlinghurst Theatre Company will produce Jane Harrison's 2012 Drover Award-winning Rainbow’s End - an inspiring story of hope and resilience, from Australia's First Peoples - on Gadigal land.
Jane Harrison is a Muruwari descendant. Her first play Stolen has played across Australia and internationally and toured again in 2018. Her novel Becoming Kirrali Lewis won the 2014 Black & Write! Prize, and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Awards.
A bit nervous, never before having spoken to a writer whose work is on the HSC list, I had the chance to speak with Jane by phone. It was a breezy conversation as there was quite a bit of windy weather at Jane’s end but she put me at my ease immediately.
Judith: I have just spoken with the wonderful Lily Shearer, with whom you share heritage. Lily is such a character, I loved spending time with her.
Jane: She is absolutely wonderful. I look up to her and admire her greatly and I was very fortunate when I was part of a program called Accelerate with the British Council; Lily was my roommate. So I have very fond memories of travelling with Lily and getting up to a bit of mischief with her. (laughing)
Judith: She's going to make a great Nan, don't you think?
Jane: Yes, yes … Nan’s my favourite character in the play I’ve got to admit.
Judith: I said to Lily that Nan was funny and feisty and Lily said … yes but very stern.
Jane: She is. But for good reason I think.
Judith: I saw a quote from you which said that the play was acknowledging the women who fought to keep their families together. Nan would come into that category?
Jane: Absolutely. The play started with a commission from Ilbijerri Theatre Company to write a decade history of Victorian Aboriginal people, including the heroes. And there are a lot of amazing men out there, in that era. Jack Patten and Pastor Doug Nicholls, for example. Pastor Nicholls was a very significant person here in Victoria, he actually played for Richmond Football Club, I think. He was a rather short man and later in life, my mother, my Aboriginal Mother who was geriatric nurse, she nursed him. In the nursing home she said all the nurses would fight over the right to look after Pastor Doug. Such a beautiful person.
I read about some of the men of that era who were, so often, away doing good works in the public domain. I suppose like Pastor Doug who travelled to Western Australia to make known some of the circumstances that Aboriginal people were living in there, the poverty and the dispossession. And so while these men were away doing these good works, the women were often back in the home arena, keeping food on the table, keeping families together, doing a lot of physical labour, working at the cannery. Also in that area that I wrote about, Daish's Paddock at Mooroopna, they lived on the fringe of town. Daish's Paddock was the town tip and they did a lot of fundraising as well for housing and they eventually built Rumbalara housing estate. Rumbalara meaning the end of the rainbow. Rainbow’s End. So the women were doing this unacknowledged heroism.
Judith: I can see Nan coming from that research but how did the other characters arrive to you? Dolly is fascinating.
Jane: (laughing) Well, that first commission I had from Ilbijerri, I had only had eight weeks to develop a first draft.
Jane: It all came really quickly. I did a lot of research, I was working not far from Shepparton and went to the keeping place there and read every article about that era and that area and the 1950s. There were some oral histories there from Pastor Doug’s family and a few other families. Eleanor Harding was another amazing woman … I think all eight of her children went to University even though she lived on the outskirts of a tip. So, I guess, she was a bit of an inspiration for Dolly.
And the 1950s! I think when I came up with a song, Que Sera Sera, it became very much a bit of a love story, too, between Dolly and Errol. A bit of a romantic love story with the music as well.
Judith: I was very much taken by your Currency House paper Indig-curious – Who can Play Aboriginal Roles and it feels inspired to me that, in this production, Fred Copperwaite plays all the white male roles which are normally played by the actor who portrays Errol.
Jane: Well, I love Fred. I love all the Moogahlin people and I’m excited to see Fred play all those roles, too … an Aboriginal man playing a series of white characters. I guess it's about reclaiming, being able to reclaim some of that space. I think the central point that I came up with in that essay is really about control; who's in control. So if a group of Aboriginal people say this person can do that… for example, Wesley Enoch did a production of The Man from Mukinupin and I think he had some of the white characters playing black roles and some of the black actors playing white roles. So if he's in control of that process then I think that's okay. But it's when someone from, perhaps, the dominant culture is saying … well, I want to do this. Without authority around that. Well I don’t think we are ready for that yet.
Judith: I always ask writers this question because it fascinates me … the first time you have to give a play over to a production company, how stressful is that?
Jane: I guess I'm a bit of a perfectionist, in that you can always improve it. With Rainbow’s End, its first production was at the Melbourne Museum in 2003 and I delivered the script on Friday and on Monday they started rehearsals! So there wasn’t a lot of time to tweak it as much as I would have liked. Then, when it had another production, I was able to, kind of, do more work on the first couple of scenes. But look, you know, I'm really happy if a director says to me ...this isn't working. Or … I want to cut this bit out.
You know, the writing of a play is really a blueprint and the director and the cast are the ones building the house and then the actors are the ones who have to live in it. So, if they need to do those kind of changes to make it work better for their vision, I'm really happy for them to do that. I'm not, perhaps, as precious as … Samuel Beckett, let’s say.
Because I have so much faith and trust in the directors and cast, of course I do, because I know they're doing it for the best of reasons. I often have a lot of schools, particularly with Stolen, approaching me saying … my students want to do this play – but we’re not Aboriginal. And even though I wrote Indig-curious saying that Aboriginal people should be playing Aboriginal roles, I do make exceptions for schools because I do think it is such a valuable experience for them.
Judith: I could talk with you forever, Jane, but let me ask one last question. I watched your video on AustralianPlays.org about how non-indigenous Australians can feel a lot of anxiety over Indigenous issues. What does it mean to you to be able to share First Nations stories with the wider community - a powerful story that educates?
Jane: Yes, well I entirely believe that for the last two hundred and thirty years, you cannot separate Aboriginal history and non-Aboriginal history in Australia. They’re shared stories. So although I write, firstly, for the Aboriginal community, I think it's just as important to non-Aboriginal people to own those stories and to feel part of those stories … and sometimes that can be challenging but I think we all have to come to terms with our past before we can move forward together.
I'm also running a festival called Blak and Bright, happening in four short weeks, and again I say … Aboriginal stories are for everyone. You know, when I was a kid I never read any Aboriginal stories … the closest I got were the Boney stories
Judith: Oh my Lord!
Jane: Yes! I think it's just so important for everyone to read modern stories and not to be divided; to understand each other and understand the complexities of the past.
Back for a one-night only gig.
Before Eric Cornell sailed off once more to perform overseas last August, I had the chance to see her intimate cabaret All of Me and had such a magical night. Read the review here.
Erin has been working on Channel 9's The Voice on Team Delta but when I found out she was back in Sydney for an acoustic single-night performance I had to send through some questions of this marvellous singer.
Wild Heart- a love story will see Erin accompanied by her band and mystic twin sister duo MOJO with songs from Stevie Nicks to Ledisi, The Preatures to Annie Lennox, Meatloaf to Gaga, F Carlisle, Loreena McKennitt to Frozen… mashed in with epic storytelling about the journey of all things Love.
Judith: So you have moved to Melbourne?
Erin: I have. I grew up in Melbourne and haven't lived here for 8 years. It's wonderful to be back.
Judith: But since you are coming back to Sydney for a gig, can we assume you have itchy feet?
Erin: Not so much itchy feet. I’m very fortunate to have created some incredible friendships and a lovely following in Sydney, so I only thrilled to be sharing this new show with my humans up there.
Judith: Even after all the international work you have done, does sharing with new audiences ever lose its appeal?
Erin: Never. I am continuously evolving into a better version of myself. Life experiences- good and bad happen. They help us grow. So myself and my performances always change. It's always fresh and a new experience I feel for everyone.
Judith: Where are your musical interests rooted? Is a family trait? What kind of music was around the house as you were growing up?
Erin: My Nan is a singer. She was a radio singer as a teenager. Since I was born I was always going to her concerts with "The Melbourne Barbershop Chorus". My grandfather was also a sound engineer- that's how they met. My Dad is also a singer and musician. So it runs in my blood. I love Celtic Music, Pop, Funk. Varies.
Judith: I expect there’s an attraction to doing a simple, live, acoustic gig like ‘Wild Heart’ after the high tech world of television with The Voice?
Erin: Yes. I wanted to strip it back and get intimate with my audience. I think both high tech/glitzy and stripped back are just as important as each other in the industry. They give to both sides of us.
I felt in myself I wanted to create something new and a little surprising with Wild Heart. My backup singers, twin sister duo MOJO, are pretty magical. They are true musicians and sound like one voice splitting. How they complement my voice is like nothing I've ever experienced. My guitarist Aaron is very special too. We all seem to float together with such ease.
Judith: Not that you are old … but it’s been a long career with some huge roles. You coach as well. What advice do you give your students about maintaining a voice?
Erin: Connection is everything. Not just pretty notes. Is your voice matching what's going on musically and lyrically? If not we work on getting the voice limitless so you can go anywhere to fulfil the story of whatever song it is.
Judith: I’m so looking forward to hearing you again. Just as a last question, though … you are a fully qualified Rahanni Celestial Healer … how does it influence your music practice?
Erin: Rahanni and meditation calms the mind and heart. It just simply makes things easier to absorb and work through.
Ella Prince plays Agamemnon in this retelling.
Chorus from playwright Ang Collins will have its World Premiere at the Old Fitz Theatre late August. Directed by Clemence Williams and produced by Bontom, the media release says it “ takes the age-old myth of Agamemnon and transplants it to contemporary Sydney.”
That’s worth asking about! I caught Ella Prince, who will play Agamemnon, for a phone chat while she was out walking her dogs. Agamemnon, in this interpretation, is “a pop icon just returned home from her nine-month, round-the-world concert tour. Rolling Stone described her as ‘like the second coming of Christ – if Christ was a crew-cut, queer, hot, vocal-virtuoso’.” An absolute delight to speak with, Ella and I shared some dog lovers’ conversation before we began to speak about the show
Ella: …. I'd have to say dogs keep you busy.
Judith: Actually, that leads me into one of the questions I was going to ask you. Every time I've seen your work, your performances had been incredibly energetic. How do you get there?
Ella: (laughing) How do I become an energetic performer? I don't know. I don't know if I'm any more energetic than the next performer. But, I’ll take it as a compliment. I don't know.
I mean, whatever draws you into a character - that allows you to, sort of, dive deep is something that I guess in itself, as a warm-up, is essential. And you just find yourself, sometimes, channelling energy that you don't otherwise have in your life. Yeah. That’s what’s fortunate about this short medium of theatre, it’s only two hours or something. So the rest of the day you can move around like a zombie.
Judith: Yeah, it's a little bit mysterious isn't it, that ability to change?
Ella: Yeah it is. And I think different actors have different methods, very different methods. And also you find a different method with each director that you work with and how they choose to tell the story … and what that process is can kind of unlock certain things for you. Things that are integral in finding that particular identity.
Judith: For Chorus, the media release says you have been channelling all sorts of gender-bending singers. So is a crewcut in your future?
Ella: (Big laugh) Ah … there’s been many crew cuts in my past actually. I've had many a hairstyle. Possibly who knows. I might I might make an appointment with my hairdresser in a week and just lop it all off. We will have to see what happens … very interesting.
Judith: So are you steeped in Queen and David Bowie and Christine as the release suggests?
Ella: I’ve always been steeped in those guys and Christine. I mean, I love Rock Heroes as much for their performative nature, that's inspiring to me as an artist who wants to work across different mediums.
Judith: And what about the vocal work in this production? Does Agamemnon sing?
Ella: We haven't determined that yet … I presume so. We are very early in rehearsals. So I know that Clemence (Clemence Williams: Director), because she's also a musician and very accomplished in that, that music is going to be a big part of the piece. And certainly the chorus as a unit will be singing, I believe. But that’s really a question for Clemmy. At the moment, we're kind of working more through the choreographed presentation of the character than we are the music… I think we're going to start working on that next week.
Judith: It’s written by Ang Collins. When you first read the script, how did that attract you to the piece?
Ella: I was drawn to the piece about three pages in! I think, for me, it was the presentation of this female character who just feels … the script itself feels… rivetingly contemporary.
Ang and I have worked together several times and she has this voice that feels particularly contemporary, which is quite exciting. And she has a real talent in bringing to the floor … an amalgamation of, I guess, the taste that everyone consumes as a young adult now and she brings that into a text that gives them a kind of vibrancy and life that isn't present in everything that you read. And it makes the work very exciting and that's what is embodied in the character as well … in her words. So it immediately appealed to me because of that quality of the work.
Judith: The contemporisation is also in the modern setting. The play takes place in Sydney, are we talking Lesbian Ghetto or North Shore Rock Star Wealth?
Ella: Ah (laughing) I think both and neither … In this retelling Agamemnon was living in Petersham with her male partner, father of her child, prior the launching of her into immense stardom.
Judith: So am I understanding that it’s female-centric but with men in the cast?
Ella: There's one man in the cast, Jack Crumlin. That's what is also exciting about the piece, too… how female-driven it is. The creatives are predominantly female ... like the lighting and the design and the sound and direction and also the video direction is by females which is fun. I think that's really exciting, particularly with the re-gendering of the main characters, to have a female gaze put upon that.
Judith: Ahh ok … so how much of the classic play, the story, does the audience need to know?
Ella: I don't think they need to know any of it. I think it's probably quite exciting for them if they do and if they don't! Because it's quite a revolutionary contemporary telling in that Ang has gender flipped all the characters with the exception of Cassandra - who remains a female. Hence the queer relationship, lesbian relationship, for Agamemnon. I think it would serve as a curiosity to know the original text and to see how radically we've revamped it but it's not a prerequisite by any means.
Judith: It’s playing at the Old Fitz. You’ve worked there before. Blazey Best once told me … there’s no place to hide!
Ella: There isn't… there isn't!! There’s very few places to hide in any of the independent theatres in Sydney! (laughing) When you are getting changed you’re probably getting changed on the stage. Yeah, but I like the space very much.
I mean with every space you know what you're going into and obviously the creatives work the piece to that space, but as a performer as well, you have a mind for that sort of thing and the relationship to the walls of the space. And with the Fitz I like the awkwardness of the toilet at the back of the stage, I find that sort of thing quite thrilling.
And I like that everyone is sort of stacked on top of one another and I think with this production, in particular, it will be really exciting because we already know what is our staging and how the chorus themselves will be present in the audience.
And this video element with Sarah Hadley collaborating with Clemmy … so there’s this very contemporary way of bringing that Choral element into the present with video design and projection. So it should be quite exciting in that design sense as well.
Judith: How many in the chorus.
Ella: That's five, five in the chorus … one male four female.
Judith: It’s very tiered so putting them in the audience is going to be interesting.
Ella: Yeah it will be, I think it just brings everything closer, which is always exciting. I don't want to comment too much on the traditional works but the power of those traditional works we're trying to bring into the future with choreography of the piece … in terms of the placement of bodies. And, this video element which is very current and contemporary and, in itself, a comment on, I guess, commercial culture and fame.
Judith: Fascinating. Thank you again. Enjoy the rest of your walk and I am very much looking forward to seeing it.
Photo Credit: Philip Erbacher
The Grapes of Wrath
A Pulitzer and an Oscar. Louise Fischer directs the Tony winning play.
The Grapes of Wrath is a work we all know, book or film; an Oscar and Pulitzer winner. However Steinbeck’s masterpiece is also an award winning play. By Frank Galati, it won the Tony Award in 1990 for best play. Coming very soon to New Theatre the play is an epic work with 45 characters played by 18 actors and a weight of social conscience.
I had the opportunity to send some questions to the director, Louise Fischer. Louise directed August: Osage County which I loved. (Review)
Judith: The New Theatre was founded with a social conscience, so this show must take the venue right to its roots?
Louise: Absolutely. The play embodies so many of our core values and also speaks to the 21st century. The characters in this play are refugees. They seek a new life, for them and their children, they don't want handouts they want to work. They want to be a part of society not shunned as losers and welfare recipients. It is such a timeless work.
Judith: With the complexity of this work, it must be a passion project. How long have you been living with it?
Louise: I've been sitting on this one for a few years now. It's a perfect companion to August: Osage County which I directed last year. Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago commissioned both plays which they say helped to make the company legendary. I feel that The Grapes of Wrath is the "parent" of August: Osage County. Violet and Beverly Weston, the matriarch and patriarch of August were formed by the events that are depicted in Grapes.
The crushing effects of Great Depression were intensified by The Dust Bowl and this legacy shaped so many lives and still resonates in Oklahoma today.
Judith: There’s lots of love here despite the circumstances. What kind of colour palette have you worked out with your creatives, is there remission from grim?
Louise: This play is anything but grim. The journey might be arduous and there is heartbreak on the way but there is also such joy and humour. Throughout there is hope and a beautiful courage and spirit which makes this work such a delight to direct. The colour palette is reminiscent of the cornfields of Oklahoma before the Dust Bowl. There is warmth and also a little harshness and I think it will be incredibly powerful.
Judith: With the set incorporating moveable pieces, has that been challenging for rehearsals?
Louise: The moveable set is both challenging and awesome and we’ve had a lot a fun trying to configure our “toys” for each scene. There is an elegant simplicity about these pieces and the way we can create different worlds in each scene. I’m loving it.
Judith: You must be finding a great many modern themes trying to make their way in , are modernist direction choices hard to resist?
Louise: A classic work will always resonate when told and retold. Sadly the themes of this work remain relevant and I think it’s important to tell the story as simply and clearly as possible. It’s not really a matter of using any modernist direction choices more that I am trying the direct in a way that will honour the story.
Judith: With the iconic nature of the book and the film what audience do you think will be attracted to something like this ... live and new!
Louise: I hope audiences who appreciate big stories that need to be kept alive, that are beautifully told by a strong ensemble of passionate actors with an evocative design and original music.
Photo © Bob Seary
Here we go again! A look in at rehearsals for Packemin’s new show. Starring Scott Irwin (Beauty and the Beast, West Side Story) as Sam, Debora Krizak (Sweet Charity,Anything Goes) as Tanya, Courtney Bell (Madiba The Musical) as Sophie, Blake Erickson (Madiba The Musical, Les Miserables) as Harry , Mark Simpson (Hairspray, Kinky Boots) as Bill, Louise Symes as Donna, Chris White (Hi-5) as Sky. Photos: Grant Leslie
Still Life With Chickens
An interview with Goretti Chadwick who plays Mama.
As soon as I heard about Still Life With Chickens I knew I wanted to know more.
Some friendships are just clucking surprising! As part of Riverside Theatre’s ongoing commitment to presenting work from New Zealand, Auckland Theatre Company’s multi-award-winning production, Still Life with Chickens by D.F Mamea, makes its Australian premiere this August. When Mama discovers a mischievous chicken invading her beloved veggie garden her first instinct is to shoo the interloper from her silverbeet, but what starts out as a backyard turf war develops into an unlikely friendship. Mama comes to realise there is a lot more to life than just waiting for it to end.
I was able to send through some very silly questions to Goretti Chadwick who plays the role of Mama.
Judith: I watched some video of you promoting the show and there is obviously such a warm relationship between you and Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson, the puppeteer. I’m interested how you create and maintain focus on the puppet during the performance.
Goretti: Haanz was a student of mine and he’s an exceptional actor – although you don’t really get to see it in this show, but you get to see how much of a lovely puppeteer he is. He is an absolute joy to be on stage with. I completely forget that I’m on stage with a puppet, so again that’s probably all props to Haanz again with his puppeteering skills.
Judith: Does the chicken ever get naughty during a performance?
Goretti: Haanz and I will sometimes say to each other before we go on stage to find a moment in the play to surprise each other. We’ve done it a couple of times and it’s worked in our favour. The tough thing for Haanz is he can’t laugh or break out of character, whereas I can and have many times.
Judith: D.F. Mamea, the playwright, has a very entertaining blog and he said that he had to blink back tears during a couple of the early read-throughs. What do you think is the shared humanity of the work?
Goretti: The production you see today is quite different to the initial reads and that’s because it’s now a blend of the script, the director’s interpretation and where Haanz and I have now taken it. Eg: finding Mamas rhythm is now a combo of all our mothers.
Judith: He also said that you broke a broom during a chicken fight! Is the physical side of the show fun to perform? Do you and Haanz really do Pilates as a warm-up?
Goretti: I broke the broom a couple of times and we’ve got a couple of spares now just in case I channel the inner-ninja and get carried away again. The show has some physical moments that make us laugh a lot and sometimes we change bits of it up every night. No, we don’t do Pilates as a warm up…. Well, perhaps only in my mind.
Judith: You are only doing one season of the show in Sydney during your tour, at the wonderful Riverside Theatres, but there’s a language in common between us isn’t there? I know some of the show is in Samoan.
Goretti: Some of the script is in Samoan, but it won’t be difficult for the audience to get it. Non-Samoan speakers may not be able to understand the Samoan bits verbatim – I don’t ever translate it, but they’ll get the gist.
Judith: There seems to be so many themes in this piece: isolation, growing older, the importance of community and so on. Are you still finding new inspirations in the show even though you have been doing it for so long?
Goretti: Each season and audience gives me something different to focus on… I’m not sure why that is the case, but the more I perform; I notice that each audience is moved by something the last season weren’t so much.
Judith: Final question: If you see any packets of Snifters still around can you bring me some? My wife, now passed away, was Kiwi/ Samoan and used to get them sent over for me until they were taken off manufacture. I’ll swap you for Violet Crumbles!
Goretti: Absolutely, I will have a hunt around for snifters – I haven’t seen them in yonks, but if I do, don’t you worry I’ll bring you some. xxx
Judith: Thanks again for your time.
Goretti: You’re so welcome. Xx Goretti
An interview with Director Kim Hardwick
Tanya Ronder's play Table, billed as “an epic tale of belonging, identity and the things we pass on” is coming soon from White Box Theatre and Seymour Centre. I had the opportunity to send some questions through to the director, Kim Hardwick (The Shifting Heart, Mercury Fur ).
Judith: Was casting challenging with the actors all playing several characters, including kids, and there seems to be quite a bit of singing in the show… and in Swahili?
Kim: I wouldn't say that casting was a challenge because it was a joy to see so many actors and an honour to work with those who ended up being cast. I needed actors who were playful, had a wide range and were skilled. We have beautiful singing voices in the cast. If anyone saw Rime of the Ancient Mariner at KXT you’ll recognise the voices of Annie Stafford, Mathew Lee and Nicole Pingon. Chantelle Jamieson, Julian Garner and Danielle King are masters of the stage. I remember being in awe of Danielle’s Katherine In Sport For Jove’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s a diverse group of exceptionally talented people.
Judith: Did you have to audition many tables to get the right one? It must need to be pretty sturdy with all that happens to it … including mad nuns and a leopard.
Kim: Ha! That made me laugh out loud. From the beginning we knew that the table was a character in itself so buying from a store was never an option. Mark Swartz is making our table and yes it does have to be pretty sturdy. It’s also very beautiful.
The purpose of the table at various times in the play got us all thinking about our own histories. The small table in some of our publicity shots belongs to our photographer Jasmin Simmons… “ the table I used for this shoot used to be my Grandma’s. There is a tiny cut in the wood where she used to put her cigarettes. It was then used as a changing table for me as a baby. Then it was painted white and used as a desk for me and then my sister to study on. Then it was taken to my Dad’s office to hold samples of products…”
And Tanya Ronder herself writes…”We have a kitchen table that we got at an auction about twenty years ago,” she says, “it already had some graffiti on it. Not with a pen though. It had been carved in and there was lots of chewing gum on the underside of course. But we’ve continued the tradition of that. (Not the gum.) We had au pairs for years, and they’d live with us, so they carved their names into the table. All our close friends and relatives have all left their mark on this table and it’s a really scruffy old thing but it has become this document that bears our history: friends we’ve known, couples who’ve split up, people we miss.”
She also talks about another piece of furniture that made its way into the play, a solid, well-made table that dates back to the beginning of the last century, inherited by Rufus, her husband, from his grandfather. The play is a combination of the two objects: something that recalls an era when “people strived to make something perfect even though it wasn’t necessary,” and a possession that bears witness.
Judith: I see that the script has a family tree, is that useful to know or do the periods define the characters?
Kim: The family tree was very useful for the actors and myself when reading the play and piecing the family history together but Ronder is such an exquisite playwright that she manages to bring all that history to the stage by how the characters relate to each other. It’s thrilling to see each generation unfold-carrying the fault lines of the previous generations on their backs.
Judith: The media release says you raced through when first reading the play … did the shape appear to you then or does the rehearsal room guide your process?
Kim: It’s always exciting when you're reading a play and can visualise how it can move to the stage. I had some ideas from the beginning but with all rehearsal processes those ideas were shaped and refined by the rest of the company. Theatre is a uniquely collaborative experience.
Judith: Apart from the 100 year span, what other elements give the play its epic quality?
Kim: Standing in the rehearsal room, listening to the nine actors sing There is a Balm in Gilead or Kyrie Eleison in three part harmony is like being in a cathedral. The music has been beautifully realised by Nate Edmondson and this element adds another dimension to the story. The power of the 100 year span can’t be dismissed.
For an Australian audience that power was very evident in the stage adaptation of Tim Winton’s classic Cloudstreet or in Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. We are all searching for a sense of belonging and identity and to see the Best family in Table transitioning through a century of births, deaths, betrayals, joys is jointly heartbreaking and inspirational. Of course, the audience mostly view these transitions through the actors and when you have nine actors playing twenty six characters you can’t not be in awe of their craft.
Judith: Four different locations must be a bit of technical challenge for your design team, especially having to evoke a commune?
Kim: The play moves seamlessly from location to location. In a few pages we can go from 1898 Lichfield to 2013 South London to 1950 Tanganyika but the one constant, and our anchor point, is the table. Essentially the table is the hero piece and all other design and technical decisions were resolved with this in mind. Regarding ‘evoking a commune’… to be honest I think the greatest challenge was all of us trying not to break in to hysterical laughter!
Judith: Even if it’s not hand-made or a large item like furniture, most people desire a connection with past family. Is that part of what you want the audience to take with them?
Kim: Yes and more. I’d love people to start thinking about their connection to past family but I’d also love people to think about the present…about how they're living in the present.
I’ll leave the final word to Ronder in an interview written for Spoonfed by Naima Khan …
“…it’s David’s tenacity that kicks the story off. His obsession with his work could be to blame for a family tragedy that sets the fault lines for generations to come. It’s the idea of how David lives that comes into question. “He’s an obsessional worker,” says Tanya, “he’s devoted to his work and there’s a religious question in that as well. What do you do if you don’t have faith or God in your life but you have the urge to devote yourself to something?” She talks about figures in history and asks “where would Florence Nightingale be now? What happens to people who have the engine but don’t have the reason or the ‘guidance’ outside of themselves?”
The question doesn’t bear as much relevance for people today now that ‘guidance’ is everywhere, usually in the form of handy lists of ten tucked into lifestyle magazines. But the wider implication of how to live and what to prioritise warrants discussion. As Table takes us from the end of the Victorian era to 2013, it prompts us to consider the culture of ambition and devotion that has emerged for our generation. What are our passion projects? What do we sacrifice to make them happen? And is it worth it?
Big Muscles Sad Heart’s perspective on sport.
Image Credit: Jessica Maurer
PACT Centre for Emerging Artists’ Generations program will present emerging performance collective Big Muscles Sad Heart’s production Olympia Olympia! Billed “as a look into the dark, competitive heart of professional sport” I wanted to know more and had the opportunity to speak by phone to Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, one of the performer/ creators.
Judith: I am very interested to talk with you. I was having a poke around your Instagram and there's a lot of posing going on. I bet the show is more action packed?
Caitlin: I would say it's quite action packed! The starting point was these advertisements you have for the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics and the way that they're almost absurdly charged, almost propagandistic. These images of agony and ecstasy and the athletes set up as these almost demigod like figures?
I guess I was just fascinated by the quality of those advertisements and what lies behind them … what drives that intensity. And why each nation has, seems to have, so much at stake in winning as many medals as possible at the Olympic Games. And that the dynamic of competition is reflective of the dynamic of capitalism, basically, with sports almost becoming like a stand in for that. And which, inevitably, is going to have a dramatic quality. Yes, yes, they will be there will be lots of posing to answer your question.
Judith: I suppose the statuary of the early Olympics must have influenced you as well.
Caitlin: Yeah, certainly. And obviously, the original Olympic Games has a lot of that in it, even though it took a very different form. In that, the ancient Greek Olympics were much more about, essentially, preparation for war. It was warriors trying out discus and javelin and all these different weapons, whereas it's been remodelled for modern society. But they did have this adoration of the muscular human figure in the ancient Olympics as well.
And that figure was actually resurrected by Leni Riefenstahl. She used a lot of those images in that original film and those Olympics, really, were the beginning of the kind of one upmanship of the Olympics in general, and that each country would have to outdo the last … putting on a bigger and better show.
Judith: And the emphasis on gold medals; that somehow competing or silver or bronze is inferior?
Caitlin: Yeah, yeah. We're gonna play a little bit with the contradictory feelings that athletes must feel when they're on the third or second podium; sort of there but not quite. And this expectation that they should feel happy to be out there at all, but probably also having a feeling of wanting to have won the gold and some resentment, and shame, in that as well, because there is such a drive for gold.
Judith: Shame is a word we associate with body shaming, too. Is that part of the work?
Caitlin: We are trying not to go too hard on the body shaming, certainly there are some references to the particular body shaming that happens for women. And the fact that women athletes occupy the role of athlete in an uncomfortable, contradictory way. You know, they're supposed to be these strong sports-like figures, but also still be, sort of, demure, a mother-like figure. The ways that they're presented as national symbols are softened. And if you look, historically, at pictures of women athletes, there still was this … ultimate mother figure.
But we're also playing with the fact that the athletic body becomes the embodiment of natural prowess. And the idea of competition, of self-discipline, even discipline in all facets of life and the way that ordinary people also try to emulate that figure… and the fact that the three of us have three very different bodies. None of us are professional athletes or professional dancers of any kind and so we’re, kind of, leaning into the comedy that's going to come from our imperfect bodies trying to imitate these bodies.
Judith: And so it does have a certain amount of dance as well as spoken word?
Caitlin: Yes … it does have aspects of dance in it but that’s not the main focus. It’s a combination of physical theatre, dance and some text. But the text is quite highly abstract. So there's not a traditional linear narrative, which is something new for our group as a long form piece. So quite new terrain for us as a group.
Judith: And what about the ‘never seen before contests’ that are mentioned in your media release?
Caitlin: One of the things I realized quite early on is that Matt and I sit at either end of the spectrum in terms of knowing much about sport. He's really … well he plays a bit of tennis and has played cricket … but, he's just kind of obsessed with sports in general. He knows all the rules for all the different sports because he grew up watching them and being interested in them. I played netball when I was a kid but I never really knew much about sport.
Beyond that, but I'm interested in the politics and aesthetics of sport. And so to me, looking at something like the Olympic Games, or even a tennis open, or the Commonwealth Games, it's this strange whirlwind of commentary, whistles, and people following these rules that, to me, are quite abstract and arbitrary and they have their own logic. So we've built on that and then later on, we've created our own games with their own rules that are really not apparent to the audience … that, in the heads of the performers, are clear.
We want to create that dynamic of confusion, but trusting in the rules of the game … that there is some logic and some purpose to it. I think a lot of sport is based on that as well; it’s just this assumption that, well, it's all worth it ultimately to win! Even though it’s not entirely clear, you know, the purpose of sports in an abstract way.
They are not the entirety of the show, just vignettes – maybe two or three and are a representation of games and we are using that representation to explore the dynamics of competition and teamwork and the contradiction between those two. And the pressures, the psychological and physical pressures, that are on athletes in general.
The only sport that I went to at the Olympic Games in 2000, when I was still pretty young, was the trampoline. And it was the first time they'd had trampolining in the Olympics. I think they were just trying it out. I guess gymnastics in general, and also synchronized swimming, and maybe diving, I find it interesting because they are different to the other sports because it’s difficult to measure them.
I come from a dance background and a lot of the idea of dance is to create something beautiful. A beautiful spectacle and also to show the possibilities of what the human body can do. But it's mostly beauty and I guess gymnastics is like dance squeezed into a metric, something that's measurable. But to me, as someone who doesn't know the technicalities of it, it’s still a thing of beauty, but it's subject to this measured thing, because otherwise how can it be in the Olympic Games? How can it be considered a sport
Judith: I was interested in the word rituals that used your media release, how’s that going to come into your show?
Caitlin: In two senses. We are interested in exploring the concept of rituals and repetition in their routine and the training sequence… the fact that a professional athlete, in particular, just has to do the same movements over and over and over again to hone a very particular skill set, and often a very particular muscle set as well. Sometimes to the detriment of both other parts of their body, but also, sometimes, other parts of their personality as well.
Just focusing on this one thing, obsessively, could potentially mean that their growth is stunted or their personal growth is stunted in a kind of a way. I think, it in some ways mirrors the repetition of day to day work that a lot of people engage in; factory work or even if you work at a computer doing the same things over and over again, every day. There is a similarity in there that I am very interested in.
But also, I guess, the other side of those rituals is the opening and closing ceremonies and just how many resources are pumped into that by each country that hosts the Olympics. And that it is an extension of the whole spectacle of sports. And the fact that there is a ritual, outside of work and school hours, of going and doing sport and how much spare time that people actually dedicate to sport whether or not they're going to become some kind of professional.
The routine within the rituals is what we find the most interesting,
Judith: Fascinating point of view. So I am wondering what you are hoping people will take away from the performance.
Caitlin: We want people to come away having been given a new insight into what really lies at the heart of sport and how healthy it actually is. Because we're often presented with this idea that the sport is, necessarily, a healthy and wholesome pursuit. But there’s a question about the competition that is at the heart of it and that drives that whole Olympic model … faster, higher, stronger! What point can you really push that to? What does that actually do to individuals within themselves in terms of pushing themselves as far as they can go … their bodies and their minds?
But also what it does to people, politically and socially. The idea of pushing nations against each other or rallying behind a national icon, national sporting icons, in this international competition! I mean, the piece itself is going to be quite abstract, so it's not going to be in a didactic way, but we want to present that visually and choreographically. We want people to come away with a new insight into the propagandistic elements of sports and the national rallying that comes along with it.
There have been other shows on the topic, but we wanted to really get at the guts of sports itself, because I've gotten deep into the theory of modern sports. And the fact that most sports in their modern form have really only existed for as long as capitalism has. And the way that the division of people in different roles in a team is almost like a reflection of the division of labour in the industry.
And the fact that different sports used to be played across fields, and there wasn't really any boundaries, but modern sports are kept within the bounds - within a court or in a strictly defined field. I find all that interesting that the way that modern sports is a reflection of modern society or an extension of society; of the modern economy even.
Launched in 2018, PACT’s Generations features a work by an early career artist alongside a work by an established artist. Generations encourages greater dialogue between generations of artists and will contextualise work by early career artists within a broader framework.
Omar and Dawn
With playwright James Elazzi.
Having had the delightful experience of being in the rehearsal room with the cast and director of Omar and Dawn (pictured above) I had quite a thirst for learning more about the play. The producer obligingly managed to hook me up with James Elazzi, the playwright. James is an Australian writer of Lebanese cultural heritage and chatting with him about the many themes of the play was the highlight of my week. His work is fearless and in conversation he is just as generous and open–hearted.
Judith: So good to speak with you; that's a pretty special cast you've got there.
James: I’m very, very lucky.
Judith: Were they all involved in the reading last year?
James: Yes they were all involved in the reading for Storytellers Festival last year.
Judith: How did this creative relationship with Dino begin?
James: I met Dino about a year and a half ago when there was another program that I was involved in and that culminated in a public reading of another play of mine called Miriam. And they had attached him as director for the reading and from then on he was really interested in my writing. I sent him Omar and Dawn and he pretty much fell in love with it.
Judith: What was the stimulus to this particular play; the themes and characters?
James: I always go to the theatre and I never feel connected to most of the things I watch and I just thought … where am I up there? Because I never see it. And I always told myself … you know what? Go and write what you want to see. And I've always written all my life.
I've never seen an older woman on stage that actually has a story to tell that’s exposed on the stage and for me that’s really important.
Judith: Talking to Maggie yesterday I was saying … please tell me you're going to wear something nice. But no. Now you have to write her a different role.
James: Ha. I’m in the process actually! A glamourous 85 year old.
Judith: I will look forward to that. And how did you come up with the characters of the two young men?
James: I drew on personal experience and the people around me. Having been a teacher for about 12 years now I have come across a lot of individuals and young people who are gay and kicked out of home purely because of their sexuality.
And when they are kicked out, their whole identity is ripped away and they have to forge new identities and try and figure out what’s going on. So I needed to give that a voice and put that on stage.
Luckily, people have resonated with that … it’s so important to me. So happens now? So we need to see that, it needs to have a voice.
Judith: Do you get much opposition for that point of view.
James: Absolutely! All the time! I just finished a show, Lady Tabouli at the Batch Festival, I think you really got to be comfortable in yourself, in your own skin, in order to put those stories out there because people don't like to talk about them. So for me, I want to put it out there.
If I had seen, for example, Omar and Dawn, 10 years ago, I think my life would have been different. And theatre is such a strong medium to connect with people, why don’t we use that?
Judith: I agree. Have you always been drawn to this social agenda that you seem to have?
James: I think … I think every play that I write, um, I try not to repeat myself. I think it's important that every piece exists in its own realm, but I think that identity and loneliness are quite fascinating to me. Who do we make our family when the family we thought we had leaves us? How do we create a belonging? I don’t think we ever stop searching.
Judith: And the themes about older people?
James: I have always been surrounded by the elderly and I have always been close to them. Like my great grandmother I was very close to and she would always confide in me. I used to volunteer a lot at an elderly retirement village, but a private one, and I was amazed how lonely people were. And I was shocked that, after sending people into these communities, they tend to leave the elderly alone, a lot of the time. It's actually quite sad.
So the story of Omar, one would think, is completely separate to the story of Dawn but they are both human and crave the same things … so I want to put that juxtaposition together.
Judith: Okay, that makes perfect sense. Because that makes good theatre as well. Did you originally envision for the theatre or was it another piece of writing first?
James: It’s always been a theatre piece, since its inception … I’ve always seen it that way.
Judith: And I'm interested in the character of Darren. I can tell there’s a secret, but I don't really want to know. But that man, the character of Darren …
James: I think that Darren displays a lot of old Australia and a lot of people will resonate with that and I think I'm kind of marrying the two together because I don’t really think there’s an old and a new Australia. But I think he represents a whole community but again, you know, we are all human and want the same things, universal things. Even though people may think they do not, we all crave the same things.
Judith: Dino said he thinks this play is going to have a really wide audience? Do you have that impression as well?
James: Yeah, I think it touches on all bases of the community. You know, the old, the young, people in retirement to people in high school to kids. I think that anyone can see this show and be touched by it. Hopefully, and I've always really written that way. I don't really write for anybody else; I don’t write in a way that is for one specific community. I write from a universal point of view.
Judith: What do you want people to take away with them from seeing this production?
James: I would like to voice the struggles that young people face, especially from the Lebanese community. But I'd also love to, sort of, shed light on a generation that's aging; that’s suffering the same. With the rise of technology, I think the older generation is being left out and there should be some sort of connection with that generation.
I don’t have the answers but I will just put forward this story and I want people to leave thinking … maybe I can make a difference; maybe I can shed light on this. Is this what they go through? I never knew this at the beginning ... but now I see it from a different point of view. What will I do with this information?
Judith: Final question from my own experience as a writer. Is it hard to let the play go once it is in the hands of a director, no matter how trustworthy?
James: (laughs) It is actually! I always read a scene or see a scene and just go … ahhh I really could expand on that or I would get rid of that line. It’s an ongoing process that could just never end but at some stage you just have to say … enough! And it does help having Dino directing Omar and Dawn because, a lot of people have read my work, but he really understands it. And I am very sentimental and he seems to be on the other end of the spectrum so we meet in the middle!
Ovariacting: A Period Drama
Body positive cabaret from Jamie Boiskin.
“Follow Jamie and her band of 'Merry Menstruals' (Thomas Bradford, Louise Cumming & Alice Albon) on their journey to fight period stigma with catchy tunes, outrageous skits and, most importantly, a Drag Queen inspired uterus.”
Ovariacting: A Period Drama, is a cabaret about periods and Endometriosis. It’s performed by artist/menstrual activist Jamie Boiskin and directed by Fiona Scott-Norman.
The media release rather captured my attention so I had the chance to speak with Jamie by phone.
Judith: So nice to speak with you … I actually rang the wrong number and got a very confused man.
Jamie: (Laughing) He probably wouldn’t know how to talk about periods very comfortably!
Judith: Yeah, that was my thinking. So now I have the person who can … tell me what we going to experience at Ovariacting: A Period Drama.
Jamie: Soooo, we've come up with a whole lot of performances and songs and skits and stuff to get everyone very comfortable with talking about periods and Endometriosis. Myself as the menstrual activist and I have my music director as menstrual activist protégé; he's trying to collect badges so that he can become a full-fledged menstrual activist. And then you've also got my uterus, which has been out-sourced, and a tampon that help aid in that journey of educating and informing!
Judith: Where did you come up with this idea?
Jamie: I came up with it originally as part of a 10-minute cabaret that I had to do at my University and it was because I had just gotten over being diagnosed with Endometriosis and I had just experienced a thirty five-day period! And it was impossible to talk about. I felt really uncomfortable and everyone around me felt really uncomfortable talking about it and it completely took up my entire life and I felt really trapped not able to discuss it.
So slowly I came up with these ideas with the help of my director and dramaturge Fiona Scott-Norman. And we just, kind of, came up with this zany show! Originally, the first time we ever did it the uterus wasn’t involved - I just had two tampon backup dancers. But as the show progressed and became longer, we started to create more and more based off what was happening in the world regarding periods and Endometriosis - and what was happening with my own personal journey and my cycle!
Judith: Do you ever have worries that your media releases are just hitting firewalls all over.
Jamie: (Laughs) Sometimes! I'm sure, I’m sure! Facebook sometimes can be really fickle with the word ‘periods’ and anything that might be a connotation of that. It does sometimes hit firewalls I have no doubt. But I'm always very grateful for the ones who do want to talk after they do receive it.
Judith: And what's your favourite euphemism that you've come across in your research?
Jamie: My favourite one is … I slept on a white sheet and woke up on the Japanese flag.
Judith: Hilarious! Can I print that or is that part of the show?
Jamie: No, no you have to! It is part of the show a little bit but you have to. We do talk about euphemisms in the show … there are over 5000 worldwide for the word ‘period’.
Judith: It’s so much part of women’s secret stuff, what made you decide to become an activist for visibility around the topic?
Jamie: It’s a lot from the fact that I just felt so miserable when I couldn't talk about it! And then when I started to kind of talk about it with my female friends and then male friends, it started to really create this community and connection. And we got to talk about things that we didn't know about. I was coming to them being like … I have this thing called Endometriosis. It affects one in ten females and I had women saying that they had no clue what it is. And that just became a real passion project for me.
As we extended the show and were researching more avenues, like period poverty and the tampon tax, it just really sang to my heart and to my soul how frustrating it is that something so natural, so normal, has been so stigmatized. And it can have such terrible effects on people when we see statistics … in Africa 1 in 10 girls is not going to school when they have their periods; 1 in 5 girls in India are dropping out. It really just makes me …. No girl should have to miss out on an education or living her life because of something that's normal. But unfortunately that is some of what we are dealing with.
So it's a real passion project of mine and I would wish to see a world where we are all very inclusive and very okay with talking about it.
Judith: Your media release says it's informative. Who's your audience typically?
Jamie: It's been really interesting. We've done the show now two times before this Bondi Feast Festival. It is predominantly women but it's a wide range from about 20 to women who are in their mid-40s to, kind of, the menopausal age. We sometimes do get men and towards the end of our Comedy Festival season, there was an even split of men and women which was really exciting. Because we obviously want to get everyone as engaged as possible and we try to pepper the show with as much information as possible in a fun and informative way.
But obviously we can't make change if it's only women coming and seeing it. So it’s interesting and I think we're slowly developing the audience the more we do it.
The audience is a mix of people who enjoy comedy, and it's a mix of people who have experienced Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or people who have experienced Endometriosis or know someone who has.
Judith: And you'd encourage the men to come along? They're not going to be overawed are they?
Jamie: Maybe there is a small element of that where we are realistic but that’s just part of the journey of what having a period is … it can be a really empowering thing or a really disgusting thing at times. We definitely encourage men to come along; they’ll learn something and they’ll become a better ally and, I think, as the show goes on the idea of what a period is becomes less and less alien and that’s the best part. They come up after and talk about their wife or mother’s experience and when they walk away hopefully they will start a conversation with somebody.
I also talk about the fact that a lot of what I've had to deal with my Endometriosis diagnosis has a lot to do with having many doctors and gynaecologists not necessarily know how to deal with it. And I do try to discuss how I personally deal with it and the experiences of women and also gender non-binary people and transgender men and boys and how they experience it too.
Judith: Another taboo subject!
Jamie: Yeah, yeah, we actually had someone at the Comedy Festival … because we have a whole bit about the male period in the show and how if men got their period it would be this grand old thing and everyone would be super comfortable with it and it’d be a competition … but we actually had a woman who hadn’t started taking the hormones to transition yet talk to us. We were talking about bleeding out of a dick and such and she was speaking to us afterwards and had a great conversation with us about the fact that she does actually bleed from her dick. And it's not from anything transitioning wise because she hadn’t started that medication … but that it's something that came up and we had a really interesting chat about that and that informed us as well, a bit more about that kind of period that we don't hear about either.
Judith: So do you think there's a place for your show in the schools eventually?
Jamie: Yeah. That's the hope as we progress. I think we might have to make certain elements of it a little bit more PG... it is a bit in-your-face for school aged kids, but yeah, definitely the hope is to get it touring schools and get them informed really young. Because what I suffered from when I was younger was that … when I've learnt about periods in Health Ed it was a very segregated thing. The girls were taught it separately and the boys were, you know, playing basketball! And we were sworn to secrecy not to tell them that we learnt about it.
I think it should be an inclusive learning experience; we should all learn about it shouldn’t be such a question mark or such a mystery.
The Beauty of 8
Japanese taiko drumming from Taikoz.
Production photos: Leo Bonne
Australia’s internationally acclaimed drumming ensemble, Taikoz, explores the immersive qualities of the Japanese taiko in their production, The Beauty of 8. Immediately attracted by the power and the delicate beauty of the media images, I was lucky enough to speak with Ian Cleworth who has been the Artistic Director of Taikoz since its inception in 1997. In 2005, he went full-time with the group after having spent 20 years as Principal Percussionist with the Sydney Symphony.
You can always tell a teacher … even a retired one. I began by asking him about hitting things as a child.
Judith: You must have been drawn to percussion early, I read that you began wadaiko drumming study, in Japan, at age 19.
Ian: Yes I was actually. I just happened to grow up in a household where my mother played piano and, although my dad was not a musician, he had lots of great jazz records, LPs. And I think it was the rhythm of jazz, in the first instance, that really took hold in me.
And I think that, for most people, rhythm is infectious. I think it's something that most people respond to in some kind of visceral way, and I guess with children especially, they tend to show that in a very physical way. And I think over the years, we just tend to suppress it but I think it's still there. So when groups like Taikoz come along, and we have a very strong sense of rhythm and sound, I think it draws out that rhythm-lover in most people.
Judith: And with these massive drums, does the lower frequencies, the bass, have a role to play in the attraction?
Ian: Yes it’s interesting. The deep sound is, I think, very powerful. On our biggest drums, when you play them and really get the rhythm going, it actually sets up a sound which is very much like a drone … in fact, it is a drone that we set up. So you've got, of course, the powerful rhythmic beats of the drum, but at the same time, you've got this kind of drone - it's like a tonality that goes underneath it. And I think that, again, it's one of those kind of primordial musical senses that we have.
Because we know that in many cultures, drones are used in meditation and therapy so I think on that level, people respond to those low, deep sounds in a, sometimes almost, spiritual way.
Judith: I can see that. Now a silly question from a non-musician… to achieve the different rhythms and tones, is it similar to traditional percussion, where you've got different kinds of striking implements?
Ian: Absolutely. Yeah. If you came into our studio you would see not only hundreds of instruments, you would also see several hundreds of various sizes and shapes of drumsticks and mallets as well. So yes, yes, all the instruments have specific types of sticks to them but, also too, there are multiple types for each instrument as well. Because sometimes you might want a lighter, thinner effect so you get a thinner drumstick; sometimes you need a big fat sound, so you get a big fat drumstick. Essentially that’s how it works!
Judith: There was an interesting term on the media release. What is “percussion vocals”?
Ian: Well, that is interesting. It’s a hard thing to describe. Anton (Anton Lock) who’s one of our star performers, he does this … sort of rhythmic … some people call it a rapping, but it's not rapping, because it's … (laughing) …it's not rapping! It is rhythmic, though, because he uses basic kinds of percussive sounds … he doesn't sing words or say words; he has little consonants and syllables, that has a kind of a percussive effect. And if you string them together in really very fast, rapid fire, rhythms … ! It's a hard one to describe so “percussion vocals’ was what we came up with.
Judith: The Beauty of 8 is the name of the show and, in part, it “contrasts masculine and feminine”. Can you explain a little more about that?
Ian: Well, I think the best way to describe it, or focus on it, is with our guest artist Chieko Kojima and she's a wonderful artist from Japan. And she's a woman but she came out of a group, KODO, which in its beginnings was quite gender specific - in the school and in the performing roles in that only the men were allowed to play the drums. The women and men could dance but only the men could play drums. This is going back a few decades now, but she was a bit of a radical and broke out of that. And then she went and studied a particular type of drumming which comes from a very small island of the east coast of Japan and she made that style of drumming into her own and she has a very unique style.
On the one hand, it's very beautiful and graceful because she wears these beautiful kimono when she plays and just looks so gorgeous, with all the long flowing colours. But at the same time, the physicality of it, the playing and the sheer energy of the rhythm that she generates, is incredibly powerful. So for me, she has this very, very strong balance between what we might call ying, yang or male, female.
And throughout this production actually, the feminine versus the masculine comes through in a number of different ways. There's another piece that we're playing that features Chieko, dancing in this case, and she's accompanied by two of our male dancers, and very much the choreography works around the male energy of the guys and Chieko’s female energy, but through that collaboration and contrast and working both within and against each other, they come up with a quite strong and dynamic dance that transcends gender.
Judith: As Artistic Director you must always be looking to the visual as well as the aural.
Ian: Yes … in what we do, with the drumming and our movement and also singing and shakuhachi … so we bring in the bamboo flutes as well… of course, obviously, the musical element is extremely important, but what we do is a very physical way of making music and creating rhythm and sound. There's a lot of specific stylistic devices that we use when we play and so the visual side of it is equally important. So when we're practising and rehearsing, building up to a show like this one, the visual element is very, very important; as important as the musical element.
And the other aspect of that is that we have a beautiful design as well (Stage Design: Bart Groen , Karen Norris: Lighting, Ross A’hern: Sound Design) which has picked up on the visual metaphors and that's reflected in stage design as well. So all in all, what we're doing is bringing all of these elements together, within the focus of this one production.
Judith: And you are on tour, do you ever get time off? Or do you need to train every day?
Ian: We do … the touring is really tough because we travel those long distances and all those big drums, they take a quite a time to set up and so on. And again, with the design and everything … getting all that set up and ready to go for a show takes the best part of a day. And then we have to come out and play at our very best and then we pack it all up, pack it in the truck, drive on to the next place and do it all again. So there’s an element of not just musical preparation and fitness but obviously physical and mental fitness to prepare for as well.
Judith: With that physical performance … is it mainly upper body strength
Ian: Obviously upper body strength is required, and strong arms, but it's very much centred on the lower body. It's something that people don’t immediately pick up on because you tend to watch the arms and the drumsticks because that’s the exciting movement, but actually, if you look more closely, you'll see that all the strength and the heavy work is being done by the legs and, essentially, the core. So yes, that lower body is really important and something that we stress a lot in our training. Also with many students, we hold these community classes where it’s the general public coming to learn, one of the things that surprises people is when we start talking about the legs … and people go what about the arms and the drumsticks? But it’s important that the legs and lower body is engaged first.
Judith: How is taiko notated? Is it folkloric … passed from Master to Master?
Ian: For this program I would say 80% of the music is new music, mostly composed by myself and Anton and other composers. So The Beauty of 8 is almost fully composed; there are periods of improvisation … we like to have moments to be able to improvise… but I would say overall, it is what I call … new music. And 75% of that is notated. And when notate we just use just mostly Western stave notation.
Judith: That’s fascinating. And do you have do you have understudies?
Ian: No, no, we don’t … that’s a good point. It's something that we do worry about because we almost don’t want to think about it, because if someone injures themselves I'm not quite sure what we’ll do. (laughing) Touch wood.
Judith: Amazing speaking with you, Ian. One last question: have you thought about how much weight you lose each performance?
Ian: (laughing again) Yep, yep we do. I know for me personally I lose a quite a bit of weight … especially after a string of performances, I certainly notice it. I’m pretty lean to start with, but even then you have to be careful that you keep your protein and carb intake up so as to not lose too much weight - and muscle in particular. You treat your body like dancers and athletes, that’s important.
The Beauty of 8, from Taikoz is on tour in July and tickets are on sale now from the venues. The Glasshouse, Port Macquarie – July 19 / The Joan, Penrith – July 20 / Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra – July 25 / The Civic, Newcastle – July 26 / The Parade (NIDA), Sydney – July 27.
Sydney Cabaret Competition
What’s it all about?
We are running some giveaways for the Sydney Cabaret Competition (here) and getting huge entries … it got me thinking. So, who better to answer my questions than Chris Archer, of Archery Productions.
Judith: Let’s work backwards ... what makes bad cabaret?
Chris: Great question! I think if you have no reaction to it, it's bad. If it doesn't entertain you, it's bad.
Cabaret is a funny thing because it's not easy to define (it can be any combination of singing, comedy, drama, dance - it's art). I've thought a bit about this, because if someone can sing really well, but they don't take you on a journey, is it still cabaret or is it karaoke?
It's also what makes it exciting. The wonderful Queenie van der Zandt told me that cabaret is 'the freest form of expression, it's so personal to those creating and performing it - and I love that inner look at the artist'. So perhaps what makes good or bad cabaret is how you interpret it.
Judith: I can’t quite believe the names that popped up on the list of artists in the heats. People that I chase around town to see them in shows. Tell me about the judges, I don’t envy them.
Chris: I can't believe it either - I'm so excited to see how this all pans out.
It was important to me to have a panel of judges who come from various fields within the industry, not just performers. Each week of the competition we'll have a special guest 'host' who'll also perform on the night. The hosts include the fabulous Catherine Alcorn (Winner 'Best Cabaret Performance 2018' - BroadwayWorld.com), Margi De Ferranti (2018 Glug Award Winner - In the Heights), and Matt Lee (2011 Helpmann Award Winner - Mary Poppins).
Also helping us find 'Australia's next cabaret star' is Avigail Herman, Mark Sutcliffe, Darren Mapes, Phil Scott, Queenie van der Zandt and Les Solomon. These names will be familiar to many reading this, since their experience in education, performance, cabaret, dance, management and theatre, truly spans the globe.
Judith: Just tell us a little about how the competition side works?
Chris: The competition really started back in March when entries opened. When we closed this on May 26, I was astounded by the volume and calibre of entries received. Based on a set of criteria, we hand-picked the contestants that will showcase their 8-minute cabarets during the competition.
The heats begin on June 16 and will run over 3 weeks on Sundays 16, 23 and 30 June, at Ginger's at the Oxford Hotel. (time to plug $20 tickets here) At the end of each heat, the judges will choose 2 winners, and the audience in attendance on the night will vote for another 'audience choice' winner, all 3 will progress to the Grand Final.
We've encouraged the contestants to spread the word about the competition to their family, friends, fans and followers who can come support them, and possibly help them progress to the Grand Final.
Judith: The Final is quite an event culminating as it does at the Seymour Centre. How much sparkle are we expecting in the crowd?
Chris: Yes - the Grand Final is one of the feature events of the first annual Sydney Cabaret Festival. The Festival Director, Trevor Ashley will perform and host the Grand Final on Wednesday 10 July at the Seymour Centre, and yes, I've already seen Trevor's outfit and it's SPARKLY!
Trevor has a surprise panel of judges who'll pick the winner and runners up (look at the Festival program for a clue as to who this might be). Again, the audience will choose a winner. The 3 winners will share in over $5,000 worth of prizes!
Judith: What’s your hope for next year and into the future?
Chris: You might find it interesting to know that the Sydney Cabaret Competition is actually inspired by the former 'National Cabaret Showcase', which actually started back in the 90s by our guest judge Les Solomon (and the amazing Jeremy Youett). The Showcase went on to discover over a decade of Australian cabaret talent including Tom Sharah, Melody Beck, Alexis Fishman, Toby Francis, Sheridan Harbridge, Marika Aubrey and Gillian Cosgriff.
So my hope is to add a deserving name to that list! The winner of the Sydney Cabaret Competition this year will also receive mentoring and support in the hope we might see their full-length show brought to a Sydney stage or festival!
Next year, depending on how the competition pans out - i'd like to take on a few other cities and possibly re-brand to the 'National Cabaret Showcase' - but we'll see...
On my way to cementing a well-deserved reputation for taking lunch breaks away from artists, I had the opportunity to speak by phone with Benita De Wit, who is directing Razorhurst, next up at Hayes Theatre. Set in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, Razorhurst, with book and lyrics by Kate Mulley and music by Andy Peterson, this much anticipated production will be the Australian premiere of the show which was commissioned by and received its World Premiere at Luna Stage, West Orange, New Jersey.
“From the 1920s until the 1940s, two vice queens, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, ruled the Darlinghurst underworld. Their rivalry was infamous, leading to a litany of violent crimes enacted by their razor gangs as each struggled to gain dominance in a world of sly grog, narcotics and prostitution.”
Judith: I was having a little poke around and I gathered that you introduced Andy Peterson to the story. I was wondering how long you've been living with these women.
Benita: So Andy and Kate and I were all working on another project and I stumbled across Kate and Tilly Rejected Princesses and I just thought it was really funny and sort of sent it on to them. Not really like knowing what … you know might be a fun idea for something. But kinda just a little nugget of Australian history.
And Andy and Kate ended up pitching it to Luna Stage who had asked them to pitch a few ideas for a two person musical and I think they pitched a whole list of things and that was on it somewhere. I was thinking this theatre in New Jersey won't want to present this Aussie lady gangster musical but that’s exactly the one they chose.
Judith: These are really iconic Australian women, do you think the audience is going to take sides?
Benita: I, kind of, would love it if the audience took sides. I think what the whole show is doing is grappling with their legacies and saying who was right, who was wrong. These two women are really arguing their cases. So, I would hope that the audience would come out with half of them loving Tilly and half of them loving Kate.
Judith: So moral judgments are not to be avoided but encouraged?
Benita: It’s what the show is asking. We have all this press about Kate and Tilly, we have these ideas passed down on who they were but it’s hard to really know unless you were around at the time. So I think it is about deciding for themselves, letting these characters tell their stories and allowing the audience to decide what they would have done in their same positions.
Judith: The show begins in the present does it not?
Benita: It does. The concept of the show is that there's a shop that used to be one of Kate’s sly grog shops, and one of her homes, that has been purchased by Tilly’s family and is being renovated to be turned into a coffee shop. And so it's a property war between these two ghosts because Tilly’s family has bought it, but Kate feels that she deserves space and it was her home and it was her business and that she's probably not going give up haunting it easily!
Judith: The name of the show used to be a nickname for Darlinghurst.
Benita: Yes, it's pulled right from the press. The press, and the Truth in particular, used that particular word when covering a lot of the Razor Wars between the women … and nicknamed Darlinghurst, Razorhurst, because of all of the violence with people using razors.
Yeah, there was a lot of slashings - many of which were from Kate and Tilly’s gangs, but also Norman Bruhn was active around that time, too.
Judith: I know there are no men on stage in the production but there were men around them?
Benita: No there's no men on stage, but we do have moments where we see Kate and Tilly play different characters. So we see Jim Devine and "Snowy" Prendergast and Gregory Gaffney. So we see we see moments of some of the men that were around them but it's really about Kate and Tilly - their rivalry and their legacy.
Judith: Your work as a Director has a, sort of, trademark immersion and multidisciplinary feel. Is there any of that here at the Hayes?
Benita: There is definitely a certain element that there may be some interaction. We're really excited about these women telling their story and a lot of that is engaging directly with the audience, but I wouldn't really say immersion in this one. It's still a pretty conventional theatre layout but, yeah, these women are sort of they are larger than life. We can't really keep them completely contained to the stage.
Judith: What about the music?
Benita: What Andy has done with the music is that he has pulled from a lot of vaudeville, musical hall and Jazz Era music. So there’s a real flavour of that in the piece and so there’s up tempo songs and also some really beautiful ballads and then some things that are a bit more like storytelling but it's really a kind of vaudeville musical style throughout the show.
The music is incredible and these two voices! We've got two of the best Australian voices on this show. (Amelia Cormack & Debora Krizak pictured above) So feeling pretty lucky to be in this rehearsal room!!
Judith: And the live music?
Benita: All we've got is just a piano and our two performers. So we've got our musical director, Lucy Bermingham, playing piano. She's onstage and it's just the three of them.
Judith: Using mics on this one?
Benita: They are. A couple of reasons really. It gives us the flexibility to play with a bit of the sound, because they are ghosts after all so we can have a little bit more fun if we can try to play with amplification and the sound design and all of that.
Judith: Is the setting the modern bookshop?
Benita: The set design and costume design is by Isabel Hudson who has designed at the Hayes a number of times. So what we have gone with in this show is it’s really about the building and the history in the building. There are still these properties around us.
We went on a walking tour the other day and we went to 212 Devonshire Street which was Kate’s home and sly grog shop and which is now a coffee shop. And there are all these buildings around and they do have so much history to them and so what we are interested in the setting in the space is creating this old building that has run-down somewhat and has that history in its walls. And then bringing that space to life as we tell the story.
We’ve also been inspired by those old black and white mugshots and we have drawn from that … these still and very powerful images of criminals.
Judith: When you were doing your research, what surprised you the most?
Benita: I think probably what surprised me the most was the kindness that both of these women exhibited … because you hear about them as notorious criminals, but there are so many smaller really beautiful little anecdotes.
Like when the show was announced, a friend of mine messaged me saying … oh, I love that you're doing a show about Kate and Tilly. She said her grandfather had actually been arrested when he was 19 and Kate was there bailing some of her girls out. And so she just bailed out my friend’s grandfather as well!
Just as an act of kindness and it's been all of those little moments … and I guess it's also been surprising that there is still so much living history. Because it was so recent there are so many people that had stories about their grandfather or someone that they know who knew Kate and Tilly.
And the thing is that as soon as Kate and Andy said they were writing the show, I said in my head … Oh I am taking this to the Hayes – it just felt like the perfect place for it, I couldn’t think of anywhere better for a new musical about Darlinghurst!
Razorhurst, with book and lyrics by Kate Mulley and music by Andy Peterson, will have its Australian premiere from 14 June.
A few questions for Jamie Oxenbould about his creation.
Trevor (Jamie Oxenbould) is a has-been. The auditions have dried up and his days as a television actor are over, but he wants another shot at the big time. However, it’s tough to make a comeback in Hollywood. Particularly, if, like Trevor, you are a 200-pound chimpanzee.
Sydney Theatre Award winning Outhouse Theatre Company and Director Shaun Rennie bring the hilarious and touching play, Trevor by Orange is the New Black and GLOW writer Nick Jones, next up on the KXT stage. Inspired by true events, Trevor follows the life of this ambitious chimp and his owner Sandra (Di Adams) in their odd dynamic of co-dependence.
I needed to know more about this extraordinary sounding play so I sent some questions through to Jamie.
Judith: This is theatre without a net isn’t it? We think simian and blockbuster, expensive special effects come to mind!
Jamie: You’re right, this is theatre without a net. Playing a chimpanzee who had an “acting” career and desperately wants back in to Hollywood was always going to be death defying theatre. And in a small space like the Kings Cross Theatre it’s especially frightening. No monkey costume or make up - just my ape DNA to fall back on.
Judith: Would I be right in thinking it’s a play about humanity. About communication and our limitations perhaps?
Jamie: Yes it is a play about humanity and communication…or our lack of both when it comes to raising animals. It plays on the humanity we instill in our animal brethren, not always for the good…and the miscommunication that happens between species. Like that classic cartoon where a dog owner is having a deep and meaningful conversation with his dog, and the dog just hears “blah blah blah”.
Judith: Trevor must have a different relationship with the audience than with the other characters, some of whom are afraid of him?
Jamie: Trevor’s relationship with the audience is different to all the other humans onstage, in that the audience are the only ones who can understand him…literally. To the other characters he’s just making monkey sounds.
The audience are also Trevor’s confidante in a way, so hopefully that relationship will set up a degree of empathy.
Judith: He’s a weighty character at 200 pounds. How does that translate to the audience? Is that part of the acting challenge?
Jamie: In the script it does say he’s a “200 pound chimpanzee”…so I’m doing my best to bring a sense of that to the performance. Hopefully the audience will get a feel for his bulk, but more importantly his sense of danger and unpredictability. Like watching chimps in the zoo…they’re amazing to watch from afar, but there’s a sense of threat and wildness about them that makes you glad there’s a fence in between you.
Judith: What did draw you to this challenging role?
Jamie: What drew me to doing this role was the enormous challenge of pulling it off. It’s a fine line to tread between playing the frustrated, ageing, out of work actor and a chimp. The audience still sees a lot of human in me obviously…and the challenge for the other actors is to see me as just a chimp with some slightly human characteristics.
Judith: Trevor has some very human emotions, logic and aspirations and yet he has animal instincts at the core. What kind of research does that entail for you?
Jamie: In regards to research…well obviously the frustrated out of work actor part of it came very easily to me…and reading all about the real life story of Travis the chimp that this play is inspired by. You can really go down a rabbit hole on the web when you start looking at animal stories…especially animal attack stories…I don’t recommend it. There are many, many stories of chimps and apes that have been raised by humans and developed what we perceive as “human traits”, but are more likely a form of mimicry. And sadly most of these stories end in a tragic way.
Judith: What kind of emotions do you think the audience will experience during the show and what might they ponder on the way home.
Jamie: We hope the audience has a very funny night in the theatre. It’s a hilarious play (despite what I said above), his desire to get back in the acting game again is excruciating but funny to watch, especially when we see him fantasize about his chimp buddy Oliver - a wildly successful monkey actor…and his Hollywood dream woman, Morgan Fairchild, a B Grade actress who’s now hosting an Animal Variety show.
But of course there’s a sting in the tail, so we hope the audience walks away with a sense of the tragedy of the situation…and talks long in to the night about the reasons for imbuing animals with human traits, the hole they fill in our lives and the gross mistreatment we inflict on them.
Australian Vietnamese comedian, Diana Nguyen, launches her successful live comedy show, Phi and Me, as a web series on YouTube next month, to coincide with Refugee Week. Phi and Me is a 5-part web series, co-created by Diana and Fiona Chau and is based on their experiences growing up with a Vietnamese mum.
I caught up with Diana by phone in the hectic lead up to the launch for a laugh filled conversation.
Judith: So pretty exciting for you then.
Diana: Yes it is. Yeah. It's such high tension.
Judith: And what made you think that your live show would work as an online series?
Diana: Because there's nothing like it. This is the first-ever Vietnamese Australian family comedy series in the world, on screen… on TV, on movies, or on computer screen. This is the first time ever, so I know it will work because the story has not been represented at all.
Judith: And of course, no pressure goes with that!
Diana: (laughing) Oh no not at all!
Judith: It’s created with Fiona. When did you realize that you had the same mother in common?
Diana: Well, I’ve known Fiona since Grade 4. And we actually grew up with each other's mums … our mums used to hang out with each other. And so I've known Fiona for 25 years now. We've somehow sustained a friendship and a creative friendship all this time.
So the character that I perform is actually both our mums combined together. So that we don't centralize on one type of mum ... we wanted it to be a community of Vietnamese mums.
Judith: And how do your mums feel about that?
Diana: My mum … she didn't approve of my acting career for a good eight years until I performed in Miss Saigon and then she was like, oh, I understand what you're doing now. So when Phi and Me came out as a stage performance at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, my mum saw people around her in the audience laughing and I think that's when it hit her that our purpose wasn't just to make people laugh but we want to bring our community together. And also make money! (Both of us had a good laugh here!)
So yeah, I think my mum and, you know, any parent that has a child who is in the Performing Arts they do come to realize that there is a far greater purpose than being famous. Unofficially, Phi and Me is to bring first and second and third generation families together.
Judith: When I saw your trailer, I laughed out loud and scared the cat, because I was a PA teacher and I had that conversation with parents so many times.
Diana: When we did the show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival our Drama teacher came out of retirement from acting and joined us on stage for four seasons of Phi and Me. In the web series the teacher’s name is Mr McFail and we make the joke that he fails at everything in the mum’s eyes.
Judith: You play the mother in the series and she’s a quite broad character. How did you find that line between going too far and, you know, just being funny enough?
Diana: I think these days a lot of film and TV. They're not just doing comedy/comedy or drama/drama, it's in the middle … so dramedy. And we do not want Phi and Me to be all about laughs.
We wanted to touch on the sacrifices that our parents had made to be in Australia, as refugees and as Australians, and we wanted to show how difficult it was for us as teenagers to grow in our world. We're actually sitting on two fences of being Australian and Vietnamese. So for us, we wanted to touch the heart in this web series. So, in Episode Four, and this is a bit of an insight for everybody, the comedy is dropped out and you hit the heart of the show … and you see you see these two people, that you've been laughing with all the three episodes, really see inside their head in Episode Four and that's what we wanted. We wanted substance and we wanted to show a real relationship between mother and daughter.
Judith: Yes, that makes sense. And I think that touches everyone is well. It is obviously going to have a huge audience, I imagine you are expecting a range of responses … everyone will get something different?
Diana: There’ll be in-jokes that only Vietnamese people will understand but universally people will laugh. We didn’t want this to be an ‘ethnic’ web series … we wanted this to be a universal web series about any parent’s love for the child and what they will do for their child and what a child would do for their parents to impress them.
So yeah at The Comedy Festival we had Italian and Sudanese and Afghan people come watch our show and they all came out going … I get that Mum. And it's because mums love their children to death and will do anything for their success. So I think it's as broad as you can get!
Judith: Well I laughed and laughed at the trailer, so I think you are on to something. Tell me about the origins of it … before you got it fully fleshed. Where did the idea come to you from?
Diana: So Fiona and I were known as the two stooges in high school. And in 2010, I was inspired by someone I saw at the Comedy Festival and I just thought … oh my God, we can be funny and tell stories too. So that's how the stage version happened in 2011.
We raised finance and support and so from a 3 person troupe, the web series was filmed in 2017 with a cast and crew of a hundred people. So it jumps from three people to a hundred!
And if we talking about finances I did crowdfunding for $26,000 to get to where we needed to be at post-production and then Screen Australia happily added an extra $52,000 to help with the post-production. So that's why we're having a big party in two weeks’ time.
Judith: Crowdfunding is enormous help to emerging artists. Have you got any advice for people trying to make their own work?
Diana: Yes. Know what you are making and what are the themes … and that's where will you were talking about how broad is it? So you can have a niche, like our niche is Vietnamese people, Vietnamese people will want to support, which is amazing but our story is so broad. So find out what your themes are and then marketing - market your crowdfunding and be so unapologetic with spam.
Because with social media these days, the algorithm will find first or second or third connections who hear your story and that's the people that you want to connect to your crowdfunding. You don't want to just connect with friends and family but you want strangers from another country to go... hey, I believe in your work and your story and that's what happened with me! Phi and Me got crowd funders all over the world supporting it. So it’s not just a Melbourne, an Australian story - it's very global story.
Judith: Following further from that, when it goes online, is it subtitled?
Diana: Yeah. So we've got SBS on board doing a Vietnamese subtitle. So we want 90 million people in Vietnam to watch this. That’s where we will go viral and get Season Two. We want this to be accessible to the first generation Vietnamese, like Vietnamese Americans, to see their story being told and that's really important to us.
Judith: You've got quite a passion for the sharing of this story. Best of luck and only 11 sleeps.
Next up for Genesians - a chat with director Trudy Richie
Persuasion, from Jane Austen, by British playwright Tim Luscombe is next up for Genesian Theatre Company and I had the chance to speak with the director, Trudy Ritchie. Catching up with her by phone during a busy lunch break in rehearsals, Trudy had a bit of a wander up the street so as to be away from the sawing and drilling of the set construction crew. When we got the background noise down I wondered about what we need to know.
Judith: So I'm thinking that maybe people haven't come across either Austin or Persuasion since they were at school. So would you like to give us a little reminder to take into the theatre with us?
Trudy: Of course … Persuasion was one of the last novels that Jane Austen wrote and I believe it wasn't actually published until after she passed away, which is a bit sad. She actually didn't title it Persuasion her brother did. I think she drafted it as ‘The Elliots’ which is interesting.
There is a theme of persuasion running throughout and I guess it's whether having a decisive, firm character versus someone who is susceptible to persuasion; that it's definitely there. But I think it's really it's a love story and it's a chance for righting the wrongs of the past. And that's what happens with the main characters of Anne and Frederick where they fall in love before the war.
Judith: So this is the Napoleonic Wars?
Trudy: Yes. That's right. Yeah, and so they fall in love before that and he actually proposes and she accepts. Unfortunately, she's persuaded by Lady Russell, who has become like a mother to her since her mother passed away, she’s persuaded to decline because he isn't a man of fortune at that time. And so they are both heartbroken and he goes off to war and then eight years later he's back in town and they're reintroduced.
Judith: And he's now famous and wealthy, is that right?
Trudy: Yes. Yes. He's made quite a bit of money in the war; he's been chasing bounties on ships and done quite well for himself. So it's all quite changed.
Judith: The media release indicates that you're doing it in a traditional form, but in an ethereal place. With all that sawing going on when we started to chat, what can audiences expect?
Trudy: Well, I think a lot of the audience they will be hoping and expecting it to be quite a realistic set, which the Genesians do very, very well, but this won't be a realistic setting. It will be quite an adaptable set.
We couldn’t go the traditional way with the set because of the nature of the script. It’s very episodic. So it just moves from one location to another and if we had the beautiful set changes that we normally do, it would just be too much. The audience would grow tired of it and it would just break up the flow way too much. So we've got a set that we can have on stage the entire time and it works really well.
We love that time and we've tried to give as much of the Jane Austen world as we could through the costume and elements of the furniture. There’s some beautiful dresses! And bonnets, there have to be bonnets. But yeah, it's still the traditional text but in a setting that that's probably a little bit more abstract … without giving too much away.
Judith: Of course, the costumes are one of the things that your audiences is love. With the traditional text, I've been reading the play and the language is quite heightened. Do you think that the audiences need a certain sophistication to buy into the characters?
Trudy: I don't think so at all. No, there's so many wonderful, rich characters in it. I think it's just very easy to understand and, also, it's quite amazing how the adaptation is quite different from the novel. It draws out all of the humour and it's actually quite a funny script. So I think it will surprise people in that way.
There’s a lot of jokes and they are very funny. Jane Austen was very funny and people don’t always understand that and this script really shows that aspect of her personality and writing, which is really nice.
Judith: There’s some dialogue we are not used to: “fine looks” and “sisters of inferior value”, stuff like that. Was there a temptation to put a modern spin on it?
Trudy: No, it’s traditional. We are keeping with the etiquette of the day and the manners and so forth.
Judith: I think, in a way, that's what audiences want because if you going to immerse in the period then you don't need glaring changes to the text.
Trudy: That’s right. You know, it's perfect the way it is.
Judith: What kind of research have you been setting your cast?
Trudy: They have been researching the etiquette and manners and the curtsies and holding, you know, arms behind backs and things like that. Things are starting to heat up now and we'll be looking at things like mapping out how far the different manors were located, how far away they were from each other, and how long it took the carriage to get there and things like that. So yeah, we're starting to bring that to life.
Judith: Who do you think are the characters that we will fall in love with?
Trudy: The lovers. Without a doubt. But they are all so wonderful in different ways you know. Like Louisa and how gregarious she is and she’s really quite hilarious. Sir Walter and his vanity and some of the things he says like - morning visits are never fair for a woman of her age. And Elizabeth is hilarious as well with her snootiness! There's so many great characters I couldn’t pick.
An interview with the actor playing Sir John Kerr, Marney McQueen.
I can’t tell you how much I laughed upon seeing that Marney McQueen would be playing Sir John Kerr in Squabbalogic’s upcoming musical The Dismissal. I had questions…
Judith: Oh, please tell me that you're enjoying rehearsal.
Marney: (Big laugh) It's amazing. I absolutely love creating new Australian works. You know, I feel it's just a thrilling thing to be a part of, telling our stories. I did Priscilla and then Dream Lover which wasn't our story, an Australian story, but it was a new Australian production with Australian creatives. And I really love being a part of that process and I've just been blown away with The Dismissal by the boldness and the talent. Yeah, the fearlessness is the main thing and the incredible talent that the creative team have put into to this show.
Laura Murphy's songs and lyrics are just amazing and the script written by Blake Erickson & Jay James-Moody is so fresh and funny and clever. And you know, we're just seeing … I mean, we've only been in the rehearsal room for three days, so we're just seeing it start to have life now. It's just great seeing the actors working and yeah, bringing it to life.
Judith: I spoke to Jay when he was doing Herringbone and he was talking about it then and it sounded interesting. So how did you come on to the project?
Marney: Well, just through my agent. They wanted a female to play the role of Sir John Kerr, the Governor General, and at first I didn't think that I could do it; I didn't think I was available for the date. And then they came back to me, which is always nice, you know, and I had an audition. It wasn't really an audition … it was a very warm, casual, sort of, talk through of some of the scenes because a lot of the show hadn’t even been written. In fact, the script is constantly being updated but was really only really finished about three weeks ago. And so the music came first, Laura wrote most of the music before a script even existed. So it's been a really interesting way to see how the creative process has evolved into production.
Judith: The production itself is described as a work-in-progress. What is the audience going to see?
Marney: Well, that's a really interesting question because you know, we've only got three weeks to pull together what is essentially a full-scale musical. So I don’t know if there will be any concessions made for the newness of the work and the limited rehearsal time! But I really think that we are going to go hell for leather over the next three weeks to pull off a full-scale musical because it’s going to have all the bells and whistles: the band and the costumes and everything. It’s not a reading, to the audience it will look like a full scale production. But Jay is sort of assuring us that it's just a first presentation but yes to the performers that doesn’t mean anything. It still means that you deliver at 150%.
Judith: Yeah, that's right. He likes to work that way and it's been very successful in the past. but it's in the York Theatre, which is huge.
Marney: Well, they're taken out two of the seating banks but still I think it seats 400. I believe!
Judith: On to your role. The more obvious differences aside … what qualities do you think that you share with Sir John Kerr?
Marney: (Big laugh) Oh great question. (thinking) Pride. Yeah, he was a very, very proud person … Didn’t like being made a fool of or having the mickey taken out of him. Now, I certainly don't mind making a fool of myself but yeah, I would say that I would share that with him; being a proud person. He certainly was a very proud person - always had his head held high and I think, you know, the repercussions of his decision would have absolutely crippled him as a person the rest of his life. It just went completely the opposite way to what I imagine he would be expecting might happen.
Judith: What kind of research does a role like this entail?
Marney: A lot … all the events leading up to the Dismissal? Yes. I know a lot more about politics in 1975 than I did previously!
Judith: I lived through it, and I'm sure I don't remember myself, so it'll be fun to see it on stage.
Marney: Yeah well … it is quite detailed but there are some characters who are really …. big in this show. A lot of the supporting characters have been given special license to just absolutely go to town with their characterization. And some of those songs are really funny.
Judith: So tell me about the songs, does Kerr have a solo or anything.
Marney: Yeah he has a couple of songs. The first one he sings is when he’s just met the Queen. It’s his ‘I Want” song – suddenly he’s flipped into another world and it’s an insight into what he wants in his life. It's all about how he just wants to be best friends with the Queen and hang out with Philip and pat the corgis and pop the corks and drink champagne and just, you know, live the life with Philip and Elizabeth. So that's his dream. And that's a fabulous song supported by some gorgeous showgirls … or … maybe they're going to be in top hats and tails. Well, we're choreographing it today. So I'll tell you more about it.
Then there is a beautiful ballad towards the end that is sung by all three of the men. The three main protagonists in the story Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam and John Kerr. And it’s about your legacy. What do you leave behind? What do people think of you when you're gone? What do they think about what you do in your life? And that's a beautiful song.
Judith: Are there many songs that are going to be earworms? Do you think we’ll be humming as we leave the theatre?
Marney: Well, welcome to the last few weeks of my life. They are really catchy and quite a few different genres. Worthy of a soundtrack … original Australian cast recording! That’s what I’m gunning for.
Judith: Please, please, tell me Norman Gunston is in it.
Marney: Yes, Yes. Norman Gunston is played by an exceptional actor Matthew Whittet and he narrates the show. And can you believe that Norman Gunston was there on the steps of Parliament House when Gough came out after he’d been “sacked”?
Judith: I remember, painfully well.
Marney: Can you believe it! So we recreated that scene where Norman is on the steps. And Norman is narrating the whole show. And it’s good because the subject matter of the show is quite heavy, I suppose, but with Norman and then with the clever writing from Jay and Blake, it's been able to remain light and fresh. And there's also a lot of commentary on, the way the world is today; it, sort of, has a lot of references to the modern world as well.
Judith: It says some on the promos, ‘rage-filled’. From where you are standing is it a rage-filled show?
Marney: Well, that was a word Gough Whitlam used … and that's a song in the show!
Trans disciplinary artist.
Image: Best We Forget (installation view) - Dean Cross
The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), Australia's most illustrious and long-standing Indigenous art awards, has announced the 2019 finalists.
Sydney artist Dean Cross is one of the finalists and if, like me the name sounds familiar to you, Dean began in contemporary dance, performing and choreographing nationally and internationally for over a decade with Australia’s leading dance companies. Following that Dean re-trained as a visual artist, gaining his Bachelor’s Degree from Sydney College of the Arts, and his First Class Honours from the ANU School of Art and Design. He is a trans-disciplinary artist primarily working across installation, sculpture and photography.
Dean Cross was born and raised on Ngunnawal/Ngambri Country and is of Worimi descent. I had the chance to speak with him in New Zealand where he is currently working on a project.
Judith: So you are in Windy Wellington …
Dean: Yes, currently in Wellington on an artist exchange. It’s actually a beautiful day here today. I’ve been here for five weeks already but I’m coming home next week.
Judith: I wanted to start at the beginning. I was very struck by your work Right Land’s. I am wondering if you've always seen the world in visuals, you know, do you have a visual brain I suppose I'm asking?
Dean: I would say yes to that. My previous life was as a contemporary dance choreographer and the moving body and that relationship to a viewer... I think I’m just wired that way. And now as my body has aged and wearied, I no longer work so much with other people and other bodies, the choreography now appears, instead, in more subtle ways in the individual art that I make now.
Judith: And you're a transdisciplinary artist, so your practice is wide ranging. Do the ideas come to you as the product as well as the process, or does one, sort of, work towards the other?
Dean: That’s a difficult one to pin down, I would say that usually the ideas are the first things to form … they will sit and stew and swirl around before they are fully formed. But having said that, there are times when I suppose I have surprised myself … when the work will emerge from you and you don’t quite understand what you are working on. And it only reveals itself through the doing. A little in column A and a little in column B depending on what I am thinking about at the time.
Judith: And installations, there are many of those, do those come to you as separate works or is it one concept that appears to you?
Dean: Well … I think it more that there are two parallel facets to being a practical visual artist: the work side, the studio side and then the other line is the building of shows. The understanding of how a body will go through space to view work. And I think that often artists forget about that; curators forget about that to a certain extent.
The line dropped out here but when we reconnected …
Judith: So we were talking about how it comes together in the gallery.
Dean: Yep when I’m building a show, when I am installing work I am often thinking about the physical experience of the viewer, how the viewer will move through the space. And I think that is my choreographic brain kicking in and having an understanding of the subtle manipulation of a physical body that produces emotion or even a physiological response and those are also tools which can be used by an artist.
Judith: I can see that in your work called 1kg of Earth from a 1000km’s Away where you are using what essentially in print, we would call white space.
Dean: So the way that that came together, that particular piece. It had been an idea for a long time that had never been produced. For the most recent Kaldor Public Art Project I was able to realize that work and I travelled 1,000 kilometers to K'gari (Fraser Island) and came back and installed a kilo of sand into the gallery space. I think that was a work where I wanted to, I think, sort of, re-enact or understand for myself a sense of displacement or distance, long distance. But also, perhaps more simply, a way to make a really big sculpture. I like the idea of a sculpture that is 1000 kilometres long or painting 1000 kilometres long. And in the space, when it’s received, there’s a shift that they have to do mentally to stretch themselves across that vastness.
Judith: As a sixth-generation white Australian who connects very strongly with your work, I’m curious if you know who will be your audience when you begin a work. Is it possible to know? Do you want a particular audience for what a particular piece has to say?
Dean: No. I’ve never really thought about that to be honest. Any works will be read in a myriad of ways depending on who is doing the reading. Often, I think, there are things in my work that only Aboriginal people will understand because of the experiences we’ve had and non-Aboriginal people, there are parts of their lives where their story resonates. Not everyone’s story is a happy story no matter who you are. But I’m not exclusively making work one way or the other.
Judith: Well, I must say on a personal level my responses to your work are so strong. Dropping the Bullshit really hit home. Especially generationally because I'm older so and we grew up with those images… there's no doubt about it. It’s a consciousness raiser across the whole of our community isn’t it?
Dean: Coming back to who is the audience, maybe it is the children who haven't been born yet who we need to educate. They will be the ones who live in a world where those sort of binary, kind of dichotomy, separate people, concepts will evaporate. Those children that we have to hold our hope for ... not saying that the rest of us have to give up. Surely that’s where our attentions and hopes will lie.
Judith: Children are our future for sure. On that topic where do you think awards like the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), are placed to support emerging artists.
Dean: I think the prizes can be useful in the presentation of Aboriginal art to show the scope of what it is that Aboriginal artists are producing across the entire continent, those things are all really, really great. But I mean, it's not why you make work and not why you are involved in that kind of exhibition, it does highlight it though.
Judith: I mean there were 280 entries and there are 68 finalists so it highlights that that creative side of the Aboriginal experience?
Dean: Absolutely. Any exhibition whether it's a prize or a non-prize that is exclusively Aboriginal people … needs a real breadth of practice, which I think is the key. Because I mean it's still a problem, the issue of what does an Aboriginal art work look like? And there's a very fixed, I would say colonial perception of what an Aboriginal art work is and should look like, and that's not any of the work that I make or any of my peers. That fixed idea comes from very centralized, like, western desert and the top end and there's lots of us making work outside of those centres.
So I think that museums and galleries have a real obligation to be expanding the perception of that. I’m in a show (unbranded) at the moment that deals with this directly. The whole premise of the exhibition is an expansion of what Aboriginal Art can mean. Because, of course, it can mean anything, in the same way that in the western art canon it can mean anything. But because there are still prescribed notions around Aboriginality, authenticity and what it means to be an Aboriginal person, we are not afforded the same luxuries of being able to produce any sort of artwork we want.
Then even if we did, by nature of being a political body because of my history, it will always be a politicised work regardless of its intention. I could make it pure abstract painting but because of my politicised history, because of my politicised body, it’s going to be a political artwork no matter what.
See more about Dean Cross and his wonderful making at his website. The winners of the 36th Telstra NATSIAA will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) on Friday 9 August 2019.
An interview with actor Reza Momenzada
In the offices of a hip New York magazine, where the banter is more poisonous than the pens, a group of twentysomething editorial assistants scrap it out for their bosses’ jobs. And, a book deal before they’re thirty. In a culture powered by status and Starbucks, a regular work day suddenly turns into anything but, and these aspiring journalists are presented with a career-defining shot at the best-seller list.
Outhouse Theatre Co (The Flick and The Rolling Stone) and Seymour Centre will present the Sydney premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist play, Gloria in June.
I had the chance to interrupt Reza Momenzada’s lunch break from rehearsal to ask some questions about this intriguing play. Reza is the bearded man up the back in the photo and you may have seen his work in The Sound of Waiting at the Eternity Theatre and Humans at the Old Fitz.
Judith: Can you give us an idea of what the play is about?
Reza: Well, the play begins in the offices of the cultural section of a publishing magazine in Manhattan in New York, where there are several young, very young, assistant editors and an intern.
Judith: And who do you play, Reza?
Reza: I play Lorin, a fact checker who is a very sad, sad exhausted man who is stuck in his office in a job that he's not happy with at all. He always regrets doing this and not doing what he was always passionate about doing, which was going to law school to become a lawyer.
Judith: If I understand correctly, all the characters are not doing anything that they want to do. They're all thwarted in their ambitions for what they want to be.
Reza: Yes and I suppose ambitious is the best way to describe these characters … they are all ambitious. They are trying to climb the ladder of success no matter what cost. They don’t care about anyone but themselves and they are fed up with what they are doing in the office.
Judith: Can you share with us the kind of research did you’ve engaged in for the role?
Reza: Well getting to know what a publishing life is like and what is a fact checker’s role in a publishing magazine. And what their everyday life is like; these are people who spend a lot of time in the office. They even work over hours. So I had to understand the nature of this job for my character and what he's going through at the moment … doing this kind of job every day for someone who yells all the time, it becomes quite exhausting.
Judith: Yes, I imagine so. But with Alex Berlage directing I imagine that it's not a very static show though, because he has a strong eye for movement doesn't he? So even though these people are sitting and working at their computers, I expect it's a fairly busy play.
Reza: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean the space that we are in is quite small being in an office. But I love working with Alex. His attention to details - the way that you deliver the line and the way that you move around the space. So yes, it is quite a busy environment. But at the same time, a small place where a lot happens and a lot is being said and done at the same time. It’s quite challenging at times.
Judith: Yes, I can imagine and you've got a pretty impressive cast that you're working alongside.
Reza: The other actors, oh my god, just so talented and generous. Even through I haven’t met any of them before working with them I feel like I have known them a long time because I feel so comfortable that it doesn’t feel like any kind of work. It feels like you are having so much fun with such talented people that you are learning from … a lot.
Judith: What about how you got into acting? I saw that you have been training almost since you arrived in Australia. When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Reza: Very good question. I suppose I knew when I was in high school. I came to Australia from a non-English speaking background and it was hard to connect, you know. But when I did drama class I realised I didn’t need to do much to connect and have fun. Acting gave me that opportunity, or the chance, to belong to a place that with quite foreign to me.
Judith: That is a very moving story. On that topic, I just was wondering how you're seeing diversity on a Sydney stages? This is a very diverse cast in Gloria.
Reza: I think, being new to the industry and from talking to other actors, I think it is happening. I think they are starting to recognise and accept that there are other cultures. Everyone is unique and has a beautiful Story to tell. And, you know, a lot of those stories come from outside of Australia. And actors from outside Australia who can tell these stories, I think, is a bonus and I think I think it is shifting. And I hope, I hope, that it grows and it becomes part of Australian theatre.
Judith: I agree. And what are you moving on to after this run.
Reza: I actually had to turn down another theatre work that was clashing with this and my agent was also trying to book me for a TV show which was clashing! So at the moment, I'm just focusing on this one. And then once I put this behind I’ll be ready to move on to the next project.
Judith: That's one of the problems with being a jobbing actor, isn't it, it all comes at once?
Reza: Yes it all comes at once and it’s quite difficult to juggle!
Sharp Short Theatre
The stars of the future. Interview with the event producer.
Now in its fifth year, Sharp Short Theatre is a short play competition for writers, directors and performers who are 18 years and under, and aims to uncover and cultivate the next generation of Australia theatre practitioners and artists.
As the exciting heats approach I had the opportunity to ask some questions of Producer Amy Matthews.
Judith: Nice to e-meet you, Amy. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for my readers. Sharp Short Theatre is in its fifth year this year, how did it all start?
Amy: Nice to meet you, too. Here at Riverside we felt, as a professional venue, there was an opportunity to provide a unique venue based experience for young people interested in directing, performing and writing for theatre. As a venue we are in this great position of having access to a professional theatre space and fantastic theatre practitioners. Why not give young people an opportunity to access these same things and chance make theatre in this space?
Students enter the competition to showcase their work. The fact their work is then showcased on a professional stage, with professional stage managers, lighting and sound technicians and industry mentors is what they come back for.
Judith: How does it all work in practice?
Amy: We have 4 heats all in one week, and then a final which is a week or two after the heats. Judges from the theatre industry (who generously volunteer their time) watch the heats and select one performance per heat that automatically goes through to the final. The remaining finalists are chosen at the end of the week, after all the heats have been performed, based on the judges scoring and recommendation. A total of 9 plays go through the finals.
Then, the judges on the finals night select who will win which prize. Prizes are awarded in a number of categories including Writing, Directing, Performing and Overall Production.
There is also an Audience Pick which our finals audience have fun selecting on the night, and a Mentor’s Choice, a 10th act that performs on the finals night during judges deliberations but does not qualify for the finals (as a way of the Mentor’s encouraging a play that did really well; took on feedback etc).
The heats week is exhausting for me but so rewarding and the highlight of my year. The transformation I see from the tech runs earlier in the heat day to the final performance in front of the audience can be so huge- and it’s great to see young people learning and developing throughout the day (let alone over the years of competing in the comp).
Judith: It’s all about the young people but I am wondering what part do the schools have to play? Or does it come down to the parents?
Amy: Generally, it’s the schools that do play a major part in giving their students the opportunity to enter this competition. We get both actual schools and after-school drama schools entering and a lot of it really does come down to their teacher to support their entry. Each entry has an adult ‘producer’ who takes care of the logistics of entering- does the paper work, gets the excursions approved etc.
Without their support, we wouldn’t have a competition, so I can’t thank these amazing teachers enough!
Judith: Have you seen a change in the themes over the last few years, young people’s worlds are changing fast!
Amy: Definitely! It’s funny but some years there also seems to be organically developing ‘themes’ for the year. A few years back, there were a lot of political plays- many of them mentioning the then Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Last year it was very ‘horror’ and ‘thriller’ focussed- with every second play featuring some sort of mystery/ murder or gore (some comic and some serious).
It really does provide a marvellous insight into what young people are feeling and thinking. Their aspirations and their concerns. What they perceive as their future or their present. It’s well worth watching!
Judith: What about the mix between comedy and drama?
Amy: I’d say there is generally a 50/50 mix. If there was a trend, I’d say primary school aged students tend to do comedy and fantasy the secondary schools tend more towards drama and issues.
But generally the heats are really well balanced between the two and the audience will get to laugh AND cry!
Judith: Thank you for your time, just one last question. Riverside Theatres has huge audience footprint, are you finding that Sharp Short Theatre is attracting young people from all over? It’s a rare opportunity!
Amy: Yes in fact I’d say close to half of our entries are from regional NSW, and the others that are from the Sydney metro area are from all over Sydney. The regional schools we have competing this year are from the Hunter Region, Bowral, Wollongong and Katoomba. Our Sydney schools come from Blacktown and the Hills area all the way to Vaucluse and Pymble. It’s such a great mix of schools and students from all walks of life!
Sharp Short Theatre is at Riverside Theatre from June 1 with the finals on 14th June.
Some insights into the set, and costumes, for Collaborators coming to New Theatre.
An interview with designer Colleen Cook.
Judith: It’s a tricky space, the New. So, with this being an intimate story inside a huge geo-political world, have you stripped it or narrowed it in?
Colleen: I’ve tried to incorporate both aspects. I am keen to show the squashed, communal housing that reduced fine old houses and apartments into subdivided living quarters and communal kitchen spaces. Repairs are either non-existent or tired and there is a mishmash of styles and history in the walls, the furniture and the floor.
Because there is a continual flow in the play, I have shown the vast Stalinist regime around and beyond the small communal set. The back wall is exposed on the Stage Right side, a red architrave juts into the dark black space and cold light protrudes trough the long corridors onto the empty and black front of the stage. The actors have a huge space to work in, in front of the set, and from wall to wall.
Judith: There are so many visual images we associate with Stalinism and the period, from black and white grainy footage to blood on the ice labour camps, how did you choose your colour palette for set and costumes?
Colleen: I love working with colour. It’s one of the most important things to me, along with lighting. Because I wanted to avoid clichés, red is used sparingly. It’s a trim on architraves that are otherwise within the communal housing set. Absolutely no warm colours are seen in the costumes until characters start to embrace elements of Stalin’s regime – accepting the heating, a driver, a luxurious party all courtesy of Stalin’s ‘generosity’. The opposite of red on the colour wheel is green, so there are many shades of greens, ochres, browns and greys, in defiance of the red splashes.
There is an added complication in this play. A scene from Molière’s Malade Imaginaire is played out on stage. I have paid homage to the Moscow Arts theatre’s constructivist period, using shadow movements behind a double calico screen which also serves to divide the makeshift rooms in the apartment. The actors are in taupe, beige, white and black, matching the calico. There are two actors who work with Vladimir within the play’s story. They are also in that colour scheme.
Judith: There are 14 in the cast by my count; that’s an impressive amount of costuming to prepare isn’t it?
Colleen: It’s huge, but even more, each of the cast members have changes, and the actors portray many different characters with quick costume changes. Then there are the Molière scenes at the beginning and end of the play, which require masks and medieval doctor’s hats and costumes. Not the sort of thing you find off the shelf, so these have had to be designed and made, to a tight budget.
Judith: In the early design phase what kind of decisions do you make with the director and other creatives? I’m thinking about whether the comedy shows in the design or, because there’s a fantasy at the heart of the play, deciding whether anything fantastical needs illustrating.
Colleen: Because I am an actor and director as well, I know how important it is to make everything move well for performance and I also like to give actors places to put things easily so that they have the flexibility of business for their characters. The director, Moira Blumenthal and I worked closely weeks before we started rehearsal, to see that sight lines would work, and exits and entrances would make sense. The play is full of complicated fictional and real entrances and they happen quickly, so it’s not easy to make sense of them all.
It’s also important to make the comedy work in the set. The stage directions specifically ask for a sliding door through which various people emerge (one actor lives in the cupboard). All the productions I’ve been able to get my hands on have changed this to a hinged door, but Moira insisted on a sliding one. Because that means twice the width to allow for the slide, I’ve introduced another cupboard next to it and that too will give the audience some surprises (no spoilers!).
Judith: I like to give readers an understanding of the swan’s feet. How much work goes into construction, sewing, sourcing etc? How long before rehearsals start is the team already working? And how long does it take after the curtain comes down and the show finally closes?
Colleen: I had made my set model before Pygmalion’s production commenced, and that’s the show before ours. I’m in Pygmalion (I play Mrs Higgins) so being super organised was paramount.
Sourcing props, materials and costumes starts straight away. The longer you give yourself the better chance you have of staying within budget. This has been a mammoth show for sewing costumes. Much of it has to be done from scratch, so it has involved a few people helping with basic sewing to complete garments. We have been making the set around the current production which will help a lot. We will bump in immediately after the Pygmalion set is dismantled. I will be doing quite a bit of painting and wallpapering to create the layers of history in the communal housing section of the set.
When the show finishes, much of the set will be undone and the timbers recycled for another production. We will begin dismantling the set as soon as the audience leaves the auditorium! Costumes will need to be sorted according to the place from which they were borrowed, and then washed and drycleaned before returning them. That brings us at least into the week after the close of the show.
Judith: What elements of the design process do you like most and is that what drew you into this world?
Colleen: For me, the creative process is the thing that gives me joy. It’s more exciting to work with constraints and tight budgets than to have a limitless palette. My first love is drawing, with wet or dry media. I love the immediacy of mark making and working with lines that can’t be erased. Everything you put on the page is valid. Similarly, this set and all the design elements are in my head, just like the image I see on a blank page before I start drawing. It’s a matter of seeing what happens, going with it and being flexible.
I have both my mother and father to thank for my spontaneous way of creating. My mother was a contortionist with the old Tivoli theatre in Sydney and later made many costumes, mostly for variety – singing and dancing shows. Quick changes were a specialty and nothing she made ever fell apart, no matter how much stress was put on the costumes. She would cut out a pattern straight onto the fabric and her guess work was astonishingly accurate. I work the same way and still use her treadle sewing machine from about 1930 for all my sewing. I don’t enjoy sewing and working from a pattern would be my least favourite thing, but I certainly love to create something from the image I have in my head, so if that means sewing, so be it!
My father built record players, radios, microphones and sound systems in the valve days. He built the cabinets as well. He could build anything form bits and pieces, always finished beautifully. I still use two bookshelves he made at least 45 years ago and they’re still going strong. I often helped him in the workshop and love working with wood.
I performed in theatre in one way or another all my life. More often than not, I contributed to costume making or props along the way, and my skills grew along the way. I can’t help seeing the whole production at once so it’s only natural I should enjoy any aspect of the process, on stage or off.
In a disaster of colliding schedules this is a late interview with the writer/producer/performer whose show Never Let Me Go was my highlight of the recent Batch Festival at Griffin.
Judith: Thank you so much for taking time out of what must be a horribly busy schedule. This is a world premiere work, written and produced by you, plus you are appearing in it ... and it opens in under a fortnight. As the writer do you get calmer about this time even as your other responsibilities ramp up?
Adriano: Haha. I wouldn’t use the word calm, but when you are wearing so many hats as the creative process continues you have to shift your focus. As we get closer to production I have to accept that I have to let go of the impulse to do re-writes and focus on the text with my actor’s perspective and approach it differently.
Judith: This is quite a cast and creative team assembled for its outing at ‘Batch’ . Have many been with the project over its gestation?
Adriano: The cast was assembled quite quickly which was a small miracle. We needed actors who could sing, play multiple roles and be willing to input and workshop a new Australian work.
My previous work This Boy’s in Love was directed by Johann Walraven who directs Never Let Me Go, so we have a shared creative language.
Steven Kreamer, the musical director has just come off working on Evie May at the Hayes last November, which I thought was fantastic and I asked him to arrange some 80’s era pop music for a boutique choir of voices and he said yes!
Judith: I’m expecting great music because Steven is on board. What track do you think will be the major earworm?
Adriano: There are lots of 80’s tunes people will recognise, but Steven has arranged them in complex and clever ways that they may not be readily recognisable. Toby Gilbert who is a regular house DJ and composer has also created some new 80’s dance tracks which feature in the show. My brief to him was to create something between Giorgio Moroder and New Order and he has exceeded my expectations!
Judith: What motivated you to tell this particular story?
Adriano: I am a gay man who became a teenager in the early 90’s where there was scant representation of gay people in media, stories and films. There were however stories that began to emerge about a mysterious disease called AIDS. I remember watching the Grim Reaper Commercial as a kid and being aware of something ominous but not sure if it was ten pin bowling I should be afraid of.
As I grappled with the secret of my sexuality I realised I wasn’t going to change and this is who I was but the dots began to connect and it became clear that men like me were dying. Struggling with my sexuality as a teenager I didn’t have a sexual awakening or tender first love but the fear of death and intimacy and sex.
The hysteria around AIDS, the uncertainty, the tragedy of lost young lives and the moralising that this disease was some sort of punishment weighed on me as a young man. I wasn’t excited to start my gay fabulous life.
I moved from Perth to Sydney when I was 21 and I was introduced to a world of dance parties, gay bars and being part of an accepting community. The first time I marched in Mardi Gras I was a champagne cork flying though the street, bursting with happiness and awe that so many people were affirming my identity. All I’d ever felt around being gay was fear and isolation and here I was exploding with joy and exclaiming Happy Mardi Gras! to thousands of new friends!
As I began to explore the scene I discovered I wasn’t as sexually daring as I thought I would be. It took me longer to trust, build relationships and I rarely jumped into bed with someone I barely knew. I wanted to be bold and free spirited and couldn’t work out what was holding me back.
A few years ago I read a play called The Normal Heart by US playwright Larry Kramer. It chronicles the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York through the eyes of writer Ned Weeks as he forms community action groups and fights dogmatically for money for research, outreach and awareness. He pleads with his community to stop having sex to save their lives while still yearning for connection and intimacy. And there it was. In that character Larry Kramer had distilled an essence of my experience growing up in the shadow of AIDS. I set about researching more about this period and I found a book called Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS by Paul Sendziuk. The book details the history of AIDS in Australia from the early 80’s and the innovative government approach and involvement of community action groups in forming policy and prioritising education and prevention.
As a story-teller what struck me most about the Australian story was the fortuitous circumstances that allowed for Australia to have the lowest HIV transmission rates in the developed world.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have your friends die around you before you had even turned 30. People had so many funerals to go to they had to decide which one of their friends they would say goodbye to. What I realised as I delved deeper into the story of AIDS was that these men and women didn’t give up and live in fear, but they overcame everything to care and love one another. I wanted to honour the people who lived and died in my community and who fought bravely. I often think of all the fabulous and creative men I never got to meet. They could have been my mentors, my friends, my lovers. I will never know the power of their human spirit but their stories have given me strength to live boldly and Never Let Me Go is my love letter to them all.
Judith: People like myself, who also lived through it with our brothers, might be a bit wary of revisiting those dark times. I have always found your work uplifting, how will Never Let Me Go send us from the theatre?
Adriano: Ultimately, I think the story of AIDS in Australia is uplifting because divergent groups (politicians, doctors, the gay community, drug users, sex workers, researchers) had to come together and cooperate and in the process they saved thousands of lives. They didn’t take the moral high ground like in the US, believing AIDS was God’s punishment, but they were pragmatic, progressive and united.
AIDS showed us that you can affect change but you have you can only do that form a position on non-judgement. Nobody could say this is right or wrong but they had to look at the facts and accept that they couldn’t act as a moral arbitrator. Because no one is innocent, everyone is flawed and no one has the right to stand in judgment. When we live from this place we tap into our humanity and discover it is infinite in its scope.
I think the audience will leave the theatre proud that we as a country acted with commonsense and compassion.
Judith: Are there plans to take the show to a wider audience after sharing it with the Griffin crowds?
This is the first incarnation of a project that I hope to expand to a longer work, which covers more of the history and develops the characters further. At this stage it is a taught 60 minute narrative. As an independent theatre maker you hope people take an interest in your work but ultimately there is not a lot of money for development of new Australian work.
But I’m optimistic and tenacious and I know this story is special and I believe that it will resonate strongly with audiences.
If I’m going to put my dreams out there -I would love this show to end up being Australia’s Angels in America. Big call, but dreams aren’t meant to be small.
Read my review of Never Let Me Go here.
An interview with the director, Erica Glynn who is also the daughter of the subject of the film, Alfreda Glynn.
She Who Must Be Loved is a documentary showcasing the epic life story of Alfreda Glynn - who founded Imparja TV and radio networks across Australia – including CAAMA, Australia's largest Aboriginal media organisation. One of the hot ticket docos at the 66th Sydney Film Festival the film is directed by her daughter - influential Indigenous filmmaker Erica Glynn (In My Own Words – SFF2017).
We had the opportunity to send through some questions to Erica about this film.
Judith: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions. I believe you are in Cooktown. I am a Townsville girl and I miss the warm, so … slightly envious.
Erica: No worries Judith. In fact I’m based in Sydney but in Alice working at the moment….and it’s freezing here in the desert.
Judith: This film is certainly a family affair and I imagine a lot of love went into its making. Is it a film you have always wanted to make?
Erica: Yes & No! I always thought someone in our family (not necessarily me) would get it made. Partly because so many other filmmakers have pestered Mum over the years to do it, and she has knocked them back, but mostly because she is an incredible person who deserves to be acknowledged for her contribution to Australian Media.
Judith: As the participants, including your mother are aging, did you feel a time pressure to bring this film to screen?
Erica : It’s been swimming around in my brain for many years but at the end of the day the timing was perfect. I’ve matured enough as a filmmaker to take on such a complex and layered story. My Niece Tanith, the Producer, has enough credibility now to attract financing a film such as this and Mum is bold enough to say how what she wanted to talk about and what she didn’t.
Judith: The film uses some remarkable historic footage - how difficult was it to source? And would you mind giving an insight into your cultural approach to using the footage?
Erica: CAAMA has a rich archive and obviously this was where we headed first. Like every other blackfella screen situation it comes down to consultation and making people aware.
Judith: The title is intriguing. Is it indicative of you or your mother, do you think?
Erica: She Who Must Be Obeyed was the film’s working title. In the 80’s, white people who had held all the power in Alice Springs for a long time, were really challenged by Mum’s/CAAMA’s requests and expectations. They publicly referred to her as She Who Must Be Obeyed. But in the end the film moved in its own direction, and that name no longer suited. She is not that person anymore. It seems the new title She Who Must Be Loved means different things to different people. You have to watch it to figure out what it means to you.
Judith: I read the German review of your film on IMDB and she mentions a “respectful distance” approach to the film-making. Do you see that as accurate?
Erica: I was simply trying to get stuff from an elderly woman who on Day One regretted she’d ever agreed to have a film made about her.
Judith: Most documentaries, personal or political, are a call to action. What would you hope that audiences of your film are invested to do after viewing?
Before the return to Barangaroo for Vivid of Marri Dyin, an interview with one of the creatives behind this much anticipated free event.
Photos from 2018 by Steve Christo
Winter Camp, presented at Barangaroo for Vivid Sydney 2019 will bring back the six-metre tall puppet Marri Dyin (“Great Woman” in Sydney local language) now joined by Sydney school children to share in the stories of the land and its relationship with First Nations peoples.
I had the chance to speak with the Scott Wright, Artistic Director of Erth Visual & Physical Inc, a performing arts company renowned, among other achievements, for its creation of giant puppetry. Marri Dyin is pronounced “Mahr-ee Djin”.
Judith: Your character is coming back and she’s got company?
Scott: Yes! Marri Dyin what an amazing creation? She’s starting to grow into anything more than we ever expected.
Judith: She’s not a specific spiritual character is she?
Scott: That’s right. It doesn’t have any connection to any traditional indigenous or First Nations stories or culture. What she is is a contemporary spirit which acknowledges the women of Australia.
Last year was so specific and she represented the women of the Eora Nation but I think, as she continues to grow into her potential, it’s important to acknowledge all the First Nations women of Australia.
Judith: And to include the children is a wonderful move for her.
Scott: Well, the children are the future aren’t they? They will carry the knowledge into the future and we can only do our best in order to pass that knowledge on.
Judith: How are the children involved?
Scott: In a very practical sense there are over 500 school children participating in workshops with dancers we are sending into schools. And then on the nights of Vivid, each school will have an opportunity to perform with Marri Dyin.
We have, a guess you would call it a shoal of illuminated native fish, and the children will puppeteer those fish around Barangaroo as a recognition of the seasonal changes and the food sources that were available to First Nations people at that time.
Judith: And she is camped for part of the week isn’t she?
Scott: What we have learned is that as the months got colder the people would migrate from inland to the coast because the temperature was warmer on the coast. And so the idea is that Marri Dyin has come in onto the coast because the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder, and she’s setting up camp. And she’s collecting food, preparing for the winter months.
Monday to Wednesday she will sit in contemplation and Thursday to Sunday she gets up and she is actually going to be naming things in the Sydney language. So as she travels around Barangaroo she’ll be identifying various things like trees and water and sky and children and she will be giving them their names in what we understand to have been the language spoken in Sydney before settlement.
Judith: Sounds like a great way for the children to teach their parents.
Scott: Yes! What I’m interested in is education by action rather than education by institution. We are not producing a formal way of learning but creating an immersive experience where through that experience you may subliminally learn two or three traditional words, in a way an act of preservation.
Judith: Can I ask you about the usual Vivid technical concerns around wet weather and lighting?
Scott: Well, she has her gunya so if it gets really wet she can always go into her hut and bunker down and warm herself around her fire. But essentially she is made from the fabric that a lot of people’s shower curtains would be made from so she can take a bit of weather.
The lighting is a series of LEDs and she has over 300 inside of her - so an infinite array of colours and it allows us to program her anyway we want. Colour, patterns etc - it’s exciting.
Building on what she did last year her visual language is increasing, she can do so much more this year. Last year she was big and brazen. She did fire ceremonies and conjured up a thunderstorm - very dramatic. But this year we wanted to bring her back to a more gentle presence and initially I thought she would do less but it turns out she is doing more!
Judith: One last practical question, how many operators does she take?
Scott: There’s a team of ten operators but apart from the puppeteers there’s also technical people, stage management, site managers etc so in reality it would be 10-15 people on any given night to bring her to life.
Marri Dyin is spectacular and she’s beautiful and she has a presence that is very calming but at the same time she provides a catalyst to having that discussion around First Nations people and culture and language and the importance of preservation.
Winter Camp featuring Marri Dyin is 24 May–15 June, 6–9pm. Winter Camp show Monday – Wednesday, performances Thursday – Sunday at Exchange Place and Wulugul Walk, Barangaroo. FREE. More Information here.
I loved the book and had the chance to speak with Producer/Director Sophie Hyde about the film which is set to be one of my highlights of Sydney Film Festival, 2019.
Animals the novel, from Emma Jane Unsworth was first published by Canongate in the UK in May 2014, then reprinted as a paperback in June 2015. The film, from Australian producer/ director Sophie Hyde with Unsworth as the screenwriter, will screen during Sydney Film Festival 2019. Animals features Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) as best friends who live in a haze of drink, drugs and one-night stands, cutting a swathe through Dublin until their friendship is tested when one of them falls in love.
Early this morning, Adelaide time, I spoke to Sophie while she was out walking.
Judith: So you are an early riser.
Sophie: I am and I like a walk especially if I’m talking. I find it hard to sit and talk.
Judith: Your film Animals looks like being one of the highlights of the Sydney Film Festival. Will you be coming up with the film?
Sophie: I am coming. I go to London first to premiere it there then straight to Sydney.
Judith: Is that at a festival in London?
Sophie: Yes it is. It came out at Sundance in the US in January and now it’s premiering at Sundance London which is where Sundance take, I think it’s only six or seven films, and do the UK premiers of those.
Judith: How important do you think Festivals are to an independent filmmaker?
Sophie: To me it’s really important. At the moment film festivals are the only place, as audiences, we are seeing a lot of films. And as filmmakers - we are showing films to an audience ... hopefully it’s going to go broader than that ... but in the first instance that’s where you present it first to an audience. And it’s like festivals are curators of work and people get to see the films through that so you are not relying on salespeople, or whatever, to connect you with audiences. To me they are really important.
Judith: Sort of on the same topic, your film 52 Tuesdays picked up a swag of awards. What do those accolades provide?
Sophie: It’s depends on the movie of course. Awards are those funny things ... you try not to get too attached to them but it still feels nice when you get them. For a film like 52 Tuesdays it was really important because we made that film without anyone knowing about it; it was a very small movie. And so awards really did something to ask people to stop and pay attention to it and gave it some kind of kudos in a world where we were completely unknown and our cast were all unknown.
I think some movies don’t follow that path, they don’t need that so much, they have a different audience and a different way of getting to them. But certainly when you are an independent filmmaker it’s useful!
Judith: In other interviews you have spoken about your independence as a filmmaker, how important is it to you to make your own work ?
Sophie: Really important and increasingly so, I really believe in it. There’s a temptation to want to reach out ... when you are young and also even now for me ... to step into something where someone else has raised the finance, all the work is done for you and you just get to go in and be the director. But the satisfaction for me is much greater on things where I have a part in that, where I am part of a team that is working together to do all the elements.
So, for me, I don’t want to go in and feel like I’m working for someone else, I want to work with other people. Having independence is what gives me that, the power to make the things I want to make.
Judith: So with Animals, how did the opportunity arise to work with author Emma Unsworth who is also the screenwriter.
Sophie: I was sent the script, and I read the book and I pitched for it. It gets sent out to a handful of directors specifically and then you kind of pitch back to them. And that one, for some reason, I just thought it was the right kind of film. And I met them, Sarah Brocklehurst one of the producers and Emma on Skype and I felt that was the right kind of people to work with. So I came onto the project that way.
I was talking before about how someone else has “owned “ it but over the years how we developed Animals and financed it, it also became owned by my production company as it became and Australian/Irish co-production. So it became ours as well; it morphed into something.
Judith: And you appear to have reveled in the Irish identity of the film?
Sophie: I did... I loved that part of it. The original book is set in Manchester but we moved it to Dublin for financial reasons. And we were still going to set it in Manchester, or that was the request, but I just loved Dublin so much.
I loved the world of Dublin for the girls in the story ... old and amazing architecture and beautiful streets and this very literary background. To tell a story in a city, I think the city kind of becomes part of it and so you ... I ... have to immerse myself in that place and understand it really quickly. That was great! That was a very enjoyable part of making that movie.
Judith: And there’s a shorthand for the audience about the Irish and drinking?
Sophie: I think Irish and Australian people really understand each other ... there’s this real comradery ... and I think Australians get the drinking really quickly as well. It doesn’t sit as well in, say, America, for example. I’ve found people there struggle with it, the way the girls drink. That’s very interesting. I haven’t been to the UK with it so I’ll let you know!
Judith: Variety called your directing style “spangled” I really have to ask about that!
Sophie: (Laughter.) That was a really funny quote from them and I was like - is that an insult? So I’ve taken it as a positive and we have used the term ‘dilapidated glamour’ when we talk about this film.
There is like a glitter on the feet and dirty toenails. It’s like they are very glamorous, and they are olde worlde in some ways like a movie stars but they are also really grotty and messy and bringing those elements together is what we were doing with the characters. And I guess also in my directing style there’s a kind of full richness inside the story ... it’s very luscious but also very grounded and real and raw. I don’t know that we see those things together a huge amount.
Judith: Thank you so much for your time and walking breath. One last question: please tell me it’s true you edited the film in your backyard next to the chicken coop.
Sophie: Yesss. My partner Brian (Mason) shot the film and also edited it. So he came to Dublin with me and we immersed there. And then we came back to Adelaide and we really do have a shed in our backyard, it’s kind of a lined shed, like a studio. And it’s right next to our chooks and our dog’s there and the possums run around and make a lot of noise. And editing there is like shutting off from the rest of the world while you put together a movie which is what editing takes.
You’ve Got Mail
Before it opens tonight at the Batch Festival we asked some questions of co-creator Ang Collins.
Call me romantic but I was very intrigued by You’ve Got Mail by Ang Collins and Sarah Hadley, a weird and wild satirical rom-com for the Batch Festival. So I sent through some questions to Ang about this odd offering.
Judith: Is it weird that I am emailing you these interview questions? Rather than speaking to you directly about a show which explores the lack of emotion on the internet?
Ang: This way, we’re just like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan! Emailing back and forth with calculated witty banter. It is funny that emailing interview questions has become the norm so quickly - if it doesn’t exist online it didn’t happen!
Judith: Should an attendee do an iTunes hire of the movie before hitting the show?
Ang: Absolutely not. If you know and love the film, you’ll enjoy the show immensely. If you have no idea what the film is about and have no interest in watching it, you’ll enjoy the show immensely. This show exists in its own right entirely.
Judith: The show was a big hit at Bondi Feast, what made you reprise it and have there been many changes?
Ang: The Bondi Feast run was so much fun - we literally threw the show up in its rawest form and had no idea whether people would get it, let alone enjoy it. Thankfully they thought it was hilarious and weird, so that gave us the confidence to go back to the drawing board with it, and see what directions to push it in next.
This show was and still is a work in progress, and the Batch Festival run is the next step in an ongoing cyber-journey. We’ve made a bunch of changes, and wrangled the beast into a weirder, sillier, more cinematic direction (read, lots of movie references in the form of little Easter eggs). It’s going to be the bigger, better version of the show we put on at Bondi Feast.
Judith: It’s an unusual way of looking at the world, this show. With writing from yourself and Sarah Hadley with Ella Prince, Christopher Ratcliffe and Sophia Campion in the cast was the creation of the show hysteria or hard work?
Ang: I think the lens that we’re working in is both unusual and a typical millennial way of looking at art making and relating to the world. Millennials love irony, nostalgia, and bowerbirding old ideas to make something new. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with this show, and what Sotto’s theatrical point of view is in general. (Sotto is on Facebook)
That being said, the creation of the show has been a blend of both hysteria and hard work. We’ve drafted and redrafted the script upwards of twenty times, rehearsed our butts off, and honed the vision down to a tee. We’ve also produced potentially the silliest show a Sydney stage has ever seen, and have tried to control collective fits of laughter at each rehearsal so we can move on and actually get some work done. It’s been so fun to make.
Judith: The ‘Batch Festival’ is full of great work again this year, will you get some time off to see some of the other shows?
Ang: Most definitely! The perks of being on first at Batch is that after our show is done on opening weekend, we can kick back and enjoy the rest of the fest! We’re excited about seeing a bunch of the shows, particularly You’re Safe till 2024, Tales of an Afronaut, and Never Trust a Creative City.
Judith: What will your audience take home as they tumble down those steep Griffin stairs?
Ang: Being in the late slot of 10pm, I hope the audience just has a bloody good time at the theatre, and is surprised by something that they maybe haven’t experienced before. It’s so awesome that our crazy strange show gets a life on the little Griffin main stage. We’re pumped.
A world of Celtic music, magic and masterful storytelling!
Dreaming the Night Field: A Legend of Wales takes to the stage at Riverside Theatres as part of an international tour and we just had to ask questions of storyteller, Michael Harvey.
Judith: It’s great show title! I think it engenders a peacefulness and communal calm. Is the title drawn from the Mabinogion?
Michael: Not directly. It comes from a song that Lynne Denman wrote called Breuddwyd/Dreaming and we wanted to give the show a title that had resonance for people. The show has an otherworldly feel to it and is closely connected to landscape and after batting it around a bit Dreaming the Night Field was the winner.
Judith: It seems not to be a very peaceful story … there’s war and betrayal. What emotional journey does the audience go on with you?
Michael : There is certainly some strong stuff in the story but it is not just about the strength of the emotions or the violence of the actions because the mythic focus of the story gives a bit of distance to what goes on. We recognise the actions of the characters but most of them are more than just people in the sense that we know our friends and neighbours.
It is a bit like Greek tragedy where the events of the play are pretty horrific but the overall effect on the audience is a clearing and calming rather than trauma.
Judith: With songs and music and storytelling the tale is told in a mixture of Welsh and English. How important was it to maintain the original language as the work was prepared for non-Welsh speakers?
Michael: Vital. We feel it gives a window on to the world that the stories come from. As soon as you use the Welsh place names and personal names the language is already present. These have an evocative power that brings the places and people and places into the room.
The show was conceived bilingually and almost all the songs are in Welsh which, we feel, actually gives the audience a rest from some demanding listening for a few minutes before we dive back into the weirdness of the action.
Judith: Do you find, as you have been travelling, that your storytelling needs any cultural adjustment or is the work itself enough of sharing of common ground?
Michael: So far not. We’ve done it in Wales, England, Germany and Holland and so far people get it. We’ll find out what happens in Australia very soon!
Judith: The trailer is amazing … does the stick balance have a traditional significance or do I have to wait and see the show to fully appreciate the meaning that is allied with the beauty?
Michael : I wrote a piece about the sticks for the programme.
During the R&D phase of Dreaming the Night Field we talked a lot about how we wanted to have a strong scenographic element in the new piece. Stuff on stage that could move around, be three-dimensional and somehow link, rather than separate, the performers from the audience. So not just a backdrop, then. But what?
During the early development stage we stopped off on the way from Cardiff to Aberystwyth to pick Lynne up from her house. Once I’d finished gazing at the beautiful view she has of the Teifi valley I started to thumb through one of her Andy Goldsworthy books and stumbled across pictures of his work with the French dance company Ballet Atlantique where the dancers incorporated wood into their work and thought, ‘Why not?’.
So once we got to Aber I bunked off for half an hour and drove round the wooded surroundings of Aberystwyth Arts Centre and filled my car with as many branches as I could and, what with the wet Welsh weather, I actually collected a lot more nature than I had originally intended.
Strangely, no one batted an eye lid as I hauled my wet, smelly, moss-covered heap of wood into the lovely circular studio in the arts centre. We played with the sticks for hours and knew that they were great playmates but we didn’t really know any good (or safe!) stick games.
Enter visual artist and stick-tamer Sophia Clist. She herded some sticks into the barn beside her old Dartmoor farmhouse and chopped, sawed and stuck branches together and then brought them to us. We set them up in rehearsal spaces in Cardiff and Merthyr and bit by bit we got to know our woody teammates in a series of trial and error attempts at putting people, sticks, words and music together.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Without false modesty I think that I can confidently claim to be able to walk and talk at the same time but as soon as I had a stick in my hand I reached cognitive overload and could barely remember my name let alone what Gwydion did next or what I was meant to do with the big stick I was carrying.
However we persevered and slowly the sticks began to get into the game and actually started showing off. Without much apparent effort on their part, and with just a little help from us, the sticks became a sea shore, a mountain range on the Llŷn peninsula, wounded and dead soldiers, deer and wolves. And not only that they also brought a spaciousness and depth to the complex and contradictory emotions in the story we are trying to tell. We never try and illustrate anything, it’s just that we can’t stop ourselves from projecting likeness, attitude, emotion and intention onto the sticks as the story unfolds.
Don’t ask me how they do it, all I know is that by bringing what is outside inside and spending enough time with it, a level of communication is reached where you don’t need to grapple with yourself trying to find a way to express all the weirdness and complexity in the story because, if you pay attention, you’ll find that the sticks are right there, showing you exactly what it’s all about.?
Judith: Thank you again and best wishes for interesting travels in our own ancient land.
Michael: Looking forward to it!
Director Paula Crutchlow. Storyteller Michael Harvey. Singer Lynne Denham. Composer/Musician Stacey Blythe.
We had grabbed a few minutes from Batch Festival co-curator and Griffin Artistic Associate Phil Spencer as he headed into production week.
Judith: Thanks for taking my call, you must be fairly busy at this point?
Phil: (Laughs) It’s just starting to kick up . You know what it’s like, on paper it seems like a great idea ... let’s schedule 15 programs over 10 nights and let’s turn them over with half hour change-overs... then you get about a week out and you are ‘who’s idea was this ?’
Judith: It’s a difficult thing the second of a festival, especially given the success of last year.
Phil: Yeah second night syndrome. The first Batch was last year and it went tremendously well so we have been spoiled for choice. So we curated exclusively through submission this year and we still had a lot to choose from. Can’t moan too much but the hard bit of the job is saying no to so many great things! Just trying to find the right recipe for what will be a fun few weeks in Kings Cross.
Phil: Are you seeing changes in the alternative theatre scene in Sydney?
Phil: It’s interesting, I’ve been in Sydney for 10 years and, like the rest of us, going to the theatre three or four times a week. In that context Sydney feels really exciting at the moment. As scene and a sector, the kind of independent arts scene and the alternative performance scene and the rise of comedy scene that’s come about in the last few years. So we strive like many cultural Renaissances through a struggle ... venues have closed, funding has been pretty much decimated... and out of that rubble people have sort of worked really hard and tirelessly to be a bit braver and bolder with the conversations we are having with our audiences.
And perhaps more unabashed about making work that’s pushing the envelope. And having a quiet confidence that you will find an audience for the work you are making and that those audiences will find you no matter what venue you pop up at. What festival or abandoned car park or where ever you decide to perform your work. We are finding ways to engage a new audience, people who will come across theatre ... curated nights or alternative venues!
So it’s a really fun time to do what I do as a theatre maker and programmer and curator.
Judith: Batch is a chance to catch a lot of these artists in microcosm as it were. A taster of what they are about.
Phil: True. Griffin, in a way, is always been led by the venue because it’s such an iconic space. It’s been around so long and magic really does happen up there in the attic. So what I find is really fun is that, if you create the right performance, you have the right actors and people around the stage it becomes a privilege for the audience to be that close to the action.
Judith: I worked there a bit in the 90s and my abiding memory is that it was filthy.
Phil: We’ve popped the Hoover round since then but to be honest it’s not much better.
Judith: But there have been changes. Especially in the foyer which your media release says is going to be “buzzing”.
Phil: Well, we are working with a visual artist, Todd Fuller, who has a beautiful project called Unite Project. Essentially how his visual art works, he’s going to be projected on the wall of The Stables, outside. And inside you can experience it because all around the foyer is going to be ... some grown up colouring in!
And you can contribute to this stop motion work that Todd has been creating over the past few years. Something to do between shows and between craft ales to continue generating this kind amazing animation.
Judith: Wow . That will be worth people wandering past if they are going to eat out or to other local venues.
Phil: Yes we sometimes worry that snuck up there in Kings Cross you might not know we were there, so we want to be as visible, as colourful as possible, for a few weeks. That’s one of the purposes of Batch really to be as open and accessible as possible for people who never maybe go to the theatre or have never been to our theatre.
Judith: When you are curating do you see the performance or choose from the written submissions.
Phil: So the panel, Emily Havea, Tasnim Hossein, Nicole La Bianca and I, we read a hundred or so submissions for 12 projects all up.
We didn’t obviously see all of those performances but we have seen much of the artists’ work before ... one of the privileges of being someone who curates and programs is a curious mind. So even if I’m not putting a festival together I’m always going to see the work of my peers and contemporaries because it’s exciting and you want to know what’s going on and who the next great writers and what collectives are emerging.
You like to think you have your finger on the pulse but what is invariably true is that something comes through the door from someone you have never heard of or that you would never have thought would make an interesting bit of theatre and it becomes a centrepiece.
Sometimes people misconstrue cutting edge new work as work made by young people. What we really embrace in Batch is that we want to put on stage stories and voices of people who might not be occupying that central canon of Australian theatre … namely dead white blokes. Which is a broad umbrella term and there’s no universal thread but every piece that we program in Batch is … this is probably a story you have not seen on your stage recently … or enough.
From Lane Cove Theatre Company comes a relevant pop-rock musical, unusually, with a sung through score. I had the chance to send some questions through to one of the directors.
Bare is playing next at Lane Cove Theatre. According to the compnay this is a “Pulsating, electric contemporary LGBT pop-rock musical which follows a group of students at a Catholic boarding school as they grapple with issues of sexuality, identity and the future.”
I had the chance to send some questions through to the Director, together with Isaac Downey, Kathryn Thomas.
Judith: Hi Kathryn and thank you for taking my questions about Bare. How did this project come to you?
Kathryn: I was recommended to listen to it after I fell in love with the musical Spring Awakening many years ago. And I’ve been in love ever since.
Judith: Do you think that being an off-Broadway offering gives the show an added relevance and attract tion?
Kathryn: I think coming of age stories are so universal that anyone who’s been a teen, suffered heart break, struggled with their sexuality or had body image issues can relate to Bare.
Judith: You are directing with Isaac Downey and have a terrific creative team including Steve Dula as Musical Director. Are you using live music?
Kathryn: Yes, we will have live music. Because of the space we use, we are making it more intimate by using an acoustic ensemble.
Judith: It’s a big cast though, 17 performers who sing, dance and act. Are they mostly playing the young people?
Kathryn: 3 of the 17 roles are older people (Claire, the priest and Sister Chantelle)
Judith: There seem to be a diversity of themes in the work: LGBT, yes, but bullying and self-esteem and resilience? What questions would you like the audience to ask themselves after seeing the show?
Kathryn: Perhaps question how you’ve treated someone in the past for how they look or their sexuality. Remember that we are all equal and struggling equally regardless of who we are. This show hits home for everyone in some way.
Judith: Lane Cove Theatre Company have tackled shows from Godspell to The Wondrous Wizard of Oz which is coming up. Community Theatres are incredibly important to the cultural life of Sydney but is the company any closer to having a permanent home?
Kathryn: We keep trying and trying. We are never not trying to find a home. The more people see our shows, hopefully the more the community will realise we are doing something so important for the community and young creatives in Sydney.
Judith: Thank you for your time and one last question … The show is a pop-rock musical, what song do you think we will have as an earworm when we leave the auditorium?
Kathryn: Birthday Bitch
Junk: From the Flying Fruit Fly Circus.
Australia’s leading national youth circus, the Flying Fruit Fly Circus is bringing ‘Junk’ to Riverside Theatres. We had the chance to speak with Artistic Director, Jodie Farrugia.
Judith: I’m looking forward to seeing Junk again. I saw it at the Opera House a couple of years ago, I expect it will have changed.
Jodie: Yes, a little. The cast has changed as the some of the young artists have graduated from the school and new ones have come in. As I have a new cast member come in, I like to include them in the process and allow them to find their own offering and character within the show. The basic premise and the narrative are the same with some changes to the circus skills and acts.
Judith: Do you find the kids come to you with a skill or an interest in a certain area or do you need to assess them to see what they’ll be good at?
Jodie: The young people who are cast in the show are all part of the Flying Fruit Fly school in Albury-Wodonga. There’s 85 students there at the select entry school from Year Three to Year Twelve ... 8-18 years old. And so they audition to get in and there’s an academic school attached to the facility but they train at circus. And 17 get selected for the touring show. So they have been training for a long time and they have specific skills and circus skills like theatre, performing and storytelling stuff. So the show touring is part of their training in transferring their skills into something that is artistic and creative on a stage.
Judith: And so you find that as they graduate from the high school that they tend toward going into the industry or perhaps other artistic careers?
Jodie: It seems like a little bit of both. Some do go straight to join companies here and overseas. Others go off to do further training in circus, also sometimes overseas. Others go … you know I’ve been doing this a long time and I want to try other things ... how many people can say at ten years old they’ve performed at the opera house?
I’ve been with the company about fifteen years and I see that they are very strong human beings, resilient and with a, you know, sense of culture and understanding of the arts.
Judith: I expect that is part of your duty of care. I know that organisations like the Vienna Boys Choir have very strict protocols around when the young people can no longer perform.
Jodie: I love it when people ask about that because it’s not often talked about and it’s a major part of working with young people. As a director I take this very seriously. By the end of this tour we will have been on the road for over six weeks with seventeen young people from seven years old and there is all sorts of welfare to be thought about. The “non performance” schedule is in the hands of a very experienced tour manager and there are three parent chaperones and all the people I work with lighting, sound, riggers, stage managers are all educators in different ways.
Judith: It’s family isn’t it, circus ?
Jodie: Yeah that’s what’s really nice about it and I feel the family atmosphere, the trust, the bond, they have with each other shows on stage. It’s part of the magic because they are all in sync with each other, they all care deeply for each other. The “yes” is everything on stage.
Judith: What kind of work do we see in Junk?
Jodie: It’s a very acrobatic show. There’s a very beautiful teeter board that opens the show, like an old fashioned seesaw. Jumping from a tower and being launched into the air! Really nice hand balance work where we use shadows and screens and the bodies are really large in the space and look glorious. A beautiful, beautiful Chinese pole act, which is new to the show, where they climb and drop and catch on a very small surface.
There’s also the tramp wall which is new for the Fruit Flies and that’s probably the big feature act but I do like to draw attention to the duo straps. It’s quite extraordinary what’s happening there. It’s two artists but the pulley system is controlled by the artists on the floor ... there’s so much work with the riggers to make that possible. Plus they play live music on instruments as well so I feel like it’s the heartbeat of the show with young people doing everything!
Judith: You must have been with the company long enough to see the children of Fruit Flies come through.
Jodie: The youngest girl in the show, she’s 10 years old her father was one. And there’s another one too now I think if it.
Judith: Amazing. Grandkids next!
Caroline O’Connor is returning to Eternity Playhouse.
Accompanied by Daniel Edmonds, Caroline’s cabaret ‘Up Close and Intimate’ has a return night on Friday April 12.
It was a genuine pleasure to speak with this sparkling, funny and engaging artist by phone from her home in Noosa.
(Photo of Caroline O’Connor by Peter Rubie)
Judith: ‘Up Close and Intimate’ is coming back for one night? That must be fun?
Caroline: Yes exciting isn’t it. It doesn’t always happen that you get a call like that. It has happened to Daniel and I once before. We were in New York doing ‘The Girl from Oz’ at Birdland. We did it on a Monday night and they asked up to come back the following Monday ... which happened to be Australia Day! It’s always a wonderful compliment to be asked back.
Judith: That’s been a long relationship with Daniel hasn’t it?
Caroline: It has you know ... and it happened by accident. I was actually meant to be doing a gig, here where I am now in Noosa, and I got chickenpox on a flight back from London. Would you believe? In my forties!
Obviously we had to cancel the gig and I ended up doing it 3 weeks later, they were very kind and put me on at the close of the festival rather than the open. But the people I was working with were not available so I was looking for a new collaborator. Simon Burke says: I’ve just worked with this brilliant guy from Canberra.
As soon as he put his fingers on the keys, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! So I snapped him up and I’ve been schlepping him around the world ever since. He’s been real godsend to me actually: energy and talent inspires you as an older artist.
Judith: You certainly have got around. Do you think you will settle or always be a vagabond?
Caroline: I’m scared to settle down in case I like it too much ... and I just go: that’s it I’ve slowed down to a point where I have actually stopped.
Moving to Noosa has been an interesting thing to do because people assume it is a place you go to to retire but for me I can go anywhere from here. I’m going back to London in May for a while and New York for a trip. And I have ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ coming up at Melbourne Theatre Company. But it’s right on the water and it’s beautiful here. And I have a little room, a little atelier, when I can rehearse and play music and learn scripts. It’s a lovely workspace for me.
Judith: I missed ‘Up Close and Intimate’ first time round but saw your work in ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.’ Is the process of preparation different between a speaking and singing role?
Caroline: It comes down to memorising and I just find with music that there’s something about the muscle memory of the tune that helps to learn a song perhaps a little easier than a script. Although, I do hear musicality in a script especially in the emotion and pitch and strength and speed etc
Judith: And cabaret must have its own set of muscles?
Caroline: I wasn’t drawn to it at first . I believe cabaret is hard thing to do well because you have to be yourself much of the time up there. I mean you can’t be just yourself or you’d be at home in dressing gown and slippers! But then you can’t be a character, you can talk about the characters of course. But I found the whole thing very interesting.
I started looking and studying it when I was in England and thought this can be really bad. Then I started looking at the Americans the way they did it and they had such a craft with it with their storytelling. You have to open up a bit, which I didn’t want to do, but tell the stories of how you got the job, the tricky things and the good things. And I think that’s what cabaret is ... it’s very important that part of it. It’s not just the songs.
Judith: So how does that influence the songs that you chose because your repertoire must huge?
Caroline: Well, gosh. I’ve never been able to do a one hour cabaret before and that was what we created for Darlinghurst Theatre. We sort of looked at each other and shook our heads because we have always had to come up with a least a dozen for each act. At least 24 maybe 26 - mix it up with some medleys sort of thing. So the challenge was to condense it down to 10 or 11 songs.
So instead of doing what I have done over the years, which is highlights. If I don’t do something from ‘Chicago’ or say ‘Mack and Mabel’ people seem to be disappointed. I decided to do some of those but introduce some new songs that I have never done before and material I have done overseas and never in Australia. Daniel wrote a new song for me and we closed the show with it. It was nerve wracking because I had never done it before and only got it that week.
It is hard to choose and I often ask friends or my husband what would you like to hear if you come to my show? You are doing for the audience, as much as you enjoy it for yourself, and I think there is certain work that people associate you with.
Judith: I think that’s very true. Especially considering your long career. I have one last question before I let you go. I was at lunch with a friend, who’s a great fan of yours, and asked what she would like to know? The question that came back was: how does she keep her figure. And I said I can’t ask that but having chatted with you for a while I bet I can!
Caroline: (laughing) Well, it’s not getting’ easier I can tell you that! I’m at that age now where it’s fighting me! I’m not going to lie when I do have time off I relax a bit. I’m not one of those people who’s obsessed with it, it’s part of my job. The first time I did ‘Chicago’ was ’98 and the next time was 11 years later and I still had to get myself back in that shape. When I am working I am pretty good at being disciplined then: a good eating plan and I work out a lot when I’m rehearsing. So the job helps me out a lot! (Laughing again).
Once you start rehearsals, that 4 week rehearsal period, you are 8 hours a day 10-6 moving and dancing. So I would like to keep the dancing as long as I can so I can hang onto my figure as long as I can. Chita Rivera, she’s my idol. She’s still giving it. I don’t know that I want to go that long but, you know, she did Spiderwoman when she was 60 so I look at that and think why not!
‘Up Close and Intimate’. Caroline O’Connor, accompanied by Daniel Edmonds, back by popular demand Friday 12 April at 7.30pm at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Eternity Playhouse. Bookings: (02) 8356 9987 or at the website.
Yesterday Steve Rodgers took over the role in ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Belvoir and will soon play a season at Riverside Theatres. We had the chance to ask him some questions about the role and his varied career. (Photo of Steve by Daniel Boud)
Judith: It is such a pleasure to be able to send some questions about this great show. I happened to be sitting behind you when I saw it on opening at Belvoir and was watching you as much as Kate. Can I fan-girl you a little? I loved your writing in ‘King of Pigs’ and your performance in ‘You Got Older’ broke my heart! Where do you get your energy and creative drive over such a long and varied career?
Steve: Thanks for the compliment on King of Pigs and You Got Older, both projects I adored. Blazey Best and Claudia Barrie are both such brilliant directors. But to your question, I think creative energy or drive for me is really about staying sane, being connected to people and the world. Writing and being inside a story allows me to cope with all the awful stuff in the world and at the same time celebrate all the brilliant stuff. So theatre, with out sounding too much like a theatre-nerd, is kind of my church.
Judith: As co-director and now stepping into the role at Belvoir, before opening at Riverside, do you take a holistic approach or does each task require a different set of theatrical muscles?
Steve: My role as the co-director was to observe, and improvise with Mulvers (Kate Mulvany) the different scenarios she was going to encounter, but also be a part of the greater discussion around the work. As an actor it’s about personalising it for myself, going inside it and trying to live the experience in the most authentic way I can.
Judith: I recently spoke to Ursula Yovich about ‘Man with the Iron Neck’ and she just raved about your dramaturgy. As an actor, is there a temptation to step outside your performance?
Steve: How amazing is Ursula Yovich? I think stepping in and out is the key. Craft has to do with the ability to monitor and shape choices, then hopefully you can trust your instinct and intuition to just do it, but honestly I try to start every project as a dramaturge or actor or writer not knowing anything, not having the answers. Creating something is about asking questions, some you’ll never answer.
Judith: ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is such an engaging show, do you prepare for the audience responses? Run though variations on what might happen and so forth, or is it an organic and instinctive process?
Steve: You definitely rehearse for different scenarios, improvise different factors that might come into play, but you’ll still get unique and fresh stuff thrown at you every night by the audience, which is the gift of this show.
Judith: The show is an emotional rollercoaster, high energy travel into the audience and the intimacy of solo expressions of sadness. What is it that you would like audiences to take with them from the theatre?
Steve: Audience Member: “It’s okay to be sad, it’s human, we need to talk about mental health more, normalise it, but shit, life’s good, aren’t people amazing? What are my brilliant things? What are yours? We should stop for ice cream or chocolate or wine on the way home.”
Judith: My friend wandered down after the show curious to read the set and came back burbling excitedly about the things she saw. The production design and music is part of the charm and reach of the piece with brilliance in the detail. Do you have a favourite thing or is that too hard a question?
Steve: So many, too many, but people laughing and crying at the same time is right up there, skinny dipping in the ocean, the prospect of dressing up as a Mexican Wrestler.
Judith: Many thanks again, I am really looking forward to seeing you in the role.
Steve: Take care. Make sure you come and say hello. Stevie.
Here at Reviews by Judith we are going to be talking to lots of creatives but to begin with a big ole bang, we decided Nickie, who will contribute to our music reviews, would throw some questions at Judith.
Nickie: So why a new website for theatre and film reviews. Aren’t there too many already in Sydney?
Judith: Start with the easy questions eh? Well, I just think the audiences for performing arts can never be underestimated and they devour different points of view. You can see it on social media and you can hear in when you stand in line to pick up your tickets. It’s very important to have many independent voices.
Nickie: So you write for other sites, too, don’t you?
Judith: Sure do and I will keep writing with them because it improves my process to write within other guidelines. Some sites need a dispassionate, literary and rational voice, others want a more personal, reflective response. However, I have been writing for a while now but not every show I see suits those other sites.
Nickie: When I read your theatre reviews, I notice that you always mention the lighting and sound.
Judith: I love how Stage Managers and backstage people now have a photo in lots of the programs. It didn’t happen when I was coming up, we all wore black and tried to hide away but the work that creatives and crews do is taking more light these days. Skilled design is essential to good theatre and I believe that it needs to acknowledged and brought gently to audiences’ attention without pulling focus.
Nickie: And the technical side of film?
Judith: Absolutely. How many stars are made by one beautifully lit moment or a heartbreaking cutaway at exactly the right time? I have a technical eye and joining the dots between performance and what I see and hear is pretty important to how I view.
Can I go now?
Nickie: One last question. Why did you include your friends in this adventure?
Judith: I actively despise the second act of Into the Woods. Best then, for me not to review that one! Stuff like that and because I need to take a friend with me to explain things like Burlesque and solo stand-up comedy which I sometimes don’t get! I’ll see almost anything but sometimes need a little help from friends. I really am going now.