Monday, 25 November 2013

Postcard From Perth

Theatre Reviews and Reflections from WA

Fringe Benefits

Spring is burgeoning into summer here and Christmas trees are blooming along the verges of increasingly cluttered freeways and roads as the festive season approaches. I’m not talking about traditional introduced European conifers but the native WA Christmas tree: a variety of mistletoe that blooms at this time of year with spectacular orange flowers. It’s actually a tree-sized parasite that feeds off the roots of surrounding plants within a radius of 50ms and doesn’t like too much water, so you don’t tend to see them in gardens or nurseries but on neglected roadside stretches of sandy soil all the way along the south-west coast from Geraldton to Israelite Bay. It even fastens on underground electrical and telephone cables and irrigation pipes given the chance. It’s not particular about soil or host-plants either; in fact it survives when all other native vegetation has been replaced by introduced grasses; and the trunk will grow back even when knocked over provided the root isn’t too badly damaged. Like most parasites it sounds scary but it’s actually defined as an ecological ‘keystone’ species that supports biodiversity, especially bird and animal life.

For all these reasons the Christmas tree is a pretty good image for the local fringe and independent theatre scene. I’ve seen three shows in the last week that exemplify the strengths of this scene. Two are at The Blue Room One and one at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.


The Blue Room is the cradle and home of independent theatre in Perth. Located in an old heritage school building (the atmospheric main space is in a former science lab) in the heart of the so-called Cultural Centre in Northbridge just near Perth Station, it was set up in the late 80s by a collective of actors and started programming seasons of work in the early 90s. When I first came to Perth it was already a hive of activity; now thoughtfully renovated it sports a refurbished front of house, bar and theatres, the main space seating around 70 and the studio around 50 depending on the seating configuration, which is pretty much up to the hirer. Confession: I’ve done about ten shows here, and seen hundreds, and it’s pretty much my favourite small ‘found’ venue in Australia, both from an artist and audience perspective, with Belvoir St and La Mama not far behind. It’s also the only venue in Perth producing continuous work all year round. Diversity is high and quality…diverse, ranging from what I would call (with no disrespect intended) student theatre through to fringe, independent, experimental and alternative theatre and dance, some of it easily the equal of what you can see on the main-stage, or indeed anywhere else in the country. I’d happily go there any night of the week and buy a ticket (if I can get one), have a drink at the cosy and stylish bar, take it inside either of the atmospheric theatre spaces and take my chances.

PICA next door was also set up in the late 80s as an alternative arts space with an overtly contemporary and critical edge in a former school building that boasts a magnificent clock tower (inside which I recently performed as part of the Proximity Festival of one-on-one performance, about which more later). It also has an excellent bar and café that hosts live music and gets a pretty hip crowd after work on a Friday night. PICA has a magnificent huge central exhibition space and a multitude of smaller galleries and studios but also hosts an interesting medium-sized performance space. The focus here is more firmly on contemporary and alternative performance; the previous Director of PICA, Sarah Miller, was formerly Director of the Performance Space in Sydney, and an erstwhile performance artist herself.

If The Blue Room is currently going from strength to strength as a small independent theatre venue, PICA’s identity is now arguably more defined by its visual art exhibitions than its performance program, which offers less financial and production support to hirers than The Blue Room, is less consistent in its programming and seems less of a priority for the current administration. Perhaps this is also a reflection of the direction that contemporary performance is taking: away from conventional (or even unconventional) theatre spaces and practices, and towards more hybrid work by artists from multiple disciplines. Indeed it’s interesting to note that the current performance work at PICA, Crash Course, is staged in one of the upstairs studios (and is the work of a multi-skilled artist), while the preceding Proximity Festival staged works throughout the building (by performers and visual artists in equal measure). As a footnote, this tendency is also reflected in the Australia Council’s recent decision to dissolve the so-called ‘silo’ structure represented by the more traditionally (or not so traditionally) defined individual art-form Boards and replace it with something less defined, more fluid and responsive. (Another confession: I was briefly on the Theatre Board, and my mother Ros Bower was founding Director of the erstwhile Community Arts Board, later the Community Cultural Development Unit, now extinct.) Whether this will lead to a loss of diversity in terms of art-forms, skills, artists and audiences – or even, in the language of arts funding bureaucrats, a loss of ‘excellence’ in favour of ‘innovation’ – remains to be seen.


Crash Course is a stunning new work at PICA created and performed by James Berlyn: dancer, community arts worker, director, facilitator, teacher, instigator and co-curator of the Proximity Festival 2012 (at The Blue Room) and 2013 (at PICA) and champion of intimate, participatory and immersive theatre, his one-on-one piece Tawdry Heartburn’s Manic Cures (involving manicure and confession) having toured festivals around the country. Crash Course is directed by Nikki Heywood (who also has a venerable history in contemporary performance) and features a cameo performance from Sarah Nelson (likewise a multidisciplinary Perth-based performer with particular experience in physical theatre and puppetry); but the bulk of its conception and execution is very much made in Berlyn. In fact according the program (which you receive in the form of a diploma after the show) he’s been making it for four years. You can feel this in the work, which like the Christmas tree sends its roots down deep into the earth but reaches high up into the air.

James has said that his epiphany as a performer came when he realized he didn’t want to go on ‘pretending’ anymore. I take this not to mean he wanted to stop ‘dressing up and pretending’ (which is still essential to what he does) but to stop pretending the audience wasn’t there. This is the pretence known as ‘the fourth wall’. In participatory theatre, as in stand-up comedy and other forms of audience-address, there is no ‘fourth wall’; further, the defining boundary between audience and performer is crossed, so that arguably there is no more ‘audience’ either, but rather ‘participants’ (although dressing-up-and-pretending is still used to allocate roles). This crossing of boundaries and extension of role-playing makes participatory theatre inherently transgressive.

Crash Course is also immersive theatre, which implies not so much ‘no fourth wall’ as ‘within four walls’. Indeed I’m reminded of the excellent recent synonymous French film Entre les murs (titled in English The Class) which semi-fictionalized the experiences of a teacher of French in a multicultural Parisian suburban secondary school. The real teacher wrote the screenplay and played himself in the film, and in form and content Entre les murs (like Crash Course) represents and re-enacts a loss of boundaries and control in the context of language-teaching and the way the latter enforces (or fails to enforce) other aspects of culture, class, identity and power.

Crash Course is only slightly less intimate but no less participatory and immersive than Berlyn’s previous solo work, Tawdry Heartburn. It involves a maximum audience (if that’s the right word for a collective of participants) of (I think) twenty-four (I’m mentally counting twelve school-desks each seating two participants, but I could be wrong). On arrival, we’re asked to sign a form consenting to leave our phones and bags with front-of-house. On a more ‘make-believe’ level (and here the properly theatrical fun of dressing-up-and-pretending begins) we’re also asked to consent to the fact that we’ve lost our language and the use of our dominant hand as a result of an unspecified trauma. Enter Sarah Nelson playing the role of a smartly dressed usher/ dominatrix who supervises the signing of the consent form by the participants one-by-one, bandages our dominant arms in slings, ushers us into a studio-classroom and seats us at desks in neat rows facing a blackboard. Enter James as ‘Jakebo’, a language teacher. Chaos ensues, then order, then a different kind of chaos, and a different kind of order.

Heralded by Nelson’s usher, Berlyn’s performance is a piece of sublime clowning, drawing on his combined experience in dance, education, community arts and contemporary performance. While ostensibly about and using language, Crash Course like all clowning is deeply embedded in the body. But this is clowning of a special kind. We have been ushered across the threshold of normality into the realm of carnevale: an interregnum of misrule, a ritual disorder, that leads to profound renewal.

Beyond this it’s hard to review Crash Course without giving too much away. To go further: the experience is in fact beyond language, and as such properly ineffable. The reasons for this are exquisitely technical as well as philosophical and political. Crash Course is on more than one level an exercise in translation (its necessity and its necessary failure) and to some extent the same is true of reviews and communication generally. What does it mean to translate from one language to another, from one culture to another, from one experience to another, from one’s own experience to that of another (the famous philosophical ‘problem of other minds’) or from experience as such to language itself (not least the language of description)? Does language in fact ever simply describe or does it not also always do: define, arrange, command, pronounce – all examples of what Austin suggestively called ‘performative’ language, or Deleuze and Guattari in more overtly political terms called mots d’ordre (literally ‘order-words’). This is especially true in a classroom, and even more so a language classroom; but also by extension in a review or a work of commentary or criticism; and certainly in all theatre.

Crash Course is also immersive in the sense that a language class is ‘immersive’ when the entire class takes place in the language being taught, and therefore no translation literally takes place; although the word ‘translation’ literally means ‘the act of taking or leading across’, for example from one place to another – which in fact is precisely what James (or ‘Jakebo’) does for us in the course of the lesson (which like all lessons is also an act or performance). For Crash Course takes place entirely in an invented (or forgotten) and beautiful language with its own beautiful alphabet and numerals, some of which we learn to use during the show. We also re-live and re-learn something about what it feels like to be in a minority: linguistically, culturally, in terms of age, ‘seniority’ or physical ability. 'Minority' in this sense has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with power. Crash Course is about resilience and adaptability, but perhaps for our species the original trauma is language itself: the opacity of our initial encounter with the mother-tongue into which we are born (or 'immersed'), and which we playfully repeat when we learn a new one.

If the preceding analysis makes Crash Course itself sound didactic, laborious or negative, I should add that it is on the contrary profoundly positive, liberating and even utopian. In fact it reminded me of the joys more than the anxieties of being in class. In terms of staging, Crash Course is minimal, elegant, beautiful, poignant and very funny. It also features some choreography and possibly a giraffe. Perhaps more than one.


Across the lane at The Blue Room are two other exciting, genre-defying, exquisitely performed shows. In the main space, Standing Bird 2 is a contemporary dance-theatre work performed by Jacqui Claus in collaboration with director-devisor Sally Richardson, movement director Danielle Micich, videographer Ashley De Prazer, composer and lighting designer Joe Lui, sound designer Kingsley Reeve and set and costume designer Fiona Bruce. Jacqui is a compelling performer in terms of skills and presence, and she is supported by a team of veteran Perth independent artists.

Both as an individual artist and with her own company Steamworks, Sally Richardson has directed, devised and/or written a huge range of works in theatre, dance, dance-theatre, object-theatre, puppetry and circus over the last decade or so. Her work often deals with female and marginalized experience and uses hybrid forms embracing the language of the body, objects and images as well as words.

Standing Bird 2 had an earlier incarnation at PICA as part of the Perth Fringe World Festival in 2012; this version is both stripped back and significantly advanced in terms of conception and execution. (A confession: I was also briefly involved as a dramaturg/outside eye, mostly on the previous version.) SB2 is in repertory at The Blue Room with another contemporary dance piece, Verge, which was previously presented as part of Fringe World 2013, and which I haven’t seen; Jacqui also performs in Verge, and Fiona’s set serves both productions.

I applaud the practice of not only remounting but also revising and refining good work, and seeing it again is equally rewarding for an audience. This is one of the great things about having work in repertoire: an all-too-rare practice in Australia, at least in theatre. The original version of Standing Bird included Sally herself as an onstage presence at the periphery of the action; significant use of mirrors at the perimeter of the set; video projection onto strips of cloth; and visual and conceptual references to early colonial Australian feminine experience, specifically the Eliza Frazer story. In this version these have all been jettisoned in favour of a less referential (and less self-referential) narrative focusing on Jacqui as a performer inhabiting an archetype that is both more abstract and more emphatically in and of the here-and-now. This is enhanced by corner-staging which makes the audience’s experience more immersive than the previous front-on staging at PICA: once again, there is no fourth wall. In fact the performance begins at The Blue Room bar in an almost audience-participatory vein before taking us on a promenade into the Main Space. There we find ourselves confronted by an experience of redoubled ‘stripping back’ of almost Butoh-like intensity that ultimately leads to an act of individual and collective transformation, which in my book is the essence of theatre.


Next door in the Studio Space is Bruce, a new work by young independent performer-based Perth company Weeping Spoon, devised and performed by Tim Watts and Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd, assisted by collaborators Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs. I say ‘young’ but these artists have been on the scene for some years and their work and artistry is fully fledged. Tim and his collaborators took the world by storm with The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik which began at The Blue Room in 2009, was adopted by Perth Theatre Company and has since toured numerous international festivals; then came It’s Dark Outside in 2012, commissioned and produced by PTC in the State Theatre Centre at The Studio Underground and also now on the touring circuit.

Alvin and It’s Dark were both multidisciplinary works featuring the highly skilled use of live and shadow puppetry, object theatre, masks and disguises, digital animation and soundtrack, in a style at once performative and cinematic, home-made and spectacular, reminiscent of Prague Black Light Theatre and Pixar movies, lending itself to comedy but with the emotional courage to explore themes of environmental and personal catastrophe. Bruce is much more modest in terms of scale and content. It’s based on what was originally a sketch-comedy routine involving two performers in black lycra bodysuits and hoods, a pair of white gloves, a piece of yellow sponge with a mouth and eyes, and a continuous stream of ventriloquism (mostly from Tim). Together these make up a single apparatus capable of transforming into multiple characters, but principally Bruce. He’s supported by a soundtrack and two lights on stands, with a blue gel in one and amber in the other.

Much like the new Alan Partridge movie, Bruce extends this routine to feature (or at least short-feature) length. It accomplishes this by applying itself to a story with a dizzying recursive twist which I won’t reveal except to say that once again Weeping Spoon explores themes of time and loss in a way that’s playful, virtuosic, hilarious and touching. There’s a lot more surface comedy in Bruce than Alvin or It’s Dark, making it the perfect indie Christmas pantomime; but there’s an emotional basement here too, as with all the best animation, live or otherwise. Fear is the enemy, and love conquers all.


Crash Course is at PICA until 30 November.

Standing Bird 2 and Verge are at The Blue Room (Main Space) until 29 November.

Bruce is at The Blue Room Studio until 7 December.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Postcard from Perth

Theatre Reviews and Reflections from WA

A View from the West

I moved from Melbourne to Perth for family reasons fourteen years ago on the cusp of the new millennium. Twenty years previously I’d made a similarly open-ended move to the UK to live and study, but the move to Perth felt bigger. Even in the early 80s moving to England still felt like going home; Melbourne was a very European city, the dominant culture Anglo-Celtic, and my family heritage one generation back English on one side and ‘Continental’, as they used to say, on the other. Moving to Perth on the other hand felt like going to another planet: somewhere that didn’t even exist on my mental map, and therefore in some sense wasn’t real. Was there intelligent life there? I believed so, but had no evidence to prove it. My brother even gave me The Lonely Planet Guide to WA as a parting gift with the motto: ‘Go west, young man!’ inscribed on the flyleaf. As I set out self-consciously on the drive across the Nullarbor in my old second-hand mid-80s Volvo (how Melbourne can you get?), I felt like I was setting out on a journey to Australia itself, the country where I actually lived, for the first time. ‘Voyage within you,’ as McAuley wrote, ‘And you will find that Southern Continent, / And mythical Australia, where reside / All things in their imagined counterpart.’

For the first five years I lived and worked here but felt like an outsider. Partly this reflected the practical fact that I was coming and going between Perth and Melbourne for work; partly the emotional reality that Melbourne was still the repository for most of my previous life, friends, family, colleagues, community and sense of self. The Perth theatre community welcomed me as a newcomer from ‘over east’, but I was still ‘an alien’ as one colleague ironically described me several years into my stay. For my part I embraced the marvellous landscape and glorious weather, the easy-living modus vivendi, the strong Aboriginal presence, and a healthier, more physical, less narrowly cerebral existence. I was also lucky enough to find myself living in Fremantle: a multicultural hub and working port with magnificent beaches, heritage architecture, decent coffee and food, an arts centre, two local theatre companies (Deckchair and Spare Parts), an art-house cinema, a thriving independent music scene and a progressive local government and community where I rapidly felt at home. I rented a house near the beach, swam every morning, started doing yoga and eating more fish. I found a different perspective and balance in Perth: between my brain and the rest of my body, between theatre and the rest of my life, between culture and the rest of society, between where I was and the rest of the country.


When I arrived in 2001 the theatre scene was strong on diversity but weak in quality and (ironically for a mining town) lacking in energy and resources. 
Apparently a mining boom was underway but I saw no evidence of the profits trickling down into the arts or anywhere else. The strengths were greatest in the area of distinctive small-to-medium niche companies like Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, Barking Gecko Youth Theatre and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. There was also a thriving independent scene centred on The Blue Room (in my opinion the most productive, diverse and atmospheric small venue in the country, pace La Mama!) with sporadic project-funded forays into the larger but crumbling Rechabites Hall around the corner in William St, Northbridge (the Perth theatre and high-and-low cultural quarter, a kind of cross between Southgate and St Kilda, or Circular Quay and Kings Cross). There was no state theatre company, which was a cause for much grievance locally although I saw it as something of a negative asset in comparison with the increasingly generic state companies over east. Black Swan, Perth Theatre Company and Deckchair were the personal fiefdoms of long-term incumbents locked in a bitter struggle for limited funding and audiences. Each had a vision but struggled to realize it or connect with the broader community. In the corner was The Hole-in-the-Wall, once a dominant player but now homeless and still appearing at random venues like Perth College auditorium or the oddly named and shaped Effie Crump Theatre above the Brisbane Hotel. All these companies were housed in inadequate, insecure or temporary venues (if they had one at all) and none was producing more than two or three shows a year. The Blue Room was the exception, with two small but perfectly formed stages, an even smaller and more characterful bar (which seemed to host the entire Perth theatre community) and a continuous season of work throughout the year.

Around the middle of the decade long-overdue regime-change across the companies brought a breath of fresh air and a sense of reconnection to a new generation of artists and audiences. This reflected a renaissance in theatre across the country. From basements, garrets and warehouses to the stages of The Malthouse and the STC, theatre was cool again. In Perth the revolution was led by Matt Lutton, who emerged from the new Theatre Arts course at WAAPA (an institution lauded because of a few famous musical theatre, film and TV star alumini who’d made it internationally) to direct Black Swan’s youth initiative BSX and his own independent company Thin Ice. He was followed by a new wave of emerging independent artists and ensembles. Meanwhile the mining boom and long-awaited construction of the new State Theatre Centre gave the impression that Perth might be finally coming back into its own on the cultural mainstage as well. 

Since 2010 we’ve seen the onset of a period of restoration (if not reaction) across the national scene (theatrical and otherwise) following the age of revolution that preceded it. Theatre in Perth has likewise consolidated and arguably improved in quality if not diversity, in style if not substance. Globalization, anyone? A triumph of marketing over content? What has been gained or lost? A rebranded Black Swan State Theatre Company is now securely funded as a Major Organization by the Australia Council, partnered by Rio Tinto, installed in the new State Theatre Centre and delivering arguably the most successful brand of generic state theatre in the country, at least in terms of audience growth, box office and sponsorship, with product ranging from West End and Broadway revivals and classics to a trilogy of new plays by Tim Winton (a WA export if ever there was one) in productions featuring a blend of local and interstate talent mostly staged in the mid-sized, elegant but acoustically challenged Heath Ledger (who didn’t go to WAAPA) Theatre. Meanwhile a severely under-resourced PTC manages to deliver a Malthouse/Belvoir-style alternative in the Studio Underground at the same State Theatre Centre; Yirra Yaakin (partnered by a cluster of mining companies) is ambitiously redefining itself as a spearhead of Noongar culture, as is Barking Gecko as a cutting-edge contemporary youth company; while Spare Parts remains resilient and innovative on the smell of an oily rag. Deckchair has closed (due to insolvency), along with Thin Ice (due to the departure of Matt Lutton for The Malthouse); Hole in the Wall, Effie Crump, Rechabites and The Playhouse (former home of PTC) are long gone, demolished, derelict or sold. The independent scene continues to flourish, primarily at the refurbished and expanded Blue Room and extending across the laneway into Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), which recently hosted Perth’s second (and thus far Australia’s only) festival of one-on-one performance (including yours truly). Devised, collaborative, hybrid, immersive and interactive theatre is on the rise.


Recently I performed in a multimedia adaptation of Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia for Spare Parts in Fremantle. Of course Shaun is a Perth-born and raised artist and writer who now ironically lives in Melbourne (a more common trajectory than my own, let it be said). One of the stories in Tales is called ‘Stick Figures’: mysterious beings who haunt the suburbs (in which I now reside as a proud home-owner in Hamilton Hill, just south-east of Fremantle). ‘What are they? What do they want?’ the narrator (in the show, myself) asks. ‘Are they here for a reason? It’s impossible to know, but if you stand there and stare at them for long enough, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers, for some kind of meaning. It’s as if they take all our questions and offer them straight back: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?’ The other performers used forked sticks with eyes and manipulated them as puppets. At the time it seemed to me that ‘they’ inescapably represented the original indigenous inhabitants that had been cleared to make way for ‘us’. Now it strikes me that in a less obvious way they are shadows of us all; perhaps in particular ‘us’ artists, especially those of us who work in theatre. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing here? What do we want?

I still sometimes feel like an outsider, but I’ve come to feel that’s part of the cultural condition here, and perhaps in Australia generally, at least for non-indigenous Australians, and perhaps for them too. The English artist Anthony Gormley’s haunting installation on Lake Ballard in the goldfields northeast of Perth speaks of this condition: ironically titled ‘Inside Australia’ and consisting of a host of humanoid sculptures or ‘insiders’ based on infra-red scans of the bodies of the local townsfolk of Menzies and scattered across the salt-pan. I now see WA as a microcosm and perhaps even an intensified reflection of the country as a whole: a stranger to itself, remote, out of time, provincial, anxious yet complacent, vast, underpopulated, orphaned, looking back to England and forward to Asia, insistently drawn to the ocean and occasionally to its own interior, where its deepest mineral and perhaps spiritual resources lie. Beyond this I hesitate to define what it means for a work or artist to be ‘Western Australian’, or indeed ‘Australian’, other than that they are made or live here, notwithstanding the directives and claims of funding bodies and marketing departments to ‘tell Australian/WA stories’. Perhaps these names refer only to a metaphorical sense of place, or even what Kant called ‘the suprasensible ground’ of things. But then what distinguishes here from elsewhere? A certain intensification of the light? To predicate cultural identity in terms of content is a transcendental illusion at best; at worst, tribal ideology or totalitarian politics. As to form: is there a Western Australian species of actor, writer or theatre? Are they threatened with extinction? Or were there only ever individual WA actors, writers and theatres? But then: who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing here? What do we want?

In this column I propose to address these questions in reviews and reflections on theatre in Perth and its place in the national picture. My feeling is that this place is paradoxical, not unlike that which in visual art is called mise-en-abyme: the place within a picture that reflects the picture as a whole, and in so doing renders its capacity for reflection problematical, literally ‘placed in a void’ – not a bad description in fact for living and making theatre in Perth. I don’t mean the irony to be pejorative. One of the things I love about being here is the sense of being ‘in the void’, and the imaginative spur to action that provides. I feel this in my own work and in much of the work I see here. Certainly there’s plenty of intelligent life on this planet, which is perhaps not so remote after all. Hence I hope the validity of this personal ‘view from the west’: a window onto the bigger picture of theatre in Australia, and perhaps the art-form itself.