No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

On writing an experimental theatre-review of Roman Tragedies

The Lifted Brow has recently re-launched their website, and are commissioning pieces which can only exist in the digital space. I find this incredibly exciting, because although most of my career is based around online-only publications (indeed, I find it rather novel and wonderful when my work appears in print) still the formula of reviewing is much the same today as it was mid last century. Online I am able to be freer with my word count (particularly when writing on my blog), insert hyperlinks, and (hopefully, sometimes) engage with commenters, but the overall form of theatre reviews has felt to me largely stagnant.

Last October, in preparation for a panel on ‘criticism in the digital age’, the Wheeler Centre asked me for some brief thoughts on writing reviews. I said:

Despite advances in technology opening up the possibilities of criticism, it remains very conservative. Largely, it hasn’t changed or expanded form, method or purpose in the transition from print newspapers to online platforms.

If we ask for – and witness – arts that push boundaries and forms but our responses to that art doesn’t, then the record of art left by criticism will be much more conservative than the art itself.

Criticism, when done well, creates a record that artists can continue to build on. If criticism isn’t building an accurate portrait of the most exciting contemporary art, and the strongest records are left of work that is most conservative, where does that leave anyone?

I think, for the most part, maintaining this lineage of review structure is the best thing for the art form: people who exist in the same job sphere as me do so because we believe art and the dissection of art is critically important, but also because we have great faith and love in the written word. On the panel (which you can watch at the above link) I spoke about games criticism, and the critics who are using YouTube and online video spaces to review these works: for these critics, the most pertinent and organic way to respond to the work is through video. Not being particularly versed in games criticism, I would suggest that most reviews still exist in a traditional text form, much like theatre criticism; and of course you could argue that reviewing through video isn’t particularly innovative except in the ways, like text, its production and broadcast are more accessible than they’ve ever been.

In theatre criticism, I’ve been loving Exeunt Magazine’s Doodle Reviews and, for something just silly and fun, Edinburgh Furinge, neither of which seem to be particularly dependent on the form of the theatre work, but have the ability to respond just as broadly as a traditional review. These examples, though, are rare.

Occasionally I’ve experimented with the form my criticism takes, always in response to the form of the work and always still in text. My review of Team Mess’ This Is It  was a response to the imagined film in the theatre work, and my review of Life & Times responded to the verbatim theatre piece by being a verbatim review – accidentally recorded at the end of an interview. While structurally quite traditional, my response to Shotgun Wedding endeavoured to take on extra meaning by being published on the date of my one year ‘anniversary.’ Working as a writers-in-residence on Brown Council’s Mass Action: 137 Cakes in 90 HoursIanto Ware and I were forced into a similar (but not as gruelling) endurance project as the artists, allowing us an ongoing and deepened relationship to the work we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and at one of my lowest points in the room I managed to craft a response to the work I am deeply proud of: a response that wouldn’t have existed had I been involved like a typical audience member. Then, too, there is “embedded criticism” which with Ode to Nonsense again I produced a traditional review, but after a relationship with the creation of the work.

With the exception of Ode to Nonsense, these reviews exist because they were able to directly respond to the forms of the works themselves. It is harder, therefore, to develop as a writer in these experimental forms because there are, simply, less opportunities, and because each must be a new organic response. I have no idea what, say, an experimental response to The Seagull would look like, because the traditional response to me seems the strongest way to respond to a traditional staging. Criticism is always a responsive form in which the art must come first, this of course means I have more opportunities to develop my craft in these traditional forms. (Although I’ve been lucky over the first three months of this year to contribute audio responses on Guardian Australia’s Culture Podcast, something I am certainly getting more confident and stronger in. You can listen to here or download on iTunes.)

And so for The Lifted Brow to formalise a space that asks writers to be responsive to digital platforms, and in my case responsive to art’s form itself, is a concept I find very exciting. My review of Roman Tragedies for the Adelaide Festival responds to this work from Toneelgroep Amsterdam by emulating their use of time and their invitation to use social media throughout the production. In just watching the piece I had to be hyperaware of my review – taking notes when I typically never do – and then I had to go an back-curate the tweets and instagram photos to integrate. After six hours physically viewing the show, the process of building the review took another several days, with the curation of the tweets and integration into the timeline being particularly difficult and protracted. Post the writing the review, I realised this was really a work that needed two people to create (plus a third in my editor, the very helpful Simon Collinson): one to review the show, and a second to solely curate the social media, ideally in real time.

My review begins with the voices of others:

 

 

Just as the show relies on its audience, my review relies on the audience I shared that room with.

Despite experimentation with form, perhaps the most liberating thing was complete freedom with word count in a commissioned environment: the piece was able to be precisely how long I thought it needed to be and I was able to write until I stopped, a freedom typically only afforded to me on my blog. My favourite piece of the review, though, is one that came up truly organically as a realisation I came across in the writing: the use of white space towards the end. This space replaced language when the I found the work emotionally overwhelming me. In this written form, I felt emptiness spoke louder than words. 

Although the tweets and intsagrams are so much of the digital space, it feels to me that forcing the reader to scroll past this nothingness was the most native to the online platform. In print, not only would my work not be able to take up the equivalent physical space, but also the way the readers’ eyes would jump from one piece of text to another, even over pages if possible, would feel inherently different, and I don’t know if it would carry the same impact that I hope it does here. Looking back at it now, I think I would have liked to have been even more ambitious with how much blank space we used, how much we forced the reader to contemplate the stretch of time in the work.

I don’t think it is entirely successful as a review: the form has its limitations as much as its advantages. Much was left unsaid, depths of the work are not truly explored as time forced my piece forward, wider connections to contemporary theatre are ignored, and as is typical my perspective on it is dampened by thoughts I’ve developed now but could not articulate by deadline. But, and I think this is particularly important when looking at a production that has been touring the world since 2007, I think my review offers something unique to the work and the global recording of its history. I think it’s a response, too, that offers something to both an audience who has witnessed the work and those who haven’t, and this is something I always strive to achieve in my work.

When will I next get the opportunity to write something like this again? I don’t know. Perhaps the work will jump out at me in advance or perhaps I will see a show and walk out thinking of the new radical way I can respond having not gone in with those thoughts at all. I don’t think the traditional way we respond to theatre is dying or needs reviving, but I hope innovative and truly digital responses can continue to develop and grow up alongside as a contemporary – and sometimes, as a rival.

You can read my review in full here. I am very keen to hear thoughts.

Pam Ann: ‘I only know three straight people: mum, dad and my brother’

She is certainly not one to shy away from giving offence. As we talk, the supreme confidence in herself as a performer and the character of Pam Ann comes through loud and clear: she knows who she is, and how she wants things to be done. Recently in Joe’s Pub, five people were talking so Reid ordered them to move to the back. “They got upset said I’d lost five fans. I went, ‘I don’t care. Get some manners and then come back and see me.’ People. You can’t please them all. You might lose five and you might gain ten. Or,” she says, laughing, “you might gain one. You get to a point in your life and your career where it’s just, like, whatever.”

Clearly, to continue to play one character for so long you need this confidence, and over the years, says Reid, Pam Ann has become “a bit tough. She’s not so soft anymore. I don’t think she ever really was, but she never swore like a trooper like I do now.”

Read the rest of this piece at Guardian Australia

Vitalstatistix: 30 Vital Years

Vitalstatistix Theatre Company will spend 2014 celebrating their 30th anniversary. I spoke to current Creative Producer Emma Webb about the company’s history for the Adelaide Review.

As with any small arts organisation, Vitalstatistix’s history has been rocky. They’ve lost – but always regained – funding multiple times over their history, and partially through this, and through the changing tide of theatre, politics, and feminism in Australia, it’s found itself operating in many different guises.

“It was quite feasible that at any point throughout its history that the company might not have survived,” says Webb. “Small-to-medium sized companies have a really hard time surviving.

“Let alone anything else that might affect an arts company’s ability to survive, but on top of that a company that is a feminist organisation, that’s based in a working class suburb like the Port [Adelaide], and that has produced a lot of political work.

“It’s kind of remarkable, in some ways,” she says, “that it’s survived and thriving.”

Read the whole piece here. 

On classic texts and single gender casts

Among several themes circling around Australian theatre at the moment, two that are particularly prominent and I’ve written about recently, are the adaptation of classical texts, and works exploring gender theory and sexuality. These works exist on mainstages with thousand seat theatres and in independently funded productions in backyard sheds. There is a dialogue existing between these works: the voices of independent companies rising to and becoming embedded with major funded organisations, and then new, younger independent theatre makers seeing this conversation and again playing with it themselves: be that with themes of gender, classics or, increasingly, both.

In the last eight months I’ve made particular note of three theatrical works from independent companies that combine both of these themes using single gendered casts. From Sydney’s US-A-UMThe Lord of the Flies; from Adelaide’s Foul PlayMacbeth; and from Melbourne’s 5Pound TheatreUbu Roi. These three companies place different emphasis on their solo-gendered casts with these old and familiar texts, and each come out with a drastically different message on gender with varying levels of success.

The work that has laid most heavily on my mind, and became the catalyst for writing about these three works is this unsuccessful Macbeth, under the direction of Yasmin Gurreeboo. Staged in warehouse space in the Adelaide suburb of Bowden, Gurreeboo asks her audience to sit through her production twice: once with an all female cast, and then repeated with an all male cast. The text, cut down to eighty minutes with a seemingly endless list of dramaturgs credited in the program, starts with ‘is this a dagger which I see before me, the dagger towards my hand?’, and is a confused edit playing with time and space that places Macbeth in a prison, seemingly recounting the events which lead him there with cast members doubling between characters in the prison and characters in the original story, with no obvious logic to when they are playing each.

Foul Play's Macbeth. Photo by Manda Webber.

Foul Play’s Macbeth. Photo by Manda Webber.

Foul Play’s goal with this production, confusion in text aside, was to have the audience question how they perceive the story of Macbeth and the violence which is inherent in Shakespeare’s story when they view these actions performed by a man against performed by a woman. “I want to offer an audience the opportunity to be in a position to face their own prejudices head on by seeing the same roles, in the same production played out by a males and females,” Gurreeboo writes in her director’s statement. Unfortunately, Gurreeboo and her cast fail to escape the ideas and constructs of gender as written into the original characters, and so these prejudices can never be accessed by her audience. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Perth Festival 2014

Perth Podcasting

As the Adelaide Festival is about to begin, the Perth Festival is entering its last week. I was there last week to catch a bit of the action (and a bit of the ocean) with Guardian Australia, and you can catch up on all of our coverage from PIAF here, and Perth’s Fringe World here.

You can read my reviews of PIAF shows:

And Fringe World productions:

I also took a look at:

On the podcast, I:

The live blog for Adelaide’s festival season kicks off on March 7. Would love to have you all following along here, and subscribing to the podcast here. See you then!

Melbourne Fringe winners in Adelaide

While I’ve rolled out of town to cover the festivals in Perth, artists from across the country have rolled on into Adelaide. But with a program so big, how do you know where to look? For the Adelaide Review, I look at the productions coming to Adelaide that took home awards from last year’s Melbourne Fringe. Sure to be some gems.

They Saw A Thylacine took home awards for Best Performance and the New Zealand Fringe’s Tiki Tour Ready Award. The show, describes creator and performer Justine Campbell, is a verse performance that tells two stories:

“One of a female zookeeper struggling with the prejudices surrounding the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity at Hobart Zoo, the other of a female tracker hot on the tail of wild thylacine.”

Performing with fellow creator Sarah Hamilton, the pair is looking forward to remounting the show in Adelaide. Melbourne Fringe, Hamilton says, is “like a cocoon. A ground to test new work,” where Adelaide is “a hive of creativity of culture. A melting pot in a hot and beautiful city.”

You can read the whole piece here.

 

School for Birds

I’m up on School for Birds (one of my favourite arts blogs) this week, in conversation from December talking about criticism, critics, deadlines, theatre, and artists, saying things like:

I really believe that everyone has a right to talk about theatre. Everyone has a voice and it is valid. Perhaps, because artists have had a reviewer ‘not get it’ and because those reviews come with a position of power, some artists get this idea that they don’t want people to have an opinion because it might be ‘wrong’. I think that is really scary. You might be talking about a small group of critics, but when you extrapolate that out, it is your audience that you are silencing.

You can read the whole thing here.

Sydney Festival 2014

The bar at Carriageworks: a theatre home for the week.

The bar at Carriageworks: a theatre home for the week.

I’ve just come back from a wonderful week in Sydney covering the Festival with Guardian Australia. It was an excellent team to be working with, and you should certainly catch up on all of the coverage here.

While you’re doing that, you can read my reviews of:

And a couple of feature articles, where I asked:

On the liveblog, I:

On video, I:

And on the podcast, I spoke about:

We’ll be back at it all again in Perth in a few weeks. I cannot wait to get stuck into it.

Life & Times: Verbatim Review

Wondering why I hadn’t transcribed the final thirty minutes of an interview with Jason Sweeney, I found we had veered wildly off-topic, and my rambling rave of Melbourne Festival’s Life & Times: Episodes 1 – 4. So here, in the spirit of the show, is my verbatim review, unedited except for Sweeney’s interstitial remarks. 

LifeandTimes

I’m really. I’m. I just. So I went. In Melbourne I saw a ten-hour play, um, The Life and Times. I actu— I think it’s going to be, like, one of the definitive theatrical experiences of my life. It was just. It was incredible. I was yeah, there, yeah, the whole time. I did the I did the marathon and it was … And I I I went in — I was really excited about it and I was talking to my mate that I was going with before we went in and I was going ‘this is the worst thing ever, I am so excited going in, I can’t get like I can’t feel better then this.’ Like. Ha ha. It can only be a disappointment because I’ve filled up so much of my head with like and you can’t do that and it just got and I just got happier and happier and more excited and more excited the more that it went on, and so I’m really excited by, like, long things.

There was this great review of um Angels in America which I also saw and I also did the the the whole day with that this year um and there was this great review I think it was in um Concrete Playground it opened with something along the lines of, um, ‘In this. In this day and age perhaps the best ways to experience art are in three minutes or seven hours’. Ha ha.

And I — Life and Times it was just incredible. And it. And I think like it was really funny. Like, I didn’t expect it to be that funny. Like, you don’t expect things to be that funny for ten hours and then the last twenty minutes it just it dissolves into this bizarre — it’s not even performance art because it’s not even performance really like it’s just the last twenty minutes is just insane. We all walked out and we were all just ‘I don’t think my brain’s working.’ Ha ha ha ha ha.

lifeandtimes2

So the last. So the first three and a half hours is done in the style of a communist musical, so like with rhythmic gymnastics elements. And none of them were trained dancers. So they’re doing rhythmic gymnastics. And then the second middle maybe two hours is done in the style of an eighties music video, and so it’s all. It’s a black stage with a mirror ball and they’re all in um velour tracksuits. And then the final third maybe two hours is done in the style of ah um Agatha Christie British like um drawing room mystery farce. Um and the set for that is very am-dram painted flats. And one of the. One of the best moments in the whole ten hours is one of the characters picks up a fire poker and starts poking the flats and like something else is happening on stage I have no idea what, with the audience is just dying at 11:30 at night we’ve been there for nine and a half hours and and I think the fact that the actor looks at the audience and then looks back ha ha as she’s poking the flat with the fire poker. It’s brilliant.

So that’s like the last two hours. So the last twenty minutes, maybe, the cast — so it’s yep, British farce, they do sit in this tableau on stage, lights go to green, bright green. Smoke machine. Half a dozen people in alien bodysuits come out and sit in this tableau and there is the voice over is talking about um making an insect out of a basil leaf in art class. And then it just sort of ends. Ha ha ha ha ha.

lifeandtimes3

The Life and Times: Episodes Melbourne just had episodes one through four. And eventually there will be ten episodes? So they want they’re going to what they’re going to they’re aiming to make it a twenty-four hour thing. They’re called the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Yeah.

The. Yeah. And it’s just. Yeah. And it’s just amazing because like it doesn’t sound like it should work? Ha ha. It’s just like. It’s all verbatim from a phone call with one of the company members and so it’s her life story. So episodes one through four I think we went from birth to eighteen.

On accents, place, specificity, and Dennis Kelly’s Orphans

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about accents on stages. On what is it that makes a play, a piece of art, “Australian”? What is it in us that craves for recognition of a world we are told is ours; or what voyeurism do we seek in a world that isn’t ours?

These most recent thoughts have come off a local production of Dennis Kelly’s The Orphans, directed by Shona Benson for Blue Fruit Theatre.

Originally set in London and making its debut at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe, for this season Benson chose to set the production in Adelaide. In this change, though, rather than bringing the world of Orphans closer our own, rather than creating recognisable ties and providing us with something familiar to connect with, Benson ends up un-anchoring the play: she sets it adrift.

But first, some divergence.

Months ago I argued – much to the chagrin of some – that Belvoir’s Angels in America felt incredibly Australian, despite it’s American accents and American setting. In the past few years adaptations and relocations of classical work to an Australian setting has become a huge and defining part of Australian theatre. Like all theatre, sometimes this work is celebrated and sometimes it is derided.

Playing with accents and location is nothing new for Australian theatre, though. Historically, perhaps our most famous example is John Bell and the work he did with Nimrod, then later and continuing with the Bell Shakespeare Company.

In her 1977 review of Bell’s Much Ado About Nothing at Nimrod, Katharine Brisbane comments the “point of controversy in this production [is] the greengrocer accents”:

The reason I liked the accent was a simple one: that it provided a communal reality with which the actors could work and a bridge over which the audience might approach the play without timidity or reverence. The problems involved in trying to find something in common between Shakespeare and the modern Australian are, of course, legion. Aristocracy, in particular, is something that makes us uneasy. We have no sense of hierarchy and the intrigues of the nobility would seem remote to our experience of life. That is why the study of Shakespeare so often becomes an effort of will, instead of an enlightening experience. John Bell’s production of Much Ado About Nothing knocks the stuffing out of such uncomprehending reverence and focuses the audience’s attention and affection directly on the people and events on stage.

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