No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Australian Theatre Forum

ATF2013: Miss Chu

“It sounds like you’ve had a pretty heavy couple of days,” opened Nahji Chu, “so I think I’m going to change what I’m going to do.”

Every Friday on her facebook page, Chu posts a music mix.

“It’s like having a personal DJ in your home without paying $200 an hour for it.”

“Does anyone know what a Miss Chu is?” she asked. “A Miss Chu is a food brand called Miss Chu, and it’s all based around who I am.”

“I’m here to speak about breaking rules and what’s not possible. And I guess so far I’ve broken quit a few rules and I’ve gotten away with it and become quite successful.”

Chu came to Australia as a refugee in 1978, and now uses her refugee visa as her logo. In 2006 she started her catering business with $1500 – it now turns over $20 million a year. “I’ve tried to make it as an actor, I’ve tried to make it in rock and roll, and failed in everything,” she said, so she started working in food.

“I grew up in Australia and I loved the tuck shop system, and I always thought imagine if they sold Vietnamese food in the tuck shops?”

“I guess I’m here to talk about how is it that I broke so many rules and became so successful  [..] I’m just who I am. I was fortunate enough to be in this space in time where there is the internet, and I embraced it. [...] And I took on all of these technologies and embraced them. [...] It’s not that I’m cleaver or I’m a genius  I just saw opportunity and ran with it.”

“I opened up a catering business because everything could be on my terms,” she said.

When she moved into Miss Chu’s Darlinghurst premisses, Chu told us how she needed to spend a lot of money to do the space up. She served people out of the window, and people would sit on the sidewalk or on milk creates to eat the food. Over the weeks, the lines for the Tuck Shop grew, and in the fourth week they ran out of ingredients.

Chu told the story of a writer for the SMH who came to the store, and wasn’t ready to order. Chu told her to stand to the side until she was ready, and the woman threatened to tweet about Chu’s rudeness. Chu told her that was fine and  “out of swearing and being not so much rude, but efficient, I became an international — the New York Times wrote about this woman that had a feisty personality.”

“As a teenager I became rather cantankerous because of racism”, and she decided she was going to tell the story of Vietnamese people in this country through her restaurant. She started to market in Paddington by placing her visa card menus in letterboxes. She was embraced, she said, “not just for my food, but also my politics.”

For her, Miss Chu is about “Vietnamese food with a context and a design element as well.”

“A lot of people say why make a film when you sell Vietnamese food, and I say why can’t I? [...] Some people say to me just stick to making food, please?” she said as she played us this promotional video:

“So it’s a bit provocative,” she said, as the audience applauded  “That’s my way of breaking rules, too, because I hate foot photography. Because it’s all the same now. [...] I wanted to do something different and provoke.”

People told her videos like this doesn’t make them want to eat her food. “But it’s inevitable,” she said.

“Vietnamese food is probably the most popular food in Australia, in the world, at the moment, but it doesn’t have a historical context.”

From her days as a filmmaker, a designer, and a photographer, influences have helped create her brand.

She is currently a refugee ambassador. “Food is the most popular medium” in Australia, she said, so that is the medium she works through. She is in the production stages of a cook book, and it’s all self funded because no-one will put their money behind a cookbook that is so politically influenced.

Talking about their Darlinghurst store, “You know how there is always one annoying neighbour?” she asked. Chu was forced to remove the milk creates from the street in front of the store because a neighbour complained to council. She replaced these with children’s school furniture, and everyone loved it. They were also challenged on a NSW by-law that disallowed music being played on the footpath – she took the council on, and changed the by-law.

In the end, Miss Chu works because of the brand. “These days, unfortunately, without a strong brand you probably won’t get places” she said.  With the business today, she says, “I don’t need to work, but it’s just not in me to not work. [...] I’m a refugee. [...] I’m not built that way.”

Asked on the risks of balancing a business with her politics she said it is a risk she needs to take. She started with nothing and will be okay to leave with nothing, she’s prepared to wave the flag. “What I’d like to do with my brand is say to the mainstream of Australia [...] ‘look, if you brought more refugees in you’d have a workforce, you’d have cheap labour, and you’d be building infrastructure that you need.'”

Someone else asked where the Miss Chu brand comes from. “It comes from the gut, and that’s why people love it. How refreshing,” she said. “It’s got personality and it’s authentic.”

Her ultimate goal is “to have a Miss Chu in every city in the world to get that political message out there.” You can make more money by concentrating your power in one city, she said, but for her the political measure is the most important thing.

“There is only one thing you can leave when you die, and that is emotion. And the emotions you spread to people. I’m a creator.”

ATF2013: Ria Papermoon, and Papermoon Puppet Theatre

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One of the international guests at the Forum is Ria Papermoon from Indonesia’s Papermoon Puppet Theatre based in Yogyakarta.

When Ria established the company it was a free studio for children to learn about visual arts and performing arts. “It was a really tiny studio”, she said, “and every afternoon children can come and read books [...] and learn, for free.”

They began in 2006, and a few months after the city was hit by a big earthquake. About 1000 people died and it drastically changed the way parents would send their children to places like Papermoon. For one and a half years, with fifteen volunteers they traveled to small villages in Indonesia, working with children.

She showed us an image of a puppet made out of an eggplant with eyes: “We can do anything we want with puppets. We can just grab something and add eyes.”

From that Ria and her husband  decided to make an organisation that can mix their interests together together: they found visual arts and performing arts come together well in a world with puppetry. They began to explore puppetry, googling ‘adult puppetry’ and expanding their notions of what puppetry can be.

In 2007 they started to work with several puppetry artists from Germany and Australia’s Snuff Puppets. They still did work for kids, but started to expand out and make work for the parents, too. The parents also need to understand what the work is doing, she said, so they will be okay with their children attending.

Now, the company does performances, workshops  visual arts installations, host residency programs and have a biennial puppet festival In Yogyakarta.

With no government funding the company can access and with no other adult puppet company working in Indonesia, they can jump around where ever they want  Being the only puppet company is good, Ria said, “but it is sad because I also want to be in the audience seat and watching a play.”

Ria spoke about their work Noda Lelaki di Dada Mona (Man’s Flaws in Mona’s Breast), their first work for 17+. They weren’t sure how it would go: it sold out because there is nothing else like it in their country. She then went on to speak about Mau Apa, an interactive show where the audience is asked to tell their stories, that the company presented in Yogyakarta in 2009 and in New York in 2010. The show looked at what the audience wants, and in New York the answers were totally different to those in New York.

Mwathirika spoke about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, an event that is very rarely spoken about, even though it still has a huge impact on many lives. The company had backlash for creating a work about something so sensitive politically, including a demonstration outside of a performance.

Secangkir Kopi dari Playa also spoke about this genocide: “I think I’m a person who finds it hard to move on.” It tells the same story, Ria said, but from a different piece of view, and was done as a site-specific work in an old shop.

She also showed some images of visual arts the company does, describing it as feeling like “a storyboard” for their performance work. She spoke about a project she did with students who spoke to different elderly people in their city, posting all of their research to Facebook before creating an installation in a 50m tunnel.

“We love to do site-specific installation or site-specific performance” she said.  Of a work they did in an old Red Light district building in Japan, everything in the space was an interactive installation: “people can come in and make it come alive.”

To tour, they  occasionally receive funding from private cultural institutes or galleries,  but at other times they make work that is designed to be installed in someone’s living room, travelling to the houses of friends.

Ria then went onto speak about their Hosting Residency Program for people from different countries and different backgrounds – not just puppetry. Every two years since 2008, too, the company has presented the Pesta Boneka contemporary puppet festival. “Mostly if there is a festival in Indonesia about puppetry, it is mostly about the traditional forms, and it is mostly in Jakarta.”

The Festival was supported by crowd funding, with a little support from several cultural hubs. They also were supported by restaurants and hostels providing vouchers to artists, keeping costs down. They presented performances for three days, had visual arts presentations, and had  puppeteers cook, bringing the food of their homes to the audience: “you have the interaction and you can speak to them, rather than just watching them from far away.”

“Artists are meant to communicate.” Papermoon Puppet Theatre , she said “is surviving because of the audience.”

ATF2013: Notes from Alicia Talbot

A bit late in the day, perhaps, ATF curator Alicia Talbot welcomed us to the event. She spoke about the forum wanting to speak about “what’s not possible as a way of looking forward over the next thirty years.” As the forum was sold out before the program was even announced  she said, it was a sign that people were excited to take leap of faith and come and have conversations.

“When I think of theatre and performance [...] I think of the outlaws and the boundary riders who are the people who make things happen. I urge you all to go your own way over the next three days,” she said. “If you’re in an interesting conversation and it’s got something going on, stay with it. [...] Nothing is as important as an interesting conversation.” She said, some extraordinary things happen when you just let them.

“This is a space where we can put so much of those other things outside of ourselves”: the forum is a place for conversations  if they have been preplanned or if they just happen. Make them happen if they need to.

“It’s really healthy to get your minds and your hearts and your guts working”, she said.

“I wish you the very best of half-formed thoughts and unfinished conversations.”

ATF2013: David Pledger; The Artist Is Dead. Long Live the Artist.

Currency House is perhaps best well known for its quarterly publication the Platform Papers, essays about all facets of the performing arts written by practitioners. Said Currency House’s Martin Portus, the organisation wants to “create a online, ongoing dialogue” with these writers as the subjects they have written about and “how they have changed, or haven’t changed.”

The next Platform Paper is called Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order by David Pledger of Melbourne’s Not Yet, It’s Difficult, and he joined Portus in conversation at the Australian Theatre Forum.

Pledger wrote the paper “to try and tease out the conditions under which Australian artists, in particular, work. I wanted to go past the cafe chit-chat that artists can engage in – usually very productively – but take it beyond the arts and look at issues that effect not just artists, but workers everywhere.”

He began to think about the mechanics of global capital, and how this filters down to how artists make their work, talk about their work, and get paid for their work. In mapping that out, he said, he comes to a point of describing a rather powerless point where artists in Australia work from.

For Cultural Policy in Australia we have typically looked at England and America – this means, he said, we are missing what is happening in Europe and Asia and the stake those cultures directly put into the artist. The 21st Century, he proposed, is one of the artist, so we need to look at how we can put them in the centre.

“The artists have been complicit in this process. The only way I think this can change is if we advocate much more singularly within the larger sector than what is being done on our behalf: because what has been done on our behalf has given us nothing,” said Pledger.

Language is very important: the idea of language has changed significantly over the past twenty years – both in the words we use, and the way we talk about the arts. Theatre, he said, has been the most resistant to change, and part of this is because we only talk about it in English. “We haven’t been able to understand in any deep way how we are connected to the world,” in relation to geography and politics.

Portus asked what has excited Pledger in an enrichment of our theatre practice. After a pause  “that’s a very difficult question.”

Pledger has worked a lot in Europe and East Asia, and noted Gob Squad as a company he finds really exciting, particularly because of the participation that they involve in their work. In visual arts and performing arts, it’s the participation that excites him.

“It has to do with the fact that what we have come to understand of democracy has changed, and the modus operandi of democracy is participation” and people are participating less in participation. To sit in the audience and just passively watch work, he said “we don’t really want this and we don’t really need this.”

“People want to be involved in art making.”

This has changed greatly in reaction to the way technology is changing: audiences are more actively creators and participators.

One of the major issues that affects artists living and working in Australia, he said, is the administrative constructs of the industry.

“Managerialism is an ideology developed by managers for managers,” he said: managerialism asks for and develops ideas around the building of organisations. It’s not an aggregation of individuals, but it is an aggregation of organisations.

“The arts are ephemeral. As soon as you grab onto it it disappears  it’s more like a gas than a concrete.”

Managerialism, he’s said, has tried to turn the arts in to something more concreted. It wants to turn artists into something that can be easily handled, but says Pledger “artists don’t behave in rational ways.”

Perhaps drawing the ire of some in the room, Pledger said “a producer can never be an artist.”

The way in which the artist industry currently looks, he said, is a series on concentric circles, with bureaucrats in the centre and with artist on the outside – with those on the centre with the most money and the most power.

In relation to this country having no major arts festivals lead by a artist he said “it’s a disgrace.”

Pledger then spoke about how the only essential element in the arts is the artist, and they are the people who are being the most exploited. He outlined some themes we could learn from Europe and Asia, and the different ways we need to have these conversations.

The living wage is critical and at the core of his arguments, he said, so that artists can continue to work while they’re not directly employed by an organisation as they do in Belgium and France. In Belgium you need to clock up a certain number of hours over a year, and when you can prove that you have done that you get a €1000 a month strippend. There would be nothing that would make such a huge different to the arts in this country as supplying a living wage, he said, and every organisation should have that as a goal.

“The problem with the living wage is it has not been taken up cross-arts sector,” he said. It’s not about government,  but about the sector coming together and arguing for its importance.

“We need artists to be sitting aside producers and managers,” he said, “not underneath them.” Artists need to educate themselves, analyse the situation, and do the work that other people said they were going to do. Artists, Pledger said, need to say they won’t work unless they are getting paid, and noted that since 1990 the direct funding to artists has decreased by a third.

From the audience, someone said, it’s not that people working for big companies aren’t getting paid, but people aren’t working in these companies enough, and it is a struggle to find work for artist-lead projects.

In Europe the structures are about creating space for artists to engage in artistic creation, said Pledger: they have much more room to move laterally, make mistakes and then go on to learn from those processes and make more work. In Australia mistakes can be derailing. “We need to defend the space that we have because it’s getting smaller and smaller,” and through doing this “you just get exhausted.”

He asked how can one effort shift and change things? The living wage can change this.

But it’s not just about artists as a unit to themselves. Pledger wants is an environment in which he can work with people from other fields: with scientists, with historians, with people who have a different background, from a different discipline, because that makes him work in a different way.

“Interconnectedness is the fundamental mechanism of our times” he said. “The glue that sticks things together is us [artists]” – artists can explain, and show things in a new light. So artists need to work with people from different disciplines, to not be afraid to not know what people are talking about and be prepared, then, to try and learn.

One of the things Pledger would like to pass on in terms of the Paper, he said, is if artists are feeling uncomfortable or questioning in something we need to ask how it is related to the wider world, and perhaps in that we can start to find answers.

An audience member asked how do artists balance the need to say ‘no’ to working for no money, and the need to say ‘yes’ so their work can be seen? “It’s difficult,” said Pledger, because “for so long the impulse for artists to make and create has been used as an excuse to pay us nothing.” Artists need to look at who is getting paid in these situations, work with other artists in the same capacity, and strategically take action when it is needed he said. “If we just do things in isolation we’ll just fail.”

The more artists that have time to invest in the creation of art, the stronger that art will be. You’ll get stuff you will never get under current situations where time is limited: where a new work needs to be presented after four weeks in the rehearsal room. What if artists could just be in a room and talk for four or five weeks, he asked. Imagine the art that could be created then.

ATF2013: David Milroy

“It would be nice one day to think we had a theatre boom in WA with fly-in-fly out dramaturges” opened David Milroy, the first Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre in WA “but I don’t see that happening in the next few days.”

2013 is the 21st birthday of Yirra Yaakin, a company that gave Milroy and his peers “the opportunity to tell our stories the way we want them to be told.”

“What is the definition of Aboriginal theatre?” he asked. “Can a non-Indigenous writer write an Aboriginal play? Is Is it about where a writer is writing from, or is it more than that? It’s more than that.”

“Who is telling our story, and why?”

When Milroy began in theatre, there were  plays where Milroy could see “Aboriginal actors on stage, but other people were pulling the strings” and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters were “written on the stereo-typewriter.”

Said Milroy, “cultural misrepresentation can be a dangerous thing for an Aboriginal actor to get caught up in.”

Yirra Yaakin gave an opportunity for “catch up theatre” – telling a history that hadn’t been told before and giving an emotional release for people who had never had their stories told before. “There was nothing better”, he said, than having a “mixed audience laughing and crying about different things.” Milroy told a story of a woman in the audience telling his character off for being too mean to his daughter – “that’s how real it was.”

With the plays the company produced now on the schools curriculum  that was something he never felt was possible. For him, it wasn’t about starting in theatre for the love of theatre, but because he thought these stories should be told and these people should have a voice.

Aboriginal people are about 2.5% of the population. Milroy said most Australians would have never had personal contact or relationships with Aboriginal people: their contact is from watching the football, films like Australia, and theatre companies.

“If aboriginal people made up 97.5% of the population would we be telling your story? [...] And would we get it right?”

Now, said Milroy, we have a population of Aboriginal actors, writers, directors, producers and stage managers. We still have Yirra Yaakin theatre company, “and I’m beginning to feel the same excitement I felt twenty years ago.”

“We now have a great opportunity to get this right. I feel the way forward is through meaningful collaboration.”

Showing us images from the Western Australian desert, Milroy asked “how are you going to know the meaning to and Aboriginal person unless you ask?” To everything, he said, there can be a lot more to it than recorded history and the archives.

“It’s a beautiful culture, but it’s complex”, and everyone needs to be mindful of this when working collaboration in theatre. If the writer gets it wrong, he said, there can be a lot of issues within the community.  It’s important to keep in mind “there is no such thing as a generic Aboriginal. We all come from somewhere and are connected to our community” and “our ancestors are as alive today as they were hundreds of years ago.”

For everyone, he said, “humility and respect” are essential form both sides of the collaboration.

Milroy ended up with a “little indulgence”. Showing us an image of a wild fig tree and the bower bird that lives underneath it and the “little theatre” the bird built – “it’s not that different to what we do.”

He loves theatre, he ended, and he “looks forward to watching it grow in collaboration.”

Rip It Up And Start Again: A Hypothetical New Beginning for Arts and Cultural Funding

Today I spoke on a panel on arts funding with the Festival of Unpopular Culture.

 You know how everyone complains about how the Australia Council devotes most of its energies to major flagships and opera? And everyone else gets, well, chicken feed? And when you try to debate that you get this whole series of arguments about how opera’s a great art form and needs funding and whatever? Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have a conversation about what things could look like, rather than a defensive argument about what they’re like now?

Well, let’s pose a hypothetical. Let’s assume every Arts funding body in the nation got shut down, all the money got put into a big pot, we were rebuilding the entire funding system from scratch and every body had to reapply from one big cultural slush fund. What would we do?

The recent Australian Theatre Forum began with Postcards from the Future from a collection of artists and arts workers, and I decided to start my response to the hypothetical like that.  It wasn’t until I finished writing did I realise just how much of an ode to those three days this was. This is an idealistic version of a community and a nation I would like to be working in in ten years.

Dear Jane,

I am writing this as I prepare for my panel at the 2021 Festival of Unpopular Culture: The (Former) Festival State: The demise of a festival culture and the rise of independent arts practice in Adelaide.  Stan and Ianto, still running around in their cricket whites insisting that Ultimate Sports Game is a real sport, are amused by the irony of having such a discussion in a festival.  They’re not defunct, but they don’t weld the power they once did.  That goes for festivals as well.

After the 2011 FUCfunding panel and a rapid submission from all members of the arts community in attendance to the National Cultural Policy, all the arts funding bodies in the country sat up and listened. Australia went through a radical change where, just as prophesised, all funding structures – and the default allocations which exist there – were removed, and as a collective industry we worked towards a democratic system.

Today, our stages have 45% female writers (some people just can’t let go of Chekhov and Shakespeare, it seems), and 50% female directors.  Mirroring similar changes seen in visual arts, music, dance, film, and in the ever proliferating inter- and cross-arts sectors, our theatres are less white, less English speaking, less male, less old, more contemporary, more Australian, more queer, more community engaged, in more regional and remote areas, and with more people with a disability than ever before: on stage, behind the scenes, and in the audience. With the removal of funding structures, we now so rarely refer to “Indigenous art”, “disability art”, “community art”, and “children’s art.”  Now, we just call it “art”.  Some people and groups still choose to use these labels – the National Indigenous Theatre Company’s pretty big on it – and that’s okay to.

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Australian Theatre Forum: So Many Possibilities

Some wrap up bits and pieces from people I was lucky enough to share space with last week:

Augusta Supple, undoubtedly the best co-blogger a girl could have, summed up the final session with fineness and a full thank-you list.

Alison Croggon shared with us her thoughts of the two days she was at the Forum, and posts her speech from the Innovation panel.

Candy Bowers posted her first two beautiful, inspiring, heart aching daily reflections.

Australianplays.org has posted the first lot in a series of videos of speeches and thoughts.

I would still like to say more but am currently in recovery mode, so it might take some time.

Australian Theatre Forum: And that’s all there is

A toast to the future. (Notice the obnoxious glare of blogger's computers in the front row.) Photo thanks to Olivia Allen.

4:12 PM and we’re sitting collected in the Visy theatre at the Brisbane Powerhouse, and I think I can speak for everyone – if not at least for super bloggers Augusta Supple and myself, who collectively have typed somewhere in the air of one million words in the past three days – when I say we are exhausted.  It has been a huge three days.  Mine weren’t helped by the lovely hobbling and limping I’ve been having fun with, thanks to the sprained ankle I received after hitting the Brisbane galleries a bit too hard.  Yeah, I’m hardcore.

But more so than that, it was an intense three days of ideas and processes: panels, talks, open spaces, wine, beer, shows and picnics have all played a part in where we are now at the end of 2011’s Australian Theatre Forum.

Wesley Enoch is talking through the top points which came from the open spaces, through to action meetings, before being presented and voted for by the group.  Ten votes each with red dots, he is talking us through the strategies, the ideas and the plans which we are going to move on to and act upon outside of the forum.  “These things will go forward as a way of promoting the things we do as a united voice”, says Wesley.  On to policy makers, on to the Australia Council, on to government, on to the sector, and on to Australia as a whole.

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Australian Theatre Forum: Convictions – Naming The Top Ten

The key words from the five action points from the ten action topics.  Created by copying down the exact wording of everyone’s action points, and creating a word cloud of popularity.

Australian Theatre Forum: Audience Activations

Griffin Theatre's thousand wooden spoons around Sydney: a viral momentum.

Who are our audiences?  How to we connect with them?  How do we grow them? How do we talk to them?

At Activating Audiences, we were given four very different takes on growing these audiences, and what it means to really connect with an audience beyond an exchange of money for tickets and spending an hour or two together in the dark.

The four people who spoke are trying to connect and activate with different audiences, and through that expand the people they are talking to.

Sam Strong talked about Between The Lines, “a venture that puts events and activities around [their] core events”, which are the four or five theatre works Griffin Theatre Company produces a year.  Bring different types of art into their theatre, and bringing parts of their work and audience interactions out of the theatre, Griffin has seen a measurable increase in interaction with the company – both online and in seats.  “Different art forms equals different audiences.”

One of the ways the company has done this over the past couple of years has been changing the nature of the idea around marketing: “Not seeing marketing as this necessary evil you have to put up with when you’re making your art, but discovering the art in your marketing.”

For Kyle Morrison and Yirra Yaakin, “it’s the community you want in the theatre, it’s your community you want to talk to, it’s your community you want to connect with.”  Kyle told us of “one of the most beautiful moments [he's] ever had in the theatre”: performing with the company he is now artists director of when he was nineteen, he saw two young Aboriginal girls with a school group in the audience, and he delivered one of his lines in their language directly too them.  They were the only two people in the audience who laughed, and “they were there, they we with us, they were following the community.  It really was the most beautiful point in my theatrical career.”

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