No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

2015 with Kill Your Darlings

I am ecstatic to have joined Kill Your Darlings as a columnist for theatre and the performing arts through 2015. You can read my column every second Monday here, and the work of the rest of the columnists here.

Thinking Outside the Box Seats: The future of Australian opera and musical theatre

Unlike Europe, Australia does not have well-subsidised opera houses continually showing work in repertory. Our small population has neither the audience numbers, nor the financial investors, to support a commercial industry like Broadway. This could be seen as to the detriment of new Australian operas and musicals, but only if we hinge our expectations of what an opera is on the European standard, and of musicals on the American standard.

The (Sometimes) Beauty of Being Alone at the Theatre

Seeing theatre is a wonderful activity to do unaccompanied, because as soon as the performance starts, everyone is alone in some way. I am, of course, talking about theatre in its most traditional form: the sense of a dark, full room, where you join hundreds – maybe even thousands – of other people, all sitting and looking in the same direction, silently watching a group of people at the front talk to each other while pretending the audience aren’t there. Under darkened house lights, in front of proscenium arches creating invisible fourth walls, we sit alone.

And one other, pre-columnist piece with KYD from last year:

How many women composers? Classical music’s invisible women

I ask #howmanywomencomposers for one simple reason: because it is 2014 and I am tired of old structures feeling like they can get away with ignoring women. Every time I find myself tweeting there are no women in yet another program, I feel like these organisations are completely removed from contemporary conversations. If so little critical thought goes into programming that the lack of women is overlooked, what other factors aren’t being engaged with? And why would I want to engage with this art?

Overheard at the theatre

During Grug and The Rainbow, from audience members approx. three- to five-years-old. 

When the actors pull out a record: “Ah. That’s a giant CD.”

When there is a storm: “Is that real lightning?”

When paint appears on the paint brush: “It’s magic!”

When Grug goes to bed: “Why is it nighttime?”

When Grug paints a house green: “Is that real paint?”

When Grug paints a house green: “That really looks like aqua.”

When Grug goes to the snow: “I want to go there.”

Apropos of nothing: “Mum! Give me money! Mum! Give me some money, mum!”

Pantheon: The Mill

Originally commissioned by The Mill and published in their publication Pantheon, corresponding with the exhibition of the same name.

Art galleries and theatres are often spoken about for the aspects they share with religious buildings. Art and religion have always been intertwined: from commissions to write symphonies or to paint cathedrals, to the attempt to ban theatre and other dissenting voices that art can hold.

Today, they are each places we visit and gather in to consider the world and our place in it. In galleries and in churches, we ask the big questions about who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. They’re places that can disturb, and can comfort. Places that can force us to ask questions, or force our hand into being placated and ask none.

They are places you can visit alone, to relax in the stillness. You walk through with reverence, in quiet, perhaps a brief smile and a nod to your fellow visitors. Or perhaps there are no fellow visitors, and you are alone in an empty space: just you and the stories it holds, the ancient tales or the modern creations. Amongst iconography and paintings and sculptures, you walk, your shoes clacking along the ground as the sound echoes between gallery walls or church gables. You might sit, just to look and contemplate your place.

At events – the Catholic mass, the art world’s opening nights – these halls become filled with people, bodies touch and mingle, friends great friends, we join to consider whatever it is that is placed before us. We contemplate ideas, we reflect on shared histories, we question new futures. There is often a spot of wine in this collective, ritualistic considering of life and the universe: its answers and its unknowns. Or perhaps we’re told not to question by our Priest or our Rabbi or our artist, perhaps we’re told to just consider everything as it is presented to be true and correct.

Is religion and art for our comfort, or our discomfort? At the end of the day, is there a heaven to strive towards? Or just a hell to avoid?

For those who come to Pantheon, many will be religious. Some will pray every day; go to worship every week; consider their god or gods always. Some will see their god as part of their life, but not always present. Not always thought about. Not visited in a church or a synagogue or a mosque every week.

In an increasingly secular Australia, many won’t be religious. They may have been brought up in a family that always eschewed religion, or it may have been something they came to on their own. They may tick atheist at the census, or no religion, or leave it blank.

People in both of these groups may come to art galleries much more often than they go to a church.

Does this mean the art gallery is their church?

For Pantheon, Amber Cronin and Erin Fowler asked local artists to consider what their personal mythology is. If we were to start again, today, and consider the world, how would we make sense of it all? A benevolent force, or a destructive one? Or do our new gods sit above the fray: there, but inert in the way the world turns.

Their curation mixes together visual art and performance, and it’s interesting as you move through the exhibition to see the way the ideas shift from the front gallery into the performance space. At the front, many of the ideas the artists seem to be playing with stem from the ancient: in a small Secret Valley, Peter Fong has placed a carved totem. Fruzsi Kenez’s illustrations may be modern, but it’s impossible not to note the ancient Egyptians also had a partiality for cats. Strands of these ancient Egyptians, or perhaps the Greeks, come through in Aurelia Carbone’s sculptures: part human, part animal. In many of the works in this gallery there is an inherent comfort. If they were to start again, today, their god would provide tranquillity in the familiar.

The mood shifts as you leave the front gallery. Lighting dimmed, the path ahead unclear, our vision restricted with masks: there is a deliberate unease about this space.

We encounter Delana Carbone’s the Gods have been lost, and question: is there a god that we’ve stopped listening to? Can we feel this god, can we see it? How is it, she asks us, that we can communicate between ourselves without words? Our society and the way we function in it is shaped by words. Audible and visible language is the way we know what we know, the way we think what we think. But then how can it be true that we can communicate through eye contact and a simultaneous breath? It must be through a god, surely.

This god, therefore, is true. But what if, she asks us, she was to now tell us this god was a lie. What would that mean then? Is today’s god just one of uncertainty?

Further into The Mill, we’re plunged into black, all light removed in the passage to the darkroom. At Lukus Robbins’ Clear Sight from written instructions we offer up a portrait of ourselves and a confession of something we’ve had stolen from us. With no knowledge of where these photographs will end up, it’s an anxious transaction: a sacrifice to an unknown god, for an unknown purpose. As Robbins begins to speak, his voice drips with anger around the word “Murdoch.”

We’ve passed our lives into Murdoch’s hands.

It’s back to the world of the wordless with three dance pieces by Callan Fleming. Margot John performs FURY, as we’re locked off in our own worlds by headphones pumping music only to us, as we consider John’s form against the white background, playing in her own space, alone but for her shadows. Is today’s god only accessed when we’re alone? Outside, Alicia Harvie and Kendal Winton move through an industrialised space: a cold and discomforting world. Inside, at the bar, you might be approached by a Fleming in a dust mask, handing one to you, too, for the intimate encounter of Atlas Dreaming, perhaps of the same post-apocalyptic world as outside. How much hope can today’s god bring?

As we leave, some will be picked up in a car for one final performance in Josephine Were’s Shotgun. One performer and one audience member, Were invites you into a conversation. An introspection. A dance. Were points out to us the world we’re all familiar with today. It’s the world we know where phones echo with the ghosts of vibrations in our pockets, making us reach to see the text message that hasn’t arrived. It’s the world we know of the softly fading and rising glow of the cyclops eye on our computers, always on standby, never truly off. It’s our ipads, our televisions, our radios. It’s technology. Ever humming. Ever there.

There are elements in this that could build off the stories of darkness we have just walked through. Are we too reliant on these things? Should we live without them?

But that’s not where Were takes us. Instead, this technology is comforting. This is distinct from the apocalyptic presence of Robbins’ Murdoch, from Fleming’s dance of claustrophobia and masks. This isn’t the ancient presence invoked by Aurelia Carbone’s human/animal hybrids, or Fong’s totem.

No. This god is fully a god of comfort, and a god of today, sitting with us in our pocket as we leave the car park, and as we walk off into the night.

Crack Theatre Festival 2014

Three wishes

Between speaking at National Young Writers Festival events in beautiful Newcastle, I spent some time running around the Crack Theatre Festival, and wrote about it for Guardian Australia:

Then there was the work that was silly and messy and fun, which thrives in an environment like this: the ghost doing stand-up; a drunk artist at the microphone begging for a place to spend the night; audience members forced to trawl through a thousand matches to find a hidden toothpick.

Three hours by train from Sydney, Crack can feel removed from the rest of the Australian theatre scene. For one weekend a year it pops up, consuming the lives of those who attend; perhaps overlooked by those who don’t. But its artists will return to their home cities, regroup, and send their art out into the world again.

Meanjin: Interactive Media Art


Over the past four editions Meanjin has published a series of essays on new media art. I was ecstatic to write the last in the series, looking at contemporary Australian artists working with interactive media art. My essay gives a short international summary of the art-form, from its origins in the 1960s to its recognition in the 1990s and the impact of artists like Blast Theory. Talking to Perth’s pvi collective (with a focus on Deviator), Melbourne’s one step at a time like this (focusing on en route), and Adelaide’s Jason Sweeney (focusing on Stereopublic: Crowdsourcing the Quiet), the essay explores the way these artists are using mobile phone technology and the built environment to question, highlight and/or alter the way we interact with our cities. You can read the essay here, or buy the journal (Volume 73, Number 3, 2014) here.

As artists began to move their work into publicly shared spaces, the notion of the ‘performativity’ of the audience became increasingly pertinent. This idea has always been intrinsically tied to interactive media art and other participatory art forms: once the audience member stops being simply a witness to the work and instead is integral to its presentation, or even creation, how does this affect the way the audience member approaches a work? In gallery spaces, these interactive works often lead to a separation of audience members into those who are activating the artwork and those who view the first group’s viewing of the work. As interactive media art expanded into privately accessible net art, the notions of the viewer as performer dissolved, but locative art opens up the possibility that the audience can be anyone who shares the urban environment, whether they are aware of the participant’s role in an artistic product or not.

Locative art can range from blending the audience member into the environment, as is the case with Stereopublic, to loudly proclaiming the audience as other with defiance of social norms, as in Deviator, but both can modulate the way the participant exists in the world: do they become timid and try to disappear, or do they actively seek out a role as performer? Much of en route works by allowing its audience to be hidden voyeurs in their city. But even here, the act of asking the audience to become attuned to their space can make them hyper-aware of who may be watching them, while also wondering whether the people in the environment are actors or participants in the experience. In these locative works, the audience not only has to place themselves in the work and the physical space, but also determine to what extent they are comfortable being viewed by those outside the work.

Review reposts

Some older reviews from Guardian Australia:

Jesikah review – a vivid portrait of adolescent trauma
State Theatre Company of South Australia, dir. Nescha Jelk, wri. Phillip Kavanagh 

Jesikah is a strong work which will find resonance with its young audience. This programming, along with 2013 education showRandom, by British playwright Debbie Tucker Green and also directed by Jelk, is a significant shift for the company. No longer an lesson in drama as history from Brecht or Pinter, this is an education in theatre as a living art form. This work for young people is telling them your lives are relevant, your stories are relevant, the theatre is a place where your voices can be heard. It’s an exciting development.

Dangerous Liaisons review – grand fun that’s all too fleeting
Little Ones Theatre for MTC Neon, dir. Stephen Nicolazzo, wri. Christopher Hampton

There are inherent clashes in Nicolazzo’s world and this is where his production delivers the most joy: we watch decadent ladies play on a gilded Connect Four, as sound designers Russell Goldsmith and Daniel Nixon roll synthesised baroque music into Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody. The exuberance of the performers does much to expose the power of Hampton’s text, which can feel surprisingly contemporary. But despite the provocative staging, most surprising is how little Nicolazzo plays around within that world once it is established.

Little Bird review — Paul Capsis as master of song and story
State Theatre Company of South Australia, dir. Geordie Brookman, wri. Nikki Bloom

Capsis proves he is an energetic and charismatic performer as he blushes with coy shyness or flashes a wicked glint in his eye. His performance alternates between brash and underspoken, but it is the quietness of Bloom’s story that ultimately comes through. With subtlety Little Bird reveals itself as a tale of how we deal – or fail to deal – with grief. A tale of the ways grief causes shifts in our relationship with the world, to question what we know and the ways we expect people to act. And finally, that sometimes it is necessary to return home.

Multiverse review — dancers play with 3D projections and optical illusions
Australian Dance Theatre, cho. Gerry Stewart

A major difference between the cinema and performance is how their creators control the focus of the audience. In performance, focus can be trained through lighting and blocking, while in cinema the audience focuses their vision around one point in the screen, with the director choosing what to show in each moment. Throughout Multiverse, it is largely the screen that remains the focal point of the work, and the work feels much more analogous to watching video than a live work.
Rather than detracting from the performers, though, the projections and dancers enter into an ensemble relationship, and it’s the communication between dancer and animation that gives Multiverse its strengths.

Keep Everything review — rejected ideas find brilliant second life
Chunky Move, cho. Antony Hamilton

As we observe the initial duality of possibilities in the actions of these cavemen/humanoid hybrids, the three dancers pull their bodies out from these low scavenging moves. Movement begins to pass between the three like a wave as they move apart and then come together. They begin to hit one another, and this grows in intensity, until it becomes rhythmic patting. Perhaps they are collectively preparing for a race.

As the three circle around the stage, sliding one foot in front of the other, their cavemen muttering grows into phrases, their actions changing to match the words. “Do you want some dinner?” they ask, a thrusting arm turning into a small point. “It’s all your fault,” is yelled as they lunge, filled with accusation.


Upcoming Events

National Young Writers’ Festival Adelaide Launch
6pm Thursday 28 August 2014
Hello, Yes, Adelaide

The National Young Writers’ Festival team are proud to present our very first Adelaide program launch.

The evening will feature readings from local festival artists Raelke Grimmer, Grace Bellavue and Jane Howard as well as a comic workshop from Georgina Chadderton (AKA George Rex) and Owen Heitmann.

Come and enjoy a local slice of the NYWF and support our Adelaide writers!

FREE entry.

With thanks to the SA Writers’ Centre and literary supporters/nice guys Hello, Yes.

Emerging Writers’ Festival Adelaide Roadshow: The Writers’ Masterclass
10:30am Saturday 6 September 2014
Fifth Quarter, Bowden


What does it mean to write for the stage or screen, crafting words for others to enact and characters for others to inhabit? Has new media made playwriting obsolete, or is the ‘undownloadable’ aspect of theatre precisely what makes it so special and exciting? Professional playwrights and critics discuss what ‘performative writing’ means to them, and how we can all build notions of performativity into our own repertoire as writers.

Jane Howard (Chair), Phillip Kavanagh, Michèle Saint-Yves, Ben Brooker

The Importance of Seeing Earnest

‘The Importance of Seeing Earnest’: a review of The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, written in five-parts and conducted through email between me and my editor at the Lifted Brow:

Jane: Cecily is “eighteen, but admitting to twenty at evening parties.” Lady Bracknell suggests this means it will not be long until Cecily is “of age and free from the restraints of tutelage.” So 19 or 20, perhaps? I’d suppose a governess would be something a young affluent women without a mother would be expected to keep until she’s married off, but that’s just conjecture. And because of her grandfather’s will we’re told Cecily won’t come of age until she’s 35, so who knows what is realistic and what is an 1895 poetic license.

I wonder now if you could read the disconnect between her manipulation and her naïvety as a result of less well developed Bunburying – while the two men have created fully formed characters to allow them a degree of freedom, as a woman Cecily is denied this. She’s always trapped under her guardian Jack or her governess Miss Prism, and so her version of a Bunbury cannot extend beyond her diaries and letters. It’s without the ability to fully take this creativity into the world that these glimpses of naïveté slip through. I would have liked to see Fry take just a bit more of a claim over the character’s wit, though. She was so almost there, but there was something lacking in the balance. Still, the fact that it is this character I keep thinking about says a lot. Is there a character you’re focusing on? Or is it just because I felt I was familiar with these characters that I get to pick out one in whom I’m seeing something new?

Simon: I thought the slightly strange dynamic between Lane and Algernon was quite telling in this sense, actually. Rory Walker’s Lane displays just enough begrudgment that I almost wondered whether he would do something to upset the butler/master dynamic—but then he covers for Algernon when Lady Bracknell asks after the missing cucumber sandwiches, and you realise that everyone in this society is a Bunburyist of some stripe, no matter their place in the hierarchy. (To repurpose Algernon’s famous line: “if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”)

But as you point out, not everyone has the same Bunburying options as Jack and Algernon. I agree that Cecily’s age and situation necessarily limited her in this regard, and maybe if she had the autonomy of a Lady Bracknell she could outdo Algernon and Jack altogether—she certainly has the imagination for it, after all. (Thinking as a lawyer, though, I did have a strong suspicion that Cecily’s grandfather’s will couldn’t possibly affect her legal right to marry – and consequently I read that whole argument as an enormous bluff on Jack’s part!)


In Brief: A Response to Julian Meyrick’s The Retreat of Our National Drama

While I have been vocal about my thoughts on Currency House’s Platform Paper #39: The Retreat of Our National Drama, by Julian Meyrick, I haven’t written on these thoughts outside of twitter. I have now briefly commented on a new article about the paper in The Conversation, which I am republishing here. I should have also mentioned statistical work I did with Alison Croggon in 2013 was cited in the paper, which Croggon revisited in this response to Meyrick. My response to Angels in America was also cited.

I was one of those who criticised Meyrick’s data, quite simply because it was incorrect, and I felt it irresponsible of Currency House to have not edited and vetted his work thoroughly. As someone who works in statistical analysis of artistic programming (I have worked with AusStage, but not directly with their database; and have used the database to support research for various clients, including the Australia Council), I was highly disappointed that no one involved thought to check the validity of AusStage’s database. All researchers should know that tertiary sources of information (of which AusStage is) need to be validated through primary sources. It was clear on my reading the Paper that this had not happened.

This was the issue: an academic, writing for a serious publication, did not feel it necessary to perform research in a proper manner. There were egregious errors. To say Belvoir – where some of the most glaring mistakes were made – produced no “New-Australia” work in 2013 was simply wrong, and ignores the very real work of the playwrights who had premieres with the company that year: Nakkiah Lui (This Heaven), Lally Katz (Stories I Want To Tell You In Person), Kit Brookman (Small and Tired), and Tom Holloway (Forget Me Not).

For Meyrick and subsequent editors at Currency House to have not noticed the discrepancy in the data saying the company produced no new work that year made me concerned, furthermore, on from what perspective they were viewing theatre in this country. It is baffling and concerning that no one involved has a strong enough knowledge of Belvoir’s work to have picked this up.

Everyone is done a disservice by the suggestion this data was dismissed because it was disliked. The trouble is not how to lie with statistics, but how to use them correctly.

If Meyrick does not like quantitative data, I suggest he stays away from it. The fact of the matter is his paper didn’t rely on the data he attempted to present, he didn’t rest his larger arguments on it, and didn’t refer back to the figures throughout the rest of the text.  I was mostly confused why these figures were published at all. He, and Currency House, would have been better served if Meyrick had argued where his strengths lie.

Sign Up! The Importance of Seeing Earnest

Jane is a theatre critic. Last Tuesday, she saw The Importance of Being Earnest for the fourth time. The script is the last script on her bookshelf, as the last script in the Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde. Not many playwrights come after Wilde in the alphabet.

Simon is her editor. Last Tuesday, he saw The Importance of Being Earnest for the first time. While his bookshelves are vast, they don’t contain the Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde.

After they left the theatre, Jane and Simon stole wine and oysters from opening night drinks. After opening night drinks, they spent five days emailing each other about the production. They discussed all the things you’d expect in a theatre review, took a few tangents besides—translation! Monty Python! linguistics! 19th century probate law!—and collectively developed a sense of Earnest, and what it means to see it for the first time, and the fourth.

The Lifted Brow is inviting you to eavesdrop on this conversation. Go on. Subscribe. One review, two critics; five emails, five days. The conversation starts this Saturday 9 August.

Subscribe here.


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