Festival Review: School Dance; and investing in joyous artistic visions.

by Jane

Sydney-based actor and playwright Matthew Whittet has enjoyed a perhaps disproportionate amount of his success as a writer Adelaide.  Twelve, his first play was workshoped at the National Playwrights Conference in Perth in 2006, and his first produced play was Silver, a monologue which Whittet also performed, at Downstairs Belvoir in 2009.  His latest work, Old Man, will again be playing in Belvoir’s downstairs theatre this June, but between these Sydney outings, three of his works have had main-stage productions in Adelaide.

Two of these plays were presented in very quick succession in 2010, with Windmill Theatre producing Fugitive in August, and Brink Productions producing Harbinger in September.  While the shows weren’t without their issues (particularly in the final scenes of Harbinger), Whittet did in many ways cement himself to Adelaide’s audience as someone with a unique mind, twisting slightly off centre into bizarre universes filled with awkwardness, and with love.

School Dance, again produced by Windmill, premiered in the Adelaide Festival this year.  While this work still sits very early in Whittet’s career as a playwright, it was embodied with a wonderful of air of trust on behalf of Rose Myers and Teena Munn, the Artistic Director and General Manager / Executive Producer of Windmill, respectively.

Like Fugitive, School Dance has been directed by Myers, and above all else feels like Whittet was given the absolute freedom to make a work to his vision. The resulting play is one that, as soon as you start to detail it on the page, sounds so peculiar, so unconventional, and so illogical that it wouldn’t work; and yet through this trust is borne something that works absolutely.

The show is one of hilarity and joy.  In catering to Windmill’s core youth audience (in this case upper secondary school), the show has a strong moral centre and lesson it tries to instil in the audience, but this is almost overshadowed by the lessons that can be learnt in creative freedom.

But School Dance isn’t sitting alone in Adelaide’s cultural landscape. In a beautiful turn of events, this investment in particular (and peculiar) artistic visions – and joyous visions, at that – is something which we are seeing a lot of in this city this year.

In the Festival we also saw these investments in an artistic vision in the Border Project’s I Am Not An Animal and in the Festival club Barrio.

I Am Not An Animal came to the Border Project after initial discussions between Festival Artistic Director Paul Grabowsky and Adelaide Zoo CEO Chris West, and received funding from ArtsSA’s Festivals Commissioning Fund (a new project not without its criticisms for buying into the Adelaide festival culture and detracting from funding for the rest of the year, but that is a conversation for another time).

I Am Not An Animal, Photograph by David Mattner

The show that resulted – while not entirely successful – spoke to this wonderful freedom of creativity that was invested in the Border Project’s company members, and the investment they could then make (in the words of Artistic Director Sam Haren) in the “mega band” of their favourite artists.  In some ways, it wasn’t about the work being perfect, but about the fact that such a crazy experiment could happen at all.

Barrio was the true centerpiece of the Festival.  Open for twelve nights on the Hajek Plaza, the normally underused, ugly, urban failure in design, squished between Parliament House and the Festival Centre, made sense for the first time.  Under the leadership of special events producer and festival designer Geoff Cobham, the team that created Barrio didn’t just create a single ramshackle maze of bars and hidden surprises, but created a venue that changed every night, taking on a new design and persona into the wooden scaffolding and cement blocks.

Writing his praise in InDaily, Will McRostie beautifully wrapped up the outcomes from the crazy investment which was Barrio, saying:

Barrio was an outstanding example of what happens when you give creative people the resources they need and get out of the way… the most important thing is to trust our creatives and skilled place-makers to create something fantastic, free from political or social pressures to meet ideological expectations.

Outside of the Festival, Australians have been able to watch a similar investment in creative vision every Monday night on SBS for the past six weeks.  Danger 5, supported by the SAFC, Adelaide Film Festival, and SBS, was a half-hour television series about five spies assigned to take down Hitler, in true 60s styling. While not entirely successful, its shortcomings are all the more to be celebrated because the show was an absolute testament to the creative freedom invested in co-creators Dario Russo and David Ashby.

Perhaps what is most important to acknowledge in these parallels I’m drawing is the scale of the investors in the projects – this is remarkable precisely because of who is buying into the visions.   These aren’t small scale, independent productions that can celebrate a particular voice with much more frequency. These are works created through the investment by large cultural organizations, but the central figure has returned to being the individual artists.

And with the trust afforded to them, these creators have embodied themselves in the work so we are at once exposed to both the art and the artist as autonomous but intrinsically linked beings.  They might have the special effects, the big bangs, the bright lights, but these artists aren’t hidden behind a screen: we’re being shown them and their fingerprints front and centre.

And the most wonderful thing about these works coming out of Adelaide? They are all filled with absolute joy – and maybe that is the other key to the puzzle.

It would be amiss to have this conversation now and not mention Every Breath, written and directed by Benedict Andrews and playing at Belvoir.  Twitter and the media are aflutter with reporting on how disappointing an investment in Andrews’ vision the work was.

Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake finished his review saying:

Belvoir’s dramaturgical department has been caught sleeping here and this play seems to have been given the green light on Andrews’s reputation alone. The project feels tainted with hubris.

Worse still, Every Breath gives those who think Sydney’s theatre scene is being held hostage by auteur-wankers a clip full of told-you-so ammunition.

Not being Sydney based, it is harder to comment on how this work relates to the wonderful investments we have been lucky enough to see in Adelaide this year.  Theatre, festival clubs, and film are all highly collaborative art forms: Andrews didn’t create Every Breath in isolation any more than any of the other artists I have spoken about.  Investments in artists are bound to go wrong, occasionally, as all art is.

But as long as we’re riding this train of trust, and particularly trust in joy, I hope we can keep running with it.  It seems to be a special thing organisations here have been investing in and creating: joyous artistic freedom with financial investment.  Here’s to hoping it continues, and we weren’t just treated to the one-off special.

In School Dance, high-school friends Matt (Whittet), Luke (Luke Smiles), and Jonathon (Jonathon Oxlade) are all losers.  They’re all different kinds of losers, but losers they are. Slightly awkward, slightly out of place, they’re there for each other, but few others are there for them.  As long as they stick together, and avoid the school bully Derek Sturges (Jim Rose), they’ll be okay. Perhaps.

Waiting to go into the school dance, the most beautiful girl in the class Hannah Ellis (Amber McMahon in all female roles), Matt’s crush, walks by and says hello to Luke and Jonathon, passing Matt by completely.  Matt’s body goes into panic, and he starts to turn invisible.

Seeing Whittet’s costume morph from black pants, high-top sneakers, and a t-shirt tux to a full sequined body suit (Oxlade also taking role of the designer) is just one of the moments of beautiful implausibility of the production.  And the bizarrity is just beginning: thus starts the quest to save Matt from an inescapable life of invisibility.

From the audience School Dance reads like a piece of free-association writing: Whittet took his pen and just wrote whatever crazy situation came to his mind next.  Whittet’s humour throughout the piece seems very much of the brain of the teenage boys we see on stage: it can be crass, it indulges in sexual fantasies of the young women, it absolutely indulges in liberal swearing (even if after the first, the remaining words are “bleeped” out). It sits so far outside the usual expectations of theatre which most of us were exposed to in high-school that being created for that audience initially jars, until you realise that of course this silliness is the perfect theatre for teenagers.

But Whittet’s script isn’t all jokes and teenage fantasies: the heart of the work is built upon the relationship between Matt, Jonathon, and Luke.  A relationship which is built upon a trust in each other and an unspoken love.  As audience members, Whittet lets us in on more of the boys secrets than they share among each other, but as we learn their secrets, the supportive friendship the boys have built up around themselves is all the more poignant.

Occasionally scenes (particularly in the parallel world of “The Land of Invisible Teens”) dragged for too long, the work getting to caught up in its tutorial of “it’s okay to be yourself”  or Whittet’s sense of humour investing too much in the outlandish. Straying too far from either the honest hilarity of the world or the embedded heart in a middle neverland, lessons weigh down the show.  It’s never too long, though, before we are taken back to the crazy world of School Dance we have very quickly come to love.

Oxlade’s design pairs the drab, traditional school hall, all mustard coloured curtains and wooden paneling (I was sure that was my high school hall I was looking at – is there an “Australian High School Hall Design Standard”?), with the outlandish and off-kilter: the three bicycles attached to a frame, the invisible girl Danika Matt meets up with lives in an oversized mushroom, the animated Land of Invisible Teens, Joanie the Unicorn tears a hole in the fabric of time using the laser in her horn. (Remember when I said the show sounded implausible on paper?)  Lighting by Richard Verde supports the greater design, from quick blackouts for scene changes to spinning disco lights, his work embodies the emotion through the narrative.

Opening with a narrator, this technique fails slightly because a logic to the narration isn’t quite established enough: especially when the narrator tells the boys to do the job alone, but we have seen several scenes where there was no voiceover for large amounts of time.   Yet, like Oxlade’s design, Smiles’ sound design also heightens and builds the world from the mundane of these boys lives to the eccentric world we come to know, both through the mix of synthesiser score and 80s classics, but also with sound manipulation being integral to the work.

Even narrator aside, the sound design in many places becomes another character in the work.  The characters find themselves speaking in an autotuned remix, in movie voice-over voice, or they startlingly discover their expletives are bleeped out – and so they must swear all the more.  Smiles’ composition runs under most of the production, loud and thumping through the audience, from the fun dance tunes of the 80s, to the uncomfortable dissonance playing under the boy’s panic, to the pound of heartbeats as we see Derek Sturges.

The overt treatment of both design and sound design, along with Oxlade and Smiles appearing in the production, add to the overall weight of a collaborative process where investment in the most fantastical elements of the creatives’ work were encouraged and celebrated.

Smiles and Oxlade collaborated on School Dance in the design roles they are most known for, but their performances are just another testament to the investment of trust in them.  We feel, as with Whittet (always delightful in his characters’ shy earnestness, and who wears his actual glasses in his performance), that we’re meeting somewhat heightened, somewhat dorkier, somewhat caricaturized versions of the men themselves in these roles, and that brings a wonderful sense of heart.

There isn’t a moment where you don’t want to be rooting for these teenage boys.  Oxlade’s performance, in particular, gives us a Jonathon (the loser in denial) quietly unassuming and softly touching, a lovely balance between the exuberance the boy feels between adventures of school dances and bike-rides, and the anxiety of school dances and possible lost friends.

The performance of the night, however, goes to McMahon. All the female characters lie on her shoulders, and these girls, we feel, lie the furthest from McMahon’s true self.  Whittet and Myers often pushed McMahon into the most outlandish of the characters; in particular in the role of the unicorn. As McMahon flounces around the stage, blonde hair bouncing; as she softly scuttles in a black sequined body suit; as she gallops past the boys, McMahon carries the eccentricities of her characters with ease.

In some ways School Dance is a production of worlds I’m not familiar with: both the world of teenage boys, and the world of 80s references from the childhoods of the creators.  Some of these have passed on to popular lexicon and are still familiar to me; some others passed me by completely.  In some ways this makes School Dance an implausible show for Windmill and the high school audiences they were targeting through the production.

It’s self-aware in these references though, and subverts them in a ways which can both be jarring and be a release.  When Jonathon and Luke travel to the parallel world, Luke is transformed into He-Man, while Jonathon is a Teletubby – “This isn’t even from my generation!” he exclaims.  When one character pulls out a mobile phone, it is at first too much of a conflict with the world we have been introduced to, but then it acts to support the nonsense that the creatives are relishing in.

Movement by Gabrielle Nankivell embedded in wit adds to the heart of the production: in heart-wrenching scenes, to Luke and Jonathon’s geeky yet exuberant choreography (see video), to a race across the suburbs and up to the peak above the town on bikes.

For all the hilarity, though, it would be amiss to not mention the sadness that is embroiled in the play. Matt’s turning invisible is a completely unsubtle metaphor for the feelings of invisibility he deals with every day; while the three boys desperately try to avoid the beatings they fear from Derek Sturges, they also wish to avoid some much bigger demons which await them in their homes.

When we are given an insight into these home lives, or when this physical bullying inevitably comes, it is heart wrenching to see these boys go through that.  Unlike Festival show Hard To Be A God, which tried desperately to be polemic but failed because it couldn’t make any of its characters human, in School Dance Myers succeeds so fully at making these boys human (these boys, who in the bullying scene, are wearing a full glitter body suit, a He-Man costume, and a Tellytubby costume), that their pain also hurts the audience, as Smiles’ sound design reverberates the punches throughout the theatre.

But the hilarious and the ridiculous in School Dance only strike the balance as good as they do because of the real people we see behind these characters.  Myers’ direction allows the sectors of the production come together: within the work and within each character, she has helped to find the heart of truth that everything is built on.  From crass jokes, to monsters of both our world and another world, above all else Myers takes us on the same journey as her characters.

As we leave the show and these characters in a final, rousing, all out 80s dance number to Spandau Ballet, all we are left with is joy, and a powerful feeling of we can do anything, and we can be ourselves: like Matt, Luke, Jonathon, Joanie and Danika in the play; but also like Whittet, Smiles, Oxlade, Myers, McMahon and all of the other people who clearly had a joy investing their hearts and creative energies into this work.  Seeing creative energies invested in such a way is a true joy to behold.

Windmill Theatre and the Adelaide Festival presents School Dance by Matthew Whittet.  Directed by Rose Myers, design by Jonathon Oxlade, lighting design by Richard Vabre, original soundtrack by Luke Smiles (motion laboratories), movement by Gabrielle Nankivell. With Amber McMahon, Jonathon Oxlade, Jim Rose Luke Smiles, and Matthew Whittet. At the Space Theatre. Season closed.