No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Category: Australian Theatre Forum

#ATF2013

If you’re scrolling down this blog chronologically, the following posts on No Plain Jane came from chilly Canberra and the Australian Theatre Forum, where I was an official blogger alongside Augusta Supple. Please note I was “live-ish” blogging the conference, and as such many of these pieces were published within ten minutes of a panel ending; please try and forgive their flaws.

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ATF2013: The Major Festivals

On the final day of the Australian Theatre Forum, some of the leaders of Australia’s major festivals discussed where they currently sit in Australia.

Robyn Archer, Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra, opened in saying “the Edinburgh Festival was created as something to heal the wounds in Europe after the war” but in Australia it morphed to something different. “For a long time [in Australia] festivals were where you could see foreign works and works in a foreign language which no one else was presenting.”

“We’d bring stuff you can’t see, maybe stuff that is different to what we’re making here”, she said. It was in the 70s, she said, that Anthony Steel put an emphasis on new art, and “suddenly the presentation of Australian works was important.” For everyone on stage today at ATF, she said, there is an importance to present both Australian and International works.

“It seems to me the larger festivals are less and less able to take risks” she said, because of funding bodies and the media, and smaller festivals that don’t carry those risks

The panel was asked about how the festivals work with arts centres increasing the amount of intentional work they’re producing. Noel Staunton, the Artistic Director of the Brisbane Festival, said “I find in Queensland we can work very well with QPAC […] they try to compliment what we do; we work together.” “It is very much a case of working with the arts centres and if they choose to work against you that can be a problem.”

David Sefton, the Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival, came to Adelaide from London via ten years in LA. “I suppose the nature of the parachuted directors, […] if it’s working, provides a different perspective,” he said. For him, “the biggest struggle is that engagement with the local,” and he finds excitement in discovering local work in the same way in discovering international work.

Adelaide is very specifically quite different to the other cities, he said, because the same international work isn’t present during the rest of the year. “The audience respond differently,” during the Festival, he said. “They take more risks.”

“‘It’s a Festival – you can tie me in a wheelchair, blindfold me and assault me.’ And they did! And they loved it!”

Jonathan Holloway, the Artistic Director of the Perth Festival, spoke about how festivals used to have one director for twenty-five years. Now people come in and out for only a few Festivals – “and that’s the way it should be.”

“Festivals sit in the arts ecology and the community ecology in the world in a really interesting way because they can’t do everything for everyone,” for some people if they want Shakespeare in a festival and there isn’t Shakespeare, he said, it’s not a real festival.

“Frankly, anything can happen in February/March because it’s Festival time.” You can dump feathers on people, he said, but it’s fine because by March they’re gone.

“When I talk about Darwin Festival I don’t talk about a Festival,” Darwin Festival AD Edwina Lunn said, “I talk about a city and a people.” The Festival embraces regional work, national voices, and “it’s about more than just about celebrating a great time in dry season, but it’s about celebrating the people who live there.”

Their Festival talks about the people who live there – who were born there, moved there, were taken there, and now about the three detention centres in Darwin. For Lunn, “it’s about us investing in our own local industry, which is possibly the hardest thing we do” because it is a small city and many people who want to be artists leave.

The Darwin Festival ask if the work is relevant: is it relevant to its audience, but also is it relevant to Darwin’s artists.

Ten Days on the Island is unique in terms of this panel, because it isn’t tied to a city, but rather takes place throughout Tasmania. AD Jo Duffy said her festival programs some shows to the big theatre spaces in Tasmania, trying to develop the audiences for those spaces in the non-Festival times. They also program for their community, but also often bring in work that has never been seen before in Tasmania. “What I hope that we can do is enthuse people to go and see work and participate in work […] for them to keep that momentum the whole two years that we’re not there.”

It’s about “broadening their taste, broadening their understanding of the arts and culture in Tasmania” she said. With all the works curated from artists who create work on islands, many of the works talk about living on an island – “the benefits or the challenges.”

“But it’s not quite that didactic”, she said: sometimes you have to look for it.

With the visiting artists, too, the festival run talks, workshops, and share coffees to really build the benefits of having them in Tasmania.

When looking towards the future of festivals, “the world has changed so much in six years,” said Holloway, “so we have absolutely no idea what the world will look like in six years.”

“Audiences are moving from being relatively passive to being quite active participants. The role of the audience has changed. And our contract with the audience changes daily.”

But, he said, “just because the technology is there it doesn’t mean you should do it, and no one yet has created the technology to change shit art into good art.”

Even when using technology, he said, art still needs to be “extraordinary and transformational.”

“We do the things with the Belgians and the wheelchairs, but we still do put shows on. And we still will do Shakespeare. We’ll continue to look for everything,” agreed Sefton.

“I wonder with rising population with all of our cities […] if there will be a greater proliferation in single interest festivals,” asked Archer. “I always look at WOMAD as a kind of music everyone was really hungry for, and they never had to promote and market like the bigger festivals because everyone was really hungry for that stuff.”

“I think of Sydney Festival and First Night and how it proliferated so big it got quite dangerous,” she said, and noted a similar experience happened in Melbourne with White Night.

Archer spoke about her time at Melbourne Festival, and the questioning if an international arts festival was needed in Melbourne when there is so much work and events happening in the city already. People still want to gather, she said, speaking about the 150,000 people who came to Canberra’s birthday on the lakes, “those things will remain.”

“The delight of both artists and delivering directors is coming together,” she said. “I think that gathering and talking will always be a function of when we come together.”

Staunton was asked about Riverfire, a major yearly event in Brisbane, and how he kept it in his Festivals: you cannot say no to Riverfire, he said. “Everyone knew about Riverfire and no-one knew about the Festival,” so they moved Riverfire to the last day of the Festival instead of the first. The people of Brisbane, he said, then “owned the Festival.”

There was discussion on the blurring of lines between Fringes and Festivals. Said Archer, “in Adelaide, certainly when I was starting their there was a confusion between what is Fringe and what is Festival.”

“Celebrating the differences” is what Sefton does to embrace the confusion. In Edinburgh, he said “it’s a much cleaner line.”

“I think the Fringe is so big in terms of its presence on the street and its presence in the city that we spend a lot of time trying to explain the difference. […] We are in the privileged position of being given a budget to go out and source […] we’re not supposed to be commercially viable.”

In choosing what particular work to place in a Festival, said Sefton, “that’s the tough part of the job.” There is a level of self-selection, because Adelaide is a long way for many people to travel to.

“I make really difficult decisions all the time,” said Lunn. Particularly in terms of the local works, she noted, sometimes the work isn’t ready but the story needs to be told, and the story needs to be told now. “In some ways it’s not even about the quality of the work, but it’s about audiences and artists being able to work in different spaces.”

“Most of the decisions I make are responsibility driven and care driven,” she said.

“I find themes really good for organising my brain,” said Archer. “I don’t really mind if we don’t talk about the themes in the event, or if the audience doesn’t see it.” A real fan, she continued, that will see four or five shows will start to see those themes, and make new connections themselves.

“I don’t choose [the theme] and drive [the theme] into them, I let it evolve  And sometime’s it obvious to the audience and sometime’s it’s not,” she said.

Staunton doesn’t start with a theme, but he finds a linking theme in the work evolves so he can work about it. For Lunn, their theme is “time and place […] everything fits in.”

Holloway also doesn’t start with a theme, but he has several questions he wants to look at. “I have a tendency not to tell the marketing team what they are until after we’ve done the launch”, he said, because he feels like it can narrow the scope down. “Every year the Festival should change the conversation.”

For Sefton “the theme is just doing really really great work” and “other people will find the theme there“. For Duff they already have a theme: island work from around the world, and “themes emerge” in a particular program.

An audience member asked about the relationship between fringe festivals and major festivals, and if fringe festivals can be a threat, particularly in terms of government funding. “I don’t fear Fringe Festivals,” said Sefton, noting he books work for the Adelaide Festival from the Edinburgh Fringe. “I think it’s just part of an eco-system.”

The panel began to discuss the quality of work from Belgium: it is well funded, there is an emphasis on young people and youth arts, and organisations have been funded to make adventurous and contemporary work when they started to reject only presenting Dutch classics.

On audiences, said Sefton, “most have been coming since 1960”, but spoke about selling out Unsound to people “a quarter of the age ” of the typical Adelaide Festival audience.  “We have to find the next audience, or we’ll just watch the old audience die.”

Asked about if the festivals could expand out to take place year round “it’s the intensity that makes a festival a festival,” said Holloway. And as to having emerging artists create a pathway to major Festivals? “Make brilliant work. And don’t stop.”

 

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: Major Theatre Companies

This afternoon, the conversation moved into the territory of the major theatre companies: panelists discussing their ideals and ideas for their companies and where they fit in the landscape. Hosted by Stephen Armstrong, chair of the Theatre Board at the Australia Council, he initially threw the conversation to Geordie Brookman, Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, to talk about what it means to take over a company.

Brookman has been in the position since May 2012, initially purely in a programming capacity   There is a ”strange process of coming into a company, taking the audience through your predecessor’s program and then beginning,” he said. “It’s like you have two beginnings.”

Brookman came into the company as part of an “Executive Team” with Rob Brookman as CEO. Together, said Brookman they wanted the company to be a “creatively brave and ambitious company that had an ongoing relationship with artists […] and a company that was deeply connected to its community and its colleagues nationally and internationally.”

When Brookman came into the role, he said, “we came into a company in a fragile situation.”

“Growth gets inhibited by the necessarily measures you have to take to stabilise a very large company some times. […] You cannot shrink or cut your way out of trouble. You can only create your way out of trouble.” The company has made an effort to collaborate with interstate companies, work on creative developments, and a new work program is underway.

One of the things Brookman has learnt in the company is “every project requires its own timeline and its own process.”  The company is engaging with wide number of sources – theatre makers and playwrights – and are progressing from there.

Leading a major company is also about building trust. “At it’s best, theatre is it’s community storyteller,” he said. “It’s the place to go where we tell each other’s stories. […] If that trust isn’t there then you’re up against it, so part of that process has been building trust.”

Wesley Enoch, the AD of Queensland Theatre Company said much of coming into the AD role is of building narratives: “There are all these narratives around success.”

“You don’t want to suppress or burden the outgoing directors program”, he said, but you want to create the most exciting narrative about your program.

“It’s hard to believe that anyone up here was once a freelance artist, but we all were.” Any AD, he said, wants to “stamp the aesthetic” of the company, and he said it is interesting to consider how this will develop at Melbourne Theatre Company under Brett Sheehy’s Artistic Directorship, and how he will stamp “an aesthetic, a drive and an artistic vision.”

Leticia Caceres, the Associate Director at MTC responded: “what I can say about making a stamp is I’m Argentinean and [Sheehy] out-passions me when it comes to the arts […] his passion floors me. […] His vision is quite eclectic and that to me is incredibly exciting because it opens up the conversation, the form, the spaces, and the type of artists that we’re working with.”

“I’ve always thought that state theatre companies should be at the cutting edge,” she said.

Enoch spoke about an “incredible blurring of the lines” between state theatre companies, arts centers, and festivals. “I’m asking what is the unique offering?”

Replied Caceres “the unique offering of Melbourne Theatre Company at the moment is stories.”

On spending the weekend reading the websites for the major theatre companies, Armstrong said “I was really quite moved to read the vision statements and the histories of the companies,” and asked Polly Rowe, the Literary Manager at the Sydney Theatre Company, to respond to STC’s artistic vision.

“Theatre Without Borders […] is not just about reaching out, but also about reaching in,” she said. Under Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, she said, STC worked with independent companies, interstate companies, and brought in international works, but also went out and worked with communities.

She went on, “maybe its also important to consolidate. Maybe we were trying to do too much” and maybe, then, she said, it’s important to start to bring back in and “build more of an STC style” and find the stamp Enoch was talking about.

For Matt Lutton, Associate Artist (Director) at Malthouse Theatre, his role has been “about continuing that conversation and that multi- disciplinary conversation.”

He’s interested in questioning “how you can get a group of people in a room talking before you start talking about the theatre […] trying to resource that so theatre starts to be made by a team of people.”

Working at Malthouse, he said, he finds it inspiring that anything can be initiated by any artist.

Brenna Hobson, the General Manager of Belvoir, spoke about what it meant for the company when long-standing AD Neil Armfield decided to leave the position. “We had an artistic director who was still creating incredibly good work. He still is,” she said.

“In a way, Neil was at the height of his powers,” so the company knew that they needed to create change. She went on to speak about how Ralph Myers changed the way the company used their Downstairs Theatre, making sure everyone who worked in that theatre was paid, cutting their B Sharp program of independent artists and programming the Downstairs Theatre themselves. Other changes were made to the structure of the company, including employing their first Associate Director.  At Belvoir, she said, they “can engage with any artist you find exciting.”

Peter Evens shares the AD role at Bell Shakespeare with John Bell. “If I had half [Bell’s] energy,” said Evans. Evans has been involved in the company since 1997 and said “we share a lot of the same values.”

For the company “there is still a desire to reach as far as we possibly can, so one of the things we’ve done in the last three years is to make work in other cities. […] We think it’s incredibly important to not just be a touring company but to be a national company.”

With a lot more companies doing Shakespeare and the classics, the company has had conversations with other companies and producing work not by Shakespeare: “we didn’t have a budget line for royalties.”

“We are a company founded on the back of a writer” and the company is moving more and more into commissioning. Without a venue, they are looking to work with companies to make more new work.

Rowe asked her co-panelists with more companies broadening their scope “is there a flattening out that we’re at risk of?”

Said Enoch “it goes back to the idea of a unique offering.”

“The number of physical theatre ensembles in Brisbane is in the dozens […] and we have a number of Shakespeare ensembles. So we’ve gone back to producing Shakespeare as a reflection of our community. […] So it’s about what’s unique about what we’re offering.”

Said Brookman, “every company’s place in the ecology is different.” Like Bell Shakespeare, he said STCSA doesn’t have a venue that gives different challenges to the company.

Mike Finch, Artistic Director and CEO of Circus Oz, refered back to Enoch’s comment about all of the panelists coming from an independent background. “I was definitely a poor artists, but I don’t actually remember a time when I was a freelance artist”, he said.

From the university course he went through at Bathurst “we were never sent out into the world as individuals.” At Circus Oz it is “a tribal structure, a family structure, your best partner is the other person on the stage with you or the person hanging onto the end of the rope. […] And that’s a metaphor and a reality.”

Circus Oz has three CEOs, and decisions are made collectively. On the new home base the company is building in Collingwood, said, Finch, “The DNA of the founders of the company is going to be in the bricks and mortar.”

Opening the floor up to questions, the panel was asked about the position of playwrights in contemporary Australian theatre.

Said Lutton “the doors are open to writers. I don’t think they’ve ever been closed. But there are also other ways to make theatre.”

Caceres  said “my first passion is to create Australian work. I love it. […] People love story. They love it. And especially when it’s about the here and now. Right now. About all of the things we cried about an hour ago.”

Rowe replied “I love new work – obviously I’m the literary manager – but I feel sometimes there is a culture of expecting quite unreasonable things from new plays” you can’t compare all new plays to August: Osage County or Chekhov, she said.

For Hobson, she thinks “we’re creating a false distinction between playwrights and theatre makers.”

Armstrong then asked about how can playwrights find their way into companies? Directors find their way in through secondments and assistant directorships, he said, but how can playwrights find these pathways?

For Brookman, “you have to create the space to fail, and you have to back artists over several productions.”

For him, the major companies need to be “brave enough to fail, and having the space to fail.”

ATF2013: OK Radio

“Personnel is being hired for the Theater in Oklahoma! The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! It’s calling you today only! If you miss this opportunity, there will never be another! Anyone thinking of his future, your place is with us! All welcome! Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward! We are the theater that has a place for everyone, everyone in his place! If you decide to join us, we congratulate you here and now! But hurry, be sure not to miss the midnight deadline! We shut down at midnight, never to reopen! Accursed be anyone who doesn’t believe us!”

— Franz Kafka, Amerika

The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma is a New York based theatre company under Kelly Cooper and Pavol Liska. They work in live performance – they came to Australia from presenting their twelve hour Life and Times: Episodes 1- 5 just played at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in the UK, you can read Lyn Guardner’s five star review here – but my main contact with the company has been through OK Radio, their weekly long-form podcast conversations with theatre practitioners from around the world.

These conversations are long ranging and discursive, often introducing me to artists I haven’t heard of, but also ways of talking about and considering art and practice: the ways that I can approach contextualising work and practice as a writer and as an audience member. Cooper and Liska, too, are very interested in questioning – and asking their guests to question – why art? Why this art? Why now?

At the Australian Theatre Forum, Cooper and Liska took the stage in their pyjamas: “we’re more comfortable that way,” said Cooper. “You can change if you want.”

For their speech they brought up Claudia Chidiac, an artist from Sydney. She took a while to warm into the conversation.

“We just try to find somebody that is much more nervous than we are,” said Liska.

“You found her!” replied Chidiac.

As Liska directed her into the conversation about her passions and about working with communities, though, she became more comfortable, and started to share her work. Most interestingly, Liska created a context where we could watch her questioning herself on stage.

“Theatre people are all very nice people […] And I wonder if that is our problem,” asked Liska. “We choose an art form where we can sit next to each other and touch each other and we’re very good people.”

“Revolutions are not often caused by polite people, or good people,” said Cooper. “Sometimes we wonder if we have to stop making art to get something done. I really like art but i have a lot of questions about what it’s good for and if it’s needed.”

“Ten years ago there was a period where the Australian artistic community nationally were making art in response to the governments refugee policy,” said Chidiac, “especially in regards to children in detention. There was a really strong period where people were creating theatre works in droves […] and we really began to see the pressure.”

From the audience came yells that the current situation is worse. Said Chidiac, though “it felt great to be a part of that.”

“It’s not over. There are still debates going. But I don’t feel that intensity from the artistic community,” she said.

In regards to the loss of intensity, said Liska “that seems ineffective. Forgive me, but that seems weak.”

Liska and Cooper quit making theatre for four years, and here at ATF and on their podcast they frequently reference this break: the need to leave theatre, the need to come back, and the new perspective they have to the work and to creating the work because theatre was something they choose to return to.

“We should say that OK Radio is basically based on our problems,” said Cooper.

The conversation moved from the stage to one between people in the audience and the stage. It was passionate and loud, with Liska and Cooper engaging and asking questions, but mostly allowing the space for the most visceral conversation of the Forum so far. Candy Bowers took the microphone and spoke much more powerfully than I can write.

I didn’t blog this conversation. It was too deep, too passionate, too divisive, and too much for me to be able to capture in a blog made on the run. Some very senior figures in Australian arts walked out. Perhaps this is me doing a disservice, to not write about some of the most important conversations that happened in Canberra, but I feel it would be a bigger disservice to think I could write about it. So I’ll just have to leave you here. Go listen to OK Radio.

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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