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Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze
photo courtesy the artists and Brisbane Powerhouse
THE DISCRETE CHARM OF ANDREW ROSS, DIRECTOR OF THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE, LIES IN HIS WARM DEMEANOUR COUPLED WITH AN INNATE SENSE OF PUNCTILIO; HE IS NOT GIVEN TO HYPERBOLE. NEVERTHELESS, HIS BLUE EYES TAKE ON A FIERCE QUALITY WHEN HE ENUNCIATES UNFASHIONABLE IDEAS LIKE “PASSION,” “INSPIRATION,” “COURAGE” AND “TRUE GRIT” AS HIS CRITERIA FOR CHOOSING WORKS FOR THE EXPANDED WORLD THEATRE FESTIVAL (WTF) AT THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE IN 2011—ITS CHEEKY BYLINE IS: “WTF ARE YOU DOING IN FEBRUARY?”

These are all works that, in Ross’s view, were not formulated to subscribe to market-driven values, but spoke in the first place to the concerns of their audiences in different contexts, works that if they are ‘real’ or ‘any good,’ speak to an audience anywhere. Ross resists the notion that such works necessarily reflect contemporary performance practice, believing this terminology to be misleading and exclusory, preferring the more pluralistic term “current practices” to apply to multiple works that have been independently produced and have, so to speak, their own faces, “investing in different priorities to commercial theatre.”

Ross built his reputation in Perth as a promulgator, devisor and director of new works. These included Jack Davis’ The Dreamers followed by No Sugar and Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae. He went on to found Black Swan Theatre Company which gained a formidable reputation nationally and internationally for new work, and launched the careers of many Indigenous performers such as Ernie Dingo and Leah Purcell and writers Jack Davis, Jimmy Chi and Sally Morgan. Ross specifically attributes his work with Indigenous theatre as helping to sharpen his eye for performances that interact with an audience hungry, desperate for the experience, just as he had been as a young man at the Pram Factory in Melbourne. It also alerted him, as did his travels in India and Indonesia, to the roots of theatre emanating from the ritual, even religious nature of a festival.

Ross’s concern for socially transformative experiences in the theatre causes him likewise to reinvent the ritual of theatre that goes well beyond the physical act of attending a performance by creating an exciting environment that “destabilises the formalised presentation of culture, creating a space to hang out...stimulating conversation, opinion, engagement, connection and personal interaction between artists and audiences” (Press Release). WTF has the boldly stated aim of reviving within three years the “ritual of gathering for live performance for collective contemplation and conversation about life...a distinctly social act.”

Ross points out that Brisbane has the lowest national theatre attendance per capita. By changing the way theatre and performance is delivered, WTF challenges prevailing perceptions of live performance. It aspires, in Ross’s words, “to bring audiences, local artists and leading national and international artists to Brisbane to form a critical mass for performance culture.” WTF’s accessibility has been assured in a commitment to affordability with the provision of cheap food stalls and a low cost ticketing strategy and initiatives to subsidise industry workers from interstate.

The pilot scheme earlier this year in the first WTF genuinely lived up to expectations. Audiences revelled in it, and it completely won me. The marvel was that the most interesting work came from Queensland, and was commissioned by the Brisbane Powerhouse: Brian Lucas’s amazing one-man show, Performance Anxiety (RT96, p30). It more than stood on its own alongside forceful products from overseas. In 2011 the solo work similarly being premiered under the auspices of WTF by Melbourne-based Real TV is the gritty, poeticised drama, Random, written by UK playwright Debbie Tucker Green and performed by Zahra Newman who both share a Jamaican heritage. Its theme—the death of a young black man and its effects on family—is, sadly, all too relevant in Australia. Otherwise the program divides even-handedly between mainstage productions and Scratchworks, new Australian works in development.

The international section of the program has been scheduled mainly from Europe and America (in subsequent years works will be chosen from the demographics Africa/Asia and Eastern Europe/South America). From the UK comes Super Night Shot by Gob Squad (see p4). Filming commences one hour before the audience arrives with four video cameras wielded by four performers who have set out on a semi-scripted, semi-improvised scenario of adventures and encounters in the vicinity of the Powerhouse. The performers return, meet their audience and the tapes are played back unedited on a four-way split screen, imploding the parameters of live performance. Kassys from the Netherlands brings Good Cop Bad Cop to the program using this company’s signature juxtaposition of film and theatre to build upon texts and editing techniques from reality television. I saw their production of Kommer (Sadness) at the Powerhouse in 2008, and regard it (along with Performance Anxiety) as one of the most memorable shows of the decade. It’s difficult to describe how their quirky brand of physical comedy conveys worlds of feeling and absolutely nails the absurdity of everyday lives. Also bridging the gap between cinema, performance and visual art, from the USA comes Americana Kamikaze in an Australian exclusive, an uptake on Japanese ghost stories by Temporary Distortion (New York/Japan). This promises to be the most visually rich, trance-inducing and disturbing contribution to WTF where actors perform minimally in boxes in front of a large screen to add another layer (in a dual sense) of projection. As Matthew Clayfield wrote from New York, “While some of the horror elements of the production were indeed quite frightening, it was as much [a] Möbius strip-like quality, the sense of having the formal and generic rugs pulled out from under you, that made the production most unsettling” (RT95).

The Waiting Room, Born in a Taxi The Waiting Room, Born in a Taxi
photo courtesy the artists and Brisbane Powerhouse
From New Zealand, Hackman’s Apollo 13: Mission Control takes over half the Powerhouse Theatre in yet another extension of the theatre experience as we join flight director Gene Kranz and become responsible for helping guide the famous space shuttle home. It’s been lauded by critics and loved by audiences for its innovation and imaginative design. Well-received at both Edinburgh and Dublin Festivals, Diciembre is an intense, highly charged and passionate piece from Chile’s Teatro en el Blanco in which personal and autobiographical events impinge on the drama, including experiences of racism, protectionism and patriotism. Sydney-based performance-maker, writer, teacher and curator Rosie Dennis was last seen at the Powerhouse with her production Fraudulent Behaviour earlier this year. Her current work, Downtown, an exploration of belonging and connection, will be created day by day in Brisbane across the festival for a final day/night showing featuring Brisbane’s Gay and Lesbian Choir. Finally there is the mainstage appearance of the winner of the Melbourne Fringe Festival Brisbane Powerhouse 2010 Performance Award, The Waiting Room by Melbourne’s Born in a Taxi & The Public Floor Project. This highly physical, non-verbal work involves a live, real-time sound score which makes each performance an unrepeatable event.

There are seven brand new Australian shows in the making in the 2011 Scratch Series. WTF finds spaces for artists to take wild flights in front of an audience, and an informal atmosphere in which to discuss and absorb feedback from the audience. Personally, I find this arena for nascent works fascinating, often discovering that the process of polishing loses much as the rough beast is tamed. Gorgeous national and international performers like Christine Johnston and Lisa O’Neill are on hand, creating musical/performance vignettes with Peter Nelson in order to develop their RRAMP band sound and aesthetic; well known Polytoxic scrambles a new, high flying work; Daniel Santangeli’s Room 328 will drive you to drink (no, I loved their commitment and dark carnivalesque in its first incarnation, and look forward to seeing it again; see review); Black Queen Black King by Steven Oliver explores the lives of four Indigenous gay men culminating in a celebration of strength, pride, sexual and cultural identity; and Elephant Gun by The Escapists looks like being an intriguing site-specific work for a small audience.

These six specifically Queensland works are complemented by the Drawing Project (Open Studio), a multi-arts project by Fleur Elise Noble from Adelaide and featuring Erica Field as the performer. There is also a Masterclass and Forum Series running throughout the festival. The keynote speaker is Jude Kelly (Southbank, UK), her talk centres on community engagement with creative spaces and how cities are identifiable in the art they’re producing. This series is open to tertiary students, local artists and industry. What to do in February? Come to WTF!


World Theatre Festival 2011; Brisbane Powerhouse, Feb 9-20, 2011; brisbanepowerhouse.org

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 29

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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