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In July RealTime took up residence in Perth with Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter working with nine WA writers on their responses to PICA’s annual season of new performances, Putting on an Act. During the week, the writers balanced their experience of the work on show with the urge to judge, and co-edited two editions of RealTime@PICA for distribution at the event. Their participation required endurance—five nights watching performances of varying quality and type, five days of fast writing and debate. Often performances felt too familiar (poets reading, men in dresses, empty gestures). Sometimes it felt like community service (quaint family circuses). Sometimes, as with Rocky Bay Insomniacs, wheelchair performers, we were truly surprised and impressed.

PICA director Sarah Miller worries at the concept of such open seasons, the risks involved in staging incomplete works by inexperienced performers balanced against the need to provide public space for independent and emerging artists. She is acutely aware of the need for more workshops in which collaborative works are developed with experienced artists. Whatever the best solution, Sarah Miller and her team at PICA are working hard at building a performance milieu in a city that hasn’t really had one and the expertly managed season was sold out most nights. Following are responses to some of the performances from the RealTime@PICA team:

Cornflakes: Lucas Ihlein

Denis Garvey
The table is set by two stage hands. Tablecloth, bowl, spoon, milk, sugar, Corn Flakes. The performer moves from the audience, sits down at the table, serves himself and eats a bowl of Corn Flakes, then returns to the audience.

Jiminy Cricket!! No existential dilemma here. Blocks come forward to eat. Simple as that. Betcha I can anticipate your moves! First look. Waxy inserts disappeared down cardboard sleeve. He unfolds. Rolls it up. Crinkles right. Stops moths breeding. Never had that problem at our house. Packet didn’t go right back in again. If you took it out, searching for some gun or horse to race other plastic horses your brother collected to see who crossed the table top first. Upend packet. Into bowl. Fuller than I would have thought. No poncy fruit on top. That’s right. Hey, wait a minute. You don’t have milk in fuckin’ jugs. Where I come from it’s carton or nothing. And you don’t take the spoon out if it’s already in. To put sugar on. Sugar bowl’s OK, I suppose. And a tablecloth? Nice touch, but a red gingham tablecloth? Funny, I’d have picked him for a two sugar man. It’d have been funnier if you’d kept piling the sugar on. Tablespoon after tablespoon after tablespoon. Like Buster Keaton. My Mum did for my Dad. Killed him in the end, you know. Now, the milk doesn’t have to go round the same configurations as the sugar. As the sun. Push down with your spoon! Sounds right. Now eat. Great big spoonfuls. Spoon’s full. Open wide. Lockjaw. Remove spoon. Crunch! Spoons are the only eating utensil allowed in that cavity. You put those things inside your mouth in the 1950s. Read the packet. Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Iron, Protein, Fat, Carbohydrate, Sugars. Sugar? Turn the packet around again in a wider configuration. Read the back. How nowadays you stand to win a car. The real thing. Come to think of it, wasn’t Kellogg some sort of paedophile or something? Perhaps that’s the answer. And didn’t the world war machine keep on supplying Pol Pot with Corn Flakes, guns—into the 1990s? There’s nothing to say popular culture must be original. Better if it isn’t really. Like the Marlboro man you smoke for the same taste each time. Killed you in the end. It killed him. Tilting of the bowl. Spooning up the last of the milk. Will there be a Corn Flakes Man of the future? Doing counter ads on prime time TV? This is what Corn Flakes did for me. Look away. Cutaway. Stomach. Shot. To bits of ant-like pincers putting us in stitches. You don’t think so? And wasn’t the ending a little too pat? Peremptory? The world war machine didn’t keep supplying Pol Pot with Corn Flakes into the 1990s. You deserve to flee. Escape. Your addiction. I mean back to the audience. Me. I’d have, I’d have savoured the moment. Gone. For another bowl.

Rotations: Dancer Vivienne Rogis, Choreographer Tamara Kerr

Fiona McLean
Marilyn: The building I work in rises tall and white like an elongated rib cage. So deep is the curve of ribs to sternum, it is, even more, an enormous long-line bra. This building also has legs—stocky but sharply tapered—and between them, marking the entrance are flounced canopies of Perspex. Each morning as I pass beneath her skirts, my mind turns to Marilyn Monroe.

Vivienne: She is standing in a circle of bright light and first from one joint, then from another and another, and then from all of them at once, the body of Vivienne Rogis is rotating. It seems less an ordinary body which has learned extraordinary movements than an extraordinary body performing movements which, to it, are ordinary. An up-turned hand turns at ground level and her whole weight arcs across the space. A roll that begins precisely in one vertebra sends flesh in waves across her abdomen and chest. This body is pliant as putty. It has drive to more than match the synthesised accompaniment. She is a girl-machine moving not as rectilinear robot but with the fluid dynamics of fractals.

Tamara: Tamara Kerr who worked with Vivienne Rogis on Rotations is part of a company called Physical Architecture. She has plans to use computer images to track the movements of a skeleton in rotation and to project these up beside the same rotating body in the flesh. I ask Tamara is she knows what Vivienne is thinking about when she dances and she tells me she is focussed on each rotating joint. I think of Marilyn and how much goes on under the skin and behind the eyes. I think of Vivienne and how exciting it is to see the strange ways her bones and muscles work.

One Full Moon: Sandy Mujadi, Susan Allwood; Bumpkin Babes, Clare Christie, Samson Zaharkiv and another

Erin Hefferon
Rash. I’m sick of men in frocks, even beautiful ones. Men? Frocks? It seems so easy. Shock? No. But a beautiful man playing a woman in a beautiful frock next to a woman? What is she, a wound? What’s she doing, writhing, rolling, and picking at herself like a giant scab? Like she’s got some kind of rash. And she’s pure soap. “How can I survive?” she says with a humph and starts her slow, strange dance. Picking at herself while he says—another he, not the he/she of the frock—while he says on the telephone, “Fucking useless bitch, you bitch, answer the phone. I know you’re there. I want the dog back!”

No. I can’t believe it’s happening—Patsy Cline in slo-mo. Three performers, a man in a frock (no surprises here) two girls (ho hum, no surprise either, they’re in frocks too). No cheap one gag for them, they’ll have to try harder and they do. It’s painful to watch. Another scab lifts. He’s so funny, look at him in white face, grimacing, playing with his dress (yes, it’s a dress, I’m a man and I’m wearing a dress. It’s funny, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?). He’s in the spotlight. The audience laughs and laughs and laughs. The girls work around him, bitchily trying to outdo each other. I am hysterical. Hysterically angry. Hysterically bored. Hysterically saddened. One of the girls teases her hair, drops her comb. The other smears lipstick on her face. While he lip-synchs to a brain-damaged Patsy. The girls face the audience, and then face each other, competing. One turns her back, pulls her dress down to her waist. I see her black bra strap. Is she going to strip? This is bad. How far will she go? The other mimics her. This is pathetic. They keep their clothes on. I am disappointed. Something almost happened. Something horrible. Something to inspire pity, not terror, but the terrible.

Terror, Tour 1: devised and performed by David Fussell

Fiona Kranenbroek
We’re getting used to him now. Installed, almost in the Hay Street Mall, him in his wheelchair, in his facial muscles, neck and arms that twitch in a continuum of unpredictability that could be sustained only by permanent neurological damage. This is not pretty. This man is a performer, a professional busker. A small keyboard placed across the arms of his chair, some vocals but no words I can decipher, no tune I can make out. The busker in the wheelchair confronts our expectations—his mumbled cacophony, his disability on display.

David Fussell’s performance has all the decorations of title, of occasion, executed in the safety of an indoor art-space. He does not attempt to play at music—he stands awkwardly, begins to speak, and breaks off. He doesn’t know...he isn’t sure. I know how he feels. His gestures are not unlike the busker’s but Fussell is privileged by an audience held captive by theatre walls and conventions. Is he the real thing? A person who has suffered some sort of breakdown? The bulk of the audience trusts not, they laugh shamelessly during his painful pauses. Through a layering of repeated phrases, artifice emerges. This is an act. I relax somewhat but I still don’t laugh. Is David Fussell with shoelaces undone, being cruel, doing a piss-take of a damaged person? He’s certainly getting laughs. I’m suspicious and yet held by my uncertainty.

In the middle the piece gains intensity, the timing steadies as words are delivered in bursts that seem to take the greatest summoning of courage to issue. More and more I am drawn in, not out of sympathy, but in sympathy with the performance. Because, really, I’m not sure either. I too really don’t know, though I’m pretty sure I don’t know much. Like David Fussell, I’m not really sure what I want and this is why, like him, I don’t really do anything. Because I don’t know much. The one thing David does know is that, so far, this has worked for him.

That’s okay for me, but I’m going to try something else for a while. I think of the busker, of the Hay Street Mall, of trying to make something of my own.
Stillness/Panic: Peter Toy

Paul O’Sullivan

A man? Naked! On his back. On a table. Under a spotlight. Wrapped in the plastic you’d use to wrap your lunch to keep it fresh. But Peter Toy didn’t look fresh. He looked to be on the edge of death.

I feared at first that he wasn’t breathing. Then, that he was over-heating. Then, even if either or both were true, how would we know? Would he tell us if he could? I was afraid that we would be accomplices in his death and even imagined us all being arrested and tried for complicity. I wonder if the Third World (assuming that we are actually the First) could hire a good enough lawyer? Would it find us guilty of standing by as it starved to death? I felt a callous bystander at a terrible accident. Is that what you meant, Peter? Does our voyeurism prevent us from acting, from doing something? Are we all armchair experts on the world we live in? When nothing much is happening on stage—but the little that is happening is remarkable—the brain goes on terrific flights of fancy.

Eventually his arms and legs succumbed to gravity, or perhaps his resolve waned. How long could you keep it up? Did you get bored? Or was the timing just right? It was just right for me, though I desperately wanted to peel you out of your synthetic sarcophagus, pour you a cold one and ask what you were thinking.

Living Dolls: performed by Marlene O’Dea, directed by Sian Phillips

Helena Grehan
A woman stands in a spotlight. She is dressed like an aberrant jewellery box doll. The clothes are right but the hair makes her look like Rod Stewart. She makes the right movements and speaks: “I’m Clare. I like you”. I’m reminded of Rachel Romano (Glory Box) on Thursday night as, again, we are confronted by a middle-aged woman questioning her achievements and oppression. “What are you doing?” “Don’t leave me!” Classic dependent stuff. The movements become jerky. It seems someone has wound her up too tight. Eventually she moves on. She changes costume to Geisha Girl. At the insistence of a bell, she performs, waving her yellow fan, tossing it in the air with precision and then catching it. The action is repeated until like the actions in the jewellery box, it too becomes taut and aggressive. She is letting herself be manipulated. She begins to resent it, drops the fan and disrobes. This is where Living Dolls begins to live. She grabs a drill, mimes sexual actions—the power drill purrs to her command. She is finally taking control. Singing “Mean to Me” she saws wood/phallus in two then moves to a grinder and begins to hone a metal rod. She moves downstage and begins to run on the spot. New Age music floods the space as she spends several minutes in “free” movement. Where does this fit? It’s curiously out of synch with the rest. The performer in her attempt to comment on her “epic journey through the facets of love” has meandered off to another journey altogether.

Can’t Sleep in my Dreams, written and performed by Rocky Bay insomniacs, with playwright Jan Teagle-Kapetas; director, Simone Bateman

Terri-ann White
Works in progress: words and images that show there is a distance to go, give explicitly the message that attention is being applied to the making of this work. Questions, interrogations and things to learn.

Friday night. Another full house, this time uncomfortably so. Spill-over audience sitting on the stage and most didn’t wear the right clothes for it. Getting them all in has taken some time, and all of those nine wheelchairs on stage are occupied. Hope the performers are patient. The opening is dramatic: seven wheelchairs upstage, backs to us, a chair coming on the stage with a woman draped across its occupant. They present stories, these performers: the sort I like—fragments, unfinished, provisional utterances. Sometimes they come directly from the teller, sometimes one of the three floating ‘assistants’ gives their story in parallel. Slow-moving, considered, sometimes tentative, sometimes I couldn’t hear the words but could understand the passion. My sense was that many of these performers had not told these stories, or even been listened to much before, certainly not in such a formal and highly valued way. Personal stories, some private, some of them dreams. The combination of dramatic intensity, the presentation, the austerity and self-containment, and the bodies with their voices, their struggle towards the articulations we understand made this work my highlight, the most fully realised work in the week’s program. I appreciated the spare space, the gaps evident, the integrity of the voices and the shape of the stories. The little moments of pleasure: getting seven electric chairs around in a tight circle in the confined space; the turning on of the spotlight torches hanging above the bodies on the chairs, how that lighting design made drama. And the moment for me: which was felt, sentimental as anything but authentic. “Do you want to know the song I requested? Do you?” he asks. Finally, he answers himself. Roberta Flack singing “Killing Me Softly” and the able-bodied woman helps him out of his chair and holds him and they dance close. His pride and pleasure. Her love and care. The catalogue of items, movements no longer possible, memories forgotten or mislaid. Right through our lives. Finding, or re-finding your voice and using it.

The How-to series #1, devised and performed by Paul Gazzola

Jane Cousins
On the home stretch after chancing the open cauldron of a 100km wind on the long bridge over the river, arms rigid on the steering wheel, I stopped for a man on the road. I don’t normally stop for hitchhikers but on such a night, with such a wind...He swayed against it, barely able to stand.

“Not a night to be out,” I said, swallowing against the strange, rich smell of a body too long in the same clothes.

“I like being out. But I don’t like to walk too much. I got a bung foot. Hit and run ‘bout a year ago. Police see me walkin’ funny. Pull me up. Reckon I’m drunk.”

“I reckon”, I thought.

But how do we know a movement for what it is? How do we read a gesture’s truth?

This is what Paul Gazzola stands asking before the audience, a portable gramophone at his feet, at the end of his right arm held perpendicular to his body, a tiny plastic owl, its minute parts articulated. The owl performs the most delicate of movements. And a split second later, the performer mirrors its moves. The record provides accompaniment: “Hello,” it says, repeated perkily with the oblique intonation of an alien or a machine. It becomes a chant. Exquisite miniature gestures. Repeated and amplified. Paul Gazzola is attentive; a small frown of concentration furrows his brow. Suddenly the owl drops its wings and throws back its head. A moment of exultation, abandon, surrender. Gazzola follows suit. Someone in the audience gasps. We hold together. Performer, owl, audience, rapt.

The end comes suddenly when the record moves on to “How Are You?” The audience laughs. We are meant to ignore this bit. But for me it is the moment which encapsulates all. We learn through repetition, through mimicry, we learn by watching others. We become ourselves, human or owl, a collection of habits, movements, gestures. On the basis of these, assumptions are made.

Jimmy asked me for [a] train fare for the following day. I hesitated, then told him no. He said thanks anyway and...by the way, he’d been puzzling over this, “Which finger is the wedding ring worn on?” I held out my hand and pointed, “That one, I think.” “Ah, so you’re not married then?” “No.” He laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not a rapist or a murderer or nothin’.” He got out and closed the door. “Thanks for the lift, bub. See ya round.”

I drove away, arms rigid on the steering wheel, heart beating fast. Senseless acts of kindness. What a night. I thought of Lear, stripped of artifice and made to see. I’d been kind hadn’t I, fearless, open minded? But underneath it all...well, Jimmy could tell.

Civic Poems: John Mateer

Jenny Silburn
To John Mateer:
You stand in an arc of light
pressed into the microphone
Poet in Jewish and English
and Polish and Irish
and Tristan da Cunhan and Scottish
and unknown
exile

Unknown?
In the silence
your ancestors stand behind you
fanning out against the black cyclorama
observing you
the audience
the work

The words stick in your throat
you eat them like that devil the dingo
while the hyena stands behind you
lips curled into a snarl of laughter

Civic poems
the word seems curiously arcane
Civic?
So this the space you metered out
the territory you now occupy
while the spectres of
Alan Bond and Ned Kelly
Mudrooroo and Arne Naess
spin
in the desert
of the psyche?

You are and are not
you walk in the line in elevated places
you know the abyss
and it is from here
the voice on the wire sings.

White praise singer
sing your song
Sangoma
dance between
Your voice is sweet
Use your cultural weapons
machete the silence
and let the ancestors
speak

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 32-33,43

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

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