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The shape of things to come?

Briony Kidd: Hobart Independent Theatre

100 Reasons for War, Blue Cow Theatre 100 Reasons for War, Blue Cow Theatre
photo Tony McKendrick
Looking back to late April in Hobart, the summer festivals were over, Dark MOFO lay ahead, yet there was plenty to tempt the cultural connoisseur with a taste for theatre. When I say plenty, I mean three professional shows opening at once, but that’s a big deal here. The amateur theatre scene has dominated for decades, in terms of both the resources it commands and the audiences attracted. Professional theatre, by comparison, has struggled. One of the mainstays has been Terrapin Puppet Theatre, founded in 1981 and still going strong (although the effects of recent Australia Council funding cuts remain to be seen), delivering theatre for family and schools’ audiences. But others have come and gone, with artists segueing into related fields or moving to the mainland in search of that ever-elusive sustainable arts career.

In Launceston Mudlark Theatre has been producing outstanding theatre since the mid 2000s, leading the way in terms of commissioning—including plays by Tasmanian playwrights Carrie McLean, Stephanie Briarwood and Finegan Kruckemeyer. Its activities to foster the independent scene, such as its One Day 24-hour short plays project, are impressive. Their latest is The Possum, written by another local, Sean Monro, which, like many Mudlark shows, engages with the traditions of Tasmanian Gothic.

But what can the three productions in Hobart in April tell us about the character of Tasmanian theatre in 2015? This level of activity is unusual, but with a new company—The Southside Players—coming along with its first show this August, it may be the way of the future.

The Blue Cow Theatre presented 100 Reasons For War, a new play by Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway, staged in the Theatre Royal with a cast of eight and one of those scripts where lines aren’t allocated to particular characters. Impressively staged by Robert Jarman, it featured the use of a video screen with text to underline story moments, eclectic lighting and intense sound design by Dylan Sheridan. There was an exuberant physicality to the piece, with choreography by Trisha Dunn, including a striking moment with the ensemble on a tilting revolve. Holloway’s script explores Anzac themes in a tangential way, reflecting on violence in the human animal while highlighting ideas around gender. It also references The Black War, a shameful chapter of Tasmanian history, as the conflict that has shaped the Australian national identity far more than the Gallipoli defeat—a provocative idea ripe for further exploration. The response? Audiences either loved or loathed it.

Founded by actor-director Jarman, actor John Xintavelonis and actor-writer Jeff Michel, Blue Cow Theatre launched in 2010 and has staged 10 productions since, with 100 Reasons For War being their third commission. The second appearance of their script development initiative, The Cowshed, in 2015 suggests there will be other original work to come. Whether the next will be in the vein of a Holloway or a Jonathan Biggins (Blue Cow staged his comedy The State of Tasmanian Economy in 2014) is the question.

Tasmanian Theatre Company staged Nassim Soleimanpour’s acclaimed allegory White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Showcasing a different solo performer each night to preserve its spontaneity, it’s unrehearsed. There’s no director because the actor directs him/herself, or, to be more accurate, the playwright directs through time and space via the sheer power of words on a page (it was written in 2010 as Soleimanpour’s effort to connect with a world outside his restrictive life in Iran). The TTC line-up was diverse, with Hobart-based actors Anne Cordiner, Bryony Geeves, Ryk Goddard, Jane Longhurst, Katie Robertson, Mel King and Guy Hooper as well as Gavin Baskerville, who’s better known as a comedian, and fly-ins Samuel Johnson, Kate Mulvany and Hamish Michael (an expat Tasmanian). I saw it on the night that Jane Longhurst was in the hot seat and it was a powerful experience (although one niggling thought is that for a grassroots activist play it’s a shame that only those with a spare 40 dollars got to experience it).

Tasmanian Theatre Company was founded in 2008 when there hadn’t been a state theatre company for about a decade. It’s taken a while to find an identity for itself, and is perhaps still looking. Having lost state government funding last year, it has a hard road ahead. But it has certainly hit on something, with increasingly innovative approaches to staging, such as a very popular production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf late last year coinciding with Architecture Week. This took place in a 1960s Modernist house designed by Esmond Dorney and owned by the Hobart City Council. Audiences were ferried to the site at the top of Sandy Bay by mini-bus and compelled to face George and Martha’s shenanigans sitting right inside their living room.

Loud Mouth Theatre presented Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, an incisive literary comedy that was a Broadway hit a few years ago. Directed by Maeve Mhairi MacGregor it was an entertaining, intelligent and well-designed production, although the script, for all its protestations to the contrary, is yet another take on the notion of ‘genius’ revolving around the male ego. Some fantastically overwrought moments included Jeff Keogh’s strong performance as the aforementioned archetype. This was also my first chance to see the newly built Moonah Arts Centre, with its Performance/Screen Studio offering a flexible new space.

Loud Mouth Theatre is a collaboration between three motivated twenty-somethings, MacGregor, Katie Robertson and Campbell McKenzie (MacGregor and Robertson returned to Tasmania post their training in Sydney). Loud Mouth is the new kid on the block, having launched in May 2014 with a production of David Ives’ Venus in Furs. They’ve achieved a lot in a short time, including a colourful response to Leo Schofield’s comment in an interview this year describing Tasmania as a land where “all the young people leave, and the only ones left are the dregs, the bogans, the third-generation morons” (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April). MacGregor and co started a Leo’s Bogans campaign on social media profiling high-achieving Tasmanians under 35, of which there can be no better example than the trio themselves.

Leaving aside the fact that all three companies are under-funded and that the definition of professional here may sometimes include profit-share, here were three polished, ambitious productions—one was a new work, one (imported) written by a woman and one directed by a woman. One (imported) was by a ‘non-white’ playwright. One was staged in a pop-up theatre space (Red Rabbit, White Rabbit), one in the Theatre Royal, Australia’s oldest proscenium arch theatre (100 Reasons For War) and one in a brand new arts centre in the northern suburbs (Seminar). So whatever your aesthetic or critical response to the choice of material, there’s no doubt that what these productions represent is significant insofar as they embody a new spirit of experimentation. The experimentation might have been more around audience development and staging than about theatre-making on the deepest level, but nevertheless it’s promising.

But before celebrating, let’s remember that the effects of changes to Australia Council funding are about to bite. Tasmania will be disproportionately affected, because we don’t have any substantially supported theatre at the small to medium company level. The only Tasmanian organisation on the list of protected ‘majors’ is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. On the upside, the so-called MONA effect will continue, with increasing activity around festivals creating opportunities for artists. But as is the case with the film sector in Tasmania, the balance of imported and local work needs to be spot-on if all this is to really build, instead of merely inflating the sector artificially at certain times of the year. Theatre in Tasmania is going through a crucial period of transition—in a climate of upheaval and opportunity perhaps the biggest risk of all would be to play it safe.

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 42

© Briony Kidd; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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