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Lewis Jones, courtesy of Judith Wright Centre Lewis Jones, courtesy of Judith Wright Centre
“Meet you at the Judy” is part of the vernacular of performance-making in Brisbane, a refrain heard as artists and audiences rendezvous at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts on 420 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley. The four-storey (plus Bell-Tower studio) heritage building is an old biscuit factory, converted in the halcyon era of cultural infrastructure investment in Queensland in the late 90s.

The thing about the Judy is that it sits in the sweetest spot in the arterial that is the edgy live music and entertainment precinct of Fortitude Valley: the young, the hip and the crazy all walk by seeking kebabs and the pleasures of the night. Like the Powerhouse before it, the Judy has taken a good decade to cement itself into an owned public space, despite such an incredible location and the fact that the building is home to our flagship circus and dance companies: Circa and Expressions Dance Company. But in some mysterious alchemy that seems part good programming and part natural justice, the Judy is well and truly open for business, jammed with gossiping patrons and artists wandering upstairs to use its two intimate studios: the Theatre rehearsal space and the Music rehearsal space.

This change is not only because of the post-industrial elegance of the Judy as a public space, but also a push from the Judy management to invest in ways to open up the space. The Judy was the first to trial licensed cabaret seating. They refurbished the Shopfront venue, formerly an intractable space with concrete floors and intriguing open windows, laying down wooden floors and improving the facilities to make it a functional space for contemporary dance and physical theatre, as well as installation. Consequently, the 300-seat theatre—the Performance Space—and the Shopfront are the most responsive and versatile spaces for experimentation with non-traditional audience reception in the city. Both are regularly transformed into new configurations that surprise, delight and perplex audiences. The Danger Ensemble’s Sons of Sin in an empty Performance Space with a five-storey scaffold is a personal highlight for me (RT 116, p39).

I spoke with Programming Manager, Lewis Jones, a canny and longstanding Brisbane theatre director about the upcoming Judy program and I’m excited to say we have a scoop about a change to their Residency program: Fresh Ground. Fresh Ground has a proud history of supporting local performance-makers, circus and contemporary dance. This ranges from high profile independents such as the Danger Ensemble, the circus collective Casus and contemporary dance company Lisa Wilson Projects. The current Fresh Ground slate includes circus royalty Chelsea McGuffin’s Company 2; Head Office (a Brisbane theatre supergroup with members of The Escapists, The Brides of Frank and Polytoxic); Phluxos2 with choreographers of the moment Neridah Matthaei and Leisel Zink; and energetic, post-gothic contemporary dance-makers Prying Eye.

Traditionally, the Judy’s overall public program is a blend of contemporary music, circus, contemporary dance and theatre, with a strong emphasis on bringing in high-calibre works from interstate and overseas. Historically, there has been a strong correlation between the programming at the Powerhouse and at the Judy and a great deal of the program resource was spent on bringing in shows from outside of Brisbane.

With the currents of Brisbane theatre shifting and a cast of new faces (Artistic Director Kris Stewart at the Powerhouse, incoming Artistic Director Chris Kohn at La Boite), the Judy is responding to the new landscape with an emphasis on local work. Jones wants to make Fresh Ground a platform that supports and “validates” local artists to develop and produce new work at the Judy and to move it on for sustainable touring. This bodes well for a local industry hungry to connect to venues and to find a stable platform to develop new work. On a personal note, I have always found the very short seasons of work at the Judy difficult. Shows are often over before you find them. Perhaps this new approach will settle this restlessness into a more distinctive Judy house style.

The curatorial change is clearest in the upcoming program in the second half of 2014 with new shows from Fresh Grounders old and new: Caligula by the Danger Ensemble, White Porcelain Doll by Prying Eye and Casus’ new work Finding the Silence as well as the perennial Women in Voice. I think the future for the Judy is best summed up by Lewis Jones himself when he says that the mantra at the Judy is “to try and always say, ‘Yes.’”

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 43

© Kathryn Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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