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Melbourne theatre: the witness

Richard Murphet

Richard Murphet is a writer, director & performance maker, with a particular interest in new forms and creative crossovers between the arts. He is currently also Head of Theatre Making at the School of Drama, Victorian College of the Arts.

Tony Briggs, nyid, Scenes of the beginning from the End Tony Briggs, nyid, Scenes of the beginning from the End
photo Lyn Pool
A Warning

I am not impartial. I am a practitioner in the theatre scene about which I write. Because I practice I don’t get to as much theatre as I would like. But when I do go I feel that I have a stake in it; and, in the face of the omnivorous imperialism of mass communication, I care about how it reveals the world to me. I go, as Tim Etchells of the British performance ensemble Forced Entertainment puts it, as a witness not as a spectator, “because to witness an event is to be present at it in some fundamentally ethical way, to feel the weight of things and one’s own place in them, even if that place is simply, for the moment, as an onlooker.” I don’t sit there waiting to be transformed or uplifted or provoked into action. I know that all of those will result from the contract between me and the performance. We both have to work at it. The late American actor Ron Vawter described the feeling of riding the wave of energy from the audience like a surfer. Well, when it works, the wave is shared, we’re all on it; and we know how fickle waves can be. They soar and they dump, but even when they dump you are surrounded by energy, whereas in the theatre, when it’s not working, there is a cold energy-less atmosphere. Oh for the return of impassioned disagreement.

The view overall

There are 2 broad aspects to the Melbourne theatre scene: one, the theatre that goes on in Melbourne, the product, the productions, the one-off, or intermittent shows that are mainly, though not exclusively, gathered around the various arts festivals that have developed over the past 10-15 years; two, the theatre of Melbourne, the ongoing, year-round theatre culture connected either to companies or performance spaces. These are not mutually exclusive, the line is being crossed all the time, but the distinction is worth making, partly because for so long the emerging festival market and its supermarket way of presenting art has been seen as a threat to the fragile local theatre ecology; partly because, in the face of festival influence, it may be time to recognise the shift in local theatre that they have helped bring about.

The Independents

The festivals are healthy. I don’t have the space to deal with them here. The non-festival one-off scene—what the funding bodies call Individual Projects (a lot of which also happen in the festivals)—is also healthy if not wealthy and certainly numerous. I get about 2 invitations a week to new shows opening in the various independent venues around town: Theatreworks, The Storehouse, The Carlton Courthouse, Gasworks, the Trades Hall, North Melbourne Town Hall, or various warehouses or lofts around the inner suburbs. In these shows, limited as they are by funding, interesting creative trends can be discerned. This is the work of performance artists, young and old, seeking to delight, engage and, in Peggy Phelan’s words, “ignite the conscience of an ethical observer.” The artists have something to say about the world around them or inside them and the genres and traditions of the various performance disciplines stretch and strain to accommodate the complexities of their responses to a complex world. There is a constant output by artists and small groups which attempts to rewrite the visual grammar of theatre.

There are many emerging independent groups and artists that I’ve seen or not yet seen. Chris Bendall and Victor Bizotto’s Theatre @ Risk opened in May, a season of works at the Blackbox Theatre in the Arts Centre. Robert Reid’s Theatre in Decay is prolific, mounting at a variety of venues the punchy contemporary pieces that flow from his pen. I hope to cover these 2 groups and others in more detail in later issues.

The New Agenda

The agenda is now being set by the independent work, unlike the case in days of yore when ensembles and medium-sized companies and spaces were the avant-garde. The reason is economic of course. Who can afford an ensemble these days? A few months ago, in the North Melbourne Town Hall, a packed room of small company directors, administrators and actors, and a sprinkling of independent artists gathered to form a network of theatre professionals, Theatre Network Victoria. The purpose was to gain strength in numbers, to accumulate a supportive database, to set up a lobby group that could argue for the return of the middle ground of Melbourne theatre—that area that operates between the independent projects and the larger companies like MTC and Playbox. There was general agreement that the loss of that middle ground was causing a real lack of depth and breadth in the city’s theatrical culture. There was a range of opinion as to how to address this but an agreement that a congregation of effort was better than trying to go it alone.

But there is no denying it: the theatre culture has changed. My friend, the director Kim Durban, coined the term “the necklace theory” to describe a way of working in these times. I hope she won’t mind if I share it here. It arose in response to her attempt (successful finally) to mount a Masters production at the VCA—a radical reworking of the 16th century domestic tragedy Arden of Faversham. With no money to pay the group of professional actors she wished to work with, she worked out a schedule in which she would always be present at rehearsals but she would work with whichever of the actors was able to turn up. She got different combinations every week. No actor was able to turn up to all rehearsals. Some dropped out half way through. Some joined late. The show kept developing. She had a source text but the text they were building for performance was original. There was a loose ensemble of intent but no continuity. Except for her. She was the jeweller, threading together the pearls that were formed at each meeting. What was significant, I think, apart from the fact that the work went on to success, was that instead of bowing under the pressure of circumstances, Kim reasoned for herself another way of working. “The age of the ensemble working all hours in the old church hall has gone,” she said, “this is the age of the necklace.”

The Melbourne theatre scene is now like a necklace. To keep up with the trends, to be there at the breakthroughs, you can no longer pop down to the Pram Factory or Anthill or even Handspan. You’ve got to move around, picking up the pearls where you find them, threading them for yourself, trying to make sense of the whole pattern. Attendance at La Mama has always been like that—potluck; that, in addition to the space itself, is its charm.


Keene-Taylor Project

There are a few companies that are bucking this trend. Ariette Taylor and Daniel Keene (Keene-Taylor Project) have gathered around them a group of actors who, whilst continuing to work in the wider profession, keep returning to perform. This is a loose ensemble of sorts. It enables Keene-Taylor to draw off a wide variety of generations, styles and experience. Their youngest performer is still in her teens. The oldest are in their 70s. What draws them is that Keene’s closely wrought, dark and sympathetic studies of those at the margins of our society are wonderful actors’ pieces. The company is run by a director and a writer but in many ways it is an actors’ theatre. The genre may look to be social realist, but the recognition in the writing of an unpredictable transcendent dimension and Taylor’s idiosyncratic direction create instead an aura of magic-realism. The focus is deliberately narrow. It is the consistency of the target and the pursuit that is its power. Here are poverty, prejudice and loneliness, three of the huge social monsters that still need slaying; here too is the humanity that may yet do it. Keene-Taylor draws a devoted audience because there is the strong sense that to be there is to be a witness to a vital social event. These may be character studies but when they work (and they risk skirting close to a reductive sentimentality when they don’t) the real event lies in the depth of understanding reached between actors and audience as the world unfolds. Keene-Taylor has performed at a Brotherhood furniture depot, at the Trades Hall and at the Malthouse.


The Cortese Bros, Adriano and Raimondo, formed Ranters Theatre several years ago and have had success here and overseas with Adriano’s direction of Raimondo’s plays. Interestingly, both they and Keene-Taylor work with one director and one writer. “Boutique theatre”, a friend called it; the model is European and has the advantage of intense focus in contrast to the extensive charter that a writers’ theatre like Playbox accepts. The Corteses have attempted to organise the company along lines more recognisable as an experimental ensemble: a group of young or youngish people devoting most of their professional time to relatively long rehearsals and a consequent shared performance language. The performance style is intentionally rough, the mise en scene loosely organised, so that the line between world and theatre is blurred. This is obviously well suited to, in fact is built out of, the style of Cortese’s most recent work: gritty, contemporary urban fables. These are stylistically recognisable works—they are low-tech, not cross-disciplinary, the form is open and seeks to question the ways an audience may perceive the reality they are presenting. They throw focus onto the human and therefore onto the actor. Like some of the contemporary British playwrights, Cortese is looking anew at human relations in the lights of a fin-de-siecle city. Ranters has performed at La Mama, Napier St, the old Economiser and Playbox. A review of their latest show, St. Kilda Tales, follows.

not yet it’s difficult

David Pledger’s group, not yet it’s difficult, is not an ensemble but over the half dozen or so shows they have created in the past few years, several of the same performers have appeared. The group works with a highly articulated physicality, influenced by Pledger’s exposure to Eastern training methods. The work is non-narrative, non-character based. The early shows worked almost purely off a choric physical language—on one occasion applying Eastern modes and rhythms to familiar Australian sport behaviour—and that element is still present. Recent work, however, has included some more traditional dramatic encounters and dialogue and the introduction of fairly sophisticated video and sound tracks. nyid theatre is conceptual as well as experiential in intent and there has been a growing complexity of concept over the arc of their shows. nyid has performed at Theatreworks, in the plaza outside the Arts Centre, at the Athenaeum Theatre and in an old indoor parking area in West Melbourne.

In RealTime 44, I’ll continue this survey with an interview with Pledger, before moving onto look at some of the newer companies.

Richard Murphet is a writer, director & performance maker, with a particular interest in new forms and creative crossovers between the arts. He is currently also Head of Theatre Making at the School of Drama, Victorian College of the Arts.

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 26

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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