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ACME/Splinters, Faust - The Heat of Knowledge, 1996 ACME/Splinters, Faust - The Heat of Knowledge, 1996
photo ‘pling

The centre of attention was a brash young company called Splinters, recommended to us at The Performance Space by the late Bruce Keller who had been working in Canberra with theatre-in-education company Jigsaw. In 1992 I quit my plum PS job with no promise of anything other than a chance to be a part of the dark magic this company was to weave in Cathedral of Flesh at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

That landmark work, voted Best Promenade Theatre of the 1992 Festival (mainstream as well as Fringe) by the notoriously prickly Adelaide Advertiser critics, marked the arrival of Splinters to a position of eminence and influence on the national scene. It was during one of these performances that a member of the audience was heard to exclaim, “How can something like this come from Canberra?” to which another replied, “It’s like this because it’s from Canberra!”

What I found in Canberra was an artistic landscape unlike anything I had imagined. Everyone knew each other and went to the same places and saw each other’s work: a real of sense artistic community impossible in as large and diverse a city as Sydney. As well as Splinters, there were three professional performing arts troupes the equal in their fields of any in the country: the Meryl Tankard Company, Kailash Dance and Skylark Puppet Theatre, as well as a thriving milieu of smaller companies and individual artists whose work was respected nationally. Most importantly, there was a real sense of engagement with and by the wider community. These companies and artists really mattered to a lot of people, and people mattered to them.

Yet by 1998 these companies were gone, and nothing remotely approaching their stature has ever arisen to take their place. Canberra is nowadays very well-ordered artistically, full of well-appointed arts facilities, attended by well-mannered patrons. There is some fine work being made, but the creative community that made Canberra for a few years the engine room of cutting edge work has dispersed, perhaps forever.

There are serious questions to be asked and there are lessons to be learned. In the intervening years, having given up my part in such doings, I have often wondered if what occurred was a unique product of the combination of people, place and time, or whether there is a deeper knowledge to be drawn out and used by others. If anything, in our lives as artists we have posed more questions than any of us can any longer make use of. At some point we have to answer to ourselves.

It is the loss of such artistic power that makes it important to examine why and how Canberra gave rise to such a flourishing: what were the conditions that supported it? Could such conditions be created again? And the dark side: where has this power gone? What has changed that might prevent it arising again? In a second RealTime article to follow, I will argue that while there were unique factors that made that period so brilliant, the prevalent structure of arts bureaucracies and peer-assessment funding has reached a stage of institutional sclerosis where it stifles the very thing it is supposed to support. Finally I will explore what has occurred in Canberra more recently and what prospects there are for the future.
Ross Cameron, Stewart Vaskess, Anne-Marie Sinclair, Patrick Troy, Flowers of Gold, Bezerkii Carnival, Old Kingston Bus Depot, Canberra (1993) Ross Cameron, Stewart Vaskess, Anne-Marie Sinclair, Patrick Troy, Flowers of Gold, Bezerkii Carnival, Old Kingston Bus Depot, Canberra (1993)
photo Katherine Pepper
It’s impossible to convey in a few words what Splinters was about, or to capture the essence of its many performances. In its heyday the company became known as Splinters Theatre of Spectacle, which highlights its trademark—seducing and overwhelming the audience through bravado, trickery, enticement and sheer audio-visual power. Examples: over the three nights of Guardians of the Concourse, commissioned by Robyn Archer for the 1993 National Festival of Australian Theatre, an army of marshalls wearing yellow raincoats and armed with light wands rounded up some 10-15,000 shoppers and passersby who ended up having huge gouts of flame shot over their heads from a giant motorised flamethrower, the Triclops. The effect was so powerful that the ACT Government was moved to install a commemorative monument several years later. Even more astonishing was the idea that Splinters could be commissioned with $20,000 to produce a one-off work in front of an audience of many thousands at that most bogan of events, the Summernats National Street Machine Exhibition, just a few months before being invited to produce a work for the opening of the 1994 exhibition 25 Years of Performance Art in Australia in the rarefied air of Sydney’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery.

Splinters’ work was underpinned by a distinctive open-ended theoretical framework that drew on the theatre of Grotowski, Artaud and Peter Brook, which led to the evolution of the company as a vehicle for immersive experience both for performer and audience. Even in its heyday, however, the massive major works were interspersed with performance in an intimate mode informed by the visual arts tradition. Several key members of Splinters were trained at the Canberra School of Art, where the presence of artist-performers such as Gordon Bull and the late Neil Roberts encouraged the crossing of genre boundaries and fostered the notion that all and any modes of creative expression could be used to create theatre.

The company was formed in 1985 by a group of former school friends David Branson, Patrick Troy, John Utans and Ross Cameron, with the aim of creating site-specific performance. I like to think of them as young Dragons, that being the Chinese year in which they were born, archetypally the sign of the free spirit: energetic, gifted, magnetic and full of grand plans. Troy, the principal writer and a key performer, says that the original inspiration came from their history teacher at high school who directed the creation of a Roman Carnival day for the whole school. The idea that a large group could be simultaneously audience and performers took hold.

To trace the environment of the time, I shared a few beers with the formidable Joe Woodward. Woodward has for many years refused to have anything to do with the arts establishment, preferring to teach drama in schools and run his own unfunded and uncompromising Artaud-flavoured company, Shadowhouse PITS. In 1981 Woodward and David Bates founded PITS (Pie In The Sky), a cabaret theatre-restaurant at the Canberra Rex Hotel, producing commercially-oriented shows to subsidise their experimental work. The Rex, of course, is famous for hosting visiting politicians and dignitaries such as US President Lyndon Johnson and then Vice-President George Bush Snr. The hotel is also notorious for the regular trysts many famous politicians had there, taking full advantage of Canberra’s thriving and later legalised sex trade, which PITS explored in George’s Peepshow, one of several productions that earned the company regular threats and abuse. PITS was a magnet for the likes of Troy and Branson, who Woodward remembers sneaking in to see shows while still under legal age.

Prior to this, the amazing Carol Woodrow had founded Canberra Youth Theatre in the early 1970s, Reid House Theatre Workshop, Jigsaw and then Fools’ Gallery, a touring vehicle for powerful feminist theatre in the mid 1980s that produced a number of significant theatre practitioners. These companies fostered local talent and brought many young theatre workers to Canberra, including physical theatre maestro Stephen Champion and Renald Navilly, both of whom later collaborated significantly with Splinters.

Alongside these are names from before my time, like performance groups Grotesqui Monkey Choir and Red Weather, and Don Asker’s Human Veins Dance Theatre, later to become Meryl Tankard’s company. These companies (I am told) produced distinctive, visceral and intelligent work. The intellectual aspect of the Canberra scene is perhaps epitomised by Boris Kelly and Monica Barone’s People Next Door, which also worked extensively with Neil Roberts to explore the boundaries between the visual arts and theatrical traditions. Barone had started out in Canberra Youth Theatre, as had Roland Manderson who later directed the company 1991-97 and was director of the Festival of Contemporary Arts in 1999.

In those carefree days when artists could live on the dole with the tacit blessing of the CES, public liability was a term perhaps used to describe a former lover, and economic rationalism was a demon child festering in John Howard’s basement, great things were being made in Canberra and elsewhere which spoke to the broader community. Where did it go and how can we work to make it happen again?

Gavin Findlay worked for many years as a professional musician and administrator (Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, The Performance Space, Splinters, Australian Choreographic Centre, Canberra Youth Music) before he grew up and got a proper job, which he kinda regrets.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 8

© Gavin Findlay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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