When he gets that way
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A restrained battle of wit

Review: Susie Conte, When He Gets That Way ·
Subiaco Arts Cenre, 15 June ·
Review by Claire Trolio ·

Directed by Susie Conte, When He Gets That Way is one of seven performances by Western Australian theatre makers being presented this month as part of the Subiaco Theatre Festival. An unspecified period drama, the play pits a Downton Abbey-style upper-class mistress against her new handmaiden; the pair cleverly competing in a restrained battle of wit.

Lady Annabelle desperately seeks a life beyond her vacuous existence, craving a tryst and striving for the romantic connection that is alive in her mind. Socially upward scullery-turned-handmaid Christiane (whose peasant upbringing “wasn’t all peaches and creme”, she’ll have you know) seeks to move above mediocrity and has the charm to do so.

The dialogue between the two characters is packed with simile that gets increasingly preposterous (and hilarious) as the show unfolds. Using their diaries as weapons, the two women set creative entries against one another in an absurdist comedy where each yearns to be relevant in a society that doesn’t offer much agency to women of either class.

A private diary has long been a place where women are allowed to be themselves, to exercise freedom and voice desires, and the characters in When He Gets That Way use this tool to break free of patriarchal constraints, if only for a little while.

Both actors give fantastic performances. Lady Annabelle (director Lisa Louttit) embodies the excess that her upper class character oozes. Appearing with a comically oversized skirt, complete with tulle tendrils, Louttit’s shrill character teeters on the edge of overplay, but her experience on the stage shines through; she doles out as much ridiculousness as can be handled in a 75 minute show and no more.

WAAPA Music Theatre graduate Tarryn Ryan, playing Christiane, is a revelation. She allows her character to feign innocence and servitude whilst cleverly manipulating dialogue to convince the audience that there is more to this peasant girl than meets the eye.

While the sharp script delivered by two expressive actors kept me engaged, I spent the latter half of the performance waiting for another piece of the puzzle. When it didn’t come, I couldn’t help but feel that I had been left out of a private joke. I exited the theatre wishing I’d been in on it, just like Lady Annabelle listening to some salacious gossip.

Although When He Gets That Way has finished its short season, you can catch other works on the Subiaco Theatre Festival program before it finishes at the end of June. Check out Seesaw’s interviews with Andrew Baker, producer/performer of/in Gutenberg! The Musical, and with Timothy Green and Samantha Nerida, directors of Tissue.

Pictured top: Tarryn Ryan and Lisa Loutitt in ‘When He Gets That Way’.

Carousel
Musical theatre, News, Performing arts, Reviews

The roundabout course of love

Review: Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Carousel ·
Regal Theatre, 16 June ·
Review by Leon Levy ·

In 1909 Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom was withdrawn after a short run in Budapest. In 1943 Rogers and Hammerstein, in their first collaboration, wrote the musical Oklahoma! to unprecedented acclaim. Such is some of the unlikely background to the composition of Carousel: on the one hand a seemingly-failed Hungarian play with its uncongenial social and political background and gloomy storyline, and the refusal of the playwright to allow even Puccini to set it for the operatic stage; and, on the other hand, the unlikelihood that the American partnership of composer and lyricist could possibly find in this joyless play a successor to the widely acclaimed Oklahoma!. Indeed, Samuel Goldwyn advised that Rogers simply shoot himself in order to avoid the inevitable humiliating failure.

But fate took an altogether unexpected course: after World War I, Liliom was successfully remounted in Budapest and later New York. Then in 1943, searching for material for a follow-up to Oklahoma!, Liliom was suggested to a sceptical Rogers and Hammerstein. Meantime Molnár had moved to the US and was so taken with their sympathetic adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma! that he capitulated, attended Carousel rehearsals enthusiastically and permitted certain modifications to avoid a totally bleak ending.

In this production of Carousel – performed by WAAPA’s second and third year musical theatre students accompanied by the WAAPA orchestra under David King – Sydney-based director John Langley has most effectively repositioned the action in the Vietnam War era and thus side-stepped any unhelpful cutesiness. Even the prologue, with its carnival scene and “The Carousel Waltz”, suggests the joylessness that is to follow and that makes for a satisfyingly consistent prevailing atmosphere.

Carousel
Jason Langley and his large team bring this challenging work to vivid life. Photo: Jon Green.

The main protagonists appear without delay: the loving and trusting Julie Jordan (Amy Fortnum), flattered by the attentions of handsome barker Billy Bigelow (Andrew Coshan), friend Carrie Pipperidge (Jessica Clancy) and jealous carousel owner, the widow Mrs Mullin (Stacey Tomsett) immediately establish themselves, as does the electricity between Julie and Billy. Confident anticipation (Carrie’s “When I Marry Mr Snow”) and uncertainty (Julie’s “If I Loved You”) are beautifully projected by Clancy and Fortnum respectively, and confirm the integration of the vocal and dramatic qualities that reflect and advance the drama throughout the evening. Coshan’s rendition of Billy’s “Soliloquy” on learning that he is to become a father, is another one of many fine moments. As Enoch Snow, Kurt Russo is all moral certainty combined with 1950’s country-boy naivety, making a satisfying contrast to the more conflicted folk around him: later this re-emerges most deliciously when he chances upon his wife describing what was effectively a drag-show that they had, in innocence, attended in New York.

Carousel
Amy Fortnum as Julie Jordan and Andrew Coshan as Billy Bigelow. Photo: Jon Green.

The rare carefree scenes that end Act I and begin Act II (the ensemble in cracking form in “This Was a Real Nice Clambake”) lead to Billy’s descent into disaster, led by the cynical low life, Jigger (Todd Peydo). Act II is marked by tragedy and by Molnár’s potentially unconvincing device of having Billy observe his now teenaged daughter Louise (Alexandra Cornish) from his detention in a heavenly police court and during a brief earthly return. This must have been an unsympathetic development for both composer and lyricist and, indeed,  poses a challenge for cast and audience in 2018. But the WAAPA team bring dramatic strength to these moments, with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – sung by Elise Muley as Nettie, Julie’s protector – consolidating the prospects for a more hopeful future for Louise.

Working from the narrow confines of the Regal stage, Jason Langley and his large team – cast, choreographer, lighting, set, costume and sound designers, musical director and orchestra – bring this challenging work to vivid life. This is a compelling production in which the spectre of domestic violence is ever-present and where there are all-too-few moments of unalloyed happiness. But it will, without doubt, come to be seen as one of the theatrical highlights of 2018.

Carousel plays the Regal Theatre until June 23.

Pictured top: Alexandra Cornish as Louise Bigelow. Photo: Jon Green.

Carousel
A compelling production. Photo: Jon Green 2018
Andrew Baker and Tyler Jacob Jones
Features, Musical theatre, News, Performing arts

West side stories

Although the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts is home to one of Australia’s most prestigious musical theatre courses, the job opportunities for its graduates have, traditionally, been on the other side of the country. One WAAPA musical theatre graduate is doing his bit to help change that, however. Producer and performer Andrew Baker is staging musicals in Perth under the name Western Sky Theatre. Seesaw’s Nina Levy spoke to Baker to find out more about Western Sky and its next production, Gutenberg! The Musical.

Andrew Baker

Nina Levy: Tell us about the path that led you to forming Western Sky Theatre…
Andrew Baker: My background is in musical theatre performance. I trained at WAAPA in the BA course there and then followed the well-worn path over East. I had a great time over there working ever-so-occasionally in professional theatre, but got a bit disillusioned and went back to my old career as a lawyer. Since returning home to WA, I’ve found my way back into working in the arts sector in various roles. My passion for musical theatre has returned and it’s clear to a few of us that there is an audience for quality, smaller scale professional musical theatre in WA. So there’s a bit of a gap in the market between, say, the always great work that WAAPA does in presenting a range of new and classic shows, and the big touring productions. There actually aren’t many opportunities for WA raised or trained musical theatre performers to work on their craft in Perth. So that’s how Western Sky came about. But it’s early days.

NL: When did you found Western Sky Theatre? And what is its raison d’être?
AB: Western Sky is pretty new. Our first musical was the gorgeous Australian piece Once We Lived Here, which we did at the Blue Room Theatre last year. It won two Blue Room Theatre awards and I think broke the Blue Room box office record.

The idea at the heart of Western Sky is to give people who are from WA or who may have trained at WAAPA (and so have a WA connection) a reason to come home to Perth and perform in a well-produced small-scale musical (and hopefully get paid). In Once We Lived Here, for instance, three of the five cast members came home from the East to do the show, and all five had done undergrad. musical theatre degrees (four at WAAPA, one from Lasalle, Singapore). It’s about people getting a chance to do what they were trained to do, in front of their home audience.

NL: Gutenberg! The Musical made its Perth debut back in 2016 and is returning this month. For those who missed it the first time around, tell us a bit about the show…
AB: Gutenberg is a rollercoaster ride of laughs. It’s about two dreamers, Bud and Doug, who have written a musical about the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg. They are presenting it as a backers’ audition, where they show it to a room full of Broadway producers in the hope someone in the room will take it to Broadway. They’ve written what they think is a big, splashy, epic musical that is serious. You’ll have to come and see if they get it to Broadway or not.

NL: The Perth indie theatre sector is (usually) very much about presenting locally written work… what made you choose to buck the trend and present Gutenberg! The Musical?
AB: The presentation of locally written work is vital and there are some excellent writers in Perth creating original musicals (my co-star in Gutenberg, Tyler Jacob Jones, is one such artist who is doing awesome work). In fact there is a big conversation going on at the moment about original Australian musicals. It’s a hot topic over East. But I feel that the original works space is pretty well looked after in Perth so our focus is producing shows that artists and audiences already know and love, and to bring them to new audiences in a new way. However, we’re open to all excellent musical theatre (especially when a lot of new work is written with small spaces and budgets in mind!).

NL: And what made you decide to give this production another outing?
AB: It was just so much fun the first time around but we performed it in a less than ideal space. We want to do the show in a real theatre space now! It’s also a big honour to be asked to be a part of the Subiaco Theatre Festival with the best of Perth’s independent producers and theatre artists.

NL: You act in this show, as well as producing it… what are the pros and cons of being both producer and performer?
AB: There are certainly times when I need to step away from marketing and other producing duties to make sure I’m giving my performance the time it needs. This is a really challenging show and it takes a lot of focus. So it’s about finding a good team, time management and prioritising well.

NL: After Gutenberg, what’s next for Western Sky Theatre?
AB: One of the important things we want to be mindful of is to take our time – to grow a culture around the company and to find a tribe of like-minded people over the first few years. We’re focusing on achievable, small shows and doing them really well! We have the next show in mind. And we’re chatting to people. It’s exciting!

Catch Gutenberg! The Musical at Subiaco Arts Centre, as part of Subiaco Theatre Festival, 27-30 June.

Pictured top: Andrew Baker and Tyler Jacob Jones in ‘Gutenberg! The Musical’.

Georgina Cramond
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Through the lens of anxiety

Review: Ribs, Interrupting a Crisis ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 13 June ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

Written and performed by Georgina Cramond, who sings under the stage name Ribs, Interrupting a Crisis is an engaging and earnest one-woman show, pairing heartfelt folk-pop songs with unflinching personal stories about managing mental health. Directed by Finn O’Branagáin, Interrupting a Crisis was first presented as part of the Blue Room Theatre’s development season last year, and saw Cramond win the 2017 Performing Arts WA “Best Newcomer” award.

In a deeply honest performance, Cramond explores her musical career as an emerging singer-songwriter through the lens of her struggles with anxiety. She starts at the very beginning – her first panic attack and, later, the first song she ever wrote.

Cramond is brave in her autobiographical openness, sharing the thoughts that appear in her moments of spiralling panic and the phrases (both damaging and reaffirming) that repeat in her head. She re-enacts moments of vulnerability with humour and sincerity, performing as herself hunched over a bathroom sink, giving fake thumbs up to her co-workers, and trying to explain her newfound anxiety to her mother.

Georgina Cramond
Since it’s estimated that three million Australians are living with anxiety or depression, Cramond’s experiences will feel all too familiar for many. Photo: David Cox.

There is an admirable frankness to her storytelling, and since it’s estimated that three million Australians are living with anxiety or depression, her experiences will feel all too familiar for many.

Alongside her stories of mental health hardship, Cramond takes us on a simultaneous journey through her progress as a musical performer. Prompted by her first therapy session, she returns to her childhood love of singing, experimenting with an old keyboard before taking a songwriting class and eventually performing in public. She punctuates her monologues with catchy original songs, which are sung live on stage with conviction (and are also available on Bandcamp).

This confessional show is a testament to the cathartic potential of songwriting, which Cramond has used to gain a sense of purpose and power over her fears. Importantly, she also reminds us that recovery is not linear, and that mental health issues don’t necessarily originate from a traumatic past. Presenting her story with unwavering honesty, Cramond’s Interrupting a Crisis plays a role in de-stigmatising mental health struggles, and will hopefully inspire others to talk (if not sing).

Interrupting a Crisis runs until 16 June 2018.

Pictured top is Georgina Cramond in ‘Interrupting a Crisis’. Photo: David Cox.

Georgina Cramond
Interrupting a Crisis is an engaging and earnest show, pairing heartfelt folk-pop songs with unflinching personal stories about managing mental health. Photo: David Cox.
Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

Extreme makeover for opera

Review: Freeze Frame Opera, Pagliacci ·
Camelot Theatre, Mosman Park, 9 June ·
Reviewed by Tiffany Ha ·

There’s been a steadily growing buzz around Freeze Frame Opera since its launch in 2016. According to its website bio, the small, cutting-edge company is a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to showcase the traditional genre in new and exciting ways, to make opera “accessible, affordable and appealing”.

I am in full support of this endeavour. Throughout my many years of music study – and well into my twenties – I never connected with opera. It felt alienating. I was bewildered by the female characters, whose on-stage activities were limited to pining, seducing, being captured, or being punished*. This, combined with the substantial investments required just to attend the darn thing (time, money, clothes that aren’t jeans), gave me the belief that opera is not for me.

On Saturday night, however, Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) made me reconsider my stance on traditional opera, with its gritty and boldly-stylised interpretation of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The tragicomic opera premiered in Milan in 1892; today it is one of the most-performed operas in the repertory. The story centres on a troupe of travelling clowns who, in FFO’s production, are characterised as general actors and performers – there is not a clown-suit in sight.

Pagliacci
Far removed from traditional opera: Paul O’Neill as Canio, Jun Zhang as Beppe and members of the chorus in Freeze Frame Opera’s Pagliacci. Photo: Robbie Harrold.

In fact, all the visual elements of the production – the set, costuming, props, the overall colour-scheme – are far removed from what you’d expect from traditional opera. Instead of a nineteenth-century Italian village, we find ourselves in Boganville, Australia, 1974, in a groovy caravan park complete with astroturf and garish portable outdoor furniture. In the opening scene we see two families (Canio’s and Beppe’s) enjoying a summer holiday together: one of the boys saunters in with his billy and camping swag; some teenagers trickle in, wearing bathers and boardies, hair still damp from the beach; the dads are manning the Weber, handing out sausages wrapped in white bread; the kids are running and playing; the women are dressed in bright paisley frocks, reading magazines and smoking cigarettes.

The realism of FFO’s Pagliacci was delectable. And it never felt forced or ad-hoc, because Leoncavallo wrote the opera in the verismo style – a post-Romantic operatic tradition that focuses on the experiences of ordinary human beings, as opposed to those of gods, kings and the aristocracy. At times, the performance felt less like opera, and more like soap opera.

That’s by no means a criticism of the cast’s acting and singing, though. The performers could just as easily have been on larger stages in fancier opera houses. Michael Lewis added thoughtfulness and depth to the character of Tonio – a creepy old janitor who meddles in everyone else’s affairs, grumbling in baritone asides. Tenor Paul O’Neill was powerfully convincing as Canio (the hero, and “prince of clowns”); I nearly cried during his aria about the pain of being betrayed by his wife, and the further pain of having to hide it in order to perform and make others happy.

Pagliacci
Tenor Paul O’Neill was powerfully convincing as Canio. Photo: Robbie Harrold.

Soprano Harriet O’Shannessy (who played Nedda, Canio’s wife) was the true star of the show, however. I imagine the take-away from Leoncavallo’s original Pagliacci was that Nedda got what was coming to her. But in FFO’s production, the character is charming, likeable, multi-dimensional and real. O’Shannessy’s Nedda ranged from charming, sassy and gutsy to irreverent, fearful and sullen – impressive ground to cover in such a short performance. We could see why Nedda had many admirers, including her secret lover, Silvia**, who was so well-played by mezzo-soprano Caitlin Cassidy that there was never any hint that her role had originally been written for a man.

Staging operas in smaller venues and with tighter budgets means there’s often no room for an orchestra. Fortunately, FFO’s musical director, Tommaso Pollio, is an accomplished pianist. He played the orchestral reduction of the original score on a grand piano, in front of the stage and off to the side. At times, the piano accompaniment set an intimate, heady mood, as if we were in a late-night cabaret show at Fringe World. Other times, the piano was massive and exclamatory, filling up the space and underscoring the drama as well as an entire orchestra could. It was also nice to be able to see Pollio; traditionally the orchestra is unseen, relegated to the pit underneath the stage.

FFO’s Pagliacci is showing at the Camelot Theatre until this Sunday, but – unfortunately for those who don’t have tickets – it’s completely sold out. Instead, you can keep up to date with future Freeze Frame Opera events by visiting their website. And yes, you can wear jeans; you can even drink beer.

*This applies only to the important female characters. The unimportant ones are relegated to prancing, gossipping, admonishing, and general chorus-commentary. I still hold hope that there’s something in the opera canon that might pass the Bechdel test; if you know of one, please comment below!

**Is it just me, or is 2018 the year of #lesbiansinopera?

Pictured top: Jun Zhang as Beppe and Harriet O’Shannessy as Nedda. Photo: Robbie Harrold.

'Burrbgaja Yalirra - Three Short Works' - Marrugeku Production 2018 - PICA - 6th June 2018 / Photography © Jon Green 2018 - All Rights Reserved
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Not damnation but hope

Review: Marrugeku, “Burrbgaja Yalirra” (Dancing Forwards) ·
PICA Performance Space, 9 June ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

How can we look to the past to change the future?

That’s a question that Marrugeku’s triple bill, “Burrbgaja Yalirra” (Dancing Forwards) seems to be asking. All three of the short, solo dance theatre works programmed refer to stories of the past; stories of contact between humans and spirits, between Aboriginal people and invaders. As the title suggests, however, the gaze of the program is firmly forwards, learning from what has been and looking at what is to come.

Broome/Sydney based dance theatre company Marrugeku has a tradition of collaboration on numerous levels, bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, contemporary and traditional dance, urban and remote dance communities, and various artistic disciplines. “Burrbgaja Yalirra” is no exception and the program includes an intricate web of creative co-credits, headed up by the company’s co-directors Dalisa Pigram (seen in the critically-acclaimed Gudirr Gudirr at the Studio Underground back in 2015) and Rachael Swain.

All three works share one set, a series of three concrete flats, designed by Stephen Curtis. Simple but effective, the industrial-looking slabs are softened by cracks that bring to mind meandering creek beds. Those flats leap into life, seething with colour, in the first work on the program, Ngarlimbah. Conceived, written and performed by Kimberley-based Aboriginal dancer, poet and painter Edwin Lee Mulligan and co-directed by Pigram and Swain, the work is a rich tapestry of dance, paintings, text and music. Mulligan’s paintings, animated by Sohan Ariel Hayes, depict traditional stories and Mulligan’s own dreams. In combination with his poetic narration and deft movement, and layers of music by Sam Serruys and Dazastah, the images plunge us into a Dreamtime and dream-like world.

miranda wheen
Intense, charismatic and precise: Miranda Wheen in ‘Miranda’. Photo: © Jon Green.

Like Ngarlimbah, Miranda, conceived and performed by Miranda Wheen and co-choreographed by Wheen and Belgian-based dancer/choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly, draws on both personal and shared stories, including that of Wheen’s namesake character in Picnic at Hanging Rock. It then takes a somewhat tangential turn (although the logic is explained in the notes) to explore the challenge that white Australia faces in moving forward from its past.

While Miranda feels somewhat disjointed because of the tenuous links between its key concepts, Wheen’s performance is highly engaging; intense, charismatic and precise. Now she struggles, arms and legs akimbo, like a rock climber. Now she moves robotically, popping and locking her way across the stage. Now she bourees, a balletic ghost. Now she shouts at us with increasing hysteria, to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land. Now she gestures obscenely, her face comically grotesque. Throughout, Matthew Cox’s lighting casts appropriately spooky beams and shadows, while Sam Serruys’s composition builds and diminishes tension.

Eric Avery jumping
A joy to watch: Eric Avery in ‘Dancing with Strangers’. Photo: Jon Green.

The final work on the bill, Dancing with Strangers, was also the longest, and my favourite. Conceived, written and performed by Aboriginal dancer and musician Eric Avery, directed and co-choreographed by Avery with Belgian choreographer Koen Augustijnen and co-composed by Avery with Serruys, Dancing with Strangers has at its centre the story of Avery’s great, great, great, great grandfather seeing the first fleet as it sailed past Yuin country on the south coast of NSW. Avery’s description of the “whales ridden by white ghosts”, initially mistaken as “returned ancestors” is gut-wrenching.

Like the previous works, Dancing with Strangers deftly weaves together dance, theatre and music, with the added layer of Avery’s live violin. There is something dancerly in the movement of any musician playing an instrument, but Avery transforms the violin and bow into instruments of dance in their own right; the bow whipping, the violin twisting. A swift and powerful mover, Avery is a joy to watch.

While Dancing with Strangers explores the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal people, its final message is not one of damnation but of hope; its spoken word finish talks about what could have been but also what might still be.

“Burrbgaja Yalirra” is a moving and uplifting triple bill. Catch it at the PICA Performance Space until June 16.

Pictured top: Edwin Lee Mulligan in ‘Ngarlimbah’ Photo: Jon Green.

Matt Penny in Find the Lady
Magic, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

So much more than magic

Review: Matt Penny, Find the Lady ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 6 June ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

Find the Lady is a one-man show that weaves stage magic into the bittersweet monologues of a grifter who is propelled to fame, fortune, and ultimately, betrayal. Multi-talented local magician and theatre-maker Matt Penny stars as a small time con artist who stumbles into a career as a world class magician.

Opening with an explanation of the “three-card monte” scam (aka “find the lady”), and revealing his trick deck of cards, Penny’s hustler character first warms up the crowd with some classic playing card stunts. We then follow the swindler to a strange encounter that greatly enhances the scope of his illusionist skills. As his abilities advance, he becomes a prize-winning practitioner of magic – and the mark for someone else’s long con.

Fast talking and funny, Penny is an amiable storyteller who shares his tale as if over a pint at the pub. His casual banter is paired with nimble-fingered piano playing, nifty card tricks and simply eerie mind reading (a warning for the anxious – there is some audience participation involved!)

The winner of the 2018 Fringe World “Blaz Award”, presented to the best writing for performance by a WA writer, Find the Lady is charming and clever. With the magic tricks integrated into a narrative that transitions from cheeky to melancholy, it’s much more engaging than a traditional stage magic show. The combination of storytelling and apparent telepathy also makes this magic more unbelievable, as attested by the audible swearing of disbelief heard from an audience member on opening night.

This production is worth braving the winter weather to catch, and marks the start of what looks to be a strong Subiaco Theatre Festival season. Don’t let the rain tempt you to stay indoors this week – you’ll leave Find the Lady with a smile on your face and one question:

“How did he do that?”

Find the Lady runs until 9 June 2018.

Read an interview with Matt Penny.

Pictured top: An amiable story teller: Matt Penny in ‘Find the Lady’.

 

Elizabeth Tan
Features, Mixed media, News, Visual arts

Unpacking our libraries: Elizabeth Tan’s network of little lost things

Behind every artist is a rich collection, a “library”, compiled of works by other creators. In Seesaw’s “Unpacking our libraries” series, Claire Coleman talks to West Australian makers from various disciplines about the works and texts that have influenced their creative practice.

Among her diverse talents, Elizabeth Tan is a meticulous observer of the overlooked. Chancing upon a mislaid object, a forgotten idea, an overused but under-appreciated texture, a barely audible sound, Tan builds spaces in which a little lost thing can be not only seen, but recognised, witnessed, contemplated. In her first novel, Rubik, real and hyperreal people and situations promenade in a series of interlocked short stories; each new snapshot revealing what went unnoticed in those that preceded it, and receiving alternative meanings in those that follow. Rubik is set in a place with the outline of Perth but one that, like Tan’s collages, has burst open to reveal a shoal of colourful fish, a cabinet holding reeling galaxies, or a vernissage devoted to IKEA stock patterns. In her webcomic “Mais Pourquoi” (also Seesaw’s house comic), Tan similarly makes a moment stand still long enough for viewers to appreciate its joy, or absurdity, or melancholy.

In this first interview for the “Unpacking our libraries” series, Tan shares some of the cultural experiences that have influenced her own creative practice as an author, artist and academic.

Claire Coleman: What works contributed to your earliest creative work? What works inspired you to become an author and artist?

Elizabeth Tan: The video games I played in my teens were pretty instrumental in finding my groove as a writer, in particular the Final Fantasy series. Each game in the series is independent – there are separate worlds and characters each time – and you have to invest many, many hours in the gameplay and story. Although I suppose you could invest as much time in reading a book as playing a video game, the nature of your investment in a video game is a bit different – you’re enlisted as a direct collaborator in the story. I think video games are also where I learnt that readers can be quite forgiving, because in video games there are inevitably all these contrivances that you just have to go along with in order to continue playing (for example – your protagonist apparently has bottomless pockets that are capable of carrying hundreds of items).

I fell very quickly into reading and writing fan fiction after playing my first Final Fantasy game when I was twelve. It really helped that Final Fantasy has generated such a lively and diverse fan culture – there isn’t just fan fiction, but visual art, fan videos, remixes of the game soundtracks, and so on. I think the interactive storylines of video games and the act of creating fan art both encourage experimentation – they set up a little playpen in which it’s not such a big deal to fail. Fan fiction and fan culture have a strong presence in Rubik – not just literally in stories such as “Luxury Replicants”, where characters are engaged in fan-created texts, but also in the novel’s ethos of repurposing/referencing/re-contextualising/borrowing from other texts.

CC: What works or artists have influenced your creative process?

ET: When I visited “Sculpture By the Sea” at Cottesloe Beach in 2011, the person I was with asked which sculptures were my favourites. Among the works that I named were lifeboat by Marwa Fahmy, Stephen Genovese, Elizabeth Marpole and Kate Parker, which consisted of hundreds of wax-coated origami paper boats cascading down a slope of lawn; and not drowning, waving by Sigrid Ranze, which was a collection of porcelain hands and arms impaled on wires protruding from the sand. “Oh, I get it,” my companion said. “You like it when there’s a lot of a little thing.”

I don’t know if it’s obvious or trite, but I’ve since found “a lot of a little thing” to be a reassuring way to think about my creative process. Everything I do is an accumulation of small efforts across a long period of time. I think I was in Year 6 when I realised that I could never get away with doing assignments the night before they were due – I know some people thrive under the pressure of an impending deadline, but I really don’t; I am not a quick worker in the slightest, and I’m easily daunted. With Rubik, I basically tricked myself into writing a novel by first setting out to write a series of interconnected short stories.

'upstream colour' by Elizabeth Tan.
“My collages often feature ‘a lot of a little thing'”: ‘upstream colour’ by Elizabeth Tan.

 

CC: What works resonate most strongly with your own?

ET: I was tempted to answer this question together with the last one because I feel like both my creative process and creative output are very “a lot of a little thing”. There’s a literal smallness to the figures in “Mais Pourquoi”, my collages often feature “a lot of a little thing”, and my writing is full of characters who feel themselves to be small objects in an incomprehensible system.

I think it’s this attentiveness to, and affection for, smallness that makes the work of Anna Dunnill and Mel Pearce resonate so strongly with me. Their work often features small figures and objects that are dwarfed by empty space. There’s also this sense of blurring between creative process and creative output – where the artist’s “process” is very much visible in the “finished outcome” – manifesting, for instance, in the wayward lines and ink marks in Pearce’s illustrations.

There was one part of Dunnill’s 2013 solo exhibition “Notes Toward a Universal Language” that I found particularly moving: there was an armchair in the gallery, and you’d sit in it, put on a pair of headphones, and listen to an audio track of Dunnill reading out a series of instructions on “How to Disappear”. Some of the instructions were fanciful – “Make a hide. Find canvas, sticks, grasses, mud, cardboard, string, tape. Build it up from the ground, or make a skeleton to cover.” Others less so, like instructions on how to get out of bed: “Sit up. Push the covers off. Swing your feet onto the floor. Now stand, stand up, good.” When I sat in that chair, I felt such an affinity with these instructions – this recognition that the small daily efforts of living can feel insurmountable and exhausting.

CC: What new or recently encountered works are influencing you at the moment?

ET: I just watched The Lobster on Netflix, a 2015 absurdist film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. It depicts a dystopian society in which newly single people have 45 days to find a partner or else be turned into an animal of their choice. There are many things about the film that fascinate me – the lack of fidelity to realism, the deliberately flat and artificial dialogue, the representation of a dystopia ruled by customs and regulations that seem bizarre at face value but are actually twisted extrapolations of our own familiar cultural norms and values – and I’m sure some of its weirdness will inevitably trickle down into my work.

Elizabeth Tan (@ElzbthT) is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Her writing has appeared in journals and anthologies such as “The Lifted Brow”, “Westerly”, “Seizure”, “Best Australian Stories 2016”, “Overland”, “Pencilled In”, “Review of Australian Fiction”, “Tincture”, “The Sleepers Almanac No.8”, and “Voiceworks”. Her first book is a novel-in-stories titled Rubik, which was published by Brio in Australia, The Unnamed Press in the US, and Wundor Editions in the UK. She has dabbled in zine-making and collaging and maintains a webcomic called “Mais Pourquoi”.

Samantha Nerida and Timothy Green
News, Performing arts, Theatre

Dirty little secrets

Porn is our collective dirty little secret… or is it? In the play Tissue, local theatre company Static Drive Co is asking, “If we strip away the stigma, does the sin lie in the products themselves, or the way we talk about them?”

First presented at the Blue Room in 2016, Tissue will play Subiaco Arts Centre as part of the 2018 Subiaco Theatre Festival this June. Nina Levy chatted to Tissue’s directors, Timothy Green and Samantha Nerida, ahead of the work’s return season.

Nina Levy: For those of us who didn’t see the first incarnation of Tissue, tell us about the work.
Timothy Green: Tissue follows the relationship between Zoe and Alex, from their first encounter, through the beautiful, messy, sometimes uncomfortable ups and downs that they experience, navigating sex, intimacy, and camera phones.
Samantha Nerida: It’s cheeky, and it’s complicated, and I think it’s a really fun powerhouse of a show.

NL: What made you decide to tackle the subject of porn and its effects on relationships?
SN: I first got hooked on this topic in my second year of WAAPA, during a time of growth and change and learning in my personal life. I was frustrated with the way people equivocated porn and shame, and the embarrassment people were made to feel about their sexual choices and interests.
TG: When Sam approached me to develop her original work into a full-length piece in 2016 we conducted a survey, and the amount of people who referenced pornography as contributing to a large portion of their “sex ed.” was really astounding. Ideally, we want to start healthy conversations.

NL: For those who did see Tissue 1.0, how will this year’s production differ from the original?
TG: The story of Zoe and Alex remains the same, but we are really excited for new sound design, some new sections of script, and two new performers. The original production of Tissue was also presented in traverse, whereas we will be presenting this season front-on to the audience.
SN: We’d love to have the audience staring at each other during our raunchier scenes, but that’s the price you pay for a festival setup!

NL: What led the two of you to collaborate? 
TG: Sam and I studied together at WAAPA, and during those three years we became really great friends, as well as having the chance to work together quite a few times. Although we have quite different approaches to making work, when we collaborate there is a middle ground that I think really pops. I am so lucky to be able to work with someone that I admire, respect and love hanging out with as much as Sam.
SN: Aw, shucks. Yeah, it’s a brilliant working relationship to have. I’m all about the words and the story, and Tim is one of the most talented visual makers I’ve ever met, so when we combine those skills I think we come up with something pretty neat.

Together with Haydon Wilson, the two of you co-founded Static Drive Co last year. Tell us about the company…
TG: Forming Static Drive Co really felt like a natural progression for the three of us. We had all been working together in various capacities for a couple of years since graduating from WAAPA, and forming a company has been really motivating, as well as giving us a platform to present work, the ability to brand ourselves and articulate the kind of work we want to make.
SN: Although our first few works have been playing it a bit safe, we’re really excited to use Static Drive Co as a base to make immersive and interactive works, and eventually move away from more traditional theatrical practices. But first, Tissue! 

Tissue plays Subiaco Arts Centre 20-23 June.

Pictured top are Timothy Green and Samantha Nerida.

Breath
Film, News, Visual arts

Behind the magic

The film Breath, based on the Tim Winton novel of the same name, opened in cinemas around the country last month. Set in a fictional town in WA’s South-West, the film was made on location in Denmark. Nina Levy caught up with local production manager Georgina Isles to find out about the nuts and bolts of making a film like Breath.

Georgina. Isles
‘Breath’ Production manager, Georgina Isles

One of the strange things about singing in a community choir is that you tend to forget that your fellow choristers have lives outside the weekly rehearsals. And so, back in February 2016, when my choir friend George announced that she was heading down to Denmark for three months to work on a film, I was not just impressed but amazed.(You mean you’re NOT a full-time alto?)

Cut to 2018 and suddenly I’m seeing the shorts for Tim Winton’s Breath. It’s a bit of a stellar line-up, with a cast that includes the film’s director, Simon Baker, as well as Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake.

And that’s when I remember my choir friend George…  although I have no idea what her role was, I’m pretty sure that the film she was working on was Breath. OMG! Excitement! A Facebook message later, I am enlightened. She certainly did work on Breath, she was the film’s production manager, and yes, she’s happy to talk to me about working on the film.

Preparing for the interview, I realise that I haven’t a clue what a production manager does, although it sounds impressive and important. So that’s my first question to George, whose full name (another thing that often gets overlooked at choir) is Georgina Isles.

“For a smaller feature film, a production manager is responsible for hiring the crew and managing them, in conjunction with the producers,” explains Isles. “They manage the money and the flow of money, but they don’t make creative decisions – that has to be done with the producers or the director. It’s a lot of HR stuff too – so if someone needs to be fired, for instance, you have to manage that.”

Breath
Richard Roxburgh as Mr Pike and Samson Coutlter as Pikelet in ‘Breath’. Photo: David Dare Parker.

While Isles is at pains to emphasise that the production manager is an office role, listening to her talk, it’s clear that – desk-bound or not – the production manager is the oil of the film-making machine. “The production manager runs the production office and that’s the heartbeat of the production.” she says. “It’s project management. You have information that needs to be distributed to the moving parts, so they all do the things they need to do. You have to check up on all the departments to make sure that they are functioning properly. You have to make decisions about where to spend money, and where not to. If someone isn’t happy, you need to talk to them – I’ve been in situations where there’s been bullying on set, for example, and I’ve had to intervene (that wasn’t on Breath).”

Even though the production manager isn’t directly involved in the artistic side of making the film, a detailed understanding of film-making is vital for the role, says Isles. “As with managing any project you have to understand what the project needs to be completed. Because I’ve worked in the film industry for 15 years, I know the moving parts. That’s understanding at a personal level, and knowing your crew, but also understanding from a film-making perspective what things are. So it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘That’s too expensive, we can’t have it.’ It’s knowing, well that is expensive but it’s going to look amazing.”

Breath
Samson Coulter as Pikelet in ‘Breath’. Photo: David Dare Parker

In Breath, for example, says Isles, there are a number of shots from drones. “Drones cost heaps of money and every time you’re booking them, you say, ‘oh these drone guys, they cost so much!’ But then you watch the film and you’re blown away by how beautiful it is. So you need to know what you’re making.”

Even if one hasn’t seen Breath, anyone who has experienced the wild beauty of the Great Southern coastline should be able to imagine why those shots are something special. How wonderful, to have the opportunity to work in such a location.

Breath
Ben Spence (Loonie) and Samson Coulter (Pikelet) in ‘Breath’. Photo: David Dare Parker.

“Denmark is stunning,” agrees Isles. “Working there was lovely. On your day off you’d go to the beach, to the forest, or up Monkey Rock, or to a beautiful restaurant or winery, or to the brewery. All our accommodation was really nice – we rented people’s houses mostly. The town itself was super welcoming. Everyone was stoked that we were there. We had a number of local people on the crew.”

One of the challenges of working on location, though, is the weather, says Isles. “There are scenes in the film that needed rain [and it was raining] but we needed it to be consistent and we needed it to rain on cue… and so we had to get a rain machine. That happens all the time in film.”

Presumably, too, there are days when the scenes scheduled require dry weather but it’s wet… what happens then? Isles explains that there always have to be contingency plans. “If you’re shooting outside and it’s not supposed to be raining but it’s a rainy day, you have to have scenes you can shoot inside [that you can work on instead]. So you ensure that there are things are on the schedule that you can actually shoot. It’s all about scheduling.”

It all sounds so… practical. “The logistics of film-making is all common sense,” Isles concurs. “The magic is in the camera moves and the lighting and the performances and the sound design and choice of music… and the production design, and the way the production design is then handled by the camera and how the actors move through those spaces. The magic isn’t in the scheduling but you need those strong foundations in order to allow those things to move freely… and that’s what we do.”

Breath opened in cinemas 3 May.

Pictured top: Samson Coulter as Pikelet in “Breath”. Photo: Nic Duncan.