Telling West Australian stories

13 September 2017

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Wendy Martin, artistic director of Perth International Arts Festival, talks to Nina Levy about the artists and audiences she has discovered in WA.

Wendy Martin is already halfway through her four-year tenure as artistic director of Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF), but, she says, the time has zipped by. “I can hardly believe it,” she remarks. “It feels like I’ve just started, it’s too fast for my liking.”

Originally a Sydneysider, Martin’s résumé includes stints heading up theatre and dance at the Sydney Opera House, and performance and dance at London’s Southbank Centre. Since arriving in Perth from London she has prioritised familiarising herself with the local arts scene and she’s excited by the companies and works she has found in the world’s most isolated city.

It’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s Bambert’s Book of Magic Stories that gets first mention. “I thought that show was one of finest pieces of theatre I saw last year,” she comments. “It was a beautifully conceived, designed, written, performed and executed piece of theatre. That’s what the very best of children’s theatre does, it’s as appealing to adults taking kids as it is to the kids. Seeing that show enabled me to engage in a conversation with [Barking Gecko artistic director] Matt Edgerton. We now have a project on the table, which is a Major Festivals Initiative project. We were able to get other festivals on board… so that’s really exciting.”

PIAF 2017’s opening event, ‘Boorna Waanginy’, an event close to Martin’s heart. Photo: Jessica Wyld Photography.

Another work for children that Martin names as a favourite is The Last Great Hunt’s New Owner, which was presented at the 2016 Awesome International Arts Festival. “The Last Great Hunt, [a collective of seven Perth-based theatre makers], is doing wonderful things,” she remarks. “I was away in May and the beginning of June and every time I spoke to someone from here they were asking, ‘Have you seen The Irresistible?’” Indeed, The Irresistible, presented by The Last Great Hunt and Side Pony Productions, was a critical and popular hit.

Martin’s first two festivals have included a number of works that take place in non-traditional venues, so it’s no surprise to discover that she’s a fan of Perth’s Lost and Found Opera, a company that presents “unusual” operas in spaces that are both unexpected and relevant in some way to the work. “I went to dress rehearsal in 2015 of Lost and Found’s Médée, that took place  [in a former asylum cell] at the Fremantle Arts Centre, and it was stunning,” she enthuses. She regrets that she was away for their most recent production, Trouble in Tahiti, set in the kitchen of a private home in City Beach. “They’ve had massive success, there are stunning reviews for Trouble in Tahiti. So they are really exciting and we’re in conversation with them now.”

Martin believes that non-traditional theatre spaces appeal to audiences. “I think people love the adventure,” she remarks. PVI Collective’s Blackmarket, an immersive and interactive work programmed by Martin at the 2016 Perth International Arts Festival, is one example of that, she says. “People loved that show, on the streets of Subi, and the interaction with technology and humans.”

“Claire Cunningham’s presence, her brilliance as an artist helped shift people’s understanding of living with disability.” Photo: Brian Hartley.

Another local artist who has caught Martin’s attention is James Berlyn. His work I Know You’re There was also presented in the 2016 PIAF program. Playing to an audience of just 16, I Know You’re There is a very personal reflection that invites, although doesn’t force, conversation with its viewers. “Later today I’m having a chat with James about a project that he is going to explore for us,” says Martin with a smile.

Talking to Martin, it’s apparent that, in spite of the relatively short amount of time she has been in WA, she has a strong sense of connection to the state and to the people who comprise the audiences for the Perth International Arts Festival. “Reflecting on the last two years, some of the things I feel most proud of are the opening events of the Festival. Home [2016] and Boorna Waanginy [2017] are both events that could have only happened in Perth, Western Australia,” she remarks. “The creative teams other than Nigel Jamieson are all artists from here.

“The richness of story in WA is really inspiring. When you talk to people in Sydney and Melbourne they want Australian stories. I feel very much that people in WA connect with the stories the of this place. In 2016, for example, when I was meeting people during the festival and after the festival, the thing that people seemed to respond to was a simple but beautiful project called ‘A Mile in My Shoes’. That was the sharing of people’s life stories, people that you mightn’t necessarily have the chance to talk to.”

A simple but beautiful project: ‘A Mile in My Shoes’. Photo: Natasha Pawlowski.

Martin is also proud of the work that PIAF has done in the area of disability in the arts sector, particularly in 2016 when Claire Cunningham – a self-identifying disabled artist whose work combines dance, aerial techniques, voice and text – was artist-in-residence. “Claire Cunningham’s presence, her brilliance as an artist helped shift people’s understanding of living with disability,” reflects Martin. “In final days of the Festival, I was having a meeting with her, sitting at a table in William Street, and we had to abandon the meeting because so many people wanted to talk to her, and thank her for her work, or relate their own experience.”

It’s that interaction between artist and audience that seems to be at the core of Martin’s programming, and 2017’s “Museum of Water” encapsulates that concept. A free program of events, the 2017 edition ranged from a sensory walking tour of local wetlands to storytelling aboard a kayak. “The ‘Museum of Water’ is a two year project for us,” says Martin. “I wanted to bring that international project and give it a Western Australian twist because water is such an important story here. We are in the driest state, in the driest continent on Earth.”

“The sharing of really deep, emotional moments and stories in people’s lives was quite extraordinary.” The Swimmers’ Manifesto at Cottesloe Beach, in 2017. Photo: Jessica Wyld Photography.

Martin’s instinct proved spot on and even she was surprised by the results in 2017. “One Sunday morning we had something called the Swimmers’ Manifesto, where people got up on a soap box at Cottesloe beach. The sharing of really deep, emotional moments and stories in people’s lives was quite extraordinary… more than three or four people told stories that they had never been able to express and they had their loved ones sitting there listening to it, and they stepped down from the soapbox and broke down in tears. I hadn’t realised that water was going to be such a brilliant way in for people’s intimate life stories.

“One of things I am most keen on, as a curator of a festival, is that the people who the festival is for sit at the heart of it, that their stories and their concerns are as valuable as those of a visiting artist,” she concludes. “Creating projects like Home, like Boorna Waanginy, which engaged our Indigenous people, our scientific community and our children, those voices sit at heart of festival. So it’s about West Australian artists, but it’s also about the diverse communities and voices of the people of Perth. It’s really important to find projects and avenues that we can create with the community that resonate with their lives.”

Want a sneak peek at the 2018 PIAF line-up? Wendy Martin has just revealed four shows that will be on the program. Find out what’s in store here. The full 2018 program will be announced November 9 2017.


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