2 Profiles facing each other with words Layla Majnun inbetween
Calendar, October 19, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Layla Majnun

2-5 October @ Subiaco Arts Centre ·
Presented by Performing Lines WA & illUMEnate ·

Often described as the Romeo and Juliet of the East, Layla Majnun is a powerful and enduring tale of love and separation. Now re-imagined into a solo performance featuring Farsi scholar and storyteller, Ustaadh Feraidoon Mojadedi, the show is created by a team of diverse artists from Western Australia and directed by James Berlyn.

Showcasing poems by Rumi and other poets, this hour-long performance integrates traditional Persian storytelling with contemporary visual projections and original music, bringing this tale to the 21st Century.

Each night, from 6:30pm onwards we will have entertainment and activities for all ages, as well as an exhibition by Muslim artists and food trucks serving halal food. A prayer room is also accessible to everyone and this is an alcohol free event.

More info:

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Features, News, Opinion, Performing arts

Celebrating a decade of Performing Lines WA

Last month, Performing Lines WA celebrated its tenth anniversary and officially said goodbye to its founding senior producer Fiona de Garis. At the party, Performing Lines WA Senior Producer Rachael Whitworth gave a heartfelt address, honouring both de Garis and the organisation’s achievements over the last decade. Seesaw editor Nina Levy was so impressed by her words that she has decided to share them with you all.

Ten years ago, Performing Lines WA  was established in Perth, with Fiona de Garis at its helm, a satellite for the Sydney-based Performing Lines. Since then the company has produced an astounding array of performances by some of Western Australia’s most exciting and innovative independent performing artists. In November Performing Lines WA held a party to celebrate its tenth anniversary and farewell de Garis, who accepted the position of executive director of Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre earlier this year. Please enjoy Rachael Whitworth’s address:

In 2008, Performing Lines WA was established with one staff member, producer Fiona de Garis, who was soon joined by the talented Sarah Rowbottam as a marketing assistant. Performing Lines WA was part of the MAPS program (Management and Producing Services) an initiative by the Australia Council and the then Department and Culture of the Arts. Squashed into a tiny office donated by Country Arts WA, Fiona and Sarah began working with their six chosen MAPS artists: Sue Peacock, Sally Richardson, Chrissie Parrot’s Jambird, Danielle Micich, PVI collective and Marrugeku.

At this time, there were no other independent producers working in WA so it was such new territory – so much opportunity but also, many challenges.

Long before I joined Performing Lines WA, I remember a dancer – a personal friend – lamenting that Fiona was not allowing Sue Peacock and her dancers work on a Sunday without paying double time. The dancer was completely outraged! How dare she put the project at risk by paying the dancers more money. Apparently Fiona wouldn’t even let them work on a public holiday! The artists had no idea of how to work with a producer or, how a producer could offer more than creating headaches and complicating things.

Eventually, both PVI and Marrgeku moved on, with James Berlyn joining the fold and MAPS renewed for a further three years. Rather the replacing the sixth artist, Fiona negotiated that, to suit the WA context, the final sixth slot should be a flexible one, allowing us to go where the need was greatest and we could have more impact. In hindsight, winning that battle and being the only MAPS unit with this extra flexibility may be one of the reasons why, 10 years on, WA is the only state to continue with a “producing services” model. This typically insightful move from Fiona reflected Performing Lines WA’s constant gaze towards the bigger picture.

Transformation is a key driver: James Berlyn in his one-man show, ‘Tawdry Heartburn’s Manic Cures’.

I was lucky enough to join Performing Lines WA as Producer in 2011, while our founder, Wendy Blacklock, was still general manager of Performing Lines. To this day, I feel her legacy. “Change through practice” was something Wendy always spoke about. It is this that Fiona and I have held closely in our hearts and our vision; not just talking about change, but doing something that has impact and models potential, evolving and growing. I can see now that this has permeated everything we have done over the past 10 years, and believe this is why a very small organisation has achieved great things.

So what do we do?

We champion artists. We do this by believing in them, supporting them and, at times, challenging them to achieve their goals and create something extraordinary.

Transformation is our key driver, whether that be in an artist’s practice, spotting a gap in the industry, pushing presenters to program something they may have never presented before or surprising an audience with the unexpected. We created many one-man shows with James Berlyn, for example, often designed to be performed for an audience of one. From drag queens, to manicurists, to a show performed in a completely made-up language, these intimate shows touched people as they toured to major Australian Festivals, developing James’s artistic practice and raising his profile – and, no doubt, helping him prepare for his current role as Executive Producer of WA Youth Theatre Company, where he is growing the next generation of West Australian artists.

Our extended engagement with people – not just projects – can create long-term sustainability and transformation for artists, whose ideas can then go further and have more impact.

Developing touring ecology: Danielle Micich’s ‘Shiver’.

We’ve been a passionate advocate for the developing touring ecology in WA, always working collaboratively with presenters rather than just “selling” a show. In 2014 we were awarded the first Pilot Boost Touring grant for contemporary dance work Shiver by Danielle Micich to tour seven regional WA venues. Boost was an experiment to see if deep community engagement strategies built audiences and enriched their experience. Working in partnership with Ausdance WA’s regional facilitator Annette Carmichael, the Shiver tour engaged with local artists and community members in bespoke ways across the state and was incredibly successful in engaging people with the contemporary dance art-form. This landmark tour underpinned what is now the Regional and Remote Touring Fund, which has a unique and much-needed focus on responsive and deeper engagement with regional audiences.

We always want to work with artists who have something important to say about the world in which we live today. Core to our practice as producers is supporting artists committed to pushing the boundaries of their artistic form, and interested in using new performance models and new platforms that may sit outside traditional theatre walls.

In 2017, in partnership with Perth Festival, we premiered Small Voices Louder by Alex Desebrock’s company Maybe ( ) Together. The show has just completed its second tour of WA. A two-part interactive performance project, Small Voices Louder captures kids’ thoughts, concerns and big ideas. Transformed into byte-sized sound-works, these are then shared back to the tour communities via radio, podcast and social media, foregrounding children’s voices in the usually-fairly-deaf adult world.

Using new performance models: Maybe () Together’s ‘Small Voices Louder’.

Outside WA, we have actively grown our networks, intent on profiling the amazing work of West Australian artists to create more sustainable careers for them. At times our artists create a ripple of change on the national landscape.

We have worked with Sensorium Theatre almost from their inception, the only Australian company creating work for children with disability. Working with this company has meant more than just creating high quality artistic product. It is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way the industry thinks about inclusive programming.

Changing the way the industry thinks about inclusive programming: Sensorium Theatre’s Odyssey.

Sensorium’s excellence and best practice models were recognised this year with an invitation for a three-week season at New York’s Lincoln Center. Sensorium not only toured to the Lincoln Center but shortly afterwards to Singapore where the interest in their work was so strong, we are investigating a three year engagement and artistic exchange program.

But it’s not only Sensorium playing international stages. I am increasingly witnessing a demand for West Australian work overseas. Recently, we produced a development of Sally Richardson’s new cross-cultural work Gui Shu, a collaboration between independent artists from Taiwan and Australia with a showing at the Asia Discover Asia meeting in Taiwan in August. At APAM this year, Maybe ( ) Together was approached by an American agent wanting to represent Small Voices Louder internationally. We were invited to present Small Voices, along with Sensorium’s new work Whoosh!, as full shows at IPAY in Philedelphia this coming January. Unfortunately we were not able to fund this, so will instead pitch both works to over 500 international delegates. And before a new project, Layla and Majnun, has even been finished, we have had presenters from across Australia and globally enquire about this epic Persian tale of star-crossed lovers.

The experience of working with Sensorium increased our commitment to inclusion and diversity and we began to question our own claim to be working with artists reflecting the society we live in, as we were mostly working with artists from a similar cultural background. On the bigger stage, we were also not seeing the real diversity of Australian society being reflected. How could we contribute to the sharing of more diverse stories for more diverse audiences? These were big questions that led us back to change through practice. In 2017 we needed a new associate producer and decided to prioritise culturally diverse candidates. This is how Zainab Syed came to be a key member of our team and her appointment has had a fundamental impact on us internally, on our program, and – already – on WA audiences.

Less than three months after Zainab joined us we embarked on creating Layla and Majnun, and almost immediately found a completely new audience. During the development we hosted a talk by Layla and Majnun’s writer and internationally renowned scholar, Feriadoon Mojadedi. The talk sold out, and that night I was completely overwhelmed, mainly because most people that were there I had never seen at the theatre before. I felt immense pride as I recognised quite concretely how a simple decision can have such an immediate and far-reaching impact.

Pushing the boundaries: ‘Dark Matter’ by Praxis

Core to our success has always been our amazing team. Missing tonight is Sarah Rowbottam (now producer at Arts House, Melbourne), and here tonight is Thom Smyth (now marketing manager for Performing Lines in Sydney), each of whom played enormous roles in developing Performing Lines WA.

Supported by our Sydney head office our WA team is actually only the equivalent of 2.8 full time staff. Associate Producer Zainab Syed, Producer Jen Leys, and Marketing and Project Coordinator Cecile Lucas – you are incredible women.

And so, you can see that, over the last 10 years, we, Performing Lines WA, have also transformed and will continue to do so. In the beginning, both artists and producers were learning how to work with each other but in the long-term, we have strived to produce work that the world wants to see backed by the experience and skill to make it happen.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Fiona (but I’ll talk about her in a minute).

To the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries I also want to say a big thank you. You have been the only State Government with the vision to continue to support producing services for independent artists when MAPS ended and let the model evolve in response to emerging need. Change doesn’t happen quickly and we hope that you can see what an incredible impact Performing Lines WA has had on the arts sector in our 10-year journey.

To all the wonderful artists we get to work with every day. I haven’t been able to mention you all but there is a slide show tonight displaying all the projects by all artists we have worked with over the past decade.

Wendy Blacklock and Fiona de Garis

Lastly, to Fiona.

As you have heard, tonight, this dream of Performing Lines WA has been one that Fiona has nurtured, developed and championed. She  has been such an incredible leader of our team. We haven’t had many staff over the years and I think this is because Fiona is so great to work with; giving, passionate, attentive to detail, demanding of the arts sector, insightful, intelligent… and just a really nice, caring person.

One of Fiona’s biggest strengths is “realising potential”, not just of the artists (who LOVE her) but also of each of the members of the Performing Lines WA team.

This has been particularly true for me. We have been so lucky to have worked together for over eight years. We were the perfect combo – her straight-forward stage management sense and intuitive people skills coupled with my artistic background; challenging each other, pushing each other with a constant focus on how to make better art.

Fiona leads with care and sensitivity and when she says what she thinks, everyone listens.

So, thank you, Fiona, for realising all of our potential and bringing Performing Lines WA to the exciting place it is today.

Read more about Performing Lines.

Pictured top is the Performing Lines team at the tenth anniversary/farewell Fiona party, with Wendy Blacklock centre, Fiona de Garis, Cecile Lucas and Megan Roberts (Performing Lines General Manager) to her right and Thom Smyth, Rachael Whitworth, Zainab Syed and Jen Leys to her left.

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cloud nine
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A perfect match

Review: West Australian Youth Theatre Company, Cloud Nine ·
Studio Underground, July 20 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

This production represents one of those glorious times when a work is perfectly matched to the space in which it is performed.

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, (directed here by Jeffrey Jay Fowler) was radical when first performed in 1979 – on the cusp of Thatcher’s rise to power. It playfully condemns Victorian morality and colonialism. It questions the constructs of race, gender and sexuality. Of course, these subjects and themes have every place on a mainstage in our contemporary, post-colonial age but, somehow, descending the many sets of stairs to Studio Underground felt like stepping back in time, to pay respects to one of the fearless practitioners of “underground” theatre.

From the beginning of the first act (set in Africa, 1879), the cast’s reverence and affection for Cloud Nine is clear.

Isaac Diamond is brilliant in the role of Clive, a colonial administrator who makes us laugh at everything that is  wrong with the patriarchy and British Empire. Women are mysterious and treacherous, even more so than the native, he declares, shortly before disappearing under the hoop skirt of Mrs Saunders (Ana Ika), a woman who has taken shelter in Clive’s home during an uprising.

Clive is condescending to his wife, Betty, admirably portrayed by Phil Lynch (“How was your day, dear? No fainting, no hysteria?”) and hilariously awkward with their baby, Victoria, represented by a doll. He also bullies his son Edward (Phoebe Sullivan) who is unwilling to adhere to the traditional trappings of masculinity.

Left to right Lexie Sleet, ‘Ana Ika, Phil Lynch
L-R: Lexie Sleet, Ana Ika  and Phil Lynch in ‘Cloud Nine’. Photo: Daniel Grant.

When an apparently heroic explorer, Harry (David Mitchell) turns up, the action descends into farce. Fawning over Harry, Lynch, as Betty, is beautiful to watch. Harry plays along, aware that society expects him to be heterosexual. When the explorer’s true orientation is revealed, Clive is outraged: “Rivers will be named after you! It’s unthinkable.”

Churchill’s characters are complex and contradictory. While it is painful to watch Harry on the ground, saying he suffers from “a disease more dangerous than diphtheria”, he has also exploited his power over Edward and others. There are no moral absolutes here and Mitchell does well to convey the character’s vulnerability and despair, as well as swagger borne of male privilege.

Cam Pollock plays Clive’s obsequious African “manservant”, Joshua, to perfection. The scene ends with a hint that he will no longer accept his inferior role. Churchill’s script demands that Joshua is played by a white man, just as Edward must be played by a woman and Betty by a man. It’s a device that effectively disrupts conventional thinking about gender and race.

The first act is rife with desire but also with repression and oppression. Even while I was laughing through this stylised comedy of manners, my heart was breaking for Betty, for Joshua, for Edward, for the governess Ellen (Ana Ika), who has fallen in love with Betty.

The play’s second act fast-forwards a century, to London. The same characters appear, along with a few new ones, but have only aged 25 years. Importantly, each actor has swapped roles.

For example, Diamond (first the all-powerful Clive) is now a young girl, Cathy. Ika (previously the governess and Mrs Saunders) plays the grown-up Victoria, who leaves her husband for a same-sex relationship with Lin (Lexie Sleet). Lynch (formerly Betty) is now Betty’s gay son Eddy. Sullivan (formerly Edward) becomes the newly liberated Betty. Often, the power has flipped, along with the actor’s gender.

Confused? Thankfully, I never was. The play’s unique casting and doubling created some resonances that were immediately obvious and others that occurred to me days later. This speaks volumes about the actors’ skill and versatility, and Fowler’s expert direction.

In his program notes, WAYTCo executive producer James Berlyn said that in programming the major scripted work this year (for their 18 to 26-year-old members), he spoke to a number of leading WA theatre directors and was impressed by Fowler’s commitment to fostering emerging talent and his “burning desire to stage Churchill’s incredible and difficult masterwork”. He said Fowler’s signing on to the project created a buzz within the WAYCo membership, resulting in almost 400% increase in audition members compared to last year.

That passion and enthusiasm pervades every aspect of this remarkable production.

Cloud Nine plays The Studio Underground until July 28.

Pictured top, L-R: Ana Ika, Lexie Sleet, Phoebe Sullivan, Isaac Diamond and Phil Lynch in ‘Cloud Nine’. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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yourseven image
Calendar, February 18, Performing arts, Theatre

Fringe World: yourseven

1 – 17 February @ Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts •
Presented by Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts with WA Youth Theatre Company •

yourseven takes you on a journey through seven one-on-one encounters in photo booths to recreate and predict your own life.

Featuring performers from WA Youth Theatre Company and created by James Berlyn, co-founder of Proximity Festival, yourseven is a touching and intimate flash-forward journey all about you.

More info: https://fringeworld.com.au/whats_on/yourseven-by-james-berlyn-fw2018

Photo: Aaron Webber


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Dance, Features, News, Performing arts

The road to Valentine: Kynan Hughes

Ahead of the premiere of his first full length work, Valentine, choreographer and dancer Kynan Hughes talks to Nina Levy about his life in dance.

I first met Kynan Hughes at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). The year was 1998 and we were both starting first year. Although 16 year old Hughes was the baby of the group and I was nearly the oldest at the grand old age of 23, I rarely thought about the age difference when we worked together. A deft and beautiful mover, Hughes was an old soul, sensitive and highly creative. I never thought to ask him why he chose to leave school early, perhaps because it was clear from the start that he was going to flourish at WAAPA.

In fact, he tells me 20 years later, the decision to leave was fuelled by his absolute conviction that he wanted to dance, coupled with an intense dislike of school. “I was desperately unhappy at high school,” he remembers. “I liked learning things, but I didn’t like everything else about it.”

Growing up dance was a ‘necessity’ for Kynan Hughes. Photo: Jenni Large.

WAAPA was a revelation to Hughes. “I feel like I hit the jackpot with my year group. I had a really supportive home life and a really supportive peer group who were more than happy to have a 16 year old running around with them. It was the first time that I felt great in the education system.”

It dawns on me, somewhat belatedly given our two decades of friendship, that I have also never asked Hughes how he came to dance in the first place. “My story about how I got started is fun in one way and about necessity in another,” he tells me. “When I was about 18 months old I came down with this thing called Kawasaki disease… it’s a relatively rare auto-immune disease. It slowed my movement development, which meant that as a child I wasn’t very physically adept. Sport at school was hell for me. Climbing on monkey bars I really sucked at. All those things that are a great joy, I had trouble with. So as a little guy I wasn’t very physical at all.”

The turning point? Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “When I was 8, I was in the lounge room at a friend’s place watching TV and ABC put on a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. And I loved it. I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. My mum remembers me going home that night and shuffling around and pretending to tap dance.

“Shortly after that I was at a birthday party, and all the mums were in the kitchen. A new dance school was offering adult tap dance classes and one of the mums said, ‘I’ll only do it if Kynan’s mum does it,’ and my mum surprised the other mum by saying ‘Sure!’”. The class happened to be on night dad had to teach late at TAFE, so I was taken along to the class and because I had just seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I wanted to join in. So I did… and that was how it all started for me.

I don’t know what I’d be like as an adult, in my body, if I hadn’t done dance.

Soon Hughes was taking ballet and jazz classes as well. “My mum was really worried because she had spent my entire life to that point dealing with the distress that comes when you’re not as physically co-ordinated as other kids. As an adult she told me, ‘You were so excited and I was so worried it would be another thing you couldn’t do,’ but it actually helped. In that way it was a necessity. I don’t know what I’d be like as an adult, in my body, if I hadn’t done dance.”

It’s not surprising that Hughes finds it difficult to imagine life without dance. He has worked with an impressive range of companies and artists, including Leigh Warren and Dancers (where he got his first break), Dancenorth, Buzz Dance Theatre, Natalie Weir, Emmanuel Gat, Kenneth Kvarnstrom, Chrissie Parrott, Sue Peacock, James Berlyn, Sally Richardson and Natalie Cursio… and, of course, three years with Sydney Dance Company (SDC).

Hughes dancing with Charmene Yap at Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Jez Smith.

Hughes tells the story of his successful audition for one of the country’s most prestigious dance companies with customary self-deprecating humour. Although he had always wanted to dance with SDC, when an audition opportunity came up shortly after the appointment of current director Rafael Bonachela, he felt like it was “out of [his] league”. After encouragement from friends, he sent in his application on the day of the deadline. An invitation to audition arrived the next day.

At the time he was working with Leigh Warren and Dancers in Adelaide. “So I flew in to Sydney and I walked into the room and there were all these hardcore, amazing dancers in their unitards,” Hughes recalls. “The audition was intense. We did a ballet class first. I was right at the front of the room because it was alphabetical and that was where “H” landed up, right in front of the panel and I thought, ‘I’m screwed. Ballet at this point? Not my strong suite.’ I think I was in the third class of the day – they had a huge number of people auditioning. So I wrote myself off, and thought, ‘At least I can look around Sydney.’

“But I didn’t get cut. So we went into repertoire, and each time there’d be a cut, I’d think, ‘Ok, this is it. And then we got to the end of the day and they said, these are the people we’re keeping for tomorrow’ and my name was called out. I got back to my hotel – it was an airport hotel because I thought I’d be flying out fairly shortly – and I was so sore, so chronically sore! I remember getting into the bath and thinking, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’

I remember getting into the bath and thinking, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’

“The next day we rocked up at nine in the morning and it was a two-hour Cunningham technique class. I was like, ‘Well this will be it. I can hardly walk…’ but to my surprise I was still not shunted out the door. So we did more repertoire. Then we finished the day with improv and I think that’s probably what got me the the job. I think Raf was looking for people who could really contribute to the creative process.”

Hughes danced with SDC for three years,  2009 – 2011, and describes his time with the company as a whirlwind. “It’s a machine,” he observes. “It’s wonderful, it’s terrible, it’s all-encompassing. You get home, you eat, you sleep, you go back the next day and you dance really hard. It’s amazing to be a part of that. I watch the company now, and I have to pinch myself to remember I did do that. It doesn’t seem possible now.”

While Hughes’ entry into SDC was a fairy tale, his decision to retire from company life and return to Perth was wrapped in reality. “The decision to leave was twofold,” he explains. “I hit 30 and I went, ‘Ow. It’s much harder [physically] than it was a year ago. I’m not bouncing back as easily as I was.’ And the schedule was punishing.

“The other factor was that my father passed away. I had the sudden realisation that I had not been around my family for about 12 years. My father’s death affected me really deeply in terms of that realisation of how brutal change can be. I needed to step back, re-connect with family and my body needed to have a break from that level of intensity.”

Hughes has always been fascinated with masks. Pictured is Natalie Allen in ‘Valentine’. Photo: Pixel Poetry.

While the reasons for coming home were not happy ones, Hughes has no regrets. He has found employment as an independent dance artist and as a teacher with the WAAPA dance department. “I feel I’ve been able to give back to the community here by teaching at WAAPA. I got so much from WAAPA as a student, it was so formative, that the thought that I can give a little bit back is quite lovely,” he reflects. Dancing for local independent choreographers and directors, such as Sue Peacock, Chrissie Parrott and Sally Richardson, he relishes the contrast between life as an independent dance artist and life as a company dancer. “You get to do what you want as an independent! That’s a great joy,” he explains. “Of course, I learned so much in company situations… but it’s empowering being able to choose where you put your energy.” There are challenges, though, he adds. “Being an independent affords you a freedom that you don’t have in a company, but what you get in freedom you lose in security. In a company you have an income and you have a schedule. I miss a schedule. You know your life is planned. All you need to do is sleep, eat and stretch.”

In a company you have a schedule. You know your life is planned. All you need to do is sleep, eat and stretch.

Thinking back to our WAAPA days, Hughes was a keen choreographer, so it’s no surprise that another advantage of being an independent is that it allows time for him to pursue making his own work. Currently he is in the thick of rehearsing his first full-length work, Valentine, which will be performed by Hughes with renowned dancers Natalie Allen, David Mack and Rachel Arianne Ogle. Shaped by the characters of commedia dell’arte – the innocent, the bully, the manipulator, the object of desire – Valentine explores loneliness and desire through dance, theatre, puppetry and mask play. “Commedia is something I’ve always been fascinated with,” remarks Hughes. “And mask work… you know when you make those paper plate masks in primary school? I loved doing that. Commedia is interesting because it’s so influential. You still find the characters and archetypes in film and literature today, the journey man, the fool, the Pierrot. It’s pervasive across all art-forms.”

Commedia dell’arte is about story-telling but many of the traditional stories are problematic from a contemporary perspective, particularly in terms of the way women are represented, says Hughes. “There are interesting questions that arise from using an old story with such inherent problems in a modern-day context. The work hopefully starts to interrogate some of those things like, what is ok to retell? Should we be finding new stories to tell? Maybe they are cautionary tales – maybe we tell them to illustrate how we don’t want to be. Stories are really powerful. The power of narrative is persuasive – we see Trump trying to control narrative, political parties trying to control narrative, take news. Art can interrogate that, asking how does this story apply to us now? What do we need to do it to for it to carry weight?

“So Valentine looks at commedia like that, it distils everything that’s been and questions whether it’s something we still want to talk about, or whether it’s something we can leave behind.”

You can catch Valentine at the Blue Room, 14 November – 2 December.

Top: Kynan Hughes, photographed by Jenni Large.

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Features, News, Performing arts, Visual arts

Telling West Australian stories

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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