Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

A modern-day Medea

How do you take an ancient Greek play about betrayal and revenge, that culminates in a mother murdering her two children, and reimagine it into relevance for a contemporary audience?

Nina Levy asked this question and more of Sally Richardson, the director of Black Swan State Theatre and WA Youth Theatre companies’ upcoming production of Medea.

Sally Richardson

Nina Levy: This version of Medea is by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks… how have the writers shaped this story for a contemporary audience?
Sally Richardson: Kate and Anne-Louise’s Medea is very much an “of the now” re-writing of the play. This is Medea as experienced from the perspective of the two sons of Jason and Medea, and set in the boys’ bedroom in a family home somewhere in Australia. It’s a story that is over 2500 years old, with events unfolding as per the Euripides version but it is adapted into a modern vernacular and represented in a very human, poignant and moving way.

NL: When did you first come across this version of Medea? What drew you to the play?
SR: The work was first performed in 2012 and won the Sydney Critics Circle Awards for Best New Australian Work, Best Main Stage Production, Best Direction, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Newcomers. Friends had seen the show at Belvoir St Downstairs studio space and said it was incredibly moving.

I had directed Kate’s play The Danger Age in 2010 for [the now defunct Perth theatre company] Deckchair Theatre and I was keen to do another work of Kate’s here in Perth. Given the subject matter around the breakdown of a family unit and a once passionate marriage, this work feels both timely and relevant to our audience.

In rehearsal: Young actors Jack Molloy (foreground) and Lachlan Ives. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

NL: Medea is a collaboration between Black Swan and WA Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo) – tell me about the collaborative process.
SR: WAYTCo helped us undertake the critical first stage of the project in finding the two young casts to play the key roles of the brothers Jasper and Leon. In a process facilitated by WAYTCo, and in their space, over a single day we saw more than a hundred boys. We then ran a once a week workshop for eight weeks for the selected 25 emerging artists. The boys received an introduction to Medea and professional theatre, and it allowed the team a real chance to work with and get to know our potential cast members. There are two alternating casts, so at the end of the process two pairs of boys were selected for the roles: Jalen Hewitt and Jesse Vakatini, and Lachlan Ives and Jack Molloy.

Now in rehearsal we have WAYTCo’s ongoing support and WAYTCo Associate, emerging artist Amelia Burke, has also joined the team as an observer.

NL: The fate of the children is one of the most tragic elements of Medea. How do you look after the emotional well-being of the young performers playing the roles of Leon and Jasper?
SR: Although they are playing characters a couple of years younger, the four boys are actually aged 14-15 so in many ways they are quite mature, and even joke about the play being actually quite funny “except for the homicide at the end”. We have had some deep discussions around how this might happen and why it can happen, but it’s the tragedy of this that is also what makes the play so relevant and timely.

Alexandria Steffensen with young actors Jalen Hewitt and Jesse Vakatini, in rehearsal. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

NL: As a director you’re renowned for bringing together multiple disciplines. Describe the vision for this work in terms of your artistic practice.
SR: My creative practice through Steamworks Arts has seen me actively championing the voice, presence and creativity of women in the performing arts. This production is no exception having been created by two leading female playwrights with a female lighting designer in the incredible Lucy Birkenshaw, singer/songwriter/composer and arranger Melanie Robinson on the team, Laura Boynes as movement director and powerhouse actor Alexandria Steffensen in the lead role. We also have an all-female backstage team in Erin Coubrough and Ana Julien Martial so we balance out the boy numbers pretty well! The script also gives us lots of room to choreograph our own play and fight sequences, so there are plenty of opportunities to create an exciting physical score as well.

SR: What do you think the cast members will bring to the play?
NL: The boys are wonderful and bring buckets loads of enthusiasm, energy, a wicked sense of humour and cheeky playfulness to their roles. Never mind superb good looks and charm… (they’ll love me for saying this!).

Alex [Steffensen], a WAAPA grad recently return from over East, will be new to Perth audiences and I know her Medea is going to blow people away. Her reading is intelligent, gutsy, while also being deeply moving. All together, it’s going to make for an unforgettable night in the theatre.

You can catch Medea at the State Theatre Centre of WA, August 8-25.

Pictured top: Lachlan Ives, Alexandria Steffensen and Jack Molly rehearsing ‘Medea’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

From the intimate to the comic

MoveMe Festival review: The Farm, Cockfight; Kynan Hughes, Love/Less & STRUT Dance, “Next” ·
State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

The theme of toxic masculinity is getting a lot of (long overdue) play in the Australian cultural landscape of late. With the possible exception of those packs of lycra-clad bicycling dudes, nowhere is this societal trope more evident than in the corporate workspace. It’s this setting that Queensland dance theatre ensemble The Farm has selected for their new work, the aptly named Cockfight. But if you’re worried about being bludgeoned by some unsubtle political posturing, fear not! Cockfight is 90 minutes of hilarious absurdity, wrapped in dance. I have not heard a dance audience laugh this long or this hard in a very long time.

The work opens with a deskbound Gavin Webber, playing with those corporate fidget toys – you know, the prototypes of the ones we now give to kids with ADHD? He’s nervously awaiting the arrival of young upstart, Joshua Thomson. Thomson is the new guard, the successor of the empire Webber built and Webber is none too keen on giving up the swivel chair. What ensues is an epic battle of the male ego – youth vs age; strength vs wit; innovation vs experience. Utilising all the accoutrements of your bog standard office, Webber attempts to intimidate and overshadow his nemesis. Filing cabinets are ravaged, chairs are thrown, desks are repurposed as dancing platforms. There are reams of paper, flung aloft or folded deftly into airborne missiles – one particularly memorable scene sees Thomson catch such a missile neatly in his mouth. Webber congratulates him with that most masculine of accolades – the hearty handshake, which steadily metamorphosises into a full-body, limb-swinging assault.

In another phrase, Thomson finds himself atop the filing cabinet. The next thing we know the two men are whooping around the office, knuckles dragging, chests beating. For a dance work tackling male ego and power, this is perhaps an obvious choice, but the beauty is – I never saw it coming. In a similar twist, the chairs the men are fighting with become antlers as the two bucks battle it out. Again, not surprising but somehow gleefully unanticipated.

It’s impossible to stop watching the charismatic Webber. Now silver-haired, he still has the grace of someone half his age and watchability that must be the envy of any dancer in the country. Thomson is a wonderful foil and with his (dare I say it?) youthful vigour, the better dancer. Together, whether they’re discussing the migration patterns of the Sooty Shearwater or hurling each other through the air, their chemistry bristles.

This is slapstick on the desktop. The gags – and the laughs – are relentless. By the time it was over, it was almost unclear what we had witnessed – was it dance, theatre or comedy? No matter – whatever it was, it was marvellous.

A male dancer holding a female dancer by her arm and leg
Ambitiously physical: Marlo Benjamin & Alexander Perrozzi in Kynan Hughes’s ‘Love/Less’. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

Independent local choreographer Kynan Hughes and that invaluable hub of contemporary dance in WA – STRUT dance – have produced a showcase of fine offerings as part of the MoveMe Festival. The program includes a full-length piece, produced and choreographed by Hughes, alongside two short works presented by STRUT (performed on alternate nights) – #thatwomanjulia by Natalie Allen and Sally Richardson and the one I saw, Blushed by Yilin Kong. The latter is an unashamedly sensual exploration of femininity performed by Kong in three sections. Kong’s movement is exquisite and the 20-minute work, while erring on the side of repetitive, is beautiful to watch.

Love/Less is the second full-length work from local choreographer Kynan Hughes. While the first, 2017’s Valentine, received mixed reviews, this new offering demonstrates that Hughes is coming into his own.

Inspired by the death of Hughes’ father, Love/Less has actually been in development for five years. In the program notes, the choreography is credited as a joint effort between Hughes and his dancers – Rachel Arianne Ogle, Marlo Benjamin and Alexander Perrozzi. It’s an ambitiously physical work, demanding great athleticism of the performers, all of whom rise admirably to the task. While there is not a strong narrative thread, the work’s movement and its flawless execution by the dancers easily holds the audience’s interest. Ogle is always extraordinary to watch and she is in peak form here. I’m sure she doesn’t mean to do it, but her onstage magnetism is so strong at times it tends to overshadow anyone performing alongside her. That was not the case on this occasion – when Benjamin (who I had not had the pleasure of seeing before) started in on her solo, I was gobsmacked. Like some sort of hypermobile elf, Benjamin’s control of her vessel is so impressive, her economy of movement so incredible, I could have watched her all day.

Aided by an evocative soundtrack by Sascha Budimski and gorgeous lighting from Joe Lui, Love/Less is a truly remarkable feat of dance. Dance for dance’s sake, if you will.

You can catch both these programs at the State Theatre Centre of WA until September 22. 

Pictured top: Hilarious absurdity, wrapped in dance: Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in ‘Cockfight’. Photo: Darcy Grant.

a girl in a crouched, swirling position
Rachel Arianne Ogle is extraordinary to watch. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
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Girl with pink wig and megaphone
Dance, Features, News, Performing arts, The MoveMe Files

The MoveMe Files: Sally Richardson

Director Sally Richardson has taken Julia Gillard’s landmark 2012 speech about misogyny and, together with dancer Natalie Allen, created a dance solo. First performed at Strut Dance’s 2018 “Short Cuts” season, #thatwomanJulia has been developed for presentation in Strut’s “Next” program, as part of the MoveMe Festival this September. Nina Levy caught up with Richardson to find out more.

Sally Richardson

Nina Levy: Tell me about your new work, #thatwomanjulia…
Sally Richardson: #thatwomanjulia takes as its inspiration the transcripts of the parliamentary record, reportage and public commentary around the political life of Australia’s first female Prime Minster, Julia Gillard, referencing directly her famous question time response to the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott:

… I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever…and …if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror. That’s what he needs…
– Julia Gillard, 2012, Canberra

And:

Julia Gillard: Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts, Huge Thighs, and a Big Red Box.
– Young Liberals Party Dinner menu

This powerful solo work, by the experienced creative team of Natalie Allen and myself, is a response to the terrible things we see and hear, spoken about and to women in Australia; a way to overcome our feelings of helplessness in the face of the ongoing vilification and sustained abuse, the appalling sexism, misogyny and violence that is continually directed towards women at all levels of public and private life in this country.

Apologise to the women of Australia, apologise to me…
– Julia Gillard

NL: Why have you chosen to make this work now?
SR: This project is a response to the wider cultural movement of #metoo, to a growing powerlessness I feel as a woman, as I continue to see, read and hear on a daily basis the horrific, appalling and violent acts targeted and enacted towards my sex in Australia (and the rest of the world). The work is a way to challenge these feelings of helplessness in the face of the sickening and unspeakable sexism, misogyny, discrimination and violence that is continually directed towards women at all levels of public and private life.

Julia Gillard’s speech, made in 2012, was about a party leader pushing back. She set out to attack what she felt was an unjustified claim of misogyny that had been directed at her by the then leader of the opposition Tony Abbott.

Gillard’s fifteen minutes of rebuttal to this accusation, delivered in parliamentary question time, went viral, and the rest is history. Her words took on a life and agency of their own, and in researching and working with this source material six years later, it has been fascinating to unpack the mythology, while recognising what has become regarded as a historic landmark moment for feminism in Australia, with millions of views recorded world-wide.

What interests me, and is a focus of my research, has been to consider the impact of this historic moment; to ask has anything changed since then, in terms of the entrenched sexism and misogyny that exists within the fabric of our culture? Never before in the history of this nation has its leader “been portrayed as someone who should be burned at the stake…” (Tracy Spicer, in “Bewitched & Bedevilled”, p 280)

So then how do we, as women artists, work with and adapt this material to speak with a potency, a currency, and with a voice that is our own?

This decision to utilise a board room-style table came very early in our studio explorations and proved to be a key to the overall aesthetic and design of the work. Pictured is Natalie Allen in the first incarnation of ‘#thatwomanJulia’.

NL: Talk me through the creative process of making the work…
SR: Collaboration with other artists is at the core of my process. It is on the floor, in the studio, together, that we develop, devise and shape the work.

Primary source material that provided impetus for improvisation included numerous wide-ranging articles and analysis of Gillard’s prime ministership, the live recording of her “Misogyny” speech from question time, transcripts of this speech, photographs by Sydney Morning Herald press photographer Andrew Meares (taken while delivering the speech), various anthologies of YouTube presentations; including “The Bullying of Julia Gillard”, and several key publications, in particular the compilation of essays “Bewitched and Bedevilled”, edited by Samantha Trenoweth.

Initially I created a set of deliberate choices around the material to provide a clear framework and template for us to work from. We would use only “the speech” as the core material from which to draw choreographic and sound content.

The setting would be an imagined form of parliamentary “question time” and include as its centrepiece a large solid wood table. This decision to utilise a board room-style table came very early in our studio explorations and proved to be a key to the overall aesthetic and design of the work.

Costume was also an effective early trigger that assisted the development of character and range of movement choices. Black high heeled shoes, a “shiny” corporate-styled suit, and a “flaming” red wig introduced early, significantly informed the work’s content and structure.

The initial score for rehearsal was the recording of the actual speech, and Natalie used this as a basis for long-form improvisations, responding directly to the spoken word, tone, repetitions and key physical gestures, as made by Gillard. We then analysed this material, making selections and re-framing the scene.

I drafted a score that focused around key sentences and key repetitions in the transcript of Gillard’s speech, with the idea of the hashtag driving my selections; the lines, combinations of words that are recollected and readily recalled, and potentially take on a life of their own after the actual event. Natalie then developed a set of gestures around these words and sentences.

NL: What excites you about this work?
SR: I think contemporary dance can, potentially, present powerful and overt responses to current political issues. In this sense, #thatwomanjulia is deliberately feminist and provocative, exploring topical issues that many in the audience will have some familiarity with, while at the same time offering our own response to the rising sexism and violence directed towards women at all levels in our society. In its first presentation, as part of Strut’s “Short Cuts” program, the work generated passionate audience responses and conversation, not necessarily a typical response to contemporary dance. We are looking forward to presenting an evolution of this first version, and to a wider audience.

NL: What are you looking forward to seeing at MoveMe?
SR: There are so many new works on offer, so I am aiming to try to see as many premieres of new local works I can, including works by Kynan Hughes, the Co3 WA Dance Makers Project, soloist Yilin Kong [also in “Next], amongst others. I am particularly keen to catch the award-winning Cockfight by The Farm, who are, in my view, some of the most exciting dance theatre artists currently making work in Australia.

#thatwomanJulia is part of Strut Dance’s “Next”, alternating with Yilin Kong’s “Blushed”, and plays the Studio Underground, together with Kynan Hughes’s Love/Less, 19-22 September.

Pictured top is Natalie Allen in “#thatwomanJulia”, at Strut Dance’s “Short Cuts”, earlier this year.

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Circus, Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

The story behind the storyteller: Sally Richardson

Sally Richardson’s work defies simple definition. Bringing together circus, theatre, puppetry and clowning, her latest production, Fearless, is no exception. She talks to Nina Levy about how and why she came to work across performing art forms.

Sally Richardson

It’s 2006 and I’m at the Playhouse Theatre (RIP), watching Sally Richardson’s The Drover’s Wives at the Perth International Arts Festival. Taking Henry Lawson’s famous poem “The Drover’s Wife” as its starting point, this mesmerising work weaves together original dance, theatre, photography and music. Ashley de Prazer’s projected imagery captures the harsh beauty of the Australian bush and Iain Grandage’s score is a rich blend of strings and birdsong. Against this visual and aural backdrop are five dancers,  Claudia Alessi, Felicity Bott, Shannon Bott, Jane Diamond and Danielle Micich (also the choreographic team). They tell a story of solitude and community, of joy and sorrow, of the lives of 19th century bush women.

This is my first experience of the magic of Sally Richardson. It’s hard to pin Richardson down in a single word – she is a director, writer, dramaturg, producer and consultant, and works across a range of artistic disciplines, including dance, circus, physical theatre and theatre. She is, however, first and foremost, a story-teller… and she is one of WA’s best.

“That desire to work across disciplines is a combination of invitation, circumstance and curiosity.”

The desire to tell stories goes back a long way, says Richardson. “I used to like making shows with the kids from the neighbourhood, putting little shows together for our parents that were probably quite appalling. We used to do a lot of lip-synching to ABBA. We’d set up stages and have a little gym mat and bounce around. My mother took me and my brother to see performances from quite a young age and the escape into the imagination was always magical and attractive to me. When I was at school I got actively involved in drama, making work. I was at a school that encouraged us to take all sorts of roles, beyond simply playing parts. We directed things, we adapted things.”

After finishing school, Richardson completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia, majoring in theatre and English, and it was during this time that she was first exposed to the world of professional theatre. “The whole postmodern European wave, in terms of directors’ theatre and things like that, were very much a part of what we were invited to participate in,” she remembers.” The training was very much about the idea of the ensemble, devising adaptations and so on.”

‘Fearless’, Richardson’s current project, blends circus, theatre, puppetry and clowning, and is being presented at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre as part of the WA Regional Arts Summit. Photo: John Marshall.

It was SWY Theatre that gave Richardson her first major break as a writer, director and actor, picking up her show Five Fingers and presenting it at the Festival of Perth in 1993. “It was an incredible experience,” she remembers. “I would have been only 26, maybe 27 years old. The work was described by a visiting British critic as one of the little gems of the Festival. It was an incredible context to be in as a young artist.”

So Richardson began her professional life firmly in theatre… but it wouldn’t be long before she began working in other disciplines. “I think it’s an Australian thing that we are quite comfortable with non-traditional approaches to form,” she remarks. “What I mean by that is, if a puppet can tell one part of a story, if choreography can tell another part, if someone’s on stilts [for another part] – it can all come into the same performance. That fluidity in terms of hybridisation – think of companies like Stalker, Legs on the Wall where playwrights work with physical performers, aerialists – there’s a real tradition of that in Australia and we do it really well. Circa, now, are also form breakers in terms of circus. I think that’s an exciting thing about the performing arts [in Australia].”

What would it be if your entire life was in one suitcase? ‘Fearless’ opens at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 12 October.

For Richardson, the move away from traditional theatre was about finding her tribe. “I felt like a lot of text-based theatre was trapped in a particular tradition,” she recalls. “I worked at Sydney Theatre Company for a while and then I worked in various script development organisations. They’re very connected with the idea of the well-made play, which is not uninteresting to me but tends to be found in a traditional theatre environment – hierarchical, patriarchal and predominantly white. As a woman I found that the artists I admired, who were making work that interested me, were elsewhere at that time. They were running companies like Legs on the Wall… or they were involved in Circus Oz, or they were choreographers like Meryl Tankard, Chrissie Parrott. You tend to look where your heroes are.”

Another reason for working across genres? “People asked me to,” she says, simply. “People approached me with a view that I could make a contribution in terms of contemporary dance. I ended up in working in circus because Kim Walker from Flying Fruit Fly circus approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you consider circus?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! Why not!’ And so I went and spent time with the company in a dramaturgical role… and then they offered me a commission.

“So that desire to work across disciplines is a combination of invitation, circumstance and curiosity,” she concludes. “I’m interested in how we tell stories for the performing arts. That a body might do that, or music might do that, or a circus performer might do that, feels, to me, all part of the same thing.”

“We’ve been able to grow a theme and embody it in a much richer way. That’s a fantastic opportunity as a maker.”

The diversity that characterises Richardson’s work isn’t just about working across genres, but also about the roles she takes. That’s partly about practicality, she explains. “It’s about making things happen. So the producing side, the writing side, and the directing side is about making things possible, being proactive. Artistically and creatively in this country if you wait around for people to provide you with opportunity it’ll be a very long wait.”

Richardson isn’t complaining though. “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to work in the performing arts and with the artists that I’m working with,” she reflects. “There are days that I pinch myself. Watching people’s creativity and artistry, I just think, ‘What a glorious life!’ At the moment [working on Fearless] I’m watching these incredible aerialists fly. Yesterday we had a three-high [human tower] of stacked performers – all women – that’s an incredible achievement for them, their strength, courage and tenacity. They inspire me.”

We watch the journey of a family of foxes who travel across the ocean to try and find a place to call home. Photo: Adam Wayre.

Fearless, Richardson’s current project, blends circus, theatre, puppetry and clowning, and premiered at the 2017 Perth Fringe Festival in February. This new version, which is being presented at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre as part of the WA Regional Arts Summit, is a development of that production and it’s undergone some significant changes since Fringe, says Richardson. “It’s more of a spectacle. It’s at the Boardwalk Theatre, so it’s a big proscenium arch theatre, compared to the tiny little runway [used for Fringe]. And the story telling has shifted, although the theme is still the same. It’s very much about the need of the community to ‘fear less’ but we’ve created a stronger narrative line. So we watch the journey of a family of foxes who travel across the ocean to try and find a place to call home. It’s a storytelling framework of the refugee experience.”

“We’ve also built the skills, continues Richardson. “There’s a double trapeze routine which was a highlight in the first production – we’ve kept that but we’ve enhanced it. We’ve brought in an aerial ladder, which flies around. There is harness and stilts. There is much more puppetry. So that’s all been really exciting. The a whole journey motif is told through suitcases, which we didn’t even have in the first iteration. There’s a whole choreography of the suitcase – what would it be if your entire life was in one suitcase? So we’ve been able to grow a theme and embody it in a much richer way. That’s a fantastic opportunity as a maker. We don’t get enough chances to do that, particularly in areas like dance and physical theatre. So this opportunity to present Fearless at the WA Regional Arts Summit in Mandurah is just fantastic.”

Fearless plays the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 12-15 October.

Top photo: Gibson Nolte

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