Fractal Theatre is Back! Brenna-Lee Cooney (Interview 9)

Brenna-Lee Cooney is telling me about the plans she has for the revivified Fractal Theatre, now based in Ipswich.  After some years of child-raising, teaching, a self-imposed break from theatre-creation and urged, she tells me with a snort, by her now grown-up children to ‘do something with your life,’ she’s energised and ready to tackle afresh one of the most challenging tasks any theatre maker has – that of producing and directing (and choreographing) a show from the ground up. I sense Brenna-Lee is not one to do things at half-pace and, as she speaks, my pen rushes to keep up.

Like most who’ve not done a day’s study of physics in their lives I’m interested to hear why ‘Fractal’ for a theatre company? I do know a bit about the relationship between physics and fractals, having read Gary Zukav’s wonderful ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters‘ many years ago; it’s still one of my favourite science books. But why ‘fractal’ for theatre, I ask? It turns out that it’s all about patterns. ‘I’m interested in the ever-repeating patterns of nature and history and pattern repetition in movement and music and, of course, in the poetry of text,’ Brenna-Lee explains.

She and Fractal have always been interested in creating theatre that blurs the boundaries between the forms, and Steven Berkoff‘s The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, which opens next month in its Australian premiere, continues the tradition begun when Fractal started in 1989.  At the time Brenna-Lee was studying at UQ; ‘Richard Fotheringham, then my lecturer, threw me the keys to the Avalon (theatre) and told me to do something over the Christmas break,’ she recalls.  She did, and a production of Lysistrata emerged.  A series of productions – some epic, some small, and all innovative followed over the years. There were classical Greek works, including a Butoh-inspired Oresteia led by Lynn Bradley, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt supported by the Norwegian Community, Wedekind’s Lulu, all with enormous casts.

Resources are always an issue with large scale works and, perhaps inevitably, Brenna-Lee turned to smaller productions whilst still focussing on the intersection of music, movement and poetic text. With help from TN!, then working out of the Princess Theatre, as well as the goodwill and support of many others over the years, Brenna-Lee was able to keep Fractal going past the point of personal burnout. She tells me that a friend had said 5 years is the limit if you want to run your own company. ‘I made it to 6, but I’d also been involved with other groups – the Livid Festival as well as Mog Roith Celtic theatre – and I felt at the time that every nerve ending in my head had burned out. My brain was ready to explode. I needed the break.’ Gardening was her healing, and I think in passing that for a creative being gardening is probably the best and gentlest of cures. Some of Fractal’s work from this period is listed here, and which include productions involving long-time associate Eugene Gilfedder.

After the move from Brisbane and then working as a music teacher in Ipswich, Brenna-Lee saw the need for a group to give local people a chance to create, ‘… and especially young people,’ she tells me. ‘There was nothing for my children or others, so I started Fractal Youth Theatre to provide that opportunity. I did then and still feel strongly about my responsibility to the community.’ She’s now focussed on creating a professional theatre company for the city. With the population exploding in south-east Queensland, and a huge satellite city filling out the spaces between Brisbane, Ipswich and the Gold Coast, Brenna-Lee sees both need and opportunity. Of course the challenges are also formidable.

Say ‘professional’ and it immediately means financial compensation for those involved; there’s the rub. Backing for any production involves support in cash and in-kind, and the latter has been provided generously, Brenna-Lee tells me, by organisations and individuals including the Ipswich City Council, who are keen to assist the growth of the new company.  When it comes to cash sponsorship or government funding, the going is not so easy, as many who’ve tried before will tell you. Self-funding and the invisible ‘subsidy of support’ by other artists and creatives is the name of the game for most productions in the independent sector in the state, and so it’s been with this production. Timing for a production is also an issue, something that isn’t immediately obvious.

Good actors who are keen to assist the indie producer are in a quandary when they get the offer of paid work that clashes with their commitment to a project – as happens frequently. Of course they have to take the job that pays the rent, and sometimes you just have to rejig schedules to fit in with their availability, Brenna-Lee tells me. ‘The days of the traditional profit-share model are long gone,’ she notes. The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is doing well with Eugene Gilfedder and Mary Eggleston in the leads; both were available, but the timelines are still tight. Daughter Imogen is also involved as actor and musician ‘accompanying’ the live action with electrified instruments and voice in George Crumb’s work Black Angels, originally written for a string quartet. The production opens on 6 August and plays for 9 performances only.

The production is a first of what is planned to be Fractal’s annual series of concerts and a small 2-3 hander play. Brenna-Lee also wants to inaugurate workshops that bring together a group of 20 actors, dancers and musicians to work together over a period, say 6 months or so. ‘I’d like to source funding to tour our work beyond Ipswich,’ she says. One of the other challenges Brenna-Lee notes is to overcome the negative perception she thinks Brisbane audiences may have about travelling further afield to Ipswich to see a show. ‘I’m working to reverse that notion.’ Part of her plan is to provide an alternative experience for audiences, ‘not the stifling, often stuffy atmosphere of a concert hall,’ she says, ‘but another kind where audiences are closer to the action, and where they can appreciate the venue itself.’ We talk a little about the extraordinary, domestic architectural treasures that Ipswich has aplenty in its ‘great houses’ and which she intends to exploit in the best possible way.

Fractal is launching on Friday 23rd July with a fund-raiser for the company (entry by donation). It’s an Elizabethan-themed first in a series of Classic Concerts in Historic Homes, this one at ‘Gooloowan’ (1860s).  ‘I’m hoping audiences will come to enjoy the music and the experience in an outdoor setting, and to learn about the history of the house and its meticulously restored and curated self,’ Brenna-Lee tells me. It’s good to hear that the current owners are keen to open up their treasure to the public as are those of other great colonial homes in the Ipswich area: Rockton, Claremont, and Booval House which were built for an age when steamers travelled the Brisbane River upstream to Ipswich, planned from its European settlement in 1827 to be the capital of the state of Queensland.

Before we finish our chat, I recall a conversation Brenna-Lee and I had a month or so ago before a show at QPAC about Fractal’s maybe producing that great play The Dybbuk. I know that Brenna-Lee also loves Eastern European music; she shares the occasional Klezmer video piece from YouTube on her Facebook page, and I’m a bit of a fan of the traditional Jewish Klezmer music myself. Imagine my surprise and delight when I hear that her children have their own active Klezmer band ‘The Urchins.’ Maybe Fractal’s production of  The Dybbuk will happen sooner rather than later.

PS If you haven’t heard Klezmer before, check this out and give yourself a treat.