Free Range 2011: Jo Thomas (Interview 22)

The last time I saw Jo Thomas was on stage a couple of months ago at the Darlinghurst Theatre in Sydney. She was on tour at the time with Jo&Co (her company’s) show Sometimes I Find That I Am Naked. That production is ‘resting’ currently as Jo gets stuck into something completely different at !Metro Arts month-long Free Range Festival in Brisbane. She and the Naked … team will be back on the road later this year as part of a national tour through the independent theatre champion Critical Stages.

I’m keen to hear what she will be doing as she takes time out from what is a successful tour for Jo&Co. A bit of well-earned R&R, perhaps? Perhaps Recreation, but not much Rest, it would seem from what she has planned for herself and what Free Range has planned for Jo and the other artists being incubated during the month of June.

Free Range is about giving artists time and space over an intensive period to develop their work. When I spoke with Jo it was early days for her and her collaborators – a brainstorming period. The project piece, which she has called Ukiyo-e: Tales From the Floating World ‘doesn’t yet exist,’ she tells me, and it’s very different in style from Sometimes I Find That I Am Naked, which she describes as ‘populist.’

Difference for Jo has meant going beyond the confines of theatre and working with visual artists Matt Dubrowski and Kelly O’Dempsey. The different aesthetic will, she believes, provide part of the challenge. Barb Lowing joins Jo as the acting half of the quartet. ‘Matt works in large scale and Kelly will be sketching live within the performance. Barb is, of course, a wonderful actor.’

Jo talks a little about the process – the ‘sandpit’ – that she will be using as the creative team work on Ukiyo-e. We segue for a bit about the era that produced the extraordinary wood-block pictures from the ‘floating world’ in the period between Japan’s 17th and 20th centuries. As Wikipedia puts it

Ukiyo-e refers to a conception of an evanescent world, impermanent, fleeting beauty and a realm of entertainments (kabukicourtesansgeisha) divorced from the responsibilities of the mundane, everyday world; “pictures of the floating world”, i.e. ukiyo-e, are considered a genre unto themselves.

Jo is fascinated by the concept of  ‘up-ness’ of the protagonist in a ‘floating world’ and mentions reading the romance of a travel memoir set in Japan. Then there is the story of a woman who had been cursed and could not touch the ground, and the inspiration she finds in the images of Gold Coast artist Louise Bezzina’s work – all varied stimuli, and rich and evocative images from which the work will flow and develop. What is she anticipating as the outcome, I wonder?

Jo is quite clear about trying not to put pressure on anyone to come up with product at this stage. She has also never worked with visual artists before, so the process could develop in unanticipated ways. ‘We’re all artists together. Maybe it will be an installation, maybe a performance piece, maybe a theatrical piece …’  During what was the early stimulus period when we spoke, Jo talks of gathering visual images to assist the process. She’s also looking forward to working with Dan Coop, the provocateur assigned to her. ‘We’re being taken on a series of road trips – pushes – and the first one is on a boat,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve no idea what to expect.’ That, I suppose, is part of what Free Range is all about – taking artists out of their self-imposed ‘comfort zones,’ and pushing them into the unknown.

The really exciting thing for Jo, however, will be mixing with all of the other artists during Free Range. ‘We’re a community, it’s non-competitive and supportive and we’re mixing our practices.’ And what does she feel is the value of a short, intensive period, the kind Free Range is there to provide? She lists freedom, the disengagement from ‘normal life’ and a chance to ‘drown in art-making – something you don’t get a chance to do much anymore.’ Free Range as a Floating World …

Jo acknowledges that Free Range is risky perhaps for !Metro Arts, especially if people come to showings of works which are ‘in progress,’ a term which is often used less as a bold proclamation of intent as an excuse for work that lacks the polish most audiences expect of productions. Free Range is, however, nothing if not a festival that encourages risk and creative challenges from its participants. It’s artist and process rather than product which is emphasised throughout the month of June. Audiences too may be challenged and provoked – and that, we agree, is no bad thing.

Ukiyo-e: Tales from the Floating World from Jo & Co appears at Free Range at 6.30pm on Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 June. Tickets are available now for $5 from the Metro Arts website (

Meanwhile follow the development of Ukiyo-E: Tales from the Floating World through regular updates on the Free Range blog.