Brief Encounters – Homegrown at Empire Theatre Studio

Image: Kate Foy; Sand Drawing: Damien Kamholtz

Last night’s theatre excursion was closer to home than many in the last few weeks have been for me. It was to Brief Encounters at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre Studio – and what a lovely little performance space this is.

Brief Encounters is the latest of the theatre’s Homegrown Studio series which sees local artists – established, emerging and embryonic – working together on the kinds of new work which so often never get to see stage lights shine on them. It’s vital, generative activity and the fact that it is being sponsored and supported by local business and the local council gives me great heart and delight that I live outside the capital city in a community that values such work. Regional artists don’t get to say that often but then, Toowoomba has always valued its art and, well, credit where credit is due. Now, it seems, there is also a place for that most arcane or, at least, often misunderstood of art forms – performance art.

artistic blind date meets creation under-the-gun. (Katy Harris-McLeod: the Tomorrow Collective)

Not all of this kind of work is what might be called successful in terms of being finished ‘product.’ That’s not the point; incompleteness, rawness, and even a bit of self-indulgence are expected in the service of creative experimentation – although several of the encounters were delightfully complete in themselves and quite free of any self-consciousness. With its time constraints Brief Encounters almost works against the pressure most artists feel to put something together that is worthy of sharing in terms of polish and finesse or completeness.

Brief Encounters had its genesis in Vancouver, Canada with the Tomorrow Collective in 2005. It has played there in 21 varying iterations since then. You can read all about it here. Artistic Producer and Curator Jen Murray has brought the idea to Australia and, I have to say, it’s a terrific one. I hope others pick it up.

Basically, the call goes out for artists who are interested in working across-disciplines. They are paired up by the curator and have two weeks to conceptualise and develop an idea which is then presented live before, as they say, a studio audience. Each presentation is preceded by a video in which both artists chat for a minute or so about the experience; you get to see the artist behind the work. It’s a nice touch and, while the artists were endearingly off-hand about their working relationships with most not at all at home in front of a camera, that all changed in performance.

So it was that, across six presentations with twelve diverse artists the full house of all ages experienced the creative outcomes of mixing and blending visual art with dance and photography and jazz, and fabric artistry with musical theatre. Sculpture and physical theatre met as did a percussive musician DJ and a gymnast-mime artist. This latter piece by Mayuresh Sathe (drummer percussionist) and Jake Stewart (a ‘mover’) brought forth utter stillness from a front row of 7 or 8 somethings. I wondered what might have sparked for them in watching performance they would never see elsewhere and up close too. Honestly – a Spiderman-like acrobat emerging from a box and climbing all over a drummer-DJ? No way! Yes, way! ‘Awesome,’ I heard.

Some of the pieces were beautifully engaging, tiny gems – like studies or sketches – that sparkle in execution but especially with promise of what might be. My own favourites were the ‘conversation’ between contemporary dancer Christy Williams and the photography of Lindsey Collier while Damien Kamholtz (visual artist) and vocalist/pianist May Volp‘s conceptualisation of bridging difference created a haunting, soothing, life-affirming few minutes together to close the evening.

The genius of this idea is in its bringing together two unlikely artistic individuals, making a creative space and a brief time for them to generate …. whatever comes.

These improbable, daring couplings pushed each and both artist into new, possibly unthought of territory prior to the challenge. Good job, Empire Homegrown and welcome to Australia, Brief Encounters.

Brief Encounters played at Empire Theatre Studio, Toowoomba from 22-24 August. Artists included:

Alison Mooney, Jesse Wright, Jake Stewart, Matthew Collins, Christy Williams, May Volp, Jacob Watton, Brodie Greenhalgh, Mauresh Sathe, Kelly-Marie McEwan, Lindsey Collier and Damien Kamholtz