Doctors in the House (Interview 38)

I became aware a few months ago of a new crop of doctoral graduates whose names were very familiar to many of us in Queensland as performing artists and creatives.

The reasons for taking on such an enormous, all-consuming project – one that can occupy years of research and writing – is something that each prospective doctoral student mulls over well  before signing on the application’s dotted line. In fact, most university graduate schools provide a period in which the candidate has to research the topic, pitch the idea to a panel and go through other academic hoops before the candidacy is approved. It’s a bit like the audition, call-back, second call-back etc., before you get the gig. And then it starts – for many, the longest production period you’ll ever know.

I wanted to chat with three of the most recent theatre doctors: David Morton, Katherine Lyall-Watson, and Andrea Moor all of whom are busy, practising artists. Katherine Lyall-Watson’s latest play MOTHERLAND, a Patrick White finalist opens its season tomorrow night at Metro Arts. Andrea Moor is appearing in QTC’s DESIGN FOR LIVING, and David Morton, the AD of the busy independent company Dead Puppet Society, has just finished a residency with the South African company Handspring (you may know them for their work in WARHORSE) and is also working in NYC. And this is rather typical of their arts practice. Apart from anything else, where did they get the time?

I wanted  to get a sense of why they decided to start out on the academic track and how, if it all, it had changed their own artistic practice. Was it a hunger for learning or a more pragmatic desire i.e., to create another career path?  One thing is certain; everyone attempting and successfully completing a PhD or a professional doctorate is never the same again!

Here in their own words are their responses.

Congratulations to them all and to all those others out there working away on their own doctoral productions – chookas!

Continue reading Doctors in the House (Interview 38)

Review: Trollop – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

Some time ago, I pulled this quote from a longer article by John Lahr – The Illumination Business: why drama critics must look at and look after the theatre. I came across it again as I was reviewing another piece I’m working on. It continues to resonate for me, but the quote itself couldn’t have come at a better time as I sat down to record my response to Maxine Mellor’s play Trollop, the winner of the Premier’s Drama Award 2012-13 and receiving its premiere, world performance at Queensland Theatre Company.

Reviewing assumes that the plot is the play; criticism, on the other hand, knows that the plot is only part of a conversation that the playwright is having about a complex series of historical and psychological issues. The job of the critic is to join that conversation, to explore the play and link it to the world. The job of the reviewer is to link the play to the box office.

Mr Lahr is clearly not  keen to be described as a ‘reviewer.’ I don’t particularly care one way or the other; a critic by any other name will smell as pungent. Anyway, I did rather like the bit that notes the critic’s job in joining in the conversation. I’ve always been more interested in conversations with playwrights than budget bottom lines and I agree that plots are not the play, which is just as well. Continue reading Review: Trollop – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

Review: Argus – Dead Puppet Society at Powerkids Festival @ Brisbane Powerhouse

Puppets – they’ve come a long way since Punch and Judy. In fact, I would go so far as to say the ‘puppet renaissance’ has been busily playing itself out for a few years now, with local Brisbane theatre company the Dead Puppet Society at its helm.

Always hard at work creating new and wonderful ways for humans to help their puppets tell a story, the latest offering from the Dead Puppets is the delightfully magical Argus, a 45 minute children’s piece, playing as part of the Powerkids festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse this June. Continue reading Review: Argus – Dead Puppet Society at Powerkids Festival @ Brisbane Powerhouse

Review: Holding the Man – La Boite Theatre at the Roundhouse

Main Image: Jerome Meyer and Alec Snow. All images by Al Caeiro

I confess to loving a good play title; it can occupy a fruitful seminar for ages – that’s the recovering academic in me talking.

I’m also very fond of theatricalism in design and execution – the challenge and frisson created when it bumps up against realism in a production and, as it pulls naturalistic acting into its embrace, gets to be over the top and obvious, understated and true. Sometimes you can be wrong-footed but the dance is always enjoyable. And so, on opening night of La Boite’s latest Season 2013 offering Holding the Man by Tommy Murphy and directed by David Berthold, I found a lot to like.

Mr Murphy’s much-admired play has a new production by Mr Berthold who has directed it previously to great acclaim: at Griffin Theatre and the Opera House in Sydney (2006) and subsequently in Melbourne, the Brisbane Powerhouse and in London (2010). This was my first time. The play has been adapted from the late Timothy Conigrave‘s biography of the same name. It is also unknown to me though it’s gone to the top of the must-read list. I want to hear more of the singular voice of Conigrave who, in the play at least, is not the most likeable of characters but certainly a most compelling, and isn’t that the way with so many of the best roles going?

Alec Snow_Holding the Man_Image by Al Caeiro
Alec Snow

Alec Snow, making his professional debut at La Boite, is cast as the man who is held by John Caleo (Jerome Meyer) the light to his dark, the chalk to his cheese, the athlete to his artist. Mr Meyer is also making his first professional appearance in this production. And here’s where the play’s title is food for thought. ‘Holding the man’ is a term taken from AFL football – it defines a transgression that incurs a penalty. Conigrave the actor and Caleo the footballer (and Essendon fan) were lovers. The many personal and societal transgressions that accompany the lives of the protagonists from childhood through adulthood provide the narrative with its subject matter and tension. Continue reading Review: Holding the Man – La Boite Theatre at the Roundhouse

Review: The Harbinger – La Boite Theatre at the Roundhouse

Image: Kathleen Iron – Photography: Al Caeiro

It seems the Dead Puppet’s Society’s success was written in the stars. In just a few years they’ve leap-frogged from independent stages to their first main house production. During that time they’ve managed to build an unmistakable aesthetic and style, and (I would guess) a sustainable audience as well. Their latest outing, a revised mainhouse production of The Harbinger for La Boite Theatre Company, is almost a guaranteed success.

The Harbinger was part of La Boite Indie last year. I attended that show as well, and while I appreciated the mastery of the puppets, the show had a lot of problems. I was pleased to discover this version of the show is very different. It has similar genetics, but it’s almost an entirely new play.

It’s a beautifully choreographed ensemble, with frequent staging surprises. A rich and lush design makes this production a delight to watch.

Chased by an anonymous and dark figure, a young girl (Kathleen Iron) takes shelter in an old book shop. It’s owned by local curmudgeon Old Albert. The girl is amazed at Old Albert’s books (objects that are no longer found in this decaying world), and pesters him for stories.  Slowly, Old Albert’s past unwinds itself, and we discover the romance at the heart of his bitterness. As with the company’s past works, it’s a a dark and predictable fairytale. But the real joy of these shows is, of course, in the puppets.

Old Albert is a gigantic puppet, handled by four actresses, led by Barbara Lowing. Old Albert spends the majority of the play sitting in his wheelchair. He is the absolute star of the show. While he’s no doubt a spectacle, I found him extremely difficult to connect to. His head (from what I could see) was only moveable at the neck, jaw and eyelids. Old Albert is called upon to express many nuanced emotional states, and his size and mechanics seem to restrict him from doing so. I found myself looking to Barbara Lowing, placed just behind the head and providing Old Albert’s voice. I’ve worked with Barbara extensively before, and found her performance to be predictably astute and generous.

Old Albert is the pinnacle of an absolutely sumptuous and gorgeous design. Led by David Morton and assisted by Noni Harrison (costume design), this is a beautifully defined world. This play is consistently wonderful to look at, supported by rich lighting and sound. (Provided by Whitney Eglington and Tone Black Productions) Co-directed and co-written by David Morton and Matthew Ryan, the staging is frequently ingenious and surprising, and is completely integrated into the design.

The five local actresses (yay!) are a tightly synchronized ensemble that deliver fantastic performances. Kathleen Iron is comedic and cute as the young girl, and plays off Lowing well. The remaining three cast members (Niki-J Price, Anna Straker and Giema Contini) are given full voice in Old Albert’s memories, where smaller and equally spectacular puppets come out to play. Price and Straker are particularly accomplished as the young, doomed lovers.

There are some core problems at the heart of The Harbinger. The piece lacks enough forward momentum to keep an audience fully compelled. The tension of the piece is reliant on the anonymous and dark dystopia outside, personalised by a cloaked figure. This is terrifying at first, but the stakes are never raised, and as the play goes on it is barely mentioned. So we come to rely on the young girl’s curiosity to keep us interested. Her suspicions are occasionally dark, but these threats are never realised, and so lengthy interactions between her and the enormous puppet seem to repeat themselves and lack direction. It’s a shame, because a thrilling narrative is all that’s stopping this show from being a truly wonderful night out.

Nevertheless, you should go see it. It’s a beautifully choreographed ensemble, with frequent staging surprises. A rich and lush design makes this production a delight to watch. It’s another exciting development in the growth of the unmistakably recognisable Dead Puppet Society.

The Harbinger plays at The Roundhouse. For session times and dates, check La Boite Theatre’s website.