On putting the community into theatre

Image: That Production Company (RUINED)

It’s so easy to get caught up in attempting to define and partition off the kinds of theatre we produce. We tend to box, define, create matrices of the way stuff works, test things against check lists of expectations: professional, amateur, pro-am, community, independent …

Western theatre is no stranger to evolutionary processes; it’s one of its great strengths. Right here, right now, it’s clear that, as part of the wider arts-industrial landscape and the generational change in arts leadership, theatre makers are experimenting with the how and where of creating theatre. New alliances that enable greater participation are being thought about and enabled – look at the way the main-house companies like QTC and La Boite are opening the portals – something which, even a few years ago, was unthinkable. Many of the boundaries that used to exist are porous if they haven’t already been dismantled.

The notion of a ‘full ecology’ of theatre existing out there was put by Wesley Enoch (AD of Queensland Theatre Company) recently in a Facebook discussion. But it’s not so much out there as in the things we talk about in foyers, in the rehearsal rooms we occupy, the chat about shows we see. Wesley goes on to compare this ecology with the kind of easy acceptance of the range of activities in sport in this country and wonders why art-making hasn’t been as accommodating. It’s a good question and one that’s part of the thinking I refer to above.

Why no easy access as Wesley asks? It has, I think, as much to do with the ongoing struggle that art and artists in this country have had to ‘prove’ their worth. But it’s a big question that goes to the heart of Australian culture and will continue serving as food for ongoing discussion, but not here right now. I’m interested in the ways and means and the impact this movement is having in and on the wider theatre community here in southern Queensland. Continue reading On putting the community into theatre

Review: Life Etc.: All Together Now at Empire Theatre (Toowoomba)

Image: Empire Theatre

And so, tonight to the theatre again – this time to Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre Studio and part of a full house for David Burton’s new play Life Etc. part of the theatre’s Home Grown Series of new worksIt’s also the first work from the collective All Together Now who ‘aim to create more “gutsy and juicy” roles for women within the theatre industry in Queensland and strongly believe in supporting women in theatre.’ (programme note)

It’s always exciting to be seeing a new work: no preconceptions, just an open road to travel for (in this case) 75 or so minutes with the two protagonists Tash (Emily Curtin) and Karen (Kate Murphy).  

Tash has screwed up in her job at Centrelink. Her boss Karen has to fire her but not before they spend an evening fixing up reams of paperwork – coloured papers which are sifted and sorted. Tash and Karen work surrounded by piles and piles of cardboard boxes – a clever (if uncredited) set design which contains various prop pieces brought out into the action.

As the papers are sorted Tash brings out the brownies and Karen a bottle of wine. They eat, drink and share some often uncomfortable personal facts with each other. Their interaction is, by turn, light and sombre although, in the opening minutes, there are a couple of bits of juvenilia and clowning about that make the play appear a tad insecure about itself. However, the old farting jokes had the audience rollicking, and an otherwise apparently mature man besides me fell apart at the mention of the word, ‘poo.’ But it’s not all light sitcom or  girly D&M stuff; the play itself gets far more interesting as a piece of theatre when it goes beyond Tash and Karen’s after-hours shift at Centrelink. Continue reading Review: Life Etc.: All Together Now at Empire Theatre (Toowoomba)

Review: Chasing the Lollyman – Debase Productions with Artour Queensland – Empire Studio (Toowoomba)

As I sat in the near full Studio at the Empire a couple of nights ago, I was conscious of the fact that there were Murri audience members all around. Now, that doesn’t happen very often in Toowoomba. Why not is another question.

Why such a mixed audience was there on a cold night on a Thursday was because deBase’s production of Chasing the Lollyman was in town. The play, which had its first production in Brisbane in 2010, is currently on tour through the auspices of Artour Queensland. It was NAIDOC week and the only opportunity locals would get to see a play whose reputation has preceded it. It was, in fact, a perfect time to come together and spend an evening with Mark Sheppard one of the funniest stand-up comedians working today. Chasing the Lollyman is a very personal one-man show about identity, and grounded in the idea and power of family. Mr Sheppard’s story as a gay, Aboriginal man – a Muluridgi man from Mareeba, a small country town in far-north Queensland – unfolds over  75 minutes in a space framed by a perfectly-designed touring set – a series of poles decorated with indigenous-style motifs. They are actually boxes that contain items to accompany the stories he tells, either as symbols or costume pieces and props.

Mr Sheppard traces his background in a series of yarns, terrific contemporary-traditional dance pieces, song, and audience interaction – for once, the interaction part isn’t embarrassing. He kicks over a lot of barriers along the way, all without a trace of bitterness. He talks to us, with us – now a part of his ‘family’ – and, for me at least, gave permission to lose the guilt for a bit and laugh along with him at the really, really funny stories about his own family and the patronising liberal attitudes to indigenous Australians. Chasing the Lollyman‘s laughter and gentle approach mask generations of hurt and sadness, but they are never far from the surface, and why should they be?

I was unprepared for the powerful way the play’s humour, biting satire, and the personality of Mr Sheppard himself was able to work on us. God knows, many in the audience would have been aware of the cloud of white guilt that invariably hangs around any gathering dealing with the treatment of indigenous Australians present and past. It is a tribute to the writers (Sheppard co-devised with Liz Skitch) that these issues are never skirted but met head on. They are dealt with in that most powerful of ways – laughter. ‘Sit beside a Murri,’ he suggested at the show’s start, ‘and you’ll know when to laugh.’ Satire is deadly!

The most powerful part of the evening is reserved for the final 10 minutes where, for this very short time indeed, Mr Sheppard assumes the role of the first indigenous Prime Minister of Australia, and calls us into a collective dreaming of reconciled unity – as family. He invites us to imagine the potential this would have for every Australian. It is stunning in its theatrical power to imagine and rehearse an as-yet unfulfilled idea. You could have heard a pin drop.

Chasing the Lollyman is currently on tour throughout south-east Queensland. Check the website for details on where it is heading. If it plays in your town, see it.

It is also the second in the new Homegrown Series of independent works being produced and/or presented by the Empire Theatre Projects Company. The first was the Australian play Blackrock which played last month. Greenroom will be following and reviewing the remainder of these independent productions in the Studio Series.

We Sat In the Dark: 100 Voices Needed

Empire Theatre Construction
Image via Wikipedia

Toowoomba’s wonderfully restored Empire Theatre is celebrating its centenary this year. Built in 1911 as a silent-movie theatre, it burned down in 1933, was rebuilt and re-opened the same year in the art-deco style which it retains today.

The Empire flourished over the following decades until it fell into disrepair during the 1970s. It came close to being razed to the ground but, due to the foresight of concerned city residents and then-Mayor Ross Miller, the theatre was saved from destruction and re-opened in 1997.

The Empire Theatre precinct contains the beautiful 1600 seater ‘main-room’ with the famed ‘bomber-light’, a flexible studio and the adjoining Church theatre. It is the largest regional theatre in Australia, and is known and admired especially by visiting artists from around the world. The home-made biscuits and fresh flowers in dressing-rooms and foyer spaces are touches provided by the Friends of the Empire, an entirely voluntary group totalling nearly 700. The Empire really is a community hub for the performing arts on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland and a source of great civic pride.

As part of the Centenary celebrations the Empire Theatre Projects Company is collecting audio, video and photographic memories of the theatre from people of all ages for a project called We Sat In the Dark.

The curated project – a visual and oral history – will then be exhibited and shared with the wider community as part of the Theatre’s Centenary Celebrations.

Members of the public are now invited to submit their memories of the Empire Theatre by Friday 3 June to be considered for inclusion. Click here to submit your memory. The Empire will be in touch if yours is selected for inclusion.

If you are in the city do get along to the TRAG (Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery) where the theatre is exhibiting memoranda – programmes, photographs, posters and costumes – from across the years.

Getting things right: Barbara Lowing – (Interview 11)

If Barbara Lowing is in a show, you know your night in the theatre is going to be a good one. I love her work, for which, incidentally, she’s won a stack of acting awards. I note from her C-V that she was the first Queensland graduate of WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts). Apart from being a director-teacher and a terrific photographer, she’s also great company, so it’s good to catch up with her for lunch last week. Barb’s in Toowoomba rehearsing for the Empire Theatre Projects Company (EPC) production of April’s Fool by David Burton, directed by Lewis Jones.

This production marks a lot of firsts for the EPC: the first fully professional show, the first to tour – it opens in Oakey this week, then Chinchilla, Dalby, Ipswich and a city season in Brisbane at the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts. April’s Fool is possibly also the first-ever home-grown play about a real-life event in the city, the death of a young man, Kristjan Terauds in April 2009 from the complications following illicit drug use.

Director Lewis Jones heard of the events from mutual friends of the Terauds. His bringing of the story to the stage has been done with the full cooperation of Kristjan’s parents and extended family. The play also offers the perspective of other characters in the play – friends, observers – some of whom take varying points of view. ‘It’s didactic but never melodramatic,’ Barb adds. ‘Lewis and David have structured the text so there’s no sense of lecturing ever.’

We chat about the way the EPC production team have been working on what has turned out to be a verbatim theatre piece researched and scripted by Dave Burton and which the company has created from the ground up. Material has been drawn from interviews with friends, family and others associated with the event which is not yet 18 months old. The play’s action spans the 6 days following Kristjan’s death, in which his family attempted to come to terms with that most terrible of experiences for a parent, their child’s death. Whilst some names have been altered, all characters are ‘real’ and there’s not a word in the play, Barb tells me, that hasn’t been taken from interview transcripts, or from the diary which David Terauds (Kristjan’s father) kept during the event – as his book of solace, I imagine.  Continue reading Getting things right: Barbara Lowing – (Interview 11)

Creative Development of new Elaine Acworth play for EPC Toowoomba

Empire Theatre Projects Company in Toowoomba (EPC) are now calling for expressions of interest from emerging and established arts professionals to take positions within the creative development phase of a new play Water Wars by Elaine Acworth:

The four positions are:

  • Directing Secondment
  • Female Actor age – 27-35 ‘Gally’ a wife and mum
  • Female Actor age – 60+ ‘Mrs P’
  • Male actor age – 18-25 ‘Cal’ Gally’s 7yr old son

Water Wars is a timely and darkly funny exploration of what happens between neighbours as the drought gets longer and tougher and then gets renamed as a ‘dry’.

Set just in the future – when our communities face on-going water scarcity, Water Wars charts the bumpy road of neighbourliness as tempers fray and niggles turn into frank discussions, that turn into skirmishes, that grow into outright war.  But in the middle of all this is a young boy, Cal, and his dog, Freddo.  Cal will have to live with the consequences of the adults’ actions in this water-starved world.

The professional creative team includes Director Shaun Charles, Designer Greg Clarke and actors Chris Betts and Jess Veurman-Betts.

Empire Theatres and Umber Productions are teaming up to develop this work over two weekends – 11 and 12 September and 9 and 10 October 2010.

Positions are open to applicants on a contract basis.

Expressions of interest including a current resume and details of previous relevant experience should be marked “Confidential” and forwarded to:

Ann-Marie Ryan
General Manager
Empire Theatres Pty Ltd
PO Box 1227
Toowoomba Qld 4350

Expressions of interest are due by 5pm Friday 13 August 2010.

Further inquiries for the position should be directed to: Ann-Marie Ryan on email: ann-marie@empiretheatre.com.au