Thinking out loud in front of ourselves …

It’s been a busy busy week for this groundling. And it’s mostly been spent travelling to and from Brisbane for performances, showcases, launches, and other industry-related matters. It’s typical of the frantic pace that accompanies the last couple of months of each year, as we gather to mull over what’s been, plan what’s to come, and draw breath before it starts all over again. It’s also time to watch the intake of canapés; there are only so many a groundling can take.

What’s either front and centre or in the back of everyone’s minds right now is the parlous state of the world’s economy … dangerous times as PM Kevin Rudd would have it.  What does this mean for local business and to the personal budget … to job security even? On the business side, there are anxieties in the wider arts industry about the discretionary dollar in an audience member’s pocket. Where will that be spent? It begs the question, “What kind of works do we turn to in dark times?”

We’re all familiar with the all-singing, all-dancing glad-times Hollywood movies during the depression of the 1930s. Audiences flocked to Busby Berkley‘s broadway movies about being ‘in the money’ with understudies making it to stardom, or straight dramas about the ‘little guy’ winning out over the most severe adversity … think Grapes of Wrath … and we get some notion of the stories that appeal. They don’t have to be thigh-slappers or facile puffery, but a good laugh does help.

On Wednesday night this week, there were palpable waves of audience delight in the Playhouse on Brisbane’s South Bank. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is being directed by Michael Gow for Queensland Theatre Company. He gives this production a fresh look without ever compromising its particular 19th century Wildean playfulness or the character’s eccentricities.  Of course, Earnest is one of the best-loved plays in the English language; it’s a known commodity, but it’s also a life-affimer. I reckon it will be the scripts, the plays, the movies that can affirm community and solidarity that will win out in what our PM calls the ‘dangerous times’ ahead.

It’s good to come together to think out loud in front of ourselves … as Martin Esslin famously wrote about the purpose of theatre.

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USQ Tradeshow 2008: Goodbye and Hello!

The powerhouse is located in a converted power...
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I trawled back through the posts to one I wrote at this time last year. This is what I said then:

Another class of actors enters the industry at their showcase performance and end of three years of intensive training. Their lovely talent shone through despite the grunginess of the venue. As always, I felt as though a bunch of fledglings was leaving the nest, and needed protection. No, let them go and hopefully fly. Along with many other actor-trainers, I hate showcases. They are artificial exercises designed to market a human product; they always make me feel incredibly sad and proud in equal measure.

I wanted it to go so well for them all, dressed up, hopefully clutching their business cards, learning how to pick their way through the minefield of industry schmoozing that’s required to get agents, casting calls, auditions, jobs. It’s a tough business. Many will walk away finding it too hard, too compromising, too … .

Break a leg and never give up!

Last night’s venue, the fabulous Brisbane Powerhouse on the river was far from grungy, and the reception (hosted by the Vice-Chancellor Prof Bill Lovegrove) and given to guests, alumni, staff and graduating students of University of Southern Queensland‘s School of Creative Arts was worthy of most opening night bashes in town. In a step up from former Theatre showcases, the newly-styled ‘Trade Show’ was launched bringing together a new kind of showcase, one to introduce the work of the School, located in the Faculty of Arts on the Toowoomba and Springfield campuses. And so for the first time at a showcase, music, art, media and theatre were all on display. Good luck to them.

Get along if you can tonight and see for yourself, the final day. That beautiful talent is now about to enter the next phase of its development, outside the protected walls of the training institution. Now they simply need to ‘just do it.’

PS. Why do howler-monkey members of the audience insist on drawing attention to themselves during a show. Tsk, tsk chaps. Theatre Etiquette 101.

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Sunday Afternoon in the Park with Will

And so to Brisbane where one of the country’s newest experiments in outdoor Shakespeare had its second, annual 2-day event.  Shakespeare on Oxford in Bulimba Brisbane culminated in a one-off performance on Sunday afternoon of that most satisfying of Shakespeare’s plays, Much Ado About Nothing.

The team of mostly professional actors worked on the project over several months. The development of this project speaks volumes for the determination and talent, not to mention savvy, of Brisbane’s artists and creatives. It feels as though there is a ‘tipping point’ happening in this respect … a critical mass to draw upon to create the kind of diversified ‘independent’ theatre scene that Melbourne has long had. But really … I’m just thrilled to see another community-supported gig start to take a meaningful lung-full of air: as chief sponsor, 4MBS (a community radio station) is committed to ‘classical’ work. Shakespeare on Oxford is also supported by the Brisbane City Council Morningside Ward’s Liveability Committee. Yes please! It’s nice to see local government in Brisbane taking the hint from Toowoomba Regional Council in seeing the point of spending money on optimising the use of their green spaces (and ratepayers’ assets) by supporting public theatre production. Did I mention this was also free? Props to local government, community organisations and all business sponsors.

And the production itself? The word ‘delightful’ springs to mind. The costumes were basic, but worked just fine. The set was … well, IMHO not the most compelling part of the production … but it served. The real winners were the actors who took the old adage of bare boards and a passion as well as a good yarn, and ripped into it with gusto. The story and their skill at telling it lay at the heart of the production’s success … and isn’t that the way it should be?

The inspired clowning under Scott Witt’s direction figured strongly in the success of those (usually) god-awful clown scenes in Shakespeare … I dread ’em like the plague. They are linguistic nightmares, and mostly to be endured between the ‘real’ scenes.  Yesterday afternoon I laughed myself silly … so did everyone around me. They were beautifully integrated with the rest, and totally within the spirit of the play which swings across its arc from sunlight to stormclouds in a beat.

Open air Shakespeare can be a tough nut to crack … and daylight performance even more challenging. It’s a sweet idea at heart, but prone to the vagaries of weather, ambient noise, and distraction.  On the other hand, this is all part of the gig … you bring a rug or a chair, slap on the sunscreen, the kids run around what is a soccer field most of the year, the jets hang a right on the flight path in the audience’s eyeline, traffic revs up and down on Oxford Street beyond the fringe of trees (a lovely green backdrop by the way) … but it’s OK. The action, the story, the excellence of the work up there is sufficiently engaging to keep the groundlings happy. And in the best tradition of groundlings, we laughed, booed, hissed, ‘aaawed’ and generally had a great time egged on by real, actorly engagement with us … and the cheesiest ‘sound track’ which well … just worked.

I was delighted to see how the wriggly little girls suddenly materialised from all over during the second wedding scene towards the end of the play. As is the nature of little girls, they’d been running around the park on their own adventures, but when Hero, Beatrice and the wedding party appeared with basic ‘bridal accoutrements’ they stopped wherever they were and silently, and from all directions, crept back to the front. There they sat reverently, completely wrapt to watch the high romance unfold … . It’s a girly thing of course … Princess Bride stuff … if you get my drift. The boys equally sat still and gaped at the swordplay and knockabout physicality choreographed by Nigel Poulton. All of which proves … if you had to prove it … that the audience itself is a vital part of the passing parade of open-air theatre.

It was a lovely afternoon in the park with Will.  Thanks to all the Shakespeare on Oxford team lead by AD Tama Matheson. Do come back now won’t you.

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Glugging along

I was invited by a group of theatre lovers to lunch last week. The Glugs of Gosh is the name of a poem by Australian C J Dennis. First published in 1917, it eerily prefigures some of Dr Seuss’ work, but is definitely adult fare. It’s absurd, fantastic, satirical, and pokes fun at pretension, greed, and irresponsibility. Well … a poem for all times really.

However the theatre lovers who have taken their name from Dennis’ work have met every month for years and years. The group originated in Sydney, and established itself with a Brisbane chapter some 15 years ago. The guest of the day … me last week … has to sing for their supper. I did so and talked about storytelling, and what had brought me to a place where I could indulge my love of spinning yarns … aka acting. It was a lovely hour or two spent in the outdoor room of the Kookaburra Café in Paddington under the arms of a big Jacaranda tree, currently in full bloom.

The guest also gets to read a passage from the poem, and to autograph the group’s own copy. It’s well-worn by now and is graced by signatures of many well-known figures from the Australian theatre and entertainment industry. In my research into the poem I came across some images taken from earlier editions; indeed I think it’s not currently in print. However you can read it at Project Guntenburg.

One illustration that moved me greatly was the one that accompanies this posting … the cover of an edition ‘for the trenches.’ Yes they read poetry in WWI as we are led to believe. I wonder whether some comfort is still derived from stories read behind lines that still stretch far too far in our contemporary world.

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Carbon-Neutral Theatre

Punch's Fancy Portraits No 37: Oscar Wilde.
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Well who would have thought? In these days of responsible consumerism … is there any such thing … Queensland Theatre Company partnered up with URS in a first for Australia, setting the stage for the start of a sustainable energy program. Theatre production is an energy resource hog; think lighting for a start. Then there are all the production-related artefacts: costumes, makeup, sets, props … made or imported, the cost of travel for artists, creatives, audiences. Marketing and publicity eat up energy … ink, paper, online resources.

And so the latest production from the state’s flagship company The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde was the first carbon-neutral theatre production in the country. This time round, offsets were purchased by the production sponsor URS as part of their sponsorship support. In time, real sustainability is the goal. Bring on those solar panels with some creative solutions for transport.

Congratulations Queensland Theatre Company and URS.

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