World Theatre Day 2012

About an hour ago I got a tweet from a far-distant theatre mate, Travis Bedard in Austin, Texas. The 50th annual celebration of World Theatre Day is rolling round the globe as I tap away, and the North Americans and the Brits are starting to celebrate. Australia and New Zealand have marked the day in various ways today but, varying time zones being what they are, it means we get to go on enjoying the good wishes and thoughts about theatre for quite a while longer.

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Like me, the other tweeters will understand what Travis means by ‘Happy Anniversary.’ This little band got together back in 2009 to kick off interest locally in what was, at the time, a fairly moribund day – as far as wider awareness was concerned – which had been set up by the International Theatre Institute back in the 1960s. All of us on the list are theatre-lovers and makers and geeks. We also live in Australia and Canada and the US.  At the time we had well and truly got the whole point of social media, and thought it was worth trying to spread the word about the day using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. And so, dear reader, we did.

Much to our delight back then, the whole thing got picked up by groups, individuals, and even the Mayor of Chicago that year, all of whom came to a big theatre party on March 27th. The day was marked in various ways, but almost always included a reading of the World Theatre Day address which, each year, is produced by a theatre luminary. This year it’s John Malkovich’s turn, and you can read it and lots more about WTD on the ITI website.

Since 2009 social media have gone into overdrive, so it wasn’t surprising this morning to find so many references to it across all of the platforms.

Earlier today I flipped back to the original post I wrote back then as reflection on how we did it all. Ah, memories …

And here’s the little video I made as the clock turned over to midnight on 27th March, 2009. We were celebrating at the after party for That Face which had opened for QTC that evening.

As I woke this morning to so many well wishes in the Twitter stream and on Facebook it occurred to me that maybe we happy little band had actually done something to raise awareness of a day that’s worth celebrating.

So, wherever you are in the world today, if you have been touched by theatre in some way, take a moment to reflect on the difference it has made to your life.

The Matilda Awards: the next day and an idea …

Update the day after the next day: Here’s an example of the kind of generosity that this community engenders. A few hours after the post was published yesterday, Greenroom received this from the talented guys at Markwell Presents.I passed on the news this morning to Rosemary Walker, the Matilda Awards’ publicist. She was delighted to hear it! Thanks Markwell!

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Last night was my first-ever attendance at Brisbane’s annual Matilda Awards, and what a splendid night it was in a full-house at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in the Valley. ‘Full as a lovebird’s egg’ with warmth, respect, and love for the work and for the people in the local industry who make it. The evening was all rather classy and fun, and delightfully done.

So, sterling silver kudos to the Matilda committee for their work on behalf of Brisbane’s theatre industry. 25 years and going strong!

I’ve had a thought since about something that the Matilda’s team of superb volunteers might consider for next year – yes, we are all critics, but this is constructive stuff. Whilst a guest speaker is a nice idea (and, last night, the lovely John Batchelor did a splendid job of it), I’d love to see a presentation-review of the year past – perhaps introduced by a special guest – one that showed highlights and which keyed some things worth remembering. More than one person I spoke to last night confirmed how wonderful the annual gathering afforded by the Matildas is to all of us, and how valuable. It really is the only time in the year we come together in celebration of our work.

Now the night rightly focusses on particular people and productions, but no less important things like new artistic appointments or world-beating innovations are worth mentioning, recalling, and celebrating. Brisbane had these in 2011. Do you know what I’m referring to? There would also be the opportunity to remember the work and the legacy of those we have lost during the year.

There’s a ton of visual material to call on, and the talent to script and media-produce. That big screen is just dying for it – 10 minutes absolute tops. What do you think? Let the committee know via their page if you have ideas. I got the distinct impression talking to several of the committee last night that they would be wide open to suggestions. I have no doubt they would also welcome some help.

And, of course, congratulations once again to all the nominees and the winners. Oh, and it was good to see the Matildas doing such a good job live-tweeting the ceremony (complete with hashtags) last night!

Review: At Sea, Staring Up – JUTE at JUTE Theatre (Cairns)

Brett Walsh and Christiaan Westerveld

Main Image: Natalie Taylor

JUTE Theatre Company‘s twentieth year has been marked by the production of a beautiful piece filled with young, talented, regional actors, a meticulous design, and spectacular technical elements. At Sea, Staring Up, which opened late last week in Cairns, really has set a benchmark for the regional theatre company.

Commissioned at the beginning of 2011, At Sea, Staring Up is written by prolific (Irish) Australian playwright Finegan Krukemeyer. Krukemeyer’s script is stunningly poetic; the actors clearly embrace the language, as do the audience. The play tells the story of five distinct and diverse characters. Set over three continents and one vast ocean, the play weaves their stories together resulting in an innovative and thought-provoking production.

Noah (Brett Walsh) is in search of his wife who flew off a bridge and was never seen again. Elise (Ella Watson-Russell) drives each night through the German darkness to lull her baby to sleep but, with dragons snapping at her heels, what secrets does she keep? Caleb (Christiaan Westerveld) is a curious misfit who will swim vast oceans for Sylvia Wist (Laura Pegrum) a young lady who can climb waterfalls and jump through time and space – always a useful skill, in my opinion! The opening night’s performance, however, was stolen by Emma the Greek (Natalie Taylor) who sails the seas forever in fear of her curse.

Ms Taylor has crafted a beautiful character that the audience fell in love with from first laugh to final tear

These five young, very talented actors work beautifully together as an ensemble.

At Sea, Staring Up is directed by Suellen Maunder (JUTE’s Artistic Director/CEO) whose wealth of experience has crafted and woven together the story of five characters scattered across five locations. My initial concerns about the potential clarity of such a diverse piece were overcome, and the specificity of each actor shone through the performance.

The production is remarkable for the work of its creative team. Designer Luke Ede, Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright and Sound Designer Quincy Grant have worked as a dream-team to create the world of At Sea, Staring Up. The set, whilst simple, is stunningly beautiful, and Ms Maunder’s direction enables its multi-levels to become five different worlds. The set is lit beautifully by Mr Glenwright; these two aspects work hand-in-glove. However, it is the work of Quincy Grant which is remarkable. His composition and score for At Sea, Staring Up told its own sweet tale. It’s so subtle that the listener hardly notices it, though the sounds work on the subconscious – like all good soundtracks – reflecting the characters’ pain and love for one another, and engaging the audience on a deep level.

At Sea, Staring Up is remarkable for the work of its creative team.

Opening Night ran so smoothly that we all felt like Sylvia Wist – being whisked around the worlds as easily as she and feeling, as one audience member put it, “transported on a magical journey yet feeling so at home”. With only a couple of moments of confusion, the play comes together beautifully. However, the resolution is sold short by the lack of a solid ending. It feels abrupt, almost an anti-climax. However, this is handled well by the actors who take you into their world and keep you tight in their grip right until the final second.

JUTE has certainly started off its twentieth season with a beautiful piece, and it is one that is not to be missed.

At Sea, Staring Up by Finegan Krukemeyer plays at the JUTE Theatre for its March season (9-24 March). More details – including dates, times and behind the scenes videos, can be found on the JUTE website.

With thanks to JUTE Gallery for the images.

Matthew Church is the artistic director of Half Life Theatre based in Cairns, in FNQ. Greenroom is delighted to welcome Matthew as a contributor.

Review: Funny Boys – Empire Theatre Projects Company at Empire Theatre Studio (Toowoomba)

This one left me wondering about the kind of theatre audience that likes what I think of (snootily, perhaps) as playground humour. I’ve seen glimpses of it on the Footy Show while channel surfing – of course! You know the kind of stuff: mildly offensive boob jokes, cross-dressing, lip-sync musical numbers …

Well, clearly there are lots who do, or so it would seem from the many young and not-so-young in the audience around me last night at Empire Projects Company’s brand new, sold-out production Funny Boys directed by Lucas Stibbard and devised by Lucas, the actors, and Claire Christian, a Creative Producer at the Empire.

You are going to love or loathe this juvenile silliness or dismiss it as trite and not worth an hour of your time in the theatre. That would be a shame because the central idea and the talent behind the grab-bag collection of crass and coarse skits, songs, magic tricks, dance routines and other oddities which include (amongst a whole lot more ) audience participation, nudity, and an eating competition is all rather sweet and affecting, really!

The aforesaid ‘boys’ Steve Pirie, Dan Stewart, Josh Doyle and Matt Collins have delightful stage presences.  I’ve seen Dan, Steve and Matt on stage before in mainhouse Empire productions; all are undoubted talents. Funny Boys marks a departure in the kind of work these actors have attempted. I haven’t seen Josh Doyle’s work before. His relaxed, easy stage demeanour is charming. He’s an authentic Aussie bloke – my favourite, I think, despite his character’s seriously weird obsession for Dannii Minogue, boobs and other ummm … bodily parts.

Funny Boys is an ensemble piece  – the boys (Dan Maximus Funny, Steve Titus Funny, Josh Batman Funny, and Matthew Bartholemew Funny) are the sons of circus performers who have run away (from them). The boys sing, dance, play silly buggers and generally amuse themselves with routines they’ve worked up over years in their rumpus-room back home in Cecil Plains and which is now recreated (complete with bunk-bed) in the studio. They wait to show the result of their efforts to their parents; a couple of empty seats remain (hopefully) at each performance just in case …

One of the problems with Funny Boys is that it has smart young men, sharp actors playing likeable dopes, and they don’t always pull it off. There is a sense at times of straining and even of trying too hard. The play takes a while to get going, and some of the comic timing needs tightening up.  The material they have to work with doesn’t help; it is slight (intentionally so – that’s part of the joke) but it also contains a through-line that revolves around sexual obsession, loss, sibling rivalry, and the desire to please (read ‘loved’). Comedy is, after all, serious stuff as Charlie Chaplin once sagely noted.

And it’s serious stuff that runs through all the nonsense that the Funny Boys spew; I use that word advisedly, be warned! I wonder whether a reworking of the piece might reveal a bit more of the pathos at the work’s heart. Certainly, when the piece swung briefly out of performative into real-life territory it came alive, as did the actors. More of this, I think will make for a more affecting play and, certainly, a more varied one. The script really does need further development, something I am sure the group are well aware of.

Whatever direction Funny Boys takes, it’s great to see the investment by local companies in local artists and in new and risky material. I understand the plan is to take the show to fringe festivals and, I suspect, this is where it and the ensemble will be further honed and developed. Meanwhile, they are playing again tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at the Empire Theatre Studio. The first three shows sold out fast, so you will have to get in quickly today if you want to catch this first season of Funny Boys. I have a feeling they will be back. We have all been warned!


Invisible Baggage: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Queensland Theatre Company at Playhouse QPAC

I’ve struggled coming to terms with the production of Ray Lawler‘s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll currently playing at QTC – a co-presentation with Belvoir Street in Sydney and directed by Neil Armfield. I saw it last Saturday at a matinee performance where Blazey Best performed the role of Olive. As I understand it, she is stepping in for Alison Whyte in the second half of the Queensland season. She was joined by the lanky Steve Le Marquand (Roo), Helen Thomson (Olive), Travis McMahon (Barney), the incomparable Robyn Nevin (Emma), James Hoare (Johnnie Dowd), and Eloise Winestock (Bubba).

As it’s affectionately know in the diminutive The … Doll is, in so many ways, a figurehead for the official start of modern Australian drama in the 1950s. It carries a lot of invisible baggage along with it, including the term ‘iconic play.’ There is also, perhaps, a certain smugness in the way we cuddle this one to our collective theatrical chest; it’s ‘our play,’ one we know and love and are proud of – notwithstanding the couple of generations of students who tend, on the whole, to loathe it or, at least, not to see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age!  Certainly, it requires a mature palate for full appreciation. What I saw last week was a reinvention by stealth of the play I thought I knew. Neil Armfield’s fresh production made for an unsettling experience, and it tipped me out onto Southbank afterwards feeling wretched and uplifted at one and the same time.

The … Doll has been called, among other things, a tragedy of the incoherent, something I find is only ever realised fully on stage. I have played both Olive and Pearl, written about and taught it, seen the movie and several other productions, and feel I know it like the back of my hand. I think that’s part of my problem. This production unsettled me throughout and delivered a swift kick to the guts in its last moments. Armfield’s is an austere, astringent production that focusses on the tragedy at the heart of the work. It swirls everything before it, and what should be a trip down memory lane, a cuddly evening in the theatre with an old friend and a lot of laughs is anything but, and it’s remarkable because of it.

In those last moments, the mighty climax which comes in what feels like a false ending to the play, and in those seconds when I felt the pricking in my eyes and contraction in my throat, I was utterly confused. I could not understand how it had sneaked up on me. Of course I knew what was going to happen from the get-go – as you do with other great tragedies – things are not going to end well. There’s the horrible inevitability of the fate that crushes the protagonists under the weight of their incomprehension. What was it that grabbed me so hard? Was it because I had warmed to this Roo and Olive and Pearl and Barney, felt for them? Not particularly; the performances were oddly out of kilter for me – miscast even, in a couple of instances. Upon reflection I think it was Armfield’s theatrical reconfiguring of the expected domestic tragicomedy that did it.

I’ve been wondering whether he and designer Ralph Myers saw the potential of extending the ‘dear old corner’ of Belvoir street on tour so that it extended mightily upwards and outwards, sandstone coloured, complete with swooping staircase that no boarding house in Carlton or anywhere for that matter, now or then has ever boasted? I think maybe so – he writes about the problem of transferring the Belvoir staging to the Playhouse in the programme note.  If it was deliberate, it’s a stroke of design genius or, at least, one of those genius coincidences that pays off in the execution. The set reminded me of nothing so much as the walls of a Greek palace, its dimensions towering over the humanity crawling around below. I know others have puzzled over the ‘inappropriateness’ of this aspect of the production and, of course, it is if you are looking for cosy Carlton naturalism. In this production the grandeur is part of the machinery of theatricality that puts its focus elsewhere.

The performances also took me by surprise. The … Doll is a piece of realism, complete with the kind of vernacular that, in the mouths of contemporary actors now seems quaint and out of time like Pearl’s New Year’s Eve savouries. It requires a naturalistic playing style, right? However, I kept being wrong-footed by delivery – my expectations and my own invisible baggage – being overturned beat by beat. It was unsettling – I couldn’t relax into the warmth and the ease of the play I knew. Instead, the characters were far more archetypical than I would have thought possible.

The actors seemed at times to be struggling with the naturalistic inclinations of the work, or were they simply finding the shape of the giant shadows cast by their roles?  If the playing feels a little strained,  if they look uncomfortable it only adds to the overwhelming sense – at least for this audience member – of being at arm’s length, of hearing and seeing things afresh. Wrong-footing the all-knowing audience so well and by stealth requires a sure touch. A bit of a triumph, Mr Armfield – thank you!

PS I’ve not called this a review. It’s more an incomplete reflection, if anything. What I do know is that this production confirmed my belief that good plays – old ones or those that suffer under the ‘classic’ or ‘icon’ banner, are well served by bold, assertive, informed productions. It’s where they belong.