“The initial desire was to put onstage a bong-making workshop,” says playwright David Finnigan in his best deadpan. “It became necessary to flesh out that image.”
Finnigan is talking about his latest work, Underage House Party Play, commissioned by the Street Theatre as one of two writing commissions (along with Aedan Whyatt’s The Back of Beyond) in 2010. The play, directed by Canberra stalwart Stephen Barker, follows five teenagers - meat for “the coming-of-age grinder” - on a journey through their last high-school rager, and plays at the Street Theatre from June 3 to 6.
The bones of the play came from Finnigan’s own time spent party-going during the “dirty end, the fag-end, of being a teenager.”
“I had a huge stockpile of dialogue from notes from parties when I was 16,” says Finnigan, but, he explains, “the aim was not to be a nostalgia exercise.”
“These characters are types,”
The five “archetypal characters”: a blonde girl, a smart girl, a stoner, a former geek, and a rich Christian. Not exactly The Breakfast Club - but not far off. In Underage House Party Play, however, they’re all played by the one actor, former Canberran Matthew Kelly.
“It’s very difficult to stand on a stage and talk to yourself and not feel silly,” says Kelly, a former Questacon performer working for the second time with director Stephen Barker.
“You need to overcome those clichés, to establish a convention early on that the audience understands. If the audience likes you, they’ll pretty much go with you,”
“It’s been great fun,” says Kelly, though some of the characters are harder to play than others.
“I’m playing young girls, and I don’t want to make fun of them,” says Kelly. “It’s very difficult to create a character [and] make her sincere, and not make her a stereotype of a teenage girl,”
Kelly – now living in Melbourne and working on writing, directing, and performing his own comedy – has helped to workshop the play, in conjunction with Barker and Finnigan, as part of the Street’s focus on creating opportunities for new work that “reflects a Canberra sensibility,” says Street Theatre Artistic Director Caroline Stacey.
“There was some testing of the waters,” explains Finnigan of the workshop process. “What crowd can we draw, and what things can we touch on that no-one else is going to hack at? […] How far can this go? Caroline said: ‘quite frankly, it hasn’t gone far enough’. So… a condom is getting lost,”
Where, you ask? Well. You’ll have to see the play.
“I think that what the Street Theatre is doing in creating this season is great,” says Kelly, “giving Canberra artists a chance to get their shows performed.”
Finnigan agrees: “It’s a kick-arse thing that Caroline has done. I’m hugely appreciative,”
Underage House Party Play performs at Street Two from Thursday June 3 to Sunday June 6. www.thestreet.org.au
When one thinks of ballet, one imagines a high cultured event featuring prima ballerinas in pink tutus pretending to be ducks and fit boys’ bums in tights. But coming our way soon is a somewhat edgier, modernistic version of every prissy little girl’s dream industry, brought to us by a highly decorated principal dancer, director and choreographer named Rasta Thomas and his Bad Boys of Dance.
Rock the Ballet is a highly acclaimed show which is about as similar to the traditional style of ballet as Baryshnikov’s package is to vegemite toast. In fact, Rasta – a young man who began his career because Daddy thought enrolment in ballet would be an apt punishment for being a little brat to his martial arts teacher – is adamant in going no where near that old, highly strung scene and has created his own version called ‘pop-ballet’. Love a good rebel story that ends with a dramatic dance.
“The view of ballet is the same now as it was when I started… boring! That’s one of the reasons I created Rock the Ballet and Bad Boys of Dance. Ballet has been losing a bit of appeal, almost classed as ‘aging’ with the younger generations and most people in the industry are doing nothing to change that,” rebellious Rasta says.
“Pop-Ballet is a seamless blend of solid, classical ballet technique, jazz, contemporary, hip hop and musical theatre. It showcases the versatile dancers of today while taking dance to the next level. Hopefully it will influence dancers, choreographers and directors to think outside the box when it comes to creating for their public.”
Rock the Ballet? Featuring the Bad Boys of Dance? Such things are not just what your music teacher would have named your end of year seven school production in an attempt to make theatre more interesting. The rock factor is indeed an integral part of the show, with pliés and pas de bourrées set to a soundtrack of U2, Michael Jackson, Prince, Queen and more. Rasta, who’s a hip, young 29 year old by the way (just in case my jesting really did inspire some sort of suppressed past experience), has created a two-act, monster dance performance that crosses all the boundaries of age and genre.
“A normal ballet experience is usually set to classical music, with mostly girls and a few guys and it showcases just ballet technique. Rock the Ballet is set to rock and pop music, is mostly guys, no tights, set against an awesome backdrop of video-projected scenery.”
Did he say just say NO TIGHTS?! Oh well. A show that makes most ballet traditionalists wag their fingers in disapproval - and a mostly male cast raunching-out in ‘first position’ to Prince - almost makes up for the loss of oogling at flexed cheeks.
The new exhibition at Belconnen Arts Centre, Earth Connections - timed to coincide with the six month anniversary of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit - explores the role the arts can play in environmental education.
“At Copenhagen there was a pretty strong acceptance right around the world that climate change is real, but that it is a mammoth task to re-orient government and industrial systems to make the necessary changes,” program manager Christine Watson tells me. “In Western society we have this heritage of this idea of domination of the earth by humankind, and that humankind has that right to dominate other species. We still need to examine our relationship with the earth to make sure that our carbon footprints, and the consumption of material goods that creates those carbon footprints, doesn’t overtax the earth.”
The exhibition will feature the work of sixteen Canberra artists in total, some created from extraordinary mediums, such as Nancy Tingey’s forms created with woven grass seed heads, and Nicolette Benjamin Black’s pieces made from processed Patterson’s Curse, Scotch thistles and discarded computer cables.
Some of the works in the exhibition deal directly with the issue of climate change. Jorg Schmeisser’s etchings, for example, depict the breaking up of an iceberg in Antarctica, and Rosina Wainwright’s wooden planes raise the question of food miles and the consumption of energy and petrochemicals that are associated with the practice.
The Indigenous connection with the earth is an important theme within the exhibition, with the works of Karen Williams, Heather Burness and Frank Thirion all exploring this topic. Both Williams and Thirion were taught by Aboriginal elders in order to gain perspective for their work.
The opening of the exhibition will feature projections on the exterior of the Belconnen Arts Centre by the ANU BEAM artists, who incorporate video, animation and still images into their work. For the kids, there is a children’s trail through the exhibition and a children’s book which was presented to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to take to the Copenhagen Summit. There will be an opportunity for visitors to meet the artists on Saturday June 5, and an environmentally-friendly art market will be held on June 12, with local artists exhibiting plant-dyed eco-printed textiles, prints on recycled paper, jewellery made from recycled materials and low-fired pottery.
Earth Connections attempts, through exhibited works and community engagement, to deal more broadly with the human relationship with the environment and the splendour of nature. Works such as Eugenie Keefer Bell’s breathtaking photographs of skies viewed from a plane and ice formations in Finland, and Frank Thirion’s explorations of the mysterious aspects of the heavens. “A number of works in the show talk about that innate knowledge we have that the world we inhabit is an amazing place that’s bigger than our frail individual selves,” Watson says.
Earth Connections opens at Belconnen Arts Centre Friday May 28 and runs til June 20.
Canberra is set for a double dose of William Zappa, a familiar face to Australian theatre, as he takes to the stage in Honour and Winter’s Discontent.
“Having enjoyed performing in Canberra on three different shows previously, I’m really looking forward to doing two more back to back and enjoying the warmth of Canberra audiences. Especially in the middle of winter!”
It’s second time round for Zappa in the role of George in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Honour, on at the Canberra Theatre Centre from 9–12 June.Often considered a modern Australian classic, the play centres on Honor and George, a couple happily married for three decades. But when things change, both must relearn their identities beyond “husband” or “wife.”
“One doesn’t often get to play a role on more than one production of a play, so when this came up I was very excited to take up the challenge once again. Older and wiser and more experienced as an actor,” Zappa says. “I have fond memories of the previous production, for the Melbourne Theatre Company, but very few specific moments are etched on my mind, and I was glad of that in rehearsals because I didn’t want anything to get in the way of rediscovering the role.”
And a new imagining of the set has also contributed to Zappa’s fresh approach, with a minimalist set requiring the actors to approach the performance in a different way to hold audience attention.
“The design for the production was very challenging at the start. There are hardly any props, and no furniture, this means it’s all down to the actors and the text (ably supported by lighting and sound!). For a play that has such a ‘domestic’ feel about it, being stripped back like this seems to have lifted it into the realm of classical Greek drama, and yet there is something ‘familiar’ in the design, which has taken its inspiration from 1950s Australian architecture/design.”
There’s also a sense of familiarity in the characters. A husband, a wife, a daughter, and aspiring journalist, they all hold something in them that is readily identifiable. George is the type of man we all like to hate. He’s a successful academic, bordering on famous, and has been happily married for 32 years, until he is enchanted by a young journalist (around the same age as his daughter) and leaves his wife. It’s a story we’ve all heard before, and it’s difficult see this archetype in a new way. But that’s what makes it interesting—especially for Zappa.
“George is very challenging because he is a cliché—at least his behaviour is—and it is important that he does what he does out of a true belief that what he’s doing is right. And this is what it’s like for men and women who genuinely fall in love with someone while married to another, which quite different to having a ‘fling’. The danger comes when the heart is involved,” Zappa says.
“I think what Joanna has managed to write here is such an incredibly well-observed analysis of love and infidelity and loyalty and motivation, and she has done so with the most fantastic wit and humour. It is hard to perform because of the emotional turmoil but very satisfying for an audience.”
The play’s season in Sydney has been so successful that it was extended. Canberra is the only other city to be seeing the production.
As soon as Zappa finishes up in Honour, he’ll be jaunting across town to the Street Theatre for a short season of his own play Winter’s Discontent. Not only is Zappa performing in the show, he also wrote it.
“Winter’s Discontent is about an actor, Robert Winter, alone in his dressing room, getting ready to perform a play that he hates while at the same time dealing with a personal tragedy. It’s not autobiographical, although there are anecdotes that are based on my own personal experiences, but it reflects the lives of actors in general and explores/exposes the kinds of ups and downs that we go through,” Zappa says. “But it is also a kind of homage to theatre and acting. It celebrates the skills required to be an actor and presents the audience with, if I say so myself, some great theatricality. The kind of thing that makes theatre unique.”
Zappa says performing in two shows back to back was a happy coincidence.
“It was fortunate that the Street Theatre, who will presenting Winter’s Discontent, had a slot available that coincided with my being in Canberra. It means that I will be able to use a Canberra-based actress for the other (hardly seen) role of the stage manager. I’m very happy to say that Leith Arundel will be playing ‘Mo’ the stage manager and the voices of some other people from Robert’s life.”
Winter’s Discontent shows from June 18 until July 3. And does Zappa hope to see the same audiences turning up to each show? Or will they attract different crowds?
“Honour and Winter’s Discontent are very different plays, but I’m hoping that people who see Honour will say, ‘Wow! What an actor, we must go and see him again, and Look!!! He’s doing his own show!! Fantastic!!’”
Honour plays at the Canberra Theatre Centre from 9–12 June. Bookings 6275 2700.
Winter’s Discontent plays at the Street Theatre from 18 June until 3 July. Bookings 6247 1223.
The present tense is the micro. Reality. Right now. This is what the National Portrait Gallery captures in Present Tense: an imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age.
Present Tense is not an exhibition of new media portraits but a dynamic exploration of portraiture at a time where visual culture is saturated by digital technology. The exhibition comprises a wide range of new media, interlaced with traditional contemporary artworks. It focuses on the interaction between digital and non-digital artistic methods and features a mix of installation work, film, posters, sculpture, painting and photography.
The advent, accessibility and increasing affordability of digital technology has had a great impact upon visual culture. As Curator Michael Desmond explains, “digital media changes everything” - but this change is a merger, rather than a takeover. His exhibition demonstrates how, despite infiltrating the art world, digital technology has not sought to eclipse traditional media. It embraces new artistic methods, but retains what Desmond calls a “fetish” for traditional, hands-on processes. Video portraits are displayed alongside now archaic daguerreotypes and static digital images hang opposite paintings on canvas. Despite distinct technical variation, the works complement each other naturally. If the exhibition is a comprehensive window into contemporary art, it shows that contemporary artistic style is not dictated by a single, exclusive aesthetic, but an open blend of technique, experience and individual ideas.
Khaled Sabsabi’s Australians (2000) is a metal rack of CRT televisions that flicker precariously, each displaying an element of a face. It experiments with identity and reproduction, but also immediacy and tense: it is permanent as a complete, solid installation, but temporary as it is made of pieces that are easily uninstalled and it relies on a supply of electricity. This is also the case with James Dodd’s Posters from Occupied Territory (2003): a collection of screen printed posters that the artist has pasted directly onto a wall of the exhibition space. The posters themselves are permanently affixed to the gallery space, but their existence is temporary because their inevitable removal will destroy them. The notion of ‘temporary permanence’ is evident throughout the entire exhibition. The very notion of capturing the present tense in an exhibition is an attempt to make it permanent and tangible. However, it is necessarily temporary: it is fleeting and it cannot be the present forever.
Present Tense is an exhibition of which there is more to see than to say. It is complex and delicate, but its immediacy is a window into a fleeting reality that is inherently approachable because it is happening right now. Its exploration of time and art and expression is, at once, dynamic and static. And that cannot be translated into words.
Present Tense: an imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age is at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 August