Saturday, May 27, 2006

Athol and Lisa Fugard, up close and personal...

I’ve just stumbled on a wonderfully intimate piece on Athol Fugard and his first-time novelist daughter Lisa in the April 9 edition of the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine. The article is edited from interviews by Ann McFerran.

Lisa talks about her father’s drinking, a raid on their home by the South African Special Branch, and her short-lived acting career.
When I was a little girl, my dad was my best friend and my playmate. He was an extraordinarily passionate man with a great, huge black bushy beard. I remember the mystery of going into his study: how big he was, how small I was, and what the room smelt like. I was very aware that this was his world. Things were really happy in there, and I wanted a place like that too.
Athol responds on several of those same issues and speaks most poetically -- as you’d expect -- of Lisa’s influence on his life.
I returned one day to find a note pinned to the door: “I’ve taken the dogs and I’ve run away for good. Love Lisa.” Underneath was a postscript: “You’d better find me quick or I’ll be very cross!”

See also:

* Power... without power: Athol Fugard’s “unplugged” art

* Athol Fugard on ‘Tsotsi’, truth and reconciliation, Camus, Pascal and “courageous pessimism”...

and, for an earlier interview with Lisa Fugard, African odyssey.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

“Watching everything I do-o-o...” That antique photograph of Go-Betweens star Grant McLennan I’ve been promising...

As you can probably tell -- by the presence of hair on his head for one -- this pic of Grant McLennan dates from the early 1980s. I’m sorry to say, I can’t tell you exactly where and when it was taken. I’m guessing the old Crystal/Seaview Ballroom in St Kilda in 1981. 1982 at the latest. Maybe Rob Forster can ID the clothing. (Then again, maybe not. Wardrobe wasn’t an especially high priority!)


Grant McLennan (photograph Chris Boyd, click on image to enlarge)

It’s one of a tiny number of concert photographs on permanent display in my ‘white’ album since taken... a lucky combination of exposure and expression. (And, yes, Grant had a copy.)

Since I wrote about his recent death, here, I’ve made a couple of additions to the piece -- extracts and links -- as news has come to hand, and interesting obituaries have appeared in the press.

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Mikel Rouse on ‘counterpoetry’ and Failing Kansas

Forty-five years ago in a tiny village in the west of Kansas, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock tied up then stabbed and shot a family of four: both parents and two teen children. 16 year-old Nancy had been teaching a local girl named Jolene how to bake apple pie earlier that day. The killers made off with a little under fifty bucks.

The senselessness and grimness of the murders rocked the United States and caught the eye of writer Truman Capote in New York. The creator of Holly Golightly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s had been waiting for such a tale so that he could write what he called a non-fiction novel, relating a real life story with all the novelist’s skills.

Capote’s In Cold Blood -- which takes us from the day of the murders to the execution of the killers more than five years later -- was the first masterpiece in the new-minted ‘faction’ style. Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night followed two years later.

Another New Yorker with small-town roots, Mikel Rouse, turned to the same source material in the 1990s to create yet another genre-defining work. He is in Sydney, this month, to perform that one-man spoken-word opera Failing Kansas as well as his newer work, Music For Minorities, that had a sneak preview in Melbourne 18 months ago.

Failing Kansas is the first full-length piece created using the vocal technique Rouse calls ‘counterpoetry’, which harnesses the percussive quality of the spoken word. Think of Laurie Anderson saying the word ‘difficult’, turning it into a triplet of notes like rapid-fire hits on a cymbal... and multiply.

“You get a fugue-like effect,” Rouse told me. “It’s like the multiple conversations you have in your head, you know?”

Like Capote, Rouse climbs into the schizophrenic minds of the criminal pair. Apart from court transcripts, Failing Kansas quotes the diaries of 31 year-old Perry Smith and lyrics of songs that Smith wrote in his five years on death row.

Failing Kansas is anything but a typical psychodrama. Performing it, Rouse sounds like he’s auditioning for the Pet Shop Boys. He has the same hauntingly expressive but toneless patter. His harmonica backing is like something out of Mazzy Star, more dreamy and wistful than dark.

Counterpoetry, to listen to, is like genetically modified pop music; human, but with Borg implants. It’s like slow, densely-counterpointed rap. Best of all, it sounds like real language rather than the fake, clumsy, affected sound of most contemporary opera sung in English.

It’s no surprise to discover that Rouse is a huge fan of Robert Ashley’s work, which captures the American vernacular in a similarly natural way. “It’s just like this beautiful, connected combination of words and music where you couldn’t imagine one without the other.”

The greatest American pop music -- “be it Cole Porter or Slick Rick” -- has the same quality. “There’s an inevitability to the combination of music and text, and that’s always fascinated me.”

Mikel Rouse calls Failing Kansas -- in which he interacts with his prerecorded voice -- “a very modest piece of theatre”. It’s not “complicated like [the talk show opera] Dennis Cleveland or the third opera [in the trilogy, The End of Cinematics]. It’s simply sound, text and images together.”


Music for Minorities is at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday. Failing Kansas runs from May 30 to June 4. Mikel Rouse is a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ensemble Theatre’s touring production of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks by Richard Alfieri. Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.

Six Dance Lesson In Six Weeks by Richard Alfieri. Directed by Sandra Bates, choreographed by John O’Connell, designed by Graham Maclean, lighting design by Martin Kinnane, sound design by Michael Huxley. Starring Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney. An Ensemble Theatre production. At the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Limited season. (2007 national tour dates below.)

My local postmaster Pauline tells me I use too many big words and have a penchant -- god, there I go again -- for shows that are ‘weird’. But, like all of us, I’m a sucker for a good story, well told. I reckon it’s genetically hard-wired into each and every one of us at the moment of conception.

In box office terms, this production is what’s called a No-Brainer... supernova meets bossa nova. It teams a wise, sassy, jive-talking script with a pair of stellar matinee idols -- Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney -- who can tangle every bit as well as they can tango.

A no-brainer it might be, but it’s certainly not a no-hearter. Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is a Shirley Valentine for the gay and terminally ill. It’s bursting at the seams with sentiment. In lesser hands, it could be diabetes-inducing schlock. But, this production will strike a chord with anyone who has loved and lost, any old how.

Hayes plays Lily, a proud and prickly woman who admits to having 68 years on her wound-back clock, and Boy From Oz star McKenney plays Lily’s equally abrasive dance tutor, Michael. They get off on the wrong foot... to put it mildly. She’s a “tight-arsed old biddy” and he’s an angry ageing Broadway chorus boy with a chip on each shoulder.

He baits her about her “Sustagen daiquiris” and her bigoted Southern Baptist minister husband, and she baits him about still being -- as she puts it -- “in the pantry.” But week by week, lesson by lesson, step by step, they discover each other’s innermost secrets. What makes the other tick... like a primed bomb. There are many stumbles on the path to enlightenment.

Alfieri’s play is probably one scene too long -- the so-called “bonus lesson” is just that... too much of a lesson. But what leads up to it is so clever, and such a clever balance between confirming what we know and rocking it, gently, that we’re happy to be led. We’re in good hands.

I won’t say anymore lest I ruin the few surprises... except to say that this is about as good as commercial theatre gets; it’s hard to imagine the play done better than it is here. If we didn’t all leap to our feet at the end of the matinee I went to, it’s only cos we were paralysed by the Comedy Theatre’s appalling petrified-leather seats which haven’t got any softer since Nancye Hayes made her pro debut. When I was pushing 1 year old!



Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks -- 2007 tour dates


March

Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong
Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford
Queensland Performing Arts Centre


April

Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Eastbank Centre, Shepparton
Warragul Arts Centre
Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading


May

Theatre Royal, Hobart
Princess Theatre, Launceston
Geelong Performing Arts Centre
Frankston Arts Centre
Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith


August

Playhouse Theatre, Perth
Albury Performing Arts Centre
Pilbeam Theatre, Rockhampton


September

Civic Theatre, Townsville
Empire Theatre, Toowoomba
Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre
Orange Civic Theatre


October

Adelaide Festival Centre

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Chunky Move, Melbourne: Singularity by Gideon Obarzanek

Singularity choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek. Set design by Dirk Zimmermann (Studio 505), costume design by Paula Levis, sound design by Darrin Verhagen, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti (trafficlight).

Performed by Kristy Ayre, Antony Hamilton, Paea Leach, Kirstie McCracken, Carlee Mellow, Lee Serle. At Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne. May 16, 2006. Season ends May 28. Then Brisbane Powerhouse, August 8-12.


In his program notes for Singularity, Gideon Obarzanek writes:
As a choreographer, I have become increasingly envious of literature’s ability to describe people’s dramatic states of mind while they are doing nothing or at most, very little. Dance can only describe through action and similar to theatre’s limitation, where characters are restricted to dialogue to express themselves, emotions in dance are almost exclusively revealed through the body in motion.
This from the man whose most recent works include an extraordinary dance documentary for stage -- I Want To Dance Better At Parties -- and the Bessie-winning Tense Dave which he created with a theatre director, a dramaturg and another choreographer, Lucy Guerin...

But, guess what? Rather than continuing with his crusade to blur the boundaries between dance and, well, everything else -- theatre, film, physical theatre, mime, you name it -- Obarzanek takes the high road in Singularity. It’s back to basics.


Carlee Mellow and Antony Hamilton in Singularity
(photograph Chris Budgeon, click on the image to enlarge )


Okay, okay, Obarzanek isn’t gonna turn into Russell Dumas in the near future. There’s more chance of me appearing in a Chunky Move show that Gideon choosing to make ‘poor’ dance... abandoning his supremely talented design team. Having said that, there isn’t a dance ensemble in the country better equipped to perform without flash costumes, without lighting, music and design effects.

Last year’s Infinite Temporal Series (re-staged by its creator Prue Lang) demonstrated beyond shadow of doubt that these are dancers that can be watched up close, just as Crowds (Obarzanek’s contribution to the June 2003 triple bill Three’s A Crowd) highlighted the phenomenal mime skills of Fiona Cameron, Kristy Ayre and Antony Hamilton.

But if ‘less’ is impressive, ‘more’ is just bloody awesome. Darrin Verhagen’s sound design (and Nick Roux’s execution of it) turns a barn of a hall into a sonically perfect studio. The sound image is almost three dimensional. Dirk Zimmermann’s modular set is imaginative, impressively solid, and all the more effective as lit by Niklas Pajanti. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s important to note that each element of this singular work is tactful -- not showy or overdone -- and well-judged. It’s a genuine and very successful collaboration.

The performances, too, are remarkable. Not showy or overdone. Carlee Mellow, for example, has to mimic a grand mal seizure -- repeatedly -- in the course of the hour-long performance; first in a low-walled tank-sized enclosure, then on a raised platform. Short of losing bowel and bladder control -- classic signs of the so-called tonic-clonic seizure -- her ‘fitting’ could not be more realistic.

When the audience is allowed to enter the darkened space, we must choose where to go, where to stand... and which performer to watch. Of the six dancers, three are on raised platforms. The other three are in enclosures, presumably the same shape, size and height -- maybe a metre and a half -- as the platforms, only inverted.

By chance I chose Mellow. Now, dance -- even more than other performing arts -- has a voyeuristic element. It gives us the right to look. To stare, even. But stepping up to the edge of the enclosure so that I could see in shocked even me. It seemed way too intrusive. But, why? Was it that the dancers were wearing stylised and stylish but unquestionably “everyday” clothes? Or was it the peeping-over-a-wall aspect of the design? Or was it that we were made seeable, ourselves, by being so close? By entering into the field of light?

My next stop -- picked at random -- had Kirstie McCracken in it. She wheeled and twisted and squirmed and spirographed around her little enclosure like a reptile in a tank. Like some blind alien thing or a hydraulic cyborg. Her body arched as if lifted by her pelvis. None of her movements appeared to be initiated or driven by her limbs. The rune-like, nautilus whorl tattooed on her wrist added to the sense of undersea strangeness.

On plush red carpet -- occasionally red lit -- this young woman with dark-stubbly hair and dark-ringed eyes persuaded me she was swimming in zero gravity, bound -- somehow -- in infinite space. When the lights finally dimmed, the sense that McCracken was in a universal void was complete. And the reminder of Hydra (2000) -- one of Obarzanek’s first great works of dance theatre -- was also complete.

Half way through the performance, these individual ‘rings’ were pushed together and we were invited to sit in the hall’s regular seating, suddenly revealed.

In a way, the first half hour was like an overture, an introduction to discrete themes that were to reappear and combine into a grand fugue. But it was more than that. Seeing the moves from up close -- even above -- and then from raked seating a little way off the high stage, gave us a wonderful new perspective on the movement. A sense of ownership and recognition of it.

Obarzanek is anything but lazy. The second half was never going to be a mere recapitulation. The horizontal routines of Mellow, McCracken and Lee Serle collide with the wild vertical routines of Kristy Ayre, Paea Leach and Antony Hamilton. The dancers affect and interfere with one another. And, more, there’s a pass-the-parcel thing happening.


Horizontal meets vertical, Kirstie McCracken (left) and Paea Leach
in Singularity (photograph Chris Budgeon, click to enlarge )


Tension -- anguish even -- is passed on from one performer to another. Like a dybbuk, it possesses them. Infects them. And it stops -- or does it? -- with Antony Hamilton.

Suddenly we’re in literal space. At the last moment, almost, what we are watching is no longer abstract psychodance, it’s gestural. It’s mime. One moment, we’re watching contact improvisation between The Fit Girl (Mellow) and The Fifth Element (McCracken) -- all abstraction and metaphor -- the next minute we’re watching three dancers miming sitting in a cramped passenger jet at the tense moment of lift-off. Or standing on a commuter bus hanging onto a pole for balance. Or waiting on a street corner for lights to change. Or in a bar...

This is ground that Obarzanek trod in Crowds. And trod brilliantly. It’s rich material that finally finds a place in a work that is descended from his earlier material. It’s not artistic cannibalism or recycling. It’s something else.


(photograph Chris Budgeon, click to enlarge )

Unusually, perhaps, Obarzanek throws us a line and offers a literal explanation. McCracken is a fish out of water. Literally. We see Serle hauling her in on a rope. That’s possibly the one anti-climactic moment in this magnificent and engrossing work. But it’s more than off-set by the scenes that follow... Kristy Ayre in a bar watching her life fragment before her eyes -- while Fleetwood Mac’s song ‘Tusk’ throbs away -- and Hamilton
s utterly extraordinary break-down scene in which he strobes with anguish. Almost as extraordinary is the high-frequency tinkling that accompanies Mellow’s final fit, mimicking the electrical storm in her head.

This really is a major new work, as billed, from the endlessly surprising Obarzanek and his company, Chunky Move. How lucky Melbourne is to have them.


Chunky Move’s I Want To Dance Better At Parties has a brief season at the Joyce Theater in New York, July 11-15.


OTHER CHUNKY MOVE REVIEWS:

Glow (September 2006)

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Interview with Australian playwright Daniel Keene, part 3

In the notes to the 1967 edition of his screenplay, Film, Samuel Beckett opens with George Berkeley’s 300 year-old catch phrase: esse est percipi -- to be is to be perceived -- a concept that will strike a chord with performing artists. Perhaps all artists.

But Beckett, like an overwhelming percentage of those that quote the line -- in Latin or in English -- leaves off the crucial kicker at the end: aut percipere. The full line is: to be is to be perceived or to perceive. (So, there’s something for audiences as well!)

Daniel Keene is wrestling with similar -- though somewhat less esoteric -- questions of perception in a new work, Elephant People, which is currently in development.

Indeed, the section on the Elephant Man himself, Joseph C Merrick begins thus:
1.

To be is to be perceived. To perceive is to bring into being. I am as I am perceived. You look upon me and I am made by you. I look upon you and I make you.

2.

I am reflected on the surface of your eye. I am there for me to look upon. I see my eyes in the mirror of your eyes. I see me seeing you seeing me.

Keene and I spoke just after his return from Bordeaux, where the team -- headed by director Renaud Cojo -- gathered for ten days. (Cojo directed Keene’s play The Architect’s Walk for the 2002 Avignon Festival.)

[CHRIS BOYD:] WHAT WAS YOUR BRIEF?

[Daniel Keene:] Well, Renaud Cojo said he wanted to do a piece about monsters. I went okay, what do you want to do? ‘Prodigies’ he called them. Freaks some other people call them. Whatever.

Essentially [Elephant People] is a project about perception, how we are perceived and how we perceive. How the notion about how we look determines how we are treated... the way we look is also the way we see the world. Yes, it’s about perceiving and being perceived.

[Cojo] gave me a list of books to read before we talked again. Then we selected six freaks from sideshow, Barnum and Bailey and sideshows in America.

ARE YOU COUNTING [CONJOINED TWINS] JEAN AND JACQUES [LIBBERA] AS TWO OR AS ONE?

One and a half! So we had a list of six. My brief in that first stage was open... to write whatever I liked about these people, about these characters. So I wrote the things that I did which ended up being a suite of -- I suppose you’d call them poems --

I DO YEAH!
The Lives of Eng and Chang

2.

Imagine us dreaming;
our faces in repose.
Curled together like lovers,
Our feet touch,
Our breaths rise and fall
In unison;
Each of us
The spectre of the other.

Who dreams of childhood,
Who of a woman’s arms,
Who dreams of a forest
And who of crowded boulevards?

I sometimes hear my brother
Murmur in his sleep,
His warm flank touching mine,
His words falling
Into my silence
Like ashes.
Renaud chose a particular conversation between Jean and Jacques Libbera to do in Bordeaux. The National Theatre of Bordeaux is one of the producers of the piece, so they supplied us with the studio.

So, I went there and we met with the band, The Married Monk, and Christian [Quermalet] had written some music. Then Du Zhenjun, who’s from Shanghai who’s the video artist we’re working with, the multimedia artist. He’d done some work with Renaud in Canada on this piece earlier. We all then converged in Bordeaux. The whole idea was: can we work together for ten days and make something.

WHAT STYLE OF DIRECTOR HE IS?

What he says he does is this: he doesn’t direct plays, he makes strange objects.

Renaud’s certainly not interested in directing conventional plays at all. It’s not something he’s ever done. So he likes to combine a whole lot of elements -- music and text and visuals -- and then [make] something. It’s hard to describe what it is. We’re calling this thing a sideshow opera but I don’t think it has any kind of relationship to an opera at all. It may be more like a sideshow, actually.

We’re talking about filming what’s happening on-stage, and projecting it on big screens, but not all of it, so you’ll see what’s edited out. Again, it’s this whole idea of what you’re allowed to perceive and what you mustn’t see.

It’s difficult to talk about, cos we’re still really in the middle of the creating. We still don’t know what we’re going to do. I haven’t written the play. There’s no overarching structure as yet, but we’ll develop that as we go. It’s a long-term project...

So we’re all just putting in our responses to the base material. In Bordeaux we let that mix. We had to come up with 15 minutes of -- anything. It didn’t matter. Not a kind of ‘excerpt’ from a play, but 15 minutes of the kind of thing we’re going to do.

We got this 15 minutes up and then we’re in this venue called Krakatoa... which is not a volcano but a rock’n’roll venue a bit like Festival Hall -- this great big barn of a place -- like a dump. With the great big stacks of speakers and huge stage and it’s all painted black. It’s a rock and roll place.

So we put up our 15 minutes. They literally bussed in producers from all over France. About 30 producers turned up. People from the National Theatres of Nieme and Toulouse and Marseilles, Calais... They brought them all to Bordeaux. Brought them on a bus after giving them lunch. They were like all these tourists walking into this big grimy venue! And we decided not to put any seats out, so they had to stand up.

AT LEAST IT WAS ONLY 15 MINUTES, THAT’S NOT TOO ONEROUS!

I thought worked really well. It was full of music had some interesting visuals. The text was spoken well. Surprising bits and pieces happened. Then we talked to all these people, trying to attract co-producers. We have two at the moment, we need about five. We caught two fish that day.

TWO MORE YOU MEAN? SO YOU’VE GOT FOUR NOW?

NT of Marseilles will take it, and it looks like Nieme will take it...

ARE YOU EXCITED BY IT?

It’s a great way to work. I really like working this way. I wouldn’t work this way all the time, but it’s a really nice way to work when the onus isn’t all on me! I’m not having to write a play and then deliver it.

IT’S AN ITERATIVE THING?

It’s good, it’s really collaborative, even though it’s at a distance. The drummer’s Portuguese, Renaud’s French, I’m Australian, Du’s Chinese...

ARE THE MONKS FRENCH OR BELGIAN?

They’re French.

I THINK THEY HAD AN ALBUM CALLED THE BELGIAN KICK...

Yeah, that’s right.

I KNEW THEY WERE FRENCH SPEAKING...

Christian, who’s leader of the band, played with Yann Tiersen for years before he formed this band. Or Yann Tiersen’s first band was actually The Married Monk. Yann Tiersen is a big star in France. He did the soundtrack for Amelie and for Goodbye Lenin, all those films.

It’s a good way to work because it’s open-ended. We’ve decided to work in phases. We hope to do the play in 2007 and then tour it.

But the funding, the way it’s organised, is [that it’s] all happening in steps. So what we want is to always keep in mind that it might not happen. So we just do this work now, do whatever we can now, and then see what happens. And then, if we can, do the next step.

At any point this may fail. But the thing is not to lock in to something [that we don’t] want to do. So we only want to do the thing we’ve imagined, not short-change it and [be obliged] to come up with something because we’ve committed to some date in 2007.

I LOVE WHAT YOU’VE WRITTEN, AND I THINK THAT YOU ARE REALLY GETTING OFF ON WRITING IT...

It’s exciting because I had to find a different form. The challenge was not to write a play, but to write something that could be done in theatre, given that we have these other elements.

THE CHALLENGES, THE DISCIPLINE... IT WOULD BE A BIT LIKE WRITING A SONNET.

It’s a piece of theatre, but I must imagine it differently. It was difficult to do, because you do get locked into habits no matter how much you try to break them. It was a really difficult but actually terribly exciting thing to have to do.
Merrick’s Dreams

3.

When I was two years old
My mother noticed
My skin darkening in patches,
Lumps beginning to grow
On my neck, my chest,
On the back of my head.
I grew stranger each year.

My mother,
A beautiful woman,
Possessed of every grace
A mother should possess,
Who loved me more than life,
Began to sicken
At the sight of me,
Left me alone for long hours
To grow in the darkness of my horror,
To grow stranger
Than a dream.

At twelve years old
She sent me to work in a factory.
There I was tormented
By men better shaped than me,
With bodies they could show
In the light of day,
Who did not need to hide
In shadows
And behind bolted doors.

The circumference of my head
Is thirty six inches.
My feet are gigantic.
My right hand
Is so deformed as to be useless.
My mouth is merely a hole.

I will go back
To my time of growing,
I will go back
To my mother’s arms.
I will discover the moment
When she abandoned me
To the torments of the world.
I shall tell my mother
The story of my life;
I will whisper each humiliation to her.
Each rock thrown at me,
Each gob of spit,
Each taunt
I will feed her
Until she is fat
With my suffering.

My mother will know her son,
Born like any child, washed in his mother’s blood,
Like any child, suckling at her breast,
Cradled to sleep In the scent of her skin.

All the pity I have known,
The sly glances,
The forced smiles,
The cold interest
Of scientific men,
I will shower on her
Whom I love and admire above all others,
Whose body sustained me briefly,
In the darkness
Where I should have remained,
Before the agonies of light and air.
IN A WAY MY LAST QUESTION PROBABLY COULD HAVE BEEN -- MAYBE SHOULD HAVE BEEN -- MY FIRST... READING THAT MERRICK STUFF... THE PROCESS OF YOU PLUGGING INTO HIS HEADSPACE, YOU KNOW THE “36-INCH CIRCUMFERENCE” HEADSPACE... AND, YOU KNOW, “DESCANTING ON MINE OWN DEFORMITY”, THAT KIND OF STUFF... HOW DO YOU DO IT? IN THE SAME WAY THAT YOU WRITE ABOUT TRAILER TRASH STREET KIDS... HOW DO YOU DO IT?

Drugs and alcohol!

[LAUGHS --] WAS I SUPPOSED TO LAUGH THERE?

Yeah I think so. Better if you did!

THEY MUST BE REALLY GOOD DRUGS AND REALLY GOOD ALCOHOL!

Cigarettes and aspros. It’s a difficult question to answer...

SOME PEOPLE ONLY NEED TO WALK BAREFOOT TO KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A NUDIST! [LAUGHS]


It’s really an act of imagination. People forget that’s what writers are supposed to do. They’re supposed to imagine. It’s really that simple and that difficult. You have to use your imagination.

WHAT WAS YOUR IMAGINATION BEING USED FOR AS A KID? OR, YOU KNOW, BEFORE YOU DISCOVERED THEATRE?

Oh, I don’t know. I used to play in the back yard. I wanted to be a soldier, I think. I dunno. I wanted to join the fire brigade. I had all sorts of imaginary friends.

YEAH?

Not in the sense of like an American movie.

NOT IN THE TOTALLY SCHIZ SENSE!

Not totally schiz anyway.

WERE YOU AN ONLY CHILD? JUST OUT OF CURIOSITY?


I have a sister, but she’s 12 years older which is effectively like having an aunt.

But I think writing about [Joseph] Merrick, there’s a certain amount of reading to do, so you read accounts about him, certain things, let that sit for a while. What I did is -- [I] read that stuff, and left it alone for three months and then didn’t refer to it again. Just let it sit. And something will happen.

It’s like that story about [Franz] Xaver Kreutz who wrote the play about the car factory and all the guys from the car factory came to see the play. They thought it was amazing. How incredibly accurate it was, and they asked him how long had he worked in a car factory... He’d never set foot in one. He just imagined what it was like!

Writing is about an act of the imagination. It might be about research, too, but ultimately it’s about imagining something.

And it seems to be a very dirty word. There’s a story about David Hare writing a film script. It was fictional, he’d made it up. And it took him seven years to find a producer.

He finally found a newspaper article that sounded a bit like the story he’d written. And he said “Oh, I based it on this newspaper article” and he got a producer straight away. But no-one was interested when he said he’d just made it up. He imagined it.

Somehow people just distrust imagination, you’re not allowed to imagine it, you must base it on real facts, or this happened yesterday or it’s about what happened in America or I’ve done my research. All these things, yes, they can be very important, but ultimately an act -- any creation of a piece of art is an act of imagination. That’s what it is.

DO YOU READ MUCH FICTION?

Yeah, lots.

HAVE YOU READ... I THINK IT’S CALLED THE SUCCESSOR BY THAT ALBANIAN DUDE WHO WON THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL MAN BOOKER...

Mister Kadare.

YES.

Yes. I’ve read everything of his, except that. Because I’ve been asked to write a play based on one of his books.

WHICH ONE?

The General of the Dead Army.

HAVE YOU SAID YES?

Yeah, I’ve said yes.

FANTASTIC. WHO’S THAT FOR?

Didier Berzac in Paris...

WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF THAT ACTUALLY GETTING UP?

Well, I don’t know. I spoke to him about it last time I was there, maybe next year I’ll start. Kadare’s a brilliant writer. I haven’t read that new one.

YOU’LL EAT IT UP. IT’S A MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK. IT TAKES ADVANTAGE OF THE FACT THAT ALBANIA IS SO FUCKIN’ WEIRD AND “OTHER WORLDLY,” YOU CAN READ IT LIKE A FANTASY... IT READS LIKE A FANTASY. THIS IS A PARALLEL UNIVERSE IN WHICH NONE OF THE LAWS OF PHYSICS AND LOGIC APPLY. AND IT’S MOST BEAUTIFUL...

The Conversations of Jean and Jacques Libbera

4.

- I have never seen snow falling.
- It falls nonetheless
- I’ve never seen your face.
- It’s unremarkable.
Pause
- My arms are like a bird’s wings. You’ve told me so.
- It’s true. Perhaps you are an angel.
- Dogs bark at me.
- They’re frightened of what they’ve never seen before.
- I’ve never seen a leaf, the plate you eat off, a doorstep or a buttonhole.
- You needn’t be frightened of those things.
Pause
- I don’t know what I am.
- You are nothing anyone has known before.
- I’m lonely.
- I know. As I am.
Pause
- But you have seen snow falling.


For more extracts from Elephant People see here.



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Monday, May 08, 2006

“Further, longer, higher...” but no older. Go-Betweens frontman Grant W McLennan dead at 48.

Melancholy news from Brisbane. The Go-Betweens’ web site has announced the death of Grant McLennan, 48 year-old singer-songwriter and co-lead (with Rob Forster) of the band. He reportedly died in his bed at his Brisbane home on Saturday.


N.B. UPDATES (MAY 9, 13 & 20) APPENDED


My thoughts always turn to the Go-Betweens when I’m in Brisbane, especially wandering through Spring Hill... wondering if there really was a Spring Hill Fair, that kinda thing.

I can’t really say Grant and I were friends -- I used to hang out with Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison -- but anyone who knew and loved Grant’s songs felt there was a connection, an intimacy, a relationship of sorts. He was like an ideal older brother. Gentle, brave, honest. Exposed.

Coincidentally, I listened to the Go-Betweens first record, Send Me A Lullaby, on my way to Brisbane a day or two before he died.

It’s a mighty album, still my favourite. And Grant’s contributions -- ‘Your Turn, My Turn’, ‘One Thing Can Hold Us’, ‘All About Strength’ and so on -- are quintessential Go-Betweens songs. They’re intense and a bit awkward, more gawky than geeky, but they have an incandescent emotional realism, if I can borrow a turn of phrase from Alison Croggon.

The release of The Go-Betweens’ DVD/CD combo That Striped Sunlight Sound (Capitol) late last year prompted me to dust off my vinyl copies of Send Me A Lullaby, Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair and Liberty Belle and rummage around for some ancient 45s: ‘I Need Two Heads’, ‘Hammer The Hammer’ and so on... only to discover that my Luxman turntable doesn’t “do” 45 rpm.

I was also getting match fit for Grant and Rob’s Danger in the Past concert at this year’s Sydney Festival, which turned out to be their last as the Go-Betweens. (See my review, here.)

To be fair, I have to declare an interest. Go-Betweens fans tend to fall into clearly delineated camps. I was early to jump on the bandwagon, pretty much when Lindy joined the band as drummer, and I was early to jump off it. Just as the band were about to make a blip on overseas charts, we parted company. Around the time of ‘Spring Rain’. I hated ‘Right Here’ and the other sticky-icky saccharine stuff.

But I came back to the fold in 2000 with the reformation. Reformation? Hell! That should read ‘resurrection’!

I was one of the lucky few -- part of a tiny invited audience -- who saw a concert at the Czech Club in North Melbourne on September 6, 2000, around the time The Friends of Rachel Worth was released. It was the only concert the boys played in Melbourne that year as The Go-Betweens.

With Adele Pickvance making occasional but sublime contributions on bass and backing vocals, Rob and Grant played without a drummer... as if out of courtesy to Lindy. They were back to their very very best: passionate, stripped-back, thrilling. They revealed, then, that they could do ecstatic joy every bit as well as they used to do abject misery.

Funnily enough, Rob had lost his voice and so Grant did virtually all of the lead vocals that day, even in Rob's songs. They each played acoustic guitars.

I didn't think Rachel Worth did justice to their talent. It didn't capture the excitement -- the essence -- of those concerts. Nor did their next release, Bright Yellow Bright Orange, likable though it is.

And, I have to say, the very last concert disappointed me. Well... The selection of songs at the final concert disappointed me. That's more accurate. It was supposed to be The Story of the Go-Betweens. It wasn't.

The sound disappointed me, too. It was way too loud, way too bright and way too clean. Ear-bleeding stuff.

I've been rummaging through ancient diaries looking (unsuccessfully) for the first time I saw Rob, Grant and Lindy perform. They were a regular (if mind-bogglingly inappropriate) support to Nick Cave's old band, The Birthday Party, in Melbourne.

I saw the best and the worst of them in 1981 and 1982. An atrocious gig at The Oxford in which strings broke, microphone stands collapsed and the audience revolted. A gig with Mister Pierre on vocals at The Tiger Lounge (nee Bottomline) with The Cave Men, a boorish scratch band Nick Cave assembled for the night. (My diary's verdict about the latter: “They played shit.” Eloquent, hey?) A day earlier they played the Astor with the Laughing Clowns and The Birthday Party...

I also saw the last performance the Go-Betweens played before leaving Australia for London. It was mid May, 1982. I have the hand-written set list from that concert. On the flip side are lyrics, doodles for a future song. The set started with ‘Karen’ -- a rarity even then -- and ended with ‘I Need Two Heads’. There was only one song from Before Hollywood, the album the band finished in London five months later: Rob's brilliant ‘By Chance’.

They returned to Australia, triumphant, with ‘Cattle and Cane’.

And that song was the second last The Go-Betweens ever played together. An encore at this year's Danger In The Past gig. (‘Danger In The Past’ was the last, in case you were wondering.)

Grant, painfully, sang the last words of that blindingly beautiful song: “further, longer, higher...”

But no older.



I’ll dig up a pic I took of Grant in 1981, have it scanned and post it. [Done, it’s here.] In the meantime, for a fine recent shot of Grant with Rob and Glenn Thompson (who performed with the boys for a song or two at that last Sydney gig), see here.



UPDATE, MAY 9

For more up-to-date news reports, see Bernard Zuel’s report in the Sydney Morning Herald and Scott Timberg’s obituary in the L.A. Times. [Update, August 25: The L.A. Times link is now broken, but the obituary is quoted in full, here.] The latter report, a few hours old [4:31 AM PDT, May 9, 2006], has some great quotations from Robert Vickers, sometime bass player for The Go-Betweens.

Vickers recalls [McLennan] as someone who kept a distance from the world’s pressures. "He lived in a rented house, he didn’t drive, didn’t wear a watch, didn’t carry a wallet. He wasn't a real material person: His wardrobe had like five things in it, and he’d wear them whether it was snowing or sunny. The weather didn’t seem to affect him. He had an amazing constitution."

Besides working at a university cinema and record store, he probably never held a straight job, Vickers said.

But this eternal bohemianism exacted its costs, says Vickers, who says McLennan was overly fond of discussing books and movies all day over beer and cigarettes. "He didn’t change his lifestyle when he got into his 40s, like a lot of us do. I wish he'd done a bit more of that."

McLennan’s musical passions included the Mamas and the Papas, Television and Creedence Clearwater Revival. "He loved pop songs," Vickers says, "but he also loved the poets — Dylan and Patti Smith. That’s what he was going for, a poetic song that would stick in your head."



UPDATE, MAY 13

There's a florid and oddly offensive report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald about Grant’s funeral, yesterday, by resident star-spotter Alexa Moses. Apart from intimating that McLennan was some kind of nerdy art school wanker, Moses gets away with Who Weekly crap like this: “The rock crowd managed a stylish send-off that the aesthete McLennan would likely have approved, with mourners garbed in studs and sequins, piercings, leather, fishnet stockings, velvet, and sunglasses obscuring many faces inside the church.” Ugh! It’s as if Moses is trying to feign some kind of familiarity with the man and his work. Nevertheless, the report has the odd gem. Like this:

Eulogies were also given by McLennan’s girlfriend, Emma Pursey, and the musician’s sister, Sally, who told a story about McLennan wangling his way through airport customs without a ticket, using a CD with his picture on it as a passport.


UPDATE MAY 20

There’s a great piece in the latest Village Voice by Robert Christgau. Here’s a taste:
Grant McLennan was in a grand mood May 6, with every reason to believe he had his best work ahead of him. Renowned and beloved though the Go-Betweens' six '80s albums are, 2005's Oceans Apart, third fruit of their 2000 reunion, had outsold them all. It also won them their first Australian Grammy, and if the category was Adult Contemporary, fine. McLennan had money in the bank. Songs were pouring out of him. That night, during a huge housewarming party that would root him in Brisbane once and for all, he'd planned to publicly propose to his girlfriend, Emma Pursey. At 4:30 that afternoon, he went upstairs for a nap. Early arrivals found him in his bedroom a few hours later. The autopsy revealed a massive heart attack. He was 48.


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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Black Silk Dance Company, Brisbane: Coppelia (choreographed by Angela Bendall)

Coppélia, choreographed by Angela Bendall. Set design and graphic design by Carrie Overell. Costume design by Pam Cox. Black Silk Dance Company. May 4-6, 2006. At Metro Arts, 109 Edward Street Brisbane.

“Low-budget ballet” almost rates as an oxymoron; it’s up there, surely, with “Police Intelligence” and “Frankston Cultural Centre”. It comes with a silent “NOT!” But Black Silk Dance Company – newest kid on a very sparsely-populated block – coolly proves that a dancer is no less impressive in a white singlet and cotton skirt than she is in a shaggy silken tutu. And an imaginative design can be as simple as a couple of painted flats and canvas screens. You don’t always need a revolve and half a million bucks worth of Vari*Lite technology.

And there’s a lot to be said for watching ballet in a hundred-seat theatre instead of a 2000-seater. Okay, there’s not a great deal of space for grand gestures – you’ve gotta go for the glissade rather than the jeté – but it’s a rare and delightful experience to be this close to the action. As in theatre, when you’re this close there is no faking.

But the imperative, here, is at least two-fold. Black Silk Dance Company was formed (in its own words) “to create more opportunities” for Australian dancers. The company is also committed to programming work by emerging choreographers. Intriguingly, another stated objective is for those choreographers to work collaboratively with the dancers. This is a tried-and-true creative technique – choreographers seeking and integrating ideas and moves that come from the dancers in a workshop environment – but one that typically goes unacknowledged.

The company also – rather pointedly – states: “The atmosphere will be less elitist and more accessible to all people.” (Funny… of all the big budget performing arts, I would say that ballet is far and away the least elitist.)

Anyway, as far as Black Silk’s own agenda is concerned, the verdict is: so far, so good. On all counts.

Black Silk Dance Company’s blink-and-you’ve-missed-it premiere production is a terrific new version of Coppélia. Following in the footfalls of Graeme Murphy, Black Silk’s Artistic Director has given this comic classic a distinctly Australian spin. It’s E.T.A. Hoffmann with a twist of Muriel’s Wedding. Instead of Swanhilda and Franz, we have Sharlene and Bruce.



Clockwise from rear: artistic director Angela Bendall, Meegan Price, Justine Evans, Tess Flottman (lying down), Natasha Brown and Daavid Keenan (centre) as Dr Coppelius. (Photograph: Marisa Cuzzolaro)

Now, one of the great gifts that Graeme Murphy has made to ballet is psychological directness. This was seen, most recently, is his scintillating revision of Swan Lake, in which the Baron von Rothbart and his daughter Odile were combined into a single character, the Baroness von Rothbart, who plays “old flame” Camilla to Siegfried and Odette’s Charles and Di.

Not only did that allow audiences to connect with the story anew, it also gave the young dancers something to hang their performances on. Swan Lake was no longer about one-dimensional good and evil, as such, but shades of ethical grey. Who can forget the heartbreaking complexity and subtlety in Annabel Bronner Reid’s Baroness?

When the Australian Ballet tackled Coppélia a few years back, the girls playing Swanhilda’s girlfriends simply didn’t know how to play teenage girls! They had nothing to connect to in the story. There are no such problems here, in Black Silk’s version. The girls are as loyal and two-faced, as feisty and bitchy, as funny and sad as real girls! Pouty, whacky, petty, snide, mean… you name it!

The domestic details in Angela Bendall’s production are simple and touching. When the gifts are being delivered before the wedding, one of the girls bringing them in gives each box a little shake. A tiny detail, but a goodie. (The gifts all turn out to be toasters, of course!)

When the stand-off happens outside Dr Coppelius’s place – should they break in or not? – one girl shrugs a “What. Ever.”… so natural, so funny. Likewise, the throwing of the bouquet after the wedding (sorry, have I spoiled the ending for you?) is a classic scrum. Violent, competitive, winner-take-all. Brilliant.

This Coppélia might be camp, but it isn’t a travesty. It’s clear that Bendall and her team actually believe in ballet. They also believe that it can be better: more vivid, more real.

And this particular ballet gets better and better as it goes on. The second act (in which the girls and Bruce break into Dr Coppelius’s home) is a delight. One by one, the oh-so-patient dolls come to life and deliver knock-out cameos: Tess Flottmann in a fearless turn as the Unfinished Doll; Justine Evans as the fan-twirling and stylish China Doll; Natasha Brown as the incomparably sexy flamenco-shoed Cabaret Doll; and Meegan Price as an electrifying, high-kicking Can Can Doll, going from zero to one hundred in a single step.


Zero to a hundred in a single step...
Meegan Price (photograph: Marisa Cuzzolaro)


The final act is a crowd-pleaser, too. Sharlene – flanked by her bridesmaids Billy-Jo (Renee Spicer) and Kelly-Ann (Monique Singh) – claims her man at last.

Jane Eastwood is a stunning Sharlene/Swanhilda. She knows what she wants – though I can’t for the life of me work out what it is she sees in her gormless, drunkard, fickle, two-timing ‘boyf’ – and she does everything that needs to be done to get him. Eastwood is a believable and expressive actor. She’s first among equals in this cast of eleven.


If you want a close-up look at the Doc's chin, click on the image!

Don’t imagine, for a moment, that I’m going light on a new company because it “means well” and is doing its thing without a cent from government or private sponsors. This is an unusually entertaining piece, done well. Aside from the antics at the very beginning of the show (why oh why oh why do we teach our performers how to fence but we don’t teach them how to play drunk?!?!?!) this Coppélia doesn’t flag for a moment. Three acts, two intervals, and hardly a dull second.

Shame it’s such a short season.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

An interview with playwright Daniel Keene, part 2 (of 3)

In the first part of our conversation, Australian playwright Daniel Keene spoke about becoming a playwright. Here, he talks about his unexpected success in France and the role of theatre in French society.

“It’s gonna sound incredibly stupid. I’m not interested in what it’s like being an Australian. I’m interested in what it’s like being a human being. It’s as simple as that.”


“[The French] understand the tradition I come from. Here, they don’t. The plays [seem to] come out of nothing. I’m the “poet of the streets” or I’m some sort of strange dickhead who lives in a hole. I don’t know what they think, I don’t really care. But in Europe, it’s quite obvious to directors and to audiences -- and to actors -- what I’ve read and why [I think] about theatre this way. Cos they know and think the same thing.”

[CHRIS BOYD:] TELL ME ABOUT THE FRENCH CONNECTION. HOW ON EARTH DID THAT HAPPEN? IS IT STILL CAUSE FOR BEMUSEMENT?

[Daniel Keene:] I’m not bemused anymore. It happened about ten years ago. And to put it really simply, there was an exchange program between the Comedie Francais and the [Sydney Theatre Company]. Some French writers came to Sydney. And they were translated. Marion Potts from the STC was one of the people involved.

There were some readings of those people’s works. Michel Vinaver [prominent French playwright and former Gillette executive] came here. And then they chose some writers to go to Paris and have their work read.

WHO’S “THEY”?

Comedie Francais and the STC. But STC were doing the selecting. So I went to Paris. We were very well looked after. Me and Ron Elisha, Hannie Rayson, Karen Mainwaring. About five people I think.

WHICH SCRIPT?

They chose two, but they [read] The Hour Before My Brother Dies, which is quite an old thing.

There, I met my translator, Severine Magois. I’ve worked with her for 11 years now. She liked the work and asked if I had any other things, so I sent some other things. And she decided to invest her time in translating these works because she believed they were really good. So it was her gamble.

A couple of years after, two [plays] were picked up at the same time: Low and Silent Partner.

REMIND ME, WHICH ONE WAS LOW?

Low is about the two people, alcoholics, who end up being robbers, who go into an alcoholic spiral, one of them is shot in the end.

Silent Partner [was then] picked up by a guy called Jacques Nichet who’s the head of the national theatre of Toulouse [Theatre National de Toulouse]. He’s like a big wig, a big wheel. He started the Cartoucherie [de Vincennes] with Mnouchkine and Didier Bezace. He’s one of that generation of directors who are important now. So he picked up the play and it toured -- it was on in Paris, it was on in Toulouse and other places -- and then it was published.

SO THIS WAS A TNT PRODUCTION?

It originated there, but then it went to Paris and other places. That was important. It was an important production. I mean... it was a terrible production actually because Nichet thought the thing was a tragedy and not a comedy! It wasn’t a terrific production but the two actors were brilliant.

It got me on that step of the ladder. I was up, a few steps up. So that was published and then, from there, because Severine had actually translated lots of plays, when other people asked “is there anything else by this Keene fellow?” she could bang off three scripts in French. Since that time, that was 2000, there have been 75 productions in France.

Since then, I’ve done lots of commissions for French companies. So that’s how it happened, it was basically through Severine.

[...]

Publishing plays in France is quite important... unlike here because we have one theatre publisher. All they effectively publish is theatre programs. So, we don’t have any culture at all of publishing theatre as literature.

If you go to a bookshop in Paris and look at the theatre section, there are hundreds of books. And you go to a book shop in Melbourne there’s one shelf. If you’re lucky.

That made a big difference, that the plays are published. They’re there for directors to look at, and read, and want to produce.

[...]

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THIS? CURIOSITY, INITIALLY? “BLOODY HELL I CAN GET UP 75 PRODUCTIONS IN FRANCE AND ONE OR TWO A YEAR HERE?”

Plays find their audience. Whether they’re in Timbuktu or Melbourne doesn’t matter to me. When I write, I don’t write about Melbourne, I don’t write about Australia, I don’t write about Victoria.

I just write what I write. And if it finds an audience in France it’s like, well, fine, that’s good. Fine, let’s go. Let’s go to France.

It’s gonna sound incredibly stupid. I’m not interested in what it’s like being an Australian. I’m interested in what it’s like being a human being. It’s as simple as that.

I don’t write parochial plays. I’m not interested in what happens between Sydney and Melbourne... I’d rather write about Bosnia. I don’t have to have an Australian journalist in Bosnia to give me an excuse to write about it. I’m not interested in the Australian point of view. I’m interested in a point of view. My point of view. A human being’s point of view.

So I don’t need the excuse -- “oh I can’t write about Rwanda unless I have an Australian nurse in the play.” I find that [mentality] ridiculous. Fuckin’ ridiculous. Cos it’s such a cowardly way to think. Because you have to have the mask or the cover of your nationality to give you the excuse, or the permission. I have permission cos I live in the world. I don’t need the permission that’s granted me by my nationality.

The reason that plays are picked up in Europe -- my plays are picked up in France -- is because people understand where I come from. They understand what my references are. They understand that... if I’m talking about a play like To Whom It May Concern [in which a man who has had sole care of his intellectually handicapped son for close to forty years faces his own death] why I would talk about Buchner.

They understand the tradition I come from. Here, they don’t. The plays [seem to] come out of nothing. I’m the “poet of the streets” or I’m some sort of strange dickhead who lives in a hole. I don’t know what they think, I don’t really care. But in Europe, it’s quite obvious to directors and to audiences -- and to actors -- what I’ve read and why [I think] about theatre this way. Cos they know and think the same thing.

They understand what my references are. Why I write plays the way I do, because I’ve read Peter Weiss or because I know Georg Buchner’s work or because I’m interested in Beckett or that I think von Horvath is important.

I read a lot of theatre because I’m a playwright and therefore I like thinking about theatre and its forms because form means something.

DOES THAT MEAN THAT, INEVITABLY, YOUR PLAYS ARE GOING TO BE AT LEAST SLIGHTLY MARGINAL IN AUSTRALIA BECAUSE THEY PRESUME THAT FORMAL INTELLECTUAL INTEREST?

I think so, yeah.

AND YET THE AUDIENCES YOU GET IN AUSTRALIA, YOU’D BE HAPPY TO GET TO, WOULDN’T YOU?

Sure, because I think an audience is an audience. I don’t think the plays I write are out of anyone’s grasp!

GOD NO!

So that, there they are. It’s never a question of blaming the audience. I mean, in Melbourne... where can my plays be done? Not by the [Melbourne Theatre Company], and there’s lots of reasons why they wouldn’t be. And that’s fine. They’re not gonna be done there.

I could do them at La Mama, but I’m too old to do that any more. I don’t want to do that any more. I just can’t do it! [laughs] So the options are fairly limited because... that’s just the way it is.

In France, I am the establishment!

[GUFFAW] SORRY TO LAUGH SO LOUDLY!

I laugh about it too.

Elephant People, the thing I’m working on now, has a budget of 800,000 euros. So, what’s that, 2 million bucks or something?

But at the same time, I’m doing a play for a man and a young child that’s gonna tour, and it’s much much much much smaller, and it’s a very very tiny company in Marseilles and I’ve worked with them for three years. And during [the last] three years we’ve written plays for unemployed people and people living in the commission flats who are not actors but amateurs.

In France I can actually work across a whole spectrum... these theatres are all placed differently. Some of them have money, some of them don’t, some of them are struggling, some are very established. There’s a very broad spectrum and I can work with all of these people.

EVEN THE MAIN FUNDED COMPANIES HAVE LEGAL COMMITMENTS, DON’T THEY, TO --

They have this thing called social action. They’ve gotta spend 20% of their budget on what they call social action which is when they have to be involved with the community in which they’re placed. They can run classes or they can take shows to schools or they can open the doors for people to come in and do things in the theatre or they can take plays to people’s houses...

Under the agreements that they enter into with the government, they’ve got to spend a certain percentage of their budget in doing something for the community in which they exist.

SO THIS IS AN ESTABLISHMENT YOU’RE MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE BEING A PART OF?

Yeah, because theatre in France has a very very very different place politically than it does here.

WHEN YOU SAY “HERE” THAT’S WESTERN, ENGLISH-SPEAKING THEATRE?

Mmm. I can only compare it to Australia. I’ve worked in New York a little bit. I have never worked in England, so I don’t know. I’m only really talking about Australia and France.

You’ve got to understand the level of funding in France is much higher... it’s under threat at the moment. All budgets are being cut in France at the moment. It’s diabolical for most theatres. They’re all struggling. But that struggle is nothing compared to, say, the MTC... 13 percent of their budget comes from subsidy.

I DON’T THINK IT’S THAT HIGH...

That’s not a subsidy! In France you’re looking at 80%. That’s subsidised theatre. That’s when the state decided that culture matters.

Actors in France are politically active and they can be politically active because the theatre has a political role. The theatre is seen to be a part of political, cultural, social life. It isn’t just in the entertainment pages. It’s a completely different attitude towards theatre.


In the final part of our conversation, Daniel Keene talks about Elephant People and imagination...

Daniel Keene photo by Jacqueline Mitelman

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