Friday, October 19, 2012

The Artisan Collective: If it bleeds by Brendan McCallum

It’s worth trying to conjure up the scenario in your mind. A morning TV show on a local channel in a small coastal town in Florida. The show, Suncoast Digest, is devoted to local news. Not trivia exactly, but it is unashamedly parochial in focus. On a Monday morning in summer, not quite two weeks after the fourth of July in 1974, the revamped WXLT-TV show begins with a brief news bulletin from the news desk instead of the host’s usual armchair.

A report doesn’t quite go to plan -- video doesn’t begin on cue -- and the camera stays on the 29 year-old “attractive dark-haired anchorwoman” -- as she was described in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune the following day. According to the news report, Christine Chubbuck looked down the barrel of the lens and said: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first -- an attempted suicide.”

And there, fully two years before Peter Finch threatened to blow his brains out in the film Network, Chubbuck shot herself in the head. Live to air. Living colour indeed.

Playwright Brendan McCallum and the estimable Artisan Collective tackle the story in McCallum’s economical and superbly crafted play which opened at Gasworks on Wednesday. My short but sweet review is in today’s Australian. (It’s not on-line, so no link.) The play takes its name from the newsroom maxim: if it bleeds, it leads.

McCallum’s play is almost Ibsen-like in its swift and efficient introduction of key characters. This particular slice of time gives us an insight into what has gone on prior to the opening scene.

Indeed, the play is notable for what it leaves out. Chubbuck, for example, scripted the news item about her own suicide attempt. She guessed, correctly, that she would be in a critical condition on her arrival at hospital. (She died before midnight that same day.)

Even more intriguing is the fact that -- at Chubbuck’s insistence -- the suicide attempt was recorded onto 2” video tape. One has to assume that Chubbuck intended the footage to be widely seen. (Domestic VCRs were not widely available until the latter half of the 1970s in the USA.) Thanks to a successful injunction, the tape has never been aired. According to Wikipedia, the tape was eventually handed over to the Chubbuck family.

So, the short version... if you have time to kill between Festival shows -- or you’re looking for something tight, professional and slightly less experimental than typical Festival fare -- you could do a helluva lot worse than this.

If It Bleeds rates as conservative next to previous Artisan Collective productions but it is, in its way, every bit as exciting.

If It Bleeds by Brendan McCallum. The Artisan Collective. Directed and designed (set, sound and AV design) by Ben Pfeiffer. At Gasworks, Studio Theatre, October 17. Tickets: $28. Bookings: 03 9660 9666. Season ends October 27.

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