Fresh Blood’s beauty

Fresh Blood Festival (Vena Cava Productions)

August 8 – 9

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Vena Cava Production’s Fresh Blood Festival is a creative playground of ideas across artistic platforms, presented in experimentation without the restrictions and pressures of the professional industry. And if its two feature-length works (written, directed and performed entirely by emerging theatre-makers) are any indication, the ideas of Fresh Blood in 2014 are excitingly eclectic.

Lia Stark’s “Pea Green Doesn’t Last Forever” follows the fable of Edward Lear’s 1871 poem as it takes audiences along the journey of the owl and the pussycat as they set sail to rekindle their now-lost newlywed memories. It is a happy take whose biggest strength is the simplicity of its content, format and structure; it is a perfect combination to allow the audience to be warmed by its quaintness and its message about the importance of life’s little moments. Another virtue is the energy of its writing. Indeed, it is easy to reveal in the lyricism of its poetic narrative, delivered by its author, whose characterisation adds energy and interest to the piece, beyond just that of its engaging animal protagonists, Kitty Gatling and Elyssa Patty.

Provocative in premise, Daniel Gough’s “The Suicide Show” sets out to be a challenging piece of theatre, in a manner much like the critically acclaimed “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” which appeared in Brisbane as part of the 2013 World Theatre Festival, as audiences collectively vote as to the order and manner in which performers will commit suicide on stage. Despite being given little upon which to engage empathetically with its characters, the audience is taken through a gamut of emotions as the suicides proceed in feigned realism that is often graphic and disturbing. This is itself a problem. For a work that aims to probe spectator sensibilities and tolerance, to presume to tell audience members why they have voted characters in their chosen order is estranging in a way that almost tokenises its heavy themes. Also, while there are moments of thematic and narrative interest to the show, there are also opportunities that remain unexploited, through heightened drama and verbosity of its improvisation.

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This is a show of potential for many outcomes; for some it is frighteningly unnerving to the point where audience invention is deemed necessary, not only to stop the performance before any more ‘deaths’ but engage in a dialogue about the work’s purpose and goal. Disturbing or disturbed, however, this is a potent reminder of the transgressive, transformative power of theatre, which is both the allowance and beauty of student theatre, with its work on the edge of writing and dramatic experimentation.

As work that is apart from rather than part of theatrical mass consumption, student theatre such as this serves as a celebration of creative endeavour. Clearly, festivals like Fresh Blood, and the multiple artistic voices to which it gives expression, as celebrations of the arts are vital because arts are important and are worthy of celebration.

Life, love and laundry

18th Birthday Show (Vena Cava Productions)

QUT, Woodward Theatre

May 22 – 24  

2014 represents Vena Cava Productions’ 18th birthday year. And while the company moved out of home to the Judith Wright Centre for the year’s first mainstage production, for their 18th birthday show, they have returned to QUT’s Woodward Theatre for three nights of shared celebrations, complete with conga lines, party hats and birthday cake.

Like most parties, there are some rules: no drinking in the office, for example. However, as audience members are led through the theatre’s spaces, there are also multiple opportunities to watch and partake in the festivities. From the introductory How To Be An Adult quiz show, with questions regarding the realities of adult life (cooking rice, doing laundry and understanding Medicare) to the all-in games of life-sized Guess Who and Twister, the Birthday Show is a frenetic burst of energy, sure to enthuse even the most ‘bah humbug’ of audience members.

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Turning 18 can be equally exiting and alarming time of life, love and career decisions. After all, how can a mere date accurately measure the readiness to transition from childhood freedom to ominous, impending adulthood? Indeed, this is the theme of the 18th Birthday Show… To be grown up or not to be grown up? (That is the question). It is one of many questions for pondering by the four cast members in their dance battle and bedtime heart-to-heart scenes. Ultimately, however, this is a show of playfulness and frivolity… a lighthearted night out, but also a grand adventure of familiarly or nostalgia, depending on your vintage.

Anywhere accolades

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12 days and 12 shows (for me) later, and the Anywhere Theatre Festival is over. And I miss it already. Though there might have been times when I struggled to know what day it was, I wanted it to go on and on. Not only did I see a range of interesting shows, but I saw a lot of them in the most unexpected of places, in exploration of some of Brisbane’s numerous nooks and crannies.

It has been interesting also, to see both the divided and shared opinions of some productions (“Drunk Shakespeare” for example). One show that seems to have received only glowing accolades has been Vena Cava Production’s “A Library For The End Of The World”, a fascinating singular experience like no other that was one of my favourites thanks to its cosy contemplations of the surrounding West End world and evocative exploration of the power of personal memory. Its season extension due to popular demand to include Wednesday 21st to Saturday 24th May is an opportunity to be embraced. Although it is the type of show you may attend reluctantly, it is one from which you will emerge with smiles, maybe even tears and a determination to ensure others share the experience.

Funnily enough, my other favourite was also an outdoor experience: Jenna&Alex’s enchanting “Little Boxes”, performed without words, in a 360° set to allow the audience to be simultaneously surrounded by the stories of self-imposed misery being shared from inhabitants within the little box cramped flats.

It is fitting perhaps that I saw these two shows on my first and final nights – evidence of the sustained quality of the works on offer as part of this year’s festival. While these two shows are just a snapshot of the many on offer, they each represent the raw creativity, edge-of-the-mainstream slickness and marketing hopefulness of all that is currently great about independent theatre in Brisbane. And while I am already looking forward to next year’s festival, right now it is time to sleep.

You can find all of my Anywhere Theatre Festival reviews on the Festival website.

A library, but not as you know it

A Library for the End of the World (Vena Cava Productions)

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If you saw people with headphones wandering in West End, you would probably just pass on by. And that is just the point of Vena Cava’s immersive show, “The Library for the End of the World”, because whoever stops in this whirlwind world to look and listen and think? Guided by the soothing sounds of the narrator, participants walk, watch and even touch the streets and alleyways in exploration of some of the suburb’s nooks and crannies. Who lives behind the nowhere places and what are their stories? And more importantly, what is your story? Not only are your prompted to ponder such considerations, but, once in the cosy shipping container that represents your final destination, you are left to listen to the cassette taped recollections of others (some probably poignant, some likely lame like mine) before recording your own memory to the add to the database.

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Teaming up with Brisbane-based artist Sarah Winter (best known for her previous work, “A Dinner with Gravity”), Vena Cava has created a singular, individualised experience, which is exactly what makes it so special. Everyone has memories; we turn to them because of their ability to induce moods as much as to move us.  “The Library for the End of the World” not only profoundly explores the fascination behind the familiar, but brings, if only for a little while, a sense of clarity, joy and tranquillity, that cannot help but resonate.  So often we romanticise destinations with expectation of some sort of great prize on arrival. The truth though, is that life is not really so much about the destination, as it is about the pathway and experiences along the way. And although deep down we probably all know this, we all probably also need some reminding.

You can find all of my Anywhere Theatre Festival reviews on the Festival website.

Allusionary appeal

As a teacher, my life is conveniently segmented into school terms, punctuated by perfect opportunities for theatre-going reflection. A period of contemplation is never a bad thing for absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the platitude goes. And the truth is that even the most passionate of theatre enthusiasts can benefit from a break, lest there is risk of too much of a good thing becoming a bad thing and show boundaries blurring at the expense of objectivity. Indeed, it was only when I found myself commenting on the narrative’s anti-feminist discourse during a Prep – Year 3 end of term choir performance, that I realised how I’d come to struggle to turn off the critical component of my thinking.

So, reflectively, during Term One, I saw some 40 shows from the cultural riches on offer in Brisbane, including some productions that I imagine, will end up featuring in my top 5 for 2014. And thus far, my notables have been:

  1. 지하 Underground (Motherboard Productions)
  2. Love-Song-Circus (Kin Music)
  3. Good-bye Miss Monroe (Dance Atlas)
  4. Brisbane (a doing word) (Vena Cava Productions)
  5. Djuki Mala (Chooky Dancers)

Throughout my Term One theatre viewing, the following extract from Pierre Bayard’s self-referential “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” has lingered with me, for although it focuses on books not as isolated objects but as systems of relational understanding, the same could indeed be said of theatre.

“In truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture. In every such discussion, our inner libraries — built within us over the years and housing all our secret books — come into contact with the inner libraries of others. For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little, these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering.”

So often the allusions within shows (whether it be intended of self-imposed) see them resonate long after viewing as audience members dip into their accumulated cultural experiences. The protagonist of Vena Cava Production’s “Brisbane (a doing word)”, Matty, presented as a character type so like the eponymous Johnno of David Malouf’s seminal Brisbane story, (an essentially unlikeable character we will all have met at some stage in our lives) that after viewing, I was drawn to a re-read of the novel.Seeing Paul McDermott’s cabaret show “The Dark Garden” has had me cracking out my “DAAS Kapital” dvd for some Doug Anthony All Stars acoustic aggression, while Dance Atlas’ “Good-bye Miss Monroe” has inspired me to revisit some old movie musical classics, not just from Normal Jean but of magical MGM mastery. Opera Queensland’s opulent production of “Rigoletto” has had me listening to Luciano, and like so many other Queenslanders, “Rocky Horror” has seen me belting out the soundtrack in a car concert for one. Even QTC’s “The Mountaintop” urged me to revisit Memphis memories c/o US trip photos

And now, having listened, watched and read, I’m mentally and physically collected enough to be match ready for a return to the stalls. And I know that as a consequence, I’ll appreciate it and its contribution to my inner library, more.

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And the word is good

Brisbane (a doing word) (Vena Cava Productions)

Judith Wright Centre, The Shopfront

March 20 – 22

It is perhaps fitting that in its 18th year, Vena Cava Productions has begun its season by spreading its wings and moving out of home to the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts’ for their first 2014 mainstage production. And there is possibility no better space from which to share the story of “Brisbane (a doing word)” than the Judy’s gritty Shopfront. Intimate and full of character, the space allows for appreciation of the small details of staging and emphasises the nature of theatre as living art, punctuated by the sounds of the show’s namesake city shouting outside.

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Determined contemporary theatre-maker and standup comic Matty is always unhappy; he wants to be held in a regard he hasn’t yet earned and everything he does in drenched in effort. He is starting to believe what they say about his town. Like the eponymous Johnno of David Malouf’s seminal Brisbane story, he represents an essentially unlikeable character we will all have met at some stage in our lives. And he is played with glorious gusto by Patrick Hayes, who captures the contrasts of this indignant but vulnerable protagonist, torn between staying true to his artistic passion and heeding the advice of his peers. Through his psychologist-in-training boyfriend’s (Greg Mackenzie) suggestion of  therapy and his engineering roommate Lara’s (Lia Stark) pressure for him to get a real job and start paying his dues to society, “Brisbane (a doing word)” also provides interesting, universal insights to relationships and personal development, beyond the realm of its university student characters.

Much as this is Matty’s story, it is also a play about a city. “I am this town,” he proclaims. And the sense of place and environment are palpable throughout the piece, not just through mentions of QTC or the Paddo Tavern, or inclusion of obligatory Campbell Newman funding cut jabs, but by its characters’ questioning of Brisbane’s regard as a cultural wasteland. This is one of the show’s most appealing aspects as it explores the impact of this assumption on a personal and creative level and in doing so, confronts the audience with their own contemplation.

Language connects us not only to people but to place, in the sense of both time and location and writer David Burton captures this essence in the work. Although sometimes colourful in language, the show is often furiously funny, with scenes scaffolded by segments of Matty’s standup comedy (‘gross out comedy, that’s his thing’), but also brutally honest in its character analysis and pathos (as he emphatically admits to just wanting to be liked). From a script enigmatically described as being “simultaneously painfully demanding and excruciatingly vague”, director Clair Christian has brought Burton’s words to life in a way that is interesting (including through use of multimedia, hashtag montage clips and memorable music), intellectual (with references such as Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde) and very funny, as it captures the self-indulgent angst of a typical university experience with lines such as “whatever is popular is wrong”.

“Brisbane (a doing word)” is a show with plenty of truth, heart and humour.  And it is of much appeal as it simultaneously allows those at university to reflect on their reality, while indulging those who have been there and done that with the opportunity to reflect nostalgically on their days of Doc Martins and cask wine. It is not only a good play, but a necessary one for anyone who has ever been confused about whether they love or hate their city, or themselves. And it a superb showcase of the best of Brisbane student theatre and the passion of the theatremakers who make an invaluable contribution to the cultural life of our city.  If Brisbane is a doing word, then the word is good and the show deserves to be seen as evidence of all there is to celebrate and cherish within Brisbane’s theatre culture. By playing it too safe and not supporting productions such as this, there is a real possibility that we may destroy theatre’s many possible futures, before they are able to take flight.