The challenges of emergence

Bryoni Trezise

Emma J Cooper and Kirüna Stamell, Atypical Theatre Company, The Maids

Emma J Cooper and Kirüna Stamell, Atypical Theatre Company, The Maids

In The Myth of the Mainstream (Platform Papers No 4, Currency House, April 2005), Robyn Archer argues that under Australia’s conservative government, a “superficial, smoothed-over public domain” provides less and less space for the making of challenging art. The weight upon emerging artists to wrestle with this world, as well as to step into the well-trodden genres of performance making is a heavy challenge. And yet, those who are ‘emerging’ into this murky domain are stoic and clear about what they are trying to achieve. I spoke to several Sydney-based groups in various stages of training and development about the issues they face and how they go about identifying themselves in the contemporary performance landscape and broader political sphere.

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The term ‘emerging artist’ is problematic. Some artists consider themselves as ‘always emerging’ as a matter of principle, while some resent discriminatory distinctions implied between established artists with bodies of work and those without. Others comment on the age bracket that defines the category—up to 26 years of age for an Australia Council grant under the Young Artists’ Initiative, up to 35 years for a new writers’ program run by Griffin Theatre. While there is necessary discussion to be had on age bracket strictures—on how and when one has ‘successfully’ emerged—there is also debate around the contexts in which emerging artists are supported and trained.

The performance community in Sydney supports emerging performers in a number of ways. Both PACT Youth Theatre and Urban Theatre Projects have ensemble programs designed to bring younger and established practitioners together. The Universities of New South Wales, Western Sydney and Charles Sturt University provide contexts for artist-led productions, and the national mentorship program Spark enables relationships between established and emerging artists. Such intergenerational activity plays an important role in developing a supportive performance community with a common aesthetic and outlook. The shift however, between younger artists merely imitating the knowledges that are shared and inventing newer practices in more self-driven contexts is particularly tricky, especially when access (such as creative development funding) is bracketed by age.

Reflecting on her experiences on the way to professional status, Michelle Outram says that negotiating the gap between being “seen as young and emerging but too senior for some opportunities” was difficult. For her, this involved the shift from her work with Teik Kim Pok and Gavin Sladen as Shagging Julie, whose caravan installation Better Than a Blow-up Doll! (RT60, p31) toured to the 2004 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, to establishing herself as a solo artist with various ongoing collaborations. Michelle’s strategy was to garner “support from a range of people and places—not generally monetary support.” She formed relationships with Performance Studies at Sydney University and PACT, and also participated in Time_Place_Space which introduced her to performance networks. There was also, of course, “lots of knocking on doors, lots of applications.”

My Darling Patricia

My Darling Patricia’s Clare Britton, Bridget Dolan, Katrina Gill and Halcyon Macleod recently completed their season of Politely Savage (RT 67, p32). Their impressive collective resume includes Visual Arts degrees from Sydney’s College of Fine Arts, training with PACT Youth Theatre’s ImPACT Ensemble, an apprenticeship with Erth Theatre Company, an international classical dance career, training in circus arts and a Production Crafts degree from NIDA. What is noticeable about the Patricias’ expertise is that it incorporates development in professional contexts—“constructing and performing and doing street theatre and corporate gigs”—as well as formal education in generating visual and performance languages. For them, this has meant that the gap felt by emerging artists between artistic dreaming and its actual realisation in production has been skillfully managed, with their latest triumph, the large scaffolding structure housing Politely Savage, being designed and constructed solely by the artists.

Halcyon explains that Politely Savage grew out of “an ongoing interest in the lost or damaged child” and from a conversation Katrina recorded between her 2 grandmothers for Kissing the Mirror, an earlier work. “We had these characters who were old women, and we were interested in what they were like when they were young.” The striking nature of the work stems from its very delicately built interplay of subconscious and conscious worlds—a step outside current performance trends which seem to offer more direct discursive, spatial or physical interventions into the political sphere and to avoid image-based terrain. Interestingly, the Patricias acknowledge numerous mentors as contributing to their work, suggesting that they learn from artists who have been influenced by “the great innovators in Australia, people like The Sydney Front.” Rather than having direct experience of those glory days themselves, they note that back then “we were probably still at primary school.” Ex-Sydney Fronter Chris Ryan consulted on Politely Savage.

spat&loogie

Lara Thoms and Kat Barron are spat&loogie, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Media Arts Production students working at Performance Space to develop Shopping Games, a performative installation exploring notions of consumerism and marketing overdrive through creating a hyperreal supermarket. Shopping Games is funded by Next Wave’s Kickstart program. Lara explains that she and Kat are “trying to create a sensory environment through design and new media and scanner [barcode] technology” which “comes up with your retail-consumer fortune: an analysis of what you’ve bought.” They suggest that what drives them is equally their political objection to “increased corporate power and increased marketing strategies” and their interest in form, where they are “really trying to make very hybrid work, giving things like video and performance and installation equal weight.”

The primary influences for Lara and Kat are to be found in communities “who put on short work nights, or visual arts exhibitions which use interactive media” outside established performance territory. However, making their subcultural practice visible in Performance Space testifies to the fine line emerging artists hedge between negotiating funding expectations and being able to experiment. Lara explains, “There is a lot more pressure. We have time to create a process and experiment, but at the same time, we have the Next Wave festival in mind. We’re also just really lucky to have this opportunity.”

Atypical Theatre

A different kind of politics is being investigated by Kirüna Stamell and Emma J Cooper with the establishment of their Atypical Theatre Company, a company invested in positioning the disabled body centrally within theatre and performance practice. Both Kirüna and Emma are short-statured performers and their recent co-production with Two Hour Traffic of Jean Genet’s The Maids exposes the discrimination that inadvertently absents disabled bodies from mainstream roles. “We’re taking a traditional work and making alternative casting decisions”, Kirüna explains. “For the majority of scripts there is absolutely no reason why somebody doesn’t have a missing limb, it’s just assumed they don’t. Emma and I are constantly seen as performing artists not as actors.”

The challenge Emma and Kirüna put to both performance and theatre communities is to shift the way relationships between disabled and able-bodied performers are perceived and to alter expectations around what those bodies can do in terms of form. They met while one was working for the Sydney Theatre Company in Volpone and the other in Macbeth. Aside from classical theatre work, Emma’s recent performance with the Urban Theatre Projects’ and Branch Nebula’s co-production Plaza Real saw her “suddenly become a physical performer, something that just emerged.” Placed alongside Kirüna’s background in dance, the duo offer a vision of theatre that does not discriminate between canonical texts or contemporary devised scores, with future projects including a possible commission for a writer. Their work also offers an important vision of partnership centre stage. Kirüna explains, “For the first time I am not an anomaly and people are saying, “There’s 2 of them… oh my God… maybe there’s more”.”

Futures

My Darling Patricia are currently looking to tour Politely Savage, Emma and Kirüna each have Australia Council grants to pursue, and Michelle has initiated a new collaboration called The Plimsoll Line, “a group of artists who come together for research and development.” Lara and Kat want to get some serious skills under their belts, such as welding and new media programming. Their vision for a further work: “performance in true life, adopting fake identities and invisible theatre scenarios.”

So, is there a slow burn of common ideas and forms among emerging companies building towards the creation of major players as in years gone by? Or more recently, in version 1.0’s successful bringing together of several generations of performers after careful emergence? To paraphrase Clare Britton, maybe if we look back in 20 years’ time, then we’ll see the patterns we are drawing together now.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 47

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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