The power of perilous negotiations

Mary Ann Hunter

Late summer in Brisbane. It’s a shock to be asked to leave the cool cavern of the Powerhouse foyer to face the mid-afternoon sun. The expanse of river blunts the blow, but as I venture out with other ticket-holders to Altered States, I’m anxious we might be in for a dose of al fresco youth theatre.

Thankfully we re-enter via a fire exit. Another sensory adjustment—this time far more promising. The gritty backstage of the Visy Theatre is awash with movement. A map of terra nullius flashes unevenly on the bare brick wall. A phone operator welcomes a Brisbane Transport enquiry. A sail billows as we float among the words and images of first settlement folly and contemporary city life.

Altered States was a collaboration between Brisbane’s Backbone Youth Arts and Sydney’s PACT Youth Theatre that aimed to investigate notions of identity emerging from a sense of place, in this case Brisbane and Sydney. Originally conceptualised by former company directors, Caitlin Newton-Broad (PACT) and Lana Gishkariany (Backbone), it was brought to fruition by a team of over 20 writers, performers, and new media artists directed by PACT’s Regina Heilmann and Backbone’s Brendan Ross. It was an ambitious task that must have had its fair share of long distance difficulties. One can only wonder at the kind of intensity wrought in the final 2 weeks of the process when the teams met in Brisbane; a period described in the program as “a perilous negotiation between each team’s ideas, processes and material, with the intent of gradually rubbing up, intruding and merging with each other.” Whatever they did, it worked. Altered States was an exhilarating exploration of 2 cities and the restlessness that they and their histories invoke.

Having moved through the initial sense-scape, we took our seats for the rest of the performance, played out in mostly alternating scenes: Sydney/Brisbane, Brisbane/Sydney. The predictability of the format was avoided by intelligently integrated video (Sam James) and sound (Gail Priest and Lawrence English), key collaborative segments, and the energy of partly improvised scenes. The jovial banter among the cast gave an open and confident feel to the performance, which featured some great writing, particularly from the Sydney mob.

The take on Sydney was sexy, sinful, and grimy. It opened with the bawdy Polly Lee who “came to tea, had some whisky up her sleeve.” This established the tone of the Sydney trajectory and demonstrated the impressive ensemble capabilities of PACT. They persuasively gave form to the city as “a woman wearing too many petticoats”, moving effortlessly between its star-spangled marketing, pre-dawn underbelly and congenial absurdities (where did that human fly come from?). These vignettes segued into ruminations on national character and identity, while the group scenes about metropolitan life delivered some treasured lines: “Exhausted exhausts create sunsets immaculate/shall I speed up your thighs into the nitty gritty of you, dirty city?”

Quite a contrast, then, to languid Brisbane stories marked by the paradox of hot coffee and humidity. Apart from the pre-show trek outdoors, Brisbane was introduced by its “planned hipness”: all blue sky, palms and phallic office buildings. Puncturing the touristic fantasy were the fabulous jests of sliding off chairs, slipping out of focus, melting into stupor…until the inevitable Munchian “FUUUUUUCK.” So Brisbane. Then came the thunderstorm and, for the lucky audience, the watermelon. Slurping in our seats, all was again good with the world. While the Northerners’ writing was not quite as developed, the evocation of urban tropicality was cleverly nuanced and self-reflexive. Bodies were infused with the city’s summertime rhythms and the physicality of the work was strong.

An integral link was the shared desire for altered states and constant movement. An inevitable consequence of being young? Or standard issue for contemporary urban living on Australia’s eastern seaboard? On many levels, the Backbone/PACT performance was insightful, sophisticated and fun. Here’s to more “perilous negotiations” of this type.

Altered States devised, written and performed by members of Backbone Youth Arts and PACT Youth Theatre, directors Brendan Ross, Regina Heilmann, video Sam James, sound Gail Priest, Lawrence English, original concept Caitlin Newton-Broad & Lana Gishkariany, Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Mar 7-11

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 45

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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