barometer of a generation

adam jasper: imperial panda festival, sydney

Kittenbone Bridge, Imperial Panda Festival

Kittenbone Bridge, Imperial Panda Festival

IMPERIAL PANDA FESTIVAL IS A DIFFICULT BEAST TO CHARACTERISE, BUT IT HELPS AT THE OUTSET TO NOTE THAT THERE IS NOTHING IMPERIAL ABOUT IT, AND PANDAS FEATURE NOWHERE ON THE PROGRAM. THE NAME, IT SEEMS, IS CHOSEN MORE TO INDICATE THE SCOPE OF ITS AMBITIONS RATHER THAN THE NATURE OF ITS CONTENT. ALL THE SAME, IF YOU IMAGINE “THE IMPERIAL PANDA FESTIVAL” AS CONNOTING A SECRETIVE YET IMPORTANT CELEBRATION, CARRIED OUT FOR THE SOLEMN EDIFICATION OF A HIDDEN NOBILITY IN A LONG DEAD EMPIRE, YOU’RE PROBABLY HALFWAY TO UNDERSTANDING THE INTENT OF THE DIRECTORS (EDDIE SHARP, ZOE COOMBS-MARR, ROSIE FISHER, MISH GRIGOR) WHO INITIALLY WANTED TO SCHEDULE PERFORMANCES THAT HAD ALREADY TOURED TO SOME SUCCESS, BUT THAT SYDNEYSIDERS COULD NO LONGER SEE.

The secret and underground element was provided by the locations. Spread over five venues, it occurred across a cluster of the more important artist run spaces in Sydney, each one too small to house more than a single event. Finding the venues had a conspiratorial feel, like being initiated into a resistance movement that’s adopted a cellular structure. These are intimate spaces. Penguin Plays Rough, at 475 King Street, is literally set in somebody’s bedroom.

The hidden nobility? That would include both the audience and the performers. They’re almost all young. Barely anyone over the age of 30 knows that these venues exist, let alone where to find them. Appropriately, it was also a dedicated crowd. People queued for up to an hour to secure tickets for these shows (no bookings) regardless of the fact that they were usually less than an hour in length. This is a festival for people who make art, and who want to see productions in the process of creation, with the wizard’s curtain permanently open, and the performers treated that engagement with a marked respect. Throughout, one had the feeling that the shows were being performed to peers, to an audience whose critical opinion—not just the price of their entry ticket—was critically important.

The Ballad Of Backbone Joe, The Suitcase Royale, Imperial Panda Festival

The Ballad Of Backbone Joe, The Suitcase Royale, Imperial Panda Festival

The edification? Literally, it’s a performance festival. That’s a broad brief, and so for some it will be interesting to note that, this year, performance means something live, personal and often openly and unfashionably theatrical. Nick Coyle’s Kittenbone Bridge, which had previously been produced for Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf2Loud was recreated without a budget and only three actors, resulting in a production that was—astonishingly—an improvement on the STC version. The Suitcase Royale presented the Ballad of Backbone Joe, a pugilistic noir tale with live music, occasional bouts of puppetry and an infinitely ingenious use of props. The Royale have already established a cult following in Melbourne, and the show oozed confidence in spite of hackneyed gags in the script.

Eddie Sharp, Zoe Coombs-Marr and Johnny Leary were part of the large team of collaborators who created the Mad Max Re-mix, an astonishing condensation of the entire Mad Max trilogy into a single, short romantic comedy about incest and the love of dance. It was Mad Max in its perfect form, the film that George Miller always wanted to make but never had the courage to attempt, with bush doofs, rehab centres and more dick jokes (which would have been insufferable without Leary’s comic genius). Erotic Fan Fiction consisted of readings of pornographic fantasies about your favourite celebrities, while even Brown Council’s Six Minute Soul Mate was an exception to their normally strict performance orientation, by being an intensely funny and cruelly painful stripped-down theatre piece about speed dating culture.

Di Smith, Six Minute Soul Mate, Brown Council

Di Smith, Six Minute Soul Mate, Brown Council

As an aside: someone ought to erect a monument to Rosie Fisher, who is arguably the most important and underestimated figure in experimental Sydney theatre. I don’t know a single experimental production that hasn’t, somewhere down the line, benefited from her enormous resourcefulness and inexhaustible generosity. When Suitcase Royale traveled up from Melbourne, Fisher not only found them accommodation, but bought bedsheets from the Salvation Army and laundered them in her home, while at the same time managing media, hustling venues, and generally greasing the wheels of production with endless patience and deft tact. The fact that there isn’t a bronze statue in a public park dedicated to her is an impudence, and that she hasn’t been headhunted by a film company for a six figure sum is an astonishment.

Many of the performances drew on a shared language of early 20th century stylistic references. Bizarrely, one couldn’t help but think repeatedly of Orson Welles: Mad Max experimented with the live sound techniques of early radio plays; the Suitcase Royale took an entire visual language from early noir cinema; Kittenbone Bridge had a positively expressionist edge. This might in part have been a language developed in response to constraints. Props cut from cardboard and musical instruments on stage, awkward silences and overacting could be read as heinous marks of amateurism, but none of these performances was amateur, rather they carefully exaggerated exactly those elements of theatre that made the production as raw as possible.

All of the shows were comedies in one sense or another, but they were deflationary comedies, often building up and then consciously frustrating the desire of the audience for zingers, gags, the catharsis of laughter. If the Imperial Panda Festival can be taken as a barometer of a generation (and I think that it can), it’s a generation that is sometimes awkwardly feeling its way to creating its own genres, and it’s defining itself against earlier avant gardes through the conscious invocation of nostalgia. Although often ramshackle and edgy, this sort of highly intelligent work is closer to the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma [RT89, p6, RT 86, 56] than to any school eisteddfod you’ve ever seen, even if it doesn’t want to let you know that straight away. But then, it should take you more than six minutes to consummate a date.

The Imperial Panda Festival 2009, Kittenbone Bridge by Nick Coyle; The Mad Max Re-mix; Brown Council, Six Minute Soul Mate; The Suitcase Royale, The Ballad Of Backbone Joe; Erotic Fan Fiction; Cab Sav; venues Serial Space, Helen Rose Schausberger Laboratorium, Penguin Plays Rough, Sydney, Bill & George; February 10–21

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 43

© Adam Jasper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2009
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