Cultural climate change

Malcolm Whittaker: Crack Theatre Festival

Asian Ghost-ery Store, Crack Festival

Asian Ghost-ery Store, Crack Festival

Asian Ghost-ery Store, Crack Festival

Crack Theatre Festival is one third of the festivals that make up the annual Newcastle gathering This Is Not Art. Works in the 2015 program took place in makeshift performance spaces throughout the coastal town, most prominently in an abandoned BI LO supermarket, affectionately re-named The Crack House. The slogan “The Low Price People” is still faintly visible through the festive decorations that dress the gutted store, now a festival hub. It’s fitting that all performances are free. Artists aren’t paid, but the Australia Council’s Setting the Stages initiative covers travel costs for selected artists from around the country, making for a nationally curated program that feels like a relief for emerging independent artists from the pyramid scheme that governs most fringe festivals. Here is a safe space to experiment with new work that is raw but ready enough in a convivial setting.

Performances presented in the 2015 program often reflected the fraught tensions at play in the theatre-making process itself and the cultural, conceptual, political, pragmatic and representational concerns that follow.

Hectoring Apocalyptica

With the audience on a seating bank of steps descending from the rear entrance into The Crack House, Nathan Harrison stands before an arrangement of transparent plastic cups filled with water. He tells us that Hectoring Apocalyptica is about water security, about looking into the future while responding in the present. He expresses his trepidation in approaching the material, in wanting to do the issue justice without being silly or flippant. The reconciliation of this struggle to make political theatre manifests in the form of speculative stage descriptions which—read from clipboards by the performers—suggest what the show might be like. They vary from the fantastical to the self-deprecating, embodying a sense of futility in trying to represent the issue and be self-reflexive to the point of speculating on audience responses to the work. These readings punctuate the actual show as a series of demonstrative acts in which facts and figures are personified by the audience wearing character nametags in order to perform the artists’ research, and in which the cups of water become props.

Audience members play farmers and countries in negotiations for scarce water in which repercussions are discussed ecisions are made. In another sequence facts arrive amid game show-like activity that exposes coffee as requiring more water to produce than most western delicacies, much to the shock of the audience. We are continually removed from the gravity of this material by pointedly silly stage descriptions, culminating in the suggestion that when we leave the show, we leave with hope, and with the final repeated refrain, “the oceans never rise.”

Asian Ghost-ery Store

Asian Ghost-ery Store begins with two performers sitting casually on stage eating Hello Panda biscuits. They discuss how they might make a post-racial show that avoids Asian-Australian clichés and stereotypes and what such a show might look and feel like. Through this simple and personable beginning the friendly rapport between the two establishes an entertaining framework for anecdote and parody. Despite their expressed desire to go beyond the typical cultural parodies that frustrate them, they never really do. Through an awareness of this though they manage a sharp parody of cultural representation itself.

The work is a funny reflection on young artists grappling with the representation of cultures they are proud of but by which they don’t necessarily define themselves. The strength of the performance is in the hubristic storytelling and personal narratives that the pair engage in, referring to each other by the nicknames Shan and Yaya. As an example of a focus that is both inwards and outwards, at one point Shan teases Yaya for only having white boyfriends, presenting her as both victim and perpetrator of orientalism. Their banter culminates with a white-faced period-drama pantomime, Shan performing an abstracted strip dance so that the predominantly white audience can “get more used to Asian cock.”

They’ve Already Won

Harriet Gillies and Pierce Wilcox in They’ve Already Won stand onstage in corporate attire either side of a projection of a desktop computer, on which one opens a text edit document of a ‘script’ for the show. It continually links to web pages and YouTube videos repurposed as found material and performance texts for the performers’ sardonic reflections on the end of the world and the death of us all. They craft logic with their schizophrenic pastiche of seemingly disparate sources. This is the world that young theatre artists live in where theatre struggles to compete with the internet, which itself possesses a theatrical potential that the stage does not. Gillies and Wilcox revel in this futility of representation, without directly acknowledging it in the conceit of their presentational mode of performance.

They do give a hammed-up performance of a scene from Ruben Guthrie (2015), exposing a terseness in the writing of Brendan Cowell. Later Wilcox goes to deliver a piece of poetry but Gillies protests the reading of work by a white male European poet. In a recurring ditzy persona Gilles struggles to name even three female poets and scrolls Buzzfeed articles while Wilcox talks on the history of the Congo (because “politics is boring”). Theirs is a cumulative expression of disenchantment for the theatre and simultaneously a display of appreciation for its history, which informs what they do.

YouTube music videos which punctuate proceedings are danced to by the pair. A scene of absurd rolling around the stage to the Johnny Cash cover of “Hurt” suggests catharsis is of no interest (and maybe has no place). This is testified to in the closing when we are handed Mars Bars melted in their wrappers and watch a YouTube video of a man having a terrible day at work.

Business Unfinished; Home

In Home and Business Unfinished solo male performers present verbatim content of material gathered from others. The content of the first is in the title: the idea of home, homes born into and homes made by subjects interviewed who ranged from migrants to the homeless to people recently released from gaol. Their musings are delivered in measured tones, relayed via headphones. In Business Unfinished the material is of supernatural encounters. The disembodied voices of the interviewees telling their stories are played over the sound system and impeccably mimed by the performers. Both shows use the unpacking of boxes as metaphor in a simple theatricalising of their subject matter. They also share a focus on how best to represent their subjects by using their voices, the different verbatim approaches capturing a sense of authenticity. It will be interesting to see how each of these works evolves.

Little wonder that young and independent artists focus on the fraught demands of making performance work given the gutting of the Australia Council to establish the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, now Catalyst. Whatever the cause for this introspective turn, it represents an awareness and self-reflexivity ultimately born of artists sharing the same cultural climate as their audience. By providing artists with the opportunity to test their visions, The Crack Theatre Festival is fostering the excellence of tomorrow.

Crack Theatre Festival, Hectoring Apocalyptica, artists Nathan Harrison, Jacob Pember, Rachel Roberts and Emma McManus; Asian Ghost-ery Store, artists Shannan Lim, Vidya Rajan; They’ve Already Won, artists Harriet Gillies and Pierce Wilcox; Business Unfinished artists Robert Maxwell, Maeve Mhairi MacGregor; Home, Tom Christophersen, Nick Atkins, Crack Theatre, Newcastle, Oct 1-4

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 36

© Malcolm Whittaker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015