Handme that crowbar

Maryrose Cuskelly talks with Full Tilt’s Vanessa Pigrum

Vanessa Pigrum

Vanessa Pigrum

Vanessa Pigrum

For those unfamiliar with Melbourne, the city’s premier arts venue, the Victorian Arts Centre, is crowned by an Eiffel Tower-like spire that thrusts proudly skywards. The effect is just a little bit pompous, a little bit self-conscious. With that image in mind, now picture a woman, enormous crowbar in hand, slipping the pointy end under the building and pulling down hard so that spire, once perpendicular, is now slightly off kilter. Will it fall, or does it simply signify that there is movement in the belly of the building and audiences are being offered the chance to see something unexpected?

The crowbar is the VAC’s 8-month-old program, Full Tilt, and the woman is Vanessa Pigrum, the program’s artistic director. While the Arts Centre tower isn’t literally askew, Pigrum is determined that the VAC’s audience will soon be looking at the building and what it offers from a slightly different perspective.

For the last few years, Pigrum says, there had been a growing feeling within the Arts Centre that the institution was disengaged from Melbourne’s independent arts community. Furthermore, the feeling was reciprocated. As an independent artist herself, Pigrum says her colleagues felt the VAC was “not even on the radar.” For some time, the Artist’s Advocacy Group associated with the VAC had been lobbying for a program that would offer opportunities for independent artists. As flagship performance venues in other capital cities began to establish programs to encourage and support the development of new works, moves began to set up a similar program attached to the VAC.

When Pigrum was first appointed as Artistic Director, it was to the soberly named Victorian Artists’ Program. Only ever intended to be a working title, the VAP gave way to the more dynamic moniker Full Tilt. For Pigrum, the program is not about radically changing the VAC, but simply shifting the balance a little. She does, however, acknowledge the phrase “full tilt” brings to mind “a sense of energy, speed and slightly out of control, barely keeping on the right side of the road…” And it is the new works and the independent artists that the program is partnering that she hopes will embody this sense of excitement and possibility.

Full Tilt has 3 tiers: creative developments, public performance seasons, symposia and master classes. The program was launched in April this year with seasons of Moira Finucane’s Gotharama and Angus Cerini’s Saving Henry (version 5) at the Fairfax Studio; both works with a definite edginess. Full Tilt is now well into its series of 13 creative development projects, which culminate in public showings of the works-in-progress. As yet, no master classes or symposia have been announced, but the first of these are planned for early next year.

Pigrum has brought to Full Tilt a commitment to works that feature collaboration across disciplines: “When I took on the job”, she says, “I was very clear that my interest lies not in text-based theatre. Although I love text, I think that the well made play is very well serviced around town.” Cross-disciplinary work is, she believes, “the language of contemporary theatre makers.”

To assist artists applying for a place in the program, Pigrum published her ‘manifesto’ on the Full Tilt website, describing the sort of work she was looking for. Phrases that jump out include: “fleshy, sweaty, audible and unpredictable”, “unknown territory”, and with a nod to the fear-driven and anxious times we live in, “alerts and alarms.”

Most of all, Pigrum says, she’s looking for work that has a “sense of danger or walking on a knife edge.” She cites Angus Cerini’s Saving Henry (version 5), a physical theatre work with themes of paedophilia and child abuse as an example. Less confronting, but still with an ‘unquiet’ aspect, Politely Savage by Sydney’s My Darling Patricia (RT 67, p32) and performed at the Fairfax Studio in late September, has “lightness” and “whimsy” as well as a “mysterious” element. Pigrum hopes the program will be a space where performers can test, explore and walk the tightrope of their creative possibilities.
<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/1/190_cuskellu_kage.jpg" alt="Byron Perry and Michelle Heaven
Kage Physical Theatre, Appetite”>

Byron Perry and Michelle Heaven
Kage Physical Theatre, Appetite

Byron Perry and Michelle Heaven
Kage Physical Theatre, Appetite

Kage Physical Theatre has recently completed a 2-week Full Tilt creative development for their new work, Appetite, where they teamed up with playwright Ross Mueller. Pigrum sees this as an exciting development for the company, allowing them to “go in a much more focused way into the use of text and character-based writing.” For Kate Denborough, one half of the Kage partnership, the creative developments are a welcome initiative, “It’s incredibly challenging trying to secure financial support specifically for creative development…which allows and encourages the development of new performance work.” The only pressure, she says, was having to present the results of their 2-week development, but this too ended up being a plus as it allowed them to “test out material in front of an audience and we also received insightful feedback.”

Pigrum feels her career prior to taking on the role as Full Tilt’s Artistic Director prepared her well. She was the director of Melbourne Fringe from 2001 to 2003 and has produced large scale community arts events, lectured animateuring students at the VCA and practised as an independent theatre maker. Crucially, her work as a dramaturg has given her the experience and confidence to be able to “put challenging questions to artists about where the work needs to go without stepping on their toes…but just to provoke and probe and suggest other avenues of support.” All this experience she believes puts her in a good position to understand “where the independent scene has been and where it needs to go, where it could go.”

Full Tilt has a $300,000 budget this year and is funded through the VAC’s consolidated revenue. This includes Pigrum’s salary, as well as wages for the artists involved in the various tiers of the program, venues, production support and some marketing. The intention is that the program will grow so that, in time, there will be a team of people working to partner independent artists in developing new work. This is exciting for Pigrum and sometimes, just a little bit daunting. She recalls feeling nervous about the amount of anticipation that the program was eliciting and hoped she could deliver on expectations.

Now, with Full Tilt already having a ripple effect throughout the VAC, and beginning to develop its own momentum, Pigrum can relax a little. The exhibitions department is exploring possible collaborations with Full Tilt artists and the Sunday Soapbox program is recruiting artists from the program to appear on their regular panels. This web effect of the program is particularly pleasing for Pigrum as it offers artists further access to support and potential audiences.

As to how she will judge the success of the program, Pigrum is very clear. In 3 years she would like to see a cluster of new works touring Australia and to be able to say, “That work started with a creative development at Full Tilt and now it’s up, it’s been presented, it’s been re-worked, it’s touring Australia.” The touring aspect, she believes, is crucial to give works a life beyond their initial production and she hopes this will be a feature of works that the program has partnered.

Full Tilt Program for Independent Artists, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, www.theartscentre.net.au

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 43

© Maryrose Cuskelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006