Obituary: David Branson

Gavin Findlay

David Branson, BAAL

David Branson, BAAL

David Branson was the most passionate and inspirational artist of his generation, and he is gone. Once described as the “Mayor of Canberra’s underbelly”, those who have not lived in Canberra can’t possibly imagine the effect his passing last December, aged just 37, has had. The funeral service had some 400 people outside the church watching on video monitors, and the wake went on for days.

David’s early career is synonymous with the rise of the notorious Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. As co-founder and co-artistic director, he was responsible for a body of work that changed many lives—as early as 1994 we estimated that over 1000 people had worked with the company. Add to that all the kids he tutored with Canberra Youth Theatre, the many companies he worked with as actor and director, the audiences, and the work of the groups which sprang from Splinters such as Snuff Puppets and Odd Productions, and you have an artist whose work touched the souls of a multitude.

In 1990, he changed my own life profoundly while I was working at The Performance Space. My colleague Sarah Miller received a call from Bruce Keller, then resident with Jigsaw Theatre in Canberra, urging us to take a punt on an exciting young company from the theatrical wilderness. A few weeks later carloads of actors, writers, artists, kids, dogs and camp-followers arrived and moved into the space for 2 weeks, working, sleeping, eating, fighting and loving.

Sarah and I were smitten; David was their mouthpiece and seduced us into breaking every rule in the book to allow their vision full expression. A return season in 1991 consummated the affair and I literally ran away with the circus, resigning my plum job to join Splinters for the acclaimed work Cathedral of Flesh at the 1992 Adelaide Fringe. Ten years later, I’m still in Canberra.

My memories of David during this time are of an inspirational performer and leader. Pissing from the roof of the Fringe Club during the guerilla performance Spontaneous Combustion, which resulted in several members of the company getting beaten up by Fringe Club bouncers. Contemporary Performance Week 1992 at Sidetrack: reciting passages from Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle while other members of the company were being led on dog chains. David in a white suit, demanding (and getting) gifts from the audience before they could enter the space (Flowers of Gold, 1993).

When Splinters ran out of steam, David founded CIA (Culturally Innovative Arts) to pursue his true calling, the stage. The work was immediately deeper and more sophisticated. He successfully produced Brecht’s Baal, a role many would agree he was born to play. CIA’s production of I, Fool of Fortune by Jonathan Lees won a Canberra Critic’s Circle award in 1998. He also moved into the world of opera, directing a number of successful productions for Stopera. The lack of decent funding in Canberra meant a move to Melbourne, where he championed the work of writers such as Daniel Keene, Alison Croggan, Graham Henderson and Christos Tsiolkas.

It is a loss for all of us that David never had the opportunity to direct a large, well-resourced theatre company. Working on the cutting edge with meagre resources meant that sometimes his work did not have a full gestation. His last major production, of Wayne MacAulay’s Demons, tied together all the strands of his career and to my mind marked the beginning of his mature work.

I didn’t see so much of him in the last 3 years, as he was always back and forth to Melbourne, but we would never fail to catch up over coffee, or have a beer and a bit of a dance at the Gypsy Bar. The Gypsy, setting for so many of David’s performances and events, closed just 20 days after David’s passing. We will not see their like again.

Goodbye, my friend.

David Branson died on Dec 11, 2001

Tribute to David Branson
Hal Judge
(written for his birthday in 1998)

This poem, Ladies and Gentlemen, is dedicated to probably the most interesting, most creative performer, Ladies and Gentlemen, for those of you that know him, probably the most incisive and vibrant human being in the universe.

You don’t need to see the ubiquitous Falcon
sitting on the elbow of Tossolini’s
or illegally parked beside Café Essen
You just know he’s there.
Because you believe, my friends,
like the Devil, he’s everywhere.

I can’t remember who paid the bill
for the godfather of the fringe.
A man made entirely of myth and blood,
burgeoning vest,
black Stetson,
silk cravat,
cigarette,
a bottle of red under his arm.

It’s rehearsal time
in tight tartan hotpants
and a conspicuous bulge.
Booming “Has anyone forgotten, I am the Director”
He’s bigger than the writhing universe.
I can’t believe
he just stood on his head
He just took off his pants
Yes, it’s the best of the best
opening tonight at a theatre too small.

So dim the house lights.
Release the burning beast!
Unshaven, fulminating, plugged into the electric sweat.
Hit the spotlights in his concrete eyes
dreaming of Darlinghurst, Fitzroy, Berlin.

Oh speak to me in hyperbole
Darling, have I ever told you
how much I love you.
Have I ever told you
how talented you are!
Let’s have it all out
to a noisy house
or the chewing gum on the pavement. Fight the powers
Ladies and gentlemen
Let’s tell John Howard what a little man he is.
And let’s have another enormous round of applause
for a drunken poet
and the leg of a table.

Let’s drink a toast
to a rope dancer,
to an Italian film maker,
to a slice of pizza
Oh I’ve been bad
I’ve been worse than bad!
Okay okay shut the fuck up
…and whip that fiddle.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 12

© Gavin Findlay & Hal Judge; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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