Performative experiments & perspectives

Lauren Carroll Harris: Shopfront Theatre, Civic Life—A Walk in the Dark

Felicity Tchorlian, Ragnarök /or how it ended/, Shopfront

Felicity Tchorlian, Ragnarök /or how it ended/, Shopfront

Felicity Tchorlian, Ragnarök /or how it ended/, Shopfront

It’s a busy time for performance and live art, but the curatorial prospect of Civic Life is straightforward: give over the sprawling, boxy property that contains Shopfront Theatre to artists who’ve been hanging out, making work and maybe just thinking in the space for the last six months. It’s a residency program that seems to balance open-ended time and space to work with a specific exhibition outcome, and the results are as uneven and energetic as you’d expect from a bunch of mentored artists and writers under 25, riddling their way through the early stages of their creative careers.

This instalment of Civic Life, A Walk in the Dark, encompassed works-in-progress that were not complete packages but first steps towards something else. The most interesting part of Sarah Aghazarmian’s The Dark Net was not its subject matter—the internet’s illicit shadow economy—nor its form (one assumes it will be a traditionally-staged theatrical work), but the fact that audiences got the opportunity to see a read-through of an unfinished script. Perhaps the best way to discuss process is not to make works about it but to take an open and un-precious approach and let audiences look in on different stages of a work’s development.

From this traditional theatrical beginning, the rest of Shopfront’s residency program crossed from visual arts to performance fluidly and without regard for barriers. Into Orbit, by duo N&V (Nicola Frew & Verity Mackey), read more like an art gallery show, comprising six (not 13) rooms containing live bodily sculptures, video and installation invoking and obsessing over sensorial experience—like the massive sub-woofers that produced sound at low vibrations to be felt rather than heard. Chris Dunstan’s Erase related to what could be the other art world theme of the day, the subjective and malleable nature of memory, with the emphasis on performance, repetition and duration. Three performers, including the artist, practised the act of memorising, which is also the act of forgetting—as evidenced by a pianist’s inevitably failed effort to learn by heart a new piece of music in just 25 minutes. As with Into Orbit, these were rigorous, exploratory exercises that are pleasing to engage with cerebrally but perhaps less so experientially.

It was the pieces with a more orthodox audience-performer relationship that offered the most to delve into. Diverging from theory-informed interventions, Carly Young’s reworking of the classic French tale The Little Prince presented an honest story that maximised the different spaces inside Shopfront. Starting in the theatre, the catwalk and lighting rig were simply transformed into our narrator the Pilot’s aircraft, slowly whooshing just above us and just below the ceiling. The Pilot then told us, “Follow the Little Prince,” and we did—through the theatre, onto the street and all around. The production was in turns sweet, funny, childlike and everything you want from a well-loved text with such a fierce, humane intelligence. Yes, it was a spare and small-scale production, and traipsing around a rabbit warren might seem strange to some, but I felt we were being taken care of—we were with the Little Prince on his journey. Young showed that traditional stage plays can use space innovatively—taking us outside the black box.

Emma McManus usually makes work with the self-described “small but likeable” theatre group Applespiel. Her Ragnarök /or how it ended/, is an exciting stab at highly visual performance that places less emphasis on story and dialogue and more on a meaningful collection of striking images and moods. This kind of non-narrative communication is tough, and the piece is not fully complete, but mostly, Ragnarök hung together. The title refers to a godly doomsday story in Norse mythology; in McManus’s piece it inspires contemporary reflection on unspecified collective panic about life, the universe and everything. We seemed to be witnessing a real-time video clip about our age’s apocalyptic leanings. A lone, wailing electric guitar, looming shadows, lashings of gold glitter, tealight candles and white flour poured and projected through the air via a fan all contributed to a luxe yet sparse aesthetic that really did summon an end-of-days feeling. Without overdosing on dark-night-of-the-soul melodrama, Ragnarök could be something you feel before a heart attack, and I eagerly await the finished piece. It had the spirit of lo-fi celebration that exemplifies the best of Civic Life, of rough-and-ready artist-led experimentation.

Shopfront Theatre, Civic Life—A Walk in the Dark, Carlton, Sydney, 6-10 Nov

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 40

© Lauren Carroll Harris; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2013