Springing from between the cracks

Keith Gallasch, Interview: Finn O’Branagain, Co-Artistic director Crack Theatre Festival

Michael Bevitt, Gabriel Partington, For the Love of an Orange, Crack Festival 2014

Michael Bevitt, Gabriel Partington, For the Love of an Orange, Crack Festival 2014

Michael Bevitt, Gabriel Partington, For the Love of an Orange, Crack Festival 2014

Crack Theatre Festival sprang nine years ago from the National Young Writers’ Festival program of This is Not Art (TINA), a festival held every two years in Newcastle. Crack Co-Artistic Director Finn O’Branagain explains: “the program event had received a lot of submissions from performance writers and makers that didn’t quite fit. It’s called Crack because it caught all the things that fell through the Writers’ Festival cracks.”

Crack sees itself as “Australia’s most experimental contemporary performing arts gathering” (press release) which might be news to Next Wave, FOLA (Festival of Live Art), exist-ence, Junction and Proximity. But Crack has good reason to be proud, not least for its support for boundary-busting young and emerging artists from across the country making their first steps towards joining the ranks of experimental practice. As its Co-Artistic Directors O’Branagain and Hannah Strout write of the festival, its forums and workshops, “This is an opportunity for practitioners seeking a community of like-minded peers that will form a national network.”

Unlike large city-based fringe festivals, Crack neither charges artists fees to be programmed nor its audiences for tickets. The aim is for artists to “gain valuable feedback, performance experience and a safe space to try new ideas.” For the second year Crack’s triennially funded Setting the Stage initiative will provide financial assistance to one work from each state and territory in Australia to present at the festival.

Refreshingly most of the artists in Crack are not well-known, but their biographies frequently reveal high level training in theatre, IT, visual arts, music, psychology and the school of hard knocks as well as travel and apprenticeship. Works in the 2014 sound fascinating: “One typewriter. Hundreds of voices. Witness the Frankensteined Monologues, a stitched and sutured experiment in exquisite corpse theatre. Discover the story that you helped write in this shared group reading”. Or Project ’84: Part One, “an interactive exploration of an Orwellian inspired future, performed spontaneously through precise, synchronized instructions delivered to participants’ mobiles.”

RealTime spoke with O’Branagain about how she came to the festival, the vision for the event and its structure.

How long have you been involved?

Three years now. I got involved when I first came to TINA when I was 19. I grew up in Darwin and my idea of what constituted art was very much smaller as you can imagine. TINA blew my mind, literally changed my life. I met people who were doing amazing projects I never imagined possible around Australia. I went back to Darwin and thought I need to do that—I need to see more. So I started travelling, did different things and then in 2012 the opportunity to work with Crack came up so I applied and started working on it in 2013 and it’s been the most rewarding role. To be able to work with so many emerging and experimental artists is so exciting, to see every year the things they come up with.

And you share the role of Artistic Director?

Yes, it’s a two-person role. We’re such a small team we end up doing so much more than simply curating. We’re the general managers, the curators—we deliver the festival. Hannah and I are so lucky to have each other. We’ve become really close friends as well. This year we have two Associate Producers, which is fantastic. They’re so driven and have such different backgrounds. It’s wonderful to now have a strong core team of four, to which we’ll later add our Production Manager.

How important is the experimental aspect of the performances?

It’s quite important, especially for the artists. For many reasons, people who are making experimental work don’t often get a chance to show it to a mainstream audience. That’s often the case in fringe festivals as well. Fringe festivals are fantastic but for artists they come at a financial risk. The fact that we’re free for artists to participate in and free for audiences to come to means that artists can show their riskiest works, they can try out pieces that they’re not quite sure are working yet or they’re not quite sure how they’ll go. We’re a safe space. Audiences that come are often artists themselves or they’re people who are interested in work that’s pushing the boundaries in form or content. They become a community that cares about the work they’re doing and they have a chance to present in a way where they’re not going to lose money. They’re just going to gain experience. That’s been really important.

Do you get a good turnout to respond to these works?

Absolutely. We get around 2,000-2,500 audience members each year.

I was looking over the 2014 program and there’s an incredible diversity of forms including a lot in the live art vein.

It’s the liveness that we’re really after. That comes across even in the works that are more visual art oriented or installation—they have a live element to them. The audiences can interact and the artist is right there talking to them and ‘performing.’

As in Hapticity, 10.00-4.00pm daily in 2014?

Yes, That was Robbie Karmel with a fantastic participatory drawing project. I think he’s since gone on to publish a book of his work, The Drawing of Bodies and Things.

You also had an audio walk.

Josephine Were arrived a few months before and spoke to local people about what their wishes were for the future of Newcastle. As you walked through the streets she described over headphones the people she’d spoken to, what they looked like and thought. You really got a sense that they were with you, that you were talking with locals. There was a sense of their ownership of the town and how they felt about it.

How does the Setting the Stages initiative work?

This is something we’re really proud of and we’re hoping we can expand in future. At the moment Australia Council funding allows us to support one artist or artist group from each state and territory to come to the festival. We pay their fares, accommodation, per diems and an artist’s fee. Ideally we’d like to offer at least an artist’s fee for all of our artists but this project is a really good opportunity for us to prove to the funding bodies and to Australia that when you can financially support artists, the quality of work and the experience for the artist are really enhanced.

What’s the age group of the artists participating?

Generally they’re quite young but this can vary. Last year, I think our youngest artists were about 19. The median age I’d say would be about 25. We had some more senior artists, the oldest in her 50s. We’re really happy we attract a range of ages and people at different stages of their careers from early to mid to established artists.

Do you curate the event from the applications?

We do. Last year we had double the number we had the year before. This year, we’re expecting more again, which is fantastic. We’re sad to have to turn people away but it’s great that the process is becoming more competitive and we’re able to offer opportunities to diverse artists so we can create a special experience for an audience. We can also pick out different trends and issues from the applications we receive. This informs the talks, the forums, the panels and classes. We can create opportunities for the artists who are coming that will be relevant to their practice. RT

Go to Artist Information Pack and Application Form. Applications close 11:59PM Monday 30 March.

Crack Theatre Festival, This is Not Art, Newcastle, 1–4 Oct (October Long Weekend).

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. online

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 March 2015