Strictly in the moment

John Bailey: Side Pony Productions; Grit Theatre

Confidence Man, Side Pony Productions

Confidence Man, Side Pony Productions

Confidence Man, Side Pony Productions

Live art has by now established itself in Australia, if not firmly, then at least recognisably. While it’s a loose mode that draws on a wide range of formal influences, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence of its growing importance lies in the way those influences and forms themselves are finding inspiration in return. Two recent works to appear in Melbourne offer testimony—both clearly acts of theatre, with scripts, dialogue, actors, yet somehow equally situated within the frame of live art. Each renders the division of style and content impossible, and in a sense neither exists outside of the performative moment itself.

The Confidence Man

Side Pony Production’s The Confidence Man is both text-based theatre and its opposite. There’s a story: a familiar crime caper in which the domestic ennui of a middle-class family is intruded upon by an only partly welcome face from the past, who is soon followed by a pair of violent, gun-toting crims hunting a lost bag of cash. There’s double-crossing and drug snorting and death dealing, all adding up to a suburban Australian thriller with some genuinely well-written moments.

But this isn’t the Confidence Man as experienced by its audience. Upon arrival, six willing members of the crowd are suited up in freakishly large puppet heads equipped with internal audio feed. The playing space is an expansive, deconstructed home and nearby park with white taped floors to indicate walls and barriers. Each actor/audience member plays out the actions of one of the drama’s characters, following instructions from their headset, which also offers the internal thoughts and spoken words of said role.

The rest of the audience, meanwhile, observes from one of the rows of seats lining three sides of the space. They, too, are equipped with headsets, but also a mixer with each character’s dialogue and thoughts set to a different channel. The actions of each role are played out simultaneously, and it is left to the viewer to decide who they wish to follow at any one point.

The result is both wickedly fun and surprisingly coherent. It quickly becomes evident that tracking the narrative as a whole is impossible, and while focusing on one exchange you’re very aware that something equally—perhaps more—intriguing is happening in another room. This fracturing of story could well have been a case of a conceit overriding itself, but as the work progresses the partial threads you follow do add up to a satisfyingly full experience. Not complete, but that’s part of the point. The Confidence Man gently but effectively highlights the work any art audience must perform in order to construct a narrative, but doesn’t shun its own role in the process either. It’s as if the piece offers its viewers a kind of building kit with instructions, and then lets them try making some theatre from it.

Director Zoe Pepper has kept a wise rein on the potential anarchy the project could have delivered, without limiting its sense of openness. The masks by designer Rebecca Baumann are key to its success: striking on a purely aesthetic level but also affording the ‘performers’ the ability to see everything around them while remaining completely anonymous to onlookers. This anonymity avoids the pitfalls of most audience participation—the masks allow these untrained actors to lose any inhibitions and the constant instructions relieve them of any responsibility for their actions. It’s rewarding to see the level of faith this work musters among its audiences, moreso given that its very title suggests someone not to be trusted.

Run Girl Run, Grit Theatre

Run Girl Run, Grit Theatre

Run Girl Run, Grit Theatre

Run Girl Run

Grit Theatre’s Run Girl Run calls for trust of another sort. As it reaches the zenith of its hour-long duration, you’re pretty sure someone’s going to break an ankle, at this performance or another. Over the past several years the company has produced a number of works that suggest great integrity and commitment to ideas and their execution, but you wonder when that might go too far.

Three performers (Tom Browne, Laura Hughes, Clare Phillips) step onto a stage in only their underwear before lacing up heavy work boots and boarding exercise treadmills. They walk at a slow pace for a time, until something halfway between a conversation and a stage command is uttered: “Shouldn’t we be having a beer?” The three produce VB cans and begin drinking. Over the next half hour the pace of their striding increases, and to the drinking are added other signifiers of stereotyped masculinity—board shorts, work singlets, talk of cars and hifi systems. All are produced casually, but there is always a sense of ‘should’ to their inclusion; a quiet reminder of the role of the social in constructions of gender.

The sequence culminates in a pounding, sweaty roar of performance that could be a sports match or military training, the screaming actors now pounding the treadmills at a run. And then, in a few moments, we reset—all three return to a walk, now undressed once more but taking on signifiers of femininity as their pace increases. This time it’s tight pink micro-dresses, fake tan and mini-champagne bottles; talk is limited to shoes, bangles, and makeup, again with no shortage of ‘shoulds.’ As they accelerate, perilously high heels are donned and by the climax of this round the three are veritably sprinting in this wildly inappropriate footwear, signs of exhaustion and even pain apparent.

Yet while there’s a fertile seam of gender exploration running through the work, to say that Run Girl Run is ‘about’ this theme would be as reductive as describing The Confidence Man as a play. Both make the act of live performance their own subject, and in Run Girl Run, especially, language is as much a texture as anything else, another skin like the clothing or accoutrements of the three characters (who both are and are not the same person as the actors presenting them).

We could almost see The Confidence Man and Run Girl Run as kinetic sculptures shaped from real bodies. While both gesture towards bleak places—crime and betrayal, or the conformity demanded by cultural expectation—it’s in the execution of each that some giddy kind of freedom makes itself known. Bold, bracing stuff from two companies walking fine lines with an assurance worth commending.

Side Pony Productions, The Confidence Man, director Zoe Pepper, writers: Zoe Pepper, Adriane Daff, composer Ash Gibson Grieg, masks Rebecca Baumann, sound Sam Price, lighting Lucy Birkinshaw, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 28 Aug-1 Sept; Grit Theatre, Run Girl Run, devisers, performers Tom Browne, Laura Hughes, Clare Phillips, Melbourne Fringe Hub, North Melbourne Town Hall, 20-27 Sept

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 27

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 October 2013