The 100% festival

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Darwin Festival Director Edwina Lunn

Edwina Lunn

Edwina Lunn

Edwina Lunn

I’ve attended a couple of Darwin Festivals over the years, including 2013 when Virginia Baxter and I conducted a review-writing workshop for the NT Writers’ Centre with five participants, several of whom now regularly write for RealTime. The festival is welcoming, lively and intimate, making great use of the town’s parks in the temperate evenings for all kinds of performances plus live music and food.

Director Edwina Lunn’s third and final program offers a blend of local creations that connect the Northern Territory with South-Eastern Asia and fine productions from across Australia that might not otherwise reach Darwin. Reciprocally a Darwin Festival commission, Wulamanyuwi and the Seven Pamanui, premiered at Adelaide’s Come Out 2011 and has toured widely (see Cath McKinnon’s review). I spoke by phone with Lunn after her intriguing 2014 program had been launched.

Although not a local, after five years in Darwin Lunn says she has become a Territorian, “We opened our RealTime [RT121] and said, ‘Look how much Territory there is. Fantastic!’ It was a proud moment. We’re quite proud, we Territorians.”

Calling the festival “100% Darwin” makes sense then.

It was an easy connection to make. We commit to this festival being a celebration of our time and our place in this city. Darwin as a city and certainly the Northern Territory are evolving so much. The people and the population change each year with natural attrition, a new population arriving and our growing Indigenous population, which is nearly 30% and our Asian connections. The white Australian population turns over every four years. The festival re-invents itself every year to respond to what’s happening in our city. So it’s pretty easy to say, let’s call the festival “100% Darwin.” And we’re doing a show called 100% Darwin.

It features 100 Darwinians on stage. What will they be doing?

It’s a very challenging form of theatre making by Rimini Protokoll from Germany (see RT96 for an account of 100% Vancouver and RealTimeTalk for an overview of the company’s work). They’ve done this show in many places—in Norfolk and Vienna and Athens and [in 2012] Melbourne. I knew that Rimini Protokoll staging the show in Darwin would be different from anywhere else in the world because Darwin’s population is unique.

The show is based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data. The idea is that every single person on stage of those 100 people represents 1% of the population, based on a set of selection criteria, which all come from the ABS. We had to work with the Rimini’s to decide what criteria would be prioritised. Not just asking “Were you born in Australia?” we wanted to delve a little deeper and also to find the compositions of families. The show itself then will ask these 100 people on stage to tell us about their lifestyles, how and why they live in Darwin and what their opinions are on the big issues in Darwin, the Territory, the region and nationally. We imagine that Territorians will have a very different response to many of those questions from other Australians. Even the answer to a simple question such as “Do you consider yourself to be a Territorian?” will be really interesting since most people on stage will probably have lived here for less than five years.

But it doesn’t take much to decide that you are a Territorian. I reckon after I was here for two years people started to call me a local. I think it’s hard not to be. When you live in a place that is a capital city but is extraordinarily remote, you have to engage with what is happening here in terms of culture and lifestyle and that means you can’t not be part of the beating heart of what’s happening.”

Including adapting to the climate.

Exactly. Climate and lifestyle means you must live very differently up here and get used to some very odd things—bugs and mould and different kinds of bacteria and diseases. I know many, many people who have Ross River [virus] simply because they’ve lived in Darwin. That’s a life-long legacy. You know you’ve lived in Darwin if you end up carrying that around with you for the rest of your life. I don’t have it fortunately but there’s still a few months left for the mosquitoes to get me!

One of the exciting aspects of the festival is the Asian connection, for which you’ve achieved some additional funding. Not only that, some of the works are the result of collaborations between Australian and Asian artists.

It wouldn’t be a Darwin Festival if we didn’t have a connection with our Asian neighbours. Our international program has always featured Asian work, with a particular focus on Indonesia because it’s very close to us and we’ve developed many ongoing relationships with Indonesian companies. There are many Indonesian people and groups in Darwin, including the Indonesian Consulate, which is the only consulate we have. So already we have strong links with Indonesia and we just wanted to do more.

[The funding was the result] of one of those amazingly fortuitous meetings you might have with a new Chief Minister who points to a map behind his head and says, “If we were to give you some more money, would you be able to do more work within this region?” And the answer to that is always, “Yes!” It’s been quite thrilling to be able to work with local partners—not just government, but corporate partners—on a collective vision. This is what the Territory really needs, to work more and connect more with Asia because we’re so close. And because of our tropical lifestyle in many ways Darwin feels more like an Asian than an Australian city.

The Lepidopters

The Lepidopters

The Lepidopters

What about the nature of the works you’re featuring? Tell me about The Lepidopters.

That’s going to be a challenging work for our audiences, but in typical Darwin audience style they’re lapping it up, buying the tickets even though we’ve been quite open in our marketing to let people know that this is a form of science fiction rock opera with an outer space aspect. It involves a fabulous collaboration with local choirs as well as Indonesia’s Punkasila collaborating with Slave Pianos and pianist Michael Kieran-Harvey (see RT119 for a review of an earlier version of the work at MONA FOMA). Since we booked them they want to work with the Darwin Chorale and some Indigenous composers as well. So I’m pretty confident when I say we don’t know what the show’s going to be but I also have confidence that it’s led by a good, strong team of great collaborative artists and they’re going to make a show that Darwin will probably never forget.

And what about Temporary Territory, by the Indonesian artist collective Ruangrupa?

We’re risk-takers and we really like working with artists on collaborations that respond to our environment. I met with Ruangrupa on a trip to Indonesia and really liked some of the work they were doing. They’d already done a project they’d called “a disruption.” They put installations into Djakartan bus stops.

The Djakarta traffic is hideous. For people who have to rely on public transport it’s an even more hideous experience because the buses are so incredibly over-crowded and so they spend a lot of time at bus stops. Ruangrupa activated the bus stops. I asked them to consider coming to Darwin to do a similar project. I had a wonderful Skype conversation with them before they visited Darwin, trying to get them to understand that we didn’t really have a traffic problem and we didn’t really even have a peak hour.

They’ve had couple of site visits here and we’ve sent some local Darwin visual artists to Djakarta so it’s a truly collaborative project. I was Skyping them saying, “I need to give you some perspective on how few people there are in Darwin.” There are only 120,000 people here compared to the 10 million people who just commute in and out of Djakarta every day. I said, “I’m looking out the window from our office and I can’t see one single person. If I look out of the window on the other side, I still can’t see a single person.” We have so much space. They thought that was bizarre.

They came over and became quite fascinated with our bus stops and how we use them—almost the history and the ecology of Darwin’s bus stops. They’ve worked with two great local visual artists, Sarah Pirrie and Simon Cooper. They’re installing art pieces into at least 30 bus stops. We’re trying to install them all overnight—almost like art by stealth—so when people leave home on the first day of the festival they will be confronted with what is still their bus stop but it could also be something else. The installation and the decoration respond to the location of each bus stop. I suspect that one is going to be installed as if it were a gallery with white walls, complete with a gallery opening with wine and cheese and people standing around talking about art. This is one of the reasons I like working with Indonesian artists. Not only do they have a strong sense of where they fit politically and having a political voice, but they’ve got a fantastic sense of humour and they’re good at taking the piss out of themselves and us. One bus stop might be a tribute to the absence of cats in Darwin, unlike in Djakarta. This as one of those festival events that takes over the whole city and reminds people that this is a month where we should be looking at and using our city in different ways.

Another collaborative work is The Book of Shadows with Tim Parrish and Connor Fox who have worked with puppeteers in Ubud in Bali combining traditional puppetry and multimedia elements.

They bring the show back here after a rehearsal showing in Ubud and they’ll do a sneak preview presentation of the work at Brown’s Mart before the full season in November. There are many people visiting the festival in August who can’t see the rest of the theatre that’s made here throughout the year.

You’ve also got Vietnamese Water Puppets and Cambodian Aerobics— what is that?

LAUGHS I must say The Cambodian Aerobics could be seen as a bit of personal indulgence. I’ve always wanted to do something in the festival that celebrated the dawn. Darwin people get up very early because it’s soon very hot. You see many people out exercising before it gets light, but it’s the usual forms of exercising—walking or running along the foreshore and along our bike tracks. In some ways this mirrors what happens in many Asian cultures. People get up early to exercise in a group style almost like some form of Soviet military style exercise or Tai Chi or an aerobics workout. It isn’t like contemporary aerobics in a gym with lots of lycra; it’s quite literally people who’ve just come out of their houses, many of them in pyjamas and slippers.

Most of the people I’ve observed engaging in this kind of physical activity in Asian capital cities are quite mature but they also include people who are grabbing this moment before a long day of often quite hard physical labour, and they do it with great humour. I suspect that the reason why many great Asian cities are thriving and people are working so hard is because they have a collective culture of ‘let’s get up together in the morning and do this physical activity.’ As a tourist, if you participate it sets you up for the rest of the day—and it just makes you smile.

Arisa Yura, images Yasukichi Murakami, Through a Distant Lens

Arisa Yura, images Yasukichi Murakami, Through a Distant Lens

Arisa Yura, images Yasukichi Murakami, Through a Distant Lens

That’s fabulous. A work with an historical perspective is Through a Distant Lens featuring the images of Yasukichi Murakami a Japanese photographer working in Darwin in the 1930s. How did that come into your program?

Mayu Kanamori is a documentary maker and theatre maker who has made works for the Darwin Festival before. She has a family connection to Darwin and she’s a descendent of Murakami. She came to me a couple of years ago when she was in Darwin researching this show. She doesn’t live in Darwin any more but still has a connection to the place. It’s taken at least two years to research it, put it together and to grow it into the theatrical show that it is [directed by former Darwin Festival director Malcolm Blaylock]. It’s also touring to OzAsia in Adelaide shortly after. The idea is to eventually take it back to Japan.

The show is also an acknowledgement of the contribution that Japanese people made to Darwin before the bombing of Darwin in World War II. Just as happened to many Japanese people living in Australia, Murakami was expelled from Darwin and had to leave behind his legacy—all of the things that he did that showed his marvellous contribution to this city. Darwin really celebrates its Chinese heritage. There are loads of streets named after the Chin family and a number of other families who helped to build Darwin and rebuild it after the bombing and after Cyclone Tracy but there’s very little acknowledgement of the Japanese influence in Darwin. If you go to Broome in Western Australia there’s a huge acknowledgement of the Japanese influence there.

So Through a Distant Lens is a little nod to something that we may further uncover as the whole country celebrates our Anzac centenary and we start to look in more depth at our history. We’re really proud to have this show in the festival. And I don’t think it’s controversial because Darwin was bombed. I think it’s actually a much more insightful look at Japanese relations at that time.

You have No Strings Attached’s Sons and Mothers from Adelaide [see our interview with company direct PJ Rose], Ursula Yovich in The Magic Hour, which was created in Perth, Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis’ The Shadow King from Melbourne [see RT119] and major Australian festivals and Dalisa Pigrum’s Gudirr Gudirr made in Broome [see Dance Massive 2013] and performed around Australia and in Europe. Darwinians are certainly not left off the cultural map.

They are really wonderful shows we’re really proud to have. Not only do our audiences respond well to seeing really high quality national theatre but it’s also really important to bring these works to influence and stimulate our local arts industry. Ursula Yovich and others are also offering workshops and master classes and Ursula is MC-ing our opening night concert. Our local theatre makers will benefit from seeing how artists making works that are of high quality and tourable.

The Choir of Man

The Choir of Man

The Choir of Man

I’d like to mention a show that has a particular NT flair to it and that I think the rest of the country and the world might see soon. It’s The Choir of Man, which is a musical theatre work developed by David Garnham, a fantastic local country music singer who won the Tamworth song competition a couple of years ago and tours with his band, The Reasons to Live. A couple of years ago he said to me, ‘I want to put a choir together and they’ll all be men and we’ll just rehearse over a barbecue and a few beers ‘cause I want to be accompanied by a choir just for a few songs within my show.’ It’s turned into a massive phenomenon with many men in our community trying to get into the choir. Now it’s almost 20-strong and has attracted the attention of Andrew Kay—one of the original producers of Tap Dogs and Soweto Gospel Choir—from AKA Management who was entranced by the NT flavour of it—all these men on stage, in flannies, some not wearing shoes, but really together, having decided to be in this gutsy choir. Producer Wayne Harrison has been to Darwin for the audition process and they’re now about to go into rehearsals, turning what was a rough and tumble music show into a full-length musical theatre piece with the vision of it going on to Adelaide Fringe and then Edinburgh Fringe and the West End. If it gets the same reception that Tap Dogs did it may very well do something for NT masculinity.

I’m really proud in the last few years to have developed this work and am hoping it has a life beyond the Darwin Festival.

2014 Darwin Festival, Darwin, Northern Territory, 7-24 Aug

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. web

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

30 July 2014