Unwrapped: new life for independents at the Opera House

Keith Gallasch

There was a time when Sydney Opera House’s The Studio under Executive Producer Philip Rolfe and with vigorous programming by Virginia Hyam working with Craig Donarski consistently featured local, national and independent performers. NSW Premier and Arts Minister Bob Carr (1995-2005) had been heavily lobbied to make The Studio a home for local artists and new music in particular. A couple of years after its opening its scope was widened. A 2002 RealTime interview with Hyam, a former Melbourne Fringe Festival Artistic Director, opened optimistically: “Hyam’s program for the first six months of 2002 is a strong one, filling a significant cultural gap in Sydney’s artistic life between the mainstream and the cutting edge of Performance Space.”

This and subsequent wide-ranging programs included hip hop, physical theatre, contemporary classical (Ensemble Offspring, Synergy, Taikoz) and experimental music (The Machine for Making Sense), cabaret (Paul Capsis, Christa Hughes), comedy, dance (local and Indigenous artists in Lisa Ffrench’s Dance Tracks series plus Phillip Adams’ BalletLab), contemporary performance and, significantly, the commissioning of new works. There were many good years in which popular (with a difference) and experimental artists shared a common space even if there was never enough room to meet escalating needs. But in the current decade few such opportunities have been consistently offered independent performers. That might be changing at Sydney Opera House.

Jodee Mundy, Personal, photo Anna Kucera

Fiona Winning, former Performance Space Artistic Director 1999-2008 and Sydney Festival Head of Programming 2012-17, has recently been appointed Head of Programming at the Sydney Opera House, overseeing some 700 productions and events annually but finding time and space for Unwrapped, a program of four works per season scheduled for May and August each year and presented in The Playhouse. On being appointed to her new role, Winning said “I especially look forward to collaborating with the vibrant local arts community —alongside Australian and international artists and partners — to engage our audiences with brilliant contemporary ideas and performances.”

The first Unwrapped featured two works from Melbourne, Jodee Mundy’s Personal and Two Jews Walk into a Theatre… created and performed by Gideon Obarzanek and Brian Lipson with choreography by Lucy Guerin and developed at the Sydney Theatre Company when Gideon Obarzanek was a resident artist there. Sydney choreographer Kristina Chan presented a new season of her solo performance A Faint Existence and cabaret artists Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood performed Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin, much lauded here and overseas.

Brian Lipson, Gideon Obarzanek, Two Jews Walk into a Theatre, photo Anna Kucera

I caught two of the shows on one night of the season, each reflecting on their creators’ lives. Personal, an amiably played multimedia autobiographical account of growing up as the one hearing person in a deaf family engagingly revealed the perceptual tensions and ramifications of the experience. Mundy’s hyper-articulation and Auslan gesturing placed her hearing audience in the realm of her own experience as a youngster while communicating directly with her non-hearing audience who found themselves unusually advantaged with signed commentary just for them.

Two Jews… is laidback with the performance score spread across the floor before the seated artists, rare moments of ‘where are we?’ with recuperative improvisation, and a fascinating dynamic generated between Obarzanek’s simply spoken, careful delivery and actor Lipson’s slightly more theatrical inclinations. The pair become their fathers in an imagined encounter just prior to seeing their sons perform. Expectations about art, careers, onstage nudity — hilarious — and politics — disastrous — underline differences between cultures and generations. The work is bravely self-deprecating and touchingly revealing, ending with the fathers entering the theatre in which their sons perform a simple dance, uncompetitive, lyrical, melancholy in mood and gently funny in its innocence and the differences between the performers’ grasp of Lucy Guerin’s choreography. These men are very different beings, alone and together in a mutually shared emotional space. Two Jews Walk into a Theatre… is an engaging and memorable probing of masculinity with no need of a punchline.

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Sydney Opera House, Unwrapped: Personal, artistic director, writer-performer Jodee Mundy, director Merophie Carr, design Jen Hector, sound Madeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey, video Rhian Hinkley, dramaturgy Sandra Fiona Long, movement Jo Dunbar; Two Jews Walk Into a Theatre, devisor-performers Brian Lipson, Gideon Obarzanek, director, choreographer Lucy Guerin, lighting designer Bosco Shaw, music Oren Ambarchi; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, 9-13 May

Top image credit: Brian Lipson, Gideon Obarzanek, Two Jews Walk into a Theatre, photo Anna Kucera

8 June 2018
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