Posts Tagged ‘state theatre company

03
Aug
16

Straight White Men

 

Straight White Men

La Boite & State Theatre Company

The Roundhouse

July 27 – August 13 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Because to acknowledge that privilege exists is to acknowledge that we live in an unkind, unfair and oppressive world.

Director, Nescha Jelk

Straight White Men is a powerfully political play without being overtly so. But only if we want it to be. We can walk away considering its content or simply be amused by its characters. The arguments that come towards the end of it are the result of the characters’ musings throughout, not as an attempt by the playwright to punch us in the gut but as a slow burn to destroy us through self-doubt; Young Jean Lee is all about “destroying” her audience. After laughing at the comments and silly antics of three young men who return to their widowed father’s home for Christmas, we’re eventually left to squirm in our own discomfort. The feeling at the end of this piece is the feeling of having said something appalling rather than having stayed within the bounds of polite, politically correct conversation, followed by awkward silence and blank stares. Having uttered aloud many appalling things in my life I recognise the feeling immediately. It’s a guerrilla tactic, gently, subversively forcing the issues in our faces. Which is where they’ve always been, only we’ve turned a blind eye, haven’t we?

The boys behave badly, but not really. Their preconceptions are our preconceptions. Their notions about privilege are our notions about privilege. Their behaviour is so typical, so ordinary; they’re so well read and worldly and witty and they’re just joking – we totally get it – they’re products of their environment and perhaps that’s the problem we too continue to perpetuate. We recognise them (too) easily. We know them. We are them. Everything is assumed, and reinforced by the previous generation, reminding us endlessly, we don’t know how lucky we are. After growing up with far more than they need, graduating from college and navigating relationships and careers of varying degrees of success, Jake (a strong, insightful performance from Chris Pitman), Drew (Lucas Stibbard) and Matt (Hugh Parker) don’t know what it is to do without. And one of them feels bad about that. After years of simply trying to be “useful” Matt suddenly cracks up and breaks down over a Chinese takeout Christmas Dinner around the coffee table, and his family doesn’t understand why. His father, Ed (Roger Newcombe), has long wondered why his eldest child hasn’t put his gifts to good use as his brothers have done. The premise is fine and the context is perfectly acceptable, but has this production missed the mark? Has the playwright written something so blandly American we’re able to walk away from it unaffected? I don’t think so. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s presented nicely, wickedly glaring us in the face and daring us to consider our own cultural privilege.

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I love the way, once the actors have stopped being so earnest and simply settle into the story (typical opening night pitched performances – everybody, chill! We like you, you know), these characters communicate naturalistically, from a place of innocence and genuine antagonism, which we realise comes from the deeply ingrained habits we learn in close living quarters, not to mention the level of intimacy/apathy we invariably develop after years spent dancing together in front of the fireplace in daggy pyjamas. The big questions are asked and no answers are provided here unless we choose to see them for ourselves, veiled as they are behind the boys’ attitudes and behaviour, which becomes progressively childish; unsurprisingly, the brothers quickly revert to their childhood roles. This leads to some interesting oneupmanship and great physical comedy, nicely managed by Director Nescha Jelk, each time somebody presses somebody for answers, or somebody wants to sit in somebody’s chair. We can relate because we’ve all suffered from – or manipulated – the cruel games and power play at alcohol fuelled family reunions. And we all have our favourite chair. The pent up emotions stemming from dissatisfaction with the culture of privilege begin to surface. Designer, Victoria Lamb, invites us into a comfortable middle class home, with an interior of middle class (ie neutral) colours, soft furnishings (ie effortlessly coordinated), and plush carpet. Ben Hughes’ lighting is white with a neat golden glow and it stays politely understated. Privileged. Perfect.

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Young Jean Lee says this work is designed to make us notice our own responses and think about our relationships to our own privilege. Jelk echoes the sentiments of the text. She says feeling guilty about her privilege “isn’t useful – it doesn’t help anyone or do anything.”

Straight White Men has people talking, and appropriately, for the privileged opening night crowd, conversations buzzed over free drinks after the show. In between high praise for the playwright, the performances, the design elements, etc. I heard it’s not clever enough, not subversive enough, not specific enough… Um. Were you not listening closely enough? It’s not my favourite either, but maybe I’ve missed what it is that’s been perceived by some as being so unsuccessful about this show. I love the way we have a heap of stuff we so often avoid discussing thrown in our face without it being discussed. Are we so privileged, having seen so much, that now nothing is good enough?!

If we’re white and privileged, we don’t need to think about being white and privileged, right?

The beauty – and challenge – of this text is that it speaks to the themes of privilege, desire, identity, equality and empathy largely without actually speaking about them.

What we really care about, what we really value, is not being a loser.

Young Jean Lee

The text includes an interesting introduction and subsequent interludes during the scene changes. The device falls flat here, although there is general laughter and congenial nodding of heads in acknowledgment of the dead white male three-act structure being manipulated by a non-white woman, presumably “provocatively” dressed, the stagehand-in-charge, who addresses the audience in her own “voice”. In this case, it’s Merlynn Tong who gives us a beautiful Welcome to Country when the noise of the deliberately offensive pre-show hip hop stops (MD, composer and sound designer Busty Beatz). I think, wonderful; someone has contextualised this American play for Australian audiences. But then the male performers appear, speak in their American accents (Accent Coach Simon Stollery) and it feels like the opening is a token gesture. Why doesn’t that work?

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I can’t help wondering how previous stagehands-in-charge have been received. I don’t find anything particularly provocative about the way Tong is dressed, or the way she speaks to us, or the way she unpacks the meta theatrical before the story begins. No doubt there are others who better appreciate her part in the play. I’d like to see it again without her handing us the context on a silver privileged platter…but perhaps that’s the point. Or perhaps La Boite’s trailer does a more sophisticated job of framing the show than the show does… This is not to say that Tong doesn’t put in a fine performance, more that the writing can do without her introduction or subsequent interruptions. Sometimes it’s more effective to simply tell the story without attempting to break it down or make it…cute.

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It’s true. Straight White Men might almost be a really bland American piece, from which this Australian cast gets – almost – as much as they can. There’s something lacking within the final moments but again, is it the writing? (Jean Young Lee is a new favourite the world over, and an award winner so, you know…). The text redeems itself somewhat with its persistent, unapologetic approach to its social political themes, showing us throughout what a white man thinks makes a white man successful (or what an American-Korean woman thinks a white man thinks makes a white man successful!), and at the very least, this production succeeds in holding up a mirror. Whether or not we like what we see (or even bother to take a second look) is the most interesting result of this work. It’s entertaining and confronting and challenging in a way most live theatre doesn’t try to be (or isn’t quite bold enough to be). With its undercurrent of polite, privileged restraint, Straight White Men challenges us to think again about the invisible influences: what is it that amuses, inspires and endures? And why?

P.S. And just what do non-white, unprivileged people think about this play and their response to it? Will they ever even see it?

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Production pics by Kate Pardey

10
Mar
12

so what will the state theatre company of the future look like?

Well now, let’s see. It’s Friday and the Forum (and the opening of The Greenhouse) was Thursday. It seems like an eternity ago! I’ve been busy, yes (I’m always busy) but I’ve been thinking. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Bucchino again lately and this is the core of what I came away thinking (and singing) during the drive back to the coast and upon getting home and going to bed instead of blogging until 2am…

RHYME IS WHAT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO DO UNLESS WE WANT IT TO

When we look at the state theatre companies across the country, do we not think they all look a bit like this?

Yes. It’s a neat street.

Of course the vision for the QTC of the future varies enormously, depending on who you ask to paint the picture. The many, many, MANY pictures are wonderful! And at least we all seem to agree that we would prefer to see something more like this:

And because we know we can, we want to feel that we are creating work that helps us to look like this:

Imagine what the street would look like if our state theatre companies all followed their dreams and each became a true home to their artists, producing sustainably, a vast array of work in traditional and non-traditional spaces, which truly reflected their communities; their people, their stories, their hopes, their dreams and their realities.

WOW!

So my point is this: it’s time to drop a great big bloody bucket of orange paint over each of our state theatre companies!

If there’s an Artistic Director game to do it, it’s Wesley Enoch. He has, better than any other as far as I’m concerned, established a firm platform of community engagement and open public forum. Wait. To trump Cate, he may have to appear on a community group’s stage himself somewhere, say in Ipswich…

Some stakeholders prefer to take a similar approach to that of Lucas Stibbard’s, by taking a look at what we don’t want. This is a fine approach to begin with; ruling out what’s not desired and leaving us with the perfect picture! Easy! But there’s no perfect picture, as we know. And that’s why it’s so hard to make the changes. What if we start small? What if we don’t even call our subscribers “subscribers”? Are they not now “season ticket holders”? Language and perception are two of the big orange splots within the bigger picture.

A number of artists mentioned that we might do better to look at the sporting model in Queensland. This is something that Sam (my husband) has been saying for years. A rare breed, he loves his sport AND the arts. Depending on the season and whether or not the art is paying, one will always win out.

Anyway, Paul Bishop, our extraordinary facilitator for the afternoon’s forum (really, he should have his own morning show), introduced by Associate Director of QTC, Todd MacDonald, gave us a brief history of the world’s culture and asked us to fill in the blanks for the last 50 – 60 years, specifically for Brisbane theatre. What? Oh, right. To appreciate where we are now and where we’re headed, we need to understand what’s gone before us. Fair enough.

So we had our afternoon’s schedule on a whiteboard and, armed with coloured felt pens, A4 paper, post-its (and iPhones), although we were already running 15 minutes late, we were ready to change the world!

We realised, after just a few minutes, that there has been far richer theatrical culture in Brisbane than many realise, for much longer than some care to remember. Kaye Stevenson commented that resilient artists have continued to work for a long time in this town. What a timely reminder (mentioned again later, during the Welcome to Country from Uncle Des and the opening address from Wesley Enoch) that we must keep asking our elders what has happened before us. We must be willing to listen and take down their stories. We must re-tell them. We must continue to value that which has gone before. I don’t doubt that we do, just as I don’t doubt that there is anyone who doesn’t want to do things better than they’ve been done before.

The question of sustainability was a major one – it kept coming up in conversation – and it took David Walters, the master of green lighting design (and by green I mean sustainable and not for Wicked), to point out that we had full lights on in the room for the day, for a discussion, rather than all of us looking like death-warmed-up under the ugly lights (he didn’t say anything about looking like death-warmed-up but we all know that’s the issue here).

The theatre is an aesthetic thing! Nobody wants to be photographed under the fluoros!

Luke Jaaniste spoke of the theatre company being more a part of our entire ecosystem, a living, breathing, feeding, inter-dependent organism, though his paper reads more clearly about this than his brief address to us on the day and I urge you to go back and read it. Lisa Erhart gave us the Galaxy Analogy and poignantly noted that she is one of the cool, older, red stars within our galaxy, while there are others involved who are the hot, new, young blue stars. She wants us to smash the elite theatre culture that appears to be – still – associated with the company and for it to become far greater reaching and responsive to community. Anna Molnar used the term “theatre without borders” and also noted, later, that to trademark it or copyright it would defeat its purpose. It was noted that the only “colour” in the room was in the paper and pens. Todd MacDonald summarised that the state theatre company has a responsibility to raise standards and tell the stories that truly reflect our community. This came up repeatedly. In Farmer Rob’s words, we must start to “sell to the farmers.”

Rob spoke about farmers who sing – they’re happier – and have “thrown out the farm”. (I’m waiting to see the link for this organisation and when I do, I’ll add it here.) This became more relevant as we began discussing the traditional space, the buildings and that “elite” culture of pre-booking, dressing “appropriately” and going to dinner and a show. Todd asked, “Should we lose the mothership?” There was deathly silence. As Wesley honed in on later, the place is significant. It’s important to have a home for artists and a place where people can gather together. As a little, tiny, independent company who floats from theatre to theatre, to Boreen Point, to Community Hall, to park, to beach, to living room, to vacant shop, I know this to be true. We feel it. All the time.

IMHO a company needs a place to call home.

The need to re-structure the company came up several times, with artists wanting artists paid first. Fair enough. On the other hand, it was acknowledged that admin need to be able to sell a show in order for the artists to have an audience! Andrea Moor said the company should be one that, “serves the fans and the artists first.” She also wants to see, as we all do, the companies working together. I don’t doubt this is happening more than ever before, with the dialogue now wide open between QTC and La Boite.

Emma Bennison spoke on behalf of Access Arts and expressed her frustration (echoed by many others in the room and on Twitter) at the funding bodies favouring young and emerging artists for far too long. She reminded us that it’s distressing for her sector of the community to see able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities. There are actors with disabilities who are not even being considered for these roles. I was waiting for Suer Manger to pipe up. Emma also stated, quite rightly, that we can’t possibly become a more inclusive and accessible company while we continue to make assumptions about people (artists) with disabilities.

Angharad Wynne-Jones joined us via Skype (Sigh. There are always technical difficulties, aren’t there?) and shared with us these words:

We need to balance fear and hope. We need to do things better and differently. We need to hold hands before the paradigm shift.

And a wonderful, quirky, living room work, choreographed by Lucy Guerin for the homeartproject.com

Matt Delbridge spoke about London’s Green Theatre Project, citing excellent examples to balance the horrific stats of energy use (read waste) by theatres everywhere. You only have to Google “green theatre” to find enough material to occupy your reading time until Arcola Theatre becomes the first carbon neutral theatre in the world. And they will. Check out what they’re doing – for their theatre family and for their wider community – here. Our own Umber Productions achieved a small miracle with David Walters lighting their production of Elaine Acworth’s Water Wars. Their Education Pack provides nice, simple detail about how this was done. I wish the writers and implementers of the new you-beaut rigid bloody curriculum would see more theatre. Just saying.

“I limited the amount of power used. I know it was a kind of arbitrary thing, but I set myself the task – and the show was a touring piece – to run from a 10 AMP (domestic) socket. It simplified things.”

Walters told Kate Foy that the biggest challenge in Water Wars was, ‘getting my head around this approach to lighting. I don’t know of anyone else who’s taken it on. It’s challenging – bloody and dangerous at times but, at other times, very rewarding.’ He continues, ‘… and just because we have the tools doesn’t mean it’s good design. I’m conscious of LEDs being fitted in to what we’ve always known. We’re in transition. We’re in a catchup game now and, for the first time, we have tools we don’t quite know what to do with. We’ve now got computers which have given us extraordinary and sophisticated ways of controlling that light, once we’ve generated it.

Where I am learning is in the area of control. There are old ways of doing things but now there is so much flexibility. For example, there are 60, 80, 100s of channels of control. I’m having to learn to re-think in design terms.’

Right. What have I missed? What we believe is essential to the state theatre company of the future. And the observations from Steven Mitchell Wright. Hmmm. Could have heard a pin drop. Steven said aloud a lot of what has been unspoken. In order to move forward, QTC need to address a lot of problems.  He is an advocate for adapting our language and our labels to better represent the stakeholders. He sees a need for greater depth and transparency in the engagement with community and while he acknowledges that the discussions, debates and forums are happening already, QTC now need to genuinely respond and make the tough calls to bring about real change for artists.
Since I’m still up and here, here is a little something from Travis Bedard, in the middle of the current #2amt discussion (if you’re in theatre and not on Twitter yet, IT’S TIME), re the problem with theatre in America. I include it because we all have to remember that we all have something to do with making changes for a better future. That sounds awfully trite but, especially in our theatrical circles, I get sick to death of hearing the sneering and judgement before support and admiration for our fellow artists. Be a part of the change. Be the change you want to see. Stop wasting paper. Turn off the lights. Get to a show via public transport. Make braver, better, smarter choices. Keep creating new work. Keep sharing the work. Share the love MORE.
QTC is not UNloved. Far from it! We just don’t know how to show our love sometimes.
“You understand of course, given the size of this niche, there’s an almost 50% chance that YOU are a problem with theatre in America?”
-Travis Bedard
No problem here! No problems that are not being addressed, anyway. Keep supporting, sharing and inspiring change. The changes will come about because we continue to challenge, adapt and evolve. Meanwhile, The Greenhouse, the youth ensemble, Wesley’s regular newsletters and the engagement with community give me confidence that QTC are serious about change. For the first time, they are questioning – from the inside – the necessity of rhyme. The state theatre company of the future looks like it’s genuinely open to suggestions and will look very different if we just give them a chance and a bit of encouragement along the way. We need to keep reminding them:
RHYME IS WHAT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO DO UNLESS WE WANT IT TO
And we need to remember that sometimes, half of the audience – even the invited guests amongst them – are not going to find your art interesting, regardless of the changes you make. This actually happened last night, to my, er, horror. They will continue talking and drinking, regardless of what or who you have put on the stage in front of them. But no problem. Not everybody watches the grand final, either. Let’s not be so precious, let’s not waste time and resources dwelling on it (let’s not decide to leave them off the guest list for the next opening, which was one suggestion I overheard in the more attentive section of The Greenhouse crowd); let’s just get on with the show and bring on the theatre companies of the future.
Check out the forum gallery here and on Facebook.
08
Mar
12

QTC Forum: What Does the State Theatre of the Future Look Like?

We’ll find out in just a few hours! Well, we’ll certainly have a clearer picture of what it MIGHT look like. We’ll be live-tweeting from the forum but I thought I’d give you some pre-forum reading matter, courtesy of QTC.

THE FORUM PLAN

Luke Jaaniste:

Read his paper Liveliness: Conditions of a Lively Ecosystem (and state theatre) here

In a nutshell: We need to foster the five qualities required for liveliness: diversity, connectivity, flexibility, reflexivity and capacity.

How could a state theatre company be part of this?

EXCELLENT QUESTION.

IT’S A FORUM. LET US KNOW YOUR IDEAS, PEOPLE.

Lucas Stibbard, of boy girl wall phenomenon, offered a vision yesterday via Facebook, which I think is worth noting here. It’s a longer note but then, if you’ve had time to watch and share and debate KONY 2012 you can read this and process what you will.
“Me, I’m very fond of that image of the vase that becomes two faces when you look at it long enough. To me it’s always symbolised that by looking at the negative space around something you may be able to infer its shape, or to put it another way – if you work out what you don’t want something to be then, by a process of elimination you can start to understand the shape you desire.

So let’s look at what the state theatre company of the future shouldn’t be and by that same process of elimination we may begin to infer a shape:

It’s 2020 and the season is entirely composed of 7 one-person, co-pros and buy-ins that allow for costs to be met. The upstairs of the company is staffed at 50 and the shows at 3. The works are, for the most part, traditional fare with any risks being minimised into smaller runs in smaller venues. There’s a Williamson or Murray-Smith always. The gap between locally produced works (which are shown separately to the main season and included with education and youth programs) has widened now to being undertaken by what amounts to a different company. The staff is, for the most part, uninvolved in the workings of the downstairs where the one show that the company of the future is producing themselves this year, rehearses. Marketing is done with little consultation as to the actual project and locked in for the whole season before casting has been resolved and the creatives have started discussions. The creatives continue to work in a standard Writer, Director, Designers paradigm and collaboratively devised work continues to be met with a combination of fascination and fear as it doesn’t fit neatly into the systems in place. “Season of the stars” casting to bolster audiences has meant that the 7 one-person shows from the season are performed predominantly by celebrities or musical theatre performers. The audience turn up see their show and go home having been told again that this is what theatre is. Ticket prices are extortionate to cover the fact that subscriptions are much lower due to the fact that the generations that do subscribe continue their decline.

So that’s the darkest of all possible futures – the faces from the face/vase picture, the negative. So let’s not do that.

Now let’s look at the vase.

It’s 2020. The season is broad and varied – there’s an amazing show from overseas that everyone should see once before they die. There’s an insane experiment by a local group that only has one audience member. They’re both programmed and marketed as part of the same season. There’s a golden oldie – there always will be. There’s a pair of shows running in rep that are companion pieces – they compliments and comment on each other via contrast. There’s a musical and a blistering physical theatre piece, there’s a geo-locative city game/promenade thing. The company’s annual must-sees are the Christmas show and the local spotlight that takes a small company and lets them do what they do with a real budget and infrastructure but without interference. The marketing and promotion of the season is artful and true to the productions – this is partly because the consultations between the workers in all areas of the office and the artistic teams are fluid and constant. The venues, which are of all sizes and shapes have well appointed bars and food and act as places to go and spend time as well as see shows: destinations rather than venues. The season’s performers are drawn from the best the country has to offer as well as the company’s ensemble program, and one or two personalities (that bit is inevitable).

Bi-monthly talks like Improbable Theatre’s D&D’s in England allow for lots of discussion with the community and the well-managed online presence of the company of the future allows for dialogue with anyone willing to get involved. The “education” shows, now referred to as part of the season, are made at the same budget and managed by the same workers. As such the demand for arts workers and producers has meant that the project teams in the office are full of passionate and committed artists whose skills in making work extend into management and production allowing a permeability between time spent managing projects and time spent in projects. The company’s first response is “let’s see how we can make this happen” with a default position of “Ok so we can’t do that, however here are 3 other options”. At the center of every consideration is the work.

Subscription has fallen away as a generation that doesn’t do that comes to its prime. However, it is a generation that values live-ness and experiences and as such will come to what it perceives as worth its time and as such the range and quality of the season appeals (as it has to). Ticket prices have come to represent value for money, not an investment in a night of entertainment.
There are a mixture of creative paradigms in play in the rehearsal rooms of the company – one project is made under the traditional auteur/director, designer, writer model, another involves a collaboratively devised work, another somewhere in between and the company is flexible enough to be able to accommodate and adapt to the rhythms and styles of process undertaken.

The company’s ensemble program allows for young and emerging artists to continue to develop their skills and get vital contacts and time onstage as they train and work on the season in capacities that include stage-hand and office work, ushering, time spent in classes and observation of the processes of shows that are in rehearsal and development and in roles in the season. This work is backed by the opportunities afforded young makers, directors and facilitators who are also part of this ensemble and whose late in the year group work is another vital piece of the company’s yearly programming.

The company’s programming is applauded for it’s breadth, it’s depth and most importantly, it’s daring. It has no time for “creative industry” as art making is not an industry and no time for “cultural capital” as culture is priceless – it believes risk is it’s own reward. It undertakes to showcase talent, grow and nurture local creation and innovation and create experiences that cannot be replicated in any other medium as well as continually expanding the notion of what performance can be for both itself and it’s audience.

Now this is without offering solutions or budgets and with full knowledge that the future will probably be as much the faces as it is the vase. But it’s what I dream of.”

What’s terrific about this post, in addition to Lucas’s passion about the future (thank you, Lucas) is that Wesley Enoch got onto it, after sitting with us at Poe’s table last night at opening night of The Raven and commented:

“How exciting to read these thoughts…..that’s what we should be doing. Imagining the State Theatre Company of the future…together. It fact the future doesn’t have to be that far away. Love W”

When the Artistic Director of the company invests so much into ongoing public discussion about what the state theatre company of the future looks like, I’m pretty confident that it won’t look too shabby at all. What do you think? What are you hoping to see?

06
Mar
12

Heads up: we’re live-tweeting stuff again!

The GreenHouse Season One
QTC’s The Greenhouse opens on Thursday!
Preceding the official opening event is a fascinating forum:
This event is
Forum: What does the State Theatre of the future look like?

But you don’t have to miss it! We’ll be live-tweeting from the inside…

Follow us on Twitter

and tweet us if you have any questions or comments.
The future of THEATRE: where are we headed and how do we get there? Is it sustainable? Is it relevant?

The forum will feature a series of guests and provocateurs who will offer us insights and invitations to discuss the future directions and relevance of the theatre. Get involved and take advantage of this opportunity to make connections and project positively to the future of our industry and our artists.

Guest speakers include:

Angharad Wynne-Jones (Tipping Point and Arts House Melbourne), Rob Pekin (Foodconnect), Steven Mitchell Wright (Danger Ensemble) and Emma Bennison (Access Arts).

In the meantime, I’m pretty intrigued by my invitation from !Metro Arts to tomorrow night’s (late) performance of THE RAVEN, which requests I leave my partner and my gorgeous shoes behind! Now, I love Poe but can I sit through dinner with him?!