For the season at Latrobe, I relocated from the cosy guest house of Neal and Pam Rodwell to the luxury guest wing of the home of Stephanie Finn, my collaborator on ‘Everyone’s a Critic’, her husband, Nick Kent, their two daughters Olivia and Michaela, and their cats, Tilly and Minka. They live at a coastal hamlet, called Penguin, halfway between Wynyard and Latrobe.
Nick grew up here and after many years on the mainland, and some success, the family has relocated here. When Nick is home he likes to cook – so here I was enjoying a different version of Tasmanian domestic 5-star hospitality. And certainly not complaining.
It was with Stephanie and a car full of gear that we travelled south through the Tasmanian heartland and into Hobart. We were the first from the crew to arrive at what is one of the most delightful hotels I have encountered in my centuries of global travel. It is called The Astor Private Hotel: “Not uptown, not downtown, but in town.” And it is run by a most delightful woman called Tildy. Big hART had the entire hotel to itself, and Tildy was amazingly tolerant of the mess we left each night in the sitting room – after coming home from tech runs and performances and staying up late as travelling theatre folk tend to do. It was like a kind of Alice in Wonderland upside version of Faulty Towers where only good things happened and everything worked.
The Ten Days On The Island festival was now in full swing, and unfortunately – as happens in festivals – This Is Living had been relegated to a venue quite unsuited to its character. The Derwent Entertainment Centre (DEC) in Glenorchy, officially Greater Hobart.
The same ‘community’ work had been undertaken in the months prior to our arrival, and so we had a new group of seniors and a new group of young people. This time the young people were not ‘skater dudes’ so much as half of Rae Dunium’s drama studies students from years 9/10 at nearby Rosetta High. The other half formed one of my ‘Everyone’s a Critic’ classes. So the students were equally divided between those ‘in’ the show, and those ‘thinking and writing’ about it.
My time in Hobart was particularly hectic. I ran a second ‘Everyone’s a Critic’ class at Claremont High, where one of the themes of the play took on a special relevance: in the form of ‘youngies v oldies’ down in the local village shopping square. Tensions were running high as ‘oldies’ were seeking to ban the ‘youngies’ entirely from the precinct. So along with the general discussion about the ‘nature of theatre’, easy stuff, the notion of how the ‘young people’ might strategically and pro-actively move the community debate forward was actively discussed. The last I heard, the class’s self-devised production this year was possibly going to take this subject as its theme. Its own version of This is Living meets High School Musical! So again you get an idea in how Big hART works – often in the most unexpected ways.
My time was also taken up with a more high-powered festival project called ‘Critical Acclaim’ which brought together a group of writers who wanted to look seriously at the art and craft of reviewing. They were a most delightful group of people, their schedule beyond hectic – but I greatly enjoyed my two days with them. That project involved a number of ‘facilitators’. I handed over to Ms Alison Croggon – mistress of the premiere Australian theatre blog-de-realm – theatrenotes. It was good to meet her at last in real space and time, after so many communications ‘on-line’. We shared a round table discussion at an oblong table with the class, and to the surprise of the students (and perhaps ourselves?) we pretty much agreed on everything each of us had to say about the duties and ups-and-downs of being a critic.
While I was away with these pixies, the show was being bumped into the DEC, which – so far as interior décor goes – has all the charm of a large Centrelink office. This is likely to be a meaningless visual reference to most of my readers – having only known success - but for me the vast dispiriting spaces and plastic chairs, silent TV monitors, do-nothing security guards, etc, reeked redolent of recidivist years handing in fortnightly forms to bitter and begrudging….
The production failed somewhat to connect with the urban Glenorchy community, and I am unsure if many of ‘global influence’ visiting the City of Hobart for the festival considered our production a priority. The vast space available to us was closed down with a ring of black curtains to more intimate proportions; and staff at the centre was thankfully fabulously helpful.
While the production had less ‘soul’ in Glenorchy, the wiz-bang technology available helped certain members of the crew – sound, lighting and AV in particular. There was no meaningful place for entertainment ‘outside’ the venue. But the stage depth did allow for massive half-pipe to be located, this time, on stage.
With fewer ‘skater dudes’ available in Glenorchy (as a matter of principle we did not raid down-town Hobart), the Rosetta High students gave the youth component quite a new more ‘choreographed’ look. Interestingly there were more women this time among the ‘seniors’ component, and they were a particularly lively and enthusiastic mob. So while the show may not have made its mark on the broader Glenorchy community, it was a wild success for those from this community who had chosen to get involved.
Most of the Seniors even stayed back for the arduous bump out, as did the bulk of the kids. Other changes made included bringing the community stall indoors into the foyer, along with a more diminished version of the skater ‘show and tell’. Onstage, the skater component was huge and visually magnificent, as lighting changes allowed for huge shadows of the youth ‘moments’ to be flung up against the theatre’s huge back wall.
The brutality of the Glenorchy environment exposed some of the production’s less obvious innate weaknesses, which Scott had the courage to confront. Dramatically, he decided to remove the interval break. This improved the rhythm of the piece and narrative flow. Astutely, Scott also moved a tiny bit of amusing dialogue up to the very top of the opening scene. In thus grabbing a laugh first up, the whole drama unfolded through a more whimsical lens. And the show enjoyed more laughter from audiences at every performance there-after. Amazing how theatre works.
A highlight in advance of the first matinee was news that federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett wished to make an announcement to the Big hART mob. Typically Scott Rankin improvised a highly dramatic format. Ten minutes before the first performance came to a close, while the skaters we had were doing their ‘thang’ up back, the show was stalled and Garrett walked out onto the a stage into blinking bright lights surrounded by an ebullient gaggle of ‘today’s youth’. Television and print media were pre-prepared. Garrett gave a most engaging speech directed to the mostly high-school student audience about the value of participating in the arts of all forms, and honoured Big hART for its leadership in this field with a special ‘minimal strings attached’ funding of $450,000.
For Big hART, which has survived up to this time on the veritable ‘smell of an oil rag’, it was the climax of a series of financial rewards to have been awarded the company over previous weeks. One was Big hART being awarded the highly prestigious Group Award in the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards, a few days earlier, worth $70,000. Creative Director Scott Rankin dedicated the award to the ‘philanthropy of Bob Targett’, who has donated the last 15 years of his time to work as Big hART’s company administrator in the head office in Devonport.
There was also good news from SBS television as Big hART was named one of only 17 recipients, out of 500 bids, to be included in SBS Foundation’s ‘donated air-time’ scheme. Big hART’s campaign – “Unusual Stories From Inspiring Communities” – will run between May 2009 and April 2010, profiling the Ngapartji Ngapartji, GOLD, This Is Living and Drive projects.”
Out and about one night after the show, hanging around Hobart’s lively Salamanca precinct, I spied a gentleman and a gentleman spied me – as we both got out of neighbouring cars. His name is Mike Morris (not to be confused with another with the same name who has spent many years involved in theatre in Australia). Mike is a producer of some note, based in London, connected to artists as prestigious as Pina Bausch and Robert Lepage. Mike also creates massive ‘community-based’ projects around the UK, not unlike the work of Big hART in philosophy. We had not seen each other for seventeen years. Such are one of the pleasures of arts festival attending – bumping into colleagues from long ago.
As the fates would have it, Scott Rankin wandered into the heady environment ,and so I set to introducing these two worthy artistic types, flooding their wine glasses with more at every opportunity – seeing only good in their getting to know a little of each other’s work. I made the mistake, however, of matching them drink for drink; even though my own attention had turned to a delightful conversation with actor Paul Blackwell (who happened to arrive with Morris).
The upshot of this Dionysian frenzy was a rather dramatic setback in my hotel room later that night. It was the first time I had got drunk since the now famous ‘incident on the train’. I was fortunately sharing a room with Brett Monaghan, but neither of us had ever encountered a panic attack in the form of hyper-ventilation. I discovered later all my decisions only exacerbated the state I was in – for example, putting myself under a hot shower. At one point, Brett found me almost unconscious on the floor of the bathroom. In my own mind I had fled to Mars – the planet of psychic war – and been utterly defeated.
Folk in other rooms were awoken by the racket, including hard-boiled Billy Mercer. Brett mistakenly warded him off unaware that here was an expert in this particular frontier of life-experience. The next day Billy – who appears to have suffered considerable brutality in his own short life – took me aside and explained to me what he knew about panic attacks and how to deal with them.
This good counsel passed on, I regard as one of the biggest ‘Big hART’ moments for me on the tour. Here, the kid from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ was passing on hard-earned wisdom to a city yuppie old enough to be his father. He taught me the trick of ‘breathing into a paper bag’; and explained how you “can’t change the past…mate.” I glanced at Billy at one point and asked him what he aspired to? “I just want to help other people,” he shrugged. Not one for big speeches, he added, “That’s all.” That’s all? The Big hArt crew working around us at the time, I did wonder where such a crazy idea might have come from….