A pile of new home-grown works are premiering at this 2012 Sydney Festival – and I’ve seen three in 24 hours.Well, over a cycle of two evenings. What’s great about seeing them so close together is the chance to observe just how innovative much of our theatre practice is nowadays. What would have caused a great fuss a few years ago is is simply the accepted way of making work now. New means it leads to unexpected outputs – and hence fresh ways of looking at our ever-changing world.
First off the rank was Urban Theatre Project’s (UTP) Buried City at Upstairs Belvoir. UTP have made regular appearances at Sydney Festivals over recent years. Based in Bankstown, often creating site-specific work, Festival regulars have previously had to trek beyond their cultural comfort zone to locations ‘out West’ to take in the company’s innovative works – like Back Home, Lost Highway and The Fence. The innovation lies mostly in the way director Alicia Talbot puts the company’s works together. UTP – in their studies of life among this city’s underclass – the poor, the lost, the forgotten and the confused – were among the first to regularly draw significantly on a collaborative process that includes ‘community consultation’ and then, from that, deploy a very specific method of drawing a unified drama out of the threads of many conversations and disparate ‘offers’ in the rehearsal room. Plus working with actors with the necessary improvisational skills to co-create that way.
Buried City represents several departures. The company has come to town – at time when so much more of the Festival is in reach of the city’s ‘non-East’ inhabitants with a hive of activity this year out at Parramatta. And they have invited a writer of some status, Melbourne’s Raimondo Cortese, in advance of rehearsals to prepare a script. It looks like Cortese knew who the actors would be, because the dialogue sits very close to the performers’ skins. But I think, here, the actors also had a role in re-working the draft material during the rehearsal process.
What we have onstage, visually, is a whole lot of scaffolding suggesting a building site – and indeed a site office stuck up on the top right corner. We get to meet a motley collection of humans loitering after hours, devoid of too much intent. It’s quite a poetic environment in a bleak Beckett-like way. and indeed a lot of significant ‘nothing much happens’ takes place. One of Talbot’s gifts is to keep such unmotivated characters moving. And with Cortese deliberately creating a script that focuses on tiny, telling scraps and fragments, while eschewing a grand narrative, what we get is a memorial to urban loneliness.
I don’t want to say much more now, because I don’t think I saw a great performance. The set relies on the city’s night light spilling across the stage from a window. I saw an early show that played before sundown – so none of that. I also saw the show three days into its season – on a Sunday at 6.30 - and, for all sorts of reasons anyone in the business would understand, it was pretty flat. The adrenaline rush that would have got them through opening night and perhaps another day had shunted to a stop. Since the script is decidedly fragmentary, the cast for this show needs to work very closely together mentally for the audience to feel like Buried City is of a piece. And we got the opposite.
Rather than criticise (in the negative sense) – because I sense there is good (and quite bold) show here – I’d rather step back. Give the show a chance to get back up on its feet and then go see again. Another reason for stalling. After Buried City, I stumbled into people who were about to attend a dress rehearsal for the other show Belvoir is hosting for the Festival – I’m Your Man (in their Downstairs space). It’s an interesting departure for Belvoir to be collaborating with the creators of these shows, both Westie in origin, because both also deploy very different processes to those we might identify as Belvoirian! The folk creating I’m You Man – action set in a Bankstown gym – are closely connected to the team that created the UTP show: several have worked on each other’s shows in the past and together they share a lot of values about what they think good theatre is and how to make it. This is a particular family of Sydney theatre makers who work outside the yuppie mainstream, and yet often come up with some of the most innovative, tactile and bold work we get to see in this city.
I Am Your Man’s director Rosalyn Oades – assisted in the physicalisation of the work by Lee Wilson – explores the world of boxing and boxers. From a formal point of view, Oades takes UTP’s ‘consultative process’ one step further. Deploying a technique she has used before, Oades has interviewed a number of boxers – some quite famous like Jeff Fenech and Tony Mundine. On stage, their voices are fed into the ears of the actors by way of headphones. It’s verbatim theatre pushed to the limit because the actors have to parallel vocally exactly what’s being fed into their ears. And at the same time bring their characters to life physically. All play more than one role – so shifts in body language as well as accent and pronunciation are a feature. The whole atmosphere is quite tournament like.
As much as I was ‘unlucky’ with the the particular performance of Buried City I’d just seen Upstairs, I was ‘lucky’ in attending this particular rehearsal. I Am Your Man is well and truly ready for its opening night and, without the pressure of reviews and cognoscenti, this run was as relaxed as it was potent. Here’s some footage from earlier rehearsals, just warm-up stuff but you get the idea, the company has assembled and posted on YouTube.
Given the similarities the two shows being hosted by Belvoir share, and that’s its too soon to ‘review’ I Am Your Man quite yet, I thought I would post this little introduction to both shows and come back to them in a week or so. Oh the third show I saw in this brief 24-hour+ time cycle was Force Majeure’s Never Did Me Any Harm – a co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company. This fascinating and excellently realised show deserves its own post. I cite it here because, in terms of form and process, it shares much with the two shows playing at Belvoir. Outside the major companies, a lot of good work is being made in this town.