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Makan Nangka Kena Getah (The Blame Game)

This post is coming all the way from Singapore, where I’m holidaying! And it has been a feast for the senses. While food is high on my list of reasons for visiting this amazing little island, I have heard good things about theatrical activities here for some time. When I checked my dates, however, I found very little to whet my appetite. What I did eventually find was an interesting piece produced by a Peranakan community organisation to explore how a traditional theatrical style works in modern Singapore.

First, I might digress a little to put some cultural context around this. Singapore’s Peranakan community is a Chinese cultural group within Singapore’s amazing cosmopolitan microcosm. They constitute a sizeable
proportion of the population, and are otherwise known as the Straits Chinese, as they descend from Chinese migrants to the Straits Colonies of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia during the colonial era.

I would also like to make the point before expressing my opinion on this play that there is much that I will have missed or failed to understand because I am not familiar with the particular theatrical tradition this play
flows from. This is also the first time I have been to theatre anywhere in Asia, and I may be influenced by irrelevant Australian expectations. Much of the audience talked about the play as it was being performed, which I would have expected to draw the odd tsk tsk from an Australian audience, but it seemed natural here, and after a little time it didn’t even bother me. It may be a Singaporean tradition (my theatre history reminds me that in the period in which the English dominated Singaporean social life, talking in British theatres was likewise acceptable; perhaps this didn’t change in Singapore?). It is also worth noting that as I do not understand any
Mandarin, Malay, or Patois Peranakan, I was dependent on the subtitles through much of the play.

The play itself is probably not a masterpiece. Written by local Peranakan teacher, Victor Goh Liang Chuan, it is an attempt to modernise a long-standing Peranakan theatrical tradition that the student of British Theatre might recognise as having much in common with the Well Made Play. A core element of this tradition, however, is humour, and even this ignorant Aussie found much to laugh at in this production.

The story is readily relatable. Madam Tay has raised two sons and a daughter since the death of her husband, and in adulthood feuds break out. The eldest son isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, the next son is clever but
disloyal, and the daughter, though a university graduate, is waiting for the right job to find her while she freeloads off her mum. With two daughters in law to contend with and the area’s busiest busybody for a best friend, it is only a matter of time before the stress of life puts Madam Tay into hospital.

I’m sure I’ve seen something like this on the SBS.

The plot is predictable, and the characters very thinly drawn, but the performers do a great job with what little they have to work with. There is something very genuine and heart warming in this production, and it may just
flow from the oddity of having the audience chatter through the whole play. I felt at the end that I’d just spent a couple of hours amongst a true community. And I’d tolerate the silliness of the whole thing to be a part of
it again.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 12 October 2012 in Pure Theatre, Singapore Theatre, Theatre

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2012 (Week 2)

Week 2 of the Short+Sweet Top 20 began in a very different fashion from the usual festival, with Joe Woodward sitting in a bath wearing a pair of angel’s wings and philosophising about the great question. It was a great start to a great evening of theatre, and I’ll admit I did get a little sentimental.

Short+Sweet really lends itself to great moments. The performance quality varies and the scripts are incredibly diverse, but even when the plays don’t live up to what you might hope for, there is often something that emerges statue-like from the stack. It puts me in mind of Patrick White’s metaphor of a squirming mass of eels from The Ham Funeral (if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour).

Some moments are hilarious, and others are poignant, but in my mind they end up in a montage that makes me feel like I’ve witnessed a single, epic masterpiece. It’s those transcendent moments that make the trivial meaningful.

Ruth Pieloor’s caricature of the prime minister in For the Love of Their Country might have been the performance of the festival. Often I use the word caricature to denigrate sub-par performances, but Pieloor’s observance, emulation and emphasis of Julia Gillard’s mannerisms and very unique vocal qualities was identifiable, amusing and wonderfully distinct. It was caricature of the highest order, which is very difficult to achieve in live theatre.
I was similarly impressed by one of my former classmates from the ANU, Sam Hannan-Morrow, in The Brett I Haven’t Met. Simon Tolhurst could have directed his script in a very different way, with more direct action (as I understand it had been done in The Logues), but it would have lost the raw engagement with the audience that Hannon-Morrow was able to deliver.

There were a few moments, though, when I just wanted to get up and fix things. I loved Remy Coll and Sam Floyd’s concept for Insecurity Guard, and despite a couple of points where the dialogue didn’t quite carry the action, it has a pretty good script, but it really needed a director who wasn’t on stage. These two vey talented performers managed very well, but they needed that extra punch of clarity that an observing director provides.

There is no question that the final moment of the festival, the performance of Genevieve Kenneally’s Ah! was an inspired choice for that particular slot. The energy of Kiki Skountzos, Riley Bell and Elizabeth McRae was precisely what was needed at the end of such a varied night, but the highlight in my book was Smart Jimmy Slow Bob. Greg Gould’s great script was brilliantly delivered by a spectacular cast (Bradley Freeman as the unconscious boy was particularly impressive, I didn’t detect a breath!).

Everyone involved in this festival deserves a pat on the back, not just those I’ve tapped out some words about. Short+Sweet is a unique event in the annual calendar, and I hope it’s a permanent one. What impresses me is where the different people involved in the festival come from. Theatre folk whose paths don’t cross find themselves in the same dressing room for four nights in a row, and that can only be good for our theatre community. And of course with opportunities for those who prefer pure theatre to musical theatre dwindling, it is a particularly important event.

I have two scripts finished (at least to first draft stage) for the 2013 festival, and I hope the wonderful people who made this festival such a great success are around next year.

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2012 (Week 1)

Connie challenges Charlie in ‘The Fence’

Last night I had one of those moments. You know, when something you’ve been working on for a while has come to fruition and is about to end. Theatrical folk do tend to go a little over-the-top experiencing these moments, but it is genuinely sad when you see a cast perform a show you’ve been working on for the last time.

So it was with The Fence and The Commuter in this year’s Short+Sweet. I didn’t realise until just before the lights went up on The Fence for the last time that it was the last time I’d see it. And then I realised it would be the last time I’d see them too (even if they get into the final next Saturday, I can’t be there because of a family commitment). For me they were the culmination of five or so pretty intense weeks of casting, rehearsing, preparing, and of course lots of laughing.

The cast I worked with on The Fence was just great. They were extremely committed to the show, so when the Murphy’s Law of Theatre (that if anybody can get sick s/he will) took effect, it was great to see the cast rally around, make changes to the schedule as necessary and finally plough right on through. The actor in question, Tony Marziano, was a trooper and a director couldn’t have asked for more in terms of commitment and effort, and the result was great. Katarina Thane gave a lot to the role of Connie, and I was so pleased to see the vision I had of this kind of suburban Lady Macbeth realised. And it was great to be able to catch up with an old uni friend, Arne Sjostedt, who played the neighbour, John, with great humour.

I hope it did justice to the writer’s vision. It was difficult to have to ask Coralie Daniels, the playwright, if we could cut the script when we found we were quite significantly over the ten minute time limit. The cuts we finally made did make a significant difference to the play’s reference points, but they gave us a stronger ending, and of course brought us within cooee of the time limit. My last play in Short+Sweet, Mr Fixit, was found to be significantly over the time limit, and the cuts were quite brutal. Not so with The Commuter, which I carefully restricted to seven pages (though it still comes close).

The Commuter deals with a strange kid and an American tourist.

I will never get tired of seeing characters that started as a vague image in the dark recesses of my mind come to life on stage. Arne was in this one too, bringing my American tourist to life, and young Henry Maley made a great precocious eight-year-old, with Gabriel Strachan as his aggressively protective mother. But of course it all came down to Simon Clarke’s portrayal of the commuter himself, and I was very pleased that he didn’t turn out to be either too ocker, or in any way a bleeding heart. This character could be portrayed in many ways, and I was really pleased with how closely Simon aligned the character to my vision.

The calibre of plays being performed in this week’s Short+Sweet really is impeccable. I was a little surprised, to be honest, having read Gerry Greenland’s script for Driving the Holden, with how well it translated to the stage. Sometimes you just don’t see the characters in reading the play, and Lis Shelley’s direction has served Dan Holliday and Nick Foong’s efforts well in bringing this story to life. It’s a very strong start to the festival. On opening night, it was disappointing to see the cast of A Short History of Weather drop a line in the middle of their otherwise impeccable performance, and I was so pleased to see the play again last night without the cicadas. They deserve an encouragement award for powering on, especially since the result last night was so effective.

But I think the play to fear in week one is definitely Spit for Tat. The sight gag of lovers spitting water all over each other is funny enough, but performers Scott Rutar and Caroline Simone O’Brien have backed it up with stellar performances that demonstrate some fantastic character development. Despite the somewhat fanciful nature of the script, they’re completely believable in every moment, and deliver what for my money is the standout performance of week one.

Short+Sweet has been a lot of fun, and I’m so glad I managed to participate this year. The Commuter will be available on my scripts page in a day or two, but it’s better to see it than read it, and unless the judges choose it for the Gala Final, tonight’s your last chance!

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 25 August 2012 in Canberra Theatre, Short+Sweet, Theatre

 

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Short+Sweet Brisbane 2012

Hearing that my play The Commuter had been chosen for the Wildcards in the Brisbane Short+Sweet Festival, I made some changes to a work trip and tacked on a weekend in Brisbane. So you can imagine my disappointment when I sat down in the theatre with the program, and couldn’t find my play listed!

I learned later that the cast had pulled the plug at the last minute, and there was nothing the organisers could do. So as disappointing as it was, all that was left for it was to enjoy the wild card entries that had made it. Not a particularly difficult task.

I was impressed with the calibre of these ten minute performances, most of which I’d have thought would have been worthy of the top 20.

Copstitutes told the story of twins who had inherited their mother’s brothel only for their first client to drop dead, turning them into instant private detectives. The performances were impeccable, and the energy admirable, right up until that two-thirds-through point when the action seemed to get lost. It seemed to me that maybe someone had fluffed a line and the cast list their mojo.

But for me the pick of the Wildcards was Tagalong Theatre Company’s It Came From the Couch, in which the cast’s incredible energy and focus told of impeccable direction from Dee Dee Shi and a tightly wound script from Chris Kestrel.

The one that took the position mine lost was particularly good, too. In On The Shelf an enthusiastic carrot and disillusioned celeriac meet a young cauliflower who has just arrived on the supermarket shelf and eagerly anticipates a nice cheese sauce. This one boasted a great script and some very generous performances from Brea Robertson, Bek Groves and Chris Charteris.

It was interesting to be around the theatre before the Gala Final too. The number of people who arrived and greeted each other like old friends really demonstrated one of the best aspects of Short+Sweet; the way it develops a community around it and brings the whole experience to life.

So despite my disappointment, it was a great show, and I’m glad I got to see it. I’m more keen than ever to see how The Commuter goes in Canberra this week, and today I’ve got a first draft of another script ready to submit for Short+Sweet 2013.

Short+Sweet Canberra opens on Wednesday 22 August at the Canberra Theatre Centre, and The Commuter is in the first week of the Top 20.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 19 August 2012 in Brisbane Theatre, Festivals, Short+Sweet, Theatre

 

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A new theatre blogger is about in Canberra!

So I was scrolling through Facethingy for something interesting this morning, and lo and behold, I was successful. That doesn’t happen often!

I came across a link to a new blog about theatre in Canberra. Again, anonymous, and seemingly a little critical of Canberra’s slightly longer-standing anonymous critic, Max, who’s had a six-month head start and has ruffled a few feathers. This blogger, who goes by the title That Guy Who Watches Canberra Theatre is rather more modest and wants to increase conversation about theatre in Canberra, which I appreciate rather more than Max‘s claim that whatever s/he thinks is Gospel. Well, I congratulate That Guy on that, and wish him all the best. I also look forward to offering the odd pingback where we happen to post about the same show.

My one little hesitation is that I’m not fond of the anonymous critic idea generally. It has some merit, since it allows the critic to be completely candid about people s/he might otherwise just pay lip service to, but it also encourages that most useless form of criticism, the attack. Max has been known to tear artists down under the rather bemusing motto of being “objective, honest and accurate” (objectivity is of course impossible in a critic, who by definition must take a position; and an accuracy of opinion is hardly something to distinguish any individual critic from any other (for all anyone knows every critic’s expression of his/her opinion has always been accurate); though I value the honesty). Max is rarely as aggressive as the worst of the critics at the Crimes (a significant achievement!). So while I can understand why a critic might want to remain anonymous, and don’t really object, I just don’t see enough value in anonymity. If opinions are personal, they should be owned by a person and not paraded about as gospel.

I’m aware I’m sitting in a glass house here; I haven’t always focused on what I like, which was my intention for this blog when I started it four years ago. But nonetheless, I stand behind my opinions and own them. My real name is all over this blog and everything that links to it, and anyone can click through or search for my Facebook or Twitter accounts to hurl abuse right back at me. There are photos of my face so that if you don’t know me and you object to something I write you can approach me the next time you see me in a theatre foyer and punch it. Even my phone number is here, freely available for you! Anyone can post a dissenting point of view in response to my posts, and know who they’re having a conversation with. When I review for Australian Stage, I need to be more forthcoming, and I don’t get the privilege of simply not writing about shows I really don’t like. On my blog, though, I can just speak my mind about what I do like and save my vitriol for Andrew Lloyd Webber, who truly deserves it for his criminal aversion to character and plot.

At times, I’ve found myself and people I’ve worked with desperately discouraged by the Crimes’ most viscous and disreputable reviewers, and though their reviews aren’t anonymous, I fear the same level of vitriol could develop as a result of Max and That Guy‘s anonymity. It doesn’t really help, and this kind of critic potentially leads great artists to quit and exit the field based on one irrelevant person’s opinion before they’ve created their greatest work or found what they’re really good at. I prefer the philosophy of pointing out what I value and hoping the artist does more of that. I certainly hope that no artist I’ve been critical of sees my opinion as being more important than anyone else’s.

The two posts currently up on That Guy‘s blog are reasonably balanced and positive, so I guess time will tell whether the anonymity will be a blessing or a curse. I just hope it doesn’t become a haven for discouraging the wonderful artists who make up Canberra’s theatre community. Overall, it’s just great to have another blog about Canberra theatre around, and I’m looking forward to a greater diversity of opinions being expressed (especially because That Guy‘s no great fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber). Have a look at his review of Free Rain’s Cats here.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 22 July 2012 in blog, Canberra Theatre, news, Theatre

 

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The Bugalugs Bum Thief

Playing at The Street Theatre this week is Monkey Baa’s latest incarnation of one of Australia’s best-named plays, The Bugalugs Bum Thief. No, it’s not quite Shakespeare, but it’s closer than one might assume.

Its central character, Skeeter Anderson, just one young member of Bugalugs’ coastal community, wakes up one morning to find his bum is missing, which proves inconvenient for him. He soon finds that just about everyone in town has had their bum stolen, including his friend Mick Misery, for whom it is not so inconvenient, as it means his mum can’t smack him. The advantages of life without a bum, however, do not prove to outweigh the disadvantages, and Skeeter sets out to identify the bum thief and locate everyone’s bums.

The entire town is brought to life through the generous energy of just three performers who present mums, dads, teachers, police and sailors as well as their main role as a child. It may not be universally accepted as a compliment, but Gideon Cordover, Carl Batchelor and Mark Dessaix make excellent children, which is particularly helpful when…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 

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Renaming my blog

The few people who read this blog may have noticed some changes. I recently moved it from Blogger to WordPress (which was a great move, by the way), and I’ve overhauled its categories and tags. That’s all pretty superficial though. The real change has been longer and more gradual, and represents an evolution in what this blog really is.

I started this blog four years ago following a series of conversations with Canberra theatre folk who were particularly disappointed with the quality of theatre criticism in Canberra. My intention was to do what most Canberra critics didn’t do: write nice things about good theatre. Of course there were a few critics at the Crimes and other media outlets who tried to be constructive, but most just berated performers, writers and directors and like many others I found myself on the receiving end of their overwhelming efforts at comprehensive discouragement. I wanted to be an encouraging voice.

So much for my good intentions.

I have tried to be positive in this context, and there have been plenty of times when I just haven’t written about a production because I found it actually lived down to the critics’ expectations[1]. But things change. I started writing for Australian Stage, and unlike a blog post where I can just be myself and say what I liked, in that context I have to be more objective. I also started writing about films, which I love just as much as theatre; and sometimes television can be just as cathartic a dramatic experience, so I started writing the odd post about television. And when my day job started flying me interstate every month or so, I started writing about shows outside Canberra.

And in the course of all these changes I also discovered that writing blog posts about what I liked had a really positive impact on my own writing. I knew more instinctively how to build characters and structure narratives because when I wrote about other people’s shows, I reinforced the positive responses in my mind. The very act of writing a blog has become something like a journal of my post-tertiary education.

And that’s why I don’t care that so few people read it.

But since my blog has become such a cathartic procedure in my development as a playwright, I’m starting to think I should be more deliberate about that. Although I’ve put up a page offering samples of my script, I haven’t written about the process of submitting those scripts to competitions in the hope that someone somewhere with the power to do something about it will do what needs to be done to get the damn thing staged. I should. And from now on, I will.

And that leads me to the request I started writing this post for. If you’ve read this far into my blathering about nothing much really you may have realised that ‘Foyer Talk’ is not a name that sums up what this blog has evolved into. I wasn’t even happy with it when I named it four years ago. I see blogs all over with much cleverer names, and someone called Trevar should definitely have a clever name for his blog.

So, I’m asking you; can you think of a better name for my blog? It needs something that captures the blog it’s evolved into. I’ve thought of “Caterpillar Dreaming”, but that’s über naff and not very clever at all. I also thought of “e-merging playwright” but that’s even naffer than the other, so I’m useless at this. It sometimes takes me months to name a play, so I’m in no hurry with this process, but I would love your help.

And if you happen to come up with the cleverest and not-at-all-naff name, I might just reward you by taking you to the theatre with me[2]. Or punish you by taking you to the theatre with me, if that’s the way you want to look at it. Either way, you’ll get something for nothing.


[1] NB there are other reasons why I might not write about a show, including my rule that I don’t write if I can’t do it within a few days of seeing the show, so don’t assume that if you’ve seen me at your show and I didn’t write about it that I didn’t like it! Or, if you know it was bad, maybe you can assume that!

[2] As long as you live in Canberra. If not, you’ll have to come visit me in Canberra. Unless you happen to live in an interstate capital where I visit occasionally. Or Singapore, where I’m going in October. Terms and conditions apply. I don’t know what they are, but I will figure that out when we come to it. Just suggest a name or two!

 
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Posted by on Friday, 6 July 2012 in blog, news

 

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