Thursday 8 February 2018

shared enquiry

When I first arrived at UWA in Perth in 1989, at the same time as being rather overwhelmed by the beauty of its situation and that astonishing Moreton Bay fig tree, I was immediately struck by the university’s outstanding resources in terms of spaces for making theatre: the Octagon, the Dolphin, the New Fortune, as well as a small studio space. To my mind, these were world-class resources, far more ‘professional’ and plural in their possibilities than anything I had seen in England. During my six years at UWA, I was able to work with students in each of these spaces, and a wide range of contexts further afield for site-based workshop projects: the tree-lined open-air cinema behind the studio, the river front at the eastern edge of the campus, the quarries in the hills at Boya, even the sand dunes of Lancelin. 

In addition, I was struck by how adventurous and generative the theatre culture was on campus. Experimentation was thoughtful, conceptually informed, and often bold. My colleagues – notably Bill Dunstone, and David George at Murdoch – were intellectually gifted and challenging, inviting and provoking new thoughts, perceptions and questions in me as well as their students: about dramaturgy, historiography, representation, and performance as an epistemology. In very different ways, these two taught me a great deal about thinking into and through performance.

In particular I was massively buoyed and challenged by the students involved in productions, drawn from different courses at UWA as well as from Murdoch University as part of a joint programme. I was fortunate to work with people studying history, architecture, law and art as well as theatre and English. 15 years after leaving UWA, without nostalgia I can now see that they were amongst the best students I have ever had: inquisitive, intellectually and creatively energized, industrious, open and very brave. At the time I thought of many of them as smart, imaginative, driven, eccentric and often very funny people with whom to really chase something. 

At its best, for me, teaching has always felt like shared enquiry, a developmental arc for all concerned, rather than the giving over of knowledge by a supposed ‘expert’. Like theatre making, it is rooted in an everyday politics and ethics of relationality and exchange. This was certainly the case with such people as Barry Laing, Felicity Bott, Ahmad Abas, Janet Lee, Imbi Neeme, Andrea McVeigh, Chris Kohn, Ben Laden, Leon Ewing, Paul Tassone, Robert Hannah, Jodie Wise, Bronwyn Turnbull and others. They were unquestionably talented people, and since that time many of them have become established practitioners in their own right, in theatre and elsewhere.

In truth, I had little idea how to make theatre when I arrived in Perth, or at least the kind of theatre that I dreamt of but didn’t often encounter. I came brimming with enthusiasms for some work I had seen, sometimes live but more often on grainy videos passed on to me like samizdat, barely legible copies of copies. I knew I was interested in devised work rather than dramatic literature per se, and I suspected that performance rather than theatre was really where the ideas caught fire. I had a taste for the hybrid and the physically rooted, image-based events hovering somewhere between theatre and dance that I rather pretentiously conceived of in terms of a ‘critical surrealism’. Above all, I wanted something to happen. 

In my late 20s, I had a head full of Pina Bausch, Laurie Anderson, Peter Brook, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Hélène Cixous. I loved new dance, bands and live music more than theatre, which so often felt tired, its languages worn and predictable. I loved new fiction writing, and the presence of people like Gail Jones within the department excited me; I used to attend Gail’s lectures whenever possible, and she taught me a great deal too, about an attention to language and the writerly agencies of the reader. 

The Festival of Perth, at that time run by David Blenkinsop and Henry Boston, further fueled my enthusiasms, in particular through its outstanding dance and new performance programme. It provided me, and my young collaborators, with an ongoing education – through the work of, for example, Josef Nadj, Maguy Marin, Alain Platel’s Les Ballets C de la B, and the early pieces of Chrissie Parrott, as well as productions by internationally established companies like the brilliant Rustavelli from Georgia and dynamic young physical theatre practitioners like Theatre de Complicite. 

My core collaborator throughout this period was Barry Laing. When I first met him at UWA, he was a ferociously bright undergraduate student of history and theatre, and already an unusually compelling and gifted performer. From the outset I was impressed and provoked by his intellectual intensity, his genuine desire to make work, and his remarkable focus and presence as a physically engaged performer. As collaborators we were immediately attuned and generative; it seems we gave each other substantial courage, license, energy and ideas. Now a theatre maker and teacher in tertiary contexts in Melbourne, Barry remains one of my closest and most respected friends to this day.

Another core ally in the making of all of the student productions at UWA was Anne Hearder. On first acquaintance a somewhat daunting figure with her omnipresent and impossibly stacked-up ashtray smouldering to one side, and her (to me) slightly ‘old school disciplinarian’ protocols, Anne became a close friend and a profoundly trusted collaborator. She taught the students, and me, an enormous amount about managing projects, resourcefulness, communication, the pragmatics of stagecraft and the importance of networks of support. Although much of the performance work was distant in form from her own familiar territories, she was unhesitating and big-hearted in her support, and uncompromising in her commitment to seeing things through to the point at which they were the best they could possibly be. I loved and respected her for that; she was utterly invaluable.

With these students, these resources, the stimulus in term of models of contemporary practice, the food for thought provided by colleagues, and the indomitable Anne Hearder, UWA looked like an ideal context in which to really take the plunge and explore some hunches, some emerging ‘whiffs of worlds’, the beginnings of something. I wasn’t sure precisely what, but all sorts of things certainly felt possible.

Over the next few years, and with the encouragement of a most supportive head of department Bob White, then Gareth Griffiths, alongside many small projects generated within the curriculum I directed a small number of Theatre Studies public productions: a version of Caryl Churchill and David Lan’s A Mouthful of Birds (1989, The Octagon, and at the York Theatre Festival); a condensed, runaway-train version of Macbeth (Macbeth: a modern ecstasy, 1990, The Dolphin); a devised show drawing on texts by Deborah Levy, William Burroughs and Joe Chaikin, an attempt to make a spell to cheat death - a close friend in Perth had just died from cancer at the age of 32 (Thunder Perfect Mind, The Dolphin, 1992); and Still-life, a dance-theatre piece based on texts by Rimbaud, Seneca and Caryl Churchill (The Dolphin, 1994). 

I am proud of this work, it did its job – and the ambition and commitment of the students were consistently inspiring. Also, as part of the 1994 Festival of Perth, I directed a devised adaptation of Deborah Levy’s novel Beautiful Mutants in the New Fortune. It is worth noting that a number of former UWA and Murdoch students took core roles as performers and co-devisers (Felicity Bott, Andrea McVeigh and Barry Laing, who was also co-adapter and co-director), as well as scenographer (the sculptor Ricardo Peach) and sound and lighting designers (Andrew Beck and Margaret Burton respectively).

My approach throughout this period was insistently collaborative and much more intuitive than intellectual at its genesis; thought emerged from doing as a mode and site of enquiry, rather than theatre making being a vehicle for staging pre-existent thought, for illustrating a ‘thesis’. We used whatever strategies and materials seemed to contain the possibility of momentum in any particular context: improvisation triggered by a text or an image, a lot of reverse engineering from things that were ‘a bit like’ what we were after, music as compositional structure to re-fashion and unfold in space, a lot of hovering around rhythms that ‘did’ things, fumblings with dramaturgy as an affective as well as intellectual weave. We worked obsessively, often out of our depths and off our maps. We got lost and sometimes found things. 

In retrospect and at the time, it was seriously good fun, richly informative (about working with other people, about art and the resonant shapes it might take), and intellectually, imaginatively and creatively demanding; what more could one ask of art making in an educational context? I am grateful for having had the opportunity to collaborate with such remarkable people in such a context. It changed everything for me, and these experiences continue to inform the performance making and teaching in which I’m involved today in England and Europe. 

This essay - memories of what feels like a previous life - and extensive photographic documentation were commissioned for the UWA Centenary Theatre Collection (a new permanent collection of over 500 print and graphic items), Perth, Western Australia. The essay reflects on my own theatre practice in Western Australia, 1989-1995. Curated by Bill Dunstone, Wendy Dundas and Collin O’Brien, the Collection will be launched on 15 March 2013. The entire archive is to be digitized and made available online by UWA Special Collections. The essay is dedicated to the memory of Anne Hearder. 

Photographs (from the top): Still Life; Thunder Perfect Mind; Macbeth, a modern ecstasy; Beautiful Mutants; A Mouthful of Birds. 

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