Melbourne’s eccentric theatre-makers are storming the establishment, writes Robin Usher
DIRECTOR Daniel Schlusser is used to rehearsing in out-of-theway spaces in old warehouses, but even he admits that Seddon, in Melbourne’s inner west, is far from theatre-land. ‘‘ Some people have found they can’t find us using sat-nav,’’ he says of the rapidly gentrifying suburb between Melbourne’s docks and the city. ‘‘ It’s fine once you get here, although it tends to shut down after about 3pm.’’
The affordability of studio spaces, such as the one Schlusser is using to rehearse his latest play, is one of the factors that makes Melbourne’s independent theatre scene the most vibrant in the country.
Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Brett Sheehy goes further, putting Melbourne in the top tier of creativity anywhere in the world.
Seddon’s bare timber rehearsal space may have little in common with MTC’s plush new Southbank headquarters but that is where the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s new production, Menagerie, is heading as part of the groundbreaking Neon Festival of Independent Theatre.
This is an ambitious move by Sheehy in his first year in charge at MTC. He has invited five of Melbourne’s leading independent theatremakers to present their latest works in consecutive two-week seasons in the Lawler Studio from May 16 when Menagerie opens.
Sheehy has provided $500,000 for the festival and is allowing the companies to keep their box-office takings. Schlusser and the other companies taking part — Fraught Outfit, Hayloft Project, the Rabble and Sisters Grimm — have complete artistic freedom.
‘‘ They can create anything in any way they want to,’’ Sheehy says. ‘‘ I have stressed they should not try to make something just to suit MTC audiences.’’
They have taken him at his word. The Rabble’s Emma Valente and Kate Davis are basing their work on Pauline Re´age’s erotic
Story of O; Sisters Grimm creators Declan Greene and Ash Flanders are bringing their queer and trashy aesthetic to pioneering life in
The Sovereign Wife; Adena Jacobs is adapting early 20th-century German classic On the
Bodily Education of Young Girls for Fraught Outfit; and the Hayloft Project’s Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks are unpacking Greek mythology in By Their Own Hands.
Schlusser, who has been making new work on Melbourne’s fringe for about 20 years, is the oldest artist participating in Neon. Most of the others are aged about 30.
‘‘ Directors from my generation used to look up to Barrie Kosky,’’ Schlusser says, referring to the director who kick-started Melbourne’s fashion for discovering ‘‘ found’’ theatrical spaces in the early 1990s.
‘‘ There is a lot of work going in Melbourne but until now I have always felt the independents were kept outside the castle walls,’’ he
says. ‘‘ But this time we are on the inside. Cross-fertilisation is finally happening after more than a decade of being blocked from finding a pathway to better funding for our shows.’’
Menagerie is based on the life and work of Tennessee Williams, one of the giants of the American stage. ‘‘ I have such a deep love for his plays but I always felt their actual motor is different from the way they are usually presented,’’ Schlusser says.
Rather than presenting one of Williams’s classics — such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A
Streetcar Named Desire — and working within existing copyright restrictions, Schlusser and his ensemble decided to create something new and surprising. He is taking advantage of his cast’s ‘‘ great singing voices’’ to include popcultural references.
While he praises Sheehy’s generosity in mounting Neon, Schlusser notes the MTC is among the last of the country’s main-stage companies to take advantage of the best of independent talent.
Schlusser directed The Histrionic for the Malthouse and Sydney Theatre Company last year. Key members of all the Neon companies previously have worked at Malthouse, Melbourne’s second main-stage company.
That was before festival director Sheehy came to MTC, succeeding Simon Phillips, whose winning formula had produced 21,000 subscribers, the largest audience base in Australia. But there was a widespread feeling that MTC’s success was due to safe and predictable programming.
Sheehy is determined to reinvigorate the company. ‘‘ There was a perception the MTC had stood apart for a long time from all the creative activity happening elsewhere,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wanted to broaden the company’s appeal but I had not figured out how to do it until I started talking to Adena Jacobs
about the richness of Melbourne’s independent sector.’’
Jacobs, a Victorian College of the Arts graduate, says the depth of talent is due to several factors, including the VCA’s teaching philosophy. There is also the support provided by Liz Jones at Carlton’s veteran La Mama Theatre, and St Kilda’s Theatre Works under Daniel Clarke, who recently has produced all five of the Neon companies, as well as established festivals such as Fringe and Next Wave.
Jacobs met Sheehy when she was an artistic fellow at the Melbourne Festival in 2011, a period that gave her confidence to create ambitious work. She came up with the ‘‘ crazy’’ scheme of approaching the Ingmar Bergman estate for the rights to adapt his film Persona for the stage. To her amazement, approval was granted and her version appeared at Theatre Works last year. It was a creative and boxoffice success that will move to the Malthouse and Sydney’s Belvoir St later this year. ‘‘ The audience can sense when an artist is taking a risk,’’ she says. ‘‘ In Melbourne, audiences do not look down on independent theatre just because it is made with fewer resources and might be presented in a garage.’’
Persona was Jacobs’s breakthrough: it led to her recent appointment as Belvoir’s joint resident director with Hayloft’s Anne-Louise Sarks. Their success is acknowledgment, if any were needed, of the richness of Melbourne’s talent. They succeed another of the city’s independent alumni, Simon Stone, who founded Hayloft in 2007. His adaptation for Belvoir of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck has been taken up internationally, being invited to Norway’s Ibsen festival last year.
Jacobs and Sarks acknowledge the role of their consecutive appointments as female directors in residence at Malthouse. ‘‘ Working with a large company and all its resources makes it easy to think big,’’ Sarks says.
‘‘ That is what made the offer to be part of Neon so exciting. Usually all the companies taking part would be working in their own separate warehouse but now there is a bigger story going on and we can interact with each other.’’
Sarks is the only Neon artist to have worked at MTC before: she directed Kate Mulvany’s The Seed early last year, before staging her award-winning version of Medea at Belvoir last October.
She and Hayloft colleague Benedict Hardie will perform in their Neon show, By Their Own Hands, which examines the role of the chorus and minor characters in Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy.
‘‘ Imagine what would have happened if the herdsman had killed the baby Oedipus as he had been instructed,’’ she says. ‘‘ Of course he didn’t and everything flowed from that.’’
The other two companies in the Neon program, the Rabble and Sisters Grimm, are surprised to be working at the country’s oldest state theatre company. ‘‘ We never thought we would be given such an opportunity,’’ says Emma Valente, who is director and co-creator of Story of O with Kate Davis.
‘‘ There is a sense of renewal at the MTC and this is an incredible opportunity. Everyone has taken on a challenge, whether in the choice of the story or in the size of the cast.’’
They plan to explore gender politics and female sexuality in Story of O. The 1954 novel has been reissued following the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, tame in comparison.
‘‘ It is a very intense reading experience, with graphic descriptions of the body and the way it is used,’’ Valente says. The production will explore issues of female exploitation and freedom in ways that are an abstraction of the novel. ‘‘ We don’t have a solution but that sort of tension makes for interesting theatre.’’
Sisters Grimm will present a different take on gender and race in The Sovereign Wife. ‘‘ We prefer camp and trashy aesthetics,’’ says Ash Flanders, who co-wrote the show with Declan Greene. ‘‘ We like to investigate existing genres and ‘ queer up’ well-trodden narratives.’’
The show is a retelling of the Australian frontier epic with a cast of nine, making it the company’s most ambitious project. It is based on movies such as Baz Luhrmann’s Australia as well as The Man from Snowy River, The Shiralee and Flanders’s favourite, Walkabout.
‘‘ Don’t expect historical accuracy,’’ he warns. ‘‘ People should look out for the drag queen texting on stage.’’
Beneath the frivolity will be a serious examination of what such movie narratives say about Australia. ‘‘ It will be a big show with 36 costumes and three acts,’’ Flanders says. ‘‘ Our work is usually a response to the found space where the show is playing but with such an opportunity we will try to corrupt everything.’’
The Neon season will be Sisters Grimm’s second main-stage appearance this year, following the transfer of their 2010 show Little Mercy — based on evil-child horror films — to Sydney Theatre Company.
Little Mercy was first presented in an underground Collingwood carpark, which was more typical of the company’s endeavours. ‘‘ We had to clear seven loads of rubble before we could go ahead,’’ Flanders says. ‘‘ That is not everyone’s idea of a good time but poor resources are part of our aesthetic.’’
But while Sisters Grimm is enjoying success, Flanders is looking for a job to shore up his finances. The Rabble’s Valente and Davis have day jobs and take holidays to mount their shows. ‘‘ Independent theatre does not pay,’’ Flanders says. ‘‘ Sometimes I think you have to be insane to try to keep telling these stories because there is no career path.’’
Flanders says it was inconceivable when Sisters Grimm was founded six years ago that the company would be part of seasons at the MTC and STC.
‘‘ Opportunities like this didn’t exist then,’’ he says. ‘‘ We couldn’t even get someone from main-stage companies to see our shows. Now there is an open door for us to keep developing our ideas.’’
Rehearsing Menagerie, from left, Zahra Newman, Jane Badler, Edwina Wren, Daniel Schlusser, Kevin Hofbauer, Karen Sibbing and Josh Price