Melbourne’s ec­cen­tric theatre-mak­ers are storm­ing the es­tab­lish­ment, writes Robin Usher

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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