The Weekend Australian - Review

Thom Brown­ing is the artis­tic di­rec­tor of Imag­i­nary Theatre and makes works for chil­dren. A Cu­ri­ous Ar­cade, his lat­est piece, was con­ceived over a beer in an Ed­in­burgh pub

- IN­TER­VIEW BY Brid­get Cor­mack A Cu­ri­ous Ar­cade is show­ing at Bris­bane Pow­er­house as part of Bris­bane Fes­ti­val un­til Septem­ber 26. Arts · Edinburgh · Brisbane · Australia · Scotland · Glasgow · United Kingdom · England · Queensland · Robert Browning · Brisbane Powerhouse

Your interactiv­e ex­hi­bi­tion A Cu­ri­ous Ar­cade, at the Bris­bane Fes­ti­val, has been forced by COVID re­stric­tions to op­er­ate at 30 per cent of its nor­mal au­di­ence ca­pac­ity. How long can your com­pany go on for like this?

A com­pany like ours can’t do any­thing by it­self; we rely on part­ners to present our work. So it’s a ques­tion I have to an­swer but also Bris­bane Pow­er­house has to an­swer, Bris­bane Fes­ti­val has to an­swer and that the cul­tural sec­tor more broadly is fac­ing: if this be­came per­ma­nent, what would be pos­si­ble? 2020 is a bit of a spe­cial year for Bris­bane Fes­ti­val be­cause there was a de­ci­sion made to go ahead de­spite the mas­sive losses of ticket in­come they’d face. Ob­vi­ously do­ing that in an on­go­ing way would not be sus­tain­able.

Much like a Be­toota Ad­vo­cate story, you’re play­ing a bit of a trick on your au­di­ences in billing a fic­tional per­son as one of the “cre­ators” of the ex­hi­bi­tion. How do you think they’ll feel when they find out the truth?

I know, I know. That dis­ori­en­ta­tion for adults doesn’t feel great un­til you can get over that ini­tial shock and start grap­pling with what it means. What’s in­ter­est­ing for us is that our work in Imag­i­nary Theatre is for and with chil­dren; that dis­ori­en­ta­tion and con­fu­sion is some­thing chil­dren have to deal with all the time. A friend and men­tor said to me once: “The ex­pe­ri­ence of child­hood is try­ing to fig­ure out the logic of the adult world.”

Who is this cre­ator, the fic­tional Ce­leste Mackel­lan?

She was an Aus­tralian in­ven­tor of the early 20th cen­tury born in Aus­tralia in an in­dus­trial city to work­ing-class par­ents. She de­cided to hitch a ride back to Scot­land, which is where her mother was from, and [ended up] study­ing art and de­sign dur­ing an art and de­sign move­ment known as the “Glas­gow style”. She started com­bin­ing her skills in tech­nol­ogy and science in de­sign­ing sto­ry­telling ma­chines. At that time there were other in­ven­tors — blokes, of course — cre­at­ing this kind of en­ter­tain­ment stuff. Ce­leste’s ma­chines are much lesser known and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. Now we are bring­ing them out in the public [in our ex­hi­bi­tion].

Are you try­ing to make a point about for­got­ten women in his­tory, whose achieve­ments were sadly un­recog­nised dur­ing their life­time?

One of the big things we are think­ing about is the im­por­tance for adults and chil­dren to an­a­lyse the way we per­ceive and tell sto­ries from his­tory. We’re ask­ing peo­ple to ques­tion what in our own his­tory is fic­tion and what is truth. So we [cre­ated] a story about a bril­liant woman who could have had the po­ten­tial to change the world in some way. Even now by learn­ing about her there’s the po­ten­tial for us to change the way we think about the past. Is the his­tory we learn in books fic­tion? Who wrote it? What vested in­ter­est did they have?

Is there any­thing of Ce­leste’s story that res­onates with your own?

I’m writ­ing about a mi­grant, a first gen­er­a­tion Aus­tralian from the UK, which is my story as well. My par­ents are both teach­ers who moved to Aus­tralia from Eng­land in the 1970s. Be­cause I’m white I grew up think­ing I was a fair dinkum true blue Aussie like ev­ery­one else in my small town in re­gional Queens­land. I grew up in a pre­dom­i­nantly white com­mu­nity so I never got ques­tioned about where I was from, my cus­toms or cul­ture. Un­for­tu­nately that’s not the ex­pe­ri­ence all Aus­tralians have.

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