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
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.