Ph0t0: by Matty Fuller, 2009
2009: developed and presented by Theatre in Bars at RMIT First Space
Presentation – RMIT First Space
Designers Mitch Ellis (lighting), Robert Jordan (video), Daniel O’Shea (sound), Erin Voth (set)
Performers/devisers Claire Granata, Michele Lee, Chrissie Robinson, Alia Vryens
Production manager Brienna Macnish
Development – via Theatre in Bars
Developed by Claire Granata, Michele Lee, Chrissie Robinson, Alia Vryens
With guest artists Lucy Angell, Christian Leavesley, David Ryding and Chi Vu
One-act devised piece, stage
Backwards is an experiment in theatre design and performance-making. A traditional approach to creating theatre often begins with written or physical text that inspires design requirements. What if this process was reversed and the design came first? A blank space animated by a design team, with no text in mind. And then the performers devised and improvised a performance around this space? A 3-D Mr Squiggle. This is the concept for Backwards.
The performance space is RMIT Union Arts’ First Site gallery, a subterranean warren-like space that is usually home to an annual program of visual arts exhibitions. With Backwards, First Site is filled with elements of theatre design – set, lighting, sound and video – in response to the theme ‘Space is at a premium’.
The performance is made directly in response to the space – the performance-makers see the space for the first time on Opening Gallery Night, a week before the performance season. Leading up to this period, the performance-makers have ‘trained’ with guest artists Christian Leavesley, David Ryding, Lucy Angell and Chi Vu.
Neandellus review, no longer online
“So explain to me again this play you saw on Saturday night. Backwards?” This was Vigilis, an acquaintance, friend of a friend, I ran into early Monday afternoon.
“Yes, Backwards,” I said. “Or ‘Space is at a Premium’, by a group called Theatre in Bars. It appears to be the brainchild of Michele Lee and features also among the players Claire Granata, Chrissie Robinson and Alia Vyrens, who all appear to have worked together in various shows. It seems to have something to do with the RMIT Union. Unfortunately it was a short run, only a couple of nights, and you’ve missed it.”
“Alack.” The merest tare of pity. “What, then, was the premise? The production process was reversed, yes?”
“There was really only one reversal in the procedure,” I explained, “the design and scripting. The design team was asked to fit out the gallery space–it was in at First Site, the gallery on Swanston Street–with a practical carte blanche; all they needed to do was address the theme ‘Space is at a Premium’. The set, lighting, music and mixed media elements were then exhibited for a short period, what they called ‘week one’; then the players, or as they called themselves, the performance-makers, came in, had a look around and then on opening night, put it all together as a play. What followed was the performance, or ‘week two’. So it wasn’t really the antithesis of the standard production procedure, or an exact reversal of the order, but it was certainly an experiment.”
“Right, and what was that experiment?”
“Well, that was just it. To see what would happen.”
“Hmm.” Vigilis was clearly skeptical as to the merits of Theatre in Bars’s experiment. “And what did they come up with.”
“Let me see.” I took my time to recall the scene, feeling strongly the need to justify Backwards, a show I had taken particular pleasure from. “The walls of the entire three-room space were covered in flattened brown cardboard boxes with a few still-constructed boxes tossed here and there (the players emerged from these on the night); there was a live camera and projector which created a virtual infinite passage at one end of one of the rooms; one room was blue lit, the rest were variable, I think; then there were also four bare bulbs hanging at the far end of the central room; in that same room there was a mixed media display which was not incorporated directly into the performance and I don’t recall what it was … a loop of some dancing I think. The set, the boxes and such, was Erin Voth’s work, the lighting was Mitch Ellis, the media was Robert Jordan and the sound, which, cleverly, was controlled directly by the performance-makers via remote control during the performance was designed by Daniel O’Shea. Brienna Macnish also appeared to have some role in managing the thing. The overall effect was of closeting, of things being packed away.”
“Fascinating, Neandellus, really. And then the performance-makers made of this … what?”
“You scoff,” I said tolerantly, “and perhaps if you had seen it you would still have scoffed. But it had something about it. Do you remember that production of King Lear we saw with Scenicus”–Scenicus being our mutual friend–”at the University of Melbourne Student Union? Remember the horror?”
“Oh, yes. I still feel it.”
“But do you remember also that weird vigour. I can’t think how best to describe it, except to call it a passion for doing something differently, an energy that kept you interested until the very end? This show had that.”
“So, what did the players do?”
“Their interpretation of the site design focused on constriction and repetition, on being boxed in, on eternity and monotony. Surprisingly, to carry these themes, they chose what was in some ways a very conventional story: the fate of four monstrous women trapped at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Ah, testing the narrowness of that ancient character archetype, the monstrous feminine.”
“Now you’re getting into it. The history of these four monstrous women was told by a motley crew of four sea dogs in a tag-team Charles Marlow-like recounting. The sea theme was perhaps suggested by the gentle, slightly nauseating and repetitive ‘music’, think of rocking boats and lapping waves, that sort of thing. The performance-makers also must have felt more confident playing sea dogs. They seemed more at ease in the use of ad lib when adopting the now too-familiar Robert Nweton style of sea prattle as their default storytelling mode.”
“That’s the one. But the sea theme could equally have been suggested by the idea of cargo: many was the wall-fixed cardboard box that bore the name of some distant shore. As a result, however, the overall tone of the experiment was one of playful wit:
“First Sea-Dog: As I said, all good things happen in threes and on the third night a storm broke out and the sky blackened as if the stars had been extinguished and great waves rose up and thundered down onto the deck crushing the ship like a walnut.
Second Sea-Dog: Are you sure it was like a walnut? Or maybe it was like a peanut?
Third Sea-Dog: What about a hazel nut?
First Sea-Dog [irritated]: Like a nut! It crushed the ship like a nut–
Fourth Sea-Dog: –a fragile nut–
First Sea-Dog: And all the passengers–
“Which was effective enough. And there might have been other reasons for the sea theme. You and I, here and now, could probably suggest some very specious reasons.”
“Perhaps because the sea is a vast space which we must necessarily encounter by means of a constricting space: ship, boat, raft, submarine or our own corporeal shell.”
“Are you still scoffing? It becomes hard to tell. Anyway, the monstrous women described in the sea-dogs’ story were sucked to the bottom of the ocean where they had to live under the hull of their sunken ship and suffer an eternity of eating pickled herring. They end up torturing one another out of boredom; then they try vainly to reduce by means of murder their number from the ‘doom-fated four’ to the apparently lucky three. It was all explained quite plainly.”
In piratical accents Vigilis declared, “Argh, indeed, plain’s the word; it all sounds like plain sailing, me matey, typically linear, not a bit experimental. Arg.”
“But that was all established in the first fifteen or so minutes of a fifty minute show. The rest was dedicated to a more expressionistic exploration of these themes:
“I remember when I was seven, my mother hid the presents on the top shelf.
I remember when I was twelve, I started taking ballet classes.
I remember when I was seventeen, the boys started noticing me.
I remember when I was twenty-three, he lay me on the bed.
I remember when I was twenty-nine and I wore a beautiful gown.
I remember when I was forty-four and you tried to kill me by stuffing me into a box!
I remember when I was ninety and you made me pickled herring.
I remember when I was a hundred and five and you tried to kill me by stuffing me into a box!
I remember when I was seven-hundred and you made me pickled herring.
“And there were other shifts and bits thrown in around it, mostly focusing on a spite inspired by confinement.”
“But tell me,” said Vigilis, insisting upon decision, “was this experiment a success?”
“I don’t know if experiments are things that can be characterised by success or failure. Isn’t it only the hypothesis that can be proved either way?”
“Surely their hypothesis was that the inversion would produce watchable and thought-provoking theatre.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ve talked about the sea-dogs’ story; there was some protracted physical comedy, grappling and fighting and such, which had the audience thinking about space in a more disagreeable way; and quite a bit of girlish screaming and panting and general over-acting. But, it was still enjoyable. It reminded me of two things. First: I do love walking around a bit during a performance. I love to be able to get my own view on the action, to decide, in fact, for myself, where the real action is. I know that’s not new, but it’s good to be reminded. Second: student theatre–and I don’t know if this was strictly student theatre, but it had the air of student theatre–does bring something which amateur and professional theatre companies do not. Perhaps this is an illusion created by the lowered expectations and the relatively low cost of admission, but I believe there is indeed an engrossing energy, a making of old things new, which refreshes my theatrical sensibilities, that can only be found in student theatre.”