Scott: For me this year, there have been so many highlights it's tough to draw it down to one.
The Elia Kazan: A Theatre Investigation at the Sandpit in St Kilda. These play-readings, directed by Peta Hanrahan, were a great insight into an artist and director. I was lucky enough to be there for all three and it was a fantastic opportunity to look further into the mindset of a director, simply by the choice of scripts he worked with. Was also amazing to see such a wealth of Melbourne acting talent throughout the course of the three days.
But also want to shout out to I Heart McEnroe (Theatre Works) and Slut (VCA directors).
SM: Scott was Lot in The City They Burned. It's another one of those "if you were in it, it has to be my favourite moment of yours". Scott's performance made me feel uncomfortable – in a good way, well, not a good way, but it was wonderful to feel that uncomfortable.
Daniel: If I have to boil it down to one piece of theatre, my No. 1 for 2014 is Red Stitch’s production of Grounded by George Brandt.
We spend so much time getting caught up in the allure of the loud and the flashy that an 80-minute solo monologue comes as a bit of a shock. In many ways, Grounded was theatre at its simplest, its most fundamental – human drama presented by human voices in the most human way possible. Everything about this extraordinary production was in perfect balance, from Elizabeth Drake’s immersive sound design to the staggering set and lighting by Matthew Adey to the ambition and the unforgiving text.
For an emerging director, watching the mechanisms of Kirsten von Bibra’s direction was the most inspiring work I’ve seen this year; I was delivered an education in clear, powerful direction that I won’t forget in a hurry. And then there was Kate Cole, whose performance cannot be praised enough. As I held back tears at the end of the show, it wasn’t just because of the sheer emotional force of the production, but from the force of her performance, the power of seeing a great actor at the height of their power.
There were many other shows I could have picked (the overwhelming Walking Into The Bigness, the joyous The Witches, the inspiring Complexity of Belonging) but when I look back on the theatre I’ve seen this past year, the first show that leaps to my mind like an oncoming storm is Grounded.
SM: Daniel’s direction of Masterclass: always expect to be surprised. When he told me he was directing a show about Maria Callas with a supporting cast of not-actor young opera singers, I nodded and made a “ah” sound that meant, “but you do shows about violence and young men”. The performances he got out of his performers (including Maria Mercedes) were so beautiful. He let them find their own truths and ensured that each truth connected to the audiences – who were one their feet every night.
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Jana: My favourite theatre moments in 2014 were not actually plays, but happened in the classroom, at VCA, where I taught a seminar on theatre theory. I think it's very hard not to fall in love with people when you see them put on the table everything they have – everything they have – in order to make art.
I think all practising theatre critics should have that experience, just to understand the incredibly delicate web of emotion and thought that we pronounce opinions on. It has really changed the way I see theatre: I like to think that I was always aware that theatre was primarily a situation between people, not a play of signs and symbols, but I am now so much more acutely aware that theatre is made by individual people with a unique heart and physique – that their individual hearts and bodies are the material of which theatre is made.
I prepared for my classes the way one would rehearse an interactive performance – I was always trying to orchestrate an interaction in an invisible way, so that nobody felt led, but everyone ended up where I wanted them to be. It was exhilarating and exhausting and exhilarating again because I worked my arse off and I felt that it worked out well; that I had managed to get the effect I wanted, and yet again there were students who got something unexpected out of this seminar. And it made me really feel on my skin how hard it is to carry an audience with you.
In any case, there was the moment when we explored race and gender and Australia by really dissecting The Sovereign Wife and I suddenly felt moral indignation building up, not in the room, but inside people. And I wanted Declan Greene (its director and co-writer) in the room to hear his audience get it, to have that pleasure.
And there was the time when a group of students devised a very confronting, very difficult piece that upset the whole class, and we spent entire weeks afterwards untangling that upset as safely and gently as possible, and during this entire time I was in awe of that recklessness that makes one really risk it, really risk it on stage, when they do not yet have the tools to calibrate their performance and the response they want – but this is the only way to learn, and I wanted to make space for them to feel safe to experiment.
And the time when they came back from Bryony Kimmings's Credible Likable Superstar Role Model and one of my students said, "It was the first time that a piece of theatre gave me a feeling of agency, left me feeling that there was something I could do, as a man, to make things better".
And there was the time when I asked them to talk about their work and each other's work in depth, and one of them told me, during a cigarette break, "My group is next. I am so scared". But he went in anyway, and they talked like champs.
What is the difference between having to undergo a feedback session of your work or perform in a theatre show? Both are rehearsed, but fundamentally unpredictable events. As I watched them talk about what they tried to do, and honestly assess whether they thought they had achieved it or not, and how it could have been done better, and I thought, here is the definition of courage, participating in this activity without closing yourself off. And at the end yet another one of them said, "I am so proud of everyone in here. We are all talking so intelligently" – and it was true, they were. And she later looked at me in the eye and said very plainly, very simply, "I don't want to make dumb art. I want to make smart art".
And it made me believe that we will have some very good theatre made in Melbourne in the coming years.
Ah, and there was the time I went to see Credible Likable Superstar Role Model and at the end literally the entire audience was weeping, including myself, including my date, who was beside herself. Her nose was running and she kept saying "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." and breaking into tears again. We then lay on grass in St Kilda and talked about Sailor Moon. You know art has worked when afterwards you don't talk about art, you talk about other things entirely.
SM: Jana and I had a private and a public conversation on Facebook about The Sublime. She made me remember how important it is to discuss more than what we love about theatre, and she made me feel supported in discussing what I did.