30 September 2019

Melbourne Fringe: The good news stories

12–29 September 2019

So Melbourne Fringe is over and we have a couple nights off before Melbourne Festival begins. I saw a lot of shows – I think 31, but it's a blurr – and missed that many again that I wanted to see.

So many people don't see, go to or cover Fringe because of the big curated Festival – and they miss out on so much. Melbourne Fringe is the event where we see the beginnings of works that go on to change how we make theatre. It's where we see stuff that will never be seen again. It's where you will see an artist who connects with you and you and know that you are going to see everything they do. It's where arts community and audiences are developed and built, and where no one gives a toss what the sponsors think.

These are some of the many good news stories this Fringe.

Danny Delahunty and his team creating a new Fringe Hub at Trades Hall. So many more venues. A place full of history that reminds us every moment that the word "union" means working together.

Indie media stepping up again. There was the ARTery podcast - EVERY DAY, thanks to Jason Cavanagh and host extraordinaire May Jasper. Myron My at My Melbourne Arts saw 61 shows! And wrote about them. The only way to get the context, depth and importance of this event is to see a lot.

Awards. Yep, sometimes awards they are guff, but a lot of Fringe prizes are support to get to other festivals, and the "best" ones are decided by panels of industry people who also see so many shows throughout the festival. It's one to be genuinely chuffed about.

Ones that made me smile.

Andi Snelling's Happy-Go-Wrong is off to the Adelaide fringe.  (I talked about this on ARTery podcast.)

Andi Snelling.  Happy-Go-Wrong

Bron Batten's Waterloo is off to North Melbourne and to Edinburgh. I can't wait to see what this show becomes. This means that I somehow have to get to Edinburgh next year. As an arts writer, if I saved everything I earned as an arts writer in a year, I couldn't even get a flight. And that's more than others get.

Oh No, Satan Stole My Pineal Gland directed by Jean Tong and Louisa Wall won Best Ensemble. They were.

Claire Rankine won a producing award for Polygamy, Polygayu, which she also directed  and it was developed and performed by Alice Tovey, Charity Werk, Margot Tanjutco and Hayley Tantau.

Alice Tovey, Margot Tanjutco, Charity Werk, Polygamy, Polygayou. Photo by Ling Duong

Bryony Kimmings won Best Theatre for I'm a Phoenix, Bitch (ARTery podcast). She's still one of my favourite artists and even if I wasn't 100% sure about this work, its impact is astonishing. I've spoken to people who say their lives have changed since they saw it. Produced by Daniel Clarke and Arts Centre Melbourne.

Selina Jenkins's BOOBS won Best Cabaret. It's one of the best shows I've seen this year (ARTery podcast).

My favourite story is the two clowns from LA, Amritha Kaur Gemma Soldati, who came to Melbourne and knew no one and won Best Comedy. I saw The Living Room because someone from The Butterfly Club told me about it. (Those networks of people really do work.) It only ran for a week and us who saw it now have some pretty good bragging rights. If you missed it – well, I told you it was good.

Frobert and Joshua Ladgrove. Pic nicked off Facebook.

My nearly-favourite story isn't a prize (but this show won the Golden Gibbo at MICF). Joshua Ladgrove Presents Melbourne’s Only Bilge Pump Sales Seminar sold out – in the good way, the every seat filled way. Add an extra star to my comedy festival review. Three years ago, he did a Fringe show with an audience of nine: we will always be the Portenza Nine.

There many other artists and shows that I could mention – and hopefully did on Twitter – , but a lot of them are going to get lots of words in the future. And I many never have known about them if I hadn't seen them in this festival.

Review: Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland!

Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland!

21 September 2019
Fringe Hub: Trades Hall - New Council Chambers
To 29 September

Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland

My review is in Time Out

25 September 2019

Review: Waterloo

Bron Batten
Brunswick Mechanics Institute - Theatre
to 25 September

Bron Batten. "Waterloo" Photo by Theresa Harrison

My review is in Time Out.

And this interview is great for background.

PS. Gary Abrahams was the outside eye for this show and directed the first Onstage Dating.

21 September 2019

Review: The Living Room

The Living Room
Amrita Dhaliwal and Gemma Soldati
17 September 2019
The Butterfly Club, upstairs
To 22 September

Amrita Dhaliwal and Gemma Soldati. "The Living Room"

My review in in Time Out.

(I loved it.)

Interview: Bron Batten background for Waterloo

Bron Batten
Brunswick Mechanics Institute - Theatre
to 25 September

Bron Batten

This isn't a review of Bron Batten's Melbourne Fringe show Waterloo. One is coming. Update: it's here.

It's an interview I did with her in March about her show Onstage Dating. She talks about her "next show" in this interview. Waterloo is the next show.

It was originally published on ArtsHub.  (Give it a read there as well.)

Bron Batten. "Onstage Dating". Photo by Theresa Harrison

I find a hidden Melbourne bar with Google Maps. It’s empty in the mid-afternoon, but there are booths for snuggling, small tables for hand holding and a balcony with flattering natural light. “Are you meeting someone?” the bartender asks as I’m looking at my phone messages. “Yes”. I hope he thinks I'm on a nothing-better-to-do-this-afternoon Tinder date.

I’m not. I’m meeting performance artist Bron Batten, who buys me a beer anyway.

Her show Onstage Dating is playing at The Butterfly Club during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We meet at a bar where she’s gone on dates. It’s a great choice. Above the main city street, it’s easy to forget the tourists and takeaway food below – especially as the trams ding-ding and the pale green plane trees give shade and, for once, hold tight to their balls of hay fever fluff.

“Let’s talk about dating,” I start.

She sighs, “What do you want to know?” I know that sigh. It’s the sigh of a 30-something who’s been on a lot of dates.

Batten’s been on 85 onstage dates at festivals and theatres in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. She developed this show when she was granted the Australia Council Cite Des Arts Internationale residency in Paris in 2015. “All that bread, wine and cheese – I had such a terrible time,” she says.

She also went on “about 60” in-real-life dates in Paris; all internet procured. I ask if it was just research. “It was always two birds, one stone,” she says. “I’d never really dated before. I’d always just met people through friends or at the end of the night at the pub.”

The resulting show premiered at the 2016 Festival of Live Art in Melbourne. Batten’s known for work that finds a delightfully awkward and super-smart balance between reality and performance art. She was a founder of The Last Tuesday Society – a much-missed monthly subversive bo-ho performance-comedy-cum-cabaret night – where I remember her singing “Red Headed Woman” naked after Julia Gillard was ousted as prime minister and choreographing a jazz ballet nativity play. She began to get more attention with a show called Sweet Child of Mine, which she performed with her father. It started by asking her country-town parents (she’s one of six siblings) if they really understood why she danced a chicken abortion in an empty swimming pool at university.

In Onstage Dating, her co-performer is a date chosen from the audience. She describes it as “a romantic comedy with weird performance art bits.”

Bron Batten and date. "Onstage Dating". Photo by Theresa Harrison

I saw her first date/show and it’s that and more. It’s every hope and fear you have while dating with the bonus of connecting with other people who make that same dating sigh. Or laugh. Or eye roll. And there’s a sexy bee suit and an apple.

She explains that “it’s not just about online dating. It’s about the vulnerability of meeting someone for the first time. Or the vulnerability to say, I want romance or sex or partnership or companionship … I wanted to capture the expectations and stress of meeting a stranger for a date.”

It’s also about becoming invested in the date. Even knowing that their romance is almost certain not to happen, audiences want the date to go well. We want a happy ending. At least I do.

Batten rolls her eyes when I tell her that I still want to watch a stranger fall for her on stage.

She then tells me she’s been on two second dates following shows.

Neither resulted in a third date.

I can understand if she’s getting cynical about it all until I ask what struck her the most about going on those 60 IRL dates. She says, “hopefulness”.

Theatrically the show captures the hope and vulnerability of showing up and not knowing what to expect. “I don't know what they're going to be like. Are they going to be nice to me? Are they going to be a dick? Are they going to be sweet? What's going to happen? So that feeling that happens in real life is still in the show and the audience recognises that.”

She also has a story about meeting someone on those IRL dates but “that’s the next show”.

Bron Batten and date. "Onstage Dating". Photo by Theresa Harrison

On stage, she’s dated straight, queer, single and partnered men and women, but she thinks that it’s become more about how men behave with women than about the vulnerability of dating.

Her audiences are often mostly women and “there’s a sense of recognition when we share the bad behaviour.” But “it’s not a show that accuses men. It gives them space to be better. It’s just really disappointing when they fuck that up.”

She tells the story of one who fucked up.

“He was very tall, a Disney-prince-type dude with a blue linen shirt, beige pants and boat shoes with no socks – you know that guy. Really tall. Not terribly smart. He came with a whole bunch of friends and I was sort of playing to the friends. I realised that he wasn't very clever, and he sort of clocked that I was making a bit of fun of him. When we were playing Twister [spoiler, her dates play Twister with her], my eyes were at crotch level and he hit me in the face with his cock – on stage. Like a little thrust. Like a little kind of reminder about ‘Hey I’m in charge; know your place’. Like it was it was deliberate smacking me in the face with his dick and I had to make a decision at that point about what to do as a performer and also as a woman.

“Do I call him out? Do I risk turning the audience?

“I am so shocked as well, but I didn't know what to do. So, I let it go. Let’s just get to the end of the show.

“And then, when I took him to the couch and got him to take his shoes off, underneath his oh-so-casual boat shoes he was wearing tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiny little sockets.”

She says the audience snorted with laughter as much as I did at this revelation.

“I was like ‘What are those Michael?’ And I was like ‘I’ve got you, I’ve fucking got you’.

“I did a couple of minutes on his socks. ‘I’m going to tell stories about you.’ The audience were pissing themselves and then he turned. He got really angry and I thought of that Margaret Atwood quote that women are afraid men will kill them and men are afraid women will laugh at them.

“I ridiculed him publicly and that was the worst thing that I could ever do. To my kind of shame, I spent the rest of the show trying to get him back on board because performatively, you know …”

There have been others who behave badly. Like the one in country NSW who acted like he “didn't want to be anywhere near me and the audience were laughing at that, saying ‘ha ha ha’ isn’t that funny when he acts rudely towards this woman”.

“By the end of that tour, I was like: all the guy has to do to win the show is to be a basic human being. Just be basically humanly decent. To not be a dick. You know the joke about a male feminist who walks into a bar because it was set so low. All you have to do is to be a nice human being and it’s amazing how many times the participant fails.

“That’s when I started to realise that this was about more than dating. It was about men’s behaviour in public on dates, in private taking up space … weather they’re ok being in my space or weather they try and claim it back aggressively or by trying to neg me or by trying to make jokes at my expense or at the show’s expense because they’re uncomfortable.

“For a lot of men that’s a very unfamiliar feeling to be in the space and to not know what’s going on, to not feel in charge of it and to not feel entitled to be the centre of it.”

Maybe I don’t want any of these men to fall in love with her. My fantasy of the wonderful story now as flat as the dregs of my beer.

I ask what she does do in real life when it happens?

“Umm … I don't know.

“I’d like to say like to say that I always call them on it, but I don’t. But I think as I get older I’m getting better at it. Calling out shit behaviour is really hard. It’s the hardest.”

I ask why she thinks we still put up with bad behaviour. I’m older than she is and I still put up with it.

We’ve “got this patriarchal structure that tells us that we're wrong all the time and that we're hysterical or we get what we deserve. The ultimate goal in life is to find a partner, right, so you have to suffer whatever. There is a myriad of answers: societal, structural, personal.

“Because it is hard to value yourself.”

We know why we sigh. So, I ask how many men “win” at the show.

“Between 85 and 90 percent.” A much better hit rate than I expected.

“I want them to win. The show’s not about humiliating, it’s the opposite; I always want to make the guy the hero.” She explains how the audience usually clock very early if “the guy’s a jerk” and they mostly don’t let him get away with it.

“I had a guy in Edinburgh who was a big masculine kind of ‘hey’ type dude. Very basic.” He had 80 people boo him for trying to humiliate her. “He was really shocked … so, I was like ‘Give him a go’ and I said to him, ‘See, in the biz, this is what we call turning the crowd.’ … and he spent the rest of the show trying to make up the ground that he’d lost.”

So even the dud dates can come around.

Bron Batten and date. "Onstage Dating". Photo by Theresa Harrison

As we keep talking about dating and the show, she has more positive than negative stories.
Like the “bloke-y tech” who told her that he’d been thinking about the show and how he and his friends talk about and interact with women.

And the guy who talked very lovingly about his mum on stage without knowing that a friend was recording it. And his mum saw it.

And her receiving “this incredible letter” from a date who said, “I didn’t intend to talk about that on stage, but you made me feel so safe and it’s really shifted something in me and I feel like I’ve let it go so thank you for giving me that opportunity”.

And one of Batten’s friend’s telling her that the show inspired her to date again.

And Batten telling me how she can have an opinion of someone and how quickly it changes. “It only takes 40 minutes for them to open up and say things and be silly and construct this kind of fantasy with me.”

I ask if she’s still dating in real life. She laughs with the sigh this time. “That connection is so rare, and people keep looking for it.”

Which is one reason why Onstage Dating is still popular and touring. We keep looking. The two of us share meeting stories we’ve seen. She has a friend who fell in love with the first person they chatted to online, and one who saw someone in the crowd from the stage. I’d recently been to a wedding of a friend who met his husband on a train on a holiday. It happens. Wonderful stories happen.

I still want it to happen for me. And for Bron. I want to tell the story about seeing two strangers falling in love on stage in a performance art show about dating. Or hear about a couple who went on their first date to this show or went by themselves and started talking to the stranger they sat next to.

“Maybe this time, Anne-Marie. Maybe this time,” says Batten as she gets up to leave.

And we should have left together so that the bartender had a good story to tell about the mid-afternoon Tinder date he watched.

16 September 2019

Review: Polygamy, Polygayou

Polygamy, Polygayou 
Alice Tovey, Charity Werk, Margot Tanjutco, Hayley Tantau
14 September 2019
Fringe Hub: Trades Hall – Old Ballroom
To 20 September

Alice Tovey, Charity Werk, Margot Tanjutco. Polygamy, Polygayou. Photo by Ling Duong

My review is in Time Out

Hayley Tantau Polygamy, Polygayou. Photo by Ling Duong

Alice Tovey, Charity Werk, Margot Tanjutco. Polygamy, Polygayou. Photo by Ling Duong

Review: The Rapture Chapter II

The Rapture Chapter II: Art Vs Extinction
Finucane & Smith

7 September 2019
To 29 September

Moira Finucane. Photo by Jodie Hutcinson

05 September 2019

Reviews: The Festival of Bryant (The Other Place & Disinhibition)

The Other Place
Theatre Works and Before Shot
29 August 2019
Theatre Works
to 8 September

"The Other Place" by Theatre Works

31 August 2019
MUST Space, Monash University Clayton campus
to 7 September

"Disinhibition" by MUST. Photo by Aleks Corke

Melbourne playwright Christopher Bryant had two new shows open last week: The Other Place at Theatre Works and Disinhibition at MUST.

This is a rare opportunity to not only see two new works by the same author but to see how different director, casts and creators approach his writing.

The Other Place, directed by Jessica Dick, is a meta theatrical imagining of the lives of two women who nudged the dullness in theatre in the 1970s by creating alternative venues for contemporary voices.

Buzz Goodbody was the first female director at The Royal Shakespeare in London and was the instigator and founding associate director of The Other Place, the RSC's black box studio theatre formed to present small-scale experimental works. Her direction was praised by audiences and critics, especially for King Lear and Hamlet. Betty Burstall formed La Mama here in Melbourne in 1967 and fought to keep the small experimental theatre space open in the 1970s.  La Mama remains one of the most influential theatre spaces in Australia. And still serves free tea and coffee, like Burstall introduced.

Written like it could be performed in either venue, Bryant explores the women's imagined inner thoughts by playing with the styles of theatre they worked with, ranging from Elizabethan to Post Modern. It's filled with the theatre jokes but comes back to the importance of theatre being a safe place if your community isn't welcoming. Both women faced conservative governments and attitudes; if only their stories were something from the past.

The cast of five women all play Buzz and Betty, each with more of their own personality than that of the women they didn't know. This makes it feel intimate and helps connect with the actors – who have all found their personal connection to one or the other women – but it's not as easy to really discover the characters. The women never met despite their similar goals, but one of the most emotionally engaging scenes is when they meet at a fictionalised tv interview. Letting them interact gives the work a story that's more than just a celebration of their lives.

Goodyear died by suicided in 1975; Burstall died in 2013. I learnt a lot about both of them. Sometimes we need to remember that known names were people who never believed they'd be people who playwrights would write about.

Dishinibition, directed by Yvonne Virsik, is far more about contemporary reality as it explores the unreality of social media where a puppy pic can lead to the unimaginable.

George is Boyance is on Tumbler; he really doesn't like the persona he's become. Flick is Flick.Eats on Instagram; she gets vegan takeaway and pretends she made it. Tay is an acronym for Totally About You on Twitter; she's an imagined artificial intelligence bot programmed to interact with influencers like George and Flick. Tay is the only one who believes that her net self is real; perhaps  intelligence can overcome its artifice.

I don't have as many followers as any of them.

Like The Other Place, the cast, who are all students at Monash, play multiple roles and it takes time to put the jigsaw together of how early scenes fit in. But as characters stay with the same actors in Dishinibition, it's easier to find the experiences to connect with – even if it's with the bot.

Its strength lies with a cast who can only imagine what life was like before the internet and understand the positive and negatives about communicating with people you may never really know or meet. And they instinctively understand that our social media personalities are mask and performance. Bringing this concept onto the stage feels as natural as checking Facebook (I'm showing my age).

Virsik lets them find their personal connection to the work while giving the overall structure a tighter shell that lets the ideas dance like gifs without distracting from the narrative progression.

If you have to choose which play to see during The Festival of Bryant, Dishinibition is stronger and feels so much like now that it may be written about in the future as a play that captured the period before we really understood the impact of AI. And MUST continues to be the Melbourne theatre secret that develops some of our most successful theatre makers  – Bryant was at MUST – and makes theatre with students that is nothing like student theatre.

But also see The Other Place because this is Melbourne and imagining theatre here without La Mama isn't possible.

02 September 2019

Opportunity to see: Helping Hands

Helping Hands
La Mama Courthouse
7–10 August

Helping Hands is the fourth work by A-tistic and it had a three-day run at La Mama in August. For everyone who saw it, we know how lucky we were. For the rest, it's available as a captioned video stream until 13 September.

Get your ticket here.

This independent company make theatre that looks at theatre stories and stages through neurodivergent experiences. They know that many existing and potential audiences and theatre makers want or need different ways of experiencing theatre. They highlight how many people are kept out of this world that claims to be so open and accepting. They highlight how many people are kept out of a lot of things.

A-tistic began at MUST (Monash University Student Theatre) in 2014 with a show called Them Aspies. It was about the experience of being on the autism spectrum and created and performed by a group of neurodiverse students. Its success led to a second season and its story and process led to the formation of a company and three original new works: Pinocchio Restrung (Melbourne Fringe,  2016), Alexithymia (Poppyseed  Festival,  2017) and Helping Hands. I've seen them all.

Their work is about the experience of living in a neurodiverse world, our world. They share experiences but are not educational pieces about being neurodivergent. Decribing their technique as Spectrum Theatre, they create theatre in ways that put the experience of austism first – in their development and rehearsal processes, on the stage and in the theatre or however else you can or want to see the work.

Watch it because it may open up new ways of seeing and including your audiences and creatives, or for no other reason than it's good theatre and didn't have the opportunity for a long run.

Here's the program.

Here's a preview.