Thursday, November 23, 2017

Saturday night at Improvention 2017

Over an extended weekend (Nov 17-21) The Street Theatre hosted Impro ACT’s Improvention 2017, five days of workshops and performances.

There are plenty of improvised theatre traditions in the world and ‘impro’ is more than an acting exercise.

A brief visit on Saturday night was driven by a curiosity about the work of visiting director Charlotte Gittins.

Gittins is part of a company in the UK that does Jane Austen improvisations and here’s a sample.

Saturday night was only a small part of a five day programme of workshops and performances. The first half channelled Homer, myths and legends and the rhetoric of dozens of fantasy novels and films accompanied by percussionist Gary France who gave such energy and atmosphere to the far more serious reading of the Iliad a few months ago. It is hard to sustain the epic. I sometimes think we have lost the knack. But there were strong moments and heroes and villains and a great use of a mysteriously lit upstage platform behind a scrim.

The second half had Gittins on a mike acting as a narrator for an Austenish tale of balls, unrequited love and servants who know their place (but have a much more interesting life below stairs than suspected.) She shaped the performers’ work with good humoured and challenging suggestions for what the next scene should be.

Part of the interest was in watching the performers attempt to follow a style and sustain it and keep it convincing. And that applied to the epic as well as the Austen.

Part drama workshop, part theatre sports and part of a much bigger tradition than the one that depends on writing the words down.

And even when the words are written down we still don’t know exactly how Shakespeare did ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Eryn Jean Norvill as Masha. Alison Bell as Olga. Miranda Daughtry as Irina
in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Three Sisters. Photo: Brett Boardman


Three Sisters by Anton Chekov.

Translated and adapted by Andrew Upton. Directed by Kip Williams. Assistant director. Jada Alberts.  Designer Alice Babidge. Lighting designer. Nick Schlieper. Composer and sound designer.  The Sweats. Sound designer. Nate Edmondson. Voice and text coach. Charmian Gradwell. Sydney Theatre Company. The Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House . November 10 – December 16 2017. Bookings: or (02) 92501777.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

To see Kip Williams’s wonderfully staged production of Chekov’s Three Sisters in Andrew Upton’s fiery and theatrically explosive adaptation and translation is to imagine the special relationship between playwright, Anton Chekov and the Moscow Arts Theatre’s Konstantin Stanislavski.  From the opening birthday preparation with coloured balloons, inflated by Olga at the gas cylinder, to the revelry of the New Year’s Eve celebrations and Masha’s obsessive dance and the image of the teacher, circling the troubled Irina on a bicycle around an open stage, Williams skilfully choreographs a changing stagescape of dreams and desires, of fateful fortunes, shattered hopes and entrapped longings. This Sydney Theatre Production of Chekov’s tragi-comedy must loom large as one of the funniest, saddest, most disturbing and most profound productions that I have seen. Every moment is carefully and sensitively portrayed as a lesson in Life.
Miranda Daughtry, Anthony Brandon Wong and Alison Bell
STC's Three Sisters. Photo; Brett Boardman
Chekov’s characters assume iconic status. We have seen many of them in other plays by the country doctor with a keen eye for the human condition. Williams has cast his production with appreciation of the circumstances that place each character in the same situation and yet makes each uniquely different in character. Masha (Eryn Jean Norvill), Irina (Miranda Daughtry) and Olga (Alison Bell) live with their brother Andrei (Brandon McClelland), a councillor, and his domineering wife, Natasha (Nikki Shiels) in the parental home. Their world is predictable, determined by tradition and expectation. It is a world that suffocates, stifles, and conforms. Each character is torn apart by desire, thwarted by circumstance and tormented by Life’s unerring confinement. Olga struggles to preserve the memory of her father, now deceased a year, and uphold his legacy. Masha, trapped in a her marriage to the teacher Kulygin (Chris Ryan), longs for the unrestrained, passionate love of her colonel, Vershinin (Mark Leonard Winter ), a married man with two daughters. Irina longs to escape the barren existence of her life and work as a post office clerk and escape to her home, to Moscow. She rejects the admission of love by Tusenbach (Harry Greenwood), only to be bereft of hope and resigned to live out her days without love.

Chris Ryan, Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvell
in STC's Three Sisters. Photo Brett Boardman
Stanislavski’s search for truth and Chekov’s affectionate portrayal of the flawed inhabitants of his town and time lie at the very core of this production. Williams and Upton have not constructed an authentic portrait of Tsarist Russia. And yet, we can imagine ourselves to be witnessing Chekov’s characters in their time as easily as we can suppose the characters to be living out the attitudes and emotion of our age. Director and writer have identified the burning motivation of Chekov’s characters. A stellar cast is flung with all the desires, fears and frustrations of readily recognizable characters, headlong into the twenty first century against the backdrop of Chekov’s story of people trapped within the troubled years of pre-revolutionary Russia. Anachronism does not defy truth. It illuminates the universal humanity of all peoples and all ages and speaks with force and truth to the audiences of our time. If you search for the realism of Chekov’s age, you may be disappointed. Do not be concerned by Olga and Masha, dressed in jeans or the expletives erupting from Masha’s mouth in torrents of frustration.  If you look for the true nature of humanity, a universal truth will be revealed in a production that is honest, powerful and revealing.
Harry Greenwood and Mark Leonard Winter
in STC's Three Sisters. Photo: Brett Boardman
I am struck by the Sydney Theatre Company production, not because I am exposed to Chekov’s world, although that is implicit within the action and words of the characters, but because I see all humanity revealed through the lives and longings of the three sisters, the jealousies and rages of the frustrated, the failings of the vulnerable and the weak, the injustices of class, the violence within the heart and minds of the human condition and the transient passage of all people’s fleeting mortality. Such is the mirror held up to Nature in Williams’s production of Three Sisters.  We laugh. We cry. We dream. We die. It is this lesson in Life that makes this production of Three Sisters compelling and must see theatre.


Presented by Legs Dance Studio
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, 18th November 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Around this time of the year local dance studios present their annual showcases displaying the work their students have prepared throughout the year. Canberra is fortunate to have a number of very good dance schools, and among the best of these is Legs Dance Studio which never fails to impress with its annual showcase.

This year, Legs presented their showcase in the Playhouse theatre, because “Mamma Mia” is ensconced in the Canberra Theatre but although the theatre may have been smaller, the production was no less extravagant than previous years,  with literally hundreds of young dancers, from toddlers to seniors, participating  enthusiastically in a succession of lavishly costumed production numbers as bluebirds, mice, butterflies, bees, gnomes , pumpkins, gingerbread men, and of course, any number of princesses.

Legs dancers perform "What The World Needs Now" 
The opening number for
"Cinderella and other Fractured Fairytales"

The theme this year was “Cinderella and other Fractured Fairy tales”.  “Cinderella” took up most of the first half, which commenced with a stunning opening sequence with the dancers costumed in glittering show-girl costumes.  With a funny, tongue-in-cheek, voice-over narration to keep the audience on top of the story details, Legs 2016 Dancer of the Year, Jessica Potter, was practically perfect as Cinderella. Matilda Ellicott, Emma Gaynor and Heidi Birkby had the audience in stitches being as nasty as possible as the wicked stepmother and her two daughters, and John Truscott was a very handsome Prince Rupert. Ethan Darrow however, almost stole the show with his expressive face and dancing as the Kings enthusiastic adviser.

Snippets of “Alice in Wonderland”, “Rapunzel”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and  “Beauty and the Beast”, and even “The Adams Family” and  “Mamma Mia” were included in the second part of the show, along with well-drilled, award-winning routines which displayed  the mastery of the students in ballet, tap, acrobatics, jazz, hip hop, and cheerleading. The dad’s got in on the act with their Super Heroes routine, and The Dream Team was featured in a number called “Belly of the Whale”. 

The fast-moving presentation, with its excellent costuming, inventive choreography and fastidious production values, was a miracle of stage management. The 50 separate items involving hundreds of dancers, and myriads of costumes and props, followed each other in quick succession, seemingly without a hitch. The result was a memorable, entertaining presentation which highlighted superbly the quality of the school and its teaching staff. 

Legs Dancers perform "What The World Need Now"
"Cinderella and other Fractured Fairytales"

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Platform Paper No 53

The Jobbing Actor: Rules of engagement by Lex Marinos.  Platform Paper No 53, Currency House, November 2017.

Commentary by Frank McKone

“I comforted myself with the knowledge that I certainly wasn’t the first actor to be pelted with rotten tomatoes, just the most recent.  I was just a link in the chain that stretched back to the dawn of civilisation....Indeed, acting is arguably the world’s second oldest profession.”

With a light touch, Lex Marinos achieves his aim “to write about the vast majority of actors” – not “the ones that audiences pay to see” – “the ones that struggle to stay employed.  The ones for whom acting is, variously, a hobby, a job, a career, a vocation.”

Among many Platform Papers presenting arguments, Marinos tells a story in which he seems to be, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, standing a little in the wings, almost in a shadow off-stage, explaining to us what happened to him and how his experiences took him down many unexpected paths, not always to success, sometimes dangerously slippery.  Luckily for him, but not so for many others, his careering has continued for many decades. 

“It’s what I do, and have done for half a century.  I’ve been blessed.  It’s enabled me to help raise a family, live in relative comfort, see exotic places, meet amazing people, work with wonderful artists, find friends and lovers.  It’s the life I’d hoped for, and it’s been my way of trying to understand the world.”

To read the paper is to stand alongside, doing and seeing all these things.  What made for me the greatest impact was that despite his fame and popularity from his beginning in TV comedy to his striking role as Manolis in The Slap, he stayed true to his choice of his image of himself, saying “T.S. Eliot nailed it in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

No!  I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.

There is humour in his humility, sincerity in his common sense, fascination in his history, and practicality in his advice.  I can do no more than highly recommend to you this jobbing actor who wants “my feet to be on the ground while my head is in the clouds” and his favourite quote from Katherine Hepburn who, he claims, once said:

Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living.  After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.

Go at once to 

Lex Marinos

Songlines at National Museum of Australia

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters. Senior Custodians of Martu country and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands of Australia’s Central and Western Deserts, at National Museum of Australia. National Museum of Australia until February 25, 2018

ABC Radio National presenter Paul Barclay and special guests discuss why songlines are epic stories belonging to the tradition of grand human narratives.  Recorded at NMA Thursday November 16, 2017 for broadcast in January 2018.

Panel members:
Margo Neale, Indigenous Senior Curator, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters
Scott Rankin, theatre director, writer and creative director of social change company Big hART
Alison Page, Indigenous scholar and designer
Curtis Taylor, filmmaker, screen artist and young Martu leader

Commentary by Frank McKone
November 16

In conventional Anglo terms, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is an ‘exhibition’.  Yes it is, but in a very special way: a traditional Australian Aboriginal way.  Rather than looking at, we are participating in our culture, which is our experience of living in this land.  All of this land, with all of our people.

Since migrating from England in the 1950s, I have lived in Eastern Australia, where I became a bushwalker, learning to navigate off-track across country using map and compass.  I have travelled through and walked in much of the country west from Alice Springs and Uluru to the coast of Western Australia, with minimum awareness of the traditional understanding of the land. 

When I visited the Pilbara town of Roebourne many years ago, between the huge off-shore gas shipping port of Karratha, and Port Hedland, the massive iron ore export facility farther north, I did not know this is where the Songline which tracks the Seven Sisters begins.  I saw then a town owned by people who barred up every door and window, fearful apparently of theft and, I supposed, violence – presumably by those other people, the Aboriginal people who I hardly noticed from my four-wheel-drive.

But there were those seeking change through museum education even then in that place.  The police had moved into a new modern building, while the old police station retained the cells and the history.  Most horrifying to me were the photographs from earlier in the 20th Century of long lines of Aboriginal men, chained at the ankles and chained together at the neck. 

Unsurprisingly, Roebourne and many other communities across the country are still struggling with the cultural destruction those photos represent, but as Pastor Marshall Smith said "There's good people around, there's lots of good people. Even those that are in chaos, they are good people....They are caught in something they cannot get out of, and they need other people to help them to see that."

Reporter Nicolas Perpitch observed in August this year “...there is a push to teach young people about their culture through dance programs, painting centres, and cultural tourism, to promote a sense of belonging and identity that has been lost to many.” [ ]

Going through the exhibition is more like exploring an art installation, even better like being an audience member in participatory theatre.  Individual elders in full-size videos personally welcome you into each part of the journey from Roebourne to Docker River – but only when I heard Margo Neale and Alison Page explain the process (which will be broadcast on Radio National in January) did I fully understand that aunties and elders, with young leaders like Curtis Taylor, from the West Coast to the Red Centre took up that challenge of teaching their young people by initiating the presentation of the Australia wide story of the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia to take their teaching to all young people -–and even to old people like me who still need the lesson.

Former Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dawn Casey,
with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Photo: Mike Bowers
 The National Museum, from its inception by its original Indigenous Director, Dawn Casey, was planned to be a proactive collection of Australian cultural artefacts, with an invitation to communities and individuals to offer stories and materials for exhibits.

For me it was a great experience, for example, to interview Seaman Dan from the Torres Strait Islands at the Paipa Exhibition (available on my blog at ) for The Canberra Times, July 19, 2002.  And it was a salutory lesson to hear direct from the pearlshell diver’s mouth of “off Darnley, more than 30 fathoms down, where an unknown number of young men have been caught in the reef, in their bulbous divers’ suits, while their supply boats, pushed by tides and winds, shifted beyond the reach of safety lines and air hoses”.

Then Casey, the NMA Director, employed an Islander, Leilani Bin-Juda, to curate the exhibit – in itself a highly original management move (and controversial as political power in the shape of PM John Howard placed ‘black-armband’ historians on the NMA Board and Dawn Casey’s contract was not renewed after a powerfully successful first four years).  Her legacy, like her culture, has survived despite everything ranged against it, and we see the Songlines exhibition not only initiated but entirely planned, and the process of preparing materials from artworks to movies carried out and managed in a cooperative venture by Senior Custodians of Martu country and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands of Australia’s Central and Western Deserts.

Minyima Punu Kungkarangkalpa 2013, figures (from left) by Yaritji Young, Mary Katatjuku, Carlene Thompson, Tjunkaya Tapaya (obscured), Niningka Lewis, Ilawanti Ungkutjuru Ken and (unshown) Nyurpaya Kaika Burton, Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
Photo: Jessica Maurer.  Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.
© the artists.  Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

The role of the Museum has been to assist the elders in the creation of their project.  I see this way as a model for self-determination, not only for this magnificent work in social education, but for governance across Australia in all our communities.  Government should be about assisting people to create culture from the land up, rather than predetermining what top-down central power decides should happen.  In a democracy, and even more so in a multicultural society, the principle demonstrated by the Martu and Anangu people in the creation of Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is essential to the growth and health of the whole Australian society.

The sun rises, resembling the Aboriginal flag, over the landscape
near Roebourne in the Western Australia Pilbara
Photo: Nicolas Perpitch


Written by Jonathan Biggins
Directed by Cate Clelland
Canberra REP at Theatre 3 to 2 December

Reviewed by Len Power 17 November 2017

‘He’s a xenophobic fascist but, apart from that, he’s OK’, explains one of the characters in ‘Australia Day’.  Jonathan Biggins’ ability to home in on the cringe-worthy aspects of Aussie characters and society is strongly displayed in his very funny first play, ‘Australia Day’.

First performed in 2012, Biggins based his play on his experiences as an Australia Day Ambassador in country Australia, and particularly on his encounters with organising committees.

Set in the fictitious country town of Coriole on the northern coast of New South Wales, we observe the local organising committee making plans in the Scout Hall for their next Australia Day.  Then, on Australia Day, the committee members have to deal with the things they didn’t plan for - a thunderstorm, food poisoning and broken toilets – as well as a host of other problems.

Cate Clelland has gathered a set of actors who have the right look for the colourful characters they portray and they handle the comic aspects of the script very well, too.

Pat Gallagher plays the mayor of Coriole who is working towards a seat in federal politics.  He gives a convincing performance as this political animal who just manages to stay one step ahead of disaster.  As Robert, the less politically astute committee member who just wants to do the right thing, Thomas McCoy plays his frustrated character very well.

Sarah Hull does a fine job as Helen, the local Greens member who is annoyingly idealistic until she shows her true colours and Neil McLeod gives a very amusing performance as the elderly, intolerant Wally, who is struggling with political correctness.

Jonathan Lee is very funny as Chester, an Australian-born Vietnamese school teacher who is more ocker than anyone else and Micki Beckett is infuriating but adorable as the Country Women’s Association member who can’t see why anything has to change.

Cate Clelland’s nicely designed production moves at a good pace, capturing the funny aspects of the play very well.  A couple of serious moments in the play seemed a bit contrived and less effective, but it’s the comedy we’re looking for here and the show certainly delivers on that.

For anyone who’s ever served on committees, ‘Australia Day’ will remind you why you never want to do that again.  Go along and see yourself in these all too real characters.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

L'Amour et la Mort

L’Amour et la Mort – Plays by Judith Peterson, Helen Way and Rachel Hogan with original songs by the BetaBlockers.  Allycat Productions at Le Tres Bon, Bungendore, November 3 and 10, and Smiths Alternative, Canberra, November 17, 2017.

Direction by Rachel Hogan; Tech support – Bevan Noble

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 17

Act of Will by Helen Way
    Improvisation by Helen Way as Will Shakespeare, with Rachel Hogan as Post and audience members (two on this occasion: one as an anti-clockwise pole – or rather, post – dancer, and the other as a stand-in Post duelling in metaphors with Will Shakespeare, making the physical Post irrelevant).

A Modern Day Tragedy by Judith Peterson
    A woman, Juliette, is married to a man, Romeo, who stays out late drinking with his mates and expects her to have his dinner ready for him when he comes home drunk.  She meets a woman friend in a bar who offers a potion which, in small amounts, can make her seem temporarily dead.  This will test whether Romeo really does love her.  Juliette takes what seems to be too much. 

When Romeo finds her dead, he calls her a silly cow, and plans to lead his own life how he likes.  Except that he has never fixed the loose carpet, trips over and stabs himself with his pen-knife.  He almost dies several times, once on top of the dead Juliette, and finally flat out on the floor. 

Juliette wakes up after all, finds him dead, decides she’s had enough of him and leaves to lead her own life.  Romeo then wakes up after all, and leaves to lead his own life.
The Angle of Sympathy by Rachel Hogan
    In which short funeral director Gaylord (Peter Fock) trains new recruit, tall Mr Long (Michael Ubrihien) in the 20 degree angle of sympathy required in posture when commiserating with family members of the dead; and Mr Long mathematically solves the problem of hoisting the cardboard training coffin on their differentially high shoulders, at the 20 degree angle of sympathy, to avoid the metaphorically dead teddy from being jolted out of the coffin during a fast funeral procession.

Bad Egg by Judith Peterson
    Two female magpies (Barbi Jones and Helen Way) discuss the fine details of maintaining good relations with the humans, sensitively swooping within decent limits; while the male bad egg of the family (Daniel Tonon) is totally out to scare the wits out of everyone in the neighbourhood.  After he nearly kills himself attacking a garbage truck, but still glorying in his achievement, one female now sees him as her hero, to the confusion of her sensible friend.

Into the Sun by Judith Peterson
    A man (Peter Fock) whose wife died a year ago, has always followed the expectations of others.  He is afraid to positively respond, despite his real feelings, when his woman neighbour (Judith Peterson) and previously friend of his wife, tries to initiate a conversation about how they feel about each other.  After a lengthy embarrassing attempt, she insists she will be independent and take a boat trip on her own.  He at last shows initiative by offering to go by train.  She immediately accepts without hesitation for a happy ending.

Teddy as L'Amour and Skeleton as la Mort
keep an eye on L'Amour et la Mort
at Smiths Alternative

My straight descriptions of the plays, interspersed with rather quietly sung philosophical songs in the folk tradition by the BetaBlockers, give you little idea of how entertaining, funny and unpretentious these quirky vignettes turned out to be.  The relaxed, friendly and essentially intimate atmosphere of Smiths Alternative, the one-time left-wing bookshop now bar and jazz venue, was the perfect place for these gently satirical digs at the little exigencies of life. 

It might not be grand theatre, but there’s certainly a place for this kind of small-scale highly independent theatre that Allycats provides – it’s one lobe of the heart of the city which, it used to be said, was without a soul.