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Dangerous Territory – the set is all around you

April 1, 2015


By Julian Hobba

Dangerous Territory was the theatre program of You Are Here 2015, which took place from 18 – 22 March in Canberra.  The brief for the independent theatre makers who took part was to create a performance for a space around Civic, the city centre, not usually used for theatre – a site-specific performance – without technical equipment. 


You Are Here is an annual festival of experimental and independent arts that’s been running since 2011.

Nick and Zoya at You Are Here asked if I’d be interested in writing about Dangerous Territory. I’m a theatre maker, not a reviewer; I wanted to write about the experience of Dangerous Territory and the ideas it brought up. Being six shows in as many locations, the experiences were markedly different and the ideas were eclectic. Site-specific performance is a broad term. This program contained shows that could be called environmental theatre, to promenade guerilla theatre to plays performed without their technical elements. I want to say something about the good work of the artists involved, but also the transformative experience of the city itself that took place through experiencing their work collectively over the four days of the festival. 

So, this is a kind of festival diary focused on the theatre program, though ranging wider than that where it puts Dangerous Territory into greater context.

Wednesday 18 March

The opening night of You Are Here. The festival hub is The Record Store, across from King O’Malley’s pub, between the much-maligned loitering points, Garema Place and the bus interchange. I used to come here mall-ratting when I visited my family in Canberra as a teenager.  It was a great record shop, and it’s a great You Are Here hub. A contemporary art museum has been installed on three walls.

Site-specific performance is not a new concept. Later, from an article by Andy Field in The Guardian:

“As long as there has been people… there have been performances in locations other than a purpose-built theatre. From grizzled medieval tradesman re-enacting the death of Jesus on a muddied cart trundling through the streets of York to bespectacled 60s avant-garde artists huddled in the back of sweaty bookshops, there has never been a time when theatre has only happened in theatres. It would be fair to say that the idea of sitting down in a purpose-built auditorium of plush red velvet seats arrayed in a number of tiers is a relatively new one”.

At 8pm, Alison Plevey performs her dance piece Work It in Garema Place. Video footage of people at work is projected onto a wall she’s moving in front of, while interviews with those people about the personal meaning of work plays along with the sound. About twenty of us are gathered watching on milk crates. Other passers by pause on the street furniture and steps behind us and watch. There’s a difference between the audience and the on-lookers. We sit, they come and go. We’re silent, they talk. Though some of them become ‘audience’ at the end, we clap, most of them don’t, instead looking on at us clapping like penguins at the zoo.

Like others, I’ve been on my phone during the performance. I’d never normally do that. I’ve even taken a photo of Alison and Facebooked it to say You Are Here has started. I definitely wouldn’t normally do that at a dance show. I immediately feel I might have infringed Alison’s rights to an image of herself and her work and feel sorry if I have.

As Work It has demonstrated, within You Are Here site-specific performance isn’t even unique to Dangerous Territory. Though Work It and The Record Store have a stage, lights and sound equipment, it’s still what you might call ‘site-specific’. Is there a difference? I’m really not sure what I’m going to write about to do with site-specificity.

The weather is perfect. Work It is good. You Are Here has just put on something you wouldn’t see in Garema Place any other time; art exists. It’s liberating.

Thursday 19 March

Zak and Reefa’s Bollywood Funeral by Tasnim Hossain, directed by Chris Brain – 21 Barry Drive, 7pm.

Misunderstanding the program, I missed that this performance was in two parts, the first on Wednesday, the second on Thursday. But this second performance, in a building that seems to host some not-for-profit legal and community services, and a recruitment agency, on the fringe of the CBD, is a self-contained monologue, however it joined to the previous night’s performance.

The audience is squeezed into a small space in the reception area of one of the offices, jammed between a high administration desk and the wall with its pigeon holes and collateral stand. I’m one of the lucky early birds, sat up on a big yellow plastic lego tub up the back. Others stand, or huddle up by the doorway. Through the intermittently sliding glass door onto Barry Drive cars can be heard going by in low, flat whooshes. The door slides open and closed, open and closed.

Tasnim performs the monologue she’s written. This is a well written, charming monologue. It’s an authentic account of a recently graduated and unemployed Bangladeshi girl navigating the awkward and funny terrain of her transition to adulthood; love, marriage, her place in her large, Bangladeshi extended family, her relationship with her brother and Bollywood dance. It’s a tight theatrical monologue, painting vivid pictures of onions being cut in the family home, Indian weddings and personal anguish.

What if this piece had been performed in a black box theatre, Tasnim moving around in pools of light, blacked out as she changed from civilian to ceremonial dress, the cheesy pop and Bollywood music in full surround sound instead of the laptop speakers behind the administration desk? Would it have felt less intimate, less like being invited in to be told someone’s personal story? Would there have been an expectation for ‘higher stakes’ in the narrative? Would the imaginary worlds have been conjured even more vividly?

Why is it being performed in this space? A story that deals pretty directly, if not heavy-handedly, with questions of cultural identity, is being performed in a building housing not-for-profit community organisations. Is that deliberate? Or is it because the building also hosts a recruitment agency and the main character is unemployed? That seems to me like a meeting place between the performance and the space.

I talk to a lot of people who don’t like theatre venues; who want to get out of them and who dislike the relationship they have to ‘going to the theatre’. A friend who runs a theatre said to me in an exasperated way not long ago “yeah, no one wants an actual theatre”. I’m paraphrasing. I love theatre spaces.

Saturday 21 March

A big day in the Dangerous Territory program. Four shows.

I love to make a day of it and this is a nice day. I get on my bike from Lyneham, through the parks of O’Connor and Turner, down Marcus Clarke St and over the bridge by New Acton to the new Westside precinct, a pop-up village of shipping containers around a high structure overlooking West Basin. It’s a week old. Like You Are Here, the roots of the Westside project can be traced directly back to the Centenary of Canberra, in which the program, directed by Robyn Archer, supported two shipping container projects by a great collective of designers called Canberra Lab. They are part of the group behind Westside, their latest endeavor in urban activation. It’s a good match with You Are Here, which is also designed to inhabit and reimagine urban spaces.

Eucapocalypts Now by Ellie Malbon and Aaron Kirby– Westside, 2pm.

One of the Dangerous Territory curators, Morgan Little, is literally waving the You Are Here flag, leading us to a small stand of eucalypts on the outside perimeter of the Westside precinct. There’s unreconstructed shipping containers on one side, Lake Burley Griffin off on the other, and car parks all around. Ellie Malbon and Aaron Kirby, writers and performers, are about to perform to about 20 of us, again on milk crates. They explain: there will be a performance portion and a conversation portion of this show and a series of objects with provocations (in the form of questions) will move through the audience throughout. I already have the first object in my hands; it’s a computer mouse and it asks me what I would do if I couldn’t ‘click on’. I feel immediately grounded in the performance; they have me.

The performance portion is a series of poetic vignettes with minimal, mimetic movement envisaging life as the world goes through environmental apocalypse. A point is made: the change has already begun. The poetry is evocative and dexterously treads that fine line between the curious appeal of unrelated images and the slow accumulation of a whole world. In the new world, in Canberra, there will be bushfires with flames 40 metres high in the air. The poetry brings to life the poignancy and the immediacy of the environment  – the performance site. I can see the wall of flame rising over the crest of the hills behind what is now the Aboretum (God bless it); I can imagine the small post-apocalyptic communities being described, eking out their existence by the banks of what was the Murrumbidgee, and the remnants of life among the decimated buildings and landscaped environment around me.

During the conversation portion after the recitation ends, I realise we are going to have the same conversation that was happening among the people living in the fictional post-apocalyptic world about how we want to live. This makes sense, because, after all, the change has already started. We talk about the values and assumptions that shape our existence; we talk about big, fundamental changes to our life. The objects being passed among us – like university degrees – begin to feel redundant. A bee runs into my forehead, a small green spider tries to get into my bag before falling out. The whole question asked by Eucapocalypts Now seems to be: how do we stop dying and start living?

A Chill Day in Hell by Arran McKenna – Westside, 3.30pm

Morgan invites us into the precinct-proper. In a peripheral shipping container, open onto the main square of the village, where lots of kids are hooning around on scooters and people are playing basketball, Arran McKenna is waiting to perform to us. He’s set up at one end of the container with a laptop and a speaker, headphones around his neck connected to a device in one of the pockets of his hoodie.

I run into two friends of mine. Theatre people at Westside with their kids. They’re happy at the impromptu opportunity to catch something of You Are Here so come and sit in the entrance-way of the container in the sun, sunglasses on, watching their kids play on scooters in the square. A couple of times their kids come in during the performance, whisper something in their ears, then go back out again. A basketball bounces ominously close to the entrance every now and again.

Arran plays a character called Felix, the host of a podcast in a dystopian world. All of humanity is plugged into the podcast and unable to not-listen for fear of the deathly ‘hum’ that would come upon them if they ‘unplugged’. The podcast provides a faux-spirituality through which Arran critiques our strategies to reduce the anxiety of the contemporary world. I’m always interested in the debate around whether it was Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 that more accurately predicted the control mechanisms of a future state. The recent expansions of the surveillance state might suggest that we’ll get the worst of both worlds, but Arran’s take seems definitely in the tradition of Huxley, and I love that. The script needed to be tighter and the potential of sound, given the podcast-idea and the presence of the speaker, seemed underutilised (it’s possible it just wasn’t working) and, as my friend also noted, the performance dropped into a much more interesting place when Arran inadvertently dropped the put-on voice of Felix. Those things aside, A Chill Day in Hell was a big, compelling idea from a young writer and performer and it was impressive for that.

I ride back across the bridge into the city. It’s a smorgasbord.

Sir Co by Millie Cooper – Bible Lane, 6.30pm

A collection of us gather in the back alley behind the row of restaurants in Garema Place. There’s pipes, air conditioning units and staircases dotted over the canvas of the back of the building and open skips at the curb of the stained asphalt laneway. We’re gathered for Sir Co, a short play by Millie Cooper about conditions in detention centres. The canvas-tented back end of a small truck or ute is pointing at us. Two of the performers are inside it – the detainees – and the two guards, or staff, are outside. The performance starts. The environment has the better of it. I can’t properly hear the performers and when I can, it’s only the bits of deliberate repetition. I’m afraid the performance is all but lost on me and I begin to take in the magpies that have come to watch in great number, lining the rooftops and the lips of the skips. Two kitchen-hands come out of the backdoor of one of the restaurants and put their bags in the skips; one wears a pink apron, one a blue one. They come and join the audience. One line I hear is: “no one is listening to me”. A security guard from the pub around the corner is walking by. I hear him say: “I listen to you love”.

A theme is developing among the shows, about being hostage to forces that are out of control. It’s good to be out in the open for this, feeling that angst find its voice in the world.

Krewd presents a Krewd Chorale – Artistic Director and concept by Katie Woodward, 9pm.

I love this. Promenade guerilla performance art. Like Eucapocalypts Now, there is alchemy between the performance and the site.

Krewd Chorale is all manner of being female in public. There are six or seven performers roaming through or differently positioned along the 50 or so metres of Bible Lane; singing and walking in trance, writhing in blue body paint, clowning, managing, chained up like a dog by a water bowl, gagged and exposed, reciting in French in front of a suburban car or feeling through a mound of soil while directly engaging and challenging passers by. This performance made the space volatile and the air alive because it was public. All those things we don’t do or talk about in public were happening: shouting, emoting, crying, being submissive, being angry, being naked, singing. And it was all the more powerful because it was political – taking on persistent and urgent questions about our treatment of gender. Here was the defilement of the female body, the visceral release of its potentialities, the explosion of a political anger and violent outrage.

People wandered through and amongst the performers.  And what’s most revealing is the way passers by engage with it. Some love the art; some think it’s some Enlighten kind of event, until they realise it’s not; a buck’s party actually responded with a bit of overt sexism towards the performers; some ridicule it. The requisitioning of the space to the purpose of art throws into relief not so much the artists as the performance put on by people in their daily life.

The world is out of control, but what is released in Krewd are forces of rebellion, of expression and liberation, of creativity, from a deep wellspring of myth and culture that is ancient and contemporary and complex and visceral and finds its place in every back alley where a fissure is opened.

The set is all around us. The environment, the streets. All the world is a stage.

This weekend, culture feels like it is sitting on top of the list of reasons that humans inhabit this place called the City. What kind of city do we want to live in?

Sunday 22 March

Fuck Decaf by the Cutting Room Floor  – As You Like it Café, The Street Theatre, 4pm.

Fuck Decaf is a three-hander play that we watched in a theatre-style set up in the foyer of The Street. The play is set in a café and we watched it in a café, so in that sense, you would have to say it was very site-specific. However, the quality of the piece was in its writing and performance, rather than any relationship to the space. It is about the disconnection between two friends who have radically different outlooks on love and the world but have a surviving, underlying affection for one another. The space between their dispositions and attitudes is manifest in the performance through slippages in time; we watch their relationship develop from adolescence to maturity in episodes, two or three years apart. The slippages are accelerated by the constant consumption of caffeine. They lose control of their relationships, they lose control of time, they lose control of their addiction to love or caffeine and they lose control of themselves and their relationship. There was a pleasure in the dowsing of the foyer with coffee, and a concern for the space that probably wouldn’t have occurred to me if we’d been in a theatre.

Even though I’ve gone to You Are Here in previous years, I’ve never experienced Civic in quite the way I have while watching all of these Dangerous Territory shows. I like Canberra even more than I did four days ago.

I wonder if I want the city to be like this all the time? Always a shifting space being implanted with small memories that will sit at the corner of the collective consciousness? But then, festivals have traditionally been liminal pockets of time that allow something outside of normal experience, something special, to occur.

Dangerous Territory has reminded me that there are small performances taking place every day in the city that only require a theatrical frame to be put around them in order for them to become art. Every time someone tells a story to their friend at a café; everytime a woman is leered at in public. We just have to engage imaginatively with the spaces we inhabit, and with each other.

Thanks to everyone at You Are Here for a great festival.

Julian Hobba is the Artistic Director of Aspen Island Theatre Company based in Canberra.