Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










SCREAM No. 63 June 2013

Joe Woodward performing at Smith's Alternative

powerhouse arts personalities, Domenic Mico and Jorian Gardner, are helping to redefine the shape of performance potential through the inculcation of artistic values away from the sanctioned anaemic semantics of state authorized funding and strings attached

Peter Brook in his most brilliant writing identified a "rough theatre" as a necessary though not sufficient element in the creation of cultural and artistically valid work of theatre.

"Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that's not in a  theatre, the theatre on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting on tables, audiences joining in, answering back; theatre in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes - the one generic term, theatre, covers all of this and the sparkling chandeliers too." (Peter Brook, THE EMPTY SPACE , 1968, Pelican 1972 page 73)

As much as academics and some theatre elites have tried to debunk Brook and his articulated paradigm for theatre practices, his ideas and observations shine through and can be supported by the experience of theatre on most parts of the world. The more legitimate it becomes, the less successful it is as a medium of imaginative stimulation. While some would point to the phenomena like Lloyd Webber and the Lion King to disprove this point, it is certainly true that in the periods of greatest artistic advancement and vibe, it was in the unsanctioned arena that the spirit of development and generosity of artists have come to the fore.

Domenic Mico's contribution to such development in the ACT is virtually unparalleled. Now in partnership with "boots and all" and "fuckem all" Jorian Gardner, there is a dynamic at Smith's Alternative that has both credibility and a basis for genuine stimulation and shaking up of the cultural and artistic universe. The point is, art doesn't always have to be successful, liked or appreciated. Only a small percentage can ever be truly historically significant. The mistake is to chase the tail of the artistic dog in the hope of finding the NEW big hit . . . the funding bodies love these dogs. But it is on the streets and in hiding (sometimes illegal) spaces that genuine creativity and achievement is seeded.

SMITH'S ALTERNATIVE is totally legal. It has a unique history in Canberra as an alternative bookshop and venue for those seeking deeper questions and less establishment literature and communications.

When I first came to Canberra in 1980, I had coffees at Smiths and bought interesting books I couldn't find elsewhere. It is one of Canberra's institutions that has survived by its commitment to challenge, diversity and difference. Such words could define both Mico and Gardner who now operate Smiths Alternative.

David Finnigan performing at Smiths' Alternative in front of an eclectic audience

So it was very thrilling to be part of the first Bunch Of Fives presentation in five years! The enchanting roughness and directness of the event provided an exciting dynamic. This is where theatre is forged. For me, it is the heartbeat of theatrical development and presentation.

I came to theatre with virtually no experience in amateur theatre. In 1965 I was a teen in the Villanova Players youth group. My father was part of that company in the 1950s. But I never came to understand nor accept the Amateur theatre fascination with English Repertory or American Musicals. The thought of doing hack versions directed by well-meaning directors (usually Lawyers, Teachers or Public Servants) of Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw or, later, varieties of Tom Stoppard, Terrance Rattigan, early Pinter or Neil Simon was a nightmarish proposition. As an education officer/ actor at La Boite Theatre with the Theatre In Education Team (ie. the ECDP) in 1977, I was challenged to see theatre as part of a wider cultural context; part of the way in which we shape our cultural understanding and identity . . . there was no "darling that was wonderful" around La Boite's professional elements in those days (can't say the same for the amateur wing of the theatre). In fact, our team was prohibited from ever complimenting people on performance . . . it either worked or it didn't. It was assumed we were competent to put our work before an audience; but if it didn't work (and it often didn't) we needed to re-evaluate and revise what we were doing . . . and in a most fundamental way. This experience was forged from the days when Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, was also the Arts Minister and promoting the idea of the necessity of culture and arts for the betterment of all!

Such an idea is so alien to the tunnel visioned Julia Gillard concept of basic literacy devoid of cultural impact and artistic inspiration. The Gillard and Howard years have separated Arts and Culture from the mainstream of priorities. Their views are functionally reductionist. And this has been reflected in theatre and arts practices which define themselves in reductionist terms of pre-defined "outcomes" (a notion that flies in the face of artistic venturing) and "strategic partnerships".



When offered the opportunity to present a work for BUNCH OF FIVES, I drew on ideas that have been haunting me for some time. Reflecting on the different worlds of John Lenon's "Imagine" and the reductionist thinking world of today led to drawing upon current scientific theories about "the selfish gene" (late 1970s) and post-modern ennui. To shape the work, I felt I needed a fresh approach to both challenge me and open new ways of linking ideas to theatre.

Re-considering Anne Bogart's and Tina Landau's work on "Viewpoints" as a means for refreshing performance and creating compositions, I applied key principles to the writing and performing of his new work. While  "Viewpoints" is attributed to considerable physical theatre work, it also has a profound possibility in the use of verbal and sound shaping of content for performance.

"Without a Voice" is more an ironic title for work that is very heavily vocal and reliant on words. But this short sketch used the tensions and feel of a piece of music to focus and shape both writing and performance.

Working with the music of two composer musicians from Potsdam, Aaron Priest and Caro Wurlitzer, the piece was constructed phrase by phrase with the rising and falling of the music as the score. This led to a most energetic and tightly focused performance which also used the audience and the ambience of the venue to assist the delivery and further development.

Anne Bogart's imploring people to create theatre anywhere and everywhere is inspirational. It reduces the dependency on sanctioned and expensive staging. It makes it more than legitimate to see venues, rare as they are, like Smiths Alternative as the very hotspot in a wifi of scattered potential. After working in theatre and education for forty years, such endeavour can still provide an exciting regenerative process that is shared between actor, artist and audience.

Joe Woodward
(June 2013)



Trinculo's Shadow

Receive our Trinculo's Shadow newsletter directly by subscribing to us. Read information about issues and events from local, national and international groups who:

  • use theatre to explore the human condition

  • venture into the very psyche of cultural and personal expression, and

  • are interested in exploring the mysteries of life and social/cultural interaction.

To receive your copy and read provocative theatre articles and receive information about scripts, workshops and performances from Shadow House PITS, please sign up here as a subscriber.

To subscribe, click here and complete the simple form.