2018 has been a huge year for Citizen Theatre.
It started with an ambitious change in artistic direction, which meant the start of a dedicated company of collaborators meeting regularly to train, experiment and create. Our weekly meet ups are now so integral to what the company is, that I can hardly believe this time last year we were yet to formalise the ensemble in such a way.
This brave and ridiculously talented group of people – Jack Wunsch, Jenni Little, Marty Alix, Kala Gare, Jordan Barr, Jessica Vellucci and Willow Sizer – started on the journey in January with little more than something along the lines of “I really want to start doing regular training to make some crazy theatre with music. You keen to come along?” Every week I would come in with ideas of what we could start with and every week I would be led by the intelligence and creativity in the room into entirely new directions. It truly is the most wonderful thing about being an artist in a collaborative environment – starting with next to nothing and walking away with a whole new universe.
Some of these experiments led to creating what we now call ‘the walks’. Others led to very particular devising techniques that we are using in our current show, an immersive experience called ‘Forgotten Places’, as well as a whole lot of physical and vocal exercises designed to take us away from known and habitual ways of using our bodies (which includes our voices) so we can venture into the wacky, wild and unknown. This means challenging our assumptions we have for our bodies, for what some words, body parts, movements or gestures mean or might be associated with, so that we can imagine something different.
What started as a feminist principle of attempting to work beyond gender (knowing that we can never ‘escape’ it, but working consciously to explore ‘what else’ there might be if we temporarily permit the body and voice to go somewhere it has not been), has perhaps become a somewhat queer approach to theatre training and creation. This was suggested to me by one of the collaborators recently and I thought it a really interesting way of looking at our work. Whilst I hesitate to call our work queer since I don’t identify as queer, there is absolutely a deliberate subversiveness to our work, there is a commitment to say ‘what if’ and ‘what else’ and to celebrate and interrogate the diversity of knowledges our bodies contain, whatever form, colour or preferences they have. This is how we ensure the work is grounded in our humanity and in a particular aesthetic that feels true to the whole group.
This aesthetic was emerging before we even started training. Towards the end of 2017 I started working on a pilot for a livestream project called The Female Subject with 5 wonderful women: Kaori Maeda-Judge, Bec Moore, Jordan Barr, Jessica Vellucci and Willow Sizer. It was such a great project to work on and we had a very positive response. It was an artistic response to a survey I conducted in 2016 that asked female identifying people to respond to 10 questions asking them to reflect on how their relationship to their family impacted on their conception of womanhood and their identity as a woman. The videos are still on our Facebook page and Youtube channel if you missed them or want to relive it. I feel like we barely scratched the surface and I’m looking forward to bringing you season 1 late 2019.
We were also invited to present at the Showcase Vic Expo with the lovely Annie Aitken making an appearance as everyone’s favourite blonde bombshell. I’m excited to announce that we will be making our first foray into touring with a new morning melodies style show, Diamonds, starring Annie and accompanied by a 3 piece band led by Imogen Cygler. How lucky I feel to be working with Annie – after consistently appearing on commercial stages around the country since graduating VCA and recently winning the Rob Guest Endowment award, there is no doubt she is a star on the rise.
Of course our big project this year was Ascent. If you haven’t yet seen the mini-documentary series detailing our process, check it out. To help us make the show happen we were so lucky to be awarded a ShowSupport grant through Melbourne Fringe, generously sponsored by Monica & Sam Abrahams and the Ron & Marg Dobell Foundation. It was such a huge help and something I will always be grateful for. It was of course Citizen Theatre’s first show in the festival AND we got to present our production at Theatre Works. I have always admired Theatre Works, so this was a dream come true.
This show was ambitious in many ways: we were experimenting with form, content and ways of devising. In the beginning I was literally taking a stab in the dark with the collaborators. It was one of those pieces that I didn’t fully grasp until about 2 weeks out, because the way it was coming together was unlike anything I had done before: every single element relied so fully on the other. Normally you start your text work, then you build the show bit by bit and layer in costumes, lighting etc. later. There’s an order and a hierarchy. Not so with this show – the cast were rehearsing in costumes or as close to costumes as possible from very early on. We also rehearsed with some form of lighting, because it was hard to see the story without it. The music was being co-created often in the room with us and the writing was constantly changing, new scenes being added, some text being made up on the spot in response to what was emerging on the floor. It was a fascinating process, but because everything was so interrelated, everything had to all come together at the same time or none of it worked. As a director, it was kind of like I had to zoom in and out really fast all the time for basically the whole rehearsal period. It was also quite scary, because there was very little room for error as we established rules and conventions, form and content to achieve a coherent style. But the pay off was so worth it.
In short, there were particularities to this piece that required everyone’s usual way of working, embodying and performing (and engaging from the outside) to be challenged in some way. I think that is the greatest achievement of Citizen Theatre this year – to have created a work whose process completely embodied its commitment to challenge conventions, tropes and expectations in musical types of theatre. It will have another life, where or when I’m not yet sure. If you missed it don’t worry – it will be back.
A wonderful gift I received this year was in talking with Bryce Ives after the show one night. I had been calling Ascent an “experimental music theatre production” because I didn’t know what else to call it. He told me that what we were doing is Composed Theatre. Wow, I had no idea what that was. Then I went and read David Roesner’s book and yes, that was exactly what we were doing. That process I’ve described above, of allowing all elements equal priority and value is one feature of Composed Theatre. The other core thing I took away and that I think we do is creating work in a way that uses compositional principles and ways of thinking. Our work is also music-led. This revelation has allowed me to refine the activities and events we create in our training, to more deliberately co-create as composers. We have also started incorporating technology into training – for instance working with projections courtesy of our visual designer Stu Brown. Imogen Cygler our composer is doing more improvisation and in more specific ways in our training and the result is just incredible. Every week this group of amazing collaborators gets in a room and we all participate in experiment after experiment, meaning, we never know what the outcome is going to be. This approach to creating and devising has provided a freedom to the work we are making in Forgotten Places.
Another wonderful gift has come in the form of new collaborators: Kayla Hamill, Tomas Parrish, Margot Tanjutco and Caitlin Lavery. What a great bunch to help us build on the work into 2019! And yet another gift was finding Imogen Cygler, a composer who has become so integral to the way I think about the work I make, as has Stu Brown, a visual artist who is, quite simply, my partner in creativity and life. Jenni, Jess, Jordan, Jack, Marty, Kala and Willow have been such wonderful collaborators this year too - daring and clever ones at that - and I look forward to more exciting experiments as our work deepens in 2019. Kayla, Tom, Margot, along with Willow and Jordan will be performing in Forgotten Places immersive experience in February. Also joining the ‘FP’ team are Stu, Imogen and our new costume designer, the very talented Aislinn Naughton. Our social media extraordinaire Steph CC will also continue her brilliant work.
Stu’s recent photography walk resulted in some fantastic photographic submissions from City of Stonnington locals which have now undergone a marvellous abstraction process and are currently being transformed into giant painted murals that will form part of the Forgotten Places immersive experience. They have also formed the impetus for all the performance pieces, inspired the music and the costumes. We were so lucky to be awarded support from the City of Stonnington to bring this beautiful and bizarre vision of the future to the Chapel Off Chapel Mezznine and CANNOT WAIT to share it with you! Stu has been painting gorgeous colours for hours, the performing collaborators have been creating bountiful beautiful songs with Imogen as well as fun and intriguing movement and text based scenes, Aislinn has been designing and sewing like crazy – we are getting ready! Make sure you get your tickets – you won’t want to miss it!
We have so many exciting things to come in 2019 which will be announced over the next couple of months. It’s a back to back year, with big projects and lots of great art. I hope you’ll be there to enjoy it! In the meantime, enjoy the silly season and thank you so much for your support. Special thanks too to Ron and Marg Dobell, who are great long term supporters of ours – your ongoing support means the world.
Independent theatre can be hard and expensive (emotionally, financially, creatively, energetically etc.) but when the audience has a great experience it’s totally worth it. So keep coming, keep supporting independent artists whenever you can. A world with more art is what we all need.