Monday, February 23, 2009

We. Are. Coming.

Here's the new poster for Torchwood season three, Children of Earth - oooooh.....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Revived hub of independent theatre has plenty in store

The Store Room Theatre, formerly home to some of Melbourne’s most innovative independent theatre companies, is preparing a dynamic new program for 2009 after being dark for over a year.

Based above the Parkview Hotel in North Fitzroy, the Store Room – an intimate, 63-seat venue – picked up a swag of awards, including a coveted Green Room Award, within a few years of opening its doors in 1999.

It quickly developed a reputation for staging exciting productions by emerging theatre makers, and became a meeting place for Melbourne’s independent theatre community.

“It became a very sought-after venue to present work at, and it was quite hard to get work on there,” recalls writer/performer Angus Cerini. “So even though they were a really small venue above a pub … it had a lot of cache to it; and that’s represented by the kind of shows that went in there and their kind of audiences. The audiences that the Store Room managed to attract in a very short space of time would put a lot of really well-funded organisations to shame.”

All that changed in 2006 when the Store Room’s management announced a new direction for the theatre.

“We remodelled the company to have a stronger, more dedicated focus on the development of new work,” explains Store Room co-founder, Todd Macdonald.

“Instead of being a venue for hire, the company became a core group of around 11 artists – our Artistic Associates – with the company focused specifically on those artists and developing their work.”

While Macdonald stands by the merits of that development model – during which time the company was rebranded as the Store Room Theatre Workshop – there was a cost: work continued on behind the scenes, but no new productions were staged. The theatre has been dark since November 2007.

Consequently, the Store Room’s profile has fallen considerably – as has the degree to which it is funded by Arts Victoria.

It was this loss of funding which spurred Macdonald to return to the Store Room and once again take up the Artistic Director’s role, having previously resigned from the position in 2005 following the birth of his children.

“I decided that the time was right for me to come back, and – looking at some of the funding challenges that we had ahead of us – that a restructure of the company would be best,” Macdonald says.

That restructure will see the company’s existing development model fused with a curated program of new productions, and a new residency program.

“It’s what excited me the most, to take the existing structure of us being a development incubator … and expand that and link that again with us being a vibrant independent company venue,” Macdonald explains.

A call for expressions of interest from companies wanting to participate in the Store Room’s 2009 program was issued earlier this month.

“There’s a two-pronged approach: we’re going to ask three companies to come in to three month residencies here, and we’re also looking – possibly with those companies, or otherwise with companies who present us with a proposal – to program a series of shows again in July through to October.”

Melbourne’s independent theatre sector has responded to the news of a reinvigorated Store Room with delight.

“I think it’s very good news,” says Liz Jones, Artistic Director of Carlton’s La Mama Theatre. “I think the more venues we have and the more vital the scene, the better. Because the smaller the scene, the smaller the perception of the importance of theatre.”

Sunday Age theatre critic John Bailey also welcomed the announcement.

“There aren’t many venues that offered the same kind of thing that the Store Room did,” he says.

“They were a hub, but there was also an aspect of community about it, in that at openings or otherwise you often saw the same faces, and you had people going because of the venue. There was a sense of artists with similar kinds of ideas or goals working together; not necessarily making the same kinds of shows at all but definitely sharing a certain kind of spirit, and all gathered there and managing to cross-pollinate and find each other’s ideas, which was quite unique.”

That sense of community which the Store Room fostered is something that Todd Macdonald is keen to renew.

“What’s brilliant is that we’ve got a venue, and it’s a really well known venue, and it’s a well loved venue. I’m looking forward to getting the heart of that beating again, and getting people back in here and creating more of a community around our artists in Melbourne and in Fitzroy again.”

An edited version of this article appeared in The Age on Wednesday February 18.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Reviews: Woyzeck, Tom Ballard Is What He Is, Little Black Bastard

It struck me a moment ago - as I typed the names of the three very different shows I caught over the course of three days last week in the title of this blog post, above - that despite their differences, there is a unifying thread that links all three, tenuous as it may be.

sees the eponymous character's pysche broken down and destroyed by the machinery of the military; 19 year old Warnambool expat Tom Ballard's stand-up show Is What He Is focuses on Ballard's coming out as gay in a country town; and Noel Tovey's remarkable monologue Little Black Bastard is a story of indigenous survival in the face of sometimes shocking abuse and deprivation in the 1940s and 50s. All three productions, then, are in one way or another about the struggle to maintain one's sense of self in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds... not that that's necessarily relevant to each work individually, but taken collectively, it's an amusing coincidence, don't you think? Anyway, enough with the random associations and on with the reviews...


Written by Georg Büchner and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1837, Woyzeck has been hailed, remarkably, as both a precursor of theatrical naturalism and a forerunner of German expressionism. This new production at the Malthouse Theatre is directed by Michael Kantor, features live music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis performed by an in-house band, and is based on an Icelandic adaptation by Gisli Örn Gardasson which premiered in London in 2005. (As an aside, you can catch Gisli's production of Kafka's Metamorphosis, with more music from Cave and Ellis, at this year's Ten Days on the Island festival in Tasmania from March 28 - April 1.)

The play tells the story of a hapless army barber, the eponymous Woyzeck (Sydney-based actor Socratis Otto, who I interviewed a few weeks ago), who is slowly going mad thanks in large part to the experiments of the Doctor (played in manic camp mode by Mitchell Butel) and the sadistic cruelty of the Captain (Merfyn Owen). Eventually Woyzeck snaps, killing Marie (Bojana Novakovic) the mother of his child.

Kantor's production of this theatrical classic is both expressionistic - such as the hallucinatory set designed by Peter Corrigan that somewhat overwhelms the drama enacted on stage - and realistic, i.e. Otto's take on the increasingly hapless and bewildered Woyzeck, a lost man slowly breaking under pressure. But perhaps as a result of trying to embrace both aspects of the play, for me this production fell short of the mark.

Despite a strong cast, opening night performances were generally unimpressive save for Tim Roger's swaggering Entertainer, who stole the show; and for the most part I felt as if the play's heart was somehow missing. The only real drama came from the music, played live on stage under the orchestration of Peter Fanan (ex-Boom Crash Opera) and adding some much-needed emotion to the production.

There was no sense of external threat to anchor the story: the characters were supposedly at war, but there was little sense of this in the play, which may have been an attempt to evoke a sense of timelessness by Kantor, but which to my mind left the story somewhat rootless.

Overall, Kantor's Woyzeck felt underbaked, although it may find its feet as the production settles into its run. As a spectacle it was entertaining, but as a story of working class tragedy, jealousy and dehumanisation, it missed its mark.

Woyzeck at The Malthouse until February 28. Bookings online or 9685 5111.


Part of this year's St Kilda Laughs program (which is in turn part of the St Kilda Festival) this was the debut solo show from young stand-up artist Tom Ballard.

This initial run of Is What He Is was an opportunity for Ballard to road-test his material prior to this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival (you'll find him, ironically, in The Forum Theatre's Ladies Lounge from April 2 - 26).

The focus of the show is Ballard's coming out at the age of 18 in his home town of Warnambool, but he touches on a range of issues that anyone will relate to regardless of sexuality, such as joking about awkward adolescent sexual encounters (though I'm told the material about being offered a happy ending after a massage in Thailand with his father being massaged in the next room may not make it through to the final version of the show).

The basic premise is good, and Ballard's material, and his delivery of it, was great. The last 20 minutes of the show were however somewhat thin, a flaw which should be addressed with the help of a director (a step Ballard tells me he's taking prior to the festival in April). I'm definitely interested in checking Ballard out again at ComFest, and suggest you do too. A good, solid stand-up routine with a fresh perspective is always welcome.

Tom Ballard Is What He Is (season completed)


I originally saw Noel Tovey's remarkable, moving and confronting one-man show Little Black Bastard at the Midsumma Festival in 2004, so was delighted to hear it was having a return season at the festival this year.

After a childhood marked by homelessness, alcoholism, violence and abuse, which peaked with being sent to Pentridge Gaol for 'the abominable crime of buggery' when he was 17, Noel Tovey escaped Australia to live out a rags-to-riches story in which he become a dancer, actor, singer, choreographer and director in England and America working alongside some of the great film and theatre artists of his day.

In Little Black Bastard, Noel recalls his return to Australia and his reconciliation with the country that had never managed to provide him with a home. Like Tovey's memoir of the same name, the show opens with Tovey using a tram trip through Melbourne and the memories the journey awakens as the introduction to a sometimes painful journey through the early years of his life. Taken from his mother's care at five, Tovey and his sister were adopted out to a Queensland family where their stepfather repeatedly sexually abused them for the next seven years. Later, Tovey became a streetkid in Melbourne, gradually drifting towards the fringes of Melbourne's arts community, where he became friends with the late great Mary Hardy.

So powerful are the memories which the monologue stirs up that Tovey can only perform it for three or four days at a time. So why does he keep doing it?

"I do it because for two reasons. One I don't want any other Indigenous child and for that matter any white child to ever go through what I went through. The second reason I do it if anyone thinks that their life is totally hopeless once they hear mine they think well if that old fella could get out of the shit so can I."

- from a 2005 interview with ABC local radio's Karen Dorante.

The story's effect on the audience is equally intense. Also available as a book published by Hodder Australia, Little Black Bastard is unmissable. A masterful performance from an acclaimed storyteller.

Little Black Bastard at Gasworks Theatre (season concluded).

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth (season three trailer)

I can't wait...

Review: The 39 Steps

I missed this inspired piece of slapstick when it premiered at The Arts Centre last year, so was delighted to get another chance to see it, albeit in a new production, which is now showing until February 14.

Written by Patrick Barlow and based on Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film (which is in turn based on John Buchan's novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, first published in 1915) it tells the story of Richard Hannay (played by Mark Pegler), a stiff-upper lipped sort of chap who blunders into a spy ring, gets framed for murder, and is chased across Britain by the police - sometimes with a young woman, Pamela (one of several roles played by Helen Christinson) handcuffed to his wrist.

Four actors play the story's 100+ characters, with Russell Fletcher and the wonderfully adaptive Jo Turner taking on almost all of the roles, everything from the mysterious figures watching Hannay's apartment from beneath a streetlamp (which they carry on and off stage with them as they come and go) to the policemen who are hot on his trail. The pair's reflexes and timing when swapping hats and roles before our eyes is breathtaking, and coupledwith an adaptive and inventive use of relatively low-fi props, taps directly into the play's spirit, which both satirises and faithfully recreates the minutea of Hitchcock's film - as well as referencing almost every other Hitchcock film ever made.

One especially hilarious scene is played out with puppets in silhouette behind a white sheet, and includes an obvious North by Northwest moment, while the film's archtypal chase on and over a train is played with dexterity and skill.

Director Sioban Tuke mostly maintained the pace set in the original production by Maria Aitken (this is a franchise of that original), although on opening night there were two longer, talk-heavy scenes that faintly dragged; but for the most part this was a delightfully funny, beautifully played and wonderfully ridiculous concoction that I highly recommend.

The 39 Steps at The Arts Centre, in association with the MTC.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

And so it begins

Today was my last day at the MCV/Canvas office for the week. As of today I am only working two days per week, with the other three days of the week being devoted first and foremost to freelancing, my responsibilities as Chair of Melbourne Fringe, and producing and presenting my weekly radio program SmartArts on 3RRR.

This means I've cut my salary in half in the middle of a recession with no guaranteed source of income until I can start generating some regular income from writing for the arts section of The Age etc. Mad? Possibly - but fuck I'm looking forward to the challenge. Wish me luck!