Hordes of art lovers descended on the Southbank campus for the opening night of the 2017 Art Graduate Exhibition, held on Monday 20 December. With bands, food trucks, performances and more, the evening showcased the work of over 100 graduating visual artists at the Victorian College of the Arts.
As the Victorian College of the Arts' Production Graduate Exhibition nears, lecturer Anna Cordingley and BFA graduating students sum up some winning moments from the year.
By Anna Cordingley, Lecturer in Design (Live Performance) at the Victorian College of the Arts
The Victorian College of the Arts' Production Graduate Exhibition (21–23 November, 2017) celebrates the dedication, development and many achievements of our final year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production), Master of Design for Performance and Master of Production Design for Screen students. In the following short pieces, students from a selection of our specialisations elaborate on the major projects and opportunities experienced at the VCA.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) – Design Realisation
Here, graduating BFA students Natalie Gillis, Pia Guilliatt and Juliette Whitney discuss their final design submissions, a culmination of three years of set, costume and property design and construction subjects. Their projects are a response to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1973) and/or Tom Wright’s Optimism (2009).
Natalie Gillis: Following Bernstein’s Candide, I have designed and constructed a gown referencing motifs, designs and features from mid-18th-century Parisian trends. Organic motifs and patterns, common throughout the Rococo period, are openly explored in this costume, as you'll see in the image below.
The over-sexualisation of the character Cunégonde is echoed throughout this gown. Both in the bold robe à la française, the open overskirt, the general palette and finishing trims, this robe is rife with Yonic symbolism. Silk flowers here represent virtue and virginity: Cunégonde wishes to regain such graces by plastering herself with blossoms.
Pia Guilliatt: Candide is spinning decks while Cunégonde twirls fire and Paquette walks a tightrope high above the churning crowd; everyone is feeling pleasantly fuzzy – but is it optimism or the kick in Pangloss’ punch?
My version of Tom Wright’s Optimism is a colourful world of music, dancing, lights, acrobatics and drama – but don’t forget your rose-tinted glasses, because things are not what they seem. Part warehouse rave, part immersive theatre performance, this is an experience whereby the audience journeys alongside Candide and his friends through the deceptive haze of their own perceptions.
The space is in continual transformation as they adjust to new realities, harsh truths and moral dilemmas. Ultimately, the audience members are the agents responsible for determining the fate of the evening; they may make something beautiful out of its wreckage or fall victim to its decay.
In the spirit of sustainability and recycled art, I have looked at Optimism in the contemporary context of festival culture and the hedonistic escapism that it promotes. I draw on my own experiences in these hyper-stimulated worlds and note the jarring contrast between ecstasy and archaic mess.
Far from being condemning, I hope to offer a pragmatic perspective on the vices of waste and excess, demonstrating that with thoughtful cooperation, creativity and a healthy dose of optimism, we can still create a better world for ourselves.
Juliette Whitney: My Optimism resides in the golden age of the 1950s, a decade of marvellous consumer abundance wherein the "American/Australian dream" is a tangible reality. The Depression years are over and a prosperous epoch of optimism is beginning. Television is a step up from radio and enables a private window to the world.
There is an undeniably sinister aspect: advertisements and broadcasts have become tools for the manipulation of unsuspecting consumers. Political anxieties, curtailed freedoms and "the Red Scare" wreck havoc, while the population lives in the grim shadow of the Cold War. Nevertheless, "the best of all possible worlds" is yet driven by the persistent hope that the future is brighter.
My final design submission is an immersive work responding to Tom Wright’s Optimism; a work that occupies the cellblock of the Old Melbourne Gaol. The audience is escorted throughout the floors and each tiny cell corresponds to the journey of our protagonist.
The design is a dialogue between the jail’s own gruelling history and the suffocating iconography of the 1950s, allowing a forceful investigation of Wright’s fraught characters.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) – Stage Management and Performance Technology
Elizabeth Gallagher, Alysha Watt (Stage Management) and Thomas Lloyd (Performance Technology) discuss their final-year internships, a program providing opportunities to engage directly with the performing arts industry, learn from industry leaders, be involved in the day-to-day of major companies, festivals and events and begin to establish vital career networks.
Elizabeth Gallagher: I interned with Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza for two months, and my second month is when I started really stepping up.
Peter Anastassi (General Stage Manager) tasked me with creating a list of every single movement that happened onstage, and then deciding who was in charge of it, so at the end of the show when the show caller was giving notes they knew exactly who to talk to.
The team was very impressed with my work, which was really rewarding. My favourite acts were the Wheel of Death and the Teeterboard. On my very last day at Cirque the artists brought me on stage for bows and gave me a bouquet and some gifts.
I left Kooza feeling like I was a part of a family, which was amazing.
Alysha Watt: I interned with The Production Company’s Dusty for six weeks. When envisioning my career at a younger age, even before discovering Stage Management as a potential career path, I had wanted to do something that would change daily.
Growing up and moving around in foreign countries, and constantly having to adapt to new environments, taught me the importance of that. I also wanted to experience working on a show in a well-established venue with large audiences.
Throughout the rehearsal process of Dusty, a major asset was being able to take advantage of the Stage Manager Meg Deyell’s brain. She has a wealth of knowledge and encouraged me to ask questions. What she taught me ranged, through anecdotes and elaborate analogies, from how to maintain focus in the rehearsal room to the difference in roles of a first and second assistant director on films.
Some information was directly pertinent to what we were doing; some wasn’t but was valuable nonetheless. Another of Meg’s skills I admired was her ability to remain completely calm in any situation. That kind of flexibility and calmness is something I have attempted to apply to my own work since.
I was able to grow a lot personally and professionally while working on Dusty. I was presented with the opportunity to observe and learn and complete tasks as a real professional Assistant Stage Manager with those around me able to support my learning.
Within Opera Australia I became the personal secondment to the company's Production Manager James Wheeler for the duration of the Melbourne winter and Sydney spring seasons.
My first day involved a scheduled technical hold for King Roger whereby, after the preview, priority was given for lighting fix-ups. It was there, watching the team doing notes, that I learnt my first obvious titbit: that when going through the show with notes, run the scenes in reverse chronological order.
I was lucky enough to join the floor crew of both Carmen and King Roger for three days of the season.
I also sat in on some meetings for future productions, which was illuminating – I hadn't anticipated the degree of planning that went into a production: they were already starting conversations for a show that was slated for the 2021 season.
The educational value my internships had on my professional development was abundant, most critically boosting my confidence with regards to being ready to join the industry.
Banner image: The VCA production of Caucasian Chalk Circle (2017) featuring Acting Company 2017 and Production students. By Jeff Busby.
The Victorian College of the Arts Production Graduate Exhibition takes place at Space 28, Southbank Melbourne, 21–23 November, 2017.
Find out more about the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) at the Victorian College of the Arts
Sign up for the Faculty of VCA & MCM’s free monthly enews.
Macau Days is a tri-lingual book (English, Portuguese, Chinese) that includes a series of poetic texts by Brian Castro and artworks by John Young, an introductory letter by Edward Colless of the Victorian College of the Arts and a response from the University of Adelaide's Paul Carter. In the lead-up to the launch of the book, on 14 November at Melbourne's MPavillion, Young and Castro spoke briefly with VCA Honorary Fellow curator Natalie King about the work and their shared histories in Macau.
Natalie King: Can you tell me about the genesis of the book Macau Days?
Brian Castro: John initiated things in 2012 with his series of blackboard and photo works called The Macau Days. I immediately responded by saying Macau has a special place in my childhood memories, and asked if he would like to do a collaboration on a larger exhibition and book on the topic. It took another four to five years before things fell into place.
John Young: The old Macau exists only in our imagining and memory. It is the oldest colonial port that served as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Those who lived in Macau were transcultural since the 1550s, with poets, novelists and artists occupying the space with a rich tapestry of worldviews, lifestyles and philosophies. Over the past two decades this precious yet fragile cultural territory has transformed into a gambling hothouse for the Chinese rich, with at least 38 casinos that articulated the coming of a Trumpian kitsch-like phantasmagoria. My initial exhibition in Hong Kong was never an exercise in social history, but rather an investigation into what visual forms and imaginings of the old Macau could take.
When Brian and I talked about the possibility of a book and another exhibition, I was tremendously excited, I respected his work greatly, ever since his first novel Birds of Passage, in which he implicitly referred to his childhood origins in Macau. Since then, in the many novels he has written, such as Shanghai Dancing, there have always been references to Macau. Both of us have referenced Macau in our work over the last 30 years. We both, after all, came from the same Southern Chinese diaspora.
The most exciting aspect of making this book for me was the introduction of another medium – text – to this Macanese imagining and memory making. But Brian brought even more: a gastronomic dimension.
King: The texts and images in Macau Days are based on the lives of six historical and mythological figures who lived for a time in Macau, a mixture of saints and sinners. Can you tell us a bit about these central figures?
Castro and Young: These figures lived in Macau in different eras. Today, some of their deeds are very well documented through text and visual images, whilst others, the more transient characters, could only be derived through documentations in Portuguese or Chinese, or from the time they spent outside of Macau itself. The goddess Mazu we know mainly through oral transmission, and existed only in myth. These varying aspects are probably the most exciting upshots in the memory making – the multi-dimensionality and the thickness of time this book reaches.
Mazu is the goddess of the sea after whom Macau is named. She is a mythical figure invoked by fishermen and sailors from the 10th century ACE.
Luis Vaz de Camões is a soldier and Portugal’s most celebrated poet from the 16th century who most famously wrote the epic poem The Lusiads.
Wu Li is a poet, painter and priest who was born in China in the 17th century – a generally obscure and holy man. He converted to Catholicism and became one of the three first Chinese Jesuit priests.
Giuseppe Castiglione is a Jesuit missionary, painter, well-known nobleman and friend of the Emperor, who was also born in the 17th Century, albeit some fifty years later than Wu Li.
Camilo Pessanha is a poet and lawyer who was disillusioned by the law in Macau and developed an opium addiction. He was around in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wenceslau de Moraes is a Portugese writer, lover and traveller who features on the cover of our book. He is a tremendously interesting character, whose life in a sense is so much a part of our present sense of flight and homeless travel. He wrote extensively about the Far East. As a poet and man of letters, de Moraes arrived in Macau from Portugal, he married a Chinese woman and had a child, yet his roaming spirit took him to Tokushima, where he had yet another family. Having found his spiritual home in Japan, and his ultimate love, he left behind copious writings of his journeys in the Far East, yet never returned to Portugal. His was a diverse, multi-lingual life, a life of miscegenation, eccentricity, and becoming foreign.
King: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Chinese sea goddess Mazu?
Young: Traditionally and mythologically, Mazu was a young silent girl who saved the lives of seafarers, and could manifest herself at a distance without travel. She was clairvoyant. Historically, there stands a large statue of A-Ma or Mazu at the mouth of the harbour of Macau, welcoming all who arrive. Indeed, Macau was named as the translation of Mazu in Chinese. There is also a temple devoted to this shamaness, which holds too many stories to tell. As the feminine or the anima, she stands in stark contrast to another group of women, the women pirates – who ruthlessly ruled the Southern Chinese seas for centuries. Both these feminine aspects are referred to in the book.
King: What is the role of food – 'the flavours of Macau' – recipes and dishes as the work of memory?
Young: Memory is the work of flavour and smells, like Proust’s Madeleine biscuit soaked in tea. Food and its connotations become an immediate and visceral yardstick of a culture or place. You can always feel the differing proximity of a new culture’s food from your own ‘comfort’ food. It opens worlds up in an immediate way. Brian references food a lot in his writing to explore cultural differences in olfactory and taste – it’s a sort of intransitivity that has been more explored in the written text than in the visual arts.
King: How did you arrive at the unique format of melding recipes, trilingual poems, reflections and artworks into the publication?
Castro and Young: This was the best way we could think of combining memory and history and cultural re-call, bringing the eye, taste, sound and smell into a confluence of experience. It is the least likely but most indicative conjunction. Macau Days is less a social history or poem than is an eclectic work - a kind of objet or curiosité de Macau.
To listen to an in-depth interview between Natalie King, Brian Castro and John Young, come along to the launch on 14 November, drink a glass of champagne and have a squiz at what is bound to be a significant new cultural artefact. More details.
Banner image: Supplied by Art + Australia.
The Melbourne-based State Music Camp last week donated $75,000 to the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) to fund a new, annual $3,500 student conductor award.
The award will be presented annually to a student enrolled in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music who has demonstrated a high standard of musicality and potential to develop further their conducting skills. The student will be invited to conduct a student orchestra during the annual State Music Camp in July.
“The purpose of the award is to elevate conducting as a very worthy musical skill,” said Gavan Woinarski, independent philanthropy consultant and committee member of State Music Camp.
“There have been various bequests over the years to support cellists, flautists, violinists and so forth, but there’s been very little to support conductors. Conducting has been overlooked for one reason or another – and it’s a very difficult skill,” Mr Woinarski said.
State Music Camp, which was established 57 years ago, provides an opportunity for school-aged musicians to study orchestral music, an opportunity many wouldn’t otherwise have. The MCM student who wins the conducting award each year will, in addition to the award, be invited to conduct at the State Music Camp.
Professor Barry Conyngham, Dean of the Faculty of VCA and MCM, said he was delighted to see an award introduced for conducting.
“Conducting is an area of music that requires extensive musical knowledge combined with leadership and practice. We are very grateful for State Music Camp’s generous donation to help us further the development of our talented emerging conductors,” said Professor Conyngham.
Mr Woinarski described the award as a pioneering initiative from an amateur community group. The inaugural recipient of the award will be announced during the first semester of 2018.
– By Sarah Hall
Banner image: From Left: Gavan Woinarski, Leah Phillips, Christopher Robson, Barry Conyngham, Gary McPhearson and Alex Furman, standing around the bust statue of John Hopkins, inaugural Dean of the School of Music at the VCA and Patron of State Music Camp.
As the cut-off date approaches for next year's Master of Writing for Performance, Dr Raimondo Cortese, course coordinator, shares his insights.
Hi Raimondo, can you tell us a little about the Master in Writing for Performance?
The course is designed as a professional performance writing course. Students are immersed in multiple forms of writing, including for conventional/ main stage or experimental theatre, live art, digital story telling, and improvisation.
Students get to focus on a major end-of-year project, which can comprise any form of performance writing, though in most cases people write for theatre presentation.
We invite numerous established theatre writers to teach into the course, such as Jane Harrison (who is now on staff), Ross Mueller, Jenny Kemp, Melissa Reeves, Richard Murphet, and film maker Jonathan auf der Heide, as well as prominent international guests, such as Mac Wellman and Sibyl Kempson.
Who would this course appeal to?
The course appeals to both industry professionals and those who would call themselves emerging writers, or actors or directors who also want to develop writing skills, as well as those fresh out of university theatre studies or creative writing degrees. We get a mix of advanced and early-stage writers. Our alumni include Ross Mueller, Van Badham, Maude Davey, Morgan Rose, Emilie Collyer, Marie Lourey, and many others.
I’ve read that you need to show a portfolio as part of the application process? What makes a good portfolio?
A portfolio should offer a cross-section of your writing experience. It can be either a sample of different works, or a long sample of the one work. The course is open to all forms of performance writing, so I encourage prospective students to send in writing that best reflects what their interests are. I am personally open to all kinds of writing and am aware that people can often be eclectic in the way they express themselves.
Can you tell us a bit about your own career? How did you end up where you are now?
I began my career working in the independent scene with Ranters Theatre, and have since worked in the main stage while continuing to work in the independent sector, including productions in more than a dozen countries. I also write fiction and for film, and have written two adaptations of Brecht and one of Lorca. I continue to work professionally but designed this course six years ago as I believed there was a strong need to develop a performance wiring course in Melbourne, and that VCA Theatre was the best place to do that.
What’s your teaching style, and that of the course?
I believe it's very important to have the craft of writing taught in a practical studio setting, which is what the Writing for Performance course offers. The teachers have a very relaxed but focused approach, which is designed around the personal vision of each writer who comes into the course.
We teach the multiples ways of structuring theatre/ performance writing, looking at dramatic action, linear and multiple narrative trajectories, post dramatic forms, improvisation techniques, while also being aware that each student will offer a unique writing style that needs to be nurtured.
Most writers tend to overwrite, and so need to develop tools to edit their own material in relation to what an actor will reveal when speaking their lines of dialogue. The other major issue is learning to structure the writing in a way that best reflects what a writer is trying to say.
The professional writers who teach into the course are very open to different forms of writing. We encourage students to explore their own individual styles and forms of writing while developing and refining their dramaturgical and editing skills.
– Interview by Paul Dalgarno
Banner image: from Looking Glass by Louris van der Geer, VCA Master of Writing for Performance graduate. Performed at fortyfive downstairs, August 2017. Photography: Pier Carthew. Directed by Susie Dee, set/costume by Kate Davis, lighting by Amelia Lever-Davidson.
Over four evenings this month, Interactive Composition students will bring Melbourne's Grant Street Theatre to life in sound and vision – each presenting unique works that collectively incorporate sound with film, animation, dance, theatre, installation, visual art, production, songwriting and performance. Here, Anna Durham, third-year Interactive Composition student and creative force behind electronic/trip-hop act, Sault, shares her Folio Live work Efflorescence and explains its genesis.
Efflorescence (2017) by Anna Durham, third-year Melbourne Conservatorium Interactive Composition student.
Hi Anna, can you tell us a bit about this work, what it involves, its genesis, how long you worked on it?
Over the past twelve months I’ve become increasingly intrigued with the organic rhythms that surround us in natural environments: the pattern to which flora can be found within a broader landscape, the seemingly random melodies created from a passing flock of birds or the way a Protea flower can be broken down into individual intricate segments.
It was a fascination with the interaction of these textures on a micro and macro level, paired with an interest of humankind’s influence, distortion and relationship with the natural environment, from which Efflorescence was created.
Combining elements of electronic music genres with contemporary string arrangements, Efflorescence aims to blur stylistic and sonic binaries. Fusing together micro beats, free-flowing synthesised sounds, organic samples and contemporary string arrangements, it's a diverse continuous-form work. The piece takes its form as an immersive audio-visual experience, featuring hypnotic visuals crafted by VCA Film and Television student, Dylan Harris.
How does Efflorescence sit with the other works you’ve created?
It sits relatively separate from other works I’ve developed in the past little while. Previously my work has been an exploration of sampling and beat-making, drawing greatly from hip-hop and song-writing genres. Efflorescence was developed as a way of pushing myself creatively and exploring new styles, instrumentations and practices.
What drew you to studying Interactive Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium?
There were many things – the way the course focused on developing both music production and compositional skills. I was also drawn to the way in which collaboration was at the heart of the degree, and how the small community at the Faculty further fostered cross-disciplinary collaboration. I’ve learned an immense amount over the past three years, but what I’m most proud of is the growth I’ve had as a producer, and how those skills have worked to inform my practice as a composer.
What are your future plans?
Next year, I hope to undertake my honours year at the Conservatorium. My project will be a performance-based work exploring the compositional capabilities of the turntable. I also aim to release the first EP of my solo trip-hop project, SAULT, in mid-2018.
– Interview by Paul Dalgarno
Folio Live takes place over four evenings on 7, 8, 9, 10 November at Grant Street Theatre, Southbank, Melbourne. Free event. Bookings essential.
Banner image: Screenshot of Efflorescence by Anna Durham.
A special, free October screening of animated works by the Victorian College of the Arts BFA Animation students? Yes please!
By Robert Stephenson, Lecturer in Film and Television (Animation)
This month, the Victorian College of the Arts will celebrate International Animation Day with a showcase of animated works from first and second year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) students, together with a collection of animated short films from around the world.
The program features an entertaining array of subject matter and diversity of themes from the personal and observational to the wild and bizarre. There’s documentary, experimental, horror, sci-fi, comedy, and others not so easily categorised that open up the possibilities of contemporary animation.
ASIFA (Association International du Film d’Animation) created the first International Animation Day in 2002, honouring the first public performance of Emile Reynaud’s Theatre Optique in Paris in October in 1892. Through the Australian chapter of ASIFA, International Animation Day at the VCA brings together a tasting plate of animated shorts that have been exchanged across the world, as over 40 countries simultaneously celebrate a cultural connection through the art of animation.
Please join us for this special event screening on 26 October. You can get a flavour of what's to come in the short video below.
The VCA's International Animation Day Celebration Day Film Screening is at Federation Hall, Southbank, Melbourne, on 26 October, 6.30pm–9pm. More details.
Banner image: Screenshot/BFA Screening Trailer 2017.
Find out more about the Victorian College of the Arts Master of Writing for Performance 2017 Graduating Season Presentations.
The 2017 season of new plays and performance texts by graduating students from the Master of Writing for Performance, led by playwright and dramaturg Raimondo Cortese, is upon us. The season also presents the work of Directing for Performance and Dramaturgy students, with performances by students from Acting Company 2017. The presentations are as follows:
A Light and a Whistle, by Fiona Stewart.
"Is death the only release from the impact of chronic psychological violence, or is the cathartic effect of shared and witnessed experience enough to release us?"
The Great Emu War, by Declan Furber Gillick.
"This is life. This is death. These are emus. This is war."
Aleppo, by Elias Jamieson Brown.
"It doesn't matter how many times you fly back there or come here or wherever you go. Stop going back."
A Little Bit of Pain Never Hurt Anyone, by Brendan McDougall.
"Two eight-year-olds meet in a sandpit and try to work out how to be mummies and daddies. A love story?"
Scotch and Handsoap, by Kat Moritz.
“Well, I go every night… to the supermarket… the crisper part of my fridge is broken so if I was to go once a week like you, I’d be eating wilted veggies… but mainly I like the connection.”
A Brief Window of Hopefulness at Approximately 10pm, by Holly Brindley.
"It’s good to not have feelings all the time. That’s important."
The Great, by Justine Campbell.
"Delving into the myth of meritocracy."
This Storm Will Kill Your Children, by Fiona Spitzkowsky.
"I'm not quite sure what I'm meant to do with that information, though, as I'm not actually pregnant with any sort of mutant polar bear spawn."
Beautiful Mother, by Louis Klee.
"What if you don’t want happiness? What then?" A play about the contradictions of family and country, unfulfilled and unfulfillable dreams, frustrated hopes and unrequited hate."
The Split, by Sarah Hamilton.
"You know when you get the stars on the water, what’s that called? Loom, um…"
Baron, by Eric Gardiner.
"Two young men in suits of armour go to work for a real-estate company."
Darkwater, by Diane Stubbings.
"Darkwater explores consciousness and behaviour. It asks: are we merely products of our biology or is there something more transcendent at work?"
Make Me a Houri, by Emina Ashman.
"In the afterlife, Asmara and Safia attempt to transform into the Houris, Islamic virgins of paradise by physically and mentally purifying themselves."
The VCA Master of Writing for Performance 2017 Graduating Season Presentations run from 17–21 October, and take place in Studio 1, 28 Dodds St, Southbank. Visit the VCA & MCM events calendar for more information.
Banner image from TEDDYBÄR, a series from the Jean-Marie Donat Collection, published by INNOCENCES.
Find out more about the Victorian College of the Arts Master of Directing for Performance 2017 Graduating Season.
The Victorian College of the Arts Master of Directing for Performance graduating class of 2017 are bringing a collection of brand new productions to the Melbourne stage this October. The season of shows spans everything from new Australian musical theatre and explorations into devising new works, to fresh visions of classic texts from Europe, China and sub-Saharan Africa. The shows are as follows:
Weekend Quartet: The Australian premiere of a play by French-Chinese Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian.
The Graceful Giraffe Cannot Become a Monkey: A raw production of one of the most famous texts from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus: A high-octane 90-minute production of Shakespeare bloody spectacle.
Vagabonds: A creative development showing of a new Australian Gothic work.
Crossroads: a new Australian work exploring the politics of hope.
Sweeney Todd: A Federation University production of a Sondheim favourite.
This season represents the culmination of two years of intensive training in which the students have been encouraged to delve deeply into their practice as theatre-makers and critical thinkers. As Kellie Tori, one of the VCA cohort, explains;
“Throughout my two years of Master of Directing for Performance, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with peers who I will continue to work with and alongside throughout the rest of my creative life. It has shifted my understanding of theatre, art and myself.”
The VCA Master of Directing for Performance 2017 Graduating Season runs from 12–29 October, with performances at La Mama Theatre, Open Stage, University of Melbourne, Parkville, and Federation University, Ballarat. Visit the VCA & MCM events calendar for more information.
Banner image: Anton Surkov
Free improvisation that's as hot as a chilli and soft as a cream puff? Join the MCM's Dr Rob Vincs and his CLV bandmates as they launch their latest CD, Satellite.
By Dr Rob Vincs, Head of Jazz and Improvisation at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
The music of Satellite is like an aural landscape. Rather than following a particular structure, it arises out of improvisation and ends up sounding textural rather than melodic. The style is roughly free jazz but to avoid all the baggage that comes with that term we’ve decided to call it “self-organising music”. You might hear tiny little ants’ feet dancing beside great, big mountain ranges.
We’re often blending together sounds that have intense qualities. When you eat a chilli and get a sort of hit, that's a kind of intensity that’s different, say, to eating a cream puff, which has a different type of soft, sweet and fleshy intensity. Well, in this music there are moments of cream puff and moments of chilli – sort of transiting from one to another.
Myself and [MCM lecturer in Jazz and Improvisation] Ashley Cross, have been working on this style of playing for about 30 years now. We’re working with a younger ex-student of ours, Hannes Lackmann, who’s currently involved in the MCM Masters Program. Hannes has a love of poetry and incorporates spoken word into the performance, which is something Ashley and I haven’t done before.
On Sunday, we’ll be performing a collection of improvisations from Satellite – sonic textures and spoken word. The venue (Melbourne's Neapoli Wine Bar) is pretty tiny – we’ll all be standing shoulder to shoulder. In the 1930s it was a notorious strip club, and there’s still a cage in the middle of the venue that was used by the performers. So despite being pretty gentrified now, the venue has an interesting atmosphere, and is rich with history.
You can get a sneak preview of what's to come, below. Enjoy!
– As told to Sarah Hall
CLV will launch its new CD, Satellite, at the Neapoli Wine Bar, 30 Russell Place, Melbourne, on 15 October, 2017, 7:30pm. Free entry.
Banner image: Damian Gadal/Flickr.
With a foundation in acting and physical theatre, and a long-standing love of telling a good story, Nadine Dimitrievitch enrolled in the Master of Dance in order to develop her creative skills further. Having graduated earlier in the year, she reflects on the highlights and challenges of the course.
Five years ago, I never would have imagined I'd complete a master’s degree in dance. I trained in ballet throughout my schooling years but soon became more interested in storytelling, and decided to pursue a career in acting. After spending two years training in physical theatre at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, I started a physical theatre company (Bone Marrow Theatre) in 2013 and began making works and facilitating workshops.
Several years into running the company I realised I wanted to learn more about process and develop stronger research and writing skills. I was already developing much of my creative works through movement, so even though all my formal training was in theatre, the Master of Dance was the only course of its kind that would allow me to delve further into movement-based processes.
After talking with some of the staff at the VCA I discovered it would be the perfect place for me to develop new skills and further investigate my own creative processes and values.
I love storytelling. I've taken the view that it doesn’t matter what I do or how I do it; all that matters is that the form, movement, text, design or imagery is in service to the story and my intention. I love creating other worlds and exploring characters and ideas. I’m interested in theatre that has a social conscience. I'm inspired by performance makers who are able to instigate change and provoke thought on topics I'm passionate about. I aspire to move people to action with my own works.
A big personal challenge for me was learning how to work on solo projects after years spent in collaborative environments. I very much feed on the creative energy of others. Being the only person in the room and having to create content in isolation was a daunting experience that invited me to work outside of what I would consider to be a comfortable space.
I’ve relished the opportunity to engage with other creative practitioners and explore different ways of creating and developing work. I’ve also loved the opportunities to learn and collaborate with graduate students from other schools within the VCA. Finally, I’ve loved meeting and working with dancers and choreographers at all different stages of their careers.
The VCA has given a whole new set of tools with which I can create performances and explore ideas. It has also given me a wonderful new network of friends and collaborators along with a number of great industry contacts.
If I were going to give advice to other artists looking to pursue a career in this field, I’d say: find people who love creating theatre/dance/art as much as you do. Find people who want to work with you and who speak the same artistic language. They are your most valuable resource in a collaborative artform.
– As told to Sophie Duran
Applications for the 2018 intake of the Master of Dance close on 31 October. Visit the VCA website to find out more.
Banner image: Sav Schulman
Some 19 Music Theatre students from the Victorian College of the Arts will form a chorus for the Melbourne Theatre Company's upcoming production of Vivid White.
The Victorian College of the Arts is thrilled to announce a new partnership with the Melbourne Theatre Company for MTC’s upcoming production of Vivid White by Eddie Perfect.
Hitting the stages this November, the world premiere MTC commission will feature an ensemble comprised of VCA’s second year Music Theatre students, with their involvement in the production forming part of their coursework and end of year assessment.
The 19 students – split into three groups – will form a chorus and perform on rotation throughout the season of this new Australian work. The ensemble has been specially written in to the show to make this opportunity possible.
Margot Fenley, Head of Music Theatre and Senior Lecturer in Acting at VCA, said, "There really couldn’t be a better opportunity for our students to test and extend their training in a professional environment, surrounded by such a highly respected creative team. The VCA has been highly engaged for the past few years in questions of how we can better support new Australian works and this collaboration with MTC will be, I hope, the first of many such innovative industry partnerships for VCA Music Theatre students."
MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy said, "This exciting partnership is a unique opportunity for music theatre students to gain practical experience in a professional setting during their studies. As part of the University of Melbourne, MTC has had a long association with the Victorian College of the Arts, and a long history of supporting students in their pursuit of careers in the creative industries. This particular partnership sees our relationship with VCA blossom in new ways and we very much look forward to seeing it come to fruition over the next couple of months."
MTC Associate Director and Vivid White director Dean Bryant said, ‘I’m thrilled to be able to give the students the opportunity to not only be part of creating a production with professional actors and creatives, but a new Australian piece by one of our leading writers. They’ll see how a script evolves throughout the process, and what it takes, day by day, to put it onstage. Eddie and I are graduates of drama school and would have salivated at the opportunity to learn these skills and return to our final year of study that much farther ahead.'
Vivid White is the latest work by Eddie Perfect, taking a brilliantly satirical look at the Australian dream of home ownership and the ruthless real estate market.
Starring Gillian Cosgriff, Virginia Gay, Brent Hill, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Keegan Joyce, Ben Mingay and Christina O’Neill, Vivid White opens Thursday 23 November at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner.
Tickets for Vivid White are on sale now from the MTC. The ensemble has been made possible with support from The Victorian College of the Arts Music Theatre Department and the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance.
Image caption: VCA Music Theatre students with Vivid White cast at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Image supplied.
Following the success of Dr Jeanette Tamplin’s first dementia choir, Musical Memories, seven more choirs for people and carers living with dementia will be introduced in Victoria and Tasmania. We spoke with Dr Tamplin about her ongoing project.
By Sarah Hall
Hi Jeanette, you’ve been working with therapeutic choirs in dementia since May 2016. How did you come to start working in this area?
It all started with an NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] and ARC [Australia Research Council] co-funded fellowship, which I’m half-way through now. My proposal was to explore the effects of therapeutic choirs specifically targeting people with early to mid-stage dementia who are still living at home with their family carers. We wanted to support carers in coping and adjusting in their role as well as people living with dementia. The first group we started in May 2016 was called Musical Memories, which I conducted alongside my Melbourne Conservatorium of Music colleague Dr Imogen Clark.
Previous research into choirs for people with dementia has mostly focused on qualitative outcomes – for example, the pleasure and social benefits of singing. We’re looking at quantitative outcomes as well, which is quite difficult in dementia, looking, for example, at measuring the effects of choir participation on relationship quality, anxiety, depression quality of life and cognitive function.
Are those individuals who participated in Musical Memories still singing?
Well, yes, when we got to the end of the research trial period they all said, “We can’t stop, you can’t take this away!” They got a lot out of it and they really wanted it to keep going. We managed to secure some funding through an Austin health donation for another 12 months and are now looking for funding options post June 2018. We’ve also found a partner for the next stage of the research – a community aged-care provider, Uniting AgeWell. They believe this is a really affordable program that’s filling a gap in current service options for people with dementia living in the community and their family carers.
Why have the choirs been so successful?
I think because they’re not just about coming and having a cup of tea and talking about dementia; a lot of people don’t want to do that. People are often still trying to adjust to the “dementia” label, and that’s really hard. The choir is about doing something enjoyable and accessible that has individual benefits while still providing an environment for people to support each other.
It was interesting to see in the short video that was made about the group – the carers seemed to be getting as much out of it as the dementia patients.
Definitely! Carers need to be supported, both from the perspective of their quality of life, and for the cost they are saving society. Having people in aged-care facilities, as opposed to staying in their own homes, is expensive and often not very nice. If we help carers manage at home, by doing whatever we can to support them early on and nurturing the relationship between carer and person with dementia, that’s the ideal situation for everyone.
In your career as a music therapist, has singing been your primary tool?
Singing’s not my primary instrument, but I have been interested in therapeutic applications of singing for my whole career. My research has looked at a variety of things that singing can benefit. For example, singing to help people with communication after a stroke, singing to help people with respiratory function after a spinal cord injury, singing to improve speech and voice outcomes for people living with Parkinson’s disease.
And have you found singing to have successful therapeutic outcomes in all of those research areas?
Well, I am biased, but definitely, yes, and it’s something everyone can do. You don’t have to be a trained musician to use your voice. Sometimes people find it confronting; it’s very personal your own voice, it can be embarrassing. Sometimes people have been told that they can’t sing or that they’re tone deaf … But that’s why group singing’s kind of nice – you’re all in it together and you can kind of hide in the group a bit if you’re embarrassed.
And it’s not about the quality of singing, it’s about the therapeutic process of joining together as a group.
So why, in simple terms, does singing makes us feel so good?
We know that when we sing there are a whole lot of neurochemicals released in the brain – endorphins, serotonin, dopamine. It also decreases cortisol, which is linked to stress, and increases feelings of empathy and social bonding.
What’s next for your dementia choirs research?
Well, we’re moving into the second stage of research, where we will be comparing people who sing in these therapeutic dementia-specific choirs with people who don’t on a range of quantitative outcomes. We’re going to set up seven new groups next year: five in Melbourne, one in Bendigo and one in Tassie, which is really exciting. It’s a randomised controlled trial so people who enrol will be randomly allocated to either attend a choir straight away or wait for 6 months before joining.
We’ve also got a gig coming up for the Musical Memories choir on 15th October, where they will be performing at the cocktail reception for the annual conference of the NHMRC National Institute for Dementia Research National Forum. It’s a great opportunity to promote our pilot results to the media and help us to get the word out there about these new dementia choirs, and recruit participants for this next phase of our research
A loaded question ... Does music therapy have enough recognition and enough funding?
No. Unfortunately in many cases it’s still pretty fringe in terms of healthcare funding. When I started working in the industry 20 years ago most people hadn’t heard of music therapy, and that’s not the case so much now. It’s had more coverage in the media and people are really fascinated with the effects of music on the brain. But still, when it comes down to spending the money, it’s often considered an optional extra. That’s why we really need to do these types of research projects – to demonstrate that music therapy is a cost-effective way to treat neurological conditions such as dementia.
I’m working on another project at the moment led by my MCM colleague Dr Felicity Baker. Our team received a NHMRC grant for over a million dollars for a National dementia research project in residential care. We will be looking at the effects of various forms of music engagement on depressive symptoms, cognitive functioning, neuropsychiatric symptoms, quality of life and caregiver burden as well as conducting a health-economic analysis. We are looking at whether people engaging regularly with music therapy are reducing anti-psychotic drugs and anti-depressants and are visiting the GP less frequently. If we can demonstrate that people who are regularly accessing music therapy are decreasing other costs then there’s a huge cost-benefit.
Contact Dr Jeanette Tamplin for more information on participating in the MCM's ongoing dementia research. The NNIDR Australian Dementia Forum runs 15-17 October, 2017, at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. It is followed by the 17th Alzheimer's Australia Biennial National Dementia Conference 17-20 October, 2017.
Banner image: Video still. University of Melbourne.
Like many artists, Callum Dale took a circuitous route to finding his true passion. Now a recent Master of Dramaturgy graduate, he reflects on his experience at the Victorian College of the Arts and how he is preparing for the career ahead.
Not all who wander are lost – and I've definitely my fair share of wandering. Like most high-school theatre enthusiasts, I graduated with the ambition of becoming an actor. Having established a small independent production company with friends to explore our own artistic and creative interests, I enjoyed a couple of years of producing and creating theatre in an ensemble-based practice.
I then started a Bachelor of Arts in Acting at the University of Ballarat’s Academy of Performing Arts and, while I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, I knew that this was no longer the career path for me.
I left at the end of first year, and then spent some time aimlessly wandering through part-time jobs and tertiary courses looking for a new career. In 2011, in attempt to jumpstart my creativity, I moved to Sydney to complete a Masterclass Certificate in Makeup and Special Effects, but breaking into the makeup and special effects industry proved almost impossible, so I began studying a Bachelor of Arts in theatre and history at Monash University.
That's where my journey to a career in dramaturgy really began. At the end of my course, having finally completed an undergraduate degree and having worked with numerous artists and companies, I applied for the Master of Dramaturgy at the VCA. I think it takes a quirky and "different" individual to have a passion in dramaturgy, and after many years of searching, I finally found the shoe that fit.
I remember when the course was first announced I received an email from one of my undergraduate mentors telling me they’d found “a course made for people like me”. A Master of Dramaturgy had interested me for a few years and I now had the opportunity to study at a highly-regarded and prestigious Australian institution. The course is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere and could have a real impact on the Australian performing arts industry in the next few years.
No two days at the VCA were ever the same. A one-year master’s degree moves fast and demands a strong work ethic and high level of discipline. Mondays were generally our day off, and a good time to catch up on reading and earn some money. The rest of the working week comprised two three- or four-hour classes a day. These classes could be lectures and tutorials, discussion-based seminars, practical workshops, or rehearsals.
I find the more I work, the more I am inspired. To be actively engaged in an exciting rehearsal space or riveting production company is as inspiring as it gets for me. Whether it be on new writing or a time-tested play, a raucous comedy or moving tragedy, dance, music, theatre or avant-garde performance, the discussions surrounding rigorous, relevant and thoughtful work drive me to work harder and more passionately.
As a dramaturg you are often the middleman: as the mediator between directors, writers, designers and other creatives, you’re ultimately the advocate for the work itself. The VCA’s cross-disciplinary classes and practise models definitely prepare you for this role as you become an expert in communication. But I think the biggest challenge for a dramaturg in any situation is learning your role in any given circumstance. You have to be constantly adaptable.
When you’re studying, you’re constantly working with fellow practitioners and creating, or at least theorising, arguably the most daring and experimental work of your career. You are uninhibited by the constraints and pressures of professional work. I think the rare opportunity to be creative with like-minded people is often taken for granted – it’s the continual artistic expression and discussion that you miss most once you leave.
While I was a Master of Dramaturgy student, I was fortunate enough to complete two internships with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). Those were made possible by VCA’s strong connections with MTC – many of the VCA’s sessional lecturers work at or with the company. My first internship was with MTC’s Literary Manager Chris Mead on the selection and curation of Cybec Electric 2017. This internship opened the MTC’s doors to me. I gained a deeper understanding of professional practices and the process of programming while refining my skills in play-reading and assessment.
Alongside that internship, I completed a directorial secondment under Peter Houghton on the mainstage production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. An invaluable experience, the secondment involved observing readings, rehearsals, production meetings, costume fittings, bump-in, technical and dress rehearsals, preview performances and opening night.
Ultimately, the achievement of writing a 10,000-word thesis to accompany the project was extremely satisfying and has inspired me to continue studying in the future and hopefully one day commence and complete a PhD.
Dramaturgy is a growing field in the performing arts industry but jobs are scarce and the industry is extremely competitive, so you need to be resilient and, in a sense, have a thick skin. You need to be prepared to work jobs that at times may seem unrelated to the field. But you should always be assessing the dramaturgical processes in motion, and identifying how the various elements of production affect one another. You have to remember too that your skills and knowledge are ever-expanding and can be refined as you continue to work with various practitioners and companies.
The VCA gave me the knowledge, skills and experiences necessary to enter the industry as a respected emerging practitioner. It also widened my network to include people from mainstage companies and other industry organisations, and in the extremely competitive performing arts industry, your network is always your strongest ally and source of work. The continued support and mentorship from my tutors and lecturers has been comforting on the road to a challenging career.
– As told to Sophie Duran.
Banner image: Callum Dale. By Sav Schulman.
Applications for the 2018 intake of the Master of Dramaturgy close on 31 October, 2017. Visit the VCA website to find out more.
David Griffiths is a globally-renowned clarinetist and educator, who will soon join the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music as a Senior Lecturer in Music (Performance – Clarinet). Get to know him here.
By Paul Dalgarno.
Hi David, you’re a clarinetist with, and artistic director of, Ensemble Liaison. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Ensemble Liaison is the result of my dream to start my own chamber music ensemble, something that has been in the back of my brain for as long as I can remember. I formed the ensemble in 2005 with cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic and pianist Timothy Young.
Our aim from the outset was to make the ensemble all about collaborations with guests, thus the name “liaison”. If we were only going to play music for clarinet, cello and piano we would have run out of repertoire pretty quickly.
We are now planning the twelfth season of the Ensemble Liaison & Friends series. Each concert features one or more guest artists from a variety of different backgrounds. Over the years we’ve had a lot of fun working with so many wonderful artists, including violinists, violists, percussionists, a drummer, jazz pianists, composers, puppeteers, ballet dancers, singers, actors, an accordionist and now, coming up, a fantastic lighting designer ... We are always on the lookout for new repertoire, composers and collaborators who might share our ideals in art creation.
I have no idea how long we’ll be able to keep the series going, but we get so much pleasure from creating these concerts, I can’t see us ever wanting to stop. We often joke that we might be presenting our 50th season from the retirement home.
Aleksandar Sedlar – Kolo (Round Dance) Nemanja Radulovic with Ensemble Liaison.
When did you take up the clarinet? Was it your first choice of instrument?
I took up the clarinet when I was eight. I grew up in Armidale, New South Wales, where my mother was the only clarinet teacher at the time, so I guess I didn’t have much of a choice. She tried clarinet with both of my sisters too but it only stuck with me – they became string players.
I think by about the age of 15 I knew, or at least hoped, it would become a career for me. But it wasn’t until I started studying at university that I realised what that meant, and the sorts of things that would need to happen to make it possible.
In high school my other passion was basketball and basketball coaching. I was a little vertically-challenged so I got right into coaching, and if I hadn’t got into music I definitely would have found something to do in this area. Reflecting on it now, it’s interesting to compare basketball coaching, which I loved, to clarinet teaching and chamber-music coaching.
You’re an avid supporter of new Australian compositions and have commissioned and premiered new works by composers such as Ross Edwards, Stuart Greenbaum, and many others. Does this come from a love of new music, a desire to support composers, a sense of obligation, or something else?
A little bit of all of those, I’d say. I love playing new music, regardless of where it comes from, and feel a real sense of excitement when I receive a new work from a composer. Having the opportunity to be the first person to play a new work, and make the first musical decisions on how to shape it, is such a privilege. Working with Australian composers in particular is a no-brainer as we all need to support each other to create new music.
My motivation also comes from a desire to create as much new Australian chamber music with clarinet as possible. The clarinet is blessed with a lot of wonderful repertoire, but there can always be more.
There are plenty of “pure” string quartets and piano trios, but adding the clarinet is much more interesting from my perspective.
Can you tell us about the course(s) you’ll be teaching at the MCM? What kind of students are you looking for? What can they expect from studying with you at the MCM?
I’m looking for highly-motivated students who are incredibly passionate about playing the clarinet – they’re the kind of students that will make my job an absolute pleasure. I also need students who will be supportive of each other. I want to create an MCM clarinet studio that has an atmosphere of enthusiasm, hard work and fun.
Studying music can involve many solitary hours of practice every day, so I believe it’s really important that the students are able to come together.
Students who are accepted into my studio can expect to be pushed to work hard. So much can be achieved in a really short time at university, but it can’t be done in the café. Students need to do the time in the practice room to produce results.
You have collaborated and performed with many quartets and chamber music groups, as well as individual artists. Which ones really stand out for you and why?
I’ve been lucky to work with a many wonderful artists, so it’s difficult to choose just a few. The Ensemble Liaison has to be the real standout. Sometimes it’s possible to take for granted the special bond and understanding we've developed in this 13 year long chamber music ensemble, but when I go away and play with other musicians I soon remember it.
In terms of string quartets, I think most clarinetists’ favourite thing to do is to work with a string quartet, especially on the quintets by Mozart and Brahms. Last year I had the opportunity to play Mozarts’ Quintet with the Goldner String Quartet. It’s a work I’d played many times, as had they, but this particular collaboration was very special to me. The Quartet’s intensity and commitment to perfection helped to push me to new levels. It was a performance I will never forget.
Three years ago I started working with The Australia Ensemble@UNSW, and that collaboration has been such a wonderful experience for me. I was a student of Alan Vivian who, in the late nineties, was their clarinetist. He would often go off on tour with them and I remember aspiring to one day get the opportunity to play with them. The ensemble has been together for 38 years and the collective chamber-music experience is enormous so there’s so much to learn at every rehearsal.
One of my favourite violinists to work with is the Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic – he’s an incredible musician and unique artist. He gives so much energy on stage and it’s completely contagious. Audiences go crazy at his concerts, so sharing a stage with him is about as close as I think I’ll get to feeling like a rock star.
Chamber music, from the musicians' perspective –The Creatory.
Which upcoming performances are you looking forward to, and why?
I’m really looking forward to my next performance with Ensemble Liaison on October 24 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. We will be performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time –a really incredible work that Messiaen wrote while he was imprisoned in a second-world-war prison camp. The piece takes the musicians and the audience on an epic journey of emotions that lasts nearly an hour. It’s a work I have performed nearly 30 times, and have recorded it with Ensemble Liaison for Melba Recordings.
That’s one I never get tired of performing. The effect it has on the musicians and the audience is always profound, but I’m particularly looking forward to this performance. We are collaborating with violinist Dene Olding for the first time. Dene is the former concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and violinist with the Australia Ensemble and the Golder String Quartet. He has also performed this work many times so it will be really interesting to develop a shared interpretation to a work that we both know so well.
We’re also collaborating with the award-winning lighting designer Paul Jackson, who is going to create a special lighting design to enhance the experience. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with.
We’re also looking forward to performing it in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre – a simply stunning venue that allows us to create special sounds that are not always possible in other venues. It allows us to play softer than anywhere else so the extreme pianissimos in the work are incredible.
Performing clarinet is one thing, teaching it is another – you seem passionate about both. Is that the case, and is that a hard balance to strike?
I’m absolutely passionate about both but, yes, it can be a hard balance to strike sometimes. If I’m teaching too much I find it difficult to practise, and if I don’t practise enough if affects my quality of life! I really don’t like to go into a rehearsal period feeling under-cooked. I probably sometimes practise more than I need to, but I always enjoy the rehearsal process so much more when I’m properly prepared. I’ve learnt over the years to schedule in my practice time around my teaching to make sure I do a little every day if possible.
In my practice, I am constantly trying to improve my playing and reflect on the best way to achieve that. This very much informs my teaching as my brain is already in the mode of trying to work out how to do things better and how to communicate those ideas with my students.
Teaching also helps my own performance tremendously. Thinking of ways to address my students’ problems, often helps me to fix my own. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing the final recitals of hard-working students after helping them develop over a period of many years. As long as I’m able to strike a good balance, the two roles work together incredible well.
Can you tell us about a particular teacher or professional mentor who has inspired you?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been inspired by many different teachers and mentors, so it’s difficult to choose one. Fresh in my mind is David Krakauer, one of my chamber-music coaches during my time in New York. I had the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time with him on four major chamber works in the clarinet repertoire over a period of two years, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
He’s had the ability to think about the music being more than just notes. I still remember so much of the advice he gave me over 20 years ago. He recently completed a week in residence with my clarinet studio at Monash University. Watching him work with my students and sharing many meals and bottles of wine over the week was a real treat.
What are the peculiarities of being a clarinetist? How does it differ (if at all) from other instrument specialisations?
Well, clarinet is all I know, so it doesn’t seem peculiar to me. We have our issues – dealing with reeds is a big one – but that’s not unique to us, and we have it a lot easier than oboists and bassoonists, who need to make their own reeds. I do often look with envy at flute players who can whip out their instrument without having to worry about a reed.
What’s to gain from a life in music?
There are plenty of ups and downs, but the ups definitely make it all worthwhile. There’s an incredible amount of joy to be had by being able to share beautiful music with people.
Is there a quote or philosophy that has held you in good stead throughout your career?
Play every concert like it’s your last!
Banner Image: David Griffiths. By Greg Barrett.
Find out more about the Bachelor of Music (Music Performance, Musicology/Ethnomusicology, Composition) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
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The Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music are pleased to congratulate alumni who have been recognised in the 2017 Australia Council Fellowships.
By Sarah Hall
Among the eight recipients of the $80,000 Australia Council Fellowships for 2017, the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music is pleased to congratulate alumna Stephanie Lake (Dance), former lecturer Paul Jackson (Theatre) and Film & Television alum and celebrated novelist Dr Arnold Zable.
The Australia Council fellowships recognise Australia’s leading artists working across theatre, dance, music, visual arts and literature.
Since graduating in 1999 from the VCA's Bachelor of Dance, Stephanie Lake has worked with countless major contemporary dance companies across the country as well as running her own successful Stephanie Lake Company since 2014. She has maintained a strong relationship with the Victorian College of the Arts, returning last year to choreograph CRUSH. VCA Head of Dance Jenny Kinder said she was thrilled for Lake, who has a long association with VCA Dance, as a student, alumna, guest choreographer and teacher.
“Stephanie is widely regarded as one of Australia’s most exciting choreographers and is an inspiring artistic leader,” said Ms Kinder.
“We are incredibly fortunate that she continues to be involved with dance and production students, generously sharing her creative and collaborative practice. CRUSH (2016), her most recent work displays her exceptional talent, creativity and passion for dancing – an extremely popular work with the performers and audiences alike. It is wonderful for Stephanie to be recognised in this way by the Australia Council.”
Director of the Victorian College of the Arts Professor Jon Cattapan said he was delighted to see Lake’s work, as well as Paul Jackson’s prolific work in lighting design for theatre and Arnold Zable’s work in as a writer, storyteller, human rights activist be duly rewarded.
“The Australia Council Fellowships are only awarded to extremely hard-working arts practitioners who are already outstanding in their fields,” said Professor Cattapan, “It’s significant that they have received this kind of recognition, and we couldn’t be happier for them.”
Banner: Promotional image for Stephanie Lake’s VCA Dance production Crush (2016). Image by Jeff Busby.
Dr Nicholas Tochka recently became Head of Ethnomusicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Here, he shares some insight from his career to date, and explains the thinking behind his new Musics of the World course.
Ethnomusicology is like anthropology, but we're looking at the ways people construct their lives specifically through music-making.
My area of specialisation is popular music and I’m really interested in questions around the economics of music-making and music in the context of the political orders it’s made under – not just how musicians protest or resist political-economic structures, but how they are shaped by them and even contribute to them.
My first project looked at popular music in state-socialist Albania. My new project looks at rock music in post-war America – at the relationship between American rock and roll and its global export.
I look at how musicians draw on liberal ideas and discourses to talk about individual self-expression and freedom, and I look at how popular musicians have been drawn into American politics. Why did Hillary Clinton have Bruce Springsteen sing at her rallies? Why did Donald Trump try play Rockin’ in the Free World – only to then get slapped down by Neil Young?
In the MCM's Musics of the World course we examine musical case studies from places including Bali, North India, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Indigenous Australia. One goal of the course is to get students thinking about music as a social and political process, not just a thing in itself.
Another part of the course involves training your ears to listen to different pitch and rhythm systems and understand the terminology that musicians from around the world use to describe how their music is organised. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of those musicians to understand why that music is meaningful to them.
A lot of music cultures from around the world are very participatory and it’s a huge faux pas if you don’t get involved. At an American wedding, on the other hand, it’d be very strange to see everyone on the dancefloor.
Built into the premise of a course such as Musics of the World are some ethical questions: How should we engage in trying to understand other people? Is music an appropriate way to do so? What kind of power dynamics are inherent in the relationship between the listener and the performer?
Looking at how people try to lead meaningful lives in circumstances that are different from your own is a good way to gain a little bit of critical distance from your own life. It can help you think more deeply about the kinds of relationships you have, and the kind of values you hold.
As told to Sarah Hall
Banner image: Mass participation in Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's The Wedding Dance (1566), cropped. Wikimedia Commons.
World-renowned visual artist and University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor’s Fellow Sally Smart will open a major solo exhibition at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery in Southbank this week.
Professor Smart is known for her large-scale cut-out assemblage installations which engage identity, politics and the relationships between the body, thought and culture.
In Staging the Studio (The Choreography of Cutting) Professor Smart explores the themes and ideas associated with the studio as a place of work, contemplation and thought in action.
“I tend to make art in series although it is quite fluid,” she says.
“One piece bleeds into the next then leads on to something else. It’s a bit like creating a whole world, I guess. This new assemblage work is still playing itself out."
Professor Smart has exhibited widely in Australia and internationally and is represented in most major galleries and collections throughout Australia and in various and public and private collections.
Margaret Lawrence Gallery Director David Sequeira says Staging the Studio – which runs from 6 October to 4 November – draws on Professor Smart’s recent work examining the avant-garde dance company Ballets Russes and its experimental choreography, costume and theatre design.
“Whilst Sally's investigations of the body, cultural heritage and pedagogy have been shown in a number of important Australian and international museum contexts, they have a special resonance here, within an art school - a place known for the thinking and experimentation taking place within its studios,” Dr Sequeira says.
“In this light, Staging the Studio is an ambitious and imaginative drawing together of themes that are at once personal and shared, localised and global.”
As a University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, Professor Smart will collaborate with Indonesian artist Entang Wiharso on their project Conversation: Endless Acts in Human History to build networks in artistic practice and cross-cultural dialogue between Australia and Indonesia. She will also collaborate on projects with academic colleagues across the University and provide mentorship to Victorian College of the Arts students.
On Friday 6 October, at 12.30pm, choreographer Brooke Stamp will present an improvised performance with and within Professor Smart’s assemblage elements, created and appropriated from Ballets Russes costumes and sets.
Come to the opening night of Sally Smart – Staging the Studio (The Choreography of Cutting) at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, on 5 October, from 5.30pm. Registrations essential.
Professor Smart will discuss her work in a talk as part of the ART150 Forum Series on Thursday 12 October, 12.30-1.30pm at Federation Hall, VCA. Bookings are essential.
Further reading: Sally Smart interview: Staging the Studio.
More Information: Nicola Webber, +61 3 8344 9624/ 0411 758 984, firstname.lastname@example.org
With a strong background in fashion design, Alexandra McCloud-Gibson is now turning her artistic skills to designing costumes, props, and sets for film and television.
Before I came to the Victorian College of the Arts, I completed a Bachelor of Fashion Design at RMIT. I found that I was increasingly drawn to designing not only garments but also the environments in which they sat, and ended up working on both costume and production design for friends’ projects. My interest in world-building overtook costume design when I discovered that I could convey more through production design.
Inspiration comes in many different forms and sometimes arises from the most bizarre places, although it will always originate from the text and through copious amounts of research. My eye is always drawn to things of texture or things with a particularly stylised aesthetic – be it photography, art, history, or costume.
I find the challenge with production design is knowing when to stop researching. I could research forever but there does come a time when you have to turn all that theory into something three-dimensional.
After working on a few VCA short films I realised the role of the art department within the film and television industry. The VCA community seemed to me to have a strong sense of collaboration, with everyone crewing on everyone else’s films. This was quite different to what I had experienced while working in fashion, which I found to be quite solitary. I chose the VCA as I saw it an opportunity to learn not only from industry experts but from peers and colleagues.
This course has allowed me to experience a great deal of both the theoretical and practical sides of working in an art department, with a particular emphasis on gaining work experience outside of the VCA. What’s taught in classes is put into practice both on student films and through industry placements and I’ve enjoyed my time interning the most.
Something that stands out from this past year is the opportunity I was given to intern on an adaptation of Picnic At Hanging Rock. I’ve never learnt so much so quickly from one project. The experience was really rewarding, and it really confirmed for me that I had found the right industry. At the end of my internship I was offered paid work, which was great.
The internships I’ve undertaken have given me a taste for what it’s like to work full-time in production. Once I graduate I’m looking to get into the workplace as soon as I can and to can get as much experience across as many varied projects as possible.
To aspiring production designers, I’d say: if you can figure out initially what your strongest skillsets are and find a way to use them to create work within your aesthetic it will help to kickstart your initial projects. It’s also important to understand how significant the research stage of your practice is: any questions you have will always be answered through more research.
– As told to Sophie Duran
Banner image: Alexandra McCloud-Gibson. By Sav Schulman.
Win one of 5 double passes to the Friday 29 September Melbourne Cello Festival concert – email email@example.com for your chance to win. Winners will be contacted via email.
Distinguished cellists from around the world have come together for the second biennial Melbourne Cello Festival, which commenced on Monday 25 September at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM).
The week of concerts, masterclasses and panel discussions celebrate the wide-reaching influence of the cello in classical and contemporary music, and features internationally-renowned musicians including Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (Japan/USA), Inbal Megiddo (Israel/New Zealand), Edith Salzmann (NZ/Germany), Brandon Vamos (USA), and the Melbourne Conservatorium’s own Howard Penny and Alvin Wong.
Young cellists aged 8–15 kicked off the action on Monday at the Melbourne Cello Festival Kids Day: a day-long program featuring a variety of workshops, activities and performance opportunities for budding cellists.
Last year’s festival hit the CelloXtravaganza! will make a welcome return to the Festival on Sunday 1 October, when a festival orchestra of cellists and double bassists will present selections from film music arranged especially for the occasion.
Dr Alvin Wong, Artistic Director of the Festival and Lecturer in Cello at the MCM, described the Festival as an opportunity for cellists from around the globe to come together in celebration of their wonderful instrument.
“The atmosphere at the moment in the Melbourne Conservatorium is very exciting; there are groups of people rehearsing in every corner making beautiful sounds,” said Dr Wong.
“We are excited to have even more artists and a longer festival than last year,” Dr Wong said. “Because of that, we’ve been able to provide a program with much more variety: popular works by composers such as Beethoven, Debussy and Hans Zimmer, as well as some much more rarely heard music.”
The first evening concert on Tuesday features guest artist duos in concert, while Wednesday evening’s concert will showcase two works by Chinese composers Gao Ping and Bright Sheng, with a monumental finale by Kodály, performed by Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi.
On Thursday, Australian Cello Award-winner Yelian He will give a special recital with pianist Yasmine Rowe in their homecoming performance, after spending over ten years in the UK. Friday evening’s concert will treat audience members to chamber music works by master Viennese composers Schubert and Brahms.
Dr Wong is looking forward to the entire program of concerts, which will see invited overseas artists perform with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s own distinguished musicians.
Dates: 25 September–1 October
Location: All events will be held at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in Parkville
Banner image: Chancellor's Concert. Photo: Prudence Upton.
In this, the second in a series of How To videos from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Interactive Composition lecturer David Haberfeld demonstrates how to create an acid dance track with the Roland TB-303, which he describes as "the electric guitar of electronic dance music".
Haberfeld has more than two decades of experience as an electronic dance music artist, producer, composer, performer, and DJ. He is best-known for his productions and live performances under the artist moniker Honeysmack.
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Banner image: Acid Pix/Flickr
Erin Helyard is internationally recognised as a leading baroque music specialist, virtuosic soloist and inspired conductor. Here, he discusses his debut solo album featuring the keyboard works of George Frideric Handel, and the instrument on which he performed them.
By Dr Erin Helyard, Senior Lecturer in Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
I recently released my debut solo album, surveying the keyboard works of the baroque composer George Frideric Handel. Drawing on my knowledge of Handel's operas and playing on a unique, recently-restored, instrument from 1773 capable of dynamic shading, I was able to reassess the works of Handel as well as some of his contemporaries.
Performers and composers had very close and fruitful relationships with instrument builders back in the 18th and 19th centuries. CPE Bach and Silbermann, Mozart and Anton Walter, Beethoven and Nannette Streicher, and Liszt and Sebastian Érard are just some of the few that come to mind.
My own close relationship with a builder has been with Carey Beebe, who has been my colleague and friend since I was a teenager first trying out harpsichords. Carey approached me last year to say that he had completed a restoration of a 1773 Kirckman single with a machine stop, and to ask if I would be interested in recording on it. My answer? Well, yes, of course – and that's the instrument on which I recorded this album.
Kirckman was an extremely famous and renowned English builder of harpsichords and, as my PhD research had been based around Muzio Clementi’s exposure to these kinds of instruments in the 1770s in London, my interest was piqued.
Since the historical harpsichord revival in the 1970s, players and builders have unnecessarily ignored the English tradition – partly because it was unfairly assumed that no great composer had written for these instruments. The reality is that these magnificently constructed instruments were highly-prized on the continent as well as in England.
The 1773 Kirckman, for instance, has some of the most beautifully machined jacks I’ve ever seen, as well as some of the most superb joinery. Owners of English harpsichords had a large variety of imported and local repertoire. Of the imports, the most notable favourite was the music of Scarlatti.
The 1773 Kirckman harpsichord is equipped with a particularly English piece of technology, the so-called “machine stop”. This pedal enabled me to make very quick and often nuanced registration changes in order to affect different dynamics and textures.
I have used the device as idiomatically as the music suggests, mostly to enhance implied ritornelli/tutti divisions in fugal movements as well creating more subtle and exciting effects that are rarely heard on recording or on performance. The earliest machine stop dates from the late 1740s, so it is entirely possible that Handel would have heard or experimented with one, even if his playing days were behind him by then.
The work of Handel over the last few decades has engaged me mostly as an opera conductor. Like Handel himself, I have conducted many of his operas from the keyboard, as was often the way in his era. Handel, born in Halle, Germany, in 1685, considered himself an Englishman after emigrating to the UK in 1710. In his new country he encountered and played upon English harpsichords in addition to (mainly Flemish) imports. The work of the founder of the firm, Jacob Kirckman, would have been known to Handel.
Handel was renowned as a virtuoso keyboardist in his day so it is somewhat sad that only a small corpus of music composed by him exists, mainly dating from his early years in London. His operatic career soon intervened and he seems to have left composing for the keyboard aside.
Handel’s music has always been somewhat marginalised by keyboardists as it is often (unfairly) compared with that of Bach and Scarlatti.
After discussions with Toby Chadd, manager of ABC Classics, we decided that, given my unique experience with Handel opera, it would be interesting to focus an album on the many transcriptions of arias from his operas as well as some of the so-called “Great Suites” of Handel himself.
Handel uses a rather skeletal notation in some of these suites, and often ornamentation is left to the performer. This incomplete notation may partly explain the haphazard reception the works have received in the 20th and 21st century. In this recording, I have been inspired by my own research into this improvisatory culture, and have attempted to ornament in the very florid style that I believe Handel and his contemporaries would have recognised.
What is so remarkable about the “Great Suites” are their extraordinarily eclectic and wide-ranging deployment of styles and genres. Besides the traditional dance elements of the Franco-German keyboard suite (allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, and gigues) there are dense fugues, overtures in the French style, Italian sonatas and arias, preludes in both incomplete and highly precise notation, and variation forms.
The suites give us the impression of a performer and composer who was highly sophisticated, well-travelled, open-minded, and cosmopolitan. It reveals a keyboardist who had quite a large hand span and a predilection for the German vollstimmig (or fully-voiced) style and was equally at home with both Italianate virtuosity, German profundity, and French élan.
I also tried to bring out the vocal qualities that I know so well from my engagement with Handel operas, an effect often heightened by the expressive capabilities of the machine stop.
The resulting recording, I hope, pays testament both to Handel and the harpsichord.
Banner image. Erin Helyard, by Robert Catto.
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The University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Gertrude Contemporary have announced a new international residency partnership based at the VCA’s Norma Redpath Studio in Carlton.
The program will support invited international artists to pursue studio production and curatorial research.
Director of the VCA Professor Jon Cattapan said he was delighted with the partnership and that he envisaged many positive outcomes. “This partnership is a brilliant way for the VCA to forge new international relationships of sustenance and meaning, which will benefit our students,” said Professor Cattapan.
“The artists in the residency will all commit to some activities with VCA Art, for instance, delivering lectures, masterclasses and tutorials with appropriate cohorts and students,” he said. “It will create learning opportunities with leading local and international artists and provide models of how to establish a professional studio art practice.”
Both Professor Cattapan and Gertrude Contemporary’s Artistic Director Mark Feary said the partnership reflected an increasingly strong relationship between the two significant cultural institutions, which have been entwined since Gertrude was founded in 1985.
Mr Feary said: “The Gertrude International Studio Residency has been one of the most coveted and dynamic aspects of Gertrude Contemporary’s engagement since its establishment, enabling visiting artists and curators to be enmeshed within Gertrude and our community.”
“This new partnership with the VCA enables this important component of our studio program to continue and flourish, and further solidifies our engagement with staff and students at Melbourne’s most important art school.”
Australian sculptor Norma Redpath’s house and adjoining studio were generously bequeathed to the University of Melbourne by the artist’s family, with the intention that they be made available to artists and academics. The studio has been managed by the VCA since 2015.
The first participants in the partnership program began their residency last week. Mexican artist Joaquin Segura and San Francisco-based Mexican-Australian curator Ivan Muniz Reed, will hold an exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary in collaboration with Melbourne-based artist Tony Garifalakis.
Banner image: Norma Redpath Studio, by Sanjeeva Vancuylenburg.
Louris van de Geer started her performance writing career as a teenager. Now a Master of Writing for Performance graduate, she talks to Sophie Duran about how the VCA helped her develop as a writer, the challenges of working in the theatre industry, and her greatest achievement to date.
I began writing plays in my first year out of high school. I hadn’t applied for university and wasn’t really interested in formal study. I continued writing and was making theatre at St Martins, the Melbourne Fringe Festival, MKA, and Next Wave, and knew I wanted to apply for the Master of Writing for Performance at the VCA so I could learn more about the craft and meet other writers, as well as have a taste of the academic experience.
I think I came to the VCA at exactly the right time. I had been on my own for several years, trying to make a career and step up to the next level, and the VCA came just in time so I could gain a more theoretical understanding of what I was doing.
I enjoyed the structure and the conversation that came with studying at the VCA. Structure and routine is so helpful to the creative process and very hard to implement for yourself – at least it is for me! So it was a really great thing, being forced to read certain things and think about them in certain ways, having to turn up with ten pages of writing by a certain time. I also enjoyed the freedom. There was never an idea that we had to write a certain type of play, or follow certain theories about narrative structure. We were encouraged to take risks.
The VCA gave me space and time and support to test ideas and understand why I make the work I do in the way I do. The people I met at the VCA are some of the best people, and the conversations in and outside of class have been instrumental to my thinking. Being able to meet actors, directors, designers and other writers is the most helpful thing. Writing can be a lonely pursuit, so tapping into and building networks with fellow students is a great way to become more embedded in the community.
My greatest achievement while doing my masters was working on my one-act play, Looking Glass. I really enjoyed the process: writing at home, having one-on-one dramaturgical meetings with a different dramaturg each week, and workshopping sections of script in class. There were so many thoughts and ideas being thrown around and it’s such a luxury to be receiving feedback so consistently. The play turned out to be a great success. It was shortlisted for the Griffin Award and the Rodney Seaborn Award the following year, and finally had its premiere production at fortyfive downstairs in August, directed by Susie Dee.
In the next few years, my goal is to keep writing, keep thinking about what theatre can be and how it can continue to be a space that offers something unique from film or television. I would love to have a show that tours, or at least is remounted again after an initial two-week season.
Theatre is a difficult thing to make. It is incredibly difficult to have a sustainable career. The arts are undervalued by the government and the wider population and this leads to conservative programming and conservative audiences.
To other aspiring writers of live performance, I’d say: don’t give up. Ask questions. Ask to be allowed into rehearsals rooms. Watch and read widely. Know why you’ve decided to do this thing instead of something else.
As told to Sophie Duran
Banner image: Sav Schulman, 2017.
It is with great sadness and shock that we heard the news this week that VCA Film and Television graduate, Cris Jones, had passed away aged 37.
By Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television, Victorian College of the Arts
Cris Jones graduated from the VCA in 2002. I was fortunate enough to teach Cris in his second year (Bachelor of Film and Television), in the skills of 16mm filmmaking. Cris was an inventive, talented, clever, witty and dedicated student, and a nice guy as well. He extended these qualities as much to his colleagues’ film projects as he did to his own – and consequently was a much loved and admired member of his class.
The short films Cris made as a film student were genuinely out of the box (one of them even featured a box in a key role) and they made staff, classmates and assessors sit up and smile at the freshness of his storytelling and cinematic approach. The films Excursion (2002) and The Heisenberg Principal (2000) were enthusiastically invited to screen at many film festivals, locally and abroad. At one point the school struggled to fund enough film prints to send Excursion to all the festivals eager to screen it at the same time.
In 2003, Cris was awarded the Emerging Talent Award by the Australian Film Critics Circle and the Emerging Australian Filmmaker award by the Melbourne International Film Festival – possibly a daunting spotlight for a newly-graduated filmmaker. However, Cris’ humility and genuine curiosity for a world wider than film alone led him on his own authentic path towards his subsequent projects.
It came as no surprise to hear that the Melbourne International Film Festival chose to support Cris’ first feature film, The Death and Life of Otto Bloom, through its competitive MIFF Premier Fund, and in 2016 the film screened at MIFF’s opening night. Although the film was not everyone’s cup of tea, it and Cris’ unique storytelling qualities were quite at home in the film festival context, where brave festival directors, who are absolutely on top of cinema’s current trends and new directions, identify and program films that will shake up local audiences and renew our sense of exhilaration and faith in the potential of new filmmakers.
I bumped into Cris a few times over the last few years whenever he dropped by the school. I will miss his stories, his smile and his warmth. We will all miss the films that he no doubt was dreaming up and planning to produce.
Banner image: Cris Jones with actor Matilda Brown on the set of The Death and Life of Otto Bloom. Photo: Suzy Wood.
Sean Michael Mcdowell is one of four VCA Art students who have curated Proud 2017, an annual exhibition showcasing work by current students. Find out why Sean chose VCA, what he's learned at art school so far, and what to expect in this year's instalment of the annual exhibition at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery.
For more than 15 years, artist Jon Campbell’s Remedy programs have encouraged Victorian College of the Arts students to explore artistic expression beyond their studio practice. He talks to Precinct ahead of this year's events.
Jon, you’ve curated Remedy, two programs of performance by alumni, staff and current students. Can you tell us what they’ll involve and what audiences can expect?
The program will include a series of five-minute performances with short changeovers between acts. A stage will be set up in the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, complete with special lighting and a mirror ball. Past Remedy flyers will be enlarged to poster size and displayed throughout the gallery. The audience can expect a lively program that includes group and solo singing, storytelling, costumes, plate-smashing and experimental noise, to name but a few.
Your Remedy programs have been going for more than 15 years. How did they come about and how have they evolved?
When I started teaching in the VCA Painting Department in 1999, I quickly realised a lot of students had an interest in music and performance and thought this interest could be expanded as part of their experience at art school. It wasn't about skill or being a good singer – it was about the desire to perform to an audience, often for the first time. The program has generally been the same format throughout the years. We put out a call for performers, make a flyer, set up the gallery and let the students give it their best shot. I imagine Remedy will go on, year after year, until no one wants to do it anymore.
How has your own artistic practice changed over your career?
I started out making loose, gestural figurative paintings. Now I make hard-edged text-based paintings. I feel the subject matter has generally stayed the same but expanded, and I've become more critical and demanding of my work. The use of text has allowed me to explore other mediums such as neon, flags and banners and lithography.
A couple of years ago I exhibited recent text paintings alongside figurative paintings I made 25 years earlier and I think the subject matter, the vibe and the politics held them together as a group, even though they looked very different pictorially. I continue to use the enamel house-paint that I started using in the mid-80s.
If you weren’t a visual artist, what would you be doing?
When I was a teenager I always wanted to be in a band, tour the world and make hit records. While I do still play music and perform, I see it as part of my expanded art practice. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I'd only concentrated on music.
Can you tell us a little about your current projects?
I've recently finished a book – it’s a world full of cover versions – based on painted text cards I've used in previous performances. It was designed and printed in Christchurch, New Zealand, by artist and musician Aaron Beehre. I'll be travelling to Christchurch later this month to launch the book at the Ilam Campus Gallery, where I'll also be putting on an exhibition.
Otherwise I am busy in the studio planning and making work for a solo presentation with Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney, a mural for the drawing wall at Shepparton Gallery and a solo presentation at the MCA, Sydney, in December. These are exciting and busy times.
Main image: Melbourne band Terry perform at the launch of ART150. Photo: Drew Echberg.
Jenni Little graduated from the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Music Theatre) in 2015. Since then, she has performed in Follies: In Concert, The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Kinky Boots. Here, she talks about how the VCA prepared her for a career on the stage.
I knew on the day of the audition at the VCA was the right place for me. The way our course coordinator Margot Fenley worked with actors on the floor that day was thrilling to me. I wanted to learn from her and was excited that someone who came from such a strong, truthful storytelling perspective was the head of a music theatre course. I still find that exciting!
I don't think any other music theatre program in the country covers such a breadth of learning and still prepares you for working in a commercial theatre environment. I graduated feeling like I had equally strong training in the areas of singing, dancing and acting, and also felt comfortable stepping into a television of film environment.
I loved how immersive the program was. They were long days but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Having the opportunity to immerse myself in my passion for three years, surrounded by a wealth of incredible resources, was a dream come true for me. The emphasis on studio-based training meant that we were always up on our feet learning physically and quickly – and learning from our classmates as much as from our own work.
It’s a very inspiring location to study in because you feel like you’re very much a part of the creative community before you’ve graduated. The VCA campus is within walking distance of the theatre district, the museum, the gallery and the CBD. You’re right in the middle of it. The on-campus spaces were a haven for practising in between classes, and for someone like me who loves slightly left-of-centre cast recordings and hard-to-find sheet music, the Lenton Parr Library was an absolute mecca.
The Music Theatre students and teachers are an amazingly tight-knit, small and supportive group. I loved being surrounded by a group of like-minded people who shared my passion.
I had the opportunity to learn from so many visiting artists in a masterclass setting while at the VCA. We were lucky enough to work with and learn from American composers, songwriters and vocal technicians, as well as Australian producers, directors, casting directors, actors and music directors. I will never forget getting the opportunity to work with American composer Adam Guettel when he visited in 2013. That was an absolute life-changer for me.
VCA is a massive supporter and facilitator or new musical theatre works and I was lucky enough to be a part of a number of workshops and creative developments. Being a part of a project’s genesis and helping a creative team to realise their vision was an amazing experience to have as an artist while still studying. Taking part in those projects helped unlock a love of facilitating new pieces that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
When I was in second year I was one of five students in my year chosen to take part in the Global Atelier Project in New York City. We spent ten days taking part in masterclasses with industry professionals and seeing as much theatre as we could jam into our itinerary. It was an absolutely mind-blowing and I took so much away from it. I still refer back to my notes from that time – it was an amazing learning experience.
We discovered that all of the people we worked with in the States shared the same techniques and ideologies that we were being taught at the VCA. To know that we were being taught the same things that performers who go on to perform on Broadway are taught was pretty fantastic!
The most valuable thing VCA offers Music Theatre students is a combination of world-class training and the opportunity to work with and learn from directors and performers who are currently working in the industry. Forging positive working relationships with industry professionals before you’ve graduated is invaluable – and at almost every audition I step into, I know someone on the panel from my time at the VCA. It makes life so much easier.
At the VCA, the message to us was: you are an actor, first and foremost, and every creative problem you'll ever have in rehearsal as a singer or a dancer can be solved through your training as actors. This is always a great comfort to me. When stepping into a professional rehearsal room for the first day where there are often people I've admired on stage since I was little, it is a comfort to know that I can just relax and simply do the work I know how to do because of my training.
As told to Sophie Duran.
Applications for the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Music Theatre) close on 28 September. Find out more.
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Banner image: Jenni Little in 42nd Street, presented by Music Theatre Company 2015 at the Victorian College of the Arts. Photo: Drew Echberg
What does it take to make a feature-length comedy about broken dreams, intense sibling rivalry and rethinking your place in the world? That's Not Me's Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher have the answers.
By Paul Dalgarno
Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher are adept at playing several roles concurrently. They’re married to each other. They make films together – most recently their debut feature That’s Not Me, showing in selected Australian cinemas from 7 September. They co-wrote the screenplay. With two other producers, they co-produced the film. Erdstein directed it. Foulcher, who plays identical twins Polly and Amy, stars in it ... twice. They've self-distributed it, designed the posters, and – as release-date approaches – are promoting it with everything they have.
“When you make a film at this level, you almost have to tour it like a musician tours an album,” says Erdstein. He’s lean, in a beanie, entirely focused on the job at hand. “We have to get ourselves out there as the faces of the film, and Alice in particular – she’s actually the two faces of the film.”
“Or three faces now,” says Foulcher, as double-star and promoter. She’s sitting next to Erdstein, all eyes – they smile at each other briefly, get back on point.
“Stopping now would negate everything,” says Erdstein. “Not just all the hard work that's been put in by us, but by everyone who’s put faith in the project at every stage of production.”
That’s Not Me follows the fortunes of Polly, an emerging Australian actor who wants to make it big in Los Angeles. She looks the part and, as she likes to remind her agent, her housemates and anyone else who will listen, can really, really act. But so can her identical twin, Amy, who lands a dream role in a new HBO show starring Jared Leto, with whom she falls into a tabloid-friendly celebrity romance.
Big-name directors duly begin falling over themselves to capitalise on Amy’s cachet and “unique look”, while Polly, with fading parental support and plummeting self-belief, has to choose between giving up entirely or imitating her sister for romantic and professional gain.
The film had its world premiere in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, its Australian premiere in June at the Sydney Film Festival, and recently played to sell-out audiences at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Foulcher, rightly, has been highly praised for her performance(s). She appears in every scene, walking a tightrope between laugh-out-loud comedy and relatable tragedy. It’s a role rich in hubris, pride, vulnerability and empathy. That Foulcher can communicate all of those while remaining believable – and funny – is testament to her range and talent.
The only downside so far has involved those three hardest words: Australian, indie and comedy.
"People have such a cringe over Australian films," says Foulcher. "The fact that it's indie, they think it's going to be shit. The fact it's a comedy, they think it's going to be that big, broad style Australian comedy, when it's really not. It's a much gentler, quieter film.”
Erdstein nods. “A lot of the reviews have been really positive, but they've sometimes been couched in terms of, ‘It wasn't as shit as I thought’.”
Both laugh but I get the sense that neither is joking. Gallows humour runs as freely through their real-life dialogue as it does through the script of That’s Not Me, which Foulcher describes as a “feelgood film about disappointment”.
“The message of the film is that realigning your goals and dreams might not be such a bad thing,” she says. “I was talking to an actor friend recently who's going through a bit of a hard patch, and I realised I couldn’t just say, ‘Hang in there, you'll make it someday’, because it might not happen. But there's actually something really liberating about getting to that point of saying, ‘Well, if the industry is some kind of deaf machine and it owes you nothing, then there's no kind of expectation on yourself’.”
It’s hard to believe the film, shot in Melbourne and LA, was made on a budget of $60,000. And not because it looks a million dollars – I’d put it closer to six or seven. I'm guessing nobody got paid.
“Really?” says Foulcher, laughing. “You guessed that?”
“Everyone worked on deferred contracts,” says Erdstein, “which means they'll get paid if the film goes into profit. But obviously that doesn't help people who had to work for weeks at a time, like the production designer and the costume designer, so we paid their rent, just trying to make sure they wouldn't be out of pocket.”
Erdstein and Foulcher met while studying a Master of Film and TV (Narrative) in 2008 at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Isabel Lucas, of Home and Away and Transformers fame, who brings understated comic talent to her supporting role in That’s Not Me, met Foulcher while studying in the VCA Drama short course program in 2007. Erdstein met the film’s cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe during a VCA student shoot. The film's co-producers Anna Kojevnikov and Sally Storey are VCA graduates, as is the film’s costume designer Sophie Hayward and executive producer Robert K. Potter.
“In some ways, it’s a VCA feature film,” says Erdstein. “A lot of us had come through the VCA at the same time, which was great. It meant we were all on the same level, we were all hungry.”
Both refer to That’s Not Me as a “favour film”, made with the understanding that favours go both ways. “One of the keys after finishing film school is to keep on making,” says Erdstein. “And if you're not making your own work, you've got to help other people make theirs. I do a lot of work as an assistant director and give up my time to help other people, so when we call on those people for help they’re happy to do it.”
Being nice helps, says Foulcher. “I think you can't overstate the importance of just not being an arsehole,” she says. “Some people behave like their graduating film is some kind of defining expression of them as an artist, and that it gives them a free pass to behave badly. But we’re not saving lives, we're entertaining people. You shouldn't have to step on your mother's neck to get your film made.”
Beyond hard work, patience and, ideally, some luck, there are no silver bullets – a lesson Polly in That’s Not Me would do well to be mindful of.
“She talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk,” says Foulcher. “She’s blindly going through something that she's said she wants to do, become an actor, but she hasn't stopped to ask if she actually enjoys it. Instead of, say, putting on a show with friends and making something happen she’s waiting by the phone for work to come to her.”
Being plucked from obscurity and elevated to stardom, though an appealing idea, rarely happens.
“We wanted to provide a reality check on that whole dream,” says Erdstein. “At the beginning of the year, when we'd just finished That’s Not Me, we saw La La Land. When the lights went up I turned to Alice and said, ‘Oh, I think we've made the anti-La La Land’.” Maybe [La La Land screenwriter] Damien Chazelle, as an Oscar-nominated writer and director, was coming from the perspective of ‘Well of course, everyone makes it'. But for us, as bottom-feeders from Melbourne, we're looking at it differently.”
One message they’re wary of communicating is that films like That’s Not Me can, or should, be made on the smell of an oily rag.
“It’s not a good model,“ says Foulcher.
“Not paying people isn’t great,” says Erdstein.
“No, we can’t keep doing that,” says Foulcher.
The pair work well as a double-act. They co-wrote That’s Not Me in Paris, during an eight-month residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, though not sitting side by side, says Foulcher. “One of us would write something, we'd talk, we'd go for walks, we'd talk about it a bit more, then pass a scene back and forth.” Which might make it difficult to know who wrote what – especially the really good bits.
Erdstein agrees. “Yesterday I was talking about the great job I did writing a joke, and Alice had to remind me that she'd written it.”
“It was one of the newspaper headlines in the film,” says Foulcher. “Oliver’s Twist of Fate. We were talking about how funny it was and he goes, ‘I know, thank you,’ and I was like, ‘No, actually, I thought of that’.”
“We share the same brain,” says Erdstein. But, as with all brains, there are opposing hemispheres. “You can see the clash of both of our dispositions in real life and our sensibilities as filmmakers in every scene of That’s Not Me,” he says. “Alice is very bright and sunny and optimistic, and I’m ... pragmatic. Alice would say ‘cynical’. There are lots of false starts for Polly in the film, where you see her optimism being cut off at the knees by cynicism and pragmatism and real life and ...”
I wonder what the ideal end-game is for them both, whether, like Polly, a Hollywood career is the ultimate benchmark of success.
“I think we'd actually prefer to keep living in Melbourne,” says Erdstein. “Although, I have a US passport, so there’s a very real possibility we could go over there.”
“I want to see more Australian comedies with female leads,” says Foulcher. “If you think about it, after Muriel's Wedding there's not a huge amount of them.”
As a writer and actor, she acknowledges she has the skills to make a difference and says that the paucity of female stories was a driving force behind the script for That’s Not Me.
“In 2014, when we were writing it, I went to see the Wes Anderson film Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember looking at the poster with all the characters – about 17 of them, I think, and like three chicks. That needs to change. As practitioners, we need to be able to put our money where our mouth is and help make it happen. I mean, our film passes the Bechdel Test three times in the first five minutes.”
The big fear is that people won’t get to see that philosophy in action. The marketing and distribution spend for even the lowliest of Hollywood arthouse films would outstrip the entire filming, production and marketing budget of That’s Not Me many times over. And getting people along to see it on its opening weekend, from 7 September, is critical to its cinematic fortunes.
“That’s what we're up against,” says Erdstein.
“Basically, going to see it on the Monday or Tuesday is leaving it too late,” says Foulcher. “Because they look at the box office figures on the Monday morning after the opening weekend.”
What about hitting up Jared Leto? I suggest. I mean, Amy is actually dating him in the film, is she not, and he has about four million Twitter followers?
“We continue to like his posts on Instagram,” says Foulcher.
“We retweet him every now and again,” says Erdstein. “It's a very flattering portrait of him in the film.”
“Maybe that’s it,” says Foulcher. “We need Jared Leto to help us.”
She taps the table, makes to stand. Erdstein follows suit. There’s a film to promote, more work to do.
For your chance to win a double pass to see That's Not Me, and/or signed promotional posters, email Precinct with your preference (tickets/poster), and the subject line: That's Not Me.
Main Image: Alice Foulcher in a film still from That's Not Me. Supplied.
Win a double pass to the opening night of L'Orfeo on Thursday 7 September. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Orpheus Giveaway" for your chance to win.
In September, a cast of singers and musicians will perform Monteverdi's groundbreaking opera, L'Orfeo, in a landmark production by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in association with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. In this interview, Artistic Director Professor Jane Davidson explains her reasons for staging the work.
By Frederic Kiernan
Jane, why did you choose to stage this opera?
Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo (sometimes called La Favola d’Orfeo, or The Tale of Orpheus) is a remarkably beautiful work, and is technically quite challenging, so I wanted to explore this work’s creative possibilities in a modern production. This year is also the 450th anniversary of the birth of the composer, so we also wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate this Italian master’s wonderful musical legacy. Even though there have been a number of operas based upon the Orpheus myth written over the centuries, Monteverdi’s setting is a standout masterpiece.
What makes Monteverdi’s opera so special?
Monteverdi was very much a musical innovator. He composed music at a time when great shifts were happening in the way people thought about music, and what people wanted music to do – this was all happening towards the end of the 16th century, and during the first decades of the 17th century, in Italy. Italian composers at that time, and especially Monteverdi, were exploring music’s power to express the emotional meaning of texts, whereas previously, more strict rules were in operation about how melodies and harmonies were supposed to behave. Those rules didn’t relate much to the text being sung. When the text became an expressive priority, opera was born. Monteverdi’s work is probably the first “true” opera (although scholars continue to debate this, of course).
Why is The Tale of Orpheus the first “true” opera?
Some scholars argue that the first “true” operas didn’t emerge until the first public opera houses opened up in Venice in the 1630s, and there is merit in this argument. But discussions about opera’s origins still invariably return to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Other composers had written theatrical productions that were sung through from beginning to end before Monteverdi. Jacopo Peri had written Dafne in 1598, which is now lost, and he also composed an opera based on the Orpheus myth, Euridice, in 1600, which also included music by Giulio Caccini. These were, in a way, early “experiments” in operatic writing.
While they did use new musical styles such as stile rappresentativo, or the “representational style”, where the melody was geared towards expressing the emotional content of the text, these early operas never really achieved the stylistic synthesis that Monteverdi achieved with L’Orfeo. In this opera, we see a vast array of musical styles at work – both old and new, side by side – and they all somehow come together in a remarkably cohesive way. That was a historical turning-point in music history and, in many ways, marked the beginning of what is often called the “baroque” period.
What is your vision for the current production?
In this production, I want to bring historical ideas into the present in a creative way. I’m an opera director, but I’m also a music psychologist, as well as leader of the Performance Program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, so I want to focus especially on emotions, and how these have been expressed in music historically. The current production explores the significance of historical ideas about music’s relationship to the planets and mood regulation through innovative staging, direction, and other design elements. By doing this, I hope the audience comes away with a greater appreciation not only for Monteverdi’s wonderful opera, but also how it represents an important shift in the way people thought and felt in the past.
The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi will be performed at The Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne, on 7 and 8 September, 7.30pm–9pm. Visit Eventbrite for ticketing and show information.
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Main image: The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi. By Sarah Walker.
In this, the first in a series of How To videos from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Senior Lecturer in Voice Leith McPherson explains the pitfalls of trying to imitate an Australian accent ... and how to avoid them. Know someone who would benefit from a bit of professional voice coaching? Pass it on!
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See also: How to program a Roland TB-303
Main image: Dan Zen/Flickr
Joy Heng moved to Australia after some googling led her to the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s Interactive Composition course. Following the release of her first single on iTunes, she shares some insights into what it’s like to be an international student, composer, collaborator and budding singer-songwriter.
I have loved playing the piano since I was 12 years old. In 2012, I decided to study music at Singapore Polytechnic, which allowed me to develop a wide variety of music skills. I began producing my own songs and fell in love with composing music. Finishing a song gave me a great sense of achievement and satisfaction. I was set on pursuing music and found the Interactive Composition course on the MCM website – and it seemed perfect for me.
Joy Heng, Dreams. Filmed and edited by Aldin Ortinez.
When I moved to Melbourne, I wanted to broaden my mind by experiencing a new culture and connecting with more musicians. I remember looking at a video on YouTube which showed [Head of Interactive Composition] Mark Pollard talking about how to audition for the course. I was a bit intimidated but so determined to create a great portfolio for the audition.
Recently, I was able fulfil my dreams to release my very first single on iTunes and Spotify. With the help of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, I was also able to release a professionally-filmed music video. I worked with some students from the Jazz & Improvisation stream who played my track and made it sound really amazing. I used the Grant Street Theatre on campus to film a video and, with the help of some staﬀ and lecturers, I was able to set up all the lights and instruments very smoothly. I really enjoyed this process, especially the collaboration with my fellow students.
I’ve made amazing friends while studying at the MCM, and they’ve made the challenges of university life so much easier. I’m miles away from my family, but the people I’ve met here have made me feel like I am at home. Also, the collaborations between different artistic areas is something that I really enjoy – I feel that it exposes me to greater opportunities. Everyone who studies here is so talented. They’re the future of the music industry, and I hope to be able to work with them as my career progresses.
I have the constant support and help of my lecturers. They guide me in the right direction and are always pushing me to achieve my full potential.
In the next few years, I hope to be able to grow as a singer-songwriter. When I graduate at the end of this year, I would also love to be able to work in the media sector, composing music for animations, films or commercials, or anything else interactive.
If you want to pursue a career in the music industry, you just have to keep working on it, keep practising, and never lose sight of your dreams. In time you’ll get there. I’m not there yet but I’ll keep pressing on. Don’t forget to take the time to explore as many opportunities as you can, and make sure you chill out too. Hang out with your friends, go to gigs, travel. There's so much out there.
As told to Sophie Duran
Applications for the Bachelor of Music close on 28 September. Find out more.
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Main image: Final year Bachelor of Music (Interactive Composition) student Joy Heng. By Sav Schulman.
Luke Fryer began dancing relatively late in life, and is now in his final year at the Victorian College of the Arts. He reflects on his journey so far, and where he hopes to go from here.
I began dancing at 16 in my hometown, Canberra, with QL2 Centre for Youth Dance. Because I had a background in gymnastics, I was interested in continuing to train my body and mind in a fulfilling and ever-evolving way.
Preparing to audition for the VCA was a long process. I had little classical dance training but took weekly classes during my gap year to build the core technical requirements and base knowledge I needed for the VCA audition. When I auditioned for the 2015 intake I was sent a B letter offer – so I was on the waiting list. But having spoken to people in the industry, I knew that the VCA Dance course was producing innovative makers who’d received solid technical training while studying and then used it as a tool to develop their own practice. I was much more drawn to this than to being a technical performer who would fit the mould of a company. Although I’d already been offered a place at WAAPA, I turned it down once I was accepted into the VCA in the second round.
At the VCA, I’m in the heart of a bigger city where diversity is innate. When deciding where to study, I felt more comfortable among diversity and numbers.
My days are full. In third year, technique classes start at 9am – either ballet and contemporary, or double contemporary – or even something like yoga paired with a technique class. There is about an hour's break for lunch, and then the rest of the day is spent in performance rehearsals until six or so. I usually also have rehearsals after hours until 8pm, either for VCA works or other projects outside of school.
I’m inspired by people and their bodies. Everyone is so different but we all find our own ways of communicating to each other via this form of the body in space. How do our bodies function, and how can that be manipulated or crafted to reveal something special in our world we have never thought of before? Dedication, attention, respect and continual investigation of this body is a constant source of inspiration inside and outside the studio, and in all facets of life.
Physical and mental exhaustion are huge challenges. One always affects the other. Continually having to train and relearn how to cope with your body and mind being tired from long hours of work is a never-ending process.
You might be practising and working every day on something in particular and it will be merely time, and persistence, that will allow you to succeed. The amount of time that is required in this course extends beyond our 55 contact hours a week. Your body is your tool and you always have to work and rework with it and find out what it needs.
As a Dance student at the VCA, I get to work on myself as well as be part of an amazing community of inspired and inspiring people. Between the information I get from my own learning and growth, and the information I get from others around me, I could never be bored or stagnant.
Any element of spontaneity in the course it is always a highlight. Even the smallest workshop or guest speaker or change in the timetable is very refreshing.
A big highlight for me was finishing our mid-year season in second year, where I performed in a second-year work as well as a third-year work. It was the end of a semester of long days but the fact I had been able to work and connect with the third-year students and juggle two works at the time seemed like a big deal. It was made even better by hopping on the plane the day after closing night and travelling to France with people in my course to continue learning, but also have fun in a completely different environment.
To relax outside of training, I just get out of the house and away from the campus as much as I can – either with friends or by myself. Catching a train or tram somewhere new, walking with no final destination or attending random events is my way of relaxing. Melbourne is so big that you can literally take mini holidays every weekend if you just make time or go searching for them.
After I graduate, I want to stay in Melbourne and make the most of the connections I have made throughout my time here as well as those connections I have yet to make. Becoming more settled and financially independent next year is also priority. I’d like to test the waters to see if part-time gigs are a sustainable mode of living for a while, as well as maybe try out full time work in parts of the industry to see if I enjoy them. From there, I plan to travel to America and Europe to discover where my training lineage and body fit into the dance industry outside of Australia. I want to continue to research and develop my own practices firstly through studio-based work and perhaps even further study in the future.
As told to Sophie Duran
Main image: Luke Fryer, South Lawn carpark, University of Melbourne's Parkville Campus. By John O’Rourke
Fifty years of La Mama theatre is documented in the University of Melbourne Archives, offering an insight into the emergence of Melbourne’s avant-garde theatre scene in the late 1960s.
By Jane Beattie, University of Melbourne Archives, University of Melbourne.
Inspired by New York’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, founder Betty Burstall was confident that Melbourne performers and audiences wanted and needed a place for progressive music, poetry and film too.
La Mama nurtured local talent and rode the international wave of social and cultural change in the late 1960s to provide a platform for alternative voices in the arts. In a company newsletter from October 1969 this vision was expanded: La Mama would be a theatre to make possible “a new audience-actor relationship. It was informal, direct, immediate. It was also a playwrights’ theatre…where you could hear what people now were thinking and feeling.”
Early archival material, such as correspondence and newsletters, reveals the co-operative nature that Burstall was committed to; her policy of developing solely Australian work was financially risky in an arts scene dominated by the mainstream canon of mainly American and English work.
Censorship and controversy
“Revolutionary things are happening in theatre today and I want them here.” Burstall’s ambitions for La Mama were grand, and the revolution began almost immediately, with plays pushing the legal boundaries of decency of the time.
The earliest offender was the 1968 production of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed. The final line of dialogue “fucking boongs” is delivered by Norm to Ahmed, a Pakistani student. Actor Lindsey Smith was arrested for using obscene language, and the play’s producer Graeme Blundell was charged with aiding and abetting Smith. In 1969, John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism resulted in the arrest of nine actors for using obscene language in a public place.
Boxes of news-cuttings from this era tell the story of La Mama’s ongoing battle against censorship and the restrictions imposed by Australian social and cultural values of the time.
The archives also feature production posters, including lino-cuts crafted by Tim Burstall, Betty’s husband. The few styles repeated in different colours with handwritten production dates and times illustrate trends in grassroots art and design, as well as the collaborative nature of La Mama.
Other established artists such as photographer Peter Lyssiotis created production posters and art work – in Lyssiotis’ case posters and artwork for his playwright daughter Tes. A wild variety of style and quality is demonstrated in some of the earlier posters by anonymous artists whose work is marked with holes left by the staples used to distribute them on street corners.
Supporting other art forms
La Mama encompassed many more facets of the Melbourne avant-garde arts scene. Neo Kyma refers to a movement in Greek music that found popularity in the 1960s and 70s, extending well into the 1980s in Australian Greek communities. For around five years, Christos and Tasos Ioannidis played Greek and ployethnic music at La Mama.
“The 1970s and ‘80s were the golden era of Melbourne’s Greek community. Everything, including the arts, was blooming. Especially La Mama - it was not only for Greeks, it was a place of meeting, getting together, it became a culture” explains Christos. Burstall and Liz Jones, who followed her as artistic director in 1977, had created a space where artists from all backgrounds could practice, improvise and collaborate with their peers
Poetry and spoken word were also promoted from La Mama’s inception in 1967, led by Glen Tomesetti and Kris Hemmensley, and continues today as a regular in La Mama’s program. Each La Mama Poetica event featured multiple acts and showcased work from both emerging and established poets.
Mainstays included Jennifer Strauss, Wendy Poussard and Jennifer Harrison. University of Melbourne academic Kevin Brophy was a regular and a reading by Chris Wallace-Crabbe would have been rousing. Left field inclusions were the works of Indonesian poets performed by Geoff Fox, radical experimental poet and a founding member of Australia’s Poet’s Union. And there was Thalia, a night dedicated to the Perseverance Poets collective, featuring Louise Craig and Whitefeather Light.
Despite earlier confrontations with the law, La Mama continued supporting Australian writers, actors and directors, providing a place where collaboration and experimentation were centre-stage. Stalwarts of the Australian theatre scene like Jack Hibberd, David Williamson and Graeme Blundell were given the chance to practice and develop their craft, as were other performance artists, such as filmmakers Corinne and Arthur Cantrill.
In the decades following the ‘obscenity trials’, La Mama continued pushing audiences, exploring concepts of identity, and elevating voices of the silenced. Playwrights such as Mammad Aidani and Tes Lyssiotis used this platform to chronicle the variety of the migrant experience, whilst plays like Pundulumura: Two Trees Together (1990) by Aboriginal actor comedian Gnarnayarrahe Immurry Waitairie and prolific Melbourne writer and director Ray Mooney explored relationships between black and white Australian cultures.
From the first donation of records in 1977, the University of Melbourne Archive has seen its relationship with La Mama as a valuable one, not only for volunteer projects and exhibitions but in maintaining a comprehensive record of Melbourne’s theatre history. The La Mama Collection complements that of the Union Theatre Repertory Company which evolved into the Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as smaller collections of ephemera from the late 19th century to the 1960s.
The La Mama collection is open access to all researchers and its finding aids can be located on the UMA online catalogue by using the search term “La Mama”. A selection of records and production posters from the La Mama archive are on display in the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne.
Banner Image: Wikimedia
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The much-anticipated new art museum is opening in the United Arab Emirates later this year; here’s why it should be considered a global art envoy rather than an agent of the West.
By Associate Professor Christopher Marshall, School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is scheduled to open its doors to the public in November 2017 following ten long years of planning. It marks the latest international cultural franchising deal, where big name museums and galleries lend their brand to overseas institutions.This ambitious and controversial project has attracted criticism aimed at everything from employing a migrant construction labour force under harsh conditions, to undermining the dignity of French culture (similar to the Guggenheim franchises being labelled ‘McGuggenheims’).
But perhaps the biggest criticism, led by Professor Andrew McClellan (Tufts University, author of The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao) is one of cultural imperialism; that the new museum will impose Western notions of art, culture and history in the Gulf Region.
After the oil
The Louvre Abu Dhabi forms the centre-piece of a 27 square kilometre man-made island off the coast of Abu Dhabi that has been conceived as a commercial, tourist, and cultural hub for the entire Gulf region; part of the United Arab Emirate’s economic strategy for when the oil runs dry.
When complete, Saadiyat Island will comprise a network of iconic cultural developments. Besides the Louvre Abu Dhabi there will be a new Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry, a museum dedicated to the founding president of the UAE formulated by Norman Foster, a maritime museum by Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, and a performing arts centre designed by the celebrated late Iraqi-British architect, Zaha Hadid.
The island will also contain a series of luxury hotels together with a golf-course, a beach club and shopping malls lined with international luxury outlets.
As the opening flagship attraction for the development, there is clearly much at stake in achieving a smooth launch for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
A new institution in its own right
Writing in The Journal of Curatorial Studies, Professor McClellan questions the curatorial rational of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, arguing that it “appears set to re-inscribe the familiar western story of art” into the Gulf Region and that this will result in the Louvre “essentially reproducing itself in the Persian Gulf while claiming to do something new and different.”
But the new art museum is not simply another Louvre; it is a new institution in itself, which is ‘borrowing’ the Louvre brand for 20 years (to the tune of 1.3 billion USD, or 1.6 billion AUD).
The so-called ‘universal survey’ approach adopted by the Louvre and other museums in the past has undoubtedly resulted in a markedly pro-Western bias within many museum collections. Though founded on the ideal of a supposedly ‘universal survey’ of culture, in practice this has always meant that the vast encyclopaedic museums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have reinforced a peculiarly Western notion of cultural distinction from Ancient Greece through to the European Renaissance and so on.
This concern may well have been valid during the project’s early years, when much about it was still to be defined. It has become harder to sustain, however, following the publication of Louvre Abu Dhabi: Birth of a Museum, a lavishly illustrated catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the same title held in 2014.
This catalogue outlines the recent acquisitions made for the museum’s permanent collection that are funded from its staggeringly impressive annual accessions budget of USD 56 million (70 million AUD).
Far from following a policy of obvious ‘name brand’ acquisitions, the catalogue demonstrates the extent to which the curators have searched far and wide to locate strikingly distinctive and unusual objects that can be used to offer up fresh and intriguing cross-cultural comparisons between artefacts sharing certain affinities and similarities across time and space.
The earthy materiality of an ancient Bactrian sculpture of a female figure is juxtaposed with the neo-primitivist vigour of Yves Klein’s 1960 Anthropometry, a white canvas imprinted with the blue outlines of the bodies of two models who were contracted by the artist to cover themselves in paint before rolling onto the canvas as a form of ‘living paintbrush’.
The curators have also selected a series of striking, standalone works that powerfully evoke ideas of cross-cultural hybridity within themselves including, for example, an eighteenth century portrait of a European ambassador to the court of Constantinople by the Swiss Rococo artist Jean Étienne Liotard. The painting presents the ambassador clad in extravagant European attire while standing in a meticulously detailed Arab interior. It also demonstrates the artist’s simultaneous interest in introducing into the composition the flattened and surface-oriented emphasis of Islamic art more generally.
So too, a sixteenth century mother of pearl ewer from Gujarat in Western India has been selected for its intriguing afterlife in Baroque Naples. Here the ewer was taken and adapted for a new purpose via the addition of elaborate Neapolitan gold-smith work so that it now appears to hover somewhere between an Indian princely possession and an object of finely worked exotica to be displayed in an Italian Baroque cabinet of curiosity.
Confirmation of the success or otherwise of this novel approach, of course, will not be evident until the new museum opens its doors to the public later this year.
Still, the catalogue offers up the tantalising possibility that the Louvre Abu Dhabi may well be poised on the brink of presenting a new model for the universal survey museum for the twenty-first century.
This new curatorial agenda of cross-cultural exchange and comparison has the potential, in turn, to break down the old polarities existing between Eastern and Western understandings and to replace them with a new more inclusive form of art historical survey museum that is, at last, truly global in scope.
Banner image: Louvre Abu Dhabi
Steve Mackey is a world-renowned guitarist and composer who has written for orchestra, chamber ensembles, soloists, dance and opera. Ahead of two highly-anticipated concerts in Melbourne he talks with the Melbourne Conservatorium's Dr Ken Murray about his music and the role of the electric guitar in his compositional style.
By Dr Ken Murray, Senior Lecturer and Head of Guitar, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
In addition to being a leading American composer, Steve Mackey is a virtuoso electric guitar player who forged a new path for electric guitar in new music in the 1980s and 90s. As an electric guitarist, he performs his own pieces, including two concerti, pieces for electric guitar and string quartet and other chamber and solo pieces. In 2011 he won a Grammy for his piece Lonely Motel, written for the Eighth Blackbird ensemble. This month, Mackey will visit the Melbourne Conservatorium for two concerts, performing with the New Music Studio and MCM Guitar Ensemble to present a program of Australian premieres for massed guitars and mixed ensemble, and a new electric guitar opera, Orpheus Unsung. While at the MCM, Mackey will also be working with staff and students in the composition and performance areas. It's a privilege to be able to welcome Mackey to the MCM, and I very much enjoyed being able to interview him ahead of his arrival.
Steve, you are known as one of America’s leading composers and you manage to keep up a regular schedule of performing – how do you balance those two things?
It can be tricky. If I'm deep into the composition of a piece it's hard for me to switch gears. When I start to practise I often get an idea for the piece I'm working on and drop my guitar to jot it down. For that reason I try to bunch my guitar-playing engagements into certain times of the year so that I will be in tip-top shape only half of the year.
In another way, though, they help each other – when I'm practising I often drift off into free improvisation and sometimes stumble onto something interesting which I record and save for the next time I'm staring at a blank page. Also, sometimes I use the guitar to compose, even during a period when I'm not practising regularly. In such cases I think of the guitar the way most composers think of the piano – as a connection to sound, not a guitar per se. Doing so not only keeps my hands in shape, it expands my sense of the guitar and, over time, has brought me to my current orchestral conception of the guitar.
As a pioneer of the use of the electric guitar in new music, how has your approach to writing for electric guitar changed over the past 20 years?
The biggest difference between then and now is how I approach playing the guitar. Twenty years ago I was a rock guitar-player playing on top of a beat/groove put out by the rhythm section. I’ve had to learn to play inside the beat instead of on top of it. It was quite an eye-opener to rehearse my early works for string quartet and electric guitar. Members of a good string quartet listen to each other, comment on how a phrase is played and tell each other what they need in terms of rhythm, meter, articulation and phrasing. In chamber music everyone makes up the fabric of the rhythm, tying the threads together in an interdependent web.
Also, bowed strings have such a dynamic and timbral range and I had to learn to better control my sound with effects. I compose for, and therefore have to practise, pin-point footwork where effects shift at a precise time. I use a volume pedal to increase the dynamic range of the guitar, which is otherwise very limited. One can’t go overboard with effects, though, when playing with acoustic instruments. What may sound good to me while I'm practising can end up making acoustic instruments sound pale, small and dry, and that ultimately damages the music.
What is an electric guitar opera?
I’m not sure! But it's a concept that helped me to write music in which the guitar tells a dramatic story, sings arias, and spins out orchestral interludes. In the case of Orpheus Unsung [2 September, Melbourne Recital Centre] the story is the Orpheus Myth. The guitar does everything – it sings arias, plays orchestral interludes, etcetera. I could easily supply words and orchestrate Orpheus Unsung and turn it into a chamber opera. But even without words, I think the narrative arc and details are quite palpable as long as the audience knows the Orpheus Myth.
The idea came from a funny piece I did 20 years ago for solo guitarist/narrator called Myrtle and Mint. The premise was that I wanted to write a grand opera but the budget kept getting cut and all that I was left with was a single guitar. There was comedy in how preposterous the premise was, how feeble the substitution was of solo guitar for an orchestra and singers. Orpheus Unsung does the same thing but in a serious way, not highlighting what was missing but making an earnest effort to be an orchestra of sorts.
How has the use of harmonics on the guitar influenced your compositional style?
Harmonics, particularly off-node harmonics, that produce gong-like multi-phonics are something I'm very interested in. The notes produced can be syntactical – part of a functional harmony – or, because they are so colourful, they can be valuable just as a sound, almost like an exotic percussion instrument. I began to incorporate both functions – harmonics that stood both inside and outside the harmony in my guitar music.
That spread to my other music, particularly orchestral music where I would orchestrate the sound of distorted guitar harmonics to use as pure sound objects that contributed to an atmosphere rather than harmony. It's my personal version of spectralism in that the spectra of an electric guitar is often lurking behind orchestral textures that have no guitar.
Banner image: Steve Mackey. Supplied.
Speeches, spades, brass and bonhomie herald the construction of a world-class home for musicians.
By Sophie Duran
On 2 August, the Faculty of VCA & MCM hosted a Turning of the Sod Ceremony for the new, $104.5 million Ian Potter Southbank Centre. Conceived by award-winning John Wardle Architects, and funded by the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Government, the Ian Potter Foundation and generous philanthropic support, the building will offer state-of-the-art teaching facilities on the University of Melbourne's Southbank campus, placing Melbourne Conservatorium students in the heart of the Melbourne Arts Precinct and giving them unprecedented access to a wealth of artistic and creative endeavours.
Dean of the Faculty of VCA & MCM Professor Barry Conyngham was joined on the day by University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis, Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley and Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle for an event that included speeches, a brass ensemble fanfare and a symbolic breaking of the earth.
Professor Conyngham said: "Not only was it a very proud moment for the few of us permitted on site, but for the Faculty and the University as a whole, the culmination of a terrific amount of work and determination by a great many people. It was also a moment to reflect on the fact that this project, which will deliver a world-class conservatorium experience for our students and staff, has been made possible with the help of significant, and much-appreciated, philanthropic, University and government support.
"But this is just the beginning," Professor Conyngham added. "If we stay on schedule, the Ian Potter Southbank Centre will be open for business in time for the 2019 academic year, providing a state-of-the-art base for our main business: training and educating the music and arts professionals of the future."
Minister Foley said the Victorian Government was proud to partner with the University – and with its philanthropic supporters – to make the project happen.
“The new Melbourne Conservatorium will be a transformative link in our arts precinct that will boost our cultural and educational offering and attract the best and brightest talent to our creative state," he said. "It will further help build Southbank's Sturt street as the cultural hub of Melbourne."
The Ian Potter Southbank Centre forms part of the ongoing revitalisation of the Faculty of VCA & MCM's Southbank campus, including the $42 million redevelopment of the Dodds Street Stables into a visual arts wing, and the introduction of the Buxton Contemporary Museum.
Banner image: Turning of the Sod Ceremony, l–r, Dean of the Faculty of VCA & MCM Professor Barry Conyngham, University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley. By Sav Schulman
It took Annie Murray 30 years to heed her calling as an animator. Now in the final months of her Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) degree, she talks about false starts, challenges, hard work, and her many inspirations.
My pathway to the VCA started when I was one year old. That’s when the asthma attacks started. From that time into my early twenties I spent many, many years in and out of hospital, on the benches during PE, and off school when my class went on camps. It was a blessing in disguise, really, as I spent that free time drawing and developing my love of storytelling and appreciation for cartoons from my bed (think Ren & Stimpy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and exploring films. I developed a passion for watching animation and drawing my own panel-strip comics, which usually entailed some kind of warped humour. I think when you're faced with your own mortality from a young age you have no choice but to develop a dark sense of humour.
When I finished high school I was offered a place to study archaeology at university, which I promptly deferred. I would have adored to have applied for something in the arts but I was far too unsure of myself and family pressure to choose something that would ‘make money’ loomed large. I then took a gap year … which lasted ten years. So much for making money – sorry Nana!
I moved to Scotland in my mid-twenties and it was there that I bit the bullet and started illustrating comics for an online company called Popcorn Horror, a small film company that promotes grassroots horror filmmakers. It was the first time my work was shown to the general public and it taught me an invaluable lesson: don't let the fear of rejection hold you back. If you’ve made something, show it to the world and see what comes back.
In my late twenties I decided I couldn’t work another decade in jobs I hated. I desperately wanted to pursue a career in something I had always loved, and it seemed an obvious choice to me – a degree in animation at the VCA. I spent a year researching the establishment, contacting people and asking questions. I packed up my life and moved back to Australia to apply for the 2015 intake of students.
At 30, I threw everything I had into applying for animation courses. I covered all my bases by applying to RMIT and other universities, but for me, VCA was the golden goose and I wanted to study there more than I have ever wanted anything. I submitted my application and hoped for the best but expected the worst. It was an insane feeling being accepted and every day I walk into the Margaret Lawrence building I feel a rush of pride to be among so many talented, inspiring and encouraging contemporaries and advisors. Secretly, I’m waiting for a letter from student admin saying it was all a mistake and that I should please leave now without making a scene, ma’am.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. It could be the whispered words of a stranger on public transport, a voyeuristic experience, smelling something that reminds me of my childhood, the sound of cicadas, or the tiny patterns on the wings of lace-winged moths. I am inspired by so many things on a daily basis that it’s hard to keep up. I would advise anyone looking to build a career in the arts to carry a journal with them at all times. If you see something, hear something or feel something that could be the basis for a story or project, write it down! I have lost so many keepers because I have thought to myself, ‘I’ll remember that later’. I’m constantly inspired by my classmates, and by my advisors, Rob Stephenson and Paul Fletcher. They are amazingly encouraging, personable, charismatic and learned. I wouldn’t be here today without their support and kindness.
Animation is a lot of work. Luckily, I very much enjoy sitting in a darkened room, frowning for hours on end at a computer screen. It's an amalgamation of all things filmic. We need to know in depth how to take an idea from conception to final production and everything in between. When you apply at the VCA they want to see original stories and ideas – and they'll teach you the rest. We learn directing, producing and editing. We must be storyboarder and cameraperson. We are our own lighting and sound mixers, colour graders and composers. We are the marketing, budgeting and promotional department as well as the animator. You really have to love this work. If you don’t, you will find it difficult to stick with. Pacing yourself and getting comfortable with schedules that are reasonable and attainable are skills that take time to learn, but are invaluable. You need enthusiasm and an open mind.
What I love about my study at the VCA is the freedom it gives me to produce work to a level of which I'm proud. I've grown so much in my skill level as an animator and writer. I have been exposed to all manner of filmic techniques and animation styles which I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I also enjoy the networking opportunities.
Recently, one of my very shortest films was selected by New York Film Week and received an official selection Laurel. The piece was a 35-second, abstract, stop-motion exercise that I created in my first month at the VCA. I find this hilarious – it just goes to show how subjective art is. That short film is nothing special in my opinion, but someone, somewhere on a judging panel watched it and it meant something to them. It may have helped that I titled it with an emotive name – You Are at First, Frightening – and banged a Nietzsche quote on it: 'All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity'.
Without the skills and networking opportunities I have been afforded at the VCA, I would never have even got my foot in the door of a studio. The VCA teaches us how to search for work in our fields, shows us avenues we can go down, and teaches us how to impress prospective employers with our work.
My life is better for having been able to develop myself as an artist, business woman and animator. I have made friends that will last a lifetime and think of my class as an extension of my own family.
I’m not sure what the next few years hold for me. I'm considering doing an Honours year. But whatever happens I want to continue developing my skills and hopefully, much like a leech, attach myself to something bigger than myself and work in the creative industry. I’m ready to make some money and look forward to taking my skills into the workforce.
OK, it’s advice time. Be inspired by others but never, ever try and be others. Be the best version of you that you can be. Go hard. Put yourself out there. Take risks – mistakes make great mates.
As told to Sophie Duran
Banner image: Annie Murray in the VCA Animation studios. Photograph by Sav Schulman, animation by Annie Murray.
The relationship between elective facial surgery and feminism in China is at the heart of Su Yang’s short film Beauty, which recently won the Melbourne International Film Festival’s inaugural Powershorts Short Film Competition. Here, she explains why she made it.
I was introduced to feminism for the first time in the US and became very interested in it, having not heard or learned about it properly in China. I was doing my MFA studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo at the time, having graduated from a Bachelor Degree in Design in at the Tsinghua University in China. When I went back to China from the US on vacation, I was confronted by the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery in China. Many people I knew, including a number of my relatives and friends, had undergone facial cosmetic surgery, and I saw advertisements for cosmetic surgeons everywhere: on TV, billboards and posters in our apartment elevators.
It struck me that people had started cloning each other, losing their personal characteristics. And the notion of beauty in China seemed very singular to me, and the procedures for changing your appearance very oppressive.
I decided to start my graduation thesis on notions of beauty and the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery among the female population in China. And after graduating I still wanted to continue my research because I wanted to know more, not only about feminism, but also feminist art and western feminist art theory. I read some Chinese feminist art criticism but it wasn’t progressive feminism – I wouldn’t even call it feminism – so I decided to move to Australia and continue my studies here.
I was accepted as a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015, and am continuing my studies along this theme. The current working title of my thesis is Feminist Aesthetics: The Representation of Women in Contemporary Chinese Art.
Recently I co-created a short film Beauty as part of my thesis research with my husband Zhang Xiaoan, who is also studying a Foundations Film course at the VCA. It won the Powershots Short Film Competition and will be shown at an exclusive Melbourne International Film Festival screening this month. It's about one girl’s experience with cosmetic surgery. She goes through the process of choosing a new face from a number of different options presented to her. All of thee faces are actually my face adjusted on a phone app that's very popular in China at the moment.
Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
In the past, the trend in China was to look European but recently the aesthetic, I’d say, is not even human. The chin has become very sharp, and the eyes are very long and very round … the facial features don’t fit the face properly. So the character chooses this style of face at the start of the film. As the trends change, so too does her dissatisfaction with her now ‘outdated style’ of face.
There have been many different understandings of feminism for ordinary people in China since it was introduced from the West in the early 20th century. The initial translation of the word in mandarin was 女权主义, which is close to ‘women’s-power-ism’. But in the 1990s, that word was seen to be too ‘man-hating’ and not aligned with Chinese values, which are underpinned by Confucianism – quite a sexist belief system. The core philosophy of Confuscionism is ‘harmony’, and people in China people believed that 女权主义 or ‘women’s-power-ism’ was too oppositional for the men. So the new translation became much softer, and much less feminist, in my opinion: 女性主义, which translates roughly to ‘women’s-feminine-ism’. This translation was supposed to be more in line with Chinese beliefs.
When I go back to China I am still shocked about the state of feminism there. I went to an exhibition by a Chinese woman artist who painted three-inch shoes, from the times of foot-binding in the Tong Dynasty, in a romanticised way. I was so shocked to see these shoes, which are symbols of female oppression, celebrated in the painting. She painted the shoes like flowers, and talked about how Chinese foot-binding was a great part of Chinese culture. I believe this attitude is still able to exist because people haven’t had a chance to learn feminism. They should have access to this knowledge.
I have spoken to young women and girls in China who, because of overseas travel and education opportunities and the internet, are learning a more progressive feminism. But it is not common enough. My current project is to identify and name a lot of these problems in China. For future projects I hope to help educate people in China about Western feminism.
As told to Sarah Hall
Banner image: Screenshot from Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
Hannah Samuel graduated in Screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015 and is now Office Coordinator at Matchbox Pictures. She shares her thoughts on what it’s like to love what you do, and offers some tips to budding screenwriters.
Day-to-day of VCA life was pretty great. Nearly every single day of my degree, I’d saunter down from Flinders Street Station listening to Let it Go, as it was the only song that I’d worked out how to put on my iPhone, and head into the campus cafeteria to hang out with fellow screenies before class. Then we’d all saunter in to class, watch some scenes and discuss them, learn about structure, learn about each other, do some writing exercises – anything you could imagine. I'd then head back to Flinders listening to Let it Go, feeling excited by the thought of heading back to uni the next day.
Originally I thought I’d study law, but my English teacher at school suggested the VCA to me. I went along to the Open Day and sat in on a session about Screenwriting. Until then I didn’t know such a course existed – it was everything I loved wrapped into one university degree. Who knew a reality existed where you could do what you love and love what you do? The VCA – those three letters became a magic spell for me, my own little Hogwarts that I’d give anything to attend.
Studying screenwriting comes with its challenges. It’s a time-consuming degree, the hours are long and you need to spend hours on top of that, outside uni, writing, reading and watching. But can cramming in the last 50 years of cinema into your weekend really be considered homework?
I loved my cohort and the teachers. We watched movies and dissected them on a Thursday morning. We had tutorials made up of four people, where we shared our scripts and became so invested in each other’s work that these alternate worlds became part of my university experience. We learned from each other and grew together – and I can’t wait to work with those people in the future. We were instilled with a drive and work ethic that made us believe we could actually make a career out of our passions.
My highlight was when I broke the table in the cafeteria in my first week and everyone lost their lunches, all because I thought it would be easier to climb over the table, rather than get up and walk around. But really, the highlight of my degree would be producing my graduate film WOOF! which was written and directed by fellow Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student Nina Buxton. The process taught me so much and watching it surrounded by family and friends on the big screen at ACMI was definitely the highlight of my three years.
I’d like to continue working at Matchbox Pictures and, in the coming years, work as a script coordinator on one of their shows. Eventually I’d like to work my way up to script editor until eventually I get the dream gig of realising my first script. In the meantime I’m going to continue writing my own stuff. I’d also like to collaborate more with my screenwriting buddies.
The VCA taught me to make the most of opportunities, to work hard, and that networking is one of the most important skills to have. It also taught me to be prepared. Things often don’t work out so you have to keep at it and be in it for the long-run.
To budding screenwriters, I’d say feedback is everything and you need to learn how to take it and give it. Write as much as you can and listen to the feedback of your peers and teachers. Email writers you like and ask them to meet up for coffee, pick the brains of those around you. Make the most of the support you’re given and create creative partnerships for the future.
As told to Sophie Duran
Main image: Hannah Samuel at Matchbox Pictures. By Sav Schulman.
Gillian Armstrong's debut My Brilliant Career was the first Australian feature to be directed by a woman in nearly half a century and set the path for an outstanding international career. As she looks forward to a festival screening not just of her own films but daughter Billie Pleffer's graduating film from the Victorian College of the Arts, she explains why she's become a vocal advocate for more women in the industry.
By Sarah Hall
When director Gillian Armstrong was studying film in 1968 there was no Australian film industry. A series of smart moves, lucky turns and an abundance of creative talent landed her in the front seat of the industry just as it was taking off again.
Her debut feature, My Brilliant Career (1979), was the first feature-length Australian drama to be directed by a woman in 46 years (the previous being Two Minute Silence by the McDonagh Sisters in 1933, before the local industry crashed).
I was lucky enough to speak with her in the lead-up to the screening of two of her films – Starstruck (1982) and High Tide (1987) – in their original 35mm format at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).
I began the interview feeling a little woozy from a late night re-watching of Armstrong's 1994 film Little Women, me and my sister's childhood favourite, and opened with a question relating to her documentary series Love, Lust and Lies, which began in 1976, following the lives of three lively Adelaide girls, who have been revisited on film four times since.
If you were a star in your own documentary series, Love, Lust and Lies, what parts of your life would be shown on the trailer?
Well, we try to have very sensitive trailers, not sensational ones. So it depends if it's an ABC trailer or …
No, it’s a sensational Hollywood trailer that gives everything away.
Oh, right, well ... I don’t think I’ve actually had a sensational Hollywood life. If they wanted a sensational Hollywood thing, they’d probably make a trailer similar to the one that was made for me for the Cannes Lions Advertising Awards this year. They said to me, “We just put the bits of your films in that had famous actors because that makes you look more important”. So if they were cutting a trailer for my life it’d probably be me with handsome young Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Diane Keaton and Ralph Fiennes.
And of course all the Little Women ...
Oh yeah, and Winona and Susan Sarandon. They certainly wouldn’t be interested in the reality of a director’s life – in a parka, a baseball cap and gumboots trudging through mud at dawn shooting in a freezing English countryside …
Before deciding to study at Swinburne did you know that filmmaking was what you wanted to do?
Well, let me just give a little context. Before I studied at Swinburne, Australia had no film industry at all. I don’t think too many people ever thought about having a career in film. If you were interested in a career in drama there were two options: Crawfords for [the long-running police procedural TV show] Homicide, or the ABC for drama.
I had an interest in theatre, literature and art in in high school and it just so happened that my brother went to Swinburne to study business and accounting and he told me, 'There’s this amazing art school at Swinburne, you should come and have a look at it'. So I did. At that point, Swinburne had set up a filmmaking school as part of the art school and it was the first one in Australia. It had really only been going for three years. Both Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock were above me in the cohort, and so was Michael Leunig.
When I went there on Open Day and saw all of these amazing arty handheld student films with cute boys with long hair running around, I thought, 'I want to do that'. So I applied and got in to the full-time diploma.
Did you know much about film before that?
I think I wrote down at the start of my time in film school that my favourite film was The Graduate. The person next to me was writing down Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. I really had no idea. I’d never seen a foreign film. I grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, in Mitcham, and my family had nothing to do with film.
Gilliam Armstrong's 1971 graduating short film The Roof Needs Mowing, from the VCA Film and Television Film Archive.
Had you not become a filmmaker, what would you have done?
Pretty much all the girls in my year in high school became teachers, secretaries or nurses. Because I was quite academic, I probably would have gone to uni and done teaching.
How did it go from Australia not having any film industry to you making My Brilliant Career?
Well, timing was really key. Just as I was graduating, the government was setting up the Australian Film Commission [established in 1975] to restart the Australian film industry. Two years later people like Fred Schepisi, who was always an incredible role model for us at Swinburne, was directing his first feature film. So were people like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. Fred also gave big breaks to people like Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock.
After waitressing for about six months I managed to get a job in the commercial industry. Despite all of our teachers at Swinburne sending us the message that women could only get jobs in continuity, someone gave me the advice, 'Don’t get into continuity or you’ll never move anywhere. Get a job as an editor'.
I moved to Sydney, despite having no contacts there and, after a year working as an editor in the commercial industry, I saw the ad for first year of the National Film School. I was really driven at that time, really motivated. It was there I realised I had wasted so many opportunities at Swinburne, just having a really great time. I was very lucky, timing-wise, to get into that pilot training scheme at the film school at the same time Australian directors and Australian films had really started taking off.
Then my ambition became getting a grant. Then, after making a number of short films, I realised you couldn't make a living from short films as the director’s entire wage goes into the film, so my ambition became making a feature film. I lived on the dole then … all of us did. We thank the Australian government for their support of the arts. You know I went on the dole for a year to make The Singer and Dancer (1977). But I think I’ve paid it back in tax by now.
And in your contribution to Australia culture …
Yes ... But I just grew up and learned things step by step. Now I say all I want is creative freedom! I don’t want pressure from investors or exhibitors or distributors. In the end I’m back to where I began at Swinburne; I’d rather do something small and creative and call myself a filmmaker.
Do you make films with a particular social impact in mind?
Not consciously. The stories I’ve chosen over the years have all been things I’ve had a gut reaction to, stories that reflect your beliefs and ethics, and mine are of a humanist, and yes, feminist, nature of course, as well as those with themes like justice and fairness. When I first started making films The Sydney Women’s Film Group was very active, and you know they looked down on my films – like my AFTRS graduation film, One Hundred a Day (1973). They said it wasn’t proper propaganda for women, because it showed women who weren’t being really nice to each other. I’ve never wanted to be a propaganda filmmaker. I’m a storyteller.
Will you be sitting through your own movies, Starstruck and High Tide, at MIFF this year?
I will sit through High Tide, because I haven’t seen it on the big screen for more than 30 years. It’s the 35mm print so I’m really interested to see it. I always watch the end of Starstruck because I love the final scene, and I've actually seen it a lot recently as I was involved in regrading the NFSA restoration with the producer David Elphick and cinematographer Russel Boyd. But generally I find it very hard to sit through my own films. I spend a lot of time thinking how I could have made it better.
Unfortunately High Tide clashes with my daughter Billie Pleffer’s VCA graduating film Fysh which is screening as part of Australian Shorts.
Did it come as a surprise that your daughter decided to study film?
A complete surprise! She actually secretly enrolled, having already done a double degree in fine art. We did everything possible to discourage her from going into this incredibly brutal film industry.
Is there a part of you that’s secretly happy that she's a part of it?
Well, I’m very proud she’s done this whole thing on her own. She’s a writer/director which is something I never was. She’s won numerous awards for her short film Bino (2011). She won a national award last year. I’m very proud and in a practical sense think it’s much better to be a writer/director because you can write your own material.
Bino (2011). Dir. Billie Pleffer.
Would you like to work with her?
Oh no! I don’t ever want another director on set! I mean, I do kind of envy all of those brother director pairs, like the Coens. It’s such a lonely thing being a director, it’s hard, you have to make a lot of decisions. You obviously do make all of these decisions with your team. But having someone on your side with whom you have a complete shared vision and taste and shorthand, and the ability to sort of protect each other … that could be good.
But no, Billie and I have kind of different tastes in filmmaking. Her style is not only different – it's unique and it's wonderful.
When you made My Brilliant Career in 1978, you were the first woman to direct a feature length drama in Australia for 46 years. Now, has the situation changed much for women? Do you still feel like an outsider in the industry? Is this frustrating?
When I made my first feature film, being a woman was all anyone ever asked me about. It really, really annoyed me and I found it quite sexist in the end. I thought, 'You know what – I’m just me and this is a Gillian Armstrong film'. Not all women are going to do the same films and the same stories, and I was really put in this box, because it was a feminist story in a lot of ways, they thought that’s all I ever wanted to talk about. So yes, initially it was frustrating to talk about.
But 40 years later, when the figures of women directors worldwide are still so appalling, I am speaking up a lot about the reality – that it’s not a level playing field and there is an unconscious bias, and this bias needs to be readdressed. We need diversity and it’s time for real action.
These talented young women are coming out of film school, where they’re represented 50/50, but they aren’t getting the breaks and the boys are. The reality is only 17% of feature films in Australia are directed by women and for commercials, only 9%.
I went to the Australian Director’s Guild when I heard these figures and said, 'You know what, we should really do something about this'. The guild formed a working committee of which I’m just a very small part. The whole Gender Matters movement comes from this guild.
We’re thrilled that we really have had an effect and money has been put towards developing female writers as well as directors. There have always been women producers, but why aren’t there more women artists? There should have been a million more Jane Campions.
Is there much doubt involved in making a film, with what script you choose to work with and the process of the filmmaking?
The process of working on a script has many ups and downs. Sometimes the development of a screenplay takes so long you can start to look at it and think, 'I don’t know if I’ve really got the passion for this anymore', because actually making a film takes two years.
When it comes to making the film I always tell young filmmakers that there's never enough time and enough money for a director – whatever the budget is, your ambitions are bigger.
Of all of your films and documentaries, which one stays with you the most – which one makes you think – if I were to die tomorrow I’d be happy because I made that?
Probably my personal baby, my Adelaide series, Love, Lust and Lies. I’m stopping short of saying it’s over because maybe there’s a possibility it'll return in a few years. It’s really captured Australia and Australian lives. Just after we did the second meet, when they were 18 (in the first they were 14), I happened to be in Canberra. I ran into some politicians, Susan Ryan and Bill Hayden, who had seen it, and they said to me, 'Oh, what’s happened to the little blonde girl driving that car with the bumper bar nearly falling off?' They were talking about Josie.
I felt really proud to have made something that had reached the people who could make our country a better place. At least that’s how we used to feel about politicians. I was proud they had a chance to look into the life of someone as brave and wonderful as Josie, where otherwise she just would have been a figure and a number – 'unmarried teen mother'.
It’s an incredible document of 30 years of people's lives. In the first episode the girls all said, “The man’s the breadwinner and I’ll be looking after the babies'. Just to see how that changed over the installations was fascinating.
It’s not as if I went out with that intentional social consciousness, but I have felt very proud when my films have affected people in a good way.
What's your advice to budding filmmakers?
Just do it, don’t talk about it. Try to be different and original but not in a fake way. Push the boundaries, get out there and make it. The more you make the more you learn. Be free and be brave.
Gillian Armstrong's films are showing at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival: Starstruck on 11 August and High Tide on 13 August. More details.
VCA Dance students are recreating a seminal work from the founder of Australia’s first modern dance company, nearly 90 years after it was first performed in London.
Early modern dance is associated with floating scarves and light leaps and bounds. However, after the First World War those innocent reveries were only one form of dancerly expression.
The impact of modern industrialisation and political revolutions in 20th century Europe highlighted the conflict between man and machine, and for many the machine symbolised the engine of a new moral and social order.
In Dancing Sculpture at the National Gallery of Victoria, Victorian College of the Arts dance students are recreating Gertrud Bodenweiser’s The Demon Machine, first created in Vienna in 1924. The work has a rich history and transformed modern dance; it uses female dancers to compose a dance in which lyrical pastoral gestures slowly shift into the rhythmic workings of a machine.
It arrived in London in 1929, the unusual abstraction and plasticity of the bodies attracted attention in the local press and signalled that, far from mere pleasure, “the art of dance brings to our notice facts of the greatest ethical value,” according to Ms Bodenweiser.
By 1936, the Austrian choreographer was very aware of the rising threat of Nazism in neighbouring Germany, and of its impact on many of her Jewish artistic friends.
Accompanied by the strident music of Lisa Maria Mayer, Ms Bodenweiser recreated The Demon Machine to depict the resplendent Demon rising above the machinery of human bodies, with some dancers appearing shining and tranquil, and others perhaps kicking or turning in horror.
The strong diagonal lines, in both the electricity symbol on the Demon’s helmet and the extended limbs, suggest the clash of forces, inner and outer, that drive the machine.
With the annexation of Austria in 1938, Bodenweiser, herself Jewish, and her company of dancers set sail for South America, taking with them into exile many years of choreographic knowledge and artistic experimentation.
The famous Australian theatrical entrepreneur, J.C Williamson, hired a small troupe of Bodenweiser dancers to perform The Demon Machine in a revue touring outback Australia in 1939. The dancers performed crowd pleasers such as Viennese Waltzes, and other playful dances, but The Demon Machine remained a feature of the program intended to appeal to male audiences, perhaps because of the bare midriffs and the show of legs, but also because of its subject matter.
Well in advance of other dance repertoire of this period, the dancers were highly trained in modern dance techniques that gave them strong rhythmic propulsion while retaining an inner quality of expressive intensity.
By 1947 Bodenweiser had established herself with a dance company and school in Sydney and was creating new work for local audiences, including Cain and Abel (1940) and Abandoned to Rhythm (1942). The Demon Machineremained an important part of her repertoire.
On tour in New Zealand in 1948, a newspaper review observed that the music accompanying the dance added to the “maddening crescendo of mechanical movement as the machines assert their power over the human puppets… (and was) sombre when the dance was sombre, joyous at time of revelry”.
For The Demon Machine’s latest version, the Victorian College of the Arts dancers have been using this history to recreate the work, under the guidance of the Head of the VCA Dance program, Professor Jenny Kinder, herself also trained in the modern dance lineage, alongside the New Zealand choreographer, Carol Brown.
Ms Brown has researched the fascinating history of the Bodenweiser legacy and has also produced her own original solo performance called Acts of Becoming. Originally created in 1995 as an homage to the great Bodenweiser, the solo incorporates words and gestures from the archives of former Bodenwieser Tanzgruppe dancers.
In a recent Archibald prize painting, 102-year-old Eileen Kramer, a member of the original Bodenweiser company in Sydney, expressed an ‘inner stillness’ and her ongoing love of expressive dance. She is a living example of the inner spirit of modern dance in Australia with its extraordinary history and impact on future generations of artists.
Carol Brown, a student of the Bodenweiser dancer Shona Dunlop-McTavish, has recreated The Demon Machine for the Leap into the Modern symposium (12 August) curated by Professor Rachel Fensham (University of Melbourne) that accompanies the Brave New World: 1930s Australia exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. She is speaking at the symposium alongside other contemporary dance artists, such as Meryl Tankard and Shelley Lasica.
Banner image: The Demon Machine Benda D’Ora, 1936. Picture: National Library of Australia
Graduating from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music to become captain of the Geelong Women's Football Team isn't an obvious career progression, but Bec Goring is kicking goals on several fronts.
By Sarah Hall
Given the gender disparities in jazz and Australian Rules Football, to name just a couple of areas, women and gender-nonconforming people are used to playing with at least one hand tied behind their backs. Naturally, this can be frustrating.
But according to Bec Goring, who graduated from the Melbourne Conservatorium last year, the situation can change – and she should know.
She was one of only two woman guitar players in her year studying Jazz and Improvisation, and has since become skipper of Geelong in the Victorian Women's Football League.
“We have the opportunity to change the culture for women in footy and music for the better,” she says.
I'm meeting her today at the student cafeteria at the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, after stumbling across an article about her in the Geelong Advertiser. I'm keen to find out more about her journey from graduating from the MCM to becoming captain of the Cats.
When I walk in, I see her sitting on a couch. She springs up to greet me, and then insists on buying my coffee. She says hi to a few people she recognises in the cafe, talking briefly with them about upcoming gigs.
We take a seat away from the speakers, and I ask her what the atmosphere is like in women’s footy since the introduction of the Professional Women’s AFL, earlier this year.
“We have a really short window to sculpt football culture in a really interesting, inclusive and different way, free from all the baggage of the men’s league,” she says, clearly enthused.
By baggage, I assume Goring's referring to the sexism, racism and macho-ism prevalent in the AFL Men’s culture, but the fact that she doesn't spell that out suggests she's more interested in focusing on the opportunities of the women’s league than the problems in the men’s.
“The two cultures [women’s and men’s football] are very different,” she says.
I assume Goring has encountered similar "baggage" in her career as a musician, and she admits to having been made to feel “good at playing guitar ... for a girl”.
“The teachers try really hard to encourage more women to apply for the [Jazz and Improvisation] course,” she says, but whether for cultural factors or other reasons, it remains an uphill battle – and not just in the classroom.
“There have definitely been occasions when I have questioned my involvement in certain musical projects," she says. “Have I just been included so there’s a woman on stage?”
She thinks quotas may be a good way to begin achieving a more even balance of genders enrolling in music courses. “We may need to manufacture that sort of involvement for a while, in my opinion. That way we have role models for younger women, and gradually over time we’ll be able to solidify pathways for women into the music industry."
For Goring, this is more than lip service. She's the director of a Geelong-based girls music group called the Sweethearts Junior Academy (sister band to the 30-piece all female soul music group The Sweethearts, with whom she used to play), in which she leads girls aged from nine to 15 in musical rehearsal and performance.
“You know these kids are going to be shredding at gigs by the time they’re 18,” she says. “Usually it takes until you’re in your mid-twenties to get to that stage.”
While life sees Goring juggling her time between the Geelong Cats and, em, jazz cats, there are some handy cross-overs.
“Sometimes I’ll arrive at footy training after writing music at home, and I’ll spend the warm-up running in complete silence trying to think up some more lyrics," she says.
And then there are those times when she trains in Geelong on the weekend and “fangs it down the highway to play a gig at the Old Bar or the Tote, to get on stage still smelling like grass and sweat.”
"It's lucky those gigs are with a garage band and not an intimate jazz band – otherwise people might start to notice the smell."
She joined the University of Melbourne Football team, without being too noisy about it, while she was studying at the MCM. “At the time I was pretty quiet about it because the music teachers pretty much all discourage contact sports, because of the risk of injury to your hands, which affects your playing," she says.
“I did get a couple of jarred fingers but that was fine, I just pulled sickies after those and no-one noticed.”
With Goring at its helm, the Geelong Women’s VFL has just finished its bid for an AFL team in 2019. The announcement will be made later this month, and Goring is confident about their prospects. She's excited by the prospect of a professional career in football and doesn't see it as an impediment to her career as a musician. As with much in her life, it’s all about balance.
“I think part of the reason why I am captain is because I can see the bigger picture of football,” she said, “It’s not all about wins and losses, it’s about the community.”
“Irrespective of your gender, sexuality or ethnicity, we want to send the message out there that you can play footy at any level,” she said, “and there’s no reason why someone who doesn’t fit the black and white of gender binary can’t play the game at the same level.”
We begin packing up our things. "You know, I really didn’t expect we’d spend so much time talking about gender,” she says.
Though the focus of her leadership of the Cats, as for the Sweethearts Junior Academy, may not and should not be gender, there does seem to be a certain inevitability to this being a part of the role, while music and sporting cultures, as with society at large, have not yet reached a point of gender, or genderless, equality.
“I suppose I have started to think more broadly about what it means to be a female footballer,” she says.
The importance of tearing down roadblocks for musicians and sportsplayers alike means that people like Bec Goring, who are talented, zealous and gender-conscious, are invaluable spokespeople.
“I’ve got an awesome family and support network,” she says. “I’ve had a very privileged life so I may as well make the most of it.”
Banner image: Bec Goring at the MCG. Image by Sav Schulman.
Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007, Alethea Jones has won numerous festival awards for her short films. Ahead of the release of her debut Hollywood feature, Fun Mom Dinner, she explains where she’s at and what’s coming next.
By Paul Dalgarno
Hi Alethea, what’s your life like at the moment, ahead of the release of Fun Mom Dinner?
This week especially has been pretty hectic because I’ve been directing an episode of a TV show called American Woman that stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari and some other really brilliant actors. And they just had me come back for reshoots on other episodes that needed a little bit of help. I’ve also just started on a new feature film and I’m in the office tomorrow on that, and doing press all week for Fun Mom Dinner. It’s been very exciting.
What’s your elevator pitch for Fun Mom Dinner?
It’s a broad R-rated ensemble comedy about four mothers who assume the only thing they have in common is the fact their children go to pre-school together. They embark on a night-out with varying expectations of the evening, from not wanting to be there to perhaps wanting to be there a little bit too much. They find out there’s a lot more to each other than the roles of motherhood, and they just cut loose.
As an Australian filmmaker, did you notice the differences in sensibility working on an American script? Did you bring any Australian humour to it or did you just work off the script and shoot it as it was?
The script always tells you what it wants to be and how it wants to be expressed, and I nearly passed on this one. I rang my manager and said, ‘I don’t think I should be considered for this film, it’s not me, I’m not a mother, and it’s very broad and I make very specific kooky comedies'. He explained they were looking for someone to bring something unique to the film and that they wanted a first-time female director. He said, ‘Alethea you can wait forever for your first feature to come along or you can rip off the Band-Aid and prove to people that you can do it. These are really special people to work with, and they’re probably going to get a great cast.’ And so I did it, and I had the time of my life.
Where’s your heart – in TV or feature films?
I’m more drawn to features. I haven’t consciously gone for television, because I was really nervous about it. I think my style of filmmaking is gentle, and I wasn’t sure I was robust enough for television. But I’ve done a few TV things here in America, it’s been the most delightful experience – the crews here are a joy. So I’m actually very open to doing more television as it comes up, but I also have a few features on the back-burner that seem to be stacking up quite nicely.
And you’re Hollywood-based now?
Yeah, I live in Los Angeles, even though I never meant to pursue a career here. I never thought I was good enough. My short-film Lemonade Stand won Tropfest in 2012 and part of the prize was a trip to LA, all-expenses-paid, and the opportunity to meet with industry people. I didn’t feel ready but I went, and from that point on I got an agent over here. I visited for two years, back and forth, while I was directing commercials in Australia and teaching film at Swinburne and the VCA. Eventually my agent said, ‘You’re making great progress here, but we lose it all every time you go home for three months.’ I made the move with my two dogs and, as soon as I did, booked my first episode of television with Amazon Studios. That’s when it all started happening.
When you found out you’d won Tropfest did you have a sense of that being a real career-starter?
I was incredibly naïve and overwhelmed. But I think I was most excited when my first short When the Wind Changes got into the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator Program in 2010. I cried because no-one had wanted to produce or even edit that short. We had to beg the crew to take part, and we'd entered the film in MIFF by writing on the DVD with a marker pen. And then I got a letter saying, “You’re in Accelerator,” and I lost my shit. That was the game-changer for me.
What’s your next film?
I don’t know if I can say, but I think I can say I’ve just signed a development deal with Sony Pictures Studios and am developing one of their projects with them. If it’s greenlit I will direct it.
For Fun Mom Dinner, you mentioned they were looking for a woman director, the film stars four women, and the screenplay was written by a woman, Julie Rudd. Do you think there’s finally a sense of the tide turning, where we’re actually going to see more women’s stories told by women?
Yep, the tide is absolutely turning. I could sense it starting to happen about two years ago, but in this industry, like others, it takes time. A couple of years ago, when lots of articles were coming out about this issue, people were saying it was all hot air and that nothing was actually happening to really change things. But it takes a long time to get films green-lit. I’m so glad that I moved here two years ago. Back in Australia, when my shorts were winning awards and I was like, ‘I wanna work in TV,’ someone literally said to me, ‘It’s not your turn, you have to get in line’. And I thought, ‘Well, if I have to get in line, I may as well do that in America.’ I’m glad about that, because I’ve taken hundreds of meetings and many of those are coming to fruition now that I’ve proven I can do it.
I read somewhere that you’re interested in doing a musical at some point. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right, and in fact this studio deal with Sony has bunch of musical numbers in it. My ultimate musical would be a sort of old-school film like the Pajama Game. And I’m actually doing one like that next year in America, which is really exciting – it’s technicolour with a really kooky bent to it. I’m also developing a musical with Aquarius Pictures, with Polly Staniford, who I went to VCA with, and Angie Fielder.
As a director, is it the finished product that gets you noticed within the industry, or does that come from the process of actually making the film?
It’s 100% process. People just want to know that you can do it, that you’ve made a profit for the financiers, that you can work with big stars and not be phased by them, and that you can get good performances out of your actors. Fun Mom Dinner was shot in 19 days and the budget was extremely low. You can’t tell an audience that, but the producers and studios here in LA know what the numbers are and they all talk to each other to vet you. I booked an episode of Santa Clarita Diet starring Drew Barrymore. When I went in for my interview the show-runner said, ‘Drew’s looking forward to working with you,” and I’m like, ‘What? How?’. He goes, ‘Oh, she rang Toni Collette. We wouldn’t even be talking to you if you didn’t check out with Toni’. I was like, 'Wow, Jesus'.
Even if technical directing skills can be learned on the job, I’m guessing a director’s interpersonal skills have to be there at the outset?
Yeah, that’s right, and I’m really conflicted about that in relation to film school because we weren’t taught that. You’re trying to learn every part of the craft but there’s no room given for leadership and interpersonal skills – even learning how to send a succinct email that just gets to the point to busy people who get hundreds of emails every day. I would love to go back to the VCA and talk with students about that some time. But then I think about how much I just needed to focus on the technical side of film-making and I understand why we didn’t get to that part of things. Like most industries, if you’re starting out and you’re a jerk, you probably won’t get recommended for your next job.
Why did you choose to study at the VCA?
I went there for two reasons. I saw that Robert Luketic, who directed Legally Blonde, went there, and I loved that film. And I saw that Emma Freeman, who directed Lamb, went there too. Emma came in and spoke to us one time and she told us that she was the worst student in her class. I knew I was the worst person in my class, too, so that gave me hope that I would improve one day. The more mistakes you can make at film school, the better. I felt the same with Fun Mom Dinner. Watching it, I still cringe, from what we missed or shots that I wish were wider. It was an extraordinarily fast film to make and I had to compromise every step of the way. But now that I’m looking at doing a studio film I know exactly what mistakes I don’t want to make and how determined I am to avoid that nauseous feeling again. And that’s exactly how it was at the VCA – I made really bad shorts but was able to course-correct with the three short-films that I made out of film school.
You’ve mentioned you’d like to direct science fiction movies in the future?
Oh yes, I want to really muscle-up and direct tent-poles. I’d love to do science-fiction or a superhero movie. I saw Wonder Woman three times and bought the soundtrack – I loved it. And I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming – it was just so joy-filled and well-crafted. I love Guardians of the Galaxy, too. The people at Marvel are really special and I’d love to play in that universe. But, you know, one of my all-time favourite films is Contact. And I’d love to make something like that too – a grounded and human science-fiction with a big feel.
Would you like to shoot films in Australia?
Absolutely. I was poised to come back and do a film at the end of last year. We had the money but it just wasn’t the right cast. I’m dying to come back and make something really special and punchy. I’d like to bring a big film with American money to Australia. I know it might sound strange to Australians but I love making big commercial stuff because I like the entertainment factor – that’s what spoke to me as a little girl, that’s what made me happy. If I could bring one of those films back to Australia I’d be thrilled. Everyone would get paid well and I think it would be a treat to work with my Aussie friends again.
Fun Mom Dinner is at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 11 and 13 August. Full details.
Banner image: Alethea Jones. By Alex Vaughan.
Despite an initially unsuccessful application to the Victorian College of the Arts, Gabriel Hutchings persevered. Now a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student, he shares some of the joys and challenges of his filmmaking journey so far.
I knew the VCA was the right place for me when I came across the 2013 graduate screening trailer. It was set to this lovely melodic music and there were a bunch of images that jumped out at me, like a man sitting on a white horse in someone’s bedroom. In the last ten seconds the trailer takes a really dark turn and the music becomes abrasively distorted industrial percussion. I remember thinking, 'Any course that cuts their promotional material like that is for me'. Film should make you feel something. It should be compelling, not just pretty images.
The first year I applied for the course I didn’t get in. I’d spent a year travelling after high school and then started a film course in Perth, but I realised pretty soon that it wasn’t what I was looking for. I decided to move to Melbourne with the hope of getting into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) at VCA, but when I didn’t get in I ended up doing the VCA Foundations course instead. That year turned out to be super valuable: I met a lot of people that I still work with, did as much crewing as I could, and got some great on-set experience. I got into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) the second time.
Filmmaking is a challenge in almost every way. It takes a lot of people, time and resources to make a film and it’s a very personal and exposing process. But it’s also an incredibly collaborative and rewarding art form. All of the challenges along the way are what you learn from and how you develop.
One of the most rewarding parts of the course is seeing the films screened to an audience. You know the work and effort that has gone into all of them and often you are involved in many of the projects in various crew roles. It’s great to see what you and your classmates are capable of up on a screen in front of an audience.
I’m influenced a lot by music and images. The mood and textures of photographs can be great references for a visual medium like film. Inspiration comes from everywhere. For me it’s more about filtering it down and trying to distill my own style. It’s about discovering what will help me to tell the stories I’m interested in.
Over the past few years my focus has shifted from directing to cinematography. I’ll finish my degree at the end of this year, and moving into the industry I want to continue developing my knowledge shooting as much as I can. My goal is to be making a living shooting stories I’m passionate about with good people.
To anybody out there who wants to be a filmmaker I’d say: hustle and keep producing work. It can be frustrating seeing the divide between the work you like and what you’re able to create yourself but the more you do it the more that divide gradually closes. If you want to be a director, direct as much as you can on any level. If you want to be a cinematographer, shoot as much as you can. Along the way you learn a lot from the theory and study that feeds into your work, but the best way to get better at making film is by making films. Go out and do it.
As told to Sophie Duran
Lead image: Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student Gabriel Hutchings in the VCA Film and Television studios. Image by Sav Schulman.
Professor Felicity Baker is co-director the National Music Therapy Research Unit at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. This week she received word that her world-first study into the use of music therapy for people with dementia has been awarded a substantial government grant. Here, she explains what she hopes to achieve.
By Paul Dalgarno
Congratulations, Felicity. You’ve just secured what looks like a massive amount of money for a research project – $1,014,430.20 to be precise. What's the project?
The grant is from the National Health and Medical Research Council, or the NHMRC, and it was part of a special call for dementia-specific projects. The government has identified this as being an important area for our future. Music therapy has been practised in aged-care in Australia for a very long time – since I was a student, in fact. But there hasn’t been this kind of large-scale, systematic study of its use in dementia care anywhere in the world.
It's a three-year project – what will it cover?
It'll be a really major randomised control trial involving 500 participants from across the country. We'll get people living with dementia to participate in small group musical experiences, singing songs, talking about what they mean, that kind of thing. And then we'll compare it with participants taking part in choral singing, because that's something a community musician, as opposed to a therapist, could lead. We want to see if there's really any difference between those two approaches.
The people we’ll be working with will no longer be able to be look after themselves – they’ll be in aged-care facilities 24-hours a day, either because they're too unwell to stay home and look after themselves or their family carers are unable to look after them properly because the level of care they require is too great for the resources they have at hand. It'll be one of the biggest music therapy studies in history – and certainly in dementia. It'll be a game-changer, not just for us in Australia but globally.
What’s your gut-feeling on choir-singing versus music therapy in that context?
We have a bit of a hypothesis, because we’re looking at mid- to later-staged dementia. We suspect the choir approach will suit those who are higher-functioning and less progressed in their disease. They'll be able to independently have a conversation with the person sitting next to them about the song they’re singing. Whereas those who are more progressed in their disease will require much more focused, skilled support from a music therapist who knows how to connect with them, because that’s what they’re trained to do.
So, three years down the line, when you’ve done all the work for this, what value will it have?
From a political perspective it’ll be really important for us to show that having an intervention delivered by a trained music therapist is more effective in addressing the wellbeing of people with dementia. We’re also examining changes in the level of burden experienced by caregivers. Nurses can get very stressed when there are lots of people with dementia calling out, getting agitated, etcetera. It's a very stressful context. We're expecting that our intervention will help to calm those people with dementia down a bit and that this in turn will lead to reduced stress in staff. We'll be looking at the carers' wellbeing, number of days of sick-leave, the degree of work stress experienced, and more.
As a general approach, how does the relationship normally start up between a music therapist and someone with dementia?
Usually we start with music. One thing we know from previous research is that older people tend to remember, and have the most connection with, music from their late teens and early 20s, usually when they're dating and going out dancing, or in other important life events where music was present. We try to work out what their musical preferences were at that time and use those as a starting point. Often these are people who are losing their language abilities and may be struggling to communicate but, after hearing those pieces of music, they might start talking, saying, "Oh, I remember when I played that to my son," or whatever. The music stimulates those memories and with those memories comes language. If they’re in early-stage dementia, and more cognitively able, we might start with dialogue around their life and connection with music.
Do they then make their own music?
Yeah, they can. And in fact my special interest area is in using songwriting as a tool. One project I've been working on in a dementia daycare centre involves people with early-stage dementia creating songs. It was fascinating to hear the centre staff saying they'd never seen those people so animated. Groups of people would be having little arguments about whether someone was using the right word, or which words rhymed, in a way that was collaborative and clearly stimulating them intellectually. The other interesting thing is that these are people who are supposedly unable to learn and who are losing their memory would remember the lyrics of newly-created music from week to week. That was something new – we didn't expect that. It demonstrates that people living with dementia can learn. And that's because music has a unique ability to facilitate learning, even in people with declining cognitive function.
You’ve come through a career in which music therapy has gone from being a pioneering area ... I mean, it still is now, but it's developing pretty quickly into something more mainstream.
Yeah, and I would hope that one of the reasons we got the NHMRC grant is that someone is looking at music therapy and thinking there’s something there. It’s already got an emerging evidence base, and so I’m hoping it will become mainstream rather than kind of fringe. That would be ideal.
This new grant comes on the back of some other good news for you. Last month you won a World Federation of Music Therapy Award. What was that for?
It's awarded to a person who has made a significant contribution to the development of the discipline, and, in my case I think, that I've really brought songwriting to the forefront of music therapy practice and explored it in ways that haven't been tried before. I was chuffed to get it. They only started giving out these awards three years ago and they only happen every three years. I’m the second recipient, so I feel pretty special to have been nominated and then awarded it.
Take a punt. Five or ten years down the line, where would you put your own research and music therapy?
That’s a hard question. When I finished my training and became a music therapist back in 1992, I thought we’d be a lot further ahead than we actually are currently. But I think at the moment, at least with our team here, we have a lot of momentum. I really think research is going to be the key to our future expansion. The government wants to save money, not spend it, so we have to show we’re worth spending money on. In our discipline there's also debate over whether we should be going for the sort of medical model, evidence-based research or developing theory and focusing on individuals’ unique responses. In my view, we need both. Hopefully at some point those two sides will come together and then we can really move ahead. When I arrived at the MCM from Queensland four and a half years ago, we had just five people in our department, and now it's 11. The more people we have on our team the more work we can do to be better understand the role and impact music therapy can have on people's lives.
Professor Felicity Baker will be joined on her project team by Professor Christian Gold (Norway), Professor Hanne Mette Ridder (Denmark), Dr Jeanette Tamplin and Dr Imogen Clark, both from the MCM.
Main image: Hartwig HKD/Flickr
See also: Clearing the fog of dementia with song
Fresh from celebrating its 20th consecutive year in Fort Worth, Texas, the Mimir Chamber Music Festival returns to its second home at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from 28 August. The festival's founder and executive director, violinist Curt Thompson, reflects on Mimir's success and a life lived in music.
By Paul Dalgarno
Curt, Mimir is 20 years old this year. What were your ambitions for the festival when it started?
I had just turned 27 when we began preparations for the first Mimir. A classmate, pianist Johan Fröst, and I originally planned to start it in Sweden. But when I was offered a position at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas, we decided to launch it there.
I don’t think the concept of 20 years of anything was comprehensible to me back then. We knew early on that Mimir was special, and the concerts were always first-rate, but knowing how to actually run a festival took many years. I had always hoped it would have an international footing, but I never imagined it would span two hemispheres.
How has it evolved?
For the first two years, Mimir Texas lasted only one week, but it expanded to two during its third season. We’ve tried to maintain our core personnel over the years, which has been a huge advantage for us when it comes to putting repertoire together quickly while maintaining a very high standard.
From the professional musicians’ perspective, it’s probably the most challenging, and rewarding, two weeks of their year. With rapid-fire concerts – five different programs in 12 days – and intense coaching responsibilities, the Mimir crew has developed an extremely efficient rehearsal schedule. It’s exhilarating to be in the thick of that.
The festival's educational component has probably seen the most notable changes. Until five years ago, we selected 18 individual students for participation from across the US, Europe and Asia. Each was placed in two groups that received daily coaching.
Now we invite three pre-formed groups and present them in ticketed concerts. Each group is up and running the moment they land at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. So far, four Melbourne Conservatorium groups have gone to Texas, and each has had a wonderful and formative experience.
How does the Melbourne iteration of Mimir differ from the Texas version?
Mimir Texas takes place in the hot summertime, when most other music organisations are on holiday, so one noticeable difference in Melbourne, in addition to the winter temperature, is the amazing amount of activity going on in the city while the festival is running.
Melbourne has such a wonderful audience for chamber music, and we really love presenting performances for them. We have enjoyed an incredible reception from the Melbourne public and look forward to growing our audience each year.
The fact Mimir takes place during Melbourne's academic year also enables us to reach many more students there than we do in Texas. Six student quartets enrolled in the MCM's String Ensemble subject receive a number of intensive coaching sessions with guest artists.
The entire string cohort, the Chamber Music and Honours Performance Class subjects, and several secondary-school students from across Melbourne, also take part in the performances, masterclasses and demonstrations we present during the week.
Is some knowledge of chamber music necessary to enjoy the festival?
To be honest, some of our most enthusiastic supporters include those who had no prior familiarity with chamber music, and it's a rare privilege to expose them to this art form. Over the years, they have learned to trust us to present standards by Beethoven and Brahms alongside cutting-edge new works by vibrant young composers.
I like to say that chamber music is "Classical" music’s equivalent to jazz. While the notes are prescribed in the score, the inflection, nuance, pace and swells can be quite improvised. If one player curves a line in a particular way, for example, the next player has to immediately react, carrying on the conversation, so to speak, as we go. It’s one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, experiences one can have in music.
I think the theatrical aspect of chamber music, as if it were an on-stage musical discussion at the dinner table, translates to our audience.
Which performers and performances are you excited about in this year’s program?
Each concert offers a unique musical experience, so it’s difficult to pick out my favourite. I suppose highlights for me would be the Beethoven Op. 59, No. 1 string quartet in Concert One, the Vaughan Williams quintet featuring double bass in Concert Two, and Credo, a new work by Kevin Puts, in Concert Three. Each of the programs is carefully balanced to have a huge impact on audiences.
As for the performers, I love them all. I think one would be hard-pressed to find a better collection of performing artists in all of Melbourne during that week.
Mentorship is part of the Mimir program. Can you tell us a little about that?
From the outset in 1998, mentorship has been a central focus of Mimir. The process of training to become a professional musician includes hours upon hours of work with teachers, in the practice room and in ensembles. Mimir offers a unique experience in which, in a quartet setting, MCM students and others from around the city are engaged in intensive instruction that opens their ears and minds to the possibilities in this genre.
The equal emphasis on our public performances and the training of young musicians really sets Mimir apart from other festivals. The guest artists understand what mentors have done to help them achieve some of the most coveted positions in the world, and I think Mimir offers a means of paying that back for future generations.
Can you describe how you feel playing a great piece of music, and how you feel watching someone else performing at an elite level?
In general, I approach great music with a true sense of humility. The fact that some of these works were written so long ago and can still elicit strong responses in an audience is amazing to me. To engage with other performers in such an intimate and exciting way is really indescribable.
In the case of Mimir, some of my favourite moments are the rare opportunities to sit in the audience when I’m not playing in a particular piece, and to hear what this incredible group of musicians can create. Knowing I had a small part in putting them together to share this experience with a hall full of people is truly a privilege.
What advice would you give someone just starting out on their journey towards a life in music or music research?
A life in music is an incredibly enriching, challenging and endless pursuit. One must have dedication, devotion, discipline, determination and, perhaps most of all, humility. Equipped with these qualities, a life in music can be the most enriching experience.
What advice has held you in good stead throughout your career?
I learned early on that no matter how jagged or incongruent my life in music seemed to be at a given moment, with time and perspective I was able to look back on what then seemed to be a (nearly) perfectly straight line. My advice to anyone would be to listen to your instincts, take chances, never accept complacency in yourself, and just when you think it’s time to give up, commit to working harder.
How do you keep your passion for performance and teaching alive?
The chance to share this incredible art form and the traditions that were passed down to us over so many centuries and generations is something I hold to dearly. The fact that I can travel anywhere in the world to recreate masterpieces by Bach, Brahms and Beethoven is a treasure that drives me every day of my life, and is something I owe to the nearly 500 years of violinists, luthiers, and composers who have gone before me.
What’s to gain from living a musical life?
Those who choose a life in music – and pathways can be as varied as one’s imagination will allow – must be prepared for both unparalleled challenges and rewards. Plato, Aristotle and countless other great minds from antiquity realised the importance of music to individual development and to civilisation. We who dedicate our lives to music inherit the wealth of our forebears while carrying the torch for future generations.
Dr Curt Thompson is Associate Professor of Music (Violin) and Head of Strings at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
Banner image: Curt Thompson. By Albert Comper.
The Mimir Chamber Music Festival is at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from 28 August–3 September 2017. Full details.