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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Win a double pass to the opening night of L'Orfeo on Thursday 7 September. Email email@example.com 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.
Find out more about the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions
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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!
Find out more about the new Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre) and Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) at the Victorian College of the Arts
Find out more about graduate study at the VCA
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See also: How to program a Roland TB-303
Main image: Dan Zen/Flickr
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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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
Serkis continues to revolutionise screen performance using a motion captured avatar, conveying extraordinary emotional depth in the role. His success, often attributed to the mastery of animators and technicians, is testament to the rise of an entirely new approach to acting animals in an age of CGI, animation and motion capture.
Performance Capture (the total recording of a performance using a motion capture system) was first used in 2004. It is inherently theatrical, since a performance is filmed in its entirety - without multiple takes of a single scene. Actors wear suits with markers to help computers track their movements during the scene.
To perform as apes, Serkis and others are drawing on the techniques of method acting to emotionally connect with their simian characters. For Serkis, and Planet of the Apes movement choreographer and actor Terry Notary, this has meant going to extraordinary lengths to feel their way into their roles.
Serkis was led by Notary on all fours for hikes in the Canadian woods. They would spend two-hour stints not talking, only communicating as apes. The aim, says Notary, was to allow “the human conditioning to fall away”.
A brief history of monkey business on film
1968 was a big year for apes on film. Primates appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston, first aired. In Space Odyssey, actors such as John Ashley donned monkey suits and set about charting the early history of tool use in the celebrated opening sequence known as The Dawn of Man.
In Planet of the Apes, actors such as Maurice Evans and Roddy McDowall relied on monkey masks with furry hands and feet to convey their simian characters. Their bodies were clothed in remarkably human-looking outfits.
Fully costumed performances of primates in films continued until 1995, when Misty Rosas as Amy the Gorilla in Congo performed alongside “enhanced gorillas” running through the jungle at an extraordinary pace, complete with appendages to extend their front limbs.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a resurgence of cinematic apes, with a full reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, a couple of King Kongs, and more than one Tarzan. But the monkey suit has shifted from a furry outer layer to the modern motion capture suit as actors such as Ace Ruele in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and Notary (alongside Serkis and others) in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) transform how they perform - and we consume - monkeys on the screen.
Feeling like an Apeman (or woman)
With these new technologies, comes a revitalised interpretation of “The Method”. Primate actors are now exploring their performance by inhabiting and feeling “Ape”, and have developed their own “system” to perform as primates.
This system is built around the aspirations of Stanislavski - the father of method acting. It includes embodying the emotional state of the primate via practising regimented gait and walk cycles and using specific breathing techniques and even numbered approaches to gaze and smell. So, for instance, the scent of another primate in the distance would be given a number and a correlating pose, which ape actors would be instructed to adopt.
The Ape method includes a bespoke, non-verbal language used by actors to communicate with each other during filming. Aspiring actors can even take masterclasses with the likes of Notary, as seen in this video.
Serkis calls Notary (who also starred in Kong: Skull Island) “the greatest unsung hero of this entire [Planet of the Apes] franchise”.
Notary talks of “de-conditioning” to play an ape and finding each ape character’s “first position foundation” (a neutral non-human, pose). He says,
most of the actors that do play apes have told me that it’s been one of the most profound things they’ve done, because you have to be so honest with yourself.
He describes his own ape character, Rocket, as “that open, vulnerable, grounded, connected, feeling creature that I aspire to be all the time”.
As humans, our development of tools was made possible by our eventual rising to two feet, releasing our hands from the earth, Freed from holding objects (such as bones and babies) our hands and mouths could then perform other functions.
Our hands and minds now grasp vastly complicated objects, like virtual studios and motion capture systems, and use these to perfect the art of pretending to be monkeys. It’s a strange full circle – an origin story returning.
Banner image: Andy Serkis as Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes. Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment.
Faculty staff and alumni were well-represented among the winners at the 2017 Helpmann Awards.
By Sarah Hall
Seven staff and alumni from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music won Helpmann Awards on Monday evening, in the fields of theatre, dance, music and production.
The VCA’s recently-announced 2017 Keith & Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellow Leticia Cáceres won the Helpmann for Best Direction of a Play for Belvoir Theatre’s The Drover's Wife, for which alumnus Mark Coles Smith also won in the category of Best Male Actor. The Drover’s Wife additionally took the awards for Best Play and Best New Work (Leah Purcell).
“I’m really so happy this has happened, it’s amazing,” said Ms Cáceres on her win for The Drover's Wife, a reimagining of Henry Lawson's story of the same name. She described the Helpmanns, which recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in the arts in the live performance sector, as Australia’s equivalent to the Tony or Olivier awards.
“We never lost sight of why we wanted to tell this story the way we wanted to tell it,” she said. “To have had this recognition means not only that were we able to talk critically about the issues that were important to us, but that we did so in a way that was satisfying for audiences and critics alike. For me that is a massive achievement.”
Alumnus Barrie Kosky's Opera Saul scooped several awards, one of which went to Kosky for Best Direction of an Opera, and another of which went to the MCM’s Senior Lecturer in Early Music Dr Erin Helyard for Best Music Direction. Saul was financed by the South Australian government as the centrepiece to this year’s Adelaide Festival, following rave reviews from the UK’s Glyndebourne festival.
Alumna and Lecturer in Design at the VCA Anna Cordingley won Best Scenic Design for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Jasper Jones; alumna Anna O’Byrne won Best Female Actor in a Musical for My Fair Lady, produced by Opera Australia and John Frost; and alumna Lilian Steiner took home the award for Best Female Dancer in a Ballet, Dance or Physical Theatre Production for the Lucy Guerin Inc and Arts House’s production Split.
Head of VCA Theatre Associate Professor Matthew Delbridge said he was delighted with the continued success of staff and alumni from across the Faculty.
“Having representation from alumni across all areas of the performing arts is further proof of the ongoing legacy of our programs, the sustained excellence of our graduates, and our rightful position as the pre-eminent training institution in the country," he said.
Banner image: The Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Jasper Jones, for which VCA lecturer Anna Cordingley won a Helpmann Award for Best Scenic Design. Photo: Anisha Senaratne (LPA).
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Esther Marie Hayes sheds some light on the inspirations behind her costume design for Macbeth at Melbourne Theatre Company.
Costume designer Esther Marie Hayes didn’t study Shakespeare at school. However, throughout her early years as a costume designer, she has undergone a thorough education of the world’s most famous playwright. Macbeth marks Esther’s third Shakespearean play for Melbourne Theatre Company, working alongside the same creative team under the direction of Simon Phillips for both Richard III in 2010 and Hamlet in 2011.
Simon appointed Esther as a fresh-faced VCA graduate to design costumes for Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2009 play Rockabye. From there, the two developed a strong theatrical language and aesthetic that would inform their creative collaborations.
Esther’s costume design concept for Macbeth began with an analysis of how they contemporised their last Shakespearean works together. ‘All three are modern adaptations. Richard III was political, Hamlet was political and militaristic, and Macbeth is militaristic,’ Esther says. All three shows involve a considerable amount of blood, which for a costume designer, is bound to present logistical problems.
With a cast of 13 and numerous cast members playing multiple characters, Esther’s biggest concern was designing costumes that could accommodate all the necessary quick changes required to tell this multifaceted story.
Having grown up between Spokane and Melbourne in a multi-generational ‘military family,’ Esther was told stories about her Grandfather serving for his country from a young age. She then watched two uncles and three cousins move around the world as members of the United States Navy and Army. This family history helped to inspire the design of various soldier’s costumes, many of which have been repurposed from the military uniforms used in Esther’s costume design for Hamlet. ‘The soldier costumes are special to me, they feel close to home.’
Esther’s research started with her own family history, but delved into much deeper territory when she broke down the role of each character; modernising the narrative to bring it into the 21st century.
‘The set design was already completed, so I was responding to that initially, before looking at each individual character.’ She began researching the uniforms of various authorities in different parts of the world – the police force in Mexico and swat teams in France; army generals in the Middle East; humanitarian aid workers in war zones and first responders at terrorist attacks; as well as foot soldiers in small nations of Europe. She looked at the dress codes of French horse-riding teams, and the formal dinner garments of the King of Jordan and his wife. Regulation Army pyjamas in the United States and the balaclavas and bandanas on the heads of hate-crime groups and gangsters were also pinned to the inspiration costume board. Esther looked at crime dramas The Night Manager and Orphan Black for additional research.
When it came to the witches, high-end fashion was the focus. ‘We wanted them to look similar, but with individuality as well. We were looking at blacks, and layering to create those silhouettes. And we looked at how fashion has been interpreted by military dress, as well as that kilt look with the heavy boots,’ which Esther says only ties the play back to its Scottish roots. ‘It’s hard when we’ve created a world that’s very modern, to then also create that unearthly, spiritual image, which the witches represent.’
The inauguration clothes of American presidents and first ladies also made their way onto the board, along with Oscar worthy ball gowns. Alexander McQueen’s sheer, figure-hugging lines and surplus of sequins was the first port of call when it came to designing Lady Macbeth’s ceremonial gown.
Next to North by Northwest, Macbeth is the most labour intensive job Esther has designed. Her favourite part of the whole process, she says, is the ‘breaking down’ of the soldiers’ costumes, where the garments are dyed, sanded and washed in various rinses to make them look worn. ‘My favourite part is seeing this transformation. It’s hard work but it looks like magic.’
Other than watching unworn, hand-tailored uniforms turn into tattered ones, Esther loves collaborating with her peers in the creative process. ‘There are so many different people that you work with doing a production of this scale and every part counts.’
Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.
This article was originally published by MTC Backstage. View the original article.
Banner image: Lady Macbeth costume designs by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
The 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowships, worth $75,000, were awarded last night to four University of Melbourne graduates from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (VCA & MCM).
Awarded biennially to theatre, music and visual arts graduates, the Fellowships were established in 1994 by the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC DBE to enable young artists to travel and study overseas in the early stages of their careers.
Dame Murdoch’s granddaughter, Julie Kantor, presented the awards last night at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery on behalf of her grandmother, saying the Fellowships were created to help students become “artists of the world”.
“It seems to me, and certainly to my grandmother, that an essential feature of the artist at any stage in their career, is to find compelling means of creating a bridge between the private world of feeling and insight, and a public world that has an enormous need for inspiration and understanding,” Ms Kantor said.
“To understand this need and to refine one’s feeling and insight, my grandmother and grandfather believed that young artists need to be able to experience the world beyond the place of their study and residence.”
Dean of the VCA & MCM, Professor Barry Conyngham, said providing young artists with international travel opportunities was of benefit to Australian culture more broadly.
“Travel can provide emerging artists, musicians and performers with inspiration and connections that last well beyond the initial moment, and indeed continue to inform their creative development throughout their careers. As consumers of culture, we all stand to benefit from that,” he said.
The main $25,000 Prize for Visual Art, judged on the day by a panel comprising Acting Head of VCA Art Dr Kate Daw, multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Mangan and Director of Gertrude Contemporary Mark Feary, went to Trent Crawford, who graduated from the VCA in 2016, for his video installation work Liquidity.
Crawford’s work, along with the other shortlisted works for the visual art fellowship, will be on display at the 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship Exhibition in the Margaret Lawrence Gallery (40 Dodds St, Southbank) until 5 August 2017.
The 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship recipients are:
Trent Crawford, B. Fine Arts (Visual Art). Born 1995, Crawford lives and works in Melbourne. Interested in dissecting images and technology to explore them in a passive state, Crawford’s work focuses on entering the in-between moments in time where the subject or material exists in a state of lapse; often with its function usurped or absent. By disassembling, restructuring and repurposing new media, he calls to question how the framing devices of screens and filters are active in the construction, fragmentation and degeneration of the image. Award of $25,000.
Theatre (two recipients)
Leticia Cáceres, M.Dramatic Art (Direction). Cáceres has been lauded as one of the most exciting directing talents in the country. She was Associate Director at MTC from 2013 to 2015. She has also directed for Belvoir, La Mama, Queensland Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House, La Boîte Theatre/Brisbane Festival, Melbourne Arts Centre, and Brisbane Powerhouse. She is the co-founder of nationally-acclaimed RealTV. Award of $15,000
Eugyeene Teh, M. Production (Design). Teh has worked with mainstage companies, earning him Green Room Award nominations for both his debut works; Endgame at MTC and Meme Girls at Malthouse. Last year, he worked on Straight White Men (MTC), In Between Two (Sydney Festival with William Yang and Annette Shun Wah), Lady Eats Apple (Back to Back Theatre) and Blaque Showgirls (Malthouse). Award of $15,000.
Troy Rogan, B. Fine Arts (Contemporary Music) (Hons). Rogan is a Melbourne-based composer, orchestrator and cellist, who brings his passion for making meaningful, engaging music to each project. He draws his inspiration from the art of storytelling, with a fascination of the parallel that various musical languages can impart. Award of $20,000.
Banner image: Trent Crawford with his video installation work Liquidity. Photo: Sav Schulman.
What does it take to concentrate several seemingly-competing careers into one? Best ask concert pianist, theatre-maker and VCA Senior Lecturer Dr Zachary Dunbar.
On 8 May 2017, as part of the University of Melbourne's Dean's Lecture Series, Dean of the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Professor Barry Conyngham appeared in conversation with pianist, theatre-maker and VCA Senior Lecturer Dr Zachary Dunbar, to discuss Dr Dunbar's journey from concert pianist to theatre practitioner and academic.
Dr Dunbar reflected on the pros and cons of an interdisciplinary career, and particularly how music provides unique insights into actors, training, and the challenges of rehearsing and performing. The conversation was interspersed with a piano performance of works by the 19th-century romantic composer Franz Liszt, music that dramatises love’s conflicted interests – or possibly the realities of an interdisciplinary career.
Image: Paul Hoi/Flickr
On 23 May 2017, RN's Books and Arts aired a one-hour broadcast from the Victorian College of the Arts on what it's like to go to art school, to coincide with this year's ongoing ART150 celebrations.
Guests included: graduates Dannika Horvat, Linton Wilkinson, Nicholas Pearce and Louisa Wall, classical guitar student Louis Virgil Smith, Director of the VCA Professor Su Baker, Head of Music Theatre Margot Fenley, Music Theatre students Sian Crowe, Olivia Morison and Chloe Honig, and VCA Enterprise Professor and internationally-acclaimed visual artist Patricia Piccinini.
You can listen to the full broadcast here:
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Image: RN Books and Arts presenter Michael Cathcart with, left to right, Sian Crowe, Chloe Honig, Olivia Morison, and Chris Nolan on keys. Picture: Sue Thornton.
Musical theatre writers and composers will have a career-making opportunity to present their work at the ASCAP Musical Theatre workshop which includes an expert panel led by Broadway and Disney composer Stephen Schwartz, best known for composing Wicked.
An app that lets audience members experience Melbourne General Cemetery like never before? Victorian College of the Arts Lecturer in Theatre Robert Walton explains more.
By Robert Walton, Lecturer in Theatre (Acting) at the Victorian College of the Arts
Blurring documentary with fiction, Vanitas is a reflective thriller about life’s great mystery: death. Experienced through their own smartphone and decrypted through the secret language of flowers, each visitor will embark on a self-guided walk through Melbourne’s oldest modern cemetery. Alone.
Intrepid audience members will listen to the app as they wander towards a rendezvous at the centre of the cemetery. It’s a meditative experience that asks you to listen deeply and look closely at the world around you. In Vanitas, not everything is as it first appears.
A vanitas painting portrays collections of objects symbolic of the certainty of death. We were inspired by a painting from 1700 by Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch called Vase with Flowers (above). Ruysch’s floral vanitas depicts blooms just passing their best, on the cusp of wilting or being eaten by bugs. Her mysterious painting, like all vanitas pictures from that era, reminds us that all living things fade, and that our objects will outlive us and become the last traces of our daily lives.
In much of Australian culture, death remains taboo. For a variety of reasons, we are unable or unwilling to talk about it. In fact, we often go about our lives as if death is a fate that will not befall us personally. Australia also has the second highest uptake of smartphones in the world.
Hence, we have made a smartphone app as a vanitas for our own times. The interface itself is based on Ruysch’s painting with each flower representing an episode in the story. Like the flowers in the painting, you are drawn to some episodes first and then chance upon others along the way. The shift between guided and random order allows the audience to weave their own connections with the threads of narrative we present.
The story mixes documentary, autobiography and fiction and is told wholly through remixed audio fragments taken from interviews with a variety of experts on the themes of vanitas, flowers, life and death. We find out about the secret language of flowers, witness a cremation, and talk to botanists, historians and professionals from the death industry.
We are lucky to have Southern Melbourne Cemeteries Trust in our city; world leaders in forward thinking about the future of our cemeteries. Those we have worked with from the Trust's team have been great collaborators and have helped us to understand how death practices have evolved over the last century and how they might develop into the future.
What is clear is that Melbourne General Cemetery in Parkville is a place of extraordinary national importance. It is a haunting museum and art gallery of lives past, like the shadow of the city itself.
And, with 300,000 people buried there, it's certainly the biggest venue I have ever played. But the dead are what you’d call a captive audience. On the whole they are very well behaved bunch; they don’t give much back. They seem to be enjoying the show so far, yet we live in constant fear of a standing ovation.
The audience on the weekend can expect a meditative experience exploring themes of death and transience. Ticket holders can arrive any time between 10am and 4pm on their chosen day.
Audience members will be asked to come with a fully-charged smartphone (Apple or Android) with an Australian mobile number, email address, access to the internet (there is no WiFi in the cemetery) and headphones. Once booked, they will be sent an email with information on how to download the Vanitas app before coming to the cemetery.
Vanitas was commissioned as part of In Your Hands – a new series of artworks and installations that invite audiences to create experiences mediated through hand-held technology – by Arts House through the Australia Council’s New Digital Theatre Initiative. Tickets are available from Arts House. Admission: $10
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Find out more about Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts.
Banner image: Jason Maling and Robert Walton.
Third-year Victorian College of the Arts student Alex Rothnie took a circuitous route into Production. His highlight so far? Working as a set designer on the VCA’s upcoming production of Mother Courage and Her Children.
Interview by Susanna Ling
My pathway to studying Production at the VCA wasn’t a straight one. For two years I had been working as a set designer/maker and theatre technician at my old high school while I was studying a Bachelor of Environments at university, but I always found my work far more engaging, enjoyable and rewarding than my studies. After years of encouragement and persistence from my boss, I finally decided to change direction. I’m now studying something that really interests me and makes me happy.
I feel a sense of infinite possibility at the VCA. For me there is no typical day – that’s what makes it so engaging. My days range from exhausting shifts in the workshop, repetitive sessions of model-making, stressful moments of costume construction, inspired moments of design, and long days of meetings. But that’s what makes this course so rewarding: every imaginable door is open to us, leaving us to explore our true interests.
I strive to create encapsulating, interactive worlds for performers and audience members. As a set designer, I often find myself most inspired by installation artists. It’s a powerful and exciting thing to see artists transform previously mundane spaces – say, a room or a road – into one giant piece of art, a pure visual display of expression.
Some of the challenges we face as designer/makers are also some of the greatest points of inspiration. We’re constantly in a game of tug-o-war with someone or something, forcing us to come up with creative solutions to realise our vision. It might be a miniscule budget, or spatial issues that come with a specific venue, or a design deadline that’s creeping up faster and faster. Trying to overcome the specific limitations and challenges posed by each show can open you up to ideas you’d never considered.
I’m currently living out my university highlight, designing the set and props for the VCA’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Theatre design is my true passion and to be given the opportunity to work on such a big show is a real blessing.
Through working on numerous VCA productions I’ve learned hands-on how a show operates and how my role – or indeed, roles – fits within it. I’ve found that sometimes, as a designer, my hands are tied quite as tightly. One thing the VCA has developed in me is an ability to problem-solve and think outside the box. Delving into this piece and trying to create a world with such a creative team of people is incredibly inspiring.
I’ve learned that you have to soak up as much information and experience as you possibly can. Theatre is such a collaborative experience, encompassing different people and disciplines and skill-sets. No-one will expect you to be an expert on everything, but the more you learn, the broader your sense of theatre and collaboration will become. I think that’s the key to becoming a better practitioner – being able to draw from a far larger, deeper pool of knowledge.
Our 2017 Brecht Season runs from 5–11 May at both the Southbank and Parkville campuses. Visit the Brecht Season event page for more information.
Image: Alex Rothnie with his set model for Mother Courage and Her Children. Photograph: Sav Schulman, 2017.
Want to learn more about the Bachelor of Fine Arts? Join us at Focus on Fine Art
What: Hear from academics, current students and alumni about what you'll learn and the world class opportunities on offer
When: Tuesday 20 June, 6.30–8.30pm
Registrations essential. Register now.
Aspiring actors and theatre-makers will be offered two new degrees by the Victorian College of the Arts from 2018.
The Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) and Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre) will replace the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre Practice), providing more thorough and streamlined training in each discipline.
Head of Theatre at the VCA Associate Professor Matt Delbridge said the courses will nurture a new generation of culturally-aware, internationally-focused actors and theatre makers, preparing them for 21st-century careers in the Asia Pacific region across a wide range of stage and screen contexts.
Delbridge, who took up his position as Head of VCA Theatre in 2016, said the new degrees offer a more nuanced, strategic and pragmatic version of the Theatre Practice degree.
“The current degree has aspired to prepare actors for the demands of the screen, main stage productions, and the generation of new work,” he said. “That’s an admirable goal and aspiration, but if we give more time, energy and resources to these two ideas separately, we’ll make much better theatre-makers and much better actors.”
The Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre) will train theatre artists to work across all areas of live performance, including physical theatre, writing, directing and dramaturgy. Third-year students will also have the opportunity to practise in a travelling studio overseas.
“We have really increased the amount of time and resources poured into theatre making” said Delbridge. “It will be the first Theatre course of this type in the conservatoire sector in Australia, and it will be taught by leading practitioners in the field.”
The Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) will prepare actors for work across all areas of the profession for stage and screen, including animation and gaming.
“Acting is something the VCA has been doing for a very long time and our graduates have had a lot of success,” said Delbridge. “But now, with an invigorated staffing profile and a stronger emphasis on performance for screen, animation and gaming, we are taking a major leap forward. It’s about 21st-Century preparedness.”
New teaching appointments to VCA Theatre include I Putu Budiawan, Senior Lecturer (Acting); Leith McPherson, Senior Lecturer (Voice and Movement); Lyndall Grant, Tutor (Stage Combat); Steph Kehoe, Tutor (Theatre Making); and Chris Kohn, Tutor (Directing).
Ongoing staff in new positions include Sapidah Kian (Lecturer (Acting, Directing), and Rinske Ginsberg, Lecturer (Movement and the Actor's Body).
Image: VCA Acting Company 2016 in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Lachlan Woods.
Want to learn more about the Bachelor of Fine Arts? Join us at Focus on Fine Art
What: Hear from academics, current students and alumni about what you'll learn and the world class opportunities on offer
When: Tuesday 20 June, 6.30–8.30pm
Registrations essential. Register now.
By Alix Bromley
What does the word half-caste mean for people born of two cultures? What are its implications on individuals and communities?
Mariaa Randall, a Bundjalung woman from the far north coast of NSW, decided at a young age that dance was the thing she was going to do. She recently finished her Master of Animateuring at the Victorian College of the Arts.
Her dance work HA LF dares to take a closer look at the progression of Aboriginal identity and challenges the thinking that perpetuates racial segregation.
“I need to have really strong intention as to why I’m dancing.”
HA LF is Mariaa’s story, as told by Eddie Diamandi, a filmmaking graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts.
The project saw VCA film and television graduates team up with artists who have received support through the VicArts Grants program to make short documentaries that go behind the scenes with artists and give an insight into their creative process.
Each week we’ll release a new film in the series in partnership with Lido Cinemas who will be showing the films on the big screen ahead of all evening screenings throughout November and into the summer period.
Watch more in the Generator series: Video: A graphic way to tell the story of tsunami.
Alice Darling – Master of Directing for Performance
“At the end of the day I feel so excited to do the work that I do, and it’s a real privilege to get to be the person that watches the work and shapes it. And if I get to do that for my life, or just a little bit longer, that’s amazing.”
Theatre director and alumna Alice Darling talks about her time as co-director of Kindness – the culmination of three years’ creative partnership with fellow theatre alumni Kate Shearman and Bridget Mackey.
Kindness debuted at Theatre Works in 2015 as part of Flight: Festival of New Writing, a new initiative in partnership with the VCA and Footscray Community Arts Centre to showcase the work of VCA theatre graduates.
Find out more about Graduate Study in Theatre at the VCA.
Visit the In The Making website for more alumni artist stories.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
Darren Vizer – Master of Dance
“For me, the decision to become a director and a choreographer… I had no choice. There was no choice. That was the reason I went back to the arts.”
The Devize Co artistic director, Artist in Residence at La Mama Theatre, and guest choreographer at VCA talks about his return to graduate study and how he applies his acting background to his dance and choreography practice.
Visit the In The Making website for more alumni artist stories.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
Led by Margot Fenley, five music theatre students experienced the music theatre scene in New York and had an opportunity to engage in masterclasses with some of the best in the business as part of the Faculty’s Global Atelier program. Global Atelier is made possible with the support of the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
The University of Melbourne has been ranked as number one in Australia for Performing Arts in the recently-released QS World University Rankings.
From a placement in the unspecified 51-100 range in last year’s rankings, the University’s Performing Arts has climbed to number 26 globally.
The QS rankings, produced annually by Quacquarelli Symonds, are designed to offer prospective students effective comparisons of leading universities.
The rankings boost comes as the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music – as the main home of performing arts at the University of Melbourne – continues with an ambitious development program to better serve its students and staff.
Capital development approaching $200 million is currently underway at the Faculty’s Southbank campus, including construction of the new Ian Potter Southbank Centre, a world-class conservatorium due for completion in 2018, the refurbishment of the former Police Stables complex on Dodds Street as a new visual arts wing, also due for completion in 2018, and the Buxton Contemporary gallery, which will open in late 2017.
A number of high-profile national and international staff have recently joined the Faculty, which has also seen a growth in international student numbers, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region.
Greater arts industry links have been forged through initiatives such as the recently-announced, two-year Master of Music (Orchestral Performance) in collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which will offer the first qualification of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region.
Dean of the Faculty of VCA & MCM Professor Barry Conyngham said the results were testament to the high levels of commitment, ambition and focus at the Faculty.
“Naturally, as the primary home to the performing arts at the University of Melbourne, we’re delighted with the new QS figures. For some time now, we have been driven by a collective effort to build upon what was already a world-class offering across a wide range of performing arts to students and staff. That effort continues, and will lead, we hope, to ever greater recognition for the quality of programs we offer and a richer performing arts landscape in Australia and overseas.”
Indigenous Australian singer and songwriter Kutcha Edwards has been awarded the Faculty of VCA & MCM’s inaugural Distinguished Musicians Fellowship Award at the 2016 Melbourne Prize for Music awards ceremony held in Melbourne last night.
The Fellowship provides the winner with a commercial engagement with the Faculty to the value of $20,000 to teach, lecture or hold concerts. The winner was selected by the Melbourne Prize 2016 judging panel from the winners and finalists of the four main prize categories.
Edwards, a Mutti Mutti man, was also the recipient of the 2016 Melbourne Prize for Music, valued at $60,000, awarded to a Victorian musician whose work has “made an outstanding contribution to Australian music and has enriched cultural and public life”.
“I honour all musicians that have given me the insight into my responsibility as a singer and songwriter,” said Edwards as he accepted the Fellowship. “My job is to pass on what I know in this game that we play called music, and I’ll endeavour to do that until my very last day.”
Professor Barry Conyngham, Dean of the Faculty of VCA & MCM, was delighted to present the award to Edwards.
“To be able to offer a fellowship to someone who we believe can contribute to the education of our up and coming musicians is a great opportunity for the Conservatorium,” said Professor Conyngham. “I thank the Melbourne Prize board for selecting someone who we all believe can develop, increase and enhance the activities they will be involved in over the coming years.”
Tw Faculty alumni were also award winners on the night. Composer Kate Neal (BMusPerf 1996) was awarded the inaugural Beleura Award for Composition 2016, worth $25,000, which recognises a composition of outstanding musicianship, skill and creativity.
Matthias Schack-Arnott (BMusPerf 2011) received the $16,000 Development Award, awarded to an emerging musician, aged 30 years and under, who demontrates outstanding musical talent early in their career.
Visit the Melbourne Prize for music website for more information about the 2016 awards and winners.
Banner image: Kutcha Edwards. Image supplied.
Associate Professor Matthew Delbridge knows the history of theatre but has his eyes firmly fixed on the future
I have a great love and respect for actors but acting was never something that transpired for me. In the 90s I fell into working with Gilgul Theatre Company in Melbourne, after stepping in last-minute to operate the lights for one of their shows. As soon as the theatre machine was revealed I fell in love with that whole other side of things. I was the stage manager with Gilgul for six or seven years after that.
Theatre is in our DNA. I think it probably began when we were sitting in caves looking at shadows projected on the wall and listening to each other tell stories. It’s part of who and what we are. The same goes for film and TV – it’s more than escapism; it’s about what we’re attracted to and how we fundamentally connect with each other.
Motion capture fascinates me, both in research and practice. We’re very good at protecting the image and voice of people, we can copyright that, but we haven’t got our heads around how we protect movement. That’s going to be the next thing that happens. You look at a whole bunch of videogame credits and you won’t actually see all of the performers who’ve created the moves at the centre of the game. It’s the primacy of an individual’s being that’s being captured; it’s like capturing someone’s aura. Philosophically, that’s interesting.
Sadly, I’m not able to suspend my disbelief when I go to see most theatre or film. I can’t even play videogames because it all just collapses into how it was made. But I can disappear quite easily into big-budget Broadway musicals or anything by Romeo Castellucci.
In 1992 I started working as the Assistant Orchestra Manager (Technical) at the State Orchestra of Victoria, which basically meant I set up all the equipment in the pit, moving harpsichords, harps and timpani around the Arts Centre. I watched the Australian Opera, State Opera of Victoria, and the Australian Ballet, eight shows a week for a few years, just setting up various orchestral configurations in the pit and offstage.
Theatre has a history of dropping, picking up, letting go, rediscovering. When we talk about theatre programs and how to prepare graduates for the sort of infrastructures they’ll find, history can teach us where we have arrived based on where we began.
I did a double degree in drama and dance at Rusden, and initially chose the dance part, if I’m honest, for the girls. Learning about movement teaches you a lot about space and motion and your own limitations. I think every performing arts student should be doing dance classes to develop mental and physical discipline – it actually makes you really useful in a whole bunch of ways.
I live in a regional city in Victoria on purpose so that I have a place to go outside of the VCA and Melbourne’s theatre scene. I disappear into family life with my two young children and my partner: meal plans and bike rides and kicking the soccer ball – that’s my escape.
I’ve worked as a stage designer for many years with a company called Split Britches – Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. Peggy’s in her mid-seventies and I think Lois is nearly 70 and they’re still putting on great work. Peggy is a stroke survivor so in terms of stage design, I’ve had to start coming up with environments that enable them to perform. So you have this boy from Echuca who used to work on paddle steamers working with a famous feminist lesbian theatre company from New York. To me, that’s still amazing.
We have an obligation to the students who study theatre but also to the profession at large. The sorts of stories that are going to be told five or ten years into the future will be stories about people for whom gender is less defined, stories about displaced populations, stories about wars in hot deserts, stories about our own history and future in Australia and Asia. We need to make sure there are the people available to tell and perform those stories.
Wagner is very well-known across the world for his music, but he was actually one of the greatest theatrical minds we’ve ever had. His theatre in Bayreuth had a double proscenium, introduced to magnify the human form. He didn’t have his band in a pit; he had them up in the gods above the stage, so that we’d have this sort of celestial view where people were amplified on stage.
I’ve got a new research project called Monkey Business, which is actually about this new industry that’s emerging for people who play monkeys on the screen using Motion Capture – well, they’re apes really, but Ape Business doesn’t have the same ring to it. Actors who play apes have a whole series of poses that they do, and their own emerging language about playing them.
The most fulfilling aspect of my job, without falling into cliché, is seeing the students succeed, seeing the staff do well, capitalising on the extraordinary opportunities that being part of the University of Melbourne and the VCA affords. I’ve been gifted with so many opportunities in my life and being here just feels like the latest in that list.
– As told to Paul Dalgarno
Banner image: eltpics/Flickr
Visit the Faculty of VCA & MCM Theatre page.
Associate Professor Nisha Sajnani, from CATRU partner Lesley University, argues for the role of arts therapy in the refugee crisis
The following is an edited extract of Dr Nisha Sajnani’s speech, Arts, identity, and healing in the context of the refugee crisis, at the launch of the University of Melbourne’s Creative Arts Therapy Research Unit (CATRU) on 4 August, 2016. You can also read an interview with Dr Sajnani.
In the context of humanitarian crises, “is art just a frivolous distraction, or can it be used to heal and unify?” That was a question asked by our colleagues at the British Council of the Arts. I think the answer is “both” – although I wouldn’t say “frivolous”.
Making art in all its forms can provide a necessary distraction from the travails of everyday life. But it can also reduce anxiety, break isolation, and challenge the status-quo. The arts therapies involve the intentional use of artistic practices such as drama and theatre, dance and movement, music, writing, and visual art to reduce distress and promote health and wellness in a variety of contexts.
This topic is meaningful to me as the daughter of parents who sought refuge in India, and later emigrated to Malaysia and Canada following the Partition of India, Pakistan and West Bengal.
I found a place to express my voice in the theatre. Each role I played offered new insights and embodied new possibilities. Ensembles that I was a part of or directed offered an experience of belonging.
Themes relating to identity, migration, violence, place, beauty, ethics, and memory are threaded throughout my artistic and written scholarship.
Let's start with some background information on displacement and its effects and then provide a framework and examples of research on the arts and arts therapies with refugees. Many of these examples and more may be found online through a network I host on the arts and displacement.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are more than 65.3 million forcibly displaced men, women, and children. We are surrounded by images and headlines that reveal contradictory narratives about who has been affected and about how host communities should respond.Dominant narratives tend to reduce public discussion about displacement to the current humanitarian crisis.
Refugees are often cast as burdensome threats to national identity and economy or vulnerable victims in need of intervention.
This binary formulation dismisses the complexities of what it means to be displaced and what it means to belong. It also neglects internally-displaced persons who have struggled to assert their rights over generations before this current crisis, and reveals an empathic deficit in the conversation and a need for shared responsibility.
So what is displacement? And who is a refugee?
The following definitions, taken from the UNHCR, may offer clarification:
An asylum seeker is a person who has fled from his or her country and seeks legal and physical protection (asylum) as a refugee in another country.
A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.
Persecution occurs when human rights violations or threats are sustained or systematic, and governments either fail to protect, or in some cases actively participate in the violations.
An Internally Displaced Person (IDPs) has not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, IDPs are on the run at home. While they may have fled for similar reasons, IDP’s stay within the borders of their lands and remain under the protection of their government even if that government is the reason for their displacement.
As a result, they are among the most vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Using this definition, many Indigenous groups would fall under this category.
Migrants often choose to improve their lives by finding work, opportunities for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Of course, their choice to move may be motivated by disparities in their home countries.
Immigrants are defined by their choice to settle in the country that they move to.
Of course, with all of those definitions, it is important not to lose sight of intersectionality. Refugees, for example, are never just one thing. They are not a monolithic group but also consist of caregivers, adolescents, older adults, children, skilled professionals, people of differing abilities, artists, people with different gender identities, faiths, sexual orientations, and social status, etc.
THE IMPACT OF DISPLACEMENT
The experience of being dislocated from or within one’s homeland will differ depending on many factors, such as the nature and duration of suffering, the relationship to the perpetrators of violence, the presence of preceding traumatic events, and their experience post trauma.
Time also has an impact over how the experience of displacement and resettlement is expressed over generations.
In the case of asylum seekers, the ways in which people are treated upon arrival will affect their attitude towards their host counties and trust in the institutions and people around them. Other social and economic factors that influence matters include the presence of support before, during and/or after the event(s), and the visa status individuals are granted.
The Refugee Health Service (RHS) of New South Wales has put together an excellent resourcedetailing the persecution faced by displaced persons in their home countries while seeking safety in exile, and as they encounter host communities.
Here are some highlights from the RHS’s 2004 publication Working with Refugees: A Guide for Social Workers:
Their education and careers will have been disrupted.
Many will have experienced or witnessed torture and/or a denial of their human rights to self-determination, work, movement, education, property, leisure, and/or cultural expression.
Many will have left without opportunity to say goodbye to loved-ones or pack their belongings.
Some will have lost family members and friends in the search for safety.
Life in refugee camps is often overcrowded, with food shortages, poor medical care and few opportunities for education, religious practice, or work.
Sexual assault and other forms of gender based violence is endemic in many camps.
Refugees who spend time in detention have twice the risk of depression and three times the risk of traumatic stress compared to refugees who do not. Those with temporary protection visas have seven times the risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder compared to refugees with permanent protection visas.
Many are at increased risk of experience isolation as a result of not knowing the language or cultural norms of host countries and as a result of the traumatic event(s) themselves.
It is also critical to examine the impact of displacement on first-responders, caregivers, and host communities. When presented with the enormity of this crisis, it is only natural that each one will be affected. I have heard this referred to as a moral crisis; a period of reckoning in which we come to question our own sense of stability, safety, and responsibility to each other.
RECOVERY THROUGH THE ARTS AND ARTS THERAPIES
I will use the H5 Model of Trauma and Recovery developed by the HPRT as a framework to present research on the use of the arts therapies with refugees, caregivers, and host communities. This framework highlights five overlapping dimensions essential to trauma recovery from studies of refugee populations.
These include attention to humiliation, health promotion, habitat and housing, healing (self-care), and human rights. At the centre of these overlapping dimensions is the trauma story.
First, a word about recovery. Recovery may not seem like an appropriate word in that the experience of loss is paramount for someone who is forcibly displaced. One cannot always regain what is gone or repair what is broken.
I use recovery here to signify the process of developing a new relationship to one’s own person, to other people, to place, and to purpose. Central to this process is the experience of transitioning between the known and unknown, between isolation and social support, and between despair and hope.
Trauma stories, in the words of HPRT director Richard Mollica, “are stories told by survivor patients of distressing and painful personal and social events. Sharing these stories serves a dual function not only of healing the survivor but also of teaching and guiding the listener – and, by extension, society – in healing and survival”.
Arts therapists offer a means of symbolic communication to enable a person or group to access their stories safely. As one art therapist put it, “when trauma happens, children draw”.
The use of art and imaginative play can give people who have experienced unspeakable events an avenue for expression. From a neurobiological perspective, non-verbal approaches can be particularly effective as the capacity to connect feelings with language often compromised by trauma. In another project led by Dr. Rachel Cohen, weaving and textiles are used to support survivors in weaving together a sense of meaning.
Sometimes, myths and fictional stories help us make sense of terrifying events like this comic book created by Svang Tor and Dr. Richard Mollica to help survivors and descendants communicate the circumstances of living under the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Nairobi-born London-raised poet, Warsan Shire, found expression through writing and poetry. She captures the experience of being a refugee in the first few lines of her poem:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Of course, it is important to remember that these aren’t the only stories people carry. As one man reminded me in a project in which the oral histories of survivors of genocide were transformed into performance, “people are not their trauma”, and spaces to share irreverent, humorous, hopeful stories were just as important to share as stories about fear and loss for, in his words, such stories gave him the “strength to endure.”(Sajnani, 2011).
It is also important to remember that silence and a return to tradition may be valued over disclosure in some cultures (Rousseau and Measham cited in Kirmayer et al. 2007).
Caregivers and first-responders also use the arts to give expression to suffering. Such was the case with Martin, a music therapist pictured here with a small lifeless child who remains unidentified.
He said: "I began to sing to comfort myself and to give some kind of expression to this incomprehensible, heart-rending moment. Just six hours ago this child was alive."
Humiliation is the result of violent acts as perpetrators of systemic and interpersonal harm communicate to their victims that they are worthless. Quoting Mollica again:
“Humiliation leads to a total loss of self-respect and can have major impacts on a refugee’s personal and social behaviour, being associated with learned helplessness, leading to a lack of self-efficacy. Often, the state of humiliation is re-created in the camp environment when individuals are not allowed to work, grow food, or make money.”
It is so important for each of us to feel like we have value. Strategies involving refugees with agricultural, culinary, medical, or architectural skills, for example, can remind us that people are more than their legal status.
Initiatives such as the Ownership Project and the Refugee Art Project bring the artwork made by refugees to wider audiences in ways that serve to counter isolation, educate the public, and support the transition from the identify of refugee to that of artist.
Recovering cultural forms that were suppressed during collective violence is one way to assert one’s right to belong in the world. Bringing artists into an exchange with host communities – such as the Somali community in the USA through the Midnimo project or through the Here and Away photo voice project in Canada – can also help to reduce stigma and facilitate relationships based on collaboration, understanding, and mutual respect.
Human rights, as an area, are often overlooked in therapy but are critical as all forms of violence violate a person’s human rights. The right to have past and present experiences of violations recorded and acknowledged is necessary to the pursuit of justice. Justice is a part of healing.
Also implicit in a human rights approach is cultural safety, a term I recently heard used by Richard Frankland, director of the University of Melbourne’s Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development.
For example, an art therapy project led by Dr. Savneet Talwar and Sophie Canadé in the USA took the form of a knitting group for women who survived ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War. Knitting is a culturally embedded form of expression for this group.
In this case and in many instances, this work necessitates translation so that people are able to speak in their chosen language.
Research demonstrates that people who experience adverse events are more likely to die younger, develop chronic illnesses and serious social disabilities.
“Trauma survivors have poorer behavioral health, smoke more, use alcohol and drugs more, exercise less and have poorer eating habits resulting in obesity and the metabolic syndrome. All are risk factors for the development of chronic disease. In other words, trauma generates chronic disease through direct effects and indirect effects through mental illness (PTSD & Depression) and impaired lifestyle” (Mollica, 2014).
The use of puppets, performances, and visual art have been used in refugee camps to raise awareness about health and safety.
HABITAT AND HOUSING
The HPRT uses the word habitat to communicate the totality of the healing environment that is occupied by refugees and traumatised communities. Several groups are exploring the therapeutic use of gardening and camp design to confer a sense of dignity to an often chaotic environment.
Through my work with the HPRT, I have been examining how caregivers cultivate and endeavor to create healing environments.
In a recent project, Mapping Home: A Global Crisis of Place, I co-curated a selection of photographs from 507 first responders and resettlement specialists who were invited to submit a photograph of what constitutes a healing environment for them as they engage in the work that they do.
More than 65% of the photographs depicted scenes from nature which, to me, highlights our responsibilities to sustain that which sustains us. Climate change and displacement are interrelated issues.
Finally, healing, in this context, refers to overall psychological, physical, spiritual, economic, and social health. Our self-healing resources are activated when injured and our neurobiological processes enhanced when reinforced by social support, altruism, work, humour, exercise, and spirituality.
Per the H5 model, “one of the first steps of a traumatised person’s recovery, whether child or adult, is to break his or her social isolation by acknowledging that the forces of self-healing are at work and will ultimately lead to a good outcome, including the return to normal life.
"In this regard, helpers are essential because they can use their empathic skills to reinforce this therapeutic optimism in survivors” (Mollica, 2014).
Here the arts and arts therapies may be particularly useful as a way of promoting a perspective on trauma as a source of powerful transformation and growth.
Dr. Cecile Rousseau and drama therapy colleagues from the Transcultural Psychiatry Institute and the children’s hospital conducted a study using Playback Theatre to support the adjustment of newly arrived adolescents in public schools.
They found that using the structure of this non-scripted theatrical approach “provided a safe environment for expression while not forcing it, allowing children to relate their experiences indirectly through the use of metaphor” and that hope and empowerment arose from the “recognition that learning and growth can come from enduring suffering, witnessing the suffering of others, and experiencing solidarity” (Rousseau and Measham, 2007).
Hillary Rubesin (and colleagues), a current doctoral student who I supervise, drew similar conclusions in a study examining the potential of art therapy with Burmese adolescents resettling in the USA.
THE NEED FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
From a skill-base that integrates intra and interpersonal care with a nuanced understanding of creative expression and aesthetic reception, arts therapists provide useful insights into how art can support healing in the aftermath of collective violence, especially when practised from within a human rights framework.
Attention to the overlapping facets of the H5 model means that therapy (which is often stigmatised and/or seen as a luxury) does not always look the way one might expect.
We need to continue to develop an evidence base for how the arts therapies are specifically making a difference in the lives of those who are displaced, those who care with and for them, and for host communities.
I look forward to advancing our understanding through the programs that I oversee at Lesley University and through our collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s newly-launched Creative Arts Therapies Research Unit.
Dr. Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-BCT is as Associate Professor; Program Director, Global Interdisciplinary Studies; Coordinator, Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Drama Therapy program; and Advisor, Expressive Therapies PhD program at Lesley University. She is also on faculty with New York University where she teaches Arts Based Research and with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.
Banner image: Aparna Sindhoor and Teestri Duniya Theatre/ Montreal Life Stories Project
Visiting academic Associate Professor Nisha Sajnani presents work on arts therapy in a refugee context to officially launch CATRU
Associate Professor Nisha Sajnani is an Expressive Therapy academic and Drama Therapy Program Advisor at Lesley University in Boston, one of the international partners for the University of Melbourne’s new Creative Arts Therapy Research Unit (CATRU). Her presentation in Melbourne on 4 August, Arts, identity, and healing in the context of the refugee crisis, will officially launch the Unit.
How would you describe drama therapy to the uninitiated?
Drama therapy is an approach to psychotherapy that involves the intentional use of dramatic improvisation and performance to achieve therapeutic goals. Drama therapists are mental health professionals who have significant experience and training in traditional and applied theatre as well as a rigorous understanding of human development, counselling, and psychology.
I got into drama therapy because I personally benefitted from the sense of community that I experienced in my theatre classes during my undergraduate university training. I also saw, firsthand, how culture and current concerns emerged through the body and through dialogue in improvisational play. It was easier to understand and even empathise with an opposing point of view when you could step into other people’s shoes by taking on their role in a scene. Difficult topics were easier to talk about when we could turn them into a physical tableau or enactment.
Drama therapy gives people a chance to rediscover their spontaneity, try on roles and act out scenes that they would like to be better prepared for in real life. Some come to drama therapy in order to organise significant experiences into a solo or collective performance. Such performances often result in a change in perception for both the actor and the audience.
Through drama therapy, people are able to explore, express and manage their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, gain self-awareness, manage behaviour and addictions, practice social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. The primary goal is to improve or restore one’s sense of social and emotional wellbeing.
Individuals who benefit from drama therapy include those who struggle with anxiety and confidence in social interactions. It has been immensely helpful with children and adults on the autism spectrum.
But it is also useful for those who have experienced trauma stemming from conflict, combat, physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. I am particularly interested in how drama and performance are used to untangle our implicit biases about people who we perceive to be different from ourselves.
You will be in Melbourne in August 2016 for the launch of CATRU, the Creative Arts Therapies Research Unit, the first unit of its kind in Australia. What does the launch tell us about the discipline?
The launch of CATRU signals the University of Melbourne’s commitment to expanding the evidence base for the arts therapies through excellence in research and hopefully heralds the development of future training courses as well. I am honored to be a part of these efforts and look forward to sharing my research interests and supporting the university’s doctoral students.
Can you tell us a bit about the Living Histories Ensemble?
I directed the Living Histories Ensemble from 2007 to 2012, a theatre collective that came together under the auspices of a multidisciplinary oral history project entitled Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and Human Rights Violations. A team of university- and community-based researchers recorded life-story interviews with more than 500 Montreal residents who had been displaced by mass violence such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocide, and political violence in Haiti.
By listening to their experiences, we hoped to better understand the impacts of collective violence on those who had sought refuge in Montreal and the ways in which their sense of home and community had been affected.
We had also hoped to learn how those stories, which are often silenced in families and in national rhetoric, might be retold through performance and other means in order to expand the conversation and raise questions about crimesagainst humanityand our shared responsibility in situations of collective violence.
The Living Histories Ensemble used non-scripted, improvisational forms of theatre such as Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, and Developmental Transformations to spontaneously transform the stories of interviewers and interviewees into performance. The result was often a deepened sense of empathy, insight, and solidarity.
How far has creative arts therapy come? How far does it have to go?
Arts therapists are able to use their art forms (art, drama, music, dance, photography, etc.) to support expression from those whose voices are seldom heard and a space to grapple with uncertainty and change. What we need to focus on now is expanding the evidence base for the arts therapies so that we are increasingly able to understand why, when, how, and with whom the arts therapies are effective.
It’s an exciting time for the field. There is a growing interest in the role of the arts in health and, specifically, creative arts therapies. We need innovative ways of increasing the quality of life for those who are vulnerable to and/or currently suffering neglect or systemic and interpersonal violence. I see a role for the arts therapies with refugees as they reimagine home, children and adults affected by trauma, as well as our aging population.
Are the principles of creative arts therapy universal, or do they have to be adapted to the audience in question?
Arts therapists share a commitment to creative expression within a therapeutic relationship informed by research and guided by ethics. We are influenced by different paradigms which are often suited to the purposes and the people with whom we work. However, as with most health professions, we are ethically obliged to be culturally responsible, so yes, our theoretical frameworks and approaches need to be adapted to the contexts in which we work. I worked with the diversity and equality committees of the North American Drama Therapy Association and the British Association of Dramatherapy to develop guidelines in this area.
Can you tell us about your practice as a multimedia artist?
My primary medium is improvisation and performance but I also use photography and digital video in my work. I tend to focus on issues relating to history, memory, ethics, and place. In 2014, I directed Under Pressure, a performance collage featuring community responses to the Boston Marathon Bombing which took place one year earlier. This was followed in 2015 by Lives That Matter, an ethnodrama about race relations, diversity, and hashtag activism in America.
Right now, I have a photography exhibit on entitled Mapping Home: A Global Crisis of Place which I curated with Oscar Palacio, a colleague and professor of photography at Lesley University. Mapping Home features 18 photographs from an archive of 507. They were taken by first responders and resettlement specialists who I met through my work with the Harvard program in Refugee Trauma.
I had asked them to reflect on their healing environments and to consider what sustains them as they confront an existential crisis of place. What surprised me was that 65% of the photographs featured images of nature while the remaining photographs depicted scenes of family, communal activity such as dancing, singing, yoga, and art making, and feasting together.
It got me thinking about the double meaning in “healing environments” in that these photographs revealed the interconnectedness and interdependency of our ecosystem. The photographs seemed to be saying that sustainability is a reciprocal relationship between humans and our environment and that acknowledging this relationship is critical to our survival and wellbeing.
What is the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma?
The Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma (HPRT), originally founded at the Harvard School of Public Health, is a multi-disciplinary program that has been pioneering the health and mental-health care of traumatised refugees and civilians in areas of conflict/post-conflict and natural disasters for more than three decades.
Its clinical program serves as a global model that has been replicated worldwide. In fact, the HPRT has partnered with the University of Wollongong to offer the Harvard Global Indigenous Trauma Recovery Program. I have been on faculty with the HPRT since 2013, where I lecture about the role of the arts in global mental health.
What are the guiding principles in your work and life?
There are at least three interconnected principles that guide my work and life. The first has to do with diversity, justice, and an ethical imperative to protect and promote the dignity of others in all spheres of teaching, research, and practice. One way to do this is to practice sharing authority and sharing resources; interdependence and real collaboration is necessary if we are to reconcile ourselves with past harm and develop shared visions of the future.
The second principle has to do with power, beauty, and chaos. We live with constant change and uncertainty and this turbulence can produce anxiety and a desire to erect walls and cast out, commodify, contain, and constrain whomever is enrolled as the “other”. Those who have decision-making power to determine policies and programs reinforce a vision of inclusion or exclusion.
This pattern repeats itself over time and is visible, for example, in the gross mistreatment of Aboriginal people, Australia’s offshore detention regime, and US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s aspirations to limit the travel of Muslims to the US and to build a wall along the Mexican border.
I also think that we struggle with beauty and that this comes from the same impulse to commodify rather than co-exist.
The third interconnected principle has to do with creativity and imagination. We need to exercise our imaginations and take creative risks together in order to create solutions to our most pressing problems.
You recently received two awards, the Research Award from the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) and the Corann Okorodudu Global Women's Advocacy Awardfrom the American Psychological Association (APA). Can you tell us about that?
The award from the NADTA is in recognition my role as editor of Drama Therapy Review, an international journal featuring research on drama, theatre and wellbeing. I have worked with Christine Mayor and Meredith Dean, associate editors for the journal, to create a rigorous mentorship and editorial process to ensure that published research contributes to the evidence base in the field.
The Global Women's Advocacy Award from the APA is an acknowledgement of my efforts to promote a gendered, intersectional understanding of mental health in my field of drama therapy and efforts to advocate for the realities faced by girls across diverse communities in Canada through the Girls Action Foundation (GAF) where I have facilitated a national train the trainer program for over a decade.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of your professional work?
I love discovering new cities, wandering about open-air markets, and finding the perfect local coffee shop to read a good book. I’m currently reading Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. I have recently taken up painting again and have been enjoying that immensely.
CATRU will be officially launched on 4 August with a special presentation by Dr Nisha Sajnani: Arts, identity, and healing in the context of the refugee crisis. Visit the CATRU website for more information.
Her work as a dancer and choreographer is feted internationally, but that won’t stop Lake suffering opening night nerves
By Paul Dalgarno
Stephanie Lake has a problem. Me too. I’m meeting with the multi award-winning choreographer, dancer and director of Stephanie Lake Company to discuss her latest work, CRUSH.
It will be presented by third-year dancers and undergraduate production students at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, from May 4-7.
The promotional material describes the show’s first half as having “the beauty of patterns, the hum of unison, the satisfaction of geometric clarity”; while the second half showcases “the collision of physical intentions, the crack and crumble of bodies under pressure”. It sounds exciting, but I don’t know what it means.
Lake laughs. “It’s incredibly hard to articulate dance,” she says. “But that’s part of the beauty of the form – it expresses things that are beyond language.”
Lake and the 21 student dancers who will perform CRUSH are coming to the end of rehearsals, and are now at “the pointy end” of turning those ideas into reality. At 60 minutes, it’s Lake’s first full-length work with the VCA, although she has been a regular choreographer at the institution since graduating in 2000.
In 2011 she won the Green Room Award for her show Mix Tape (2010). In 2014, she won the Helpmann Award for A Small Prometheus (2013) and the Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Choreography for Aorta (2013).
Lake won the 2014 Helpmann award for A Small Prometheus.
I suggest the students she works with must be intimidated, but Lake laughs this off. “It’s an interesting dynamic,” she says. “My expectations are incredibly high for the performers because I work with the best dancers around. I don’t treat the VCA dancers like students. I treat them as if they are the cast for my new work, and hopefully that’s good for them.”
Critics have described Lake’s choreographed works as “sharply honed and brilliantly polished”, as “intricate and endlessly fascinating”, with moments of “sheer heart-stopping beauty”. I’m curious to know what Lake thinks she brings as a choreographer.
“One thing that comes up repeatedly about my work is that it operates on quite a visceral level,” she says. “I like to push the physicality of the dancers to a point where the speed and complexity is almost impossible, where it tips over into almost an emotional place.”
Do audiences need to be fluent in contemporary dance to appreciate what she does? “Not at all,” she says. “The best feedback for me is when someone says ‘I’ve never seen any dance before but I loved that, it made sense to me’. I’m thrilled with that kind of response. It’s never my intention to be esoteric or inaccessible.”
In the case of CRUSH, coming towards the end of students’ time at the VCA, she knows what’s at stake. She got her break after working with visiting choreographer Phillip Adams, who choreographed Lake in her second and third years at the VCA before hiring her, post-graduation, to dance in his work Amplification.
Shortly afterwards, she started working with Gideon Obarzanek at Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin at Lucy Guerin Inc. Though talent was key, Lake is quick to describe herself as fortunate.
Right Place at the Right Time
“The reality is that there’s not a lot of work for dancers,” she says. “I was lucky enough to pretty much always have work, but that’s because I was in the right place at the right time and able to work across a number of companies. The landscape has really changed. I worry about those just starting out because it’s going to be tough. They’re going to have to be really motivated.”
“Drive” is another word that crops up during our discussion and it clearly applies to Lake, who started choreographing in her early teens.
“Pretty much every four to six weeks I’m working with different people and in different contexts,” she says. “That keeps it interesting but it has its downsides. There’s not a lot of stability. Sometimes I wish I had a core of dancers that I could work with consistently.”
Stephanie Lake, the showreel
There comes a moment in every work, Lake says, when she has to back off and let the dancers take ownership of what they’re doing. But that doesn’t make watching them any easier.
“I get really nervous watching my own work,” she says. “Far more than I do as a performer. It’s kind of torturous because I get consumed by whatever I’m working on. If a show goes well and gets a reaction the reward is really big, it’s a great feeling. But yeah, I tend to be there in the audience watching on, biting my nails.”
She knows from experience how much the VCA dancers are giving of themselves. They have technique classes in the mornings, followed by four/five-hour rehearsals for CRUSH in the afternoons, often followed by more rehearsals for other projects in the evenings.
“I remember that bone-deep exhaustion,” she says. “The hardest I’ve ever worked was during second and third year at VCA.
“In some ways, going and working for companies was a snooze after that. It’s harder in other ways, obviously, but just physically, you never work harder than you do at VCA. It’s so intense, but it’s got to be, it’s boot camp.”
It’s clear from Lake’s changing posture that she has to head back into the studio for the day’s rehearsal. In closing, I ask her what audiences can expect from CRUSH when it hits the stage.
“For me it’s about the energy of youth, which is really infectious and beautiful,” she says. “The thing I love most about working with this group is the optimism that emanates. There are some exceptional dancers that are really worth checking out, and the set design is really striking.
“I don’t think people will have seen the space we’re performing in this way before. It’s quite a radical show.”
CRUSH, a new dance work by Stephanie Lake, will be performed at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus between 4-7 May. See details here.
Banner image: Promotional shot for AORTA by Stephanie Lake. Picture: Jeff Busby
By Alix Bromley
The former Victoria Police Hospital, opened in 1914 on the corner of St Kilda Road and Southbank Boulevard, was officially re-opened by Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis this month after a year-long refurbishment of the heritage-listed building.
The “Old Police Hospital”, as it is now called, provides accommodation for the Dean’s office and administrative units of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (VCA & MCM) who are lucky to have it as a Faculty Hub.
The building is light and open. In fact there isn’t a space which doesn’t have access to natural light – atypical of a University workspace as is the building’s history, which now has meeting rooms with such names as The Dispensary and The Operating Theatre.
History of the Site
The former Victoria Police Hospital operated as a hospital for some 65 years from 1914 and was not only the first police hospital in Victoria, but is claimed to be the first in the world.
During the First World War it was used as a military hospital and then for the public during the Spanish influenza outbreak, with the police resuming control of the site in 1920.
Its design was based on the pavilion principle, which expressed the late 19th and early 20th century attitudes to hospital design. Intended to provide ample sunlight and ventilation for the convalescing patients, it also included a two-levelled verandah on the north and south elevations.
The police transferred their hospital to a new building nearby in 1980 and the site was taken over by the VCA, which had commenced occupation of the former Police Depot from 1973.
The building was subsequently converted to a print-making school and employed as such until 1992. Since then it has been used for offices and storage and allowed to fall into a dilapidated state.
The Balancing Act of Heritage Refurbishment
Luke Flanagan has been the project manager for the site since the beginning of 2013. He has been working on the design and build alongside lead architect Louise Goodman and senior architect Fleur Downey from Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT) and heritage specialists RBA Architects and Conservation Consultants.
For Flanagan, the greatest challenge of any heritage project is getting the balance right between retaining the original fabric, working within the heritage restraints set by Heritage Victoria, and achieving an acceptable standard with the functional and aesthetic requirements of the space.
“There’s always conflict and tension there. Every heritage building has its own characteristics and qualities and the trick is to exploit, amplify and take advantage of them – while at the same time ensuring any interventions or additions are made sensitively,” Flanagan says.
Architect Louise Goodman believes the success of the project has been in stripping back the building to its original plan.
“This allows the elegance of the new forms and materials of the building additions, which have a beauty in their own right, to complement the existing brickwork and proportions of the original hospital,” she says.
“Don’t overwhelm the original but compliment it. That’s the real challenge,” says Flanagan, “The end result justifies the pain and anguish because what you end up with is a building which is very unique.”
The Old Police Hospital brings together many of the new and existing elements, in a shared space, to be enjoyed by all of the staff.
One of the key design features of the site is the addition of a two-storey glass curtain wall extension, with terracotta louvres, to the Southbank Boulevard frontage.
The original verandah was replaced in the 1950s with a balcony and small extension on the ground floor. In removing these additions, the building resembled its original form. The new addition was designed to act as an enclosed verandah, referencing the symmetry of the vertical columns on the southern verandah.
The differing angled louvres filter the sun and provide privacy as well as breaking up the horizontal elements. The terracotta used for the louvres is a natural complement to the deep red of the existing brickwork.
The spiral staircase has been beautifully restored. The balustrade was originally built using rare red pine, which unfortunately didn’t meet the structural requirements. So the new timber is ironbark, a mix of two types to achieve the variance required, with a French polished finish.
The staircase didn’t meet current balustrade height requirements, so the balusters were replaced with longer lengths and the newel posts extended with new timber additions. The additions are designed to show a visible line between old and new.
There are tile features left over from another age tell their own story, and the new wall openings are defined by the use of a blackbutt timber portal to clearly distinguish new from existing building elements.
Outside, new steel and glass entry canopies to the north and south of the central entry tie in the language of the new building elements, and an eye-catching copper lift has made it to completion after initially being out of budget (before the price of copper plunged). The interpretative garden adjacent to the lift, designed by Oculus landscape architects, is intended to resemble the outbuilding which was located in the same place.
Southbank Boulevard connection
The new glass extension creates a significant impact on Southbank Boulevard and adds a touch of contemporary flair to the streetscape – “it has a bit of drama to it”, says Flanagan.
Given the plans for Southbank Boulevard, the building is situated in an important location. The City of Melbourne is looking at running a kilometre-long park from St Kilda Road down to Queen’s Bridge. Tram alignment will remain the same but the existing four lanes of traffic will be reduced to two with aim of increasing pedestrian traffic instead.
“The real driver there is to create a meaningful connection from the city into the art’s precinct,” says Flanagan.
All of this fits within the broader development of the VCA & MCM’s Southbank campus, a venture funded jointly by The Myer Foundation, The Ian Potter Foundation, the University of Melbourne and the State Government through Creative Victoria.
Last year, the Grant Street Theatre was reopened with Lionel’s cafe and bar, named after major supporter Lionel Gell. This year, the Brian Brown Recording Studio underwent a substantial renovation, and the old industrial Teaching Workshop has also been re-opened as a cutting edge research facility.
In 2016, the stables that were once occupied by police horses will be transformed into visual art studios. In 2017, a new purpose-built museum will be opened to showcase Michael Buxton’s contemporary Australian art collection, and plans for a new Conservatorium building are also slowly gaining momentum.
For staff and students at the VCA & MCM, it’s an exciting time. These new developments aim to set up the University’s Southbank campus with the best facilities to teach young artists for the next 50 years.
Banner Image: Ground floor of the two-storey glass curtain wall extension. Photographer: Ben Hosking.
By Alix Bromley
In a short six months, the Victorian College of the Arts’ (VCA) Teaching Workshop on the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus has transcended from an industrial blue-collar workshop to become a cutting edge research facility where manufacturing outcomes are unlimited.
Around 700 students from visual art, production, and film and television, who have not collaborated in the past, will now come together over the course of a year to share ideas and build in specific process spaces, including a central construction area, a welding and foundry room, a wet mould room, a wood machining shop including a special sanding room.
The students may be building for different artistic mediums, but pragmatically they often undertake very similar processes.
Workshops Manager Dr Tim Edwards, who’s been working on the project for four years, says after reading, thinking and talking to people about workshop design in the University environment, he believes there’s nothing else that exists like it.
The workshop staff were able to tell architect Steve Hatzellis exactly what they required in the space since they’ve been working there for years. From experience, they know exactly what does and doesn’t work.
Edwards, who began at the VCA as a casual lecturer in Sculpture and Spatial Practice in 2008, previously worked at the University of Tasmania where he was involved in designing the School of Visual and Performing Arts Sculpture Workshop. This meant he had a clear idea of the requirements and process of building a good workshop.
It was like a game of chess with room space size and placement.
The external skeleton of the old workshop has remained intact, but the roof trusses dictated where walls had to go. “Previously there was lots of wasted space and the rooms were too small to function very well, so combining them we were able to get more space and usability and make it much safer,” says Edwards.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) standards have a scale of low, medium and high risk activity. Just about everything that takes place in the workshop is high risk, so the underpinning design brief was to combine the different workshop spaces with best OHS practice.
In principle, you bring your materials through the 3 metre high soundproof doors, get them on to the table, mark out, measure, fit your safety protection gear from the OHS station, take the materials into the machine shops on the custom-built four-wheel tables, then wheel them back out into the construction area to assemble.
It’s all about workshop flow.
The wet area is for ceramics and mould making out of clay and is also part of the foundry where the initial object is made from wax. There is a specific wax working area with a granite benchtop and Bunsen burners.
In the hot metals room there is a new foundry furnace, a foundry kiln and a new ceramic kiln. There’s a long, thick solid steel bench which is completely dead flat.
“When you’re a metal sculptor, that welding bench is like a Louis Vuitton handbag!” says Edwards.
Welding creates highly toxic fumes, so rather than use ducts which pull the air across your body (as in 90% of other spaces), a bank has been made above the bench so all the smoke, dust and fumes are pulled away from you in the opposite direction.
In the wood machining shop there’s a computer-controlled router and various methods of carving and sanding. New ducting means the wood dust won’t be swirling around the space any more.
For a space with concrete floors and masses of wood, the acoustics have been dampened thanks to the wool insulation in the roof which was previously exposed tin.
“Everything is ramped right up,” says Edwards. “You can see how thick the walls are! The windows are triple glazed, the walls are triple thickness with insulation.”
There is very little sound bleed between each workshop. Because you can’t hear the students, the large windows were a key component of the design brief.
“We need to be able to see them at a glance, to make sure they’re okay,” say Edwards. The upstairs office, which creates a better use of space, also provides an opportunity to see what’s going on below.
From the lighting, heating and sound acoustics to the removable plywood panels on the walls (rather than leave a big hole in the wall in such a hard-wearing space, you can simply put a new panel on), Edwards is brimming with enthusiasm about the new workshop:
“You could come in with any kind of design and we’ll have the technology, skills and staff to work it out and build it.”
The Teaching Workshop fits within the broader development of the VCA & MCM’s Southbank campus, a venture funded jointly by The Myer Foundation, The Ian Potter Foundation, the University of Melbourne and the State Government through Creative Victoria.
Banner Image: The central construction area with an overhead office. Photographer: Ben Hosking.