Test Pattern ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 31, 2005

Test Pattern

Test Pattern by Angus Cerini, directed by Nadja Kostich. Lighting design by Richard Vabre, set & costume by Marg Horwell, sound design by Jethro Woodward, video design by Michael Carmody. With Omar Abdurrheem, David Baker, Myf Clark, Seb Elkner, Stef Franja, Tanya Jenkinson, Paul Matley and Ayumi Pakehara. Platform Youth Theatre, Northcote Uniting Church Hall, 251 High St, Northcote.

Theatre for Young People conjures visions of da-glo sets, dire scripts, performances from the Wiggles School of Acting and simple-minded sermonising on the Issues Facing Young Persons. (I still remember, with a shudder, a play about the internet I witnessed years ago in Adelaide, in which bright young things travelled through a cardboard version of cyberspace, meeting celebrities like Joan of Arc).

If I were a Young Person - and even I was young once - this kind of stuff would put me off theatre permanently. To its credit, Platform Youth Theatre - a northern suburbs theatre for people aged between 16 and 25 - refuses to patronise the young, and in Test Pattern the company applies the techniques of innovative theatre to the real-life experiences of "Generation Y".

Platform has gathered a distinguished design team for this production, so it's not surprising that Test Pattern looks and sounds completely gorgeous. Marg Horwell's set is stylishly simple: it consists of around half a dozen curtains, hung one behind the other the length of the hallway, made of lengths of white string suspended from the ceiling. With Richard Vabre's inventive lighting, these curtains create a flexible imaginative space: they can become opaque walls, permeable visual barriers, screens for projection, or delicate veils of shadow giving texture to the action.

Angus Cerini's script has clearly been devised in collaboration with the director and performers, from whose stories this text is derived, and switches impressionistically between various narratives - a boy with a disabled mother, a childcare worker who becomes pregnant and is refused a home loan, a girl killed in a train accident, the story of a Balkan refugee, or a traumatised Australian soldier sent to do humanitarian work in Africa.

Nadja Kostich directs these narratives with an eye to physical abstraction. The performers - both male and female - are clothed in white nighties, which gives the production an air of an old-fashioned asylum, or a strangely feminised dream. The physical language she creates is deliberately dislocated from the text, largely drawn from gestures of early childhood like foetal crouches and infantile embraces.

With young, inexperienced actors, it makes sense to go for a more abstract approach to language, rather than asking them to perform a role. And I like the courage of the performances, which shine with freshness and vivid energies. But in its general conception I think that the production doesn't quite work.

It feels as if an aesthetic has been laid arbitrarily over the original material, rather than evolving organically from it. It's interesting, for example, to compare this production with Subclass 26A, a physical theatre work performed earlier this year. Kostich was part of the cast (and Richard Vabre lit it), and it has clearly influenced her approach.

In Subclass 26A, a piece about the experiences of asylum seekers, the director Bagryana Popov developed a physical vocabulary drawn from the neurotic movements of mental illness, which switched fluidly between naturalistic dialogue and abstract movement. The physical and spoken languages reflected and extended each other, making a powerful whole. In contrast, Test Pattern gives little sense that the movement and the text have anything much to do with each other. It is as if there are two productions - a narrative play and a movement piece - ocurring simultaneously, each obscuring the other.

This sense is underlined when the performers step "out of" the roles and introduce themselves, speaking in part about the process of making the play, a disruption which seems to be more about meeting the demands of the performers than anything else. One performer says that he wanted to do the story of a local drug dealer, but that this was vetoed by the director. Rightly or wrongly, I get the sense that some of the more unpleasant edges have been edited out of the stories presented here. And even after a couple of days' reflection, I'm still a little mystified by the white nighties and paper dresses; they seem to be not so much about questioning aspects of gender, as about feminising all experience.

Imperfectly integrated though it is, Test Pattern creates some images of real power, and it's encouraging to see this kind of community-based theatre breaking out of the cliches of dead naturalism into more ambitious possibilities.

Picture: Ayumi Pakehara in Test Pattern

1 comment:

Nadja Kostich said...

Dear Alison,

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at your suggestion that acting in my good friend Bagryana Popov’s play in March influenced my directing style, from April to November! Ms Popov is a highly talented human being and though I don’t mind being seen to admire her in general, perhaps we could redirect our gaze for a moment? To an arguably interesting period in local theatre history during the nineties when the IRAA Theatre Company was active in a different incarnation to that of today, which may also yield some insight into my deeper influences (than acting in a play for a minute). Directed by Renato Cuocolo, this was a gruelling, transformative year round training process that produced some fine and challenging works, as well as several directors working in physical theatre today: original members, Tony Yap and Catherine Simmonds; myself, a long term member; and Bagryana Popov and David Pledger, who each spent a number of years in the training, as well as acting in some of the productions. We work in vastly different ways today, but share a common history and although I can’t speak for the others, this has been a major inspiration in my work since the early nineties.

I love this site and your intelligent, humorous reviews. And believe it or not, I had no problem with your opinions of Test Pattern but was simply puzzled as to why you’d bother with some of the rather unsupportable conjectures. And the unfathomable comparison of Test Pattern and Subclass?!! (Should I confess that we also shared the same stage manager?) I feel like a dick even saying it to you, but it seems to suggest that all physical theatre can and should be compared, a sheer absurdity. Let alone one production made with professional dancers and actors and the other with inexperienced youth. Of course, you’d know that… so why go there? You’ve got me stumped.

For your amusement, a snippet of conversation between myself and the writer Angus Cerini, regarding the ten scenes that I cut with two stoners sitting on a couch, four weeks prior to opening:
Angus: Hey Nadja, the stoner scenes are really boring, they don’t go anywhere.
Nadja: Yeah, Angus, that’s what I’ve been telling you for the past two weeks.
Angus: Yeah, well, they’re cut.
Nadja: Great, I’ll recast.

There really was no devious plot on my part to smooth out ‘the edges’ of the play, bring them on, I wish there had been more (if you asked Angus, I’m sure he’d say the same). As it was, the script was Angus’ ‘organic’ response to the development workshops (turning points of generation Y) and the production you saw was my ‘organic’ response to Angus’ script. I worked with the script and the actors over weeks on the floor, finding the physical language and everything arose as a response to this work: the set, video, lighting, sound design. The production could not have been more ‘organic’ from our end. I’m just disappointed, having expected one of your pithy discussions that can actually get to the root of why elements in the production didn’t work. But anyway, thanks for the opportunity to respond. And keep going with the great work.

Nadja Kostich