Review: Yes ~ theatre notes

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Review: Yes

and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Desire is as much to do with the taking away of the other's pain as with the mutual pursuit of pleasure... it is an alternative, shared use of physical energy and the special lucidity of the body to bestow, if only for a brief moment, an exemption...

– John Berger

Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.

Hold Everything Dear, John Berger

The story concerns the reason why we love to fall in love. Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.

- Eros: The Bittersweet, Anne Carson

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, rocks and sands,
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them.
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

For every thing that lives is Holy!

– The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, William Blake

It’s tempting, particularly in the light of a certain inner exhaustion, to write this entire review by assembling quotations. I am simply incapable at present of articulating what these writers express with such sure delicacy (and so apologise in advance). These quotes map some of the emotional and intellectual territory that Sally Potter touches in her film Yes, the story of a passionate love affair between a Western woman and an Eastern man that encompasses philosophy, politics and poetry in a work of lucid profundity.

I should confess at the outset that I haven’t seen the film; I’ve only experienced Potter’s text. The script was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and shot as the US invaded Iraq, and is imbued with a sense of urgent affirmation. As Sally Potter says, “I started writing Yes in the days following the attacks of September 11 in New York City. I felt an urgent need to respond to the rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against the United States. I asked myself the question: so what can a filmmaker do in such an atmosphere of hate and fear? What are the stories that need to be told?”

Last week I saw OpticNerve’s theatrical adaptation. It was an inspiring counterweight to some of the more depressing conversations I’ve had lately, a reminder that eros, with all its complexities and difficulties, is the force that reaches towards and affirms life. The film’s title is taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses; it's the final word of Molly Bloom's monologue, which is surely one of the most passionate avowals of life’s imperfections and joys ever written.

It’s easy to see why Tanya Gerstle wanted to make it into a work of theatre. It bears a closer resemblance to Shakespeare than to any standard film script. Most obviously, it’s written in iambic pentameters (the closest formal poetic rhythm to conversational speech) and rhyming couplets; and it shares something of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical fluidity, shifting specific encounters between times and places to enact a story with a clear emotional imperative. Its concerns are at once political and metaphysical, passionate and intellectual. It even has its own take on Shakespeare’s “mechanicals”. If you knew no better, you’d swear this text was a play.

In the hands of OpticNerve, it’s certainly translated into pure theatre. There is no sense of an uncomfortable collision between the media of film and performance: from the opening moments, when you wander into the space in Fortyfive Downstairs, you are alerted to the dynamics of space and body and personal relationship that theatre demands. Where to sit wasn’t immediately obvious; the seats were at the far end, wrapped in the white fabric that is the chief element of the design, and for a few moments I thought we would be standing among the performers, who were already walking about the space, clad only in black underwear.

But we found our seats and then watched the pre-theatre unfold, wondering if the couples who stood talking in the middle of the space, glancing at the performers as they unobtrusively placed clothing and props about the stage, knew that they too were presently part of the performance. The lights signal the beginning of the theatre proper, and the performers stand before us in their underwear, naked and vulnerable to our gaze, and then slowly dress in the costumes of their roles. But the ambiguity signalled beforehand resonates through the show: as witnesses to this theatre, we are also embedded in its dilemmas and reflections, its desires and sadnesses.

At the centre of this piece is the body, its senses of transitoriness and permanence. It begins with a monologue from the Cleaner (Ella Watson-Russell), a chorus/witness figure who also embodies the unseen and ignored third world labour force that keeps the west going. Reflecting on the nature of dirt, she says, “everything you do or say is there, forever. It leaves evidence.” Later, she tells us: “we never disappear, / Despite it being what we all most fear…Every single creature feeds another…When we expire perhaps we change, at most, / But never vanish…”

This idea of permanence is poised finely against the mortality of love, the emotional emptiness that haunts She (Meredith Penman) and her Husband (Gary Abrahams) as their marriage disintegrates. When She meets He (Grant Cartwright), a Lebanese refugee working as a kitchen hand, erotic love becomes the means to a larger, spiritual vision that at once divides and unites the lovers.

Their relationship becomes the nexus for a series of meditations on science, religion, class, consumerism, racism, colonialism, and the vexed question of self and other. But these ideas are revealed through poetic action rather than explained for us. The actors’ bodies, articulating the exquisitely choreographed movement, become the means of precise emotional expression: they are erotic, bereaved, violent, forlorn, ecstatic.

From the beginning, you feel confident that you are in the hands of theatre makers who know what they’re doing, who can step unerringly between the specific realities of feelings and the abstraction of ideas. The design subtly emphasises the poetic restraint of the text, with a rigorous palette of black and white that highlights the passions of the body, and is beautifully lit. And the performances are all first class, physically disciplined and marked by an intense emotional honesty. It’s the kind of theatre that devours your whole attention without your quite noticing. And at the end you are released, at once exhausted and nourished, into the complexities of your own life.

Yes, by Sally Potter, directed by Tanya Gerstle. Lighting design by Richard Whitehouse, stage management by Canada White. Ensemble/co-creators: Grant Cartwright, Ella Watson-Russell, Emmaline Carroll, Anne-Louise Sarks. With Gary Abrahams, Grant Cartwright, Kane Felsinger, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter, Ella Watson-Russell and Anne-Louise Sarks. OpticNerve Performance Group @ Fortyfive Downstairs. Closed June 7.


Anonymous said...

Agree one hundred percent. Although unable to attend this current iteration, when I saw Yes last year I felt uplifted by a work that so subtly interwove the sensate and the metaphysical.

Pure is the first word that came to mind - an unforced expression of the light and shade of life. It helps that the writing is first class, but in truth, without the perfomances and Gerstle's rigorous and insightful approach to the work (evocative, unyielding, intelligent and physical) it would have been nothing more than an exercise.

Anonymous said...

I wish to raise my concerns with the casting choices made in YES. I personally know many of the artists in the piece to be people of great integrity. I know that they are sensitive to the same issues as I. And I do not write here to attack or blame those involved in YES in any way. I would simply like to address the broader political and moral issues that I believe this production raises.

The casting of a white male in the role of the Lebanese ‘He’, and the actual physical act of his ‘blackfacing’ at the beginning of the show, sends a message (unconscious or otherwise) that betrays what would appear to be the purpose of Sally Potter’s text. This is a message of white dominance.

The problem is further exacerbated by the casting of an Asian actor in a role which, in the film was played by a black actor, and then, in Gerstle’s original VCA production, was played by a graduating student of African extraction. I find it inconsistent that there is an apparent need to fill this particular role with a coloured actor, when it is deemed acceptable to fill the role of ‘He’ with a white actor. Is it about the degree of ‘blackness’ of the original actor in the Sally Potter film? Perhaps it is about the cadence and nuance of the character’s speech -nothing that a white actor cannot master, if a white actor can master the cadence and accent of a man who hails from Beirut.

Cartwright is an adept actor. He performs with facility and grace. But this is not a question of talent or skill, it is about perpetuating the myth of,

“the White body, which is credited with the greatest power to transform, to transcend the physical limitations of race, and essentially to represent universal experience.”
(Lee Lewis, Platform Paper, Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre)

Theatre is a volatile, powerful and potent art form, and as we are aware, every act on stage is political, and unfortunately, as Lewis also recognises:

“The White body representing the Universal is a colonial construction aimed at insuring domination over the [non-white] other.” (Lewis, ibid.)

In this instance, it could be argued that this unintentional domination is over the nationality of the character itself.

If the imperative of cross-racial casting were being observed in this particular production of YES, then the casting of a white man as the Lebanese ‘He’, a deliberate and progressive political act, would by necessity imply that other characters in the work (the Scottish, the Irish, the English) would be, just as crucially, cast cross-racially with non-white actors e.g. Indigenous Australian, Portuguese, Japanese.

It might be argued that the artistic liberties that accompany casting a non-naturalistic production allow for non-biologically correct choices. I concur. However, I question whether the casting of a white male would have been acceptable to the general public, the director, and the ensemble, had the character in question originated from Sudan, Ghana or Ethiopia. Or even Cambodia, Thailand or China. And in such an instance, the act of blackfacing would be (as it ought to be universally, but is not yet) taboo. It appears to be a question of ‘degrees of colouredness’. It has become acceptable for the white eye of a white audience to often unquestioningly view the portrayal of other races by white people as perfectly okay, unless of course, the character in question is too dark. But as it happens in the Western canon, many roles specifically written for ‘dark actors’ are small, perfunctory, and therefore generally don’t seem to count. The casting of a coloured actor (a not necessarily ‘biologically-correct’ actor) in these roles is common, but can, in absolutely no way whatsoever, pretend to be called an act of cross-racial casting.

Cross-racial casting is not a widely argued, or even a broadly recognised issue. However, it is crucial that we, as Australian theatre practitioners, are made aware of the importance of actively engaging with it in the practice of creating work.

It needs to be made clear that I understand why it is so hard to engage with this issue, and I have first-hand experience of the confusion surrounding the matter: I am a white male, and often lose sight of this issue and often fail to recognise it, despite my best intentions. Because I am white. Because I am a part of the dominant culture. Because it is not ‘my problem’. But it is. It is (as I’m sure most theatre practitioners would agree) a moral imperative to recognise racial and cultural diversity and equality and to actively engage as an artist in enacting this in our artistic practice. It is essential that we all engage with this issue and understand that the choices we make, in terms of racial casting, are deeply rooted in our cultural identity and sense of human morality.

I do not blame the cast for their decision to be in this show, nor do I blame the director for her casting choices. It is a hugely difficult position for white practitioners to understand because we can not see the problem; because we are the problem, if unwillingly - and more often than not - unconsciously. We are the dominant culture. And it is a difficult thing for one’s abiding position to be challenged.

And yet we must continue to challenge these unconscious, out-dated assertions of power. Because only in this way can we truly serve a progressive idea of our cultural identity. It is in our own best interest to broaden not only our minds to the inclusion of works that deal with issues such as those in YES on our stages, but to observe the moral weight and impact of race in our casting choices. We need to examine rigorously our motivations behind these choices, and also the foreseeable implications they might have. We have to be attuned to what powerful messages these choices might send. This doesn’t mean strict adherence to biologically-correct casting. Nor does it call for over-sensitivity to the prescriptions of ‘political correctness’. It is about using a certain depth of wisdom and social awareness that comes innately to artists. Just as we would (hopefully) now be rigorous with our decisions to produce work that presents a progressive understanding of gender politics, so we now must be acutely aware of the active and powerful dynamics of the casting of race in our performance making.

Alison Croggon said...

Wow. Thanks NickC for that thoughtful analysis. I missed the act of blackfacing entirely and am wondering how I did...? I must have been looking elsewhere. There was plenty to look at. Or was I reading it as something else? It simply didn't occur to me (a blindness, I confess, but on the other hand, why would I?), all the time I was watching, that Cartwright was "white", which as we all know, is a category rather than a skin colour. For one thing, I'm very bad at recognising actors on stage (and sometimes off stage too...) And he didn't appear to be wearing face makeup, which would have been problematic as he was often undressed.

But thanks for the heads up, and for the rebuke. Cross-racial casting is a minefield, as has been discussed on this blog before, and I should be more alert to its dynamics. Though, to be fair, I think that there are more worthy targets of criticism than Yes on this question. However, I understand, given the text, why you would raise this issue with it. I'd be curious to hear from any members of the production for their take on the process and the casting decisions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison, Nic and any other readers. I am a performer with optic nerve and read with much interest both the review (which presented a wonderful artistic engagement with the work presented) and Nic's comments in regard to the casting of a "white" actor in a Lebanese role. I agree that it is a fair point, but feel obliged to attempt to explain it from the director's and company's point of view. Tanya Gerstle has developed a very paticular and intricate methodology in terms of creating the work. The "exquisite choreography" as the review puts it is in fact not choreography in it's true sense. All the action and movement within the piece is developed during rehearsals by the performers during an intense rehearsal period utilising the very particular methodologies developed by Tanya Gerstle during her long career as both a theatre maker and acting lecturer at VCA. The primary focus of creating the work is the work itself, and telling the story in the unique and, again I use the word "particular", way Optic Nerve chooses to present it's theatre. It is therefor imperative that Tanya works with actors who are developed in and fully understand the way her methodology, for lack of a better word, works. As I understand it, part of the argument for cross cultural casting is that a director should feel that they can cast the actor or actress that they feel best serves the work without being affected by the race of the actor. In this case I truly believe Tanya cast this actor in this role simply because he is an actor who understands and excels in her type of work, and could therefor play not only this paticular role but a role in an ensemble that works in a very particular way. This work isn't simply a matter of putting on a play, it is a deep and intricate exploration of theatre as an art FORM, it is work that generates a very unique FORM, and that is what is essential.If Tanya had had the oppurtinity to train and work with a Lebanese actor who knew and understood the work as well as the actor in question does I'm sure he would have been cast. And yes, the matter of the actor's whiteness was addressed, the play begins with all the actors on stage in their underwear, not characters yet, merely performers presented vulnerabley to the audience as the bodies who will tell this story, through language and through movement. One actor is given a white lab coat, this actor is identified as "She". Another is given a jacket, He is identified as "The Huisband". And the actor in question has his hair darkened on stage by the cleaner, identifying him as the role of "He", the Lebanese character in question. These are simple, often used, Brechtian devices. I can understand how this could be percieved as blackballing as such, but this is what actors do, isn't it? We play roles that are not us. And we denote this to an audience through signifiers.I truly believe that was is most essential in telling a story through theatre is an actors body and voice and utilising actors who are very good at the use of both to deliver clarity and meaning to an audience. What Nic seems to be implying is some kind of positive discrimination, choosing an actor on the basis of their race rather than their ability to fulfill a director's vision. Audiences are constantly expected to buy an actor as being something they are not, whether it's the characters age, their nationality, their sexuality, etc. It just so happens, and I am deeply sorry if this offends, but Melbourne is sadly very short of actors who are not white.Very sadly. A quick search on showcast proves just how short. That is another argument all together and one that deserves much attention. But, in regards to this show, and this particular casting choice, it really is simply a matter of the best actor available for the job at hand. I absolutely engage with Nic's arguments, but am surprised that it is the one thing that he has taken away from the show. Optic Nerve presents theatre in a very particular way that does not suite all tastes, but how bloody wonderful that there is a company in Melbourne that is developing a very distinct style and form of theatre. Europe is full of such companies, but Australia? Outside of the dance and physical theatre scene I challenge Nic to name one theatre company that practices an individual methodology. This is what should be supported, instead of being hijacked by a very personal argument. Rail against the MTC, rail against the film industry, rail against the Malthouse and any other proffesional theatre company, but not against a small independent company who's artists and actors work for free (yes, free) in their desire to present a special form of theatre to the best of their ability because of their love and passion for theatre as an art form that can be as abstract, impressionist and physical as their vision allows. On that note, I encourage Nic to witness the follow up work "Five Kinds of Silence" again at 45 Downstairs, to see if perhaps he could be seduced into veiwing this fledgling company in a more positive light.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison, thanks for your words, couldn't quite work out if I really liked this production...or if it was just dumb...though did make me want to watch the film. Perhaps it was the fact that after reading the program notes, and seing what was being attempted (adapting a film to live performance) that I came to the conclusion that this was a very successful outcome. But still, got to say, it was all a bit clean, a bit soul-less, a bit empty of heart...or something...maybe this was all the naked body stuff, they just didn't make me feel sexed wondering if this was the point...

Was very skillful, so skillful in fact I suddenly realised that the lead wasn't wearing the black bra at the end as she was at the was this about transformation...but actually by then I didn't care less about her...a rich western woman...who cares, really?

Just take a walk through Southland, and boy oh boy, who actually cares if we all die in an inferno? I mean really?

And that blackfacing, I didn't see anything like that (do you mean he put face make up on?). I got that he was playing a Lebanese guy, they all played different races, and the program clearly stated that these actors were all in an ensemble. So I think it is a bit dumb quite frankly to say that a caucasian actor can't play any race at all...or a black actor can't play any race at all. The Asian guy was playing just another guy in the kitchen as far as I'm concerned, and are you going to demand that every play is cast with culturally specific race in place...I mean, I would watch the film if I wanted that (or neighbours - they have some wogs on it at the moment)? Come one, get over it. You live in Melbourne, how many actors of non white backgrounds could come up with the gig? Maybe if there was work for them then there would be. It's like saying that Bill Henson should use twenty year old models in his works, because that's more appropriate.

Nup, sorry Nick. This is art. It's theatre. It's about imagination.

Final word. Made me think how dumb acting is. Then how dumb dance is. What I mean is that the actors sure moved good, but without the sexy-ness or the skill of dancers. But then if you tried to get dancers to do the show, they wouldn't be able to plumb the emotional depths. So to my mind it's not race that this production raises, it's performance languages.

Got to go see that film.

Very interesting, very interesting. I am left quite unsure of how I feel. Would it be okay to say I thought the skill level was outstanding but the production left me cold? That I did follow the story, but it didn't engage me, and I didn't 'feel' anything. Is it okay to say I enjoyed it as an aesthetic, but I wasn't moved?

staying anonymous for this one.

Anonymous said...

How dare Anonymous #1 say there are no actors of Middle Eastern background able to fulfill that role. And what a slight little thing that role was too. What a one dimensional view of the character and motives of an Islamic man. The play's POV on the "Islamic question" was really a very superficial one I think.

So actors (sorry I don't have Showcast so I can't do a quick survey) but
Rodney Affif (VCA trained) comes to mind. So does Osamah Sami ,So does Beejan Olfat, so does Wahid Dona. So does Majid Shokat ( aTV star in his own country). If and I stress if any of these actors had wanted to do the show (stereotyped thing that it was) then it would have given the whole piece more authenticity and more weight . Wasn't the show supposed to be about 'cultural difference'.
Also Anon #1 there are many companies in Melbourne who work with their own methodology
The Rabble
Anything at the Malthouse
anything directed by Michael Kantor
Here Theatre
anything directed by James MaCaughey
11th hour
etc etc
So maybe now you are finally out of VCA you will stop being so brainwashed and stop the mythmaking.

If you don't know somting it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. if you can't see any multicultural actors (or if VCA doesn't have any) that doesn't mean they don't exist.
Your response confirms for me what a middle class whitebread thing that show was.
Thanks for confirming for me the level of intellectual and political savvy in the cast. Wasn't this piece made as a part of an MA . Is this the best level of analysis that a Melbourne Uni MA student can come up with and pass on to her cast.

Nick C says it all when he quotes
“the White body, which is credited with the greatest power to transform, to transcend the physical limitations of race, and essentially to represent universal experience.”

So sure when the playing field is level all actors will be able to play all people. meanwhile let us at least create a small space for people to have a voice about their own culture. And let us also not assume that just because they did not go to VCA that they can't act. Actually if may surprise you to know that not everyone out here likes the VCA house style.

Alison Croggon said...

Now, my dears, let's take a deep breath....I know these are contentious issues which embrace artistic vision and ethics, and it helps no one to get heated.

There are so many Anons here it gets confusing. Use nom de plumes, fellas!

Thanks for clearing up the "blackface" thing. I'm not sure that darkening hair amounts to the same thing, certainly the gesture was beautiful, and I can see arguments either way. For my part, I had no echo of black and white minstrels or the Othello thing.

I agree, there are certainly plenty of very skilled non-white actors around (Majid Shokor is another wonderful Iraqi actor about town) and the fact that somehow they're rendered invisible - except in "ethnically correct" casting - is a problem here. Have a chat with Ming... who is a VCA grad herself, and has some stern thoughts about cross-racial casting.

Anon 3#, emotional response is one of those things that is utterly unpredictable and individual (and of course you're allowed to say whether something moves you or not). Yes worked for me, but then I am a white middle class woman. I think SP evades the possible minefields of that kind of engagement, and I found myself responding deeply to the work. And of course acting is silly. They're pretending to be someone else and we're pretending that they are. It's that willing suspension of disbelief I love quoting.

Anonymous said...

then there's that amazing performer Hassam - don't know his last name - was in Criminology. He's a beauty.

Is that wot it was? Middle class white theatre?

Hey, anon (the one angry at the vca), dont worry dude, getting an acting degree at VCA basically means very little. Most grads won't be actors in a decade. Most grads of any acting school in this country won't be actors in a decade. Which is a pity, cos that's when they start getting quite good. There are simply too many acting schools (graduates) and not enough work. This year the number of acting graduates in Australia will be enormous compared to a decade ago. This is because the govt. pays the college to take more students. Meanwhile, the industry only has the jobs for a very few of them. What's that joke...three actors at a cafe. NIDA grad says I'll have a cappucino, WAAPA grad says I'll have a machiato, VCA grad says would you like to see the menu?

Ha! Just think, some of the most successful actors working in this country didn't go to drama school, or of they did they either got kicked out or left. And did you know we have some truly phenomenal Vietnamese actors, who received widespread acclaim before the war, now living here on a pension. This industry is a joke, and for most of us it would be better if we actually stopped doing anything. We could all get real jobs, not live these terribly insecure lives, and we could hold our heads up high in public when people sneer at us (because we're all on the dole).

This random thought makes me think of (oh was it Daniel Keene???) years ago, writing in the paper said all artists should go on strike. Now that would make people sit up and take notice.

The fact is that 40 people per night, over ten nights, seing YES basically proves that this is an irrelevance. Like most independent theatre. It is simply a fact that what we do matters little, yet we persist, why? Because we have little choice.

Why does some young person audition for the VCA? Because they want to be an actor. Simple. Why do they graduate? Because they pass all the tests. Simple. What do they do then? They try and get a job as an actor. Not for craft reasons or for their soul, but to make money. This is the simple equation of acting school - you train to become a professional actor. Okay, so seing as there is no work, then they choose to develop and work on a project such as YES, then this is actually a hobby therefore (it is stated they're not being paid). So does this mean that we should punish people who fly model aeroplanes? Or that we should denigrate people who choose to go to church? No.

Face it. We live in a country that is anglo, christian, masculine. The performers who worked on YES are brave (probably a bit stupid) but passionate. They choose to do this work because they want to. They are adding to the rich cultural tapestry of this city (country) which bit by bit breaks down those white traits that everyone at Southland really could easily die for without me caring. But you got to understand two things:
1. Change happens slowly
2. The arts is usually far in advance in terms of public debate.

So my sweet friends, deal with the fact you're unemployed and jealous, and deal with the fact that this country is white. If you don't like that perhaps go somewhere which is more culturally open (um...okay let me think...a country that's not as racist as well, Melbourne). If you don't like that, go somewhere that has more work for actors, somewhere more work for you'll think of somewhere).

To my mind the VCA is a great college. Grant Cartwright did an amazing job. The entire ensemble committed themselves fully and with passion to a work of art. Tanya Gerstle has moulded this fine work (whether you like it or not), and worked along an objective which has been proven very successfully achieved.

Now I got to run, got an audition for a beer ad, got to buy a flat screen at the plaza, and going to go drink booze with my footballer mates and probably piss on a woman with enormous cleavage who giggles, then drive away in my fast car which sucks juice, then going to go to the bank and see if I can borrow more money then going to eat hamburgers and fart in the middle of having sex while thinking of a woman who isn't the one I'm having sex with and then I'm going to go read the Herald Sun and then I'm going to watch the Channel Ten news and then I'm going to have a cancer slowly spread over my life and I won't ever have seen YES, and quite frankly that doesn't matter at all. Burp.

xxx anonymous #2 (the stork)

love to you all.

Anonymous said...

hey anonymous #2, you're not a slight bit jaded are you? You sound like you could do with a gig. I might have something for you. Keep reading.

I'm shooting a commercial for tampons, and I need you to pretend to be the really dumb guy who doesn't understand what a tampon is, and all you have to do is put that smirk on your face and turn up at 3pm on Friday, get some makeup done, then we'll shoot you holding this really cool box this amazing designer came up with, and the director will tell you what to do (he's amazing!!!), and the costume (wow, those designers, amazing!!!!!!!), trust me, the team is amazing, you'll have a ball. We'll send your agent the $3000 (how much is she getting, is it 15%) and then it'll all be good. We're paying a sh*tload to screen this Australia wide, and your face is going to be on trams and buses and basically everywhere and anyway, can you do it?


What do you mean no?

Oh. Okay. We'll get someone else.


love anonymous #213

won't you buy my pretty flowers said...

As an actor studying at the VCA, I have been lucky enough to experience the artistic independence that Gerstle provokes in her artists. As I read the deeply emotive discussion that follows Alison's review of 'yes', two thoughts came to mind. The first is 'how wonderful' that the show has provoked such fervent dialogue. The second is speckled with Irony; it is my opinion that as a community we do not spend enough time dialoguing about process. The ‘hidden’ nature of the rehearsal and the secrecy that often shrouds a performer’s practice means that we limit our opportunity to grow as artists and as a community. The personal nature of the animosity that has been slung around in this discussion is further evidence to me that we need are unrehearsed at the practice of articulation and this is ironic, because one of Optic Nerve's primary objectives as I understand is to assist that very cause and be a hub of practical research and inquiry - that is transparent in their methodological approach.

I think Nick C's response is very interesting and his provocations will no doubt take the company further in their investigation. I have included below an Interview I did with Tanya Gerstle a couple of weeks ago. I was approached by vibewire to write a feature interview with Gerstle. I initially felt reluctant to approach it. Ethnographically speaking, would an ‘insider's’ description of an artist and their process be as interesting or as useful as an ‘outsider's’ account, given that traces of subjectivism would be practically unavoidable? In many ways, that question is up to you as the reader. I believe it is very important for the reasons I have laid out above and below. Perhaps it may provide readers with a further insight into methodology of the ensemble.

Yoshi Oida speaks of a famous Japanese saying in his book, The Invisible Actor. He quotes: “It is better to spend three years looking for a good teacher than to occupy the same period of time doing exercises with someone inferior”. One could be forgiven for feeling bemused by the possibility that it might take three years to find such a mentor, particularly when the definition of ‘good teaching’ in our Australian political landscape is frequently reduced to a series of ticks in boxes. Oida however, speaks in a far more composite way about the intricacies of learning that are worthy of consideration in this equation. For him, the acquisition of skill is nothing more than a language for conceptual understanding, and never the sole purpose of study. He believes that in the hands of a ‘good teacher’, one has the opportunity to transcend technique and experience freedom. The sense of autonomy that Oida speaks of so necessitously is a rare gift that extends beyond the style or technique one sets out to ‘learn’, so that the consequence of instruction becomes a profound and far-reaching investigation with the self. In an artistic landscape where life and art invariably share a shameless duplicity, it makes sense that at least one theatre-maker in Australia has devoted a significant proportion of her life to the exploration of this premise in the training of young actors.

Tanya Gerstle, Lecturer in Acting at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), launches her new performance group OpticNerve into the Melbourne theatre scene next week at fortyfivedownstairs. The group will perform two works in their season, both of which have been adapted and directed by Gerstle, and performed in recent times at VCA. Yes, based on the film by Sally Potter, is a story of cross-cultural lovers, whose desire collides with politics and faith. It explores the disposability of the human experience and interrogates the audience with the primal uncertainties of who to include, who to exclude and how to measure the difference. Five kinds of Silence is based on a radio play by Shelagh Stephanson and tells the disturbing tale of the destructive cycle of silence and abuse - of ordinary people surviving extraordinary circumstances. Gerstle describes the launch as an opportunity for the work to “come out and play”, a way to bridge the training laboratory with the profession. For some this might seem a dangerous task, however Gerstle’s veracious spirit and sensitivity to the interconnectedness of every artistic experience means that her roles as educator and theatre-maker are inextricably linked.

Gerstle’s artistic journey began as an actor where she worked in both Australia and Europe. She describes herself during this period as being a “highly politicised, precocious thinker”. As a young feminist actor, she became committed to the theatre because she believed it was the most effective vehicle for making a political statement. In this formative period of her artistic life Gerstle was busy with experimentation, seeking out a vast array of processes that varied in their intellectual, physical, esoteric, avant-garde and conventional forms. As she honed her preferences for particular encounters, she transitioned into theatre-making and eventually teaching, eager to find a process that might give other actors the experiences she valued.

Gerstle describes her lecturing period at VCA as a kind of incubation, a laboratory, where her process has evolved from creative collaborations with students and her colleagues, such as the former Head of Drama Lindy Davies. In this time she has directed over twenty productions, including Top Girls by Caryl Churchill and Fefu & her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes. Gerstle is inherently attracted to controversy and paradox. She is concerned with the theatrical experience, the live event, where the audience is asked to participate, and where images are “burnt into their retinas”. Both plays in the upcoming season are products of this theatrical aesthetic and her theatre-making process.

Gerstle’s approach to theatre making came from a desire to work with actors and text in a way that was not reductive or behavioural. She has developed a training mechanism known as ‘pulse’ that allows an ensemble of improvising performers to jam together, responding to external sources and internal impulse. Within this there is an emphasis on the creation of imagery that is lyrical, poetic and metaphorical. The training challenges the performer to act on impulse with total conviction and to make ‘decisions’ in action. Gerstle has been known to describe the improvisational element of her training as the act of dancing on the edge of failure, in anticipation of a miracle. The actors use this tool in rehearsal to physically explore the text in an abstract way. They relate to the text and create a physical landscape that is expressionistic. The final product is an experience for the audience where they are listening to a coherent and literal narrative, but are seeing an altered world through the action of the actors; in other words, the physical track becomes the subtext for the text.

In addition to this process Gerstle is interested in working with text that comes from artistic mediums other than theatre. Five kinds of Silence, which was first explored in 2004, is a radio play. The challenge was to take text that was deeply evocative with a beautiful dramatic structure and see if something that had no intended physical embodiment could be transported to the stage. Similarly, the text for Yes was adapted from the film script which was prescriptive in its action for the camera; this too was replaced in rehearsal with physical explorations generated by the actors in process. In this way, Gerstle trustingly deposits the pure text into the creative minds of her actors, allowing them to create a physical terrain that moves beyond the original form.

Gerstle is consumed with the idea of creative partnerships. Her rehearsal space is a collaborative milieu where ideas and provocations are fervently flung about with just the right balance of sacredness and irreverence. There is zealousness in the way Gerstle nurtures these relationships with her actors. She is demanding of life and of experience, which means she is always operating from a place of curiosity and investigation in her own practice rather than of judgment. Gerstle’s devotion to dialoguing means that there is a fluency and transparency in her interactions. The atmosphere of possibility this creates in space is electric.

Her vision for OpticNerve is that it will become a home for artists who are hungry to continue working with her process after they leave VCA. Gerstle is similarly excited about creating a forum for people outside the community who are keen to explore the process. She hopes that OpticNerve will be a hub of research and enquiry that will celebrate with an ensemble united in their desire for exploration of material that is dynamic and transformative.

As a developing artist there is something deeply rousing about watching this ‘good teacher’ take public leaps of faith, exposing her creative spirit. Gerstle’s actions leave us with no choice but to reciprocate her generosity and risk big ourselves, a gesture that is destined to be a potent influence on our theatrical landscape for years to come.

Anonymous said...

I remember having had problems with Cartwright's casting the first time I saw the production. I was more concerned, however, by the fact that the role of the born-again Christian kitchenhand, Virgil, who is played in the film by black actor Wil Johnson, was being played by Terry Yeboah, who is also black. (Terry also appeared in advertising for the production, his head resting in Meredith Penman's lap. I remember being shocked by this, given that Cartwright was the one playing He. Perhaps people wouldn't have known that the play was about a inter-racial relationship if Cartwright had been on the poster?) I didn't really believe Terry's casting in the so-called "black role" had been coincidental, and this was confirmed by the role's casting this time around. Terry has been off playing the role of the Other in The Pain and the Itch, so another actor "of colour" was cast instead. Obviously, someone who has seen both productions and the film would be more likely to take note of this tendency than someone who hasn't. I agree that the production is beautiful (though for me the interest remains in the manner in which the theatrical productions do something entirely different to the film), but the casting of the role of Virgil along racial lines remains a significant fault.

John Branch said...

All I want to say is, what a great idea, making a play out of that film script. I wish I could see it. Thanks for reporting on it, Alison.