THE BLANK SLATE COMES ALIVE

Fish & Game’s Alma Mater
By Urszula Dawkins

White – the blank slate. A room, a door. You enter. An iPad. A little girl on the screen – and then…parallel worlds?

“Joy, terror, wonder, intrigue” is how Fish & Game co-director Robert Walton describes Alma Mater – a 20-minute theatre experience that takes a constructed white room and transforms it into a child’s dream-world, through the window of an iPad screen. It’s not a game or a film, a play or an installation, says Walton. It’s between and beyond all these things.

The little girl points to her white bed. You turn, obediently, and follow the line of her gaze.

Walton and collaborator Eilidh MacAskill share an obsession with dream-logic storytelling, video experimentation, and the audience encounter, having spent over a decade creating one-on-one, site-specific and more conventional works together. A “sister piece” to their earlier work, Alma Mater @ Scotland Street School, Alma Mater is freed from the limitations of a specific place by the simplicity of its ‘white box’ set.

The white room itself was a new and interesting constraint, says Walton – one that shifted the direction of the work from the outer world (a school) to the inner sanctum of a child’s bedroom. While the same characters inhabit both Alma Mater and the early-20th-century school setting of the previous work, the work for iPad also plays on the more intimate meaning of the term ‘alma mater’, subtly referring to the ‘nourishing mother’ within the private space.

“[Alma Mater @ Scotland Street School asked] how does the state architecture – the shapes, the spaces and the rules that go with them – how does this affect the growth and development of a child, how does it affect how we learn and grow and be?” says Walton.

“And so we started to think about the child’s bedroom in Alma Mater… This is the opposite of that, this is the private space, that houses the dreams and imagination and processing of the day that you’ve had…it’s a much more psychological and interior thing.”

“That’s why they’re sister pieces – there’s footage from the other show in this one, and so they’re related. I think we chose Lyla, the little girl that’s in this one, because I enjoyed working with her so much in the one before. I started to think about her in this room, and started to think about dream structures, and then I made it have this kind-of wild dream experience. It starts in a very slow way, and then it grows from that.”

A hairbrush, a birdcage. A drawing and a feather. Lyla’s watching you. The piano’s arpeggiating melody tumbles its way across rough ground between the trees… The stark white room maintains its sharp edges while on the iPad, the colours become more lush, the dream unfolds…

Nestled in the family home, the child’s room is both a safe space and a scary one: from the moment the bedroom door is closed at night, there’s nothing to hold onto, the mother isn’t there. Safe on one level, on another, “it’s a whole massive world…”.

“I grew up in a box room like that,” says Walton. “I remember being in that room and staring at objects and being freaked out in the middle of the night – you do see things that are something else and you are petrified in your bed, and you can’t move, and your mind and your senses do play tricks on you.”

“There’s this thing about the parallel evolution of the room and the child: how the child decorates their room tells something about themselves. It’s a representation of themselves – the room changes and then the room reminds the child of who they are again, so it’s like a paralleling of the time they spend together.”

Wonder, says Walton, is one of the reasons he makes performance: “I want people to think about their own sense of wonder and about how they learned things in the first place – what were the experiences that gave them knowledge?”

“To learn things, you often have to take a risk and do something scary – and you have to remember to be open and to allow fantasy and imagination to be part of your life, and to allow yourself to transform through experiences.”

When you enter the white room, who knows what will happen? No one is watching you – will you look at the iPad screen, or not? Will you be pulled in, or restrained? Where will the child’s world intersect with yours?

It’s hard to resist the immersion of colour and sound of Alma Mater, says Walton. Even the silences, he says, draw you in deeper to Lyla’s private world.

“So it’s very dream-like, but she never actually goes to sleep – the camera is constantly aware, constantly awake, and you ghost yourself through it…”

ALMA MATER
Fish & Game (UK/Australia)

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Wed 18 Apr – Sun 13 May 2012

Bookings:
artshouse.com.au
(03) 9322 3713

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About Arts House

Arts House presents contemporary arts in programs encompassing performance, exhibitions, live art, residencies and other activities that nurture, support and stimulate cultural engagement. For more information, please visit artshouse.com.au.
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