Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, is, before anything else, an empty space – ready to be filled with light, sound, performers, seating banks and audience; with ushers at the door waiting to let everyone in or everyone out. But SONG is an experience with no seating bank, and no performers, in the theatrical sense; not even a definite beginning or end. Instead, says Director Adriano Cortese, it’s a song cycle set within an evolving environment and inspired by elements of the landscape: the sun and the moon, the movement of air or water – even the scents of nature are part of SONG’s immersive world.
SONG’s cavernous ‘space’ will be filled with the music of UK musician James Tyson; with a light-and-sound world created between shifting skies and cushioning grass; and with scents devised by perfumer George Kara. SONG’s Designer, and co-conceiver of the work with Cortese, is Brazilian visual artist Laura Lima, whose previous works thoughtfully evoke both dreams and the everyday, and press at the borders of both performance and sculpture.
“We encourage the audience to move around the space during the performance,” says Cortese, “…to stand, sit, lie down or curl up, leave and get a beer, as the experience will be different depending on where you are in the space.”
Cortese wants SONG to be a subtle experience: “to give the audience the time and space to have a personal and perhaps unconscious connection to the work”.
Musician James Tyson first worked with Laura Lima in 2004, when he presented her piece, To Age, at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, Wales, where he was theatre and dance programmer – and where Ranters Theatre has toured several times. Several years later, in 2011, Cortese met Lima at the Lyon Biennale, where some of her work was being shown.
“We began talking about ‘theatre’ and how we accept traditional paradigms very easily,” says Cortese. “How mostly, we sit down passively and watch a show, watch the performers bow at the end. This ‘active’ performer and ‘passive’ audience idea distorts the relationship between the two. We want the audience to create the meaning of the work through a ‘moment-by-moment’ relationship to it.”
Lima says that when Tyson and Cortese invited her to work on SONG, she immediately saw an opportunity “to put in effect a dislocation of the way I approach my work”.
“I like to play and alter the expected relationships between images, symbols, signs, roles… I suggested the idea of a theatre without actors and the idea was enthusiastically accepted,” she says.
“My work sometimes involves people or living things, but I have tried very hard [with SONG] to stay clear of performance and theatricality. So to me this was a great challenge. In SONG some living things disappear – the actors – and others appear – the public. I’m interested in what happens with this counterpoint of appearances and disappearances.”
When James Tyson came to Melbourne to write SONG’s song cycle with Ranters Theatre, he had just come from the isle of Guernsey, in the English Channel, Cortese says.
“He had a book in the rehearsal room: The Toilers of the Sea, written by Victor Hugo when he was in exile on Guernsey. We decided to all read the book, and see what happened. We obviously didn’t want to do the book but were taken with some of the themes: relationship to the natural world, isolation, toil, and a kind of Romanticism.”
Cortese felt that most people have some relationship to these themes, “even if they are in the background”.
“It seems that Romanticism is not that fashionable – maybe because it’s so common and doesn’t seem like fun! There is a struggle associated with it; I think it exists mostly as a deeply personal state that doesn’t get a lot of expression. You need time and space for it to rise to the surface.”
SONG’s design, says Cortese, grew out of Laura Lima’s response to Tyson’s songs.
“James’s songs are very subtle, complex and delicate. They’re not literal or obvious. They mostly do not fit the mould of traditional songs with hooks and choruses, etc. Sometimes they are fragments. Sometimes they feel like they end in suspension.”
“Laura’s process involved lots of listening to the songs. She played them continually in her Rio house for a period of time. From this experience she decided that a constructed ‘nature’ would be an interesting idea to work with.”
“Lots of the songs give a sense of the natural world combined with internal private thoughts and expressions. We discussed the fact that Brazilians and Australians have a strong connection to nature, but from opposing experiences. We have the internal desert and they have internal jungle. There is a tension that can exist between our experience of so-called real nature and a constructed ‘nature’ placed within the classical 19th-century architecture of Arts House main hall.”
“Maybe this can say something about how we view nature – where it exists for us – a kind of displacement.”
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Fri 12 – Sun 21 April 2013