By Urszula Dawkins
For Arts House’s Season 1 CultureLAB artists, a hard day at work could mean anything from re-working and re-rehearsing a scene that just isn’t cutting it; to dreaming, reading and writing in a tiny room inside the North Melbourne Town Hall clocktower; to working with an award-winning architect on a set full of folding boxes; to running through ideas for a game where the audience will be the players. It’s rare for audiences to get a public glimpse of what goes on in the studio before a work is finished, but on 11 May Arts House’s doors open for a day of show-and-tell, feedback and exchange, aptly titled Undone.
Events like Undone enable artists and audiences to engage with work in a different way from the normal presentation season, according to Arts House Creative Producer, Angharad Wynne-Jones. “For artists I think it’s a chance for them to connect with other artists, and to see the questions and issues that other artists are dealing with,” she says. “And I think there’s a real appetite from audiences to become more immersed in the process of a work as well as experiencing the final version.”
So for the punter who heads down to Undone, is it a day of serious input and response? Or a super-sampler of ten-or-so shows in the making? Wynne-Jones says it will be both, and everything in between.
“The invitation to the audience is different for each of the artists, and I think that’s the kind of delicatessen excitement: that you won’t necessarily know until you step into the rehearsal or the participatory work that’s actually being tested.
As well as seeing what’s cooking in the CultureLAB, audiences get a chance to contribute to the creation process in various ways, “at the same time sampling the kind of energy that happens with the burst of a new idea”. While finished work is polished and coherent, Wynne-Jones says, there’s something special about the moment “when someone’s just cracking into a great idea”.
Tristan Meecham is working with a handful of artists from Aphids to produce his Game Show, a participatory work which has already had a first development in Brisbane, where it was tested with community participants. Game Show operates on the premise that the host, Meecham, has to give away all his possessions as prizes; having established that the basic format is working, Meecham’s CultureLAB development has been delving into the detail. At Undone, Meecham says, he and the Aphids team are hoping to test a short section of the show, perhaps with a few audience contestants.
“It’s [only when you] have participants and people that are able to experiment with you, that you can actually work out what is missing or what is working,” he says.
The questions Meecham would like to ask audiences are both literal and esoteric:
“[For example, whether] people feel willing to participate and whether they feel there’s enough structures and support within the room so that they are willing to go on the ride; whether the world is enticing, whether people respond to the romantic notions of television and the aspirations that are in it – and whether this world does transcend the hollow shininess of a [real] game show. Does what we risk determine what we value?”
Creator Lara Tumak describes her very different project for CultureLAB as “a large-scale installation theatre work about the death of our imagination as we grow older”. Most of her development for Before I Fell Asleep (pictured below) focused on constructing, dismantling and reconstructing a physical environment, as well as the associated dramaturgy.
“I love the idea that even complex works begin with one simple idea, hunch or meeting,” says Tumak. “Seeing the beginning ruminations of a work is like seeing the artist’s sketchbook.”
“Sometimes there are bits that don’t make it to the final show and I love that they [can] be seen in context before they fall onto the cutting-room floor. And sometimes, unexpectedly, the fuzzy little half-formed ideas take flight when they have an opportunity to be seen and shared.”
Undone is a different way of experiencing contemporary performance from the one we’ve been enculturated into, says Angharad Wynne-Jones, at odds with the idea “that you sit down on a chair in the dark and watch something that’s a completed idea [and go] I liked it or I didn’t”.
“I think it’s a quite thrilling opportunity to plunge into the zeitgeist of contemporary performance in Melbourne and get a sense of the ideas and concerns and themes that these generations of artists are working with right now,” she says.
“Contemporary performance is especially responsive to undercurrents within the society that we’re living in and the concerns that we have; and there are certain thematics that are operating through these CultureLABs – there’s a real revisiting around feminism and the female body in relationship to the male body, lots of investigations into identity… On a subconscious level, it’s an opportunity to connect into what we’re thinking about.”
These are conversations that by their nature invite the input of audiences.
“All of the artists want to communicate: they’re not wanting to just have the conversation with themselves. I think the impulse to make work is about creating meaning and making a connection with an audience, so there’s an investment from the artist in the response from the audience in all of these works, in all of those environments.
“With the skills of our fabulous facilitator Jeff Khan, we’ll be able to have that discussion and debate [in the panel session] at the end of the day. Audience members are critical to the development of the work, and hopefully the equation of art + audience = meaning will mean that they feel enabled and important in it.”