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Still Angela: national tour

Alaska in my freezer

Virginia Baxter talks to Jenny Kemp

Magraret Mills, Jenny Kemp, Simon Wilton, Still Angela (Rehearsal) Magraret Mills, Jenny Kemp, Simon Wilton, Still Angela (Rehearsal)
Courtesy of The Australian
After an interminable wait, Australia finally has a touring circuit for contemporary performance. Mobile States links venues in 5 cities: PICA in Perth, Performance Space in Sydney, Salamanca Arts Centre in Hobart, Brisbane Powerhouse and North Melbourne Town Hall. The other partner in the venture is Performing Lines. First cab off the rank is Jenny Kemp’s Still Angela in August-September touring 5 cities (but not Melbourne)—Adelaide joins the circuit this time with performances at Star Theatres hosted by Vitastatistix, This is great news for Australian audiences but also for artists whose work has long deserved a wider audience. If Australia really was the land of the fair go, Jenny Kemp would be a household name by now. As it is, she’s well-known and respected in Melbourne but her works have only rarely been invited interstate.

Making a writer-director

Given the education focus in this issue, I asked Kemp to talk about her training. Recently she’s been teaching young directors and animateurs at the VCA, swapping roles with partner Richard Murphet who’s on leave to concentrate on his writing. Born in 1949, the daughter of artist Roger Kemp, she acknowledges family life as offering important early training in understanding art, spatial dynamics, “how everything works within the frame and continues beyond it, the figurative and non-figurative world. We were always drawing, always talking about art.” She trained as an actor at NIDA with the likes of Gillian Jones and Nico Lathouris in the days when the intake for the first year was around 40. Not finding her name amongst the 12 accepted into second year, she headed instead for England where she gravitated towards experimental theatre circles including a US company called Liquid Theatre that gave her a sense of theatre as total experience. Back in Australia, a seminal influence came in the form of New York’s Rowena Balos in Melbourne for a 5-month workshop sponsored by the Myer Foundation. Balos introduced Kemp to the intimate connections between body and breath and their relationship to text.

In the Balos workshop she met actor Rob Meldrum who asked her to join Stasis Group, a laboratory company working within the Pram Factory and interested in investigating the relationship between the body, space, action, rhythm and text. “We were doing Shakespeare and Ibsen but at the same time building performance, asking questions: What is performance? Why perform? What is the relationship with the audience?”

John Ellis at Rusden College of Advanced Education (later part of Deakin University) invited Kemp to direct student productions. “This was extremely valuable training in developing your own practice, working with students on plays by Artaud and Strindberg and at the same time learning to work within an institution.”

Later she was invited to teach at the VCA where she worked on classical texts: Racine, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams. This constituted a major period of training in trial and error. “I’d stay up late trying to work out, what is directing?” She drew on the Rowena Balos work, that actor training and her solid background in the visual arts.

A continuing preoccupation was the theatrical frame and the connection between what was happening on the stage and the way ideas were being received by the audience. Later, this linked to her interest in dreams and their analysis—the idea that theatre is synonymous with dream because you’re both watching and participating in the event and dreams are full of metaphor and symbols. “They represent something else. Like the visual arts and theatre they are non-literal.”

Kemp sees attending theatre and analysing her reaction to it as another form of training—being an active audience rather than a reductive one (“I didn’t like it”), asking yourself when you’re engaged or disengaged, why?

What differences does she detect in training directors now? Being a female director was pretty unusual when she set out. Also she went into theatre with no academic training. “These days you’re much more likely to have an undergraduate degree before you tackle NIDA or VCA. You’re required to be more educated. Those pathways that used to exist that you could negotiate with sheer experience or will are not so evident. This is not a bad thing necessarily. These days there are more resources. Technology makes more complexity possible. There’s much more knowledge of performance and broadly there’s more freedom to play with form in multimedia and interdisciplinary work. However, as soon as you add more freedom, you encounter another problem. What are the boundaries?”

Still Angela

Still Angela looks at a repressed memory of loss. “Basically, all of my plays are negotiating something that has been pushed under but comes back (in Freud’s terms, “the return of the repressed”), perhaps sexuality, subjectivity, spontaneity, autonomy, grief, desire. And the plays attempt to give form to the way we psychically order and negotiate experience.

“When something returns after being submerged for quite a long time it can come back in strange forms and with strange distortions. In a way, as a writer, I feel like I work with this energy—both as a kind of fuel for my writing and as a focus for the conceptual work. The plays give voice to women’s experience, not that it’s exclusive to women, but it happens to be particular to women. So for instance Call of the Wild (1989) was looking at a young mother in her domestic role and the way society and religion had repressed her. Remember (1993) concerns a woman who has been raped. Black Sequin Dress (1996) is about a housewife going out to a nightclub in a glamorous dress and slipping and falling on the nightclub floor. I see these explorations as ‘experiential narratives’.”

Time and space are crucial considerations in all of Kemp’s works. “I’ve always felt that the way time is organised in our society is repressive and has resulted in a shutting down of space, both inside and outside ourselves. This is a space I want to open up in my performance work.” Still Angela began with a rumination on time and an image that wouldn’t go away, of a woman of 40 sitting in a chair on a shiny floor. She is still: “There’s this illusion propagated that we don’t have any time, that we’re sort of running out of time. I think this is really interesting…It actually starts when as children at school we’re told that there are certain things for which there is no time—things like daydreaming, remembering, waiting, imagining, thinking slowly.

“To find a form for these ideas I organise the performance narrative around 2 grids. I structure this by creating a visual storyboard, which I then workshop further with the group. One line is moving forward on a linear narrative structure—a causal concept of time. Then there’s the other part of the grid, the vertical where the movement is downwards, sometimes backwards. This is where time is no longer a factor. Time stops. It’s like timelessness or eternity—Aboriginal people have a concept called ‘the eternal now’ in which the past goes on existing in the present. I’m interested in dream states, unconscious states, meditative states, memory, states based on extreme emotion when our sense of time dissolves. I’m looking for a form which can give expression to the relationship that we continually negotiate between the everyday world of social time and the imaginary or inner worlds of asocial or acausal time.

“The action of stopping and the image of sitting on a chair and staying there and not getting up—that one particularly fascinated me. How was I going to find anything (dramatic) in it?”

Angela 3: A kitchen, a kitchen sink, a window, a clothes line out the window, a chair on which I sit. A small table. Lino under the chair, checks, an ordered type of lino. Pink shiny walls. Flesh pink. A kettle. A stove, a few saucepans, a bench, a chopping board. All these things to keep me going. Cups, saucers, knives and forks. A fridge, frozen food, ice blocks. Alaska in my fridge, mini Alaska. A broom, a blowfly, a back door.

The longer she is still the deeper Angela goes inside herself. Slowly, over the course of the performance, the constituents of this woman’s inner world are released in acts of remembering, sifting, deep thinking. Slowly begins to dialogue with 3 versions of herself at different ages.

The miraculous sleight of hand in Kemp’s work is that she takes a woman on a chair and spins her into the social realm, the landscape, the stratosphere and then returns her safely to the earth. How does she make this intimate world so vast?

“One experiences an extensive, diverse world inside oneself, a large and complex sphere, a deep place. After all, it reflects years of life, the unconscious realm, the dream world, memory, images retained (which give us our) ability to play, conjure, to practice the future. And when you think of it our ability to imagine affects our capacity to act, to do. Whatever we do, we imagine first.”

There’s a deceptive spareness in Kemp’s texts that contrasts with the seismic shifts that take place as we enter the meditative realm of her theatre. As well as the idea of characters sharing space with their past and future selves, Kemp’s staging is seductive and highly sophisticated. Her regular collaborators include a fine ensemble of performers, composer Elizabeth Drake, designer Jacqueline Everitt, choreographer Helen Herbertson, lighting designer David Murray and, for Still Angela, filmmaker Ben Speth. All contribute immensely to the creation of this lush cosmos.

And who is this Angela? “She’s a human being who’s getting older, becoming an adult. There’s a time you do that, realise you’re no longer a child. It happens, most obviously, every birthday (and probably each day between).”

Embarking on this tour of Still Angela, which premiered at Playbox in 2002, has entailed some re-thinking of the original which Jenny Kemp has embraced with customary enthusiasm. “I’m very happy to re-work and re-write. It’s like I’ve been a snail travelling. This is a chance to look at the trail I’ve left behind me.”

Quotes are from a phone interview with Jenny Kemp and from a talk she delivered as part of Getting the Word Out, a RealTime/Performance Space forum held in November 2003. The full transcript will be online shortly.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 6

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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