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It’s all about you

Gail Priest: FOLA, Arts House

Tristan Meecham and contestants, Game Show Tristan Meecham and contestants, Game Show
photo Ponch Hawkes
Attending a live art event? Make sure you go prepared. You’ll need conversational skills with subjects ranging from the banal to the topical to the personal; comfortable clothing so you’re ready for anything; and a special talent wouldn’t go astray. Can you tell a story, play an instrument? How’s your donut tossing?

Live art is all about you, the audience: your participation, your input, your content. This is framed to varying degrees by the artist in forms ranging from large-scale spectacular to intimate conversation. Well, these seemed to be the dominant modes of presentation during the Arts House weekend of the Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

The spangles

You couldn’t get a bigger or more glittery work than the long-awaited Game Show, conceived by Tristan Meecham, the team from Aphids and producer Bec Reid. For months we’ve been hearing how Meecham was going to offer up all his personal possessions as prizes in his very own game show creation and as we enter the theatre it’s all on display.

We first see Meecham backstage via video, his hair hilariously painted on, his teeth whitened to glow in the dark. He’s accompanied by Jon & Jon (their real names), an adagio acrobatics duo resplendent in purple leotards who provide all manner of elevations for Meecham. The cast is huge, with razzle-dazzle dance provided by the Body Electric group and THECHOIR hand-clapping in shiny purple robes led by Jonathan Welch. And then there are the 50 contestants.

The games are ridiculous and designed to get rid of participants fast. For the first game, the Glorious Donut Hole, Meecham dons a unicorn horn to become the centre spike in a round of quoits as participants fling fake oversized donuts at him. In The Heroic Spilling of One Thousand Imperial Balls the participants must, via all manner of suggestive gyrations, spill the ping pong balls that are housed in boxes belted to their waists. The adjudication begins fairly but becomes random as the group diminishes until there are only two contestants who are then given one minute to bring whatever they want of Meecham’s onto the stage from the showcase area. While they are allowed help from a “Jon” it does pretty much rule out Meecham’s larger household items. But that’s okay, they’d be boring prizes anyway. After trying to guess which item Meecham values more (allowing him another little cheat—he can always lie to save a precious thing) there’s only one contestant left standing and they must go up against Meecham in a celebrity smile off. On the night I saw the show, Meecham faced stiff competition and the contestant left the happy owner of Meecham’s childhood troll doll collection and the portrait he painted in Year 10 art class of Dame Edna Everage.

Leavening the hardcore silliness are video interviews with Meecham’s family and partner who don’t hold back on their character assessments of our host and his lifelong pursuit of the spotlight. Most illuminating is an interview with a real TV Game show producer, Jess Murphy. Her comments on the nature of fame, the machinations of media and the role of the participants as fodder gave the piece that extra edge of critique, even if the show relied a little too heavily on it near the conclusion. But overall Game Show delivered on its promise of high-reality farce with a healthy dose of explicit and implicit commentary on the pursuit of fame and material wealth, as well as challenging ideas around the agency of the ‘participant.’

Sam Halmarack  & the Miserablites, FOLA Sam Halmarack & the Miserablites, FOLA
photo Ponch Hawkes
The jangles

Sam Halmarack has come all the way from Bristol to do a show, but his band, the Miserablites, have gone AWOL. It’s a simple premise, well executed including huddled whispers from front of house staff and a delayed start. The first time I see the show (I accidentally get swept in the door for a second showing later that night) the audience is almost as uneasy as Halmarack. We know it’s a ruse, but his painful awkwardness allows for doubt, or at the very least elicits sympathy. As the minutes tick by we wonder how we’re going to pass this time together. Halmarack starts to talk about his band, and then produces a rehearsal DVD—a DIY guide to being a Miserablite—and before long there are people playing the keyboard and glockenspiel, banging the drums and we’re all backup singers. It’s a full-band karaoke experience. Halmarack is charming, with a quiet passion for his music—a melancholy pop that stays in your brain (annoyingly) for days—and manages to subtly deepen the experience so that it is not purely parodic.

Fascinatingly, the ten o’clock show is a very different experience. The crowd is live art cognoscenti, so accustomed to participation that they play along too hard, aggressively helpful when not asked to be and reticent when it’s required. Halmarack pulled the performance back on track, but some joy and subtlety was lost in the process. In this case fellow performers make for bad participants, competitively calling Halmarack’s bluff. Perhaps it’s good to remember that even in live art suspension of disbelief is still part of the contract.

The speeches

The popular live art lecture form was not prominent in FOLA, Song-Ming Ang’s charming yet too lecture-like analysis of contemporary love songs aside, but there was certainly no lack of speech-making, offering a respite from audience participation. The main speech-fest was Mish Grigor’s Man O Man created in collaboration with Bron Batten, Halcyon Macleod, Hallie Shellam, Diana Smith and Willoh S Weiland. Grigor set up the premise of a speculative future in which legislation to end the patriarchy would soon pass; we were attendees at a public meeting to vote it in. Though all the speeches had been written by women, it did come as a surprise, and possibly a disappointment to some of us, that the speeches were all delivered by men—ranging from a chauvinist and a passive aggressive SNAG to an oppressed gay boy. Although it was perplexing as we longed to hear the women’s perspective, on reflection I believe its absence gave the work a devastating depth. Grigor seems to be saying that the patriarchy will not end until men have convinced themselves that its demise is their idea. There was some great writing, some overwriting and some stage effects that didn’t work at all, the ambitious piece clearly showing its short development time, but it was certainly intriguing and I was moved when we all raised our hands in the vote that ended the patriarchy. For just a moment the dream was real.

Other speeches included Paul Gazzola’s letter to the Australia Council, calling for an independent artist representative on the Board. The speech forms part of his larger Gold Coin project which explores the idea of value, exchange and artists’ role within this system. Particularly impressive was the work-in-progress presentation by Emma Beech of her Life is Short and Long project exploring the idea of crisis, inspired by the effects of the GFC in Spain and Australia’s ongoing crisis of identity. Beech is a charismatic presenter with a sharp mind for connections, nuance and gentle humour. I look forward to seeing where this work goes.

Oh and Sarah Rodigari pulled off a heroic all-nighter with A Filibuster of Dreams, a 10-hour toast to everyone and perhaps everything she knows. I only experienced the first hour, but this was a gentle and curious endurance meditation that I’d like to enjoy more fully when not so overstimulated by back-to-back events.

The conversations

While speeches were prevalent, the most dominant form was the conversation. Malcolm Whittaker encouraged us to share our ignorance and to draw upon others’ knowledge as an analogue Google machine. Beth Buchanan invited us into a tent to talk about how we do or do not sleep. The Live Art Escort Agency got us all self-reflexive about participation, making some fun and incisive points and Lois Weaver’s Long Table invited us to discuss everything and anything (again) in a reverent and civilised format. And that’s before the multitude of foyer conversations.

The contact

Less prevalent were the direct physical encounters usually found in live art. Those included were non-confrontational and pleasurable. Julie Vulcan’s Drift invited us into a curious personal nest of shredded paper where we were given an auxiliary in-ear sound track which augmented the amplified soundtrack played in the space (by Ashley Scott) and rewarded with a hand massage. James Berlyn also concentrated on the hand offering a manicure or a palm reading. I took the latter and felt quite enlightened by the results, even if he was cheating in already knowing my occupation.

The fun

Most of all, Arts House’s program was fun. This made for a very pleasurable weekend and certainly allowed the general public a non-threatening introduction to participatory experiences. Sam Routledge and Martyn Coutt’s I think I Can was a great hit as audiences created stories for tiny characters inhabiting a model railway set up by a local club of enthusiasts (see image on page 35). Unable to shake my Protestant upbringing, I did wonder if I was having too much fun. Many of the works trod lightly, avoiding heavier and headier issues. Perhaps this was a deliberate curatorial choice, but I missed the presence of something truly provocative, sexy, shocking, bloody even. And I got a little tired of doing all the work, supplying the content and conversation. Call me old fashioned but I do think the artist should give me just a bit more than I’m giving them. However taken as a whole, the inaugural FOLA was big, playful and wonderfully generous.

Festival of Live Art (FOLA); Arts House North Melbourne Town Hall, Meat Market, 20-23 March;

Thanks to Arts House, in particular Angharad Wynne-Jones, Ben Starick and Kristy Doggett.

Head to realtime tv to see video interviews with Tristan Meecham, Sam Halmarack, Nicola Gunn and Beth Buchanan.

See also John Bailey's review of Bryony Kimming's Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, part of FOLA at Theatre Works

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 15

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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