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A murderous month in the country

Fiona Sprott on the evolution of a new performance

Caroline Daish, Falling Snow, short film made during the residency Caroline Daish, Falling Snow, short film made during the residency
photo Fiona Sprott
In May this year I undertook a HotHouse Theatre Artist Residency—A Month in the Country—with Jason Sweeney and Caroline Daish of Unreasonable Adults, a hybrid performance ensemble based in Adelaide but with members in other states. We came together to develop Last To See Them Alive, a performance based on my research towards a Master of Creative Arts at UTS.

The residency takes place in Albury where we are provided with a farmhouse, a large rehearsal studio and a vehicle. We move in, put the kettle on and begin to design Caroline’s (first) demise.

The Last To See Them Alive plays with what it means to be the victim and/or the victor in the games of serial murder and serial monogamy. In a single girl’s life which will come first—marriage or murder? We spend quite a bit of time imagining murder scenes—some taken from true-life crimes, and some lifted from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Wire in the Blood and Sex and the City (full of ‘little deaths’ if not murder). To understand the serial killer and serial monogamist we became serial viewers. Our longest shift of straight viewing of various sex crimes (whether those of a criminal nature, or related to sex etiquette) was 8 hours. Here’s a question for Carrie: is it still a crime if you orgasm while being raped?

With the popularity of crime fiction and the recent trend of positioning true crime stories in women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines I had to ask: what is so appealing to single girls about serial killers? Is this the kind of book a woman reads when she says, “I’d rather read a book most nights than have sex”? There are ‘little deaths’ during sexual intercourse (if you’re lucky), but there are pages upon pages of big, bloody, visceral death scenes in crime fiction that offer a greater and more prolonged thrill. Fear lingers whilst orgasms subside? Terror embeds in the body and mind while men come and go?

Each of the texts we are working with attempts to answer a key question: where do narratives of terror and pleasure intersect in the body and how does this translate into performed ‘character’? I have written a series of monologues which propose a ‘character’ of a single girl and her relationship to a serial killer, distorting the traditional romantic fantasy portrayed in romance fiction to ask: ‘How do you meet Mr Right in an age of Serial Killers?’ Imagine if Carrie Bradshaw accidentally wandered into the world of SVU—a space in which terror becomes a pleasure to anticipate.
Caroline Daish, Falling Snow, short film made during the residency Caroline Daish, Falling Snow, short film made during the residency
photo Fiona Sprott
We begin our creative development by setting ourselves tasks designed by Jason which help us to break down and exploit the texts—we conduct tours of the death sites around the house, invite people into the pathological interior of the home in which acts of violence are romantic interludes, dig up buried bones of previous victims in the garden, host a sinister tea party and confess to rape fantasies whilst preparing dinner. We explore what it means to tell a story about yourself through the spaces you inhabit—how would a stranger make sense of your life by reading your home, the way you make the bed (or don’t), the placement of objects, the choices you make in furnishings? How would you set up your home if you knew with certainty that one day, a serial rapist or killer was going to break in and attack you? Is it possible to influence your own victimology report and, if so, does this still make you a victim or a victor?

These tasks become a constant experiment in form—how is the performer positioned in an interaction with an audience in an intimate setting (a house)? How intimate can this interaction become? One scene takes place on the couch in the loungeroom waiting for a gentleman caller, constructing the crime scene with the audience; a scene in a bathtub with one audience member, holding carving knives and hiding from the threat outside—“He was here last night, I know it!” Serving tea and biscuits as dual personalities fight for control of murderous impulses and the longing for a gentle touch. Sitting at the piano by moonlight singing about the serial killer BTK: “have you ever asked yourself why you’re so interested in what he did to those women but couldn’t care less about what he took from them?” A tour outside the house in silence as a woman, naked beneath a yellow rain, coat digs up the bones of a victim—the silent witness reaching out from beyond the grave.

Unreasonable Adults will present Last To See Them Alive as a Scratch Night for the Studio at the Sydney Opera House in late February 2007, working with Julie Vulcan (one of the members of the ensemble and of Sydney’s FRUMPUS). From there, it is expected that the work will premiere as part of the Mutations program for the SPILL Festival of Contemporary Performance in London in April, 2007 run by the UK’s The Pacitti Company. In the meantime, Unreasonable Adults have been presenting another work, GIFT/BACK, as part of Electrofringe in Newcastle.

It would be difficult to overstate how beneficial this residency has been for both the project, and the team of collaborative artists involved. The space to relax and create is such a privilege. The reception by HotHouse staff, and the community (a special mention for the staff at Electra café on Dean Street) was warm and friendly. This is a simple model for creative development, one that sadly is not replicated elsewhere. At a time when the Theatre Board of the Australia Council for the Arts is opening up a dialogue about the future direction of funding for the theatre arts it seems important to note the incredible value of such initiatives.

For more on Unreasonable Adults:

Fiona Sprott’s performance texts Often I find that I am naked and Partly it’s about love, partly it’s about massacre have been performed internationally. Easy Ryder premiered at the 2005 Adelaide Cabaret Festival and drowning in my ocean of You was produced by State Theatre Company of South Australia in its 2003 the laboratory program.

A Month in the Country: how much longer?

Residency places and programs for performing artists of the kind visual artists and writers are used to (if in lesser numbers in Australia than in many other countries) are very rare, especially ones that take them right away from the pressures of everyday life. HotHouse’s unique Month in the Country provides a former farmhouse near Albury, a large adjoining timber-floored studio, funds towards travel and living costs and has been home to hundreds of artists over the last 3 years. They include Lano & Woodley, Angus Cerini, Sue Broadway, Zeal Theatre, Tamarama Rock Surfers, My Darling Patricia, Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Wesley Enoch, Jacklyn Bassanelli, Ingrid Voorendt, PACT Youth Theatre, Eleanor Brickhill and collaborators working with a number of these artists. The program now faces a doubtful future. One-off initiative funding for the first 3 years from Arts NSW has finished and a new application has had to be made, while Arts Victoria, some capital works establishment funding aside, has offered no support across the period despite 50% of the artists using the program coming from Victoria. I asked HotHouse Artistic Manager Charles Parkinson what will happen to the scheme if funding is not forthcoming from NSW. He says that if artists want to use the space, but without financial support, Hot House will continue to make it available. Although sometimes rented out or occasionally used by HotHouse itself, Parkinson says that the residency program is “primarily a service for the industry.” He doesn’t understand why funding bodies can’t see that performing artists have the same need as visual artists and writers for creative isolation. It’s not uncommon, he reports, that artists say that they’ve achieved more in the few weeks of their residency than in months in the city. The program has allowed artists to work with each other across state borders, provided ideal studio space so rare in cities, and as Fiona Sprott reports on this page, combines creativity and relaxation, a hard-won pairing for many artists, and one that allows for invaluable reflection. KG

HotHouse Theatre: A Month in the Country,

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 46

© Fiona Sprott; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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