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Attempts on Her Life

"its flaws took on an endearing quality"

Saro Lusty-Cavallari bids a fond farewell to the eccentric little theatre in which the audience formed the backdrop to every show.

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Category: Theatre
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KXT: An Elegy In Traverse

Date: 30 Jun 2022

All good eulogies start with an anecdote. A seemingly slight memory that seems to encapsulate what you’ll miss most about something you love.

For me and my relationship with KXT (the common abbreviation of the Kings Cross Theatre), I can’t go past the closing night of our 2021 play, Videotape.

The first play staged in the theatre after the 2020 lockdown, we had been playing our entire season to a capped 40-person audience arranged in a checkerboard pattern. The socially distanced and masked audience were only made more unnerving by the fact that they were facing one another.

If COVID had made going to the theatre a bit strange, at KXT it was downright surreal. But on our final night restrictions had been slightly eased and 75 percent capacity was put in place. The theatre was so ‘full’ that I, the writer and director, had to observe the show from the bio box; and I think it was the most I’ve ever enjoyed watching my own work.

For anyone who has never been backstage at KXT, the bio box is accessed by wading through a sea of as much equipment as the tiny space can store and is situated directly under the air conditioning vent which turns the space into something best described as a fridge.

To my right, my stage manager Claire Ferguson was bravely operating the show’s complex series of sound and video cues from underneath several layers of thermal clothing, like the control operator at an arctic base.

To my left was our ‘surprise’ performer Laura Djanegara, who did not appear until the final scene and had developed a routine of warming herself with a hot tea and blanket while watching Parks & Recreation on an iPad in one hand and furiously participating in Pokemon GO raids in the other.

It was a bizarre little viewing room we had for ourselves and most strangely of all no stage manager can actually see the stage from within that bio box. Instead we watched the performance on the hotel’s security monitors, piping in an eerily removed monochrome view of what was already designed to be an unsettling thriller of a play.

Seeing live theatre through the lens of Kings Cross pub security is not usually considered a ‘treat’ for most theatremakers but being able to watch – in nightvision – my cast cautiously step through their transitions in pitch darkness or zoom in on an audience member gleefully grabbing hold of her friend at every scary moment was something else.

Those cameras were a patchwork solution to the kind of problem that crops up in pop-up venues that grow to become much more than pop-up. And like so many of these little quirks they become a part of the space’s identity that artists and technicians throughout Sydney latch onto.

Turning the problems of underfunded venues into mythologised virtues is simply a part of being a theatremaker in a place like Sydney.

There’s the now-extinct pillar in the Stables that found itself invading a whole era of Australian playwriting; the corner toilet that every set at the Old Fitz has to be built around; the ever-looming threat that your play might have a cameo from a cat in the original TAP Gallery, or the fact that some of Australia’s most significant creatives have cut their teeth in the mould-infested basement of Sydney University’s Cellar Theatre.

Popping up during the 2015 Sydney Fringe in an old nightclub that had been decimated by the lockout laws, there was little reason to expect that bAKEHOUSE’s new venture was to pay off. For one thing, it existed not in a dingy pub basement but on the second floor of a multi-storey Kings Cross hotel owned by a hospitality supergroup.

Secondly there just didn’t seem a way to make the space work. Few remember the attempts to make KXT a proscenium stage but I doubt it set many people dreaming of how they could use the space. With poor sightlines, inefficient stage space and a tiny capacity the venue seemed to outsiders like it may be another one-and-done Fringe experiment.

But John Harrison and Suzanne Miller had a solution that not only made the space viable but added a completely new kind of space to the shrinking independent sector: they put the theatre in true traverse.

With a steep rake the sightline issue was now fixed, assuming you knew how to block your play properly, and audiences began to enjoy the thrill of watching their opposite side take the play in. If you didn’t like a play at KXT, you better be able to hide it because your reaction was now part of the set. After a few disastrous attempts to recreate the proscenium, the rule was put in place: if you wanted to play at KXT you had to do so in traverse.

Whether or not the kind of space appealed to artists, it didn’t matter.

A massive sea change was occurring in Sydney’s independent landscape. The Brandis cuts had the small-to-medium companies running scared as it was but unfunded ventures had a more pressing concern; there was simply no space. The legendarily affordable and unadorned TAP Gallery was closing its doors and Belvoir’s original B Sharp program had turned into a fully funded mainstage program. The Old Fitz had just been taken over by Red Line productions and the old Old 505 had moved from its original Surry Hills home to the Fringe HQ in Newtown.

If venues weren’t closing they were changing address, managers or both. Uncertainty over where independent theatre would settle into was the prevailing mood for emerging artists.

Over time KXT didn’t just develop a loyal community of artists but a loyal audience, too.

It became part of the unofficial off-off-Broadway theatre scene that had sprung up in a lockout-addled Darlinghurst alongside venues like the Fitz, the Eternity, the Hayes and Griffin. And like those legendary spaces its flaws took on an endearing quality to the artists that returned again and again to develop their craft.

As mentioned, the bio box could probably pass food safety inspections as a cold storage unit when the AC was running. If an actor was tall enough or you raised your stage too much, they could literally touch the lights. The two walls weren’t actually parallel and designers had to mask this in any raised stage they built.

The dressing room was in fact a converted bar with no fridge or showers. The lift was not quite big enough to fit flats and thus most bump ins were conducted by heaving sheet after sheet of MDF up the hotel stairs.

Friday and Saturday shows tested both the sound designer and actors’ vocal ability by pitting them against the slowly-returning nightclub scene upstairs. But above all – despite the opportunities it presented – a traverse space is bloody hard to direct for.

The irony of KXT being the first stepping stone for so many artists is that it required mastering the complex blocking of performing to two sides simultaneously. Even Upstairs Belvoir’s half-round has a mid-point that actors can default to but young directors just exiting (or in some cases entering or completely sidestepping) drama school would have their trial by fire of staging a play that could effectively utilise the space.

I’ve directed two plays for KXT and am currently in rehearsals for my third and the thing that keeps me coming back is the belief that I can always do better, that the space is offering a challenge I still haven’t quite overcome.

As the space grew it became a more important part of our ecology.

The stature of artists programmed at the Old Fitz had already been quite large and had progressed to a point where it was increasingly a destination in an emerging career rather than part of the journey. On the other side of things Old 505 struggled to keep audiences in the relative theatre desert of North King St and could not survive the pandemic.

KXT deftly balanced its place in the sector by maintaining a baseline quality control that kept audiences coming back and artists excited to perform there while making sure that programming kept one eye on the next generation of theatremakers and playwrights. The venue became a space for plays that would have felt otherwise homeless, from the lower risk PopUpstairs program in the “Bordello Room” (a truly bonkers space that deserves its own article) to the programming mania of outsourced mini-festivals like Hi-Jacked Rabbit and Panimo Pandemonium.

Writers were given a rare opportunity to preview developing work through Storylines Festival and The Laboratory while actors between shows dived into the juiciest international work with KXTeethcutting. With all these programs frequently resulting in shaping the following year’s season, KXT became a strange hybrid of independent theatre space and professional development hub. Unfunded and with real financial stakes for artists it was far from ‘low-risk’ but it looked to imagine an independent sector that actively sought cooperation, communication and nurturing.

The flipside of this approach to development and programming is that many began to see KXT as a venue fabled for its opportunity of access rather than opportunity of quality.

It was the space where things were possible, a venue that you gravitated to because your work could exist nowhere else. But this massively undersells the aesthetic advantages that the Level 2 space was offering to shows. If you look at the last few seasons at the Old Fitz, there is always the presence of a canonical work predicated on the belief that audiences will be excited to revisit a well-known text in that specific space. Audiences don’t just want to see another Angels In America, Krapp’s Last Tape or A Streetcar Named Desire, they want to see the novelty of these legendary texts crammed into a tiny space.

KXT has always deliberately eschewed such programming because bAKEHOUSE has emphasised its commitment to new and underperformed work but the venue’s unique qualities continued to shine through. The sweeping of the Sydney Theatre Awards by Yellow Face and Symphonie Fantastique is primarily a recognition of those artists’ work, but is it not also proof that KXT – when used properly – can be the home to a completely unique aesthetic experience?

As a KXT resident company, Montague Basement wanted to pivot from our history of presenting new work in the Level 2 space.

Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life had been in our sights for some time and we realised that we needed to do it in a venue we knew so intimately. As it turns out this play would not just be the last show we would perform at the current space, but the last show anyone would perform.

Attempts on Her Life has no characters, prescribed onstage action or any real plot. It is a piece that questions the very nature of representation and language. After the anxiety around theatre’s place in our society following two years where it barely existed it felt appropriate to perform a play that was zooming right out to the larger questions of the form.

Crimp’s text asks its performers and creatives to construct a bold vision in which his dense and slippery text can be housed, and we saw that as a challenge to show how bold a vision at KXT can be. But as it became clear that Attempts on Her Life would be the venue’s swan song we began to throw everything and the dressing-room sink into the show.

We wanted to share that security camera footage that enraptured me above. We wanted to share the pokey intimacy of the dressing room. We wanted to share every little quirk that has become part of the KXT mythology.

For the artists in the audience it will be a reminder of all the little things that we have grown so accustomed to over the years and for everyone else it’s a chance to know KXT in its entirety before its present iteration is gone for good. Attempts on Her Life – if it’s about anything – is about the act of creating something and in a meta-sense this production is about the journeys of creation we’ve gone on in this space that has felt like a second home.

By the time you’re reading this you might know where the new bAKEHOUSE home will be and I’m sure that venue will soon develop its own mythology that eventually reduces the old one to a few memories shared over post-show drinks.

But before that happens, head upstairs once more, through the red door and join us for the final performance in a space that has helped define our independent sector for the better part of a decade.

The final production staged in the Kings Cross Hotel, Attempts on her Life, plays from July 15-30.

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