“In 2017, on average, I saw three shows a week,” says Antoinette Barbouttis.
“I read a play a week. I counted brushes with friends at the theatre as my social life. I took solace in my solitude. Accepting my own company, I was forced to face my own failures and successive rejections by the theatre industry after I completed my Master’s in Design for Performance at NIDA.
I graduated within a commodity-cohort constricted by cycles of institution and industry. My work was no better or worse than any predecessors, current graduates or future successors, a talented pool of future practitioners whose personalities were much more optimistic, resilient and – eek! – more subservient to the notions of the industry and institution.
I enjoyed my design work, but I had a desire to do more. I spent Saturday nights fantasising about being an industry leader. Maybe one day a girl like me (now twenty-something) could become someone like Barrie Kosky, Benedict Andrews or Björk, providing an environment with fairness at the forefront.
But the lapping tides outside my window smashed this fantasy. In reality I was reading Heiner Goebbels’ Aesthetics of Absence, a reading-homage to my distain for over-design to the sonic backdrop of mumblerap (an important artistic shift of 2017).
I chased theatre this year locally, interstate, internationally. In Adelaide at Festival time I messaged Lars Eidinger on Instagram after he liked a photo of mine. He agreed to meet me, the meeting taking place just prior to his call for Richard III.
We talked current theatre trends and recent shark attacks. I got a quick backstage tour and a seat upgrade.
The show? The Lars I had just met personally and the Richard of Gloucester on stage were inextricable. I was spell-bound. He was undeniably the same man, the generous and humble Lars who had gifted me with tea, knowledge and tickets was the unpredictable, wicked and morbidly depressed Richard, or was it Lars?
To me, it was truth. If this is what theatre was, I was excited. And if this is what acting was I wanted to do it, now (of course, while still designing, if only someone would employ me).
Theatre-viewing luck struck once again, this time in Sydney in the shape of Mr Burns, a hilarious nostalgic approach to the Anthropocene, a production that weighed heavier on the side of form over narrative.
I noticed a new theatre canon evolving. I had developed a taste, not only for post-dramatic theatre, but for the individual artist. I was enthralled by Mitchell Butel: Mr Burns, and him, and the space between – if there was any.
After working on a NIDA production in 2016, John Bashford (Head of Acting at NIDA) became my self-appointed mentor. He took an interest in me as an artist, not just as a designer. While design tutors were reprimanding my child-like model-making skills, John lead personal discussions on theatre, text and performance, a discourse that had somehow been absent from my career and studies.
I told him I wanted to act. He said it was weird but encouraged me anyway. I have absolute faith that John will instil artistry in all his students and that the landscape for theatre will change under his leadership.
However, I failed the NIDA audition first round this year. Had I been successful it would have been be my third time at the institution. I was told to show more emotion in my reading of Hamletmachine, a text about becoming the machine, a text I purposed for NIDA and my current position within the industry.
So I had to pave my own path. I wanted lead by example, even if it spelt disaster. If I could shamelessly shift through theatre, anyone could.
I co-wrote a nonsense play for Bondi Feast, to some success. I finally broke out of my theatre-design mould.
Then, when Tobias Manderson-Galvin asked me to design for Doppelgangster/MKA’s Puntila/Matti at KXT, my work in independent theatre became conditional: I would do it, I said, in exchange for a small role.
A small role, that’s all I thought it was. A post-dramatic, hyper-real, unnoticed performance, full of contemporary Brechtian exposés, an opportunity to flex some minute self-deprecating comedy.
But then the reviews came through. I couldn’t fathom the response then, and I still can’t. The nomination for the Sydney Theatre Awards is as Dada as the performance itself. I’m honoured.
In this time of reflection, I’ve looked back to my admiration for Andy Kaufman and Tim Heidecker and the indistinguishable line between reality and performance. There is a gap, for this to happen in theatre in Sydney. So I am reframing my day-to-day life as performance.
The theatre, mostly institutional, needs to place more emphasis on the individual, in turn exposing an honesty that is so integral to contemporary theatre and performance.
Learning the craft and skill is necessary, but progress and subversion within the theatre landscape requires a shift, the taking of risks, owning and exposing your own eccentricities. I’ve seen many in the Sydney – Virginia Gay, Aanisa Vylett, Briallen Clarke, Sheridan Harbidge, Tom Christopherson and many more – thrive off this and produce fresh, exciting work.