The verdant hinterland of the Northern Rivers of New South Wales offers performing artists much more than a subtropical getaway.
Audrey Journal spoke with three female artists who have created work with NORPA in Lismore in recent years – and who have, as associate artists, collaborated on its current production, Wildskin – about making work in a regional centre, how it differs from making theatre in the major cities, and how place and country contribute to the final product.
I’m Sydney-based but this is the third show that I’ve done at NORPA. I was in Railway Wonderland, then Dreamland, and now Wildskin. I’m calling it my trifecta.
I love working at NORPA because the shows call on a lot of theatrical forms. There’s text and a story and movement and dance and music and usually a couple of songs. I really enjoy that it’s not just one thing or the other.
Wildskin is a little bit different. Railway Wonderland was performed on Lismore train station and it was very specific to that place. And Dreamland was inside a tiny community hall. Wildskin is the first NORPA piece I’ve been involved in made inside the theatre. An outdoor show, when the weather is right, can be magical. Indoors you have to make it special in other ways.
I’ve done a lot of movement-based performance but in recent years I’ve done a fair bit of verbatim work that is very heavily text-based. I will shamelessly try my hand at anything. I think you have to be a bit shameless to be a performer.
I really like working in Lismore. I like the fact that when we do a show, the audience is made up of people from all walks of life, all different social groups. When I work in Sydney, it tends to be the same old faces in the audience. I don’t know why that is.
I also just enjoy myself when I’m in Lismore. I like walking around the town and I love the car boot market. That’s my highlight. I enjoy the library, the new art gallery, that whole little area is beautiful.
Julian Louis and I get on very well theatrically. I have a really good rapport with him in a rehearsal room. I enjoy that the work that we make draws on where we are as much as who we are, and I think people appreciate that.
There are always shows about the human condition and everyone can get something out of that. But it’s often more interesting for someone if they see something on stage they can more closely relate to.
Once the performers hit the floor, we can come up with our own ideas and make suggestions. So I feel like I have contributed more to a piece of work than I would performing something already completed and just handed to me. It’s more satisfying.
The other day, after I went to the Farmer’s Market at the Showground, I popped into an op shop and a woman came up to me and said, oh, you were in Dreamland and she thanked me and said how much she enjoyed it and that she was coming to Wildskin.
That was flattering. It feels good, that you did something that someone enjoyed.
When you make a piece of theatre, you don’t really know what it is until it’s in front of an audience. That’s when you know it’s true nature.
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of response Wildskin gets. I don’t think I am particularly wild. Maybe that’s why I found it a fascinating subject. It makes you think about things you wouldn’t otherwise. I hope the audience has an interesting ride. I like the idea of being led up a garden path and I like to see things with a couple of twists and surprises. I don’t always want to know exactly what is going to happen. What is the point of that?
Surprise is a great thing.
In my theatre life, I’m never far from full blown self-annihilation – naturally.
I’m trying to convince people who have too many ideas and little money and time, to get excited about my ideas that likely have no relevance to their experience, and have not historically been of relevance to a broad audience, and I want these people to fight with me, perhaps for years, to make those ideas realities.
To pull it off feels like a magic trick. Not least because I am a woman. Staying strong in the rationale that making this art is powerful, I accredit to a series of significant YESes – significant to me – that keep me hanging in the there. In my timeline, NORPA have offered a round of significant YESes.
NORPA said YES when I came in and read the first few pages of Wonderbabes and offered me a residency. Then they said YES several more times, which gave me chances to learn and grow in a range of roles in the company.
They said YES: we value your ideas, your artistic integrity and your world view. And then, they said YES we will support you to present your first professional work with us Wonderbabes, even though it seemed crazy to trust me on stage by myself speaking non-stop for nearly two hours.
As a young woman with little hard evidence to show for myself, NORPA saw a glimmer of something and took a chance on me.
My work so far is, at large, autobiographical. It’s not that my life is any more interesting than anyone else’s. It’s that I tap my own experiences – and, in particular, my failings as a human – to deal with bigger questions: about addiction; unconditional love; sexual freedom and its role in feminism/patriarchy; anger; terrorism; racism; middle-class boredom; motherhood.
These aren’t themes I planned for. They emerged from what hurtled into my frame of view and left deep resonances. As an independent artist, selling stories based on my specific view of the world, these YESes need to keep coming for ever and ever, or else I die my artistic death.
Since Wonderbabes premiered, I have been researching dance and movement in Berlin for two new works. One is about a young couple: He is a drug addict; she is addicted to him. It it explores how and why they, and the world around them, continue to tangle them up together.
The play is a dance, a choreography of wills and desires, and is about the need to feel alive and on the edge – which I think is beautiful and subversive, much as it is destructive.
The second piece is with four women and is about motherhood, tragedy and grief, and will also be directed as a choreographic loop.
I’m excited by these experiments with form. I’m trying to discover ways for dance and autobiographical storytelling to integrate and function together dramaturgically.
It might fail, and then I might take my work in a whole new direction. If I don’t find the next YES, they will remain exiting prospects and nothing more. I believe that ideas that cannot immediately prove themselves also need to find support somehow. Otherwise how to evolve the art, discover a voice and an aesthetic, represent our times, and avoid reinstating the status quo?
I’ve been an associate artist with NORPA since 2017. It’s really about bringing different types of mid-career artists together. We are all interested in diversifying and being part of a team after working as solo artists or in different companies.
We make physically dynamic works. A lot of the team have a physical background in circus, acrobatics or physical theatre, or text-based theatre that involves dance.
My interest in physically expressive works goes back to when I started working with a company called Frank Theatre back in the 90s in Brisbane, and I worked in Japan a lot with Tadashi Suzuki’s company in Japan.
I did that because I would see these incredible international festival works and think ‘that is something else!’ Things that had strong verbal language, strong text, and were unafraid physically. Steven Berkoff in Salome was an inspiration for me. And Robert Wilson’s work, and Robert LePage’s. The big names. I was completely inspired by that world.
I primarily still work in theatre with a strong dramaturgical lean, but I flourish a bit when it’s something more visual and physical.
When you start creating work, and making work, you start with a blank canvas. To do that outside of a pressured and rushed environment like the city, is really special and quite refreshing. I have a leaning towards and an interest in the regional lifestyle. That realness, that salt-of-the-earth approach. I want to relate to the everyday person. Regional areas can be refreshing and informative in that sense.
I moved from Brisbane to the mid-north coast, just south of Coff’s Harbour. It was a lifestyle choice, about raising children. I wanted to be in touch with space and land more. My children love the water and the surf.
A lot of people were worried for me when I left Brisbane. I was a practising artist working on a lot of different works with companies there. But I felt that it was right. It was time. You sacrifice some things and you gain in other ways. The space is really lovely for the creative brain and that’s what I’m really enjoying.
A lot of city based theatre makers, including myself, struggle to dream and deepen the creative flow. I always wanted to work to find that more while raising young boys who take priority with my time.
I’m working on Rovers, a new work by Belloo Creative from Brisbane. It’s a relatively new company made up of four women. Rovers is our third work. We did Motherland in 2013 as a co-production with Queensland Theatre Company. We then made a bilingual show, Hanaka, for Brisbane Festival in 2016 with actors from Japan.
Rovers came about by reuniting two senior actresses – Roxanne McDonald and Barbara Lowing. It had been 21 years since they’ve been on stage together.
They told us a story about when they were working on The Taming of the Shrew together and really bonding when they went to Uluru. We designed this show that basically celebrates their lives and 35 years in the profession. They both have similar journeys. Roxanne is indigenous from Roma, and Barbara is a white woman from Mudgerrabah, both Queensland towns.
It’s autobiographical but we asked them for license to be imaginative and so it goes off on a few outlandish tangents. We have a metaphoric road trip in there. We wanted to see senior women on stage being mad, authentic and unafraid and rigorous. We premiered it at NORPA and then it went to the Brisbane Festival this year.
I am associate director on Wildskin. Again, an all-female cast and really involved as devisors and really exciting to work with.
The whole process has been really unafraid. These women are headstrong and positive and open. They are willing to try a bit of everything.
It is quite pertinent to this year with all the conversations we are having around the #MeToo movement. And the feminist lens has always been there. I am always careful as a female director – even when I have male characters – to try to understand the male psyche but I also want a certain amount of sensitivity and a female rigour, whatever that may be! That is so important to me. That really lies in the making and the lens of the work and then the voice of the performer is an extension of that.
Wildskin plays at Lismore City Hall until October 6.