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Notes on A 24-Decade History of Popular Music Chapter III

By Taylor Mac, at Melbourne Festival

Wed 11 – Fri 20 October | Forum Melbourne

Get tickets here

Notes on the notes:

  • These are notes, not a review.
  • I’ve never used my blog for this kind of writing before. I’m giving it a try.
  • Leave a comment if you like.
  • I may write more after each part of the show. I might not. I might type this up into something more formal. Or not.
  • Taylor Mac uses “judy”, lowercase, not as a name but as a gender pronoun.

See Notes on Chapter I | See Notes on Chapter II 

Chapter III: 1896-1956

18 hours in, 6 more to go.

The turn of the 20th century, two world wars and the 50s in one night. I was called up to the stage with all the other people who identified as men between the ages of 16 and 40 to go and linger in a trench with some rats and a single bottle of rum which I never got to taste. It was very uncomfortable and squashed but of course that was the point. There were a lot of us and we hardly fit. The lights were dazzling and the whole experience disorienting. I could hardly hear the instructions through the speakers, and so kept getting things wrong. Up there, between the double bass and the drum kit I realized that for Taylor the music is in surround sound, the stage, of course, is completely immersive, its own little world quite different to the perception of it from the audience where the sound all comes from one direction. As Taylor’s rendition of Danny Boy got lot louder and louder, it got to the point where Taylor was completely drowned out. I was immediately behind judy, but couldn’t here judy’s voice because the speakers were pointing out into the audience. I wondered how Taylor could hear judy, or perhaps judy could not. All of this reminded me just how different the experience of the production on stage is to the reception in the audience. The way Taylor holds it together in overwhelming moments like that is through the discipline of training. For me it was a war zone.

The war songs made me realise that this the whole event is Music Hall, it’s a variety show. Keep The Home Fires Burning was always the penultimate song at the Music Hall shows my family took me to as a child, often in seaside towns. It was the tear-jerker before the final number when all the acts came on. They also sometimes had a medley of war songs and would run through them, the audience singing along as they sped through. I don’t recall ever going to Musical Hall or variety show since then. What brought me out was Taylor Mac’s epic idea for 24 hours. Apart from cruises and holiday camps (but there aren’t so many of the latter any more) where else does variety take place, and why would you go?

When I first encountered Taylor Mac, judy was a troubadour, travelling around singing about love and life, building an audience on the experimental theatre circuit, doing something no-one else seemed to be doing at the time and singing a lot. There were shows where it was basically a spot light on Taylor’s face for an hour lighting down to a little ukulele. The sequins on the facial expressions were the whole set and enough to keep you enraptured song after song. Now, the scale is extended to a whole orchestra and costume after costume, but at the centre it is still Taylor’s body doing all this work, gelling all the glitter together. Tonight, as the final band members leave the stage I imagine we will see that ultimately none of the glitz was necessary. The core of the whole experience is that Taylor can and will hold the whole room in the palm of judy’s hand. There will be nothing left other than all there ever was.

It’s two hours before Chapter IV and I still haven’t had time to discuss the shape of the whole event, the preservation and careful metering of performance energy, and the occasional moments when Taylor seems to let rip, like in the fast version of ‘Turn, turn, turn’(?!) at the end of Chapter III. Maybe tomorrow?

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Notes on A 24-Decade History of Popular Music Chapter II

By Taylor Mac, at Melbourne Festival

Wed 11 – Fri 20 October | Forum Melbourne

Get tickets here

Notes on the notes:

  • These are notes, not a review.
  • I’ve never used my blog for this kind of writing before. I’m giving it a try.
  • Leave a comment if you like.
  • I may write more after each part of the show. I might not. I might type this up into something more formal. Or not.
  • Taylor Mac uses “judy”, lowercase, not as a name but as a gender pronoun.

See Notes on Chapter I

Chapter II: 1836-1896

12 hours in, 12 hours still to go. It happened to me again. The day after Chapter II all I could talk about were the images in the show that kept flashing back in my mind. Did all that really happen? Now it feels like it all slipped by in the blink of an eye. Oh yeah, in hour four we went to Mars to perform the whole of The Mikado, as setting it anywhere on Earth is a version of blackface, but no-one knew how we got there from an All-American Sunday dinner. Who knew Gilbert and Sullivan were such a central part of the American cannon? But still, I don’t have much time to write this, and so, again, can’t go into detail on the songs themselves. I just have time to talk about two things

Of Course, It’s a Course! (Or maybe a trial)

I realized that a 24 hour history of USA told through popular song is more like a course than a performance. It’s the same length of contact time as a semester-long subject at the University. Delivered intensively, it’s an immersion course for re-writing American history from a post-gender, post-race, post-patriarchal perspective, and a general how-to for queering life in general. All the materials from history, the songs, are scrutinized through the lens of the ‘radical faery realness ritual’, and every whiff of misogyny, racism and hatred of difference of any kind is wafted front and centre. No-one survives unscathed. Songs are sometimes analysed line by line, or redone in style appropriate for its content that might just scrape by. Other songs are not to be applauded, as their invidiousness may be wrapped in a sweet jingle, and the bitterness of the lyric not felt until spelled out after the fact. So maybe it’s a trial of America’s past by the standards of today, which is to say of Taylor Mac’s standards, and so not the mainstream standards of today, but some future vision of a world in the process of being re-inscribed. Or maybe, like real trials, it is about justice plain and simple. Justice for the wrongs of the past still perpetrated in the present. In looking to the past, Taylor Mac points out where the utopian dream of USA went wrong. We are presented with the future of the past. Maybe this is how it will be told from now on?

Queer Space

To me, it the auditorium during these shows feels like a safe-space for diverse self-expression, gender non-conformity, and post-normative bodies. It is a popular space in the sense that the subject of the show is popular culture. The rules are looser, and transgression, reimagining and rebellion is encouraged. You can wander in and out, drink, talk, interact, change seats. Taylor wanders around the auditorium and seems able to sing on any perch, lap or railing. [The criticism alleging dilution of queer culture through popularizing or main-streaming to reach a broader audience that has been leveled at Taylor Mac is a discussion for another time]. The atmosphere of permission is quite different to most other theatre shows. Towards the end of Chapter II Taylor asked us to remove all the chairs. The notion of a sit-down audience where you rent a seat, some more expensive than others, has now gone completely. The audience is now on their feet or wheels and moving constantly. This is how it ended on Friday. Will the chairs have returned since then?

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Notes on A 24-Decade History of Popular Music #1

By Taylor Mac, at Melbourne Festival

Wed 11 – Fri 20 October | Forum Melbourne

Get tickets here

Notes on the notes:

  • These are notes, not a review. I am not interested in writing a review.
  • I’ve never used my blog for this kind of writing before. I’m giving it a try.
  • Leave a comment if you like.
  • I may write more after each part of the show. I might not. I might type this up into something more formal. Or not.
  • Taylor Mac uses “judy”, lowercase, not as a name but as a gender pronoun.

There have been press reviews of the show already –after only 25% of the show has taken place. (Imagine how ridiculous it would be for another show to be reviewed a quarter of the way through without acknowledging such partiality.) This is one of the reasons I decided to publish these notes, which are not a review. I wanted to see how my understanding of the show, the people around me and my sense of self shifted over a 24 hour of exposure to Taylor Mac’s show. I want to remember the lacuna, the place between the installments where I have to try to decompress after six intense hours of riotous chaos and bravura performance. Right now it is three hours before the second installment will begin. I spent a lot of yesterday in a daze, the length of the show messed up my circadian rhythm, it infected my night’s dreams and held my day dreams to ransom. Did I really run my fingers along that person’s teeth when I fed them a grape when we were both blindfolded (or as least I was)? What was the name of the person I ended up next to again? Was the US founded on a hatred of the US, and loving black hair, and, and..? It is too much to process. But I’m giving it a try.

Chapter I: 1776-1836

Wow, this is the perfect venue for this show. Even going to the toilet feels like theatre. The show has already begun even before any of the performers are on stage. There are hundreds of people milling about. They look really cool. I’m sat at the back of the stalls, but right in the middle. I can see all the audience as well as the stage. I introduce myself to the person sat next to me. We are both seeing the whole 24 hours. Maybe we will become friends?

When Taylor gets on stage for Amazing Grace, the opening song, I have a surreal feeling of time standing still. I have seen judy perform many times before in Glasgow, London and Melbourne, and just got that strange feeling of being connected through performance to all those other moments and stages in my life, and all the emotions I felt, laughing heartily and crying my eyes out in the comfort of the audience surrounded by my beloved friends. But comparison is violence, so I decided not to equate those previous times with this.

There was an unorthodox acknowledgement of country followed by a meeting of Timothy White Eagle and Aunty Di Kerr. Aunty Di offered a welcome to country and acknowledged Taylor’s apology on behalf his ancestors, offering a possum skin wristband imbued with a creation story. She said she had only started making things recently. What a gift.

The first member of the audience on stage was told they were a verb not a noun. That is, like the rest of the audience and all present, in the act of becoming themselves, building their lives, and at the same moment creating this performance together. This struck me as a central theme in Taylor Mac’s work. An early show  (The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac?) was based on judy’s creation story. As an artist, a person, a leader Taylor Mac has continued to create judy as consciously as possible over many years since then. This is the central queer gift that Taylor Mac embodies and promulgates: we are all in the process of creating ourselves, and it is possible to do some of that transforming consciously and mindfully. It is also key to understanding the politics of the performance space and the calamitous gel that holds the event together: the show is alive, and being made in the moment by all those present. Part is made, part makes itself. There was a plan, and now there are tactics. Ultimately, of course, this is why addressing the creation of USA as a nation over 24 hours of song is so well matched to Taylor Mac’s queer dramaturgy: while a country seems to have become an intransigent noun, it was always, despite what you may have been led to believe, always a transitive verb. As we rebuild ourselves out of calamity, so might we rebuild our communities, and if we must, a whole country, more mindfully.

This is an epic queer show happening in Melbourne at what feels like a calamitous time for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. And yet, despite the ridiculous postal survey, and completely coincidentally, it has been the queerest of weeks for me (and maybe others like me, and maybe for the whole of the arts in Melbourne) and that is incredibly exciting. On Saturday at the Melbourne Town Hall just a few hundred meters from The Forum, the inaugural Coming Back Out Ball took place. The CBOB was a major event in the life of the city as well as for the senior queers who graced it. Likewise in another bastion of the establishment The Fairfax theatre, All The Sex I’ve Ever Had was a kind of queering of old age, a late-life outing of all the dirty little secrets, peccadillos and loves that dare not speak their name. I’m exhausted. It’s all happening at once, hour after hour of transformative performance that undoes perceptions of bodies, lives and love.

Obviously, I am in a rare and privileged position able to participate in all this great work. Many others are not. Like the man I interviewed at the Coming Back Out Ball, who came to Melbourne from regional Victoria alone and on-spec after reading an story in a local newspaper. He hadn’t booked in advance but turned up with his paper clipping and was not turned away. He was glad to be there but wondered why he had to come all the way to Melbourne to experience such an event. Things haven’t changed so much where he is from. And what would his old friends say, the five who died of AIDS in the ’80s? He remembered one lost friend in particular who would have loved the CBOB and we shed a tear together for him in the corner of the biggest party in town.

And what about cost? How could anyone but the extremely wealthy afford a $690 ticket for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music? Not many people. Of course the whole thing should be free and be taking place at MCG, but as it is not, what should be the cost? What value do you put on something that lasts 24 hours and features 150 professional performers? It’s a scale we are completely unaccustomed to in theatre. This show’s endeavour is in the same order as long-form TV series (and they cost a lot more). It could be performed as 24 one hour shows at $30 each. But no, it should be binge-watched, like we do TV (sometimes), in six-hour blocks, because of the (almost) physical impossibility of performing it in one 24 hour go, which has only happened once. In the end lots of tickets were released at lower rates, many paying $60 per night ($10 per hour). I’d hate for discussion of cost to become a legacy of this work in Melbourne. It’s obvious that a show of this scale is impossible without vast levels of funding, but this is why we have Melbourne Festival, to make extraordinary things happen. It’s a completely unprecedented kind of work and so its funding and ticketing scheme are equally novel but certainly not as interesting as the endeavour itself.

Even the six hour block was dizzying. I am still not sure how it is humanly possible to keep all those songs, monologues and gags so pristinely in one’s head, and to stay ‘on message’ so astutely and coherently. And then I remember that for judy, this is life, that is the message. It is not only a performance, but a lived experience, a part of life for someone who has already performed for thousands of hours all around the world. Judy wasn’t built in a day, but over many years through a life lived as consciously as possible. Machine Dazzle might make the frocks, but machine judy lives them. But the term ‘machine’ is too inhumane for Taylor Mac’s creation, which is wrought from the deepest humanity, and the most radical desire for us all to become the most fabulous, fair and forgiving version of ourselves.

There is so much more to say! About the queering of the space (I’ve said a little about time), by causing calamity, moving the front row around immediately (maybe the people who paid the most for their tickets), and allowing free movement throughout the show (I watched the last hour from row two). About the Dandy Minions constantly provoking transformation around you. From further back you could see them better, creating movement and colour throughout the audience, dragging the stage into the world. And of course, about what is actually happening on stage, you know, the entire history of USA in song. It is every show in one. But really, it is life on show, a series of possible lives. And over 24 hours, you might just have time to reconsider yours.

It is now one hour before Chapter II.

JipilJung

Blood Catalogue: Words Of Bloody Wisdom

Why are artists drawn to using blood? Can artists explore blood in a way that scientists cannot? 

I was invited to respond to these questions for the catalogue of BLOOD: Attract and Repel

See my full responses here

 

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Vanitas: an app to die for – Precinct

Article in Precinct 19 July 2017

An app that lets audience members experience Melbourne General Cemetery like never before? Victorian College of the Arts Lecturer in Theatre Robert Walton explains more. 

By Robert Walton, Lecturer in Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts

This weekend (20–21 May 2017) at the Melbourne General Cemetery, artist Jason Maling and I will test the latest edition of our transmedia app experience Vanitas.

Blurring documentary with fiction, Vanitas is a reflective thriller about life’s great mystery: death. Experienced through their own smartphone and decrypted through the secret language of flowers, each visitor will embark on a self-guided walk through Melbourne’s oldest modern cemetery. Alone.

Intrepid audience members will listen to the app as they wander towards a rendezvous at the centre of the cemetery. It’s a meditative experience that asks you to listen deeply and look closely at the world around you. In Vanitas, not everything is as it first appears.

Rachel Ruysch, Vase with Flowers, 1700. Wikimedia Commons.

A vanitas painting portrays collections of objects symbolic of the certainty of death. We were inspired by a painting from 1700 by Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch called Vase with Flowers (above). Ruysch’s floral vanitas depicts blooms just passing their best, on the cusp of wilting or being eaten by bugs. Her mysterious painting, like all vanitas pictures from that era, reminds us that all living things fade, and that our objects will outlive us and become the last traces of our daily lives.

In much of Australian culture, death remains taboo. For a variety of reasons, we are unable or unwilling to talk about it. In fact, we often go about our lives as if death is a fate that will not befall us personally. Australia also has the second highest uptake of smartphones in the world.

Hence, we have made a smartphone app as a vanitas for our own times. The interface itself is based on Ruysch’s painting with each flower representing an episode in the story. Like the flowers in the painting, you are drawn to some episodes first and then chance upon others along the way. The shift between guided and random order allows the audience to weave their own connections with the threads of narrative we present.

The story mixes documentary, autobiography and fiction and is told wholly through remixed audio fragments taken from interviews with a variety of experts on the themes of vanitas, flowers, life and death. We find out about the secret language of flowers, witness a cremation, and talk to botanists, historians and professionals from the death industry.

We are lucky to have Southern Melbourne Cemeteries Trust in our city; world leaders in forward thinking about the future of our cemeteries. Those we have worked with from the Trust’s team have been great collaborators and have helped us to understand how death practices have evolved over the last century and how they might develop into the future.

What is clear is that Melbourne General Cemetery in Parkville is a place of extraordinary national importance. It is a haunting museum and art gallery of lives past, like the shadow of the city itself.

And, with 300,000 people buried there, it’s certainly the biggest venue I have ever played. But the dead are what you’d call a captive audience.  On the whole they are very well behaved bunch; they don’t give much back. They seem to be enjoying the show so far, yet we live in constant fear of a standing ovation.

The audience on the weekend can expect a meditative experience exploring themes of death and transience. Ticket holders can arrive any time between 10am and 4pm on their chosen day.

Audience members will be asked to come with a fully-charged smartphone (Apple or Android) with an Australian mobile number, email address, access to the internet (there is no WiFi in the cemetery) and headphones. Once booked, they will be sent an email with information on how to download the Vanitas app before coming to the cemetery.

Vanitas was commissioned as part of In Your Hands – a new series of artworks and installations that invite audiences to create experiences mediated through hand-held technology – by Arts House through the Australia Council’s New Digital Theatre Initiative. Tickets are available from Arts House. Admission: $10

Sign up for the Faculty of VCA & MCM’s free monthly enews.

Find out more about Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts. 

Banner image: Jason Maling and Robert Walton.

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Launch dates for “It’s All Allowed: The Performances of Adrian Howells”

Deirdre Heddon and Dominic Johnson’s new book about the performance work of Adrian Howells will launch this year. I contributed a small chapter on Adrian’s pedagogy and can’t wait to read the rest this brilliant book cover to cover.
Launch dates:
Gilmorehill Centre, Glasgow, Saturday 18 June, 7.30pm
BAC, London, Monday 4 July, 7.30pm
Get your order in now at www.intellectbooks.com
Confirmation Presentation 1

Lecture: Transmedia Dramaturgy – Theatre, Smartphones and Networked Performance

Confirmation Presentation – 4pm 16 December 2015 – Art Auditorium, VCA

Please join me at this public lecture followed by a discussion.

Do hybrid media performances require a transmedia dramaturgy?

The aim of this research is to examine the dramaturgical, philosophical and aesthetic capabilities of performances deliberately expanded to spread across and be experienced through the everyday technologies of a ‘networked culture’.

I will present an overview of key literature and focus specifically on the findings from a series of experimental performances delivered on smartphones over the year (The Asphodel, Still Life and Dark Telephony). I will introduce the first prototype of the Vanitas project, presented at Arts House in November, which was deployed across an app, voice calls, SMS, webpages, maps, an installation and Errol and Victoria streets in North Melbourne. I will conclude by laying out some of the challenges of researching in this field and outline my plan for completing this research over the next two years.

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Journal Article: Bewildering Behaviour in Australasian Drama Studies

My paper Bewildering Behaviour: Practice as Research for Audiences and Other Creators of Immersive Performance was peer reviewed and published in Australasian Drama Studies 65, October 2014. It was a special edition called Digital Performance Futures in Australasia guest edited by Gorkem Acaroglu and Glenn D’Cruz. Please contact me if you would like a copy or to discuss this area of research.

 

Conversation Piece by Lucy Guerin Inc

Season Overview for HOT: New Dance and Performance from Australia

The works in this season are representative of the distinctive and sophisticated dance and performance being made in Australia at the moment. These artists combine fresh, urgent ideas with rigorous technique to create experiences that will fascinate, absorb, delight your senses and entertain you.

Continues…

Don’t worry about definitions, dressing up or whether you will understand it “correctly”. Just go!

The Festival of Live Art has arrived … but what is live art?

New article published today in The Conversation

By Robert Walton, University of Melbourne

The inaugural Festival of Live Art (FOLA), which begins today in Melbourne, celebrates some of the most exciting artists working in performance today and yet, the exact meaning of the term “live art” is difficult to pin down, given everyone who uses it has their own working definition. But this is far from a problem. Diversity of form and practice is what makes live art so stimulating for audiences and artists alike.

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