Theatre like you've never seen it before

Alison Croggon

Next month's Unwrapped at the Sydney Opera House features some of Australia's most adventurous indie companies.
Theatre like you've never seen it before

Solo performer Lee Wilson uses everyday materials such as packing tape, rubber bands or balloons to create an obstacle course. Image Tristan Still.

In the hands of Branch Nebula’s Lee Wilson, ordinary things are more dangerous than you might think. Their heart-pumping new show, High Performance Packing Tape, exploits everyday objects – including, obviously, packing tape – to create a theatre of risk.

When Wilson and his collaborators began to develop this show, they spent two days shopping for materials from Bunnings, Officeworks and recycling depots. For one of their early (failed) experiments, artist Mickie Quick, one of Wilson’s three collaborators, made a ladder out of coathangers cable-tied together.

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That ladder was deemed too unsafe to make the cut. But even so, Wilson’s unstable encounters with stationery and disposable hardware items had audiences biting their nails when the show premiered at Liveworks 2018.

‘It’s not a show about tricks,' said Wilson. 'It's not just about making people sit on the edge of their seats. It’s a series of processes with the audience. When I make a slack line out of sticky tape, the audience watches it from the beginning.

'It’s about introducing people to what performance can be, showing that you can create this powerful and dramatic situation out of these very basic materials.’

Truly dangerous performances

That perception of risk is not all illusion. Wilson confessed that in the first four-day season, he cut himself, corked his thumb and dislocated a finger, the final accident forcing the cancellation of the show.

‘It happened out of sight, so the audience really didn’t know what had happened until the announcement came that the show had to be cancelled,’ he said. ‘I felt really guilty – I’d spent all this time convincing people that it was a safe show to do, and here I was…’

With Mirabelle Wouters, Wilson co-founded the Helpmann award winning company Branch Nebula in 1999. For two decades they’ve tested the boundaries of performance to create socially and politically engaged work. High Performance Packing Tape is no exception.

‘I have a background as an acrobat and an aerialist, which gives me a pretty solid training in safety,’ he says. ‘And I respect the need for it. But at the same time – I want the freedom to decide what I can do, to challenge the systems that decide whether you can do something or not. People internalise these rules and police themselves.'

Ultimately the show is about questioning the conventions that lie beneath the everyday. ‘It’s about battling against the systems, about how people make decisions for you. The arts world is full of bureaucracy and business, and this is about challenging corporate culture. It’s saying we don’t have to follow the rules.’

It’s a long way from Bunnings to the Sydney Opera House, but after its lauded premiere season High Performance Packing Tape is returning for a strictly limited season next month to feature in Unwrapped, an ongoing showcase of exceptional independent performance from the SOH.

The Irresistible captured by Dan Grant. Performers: Adriane Daff and Tim Watts. Image Sydney Opera House.

Where Stranger Things meets Twin Peaks

Premiering in Sydney as part of Unwrapped is, The Irresistible billed as a darkly surreal collision between Stranger Things and Twin Peaks, arriving after critically acclaimed seasons at Dark Mofo and the Gold Coast’s Home of the Arts (HOTA).

This darkly comic science fiction thriller garnered rave reviews and was a 2018 Helpmann nominee for Best Play. Opening with a plane crash, its plot covers obsessive family relationships, unhealthy boundaries, sex performances in bars, loneliness, suicide, mesmerism and mysterious events.

The Irresistible is the first formal collaboration between Perth indie companies The Last Great Hunt and Side Pony Productions. Zoe Pepper is the director of Side Pony Productions – and co-writer and director of The Irresistible. As she told ArtsHub, it’s far from the first time these artists have worked together.

‘Adriane [Daff] and Tim [Watts] and I studied together, and we’ve made work together for 12 years,’ she said. ‘I guess the company names make it all formal, but this whole collaboration had an underpinning of good friendship and the understanding that goes with that.’

She said The Irresistible represents a distinct shift in their work. ‘Normally we’d have something that’s a little more hammy – you know, big wigs and all of that. But this is stripped back – the set is minimal, for instance. We wanted to create a certain kind of emotional authenticity.’

Its minimalistic design and concept – it's performed by only two actors, Daff and Watts – allowed Pepper to create a richly detailed story, with the multiple characters delineated by a clever sound design.

Their primary tool during the development of the show was a live voice modulator, which led to some interesting insights. ‘In one improvisation, Adriane was challenging as a female voice, and then, when we switched her to a male voice, saying exactly the same thing, she suddenly sounded so much more reasonable.’

The show emerges out of a study of unconscious bias which, Pepper said, is a difficult thing to dramatise because it’s invisible – including to the creators of the show. ‘We were very aware of the possible ironies of making a show about this topic,’ said Pepper drily.

‘We did a lot of research into unconscious bias and cognitive dissonance, but when we started work it was basically a theoretical concept. The challenge was how to take this abstract idea and turn it into a visceral, emotional experience. It became a show that speaks to notions of gender and power.’

Book now for The Irresistible (11-15 September) and High Performance Packing Tape (18 - 22 September) are playing at the Sydney Opera House as part of Unwrapped.

About the author

Alison Croggon is an award-winning novelist, poet, theatre writer and critic. She has 30 years experience reviewing performance for outlets such as The Australian, the ABC and The Monthly and generated an international reputation as a performance critic with her influential blog Theatre Notes. In 2009 she was the first online critic to win the prestigious Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year Award.
Twitter: @alisoncroggon