The Short + Sweet Gala Final and Awards Night was the climax of this year’s bumper installment of what’s billed as “The biggest little play festival in the world”. What we actually witnessed was a bit of a mixed bag.
Not the plays, mind you. They were very good on the whole. I’m talking about the night itself, the event, the… “gala”. As my companion said of the organisers afterwards, “For all the apparent money thrown around, it’s a bit like Amateur Hour, don’t you think?”
Indeed. For all its pretensions to “event” stature, the Short + Sweet Gala was on many levels an awkward, rather shoddily-run affair that seemed to be entirely geared towards satisfying the interests of everyone “important” involved… i.e. everyone other than the audience in attendance.
In a word: Sponsors. Although it is thoroughly understandable that a great deal of business sponsorship is necessary to make an independent festival like this possible, the level of fawning towards their varied backers (who will not be getting a free plug here) was truly egregious. Not only was the Seymour Center’s foyer plastered with their banners and a showbag of advertising placed on every seat (the vast majority of which were left behind for the cleaners), but during the pre-show announcements the audience actually had to go through the indignity of providing faked responses for the cameras. You see, the evening’s proceedings were being filmed for use on a pay-TV channel that is their principal sponsor, and the crowd in attendance were expected to deliver staged reactions of laughter and applause on-cue for later use to the editors as cutaway shots.
Still, even all that was nothing compared to the (aptly named) Tug Dumbly, a horrendous excuse for a co-host. He would have to be one of the most cringeworthy MCs I’ve ever been subjected to, a painfully unfunny buffoon who simply could not put a foot right, every notionally witty aside or bit of “zany” antics eliciting audible groans from people around me.
All this awkward nonsense and toadying to the sponsors mightily detracted from what we were actually supposed to be there for – appreciation and support of exciting new theatre, largely from emerging artists.
On that note, I’m happy to report that unlike the undignified circus surrounding it, the eleven finalist short plays were, on the whole, very entertaining, and in some cases even challenging. Although clever comedies tend to dominate these kinds of competitions, and indeed there were no dead straight pieces in the selection, it was pleasing that a few were more on the dramatic side, and all of them had something to say. There were a fair few prizes to go around, both those awarded by the judges as well as some by the sponsors themselves.
Melita Rowston’s The Diver began the show with an initially funny but ultimately disquieting monologue by a strange, geeky man obsessed with Sydney’s monorail and photographic colour-codes, but hiding some obscured trauma and possibly disastrous intent. Duncan Fellows played the role with tremendous subtlety and deservedly won the award for Best Actor, while the play also won for Best Independent Theatre Company.
Aaron Scully brought us a crowd-pleaser with Perfect, a witty little piece about two Aussies who go overseas searching for love only to meet up with each other after all. The actors did tremendously well (and were perhaps overlooked for awards), but the real star was the tight and imaginative direction, filled with lots of mime and stylised interaction, which very fairly netted James Winter the award for Best Direction. It also received the somewhat curious bestowal (given the anti-naturalistic staging) of the Australian Film Commission Prize, supporting its adaptation into a film version.
Bomb Disposal by Kate Toon was a lightweight but entertaining satire of national stereotypes about Aussie blokes and Whingeing Poms, much as the following piece Call Me Comrade by Ross Peter Nelson did the same to post-Soviet Russians and corporate Americans.
Terror on the Northside was the piece that did the night’s “Sweep of the Oscars”, collecting awards for Best Script and Best New Talent (both for the writer/actor Venetia Taylor), as well as Best Actress (Helen Tonkin) and Best Overall Production. I was of two minds about this play taking such a haul of awards. It was well performed and extremely funny, but overall I found it ultimately fairly unoriginal in subject matter and conventional in execution. It depicts a young woman (Taylor) bringing her fiancé to meet her North Shore parents, who have some hilariously inappropriate reactions to his Muslim heritage. Tonkin, in particular, brought the house down with some of her well-intentioned bits of atrociously condescending ignorance, insisting that she “watches Compass” and thus knows what she’s on about. It was all very well-observed, but hardly groundbreaking, so it was a disappointingly middle-of-the-road choice for the overall winner.
Joseph Talarico’s Dead Weight was certainly less conventional, but also less satisfying. A rapid-fire duologue by two self-centered “valley girl” types that quickly degenerates into a ribald screaming match with an encroaching theme of war and devastation, the short piece ended with a somewhat high-handed shock tactic that led the audience into interval with as much a sense of bemusement as amusement.
Part two kicked off with 100 Years by writer/actor Bob Tissott, a piece with its heart in the right place that seriously floundered in its obviousness. Although using some nice stagecraft and a putting forward a commendable message, this minimalist enactment of the last century of Anglo-Aboriginal relations as a linear, simplified story would have been great as an educational tool for schools, but seemed didactic and out of place here.
Although it didn’t win any awards and perhaps didn’t deserve one in any specific category, Dave Holstein’s Anne Frankenstein was a gloriously bent mini-musical which I think deserved a bit more cred, if only for its trippy audacity. A bizarre story of a blonde, Americanised Anne Frank (Erin Mascord-Perez) creating a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque male version of herself for company is just the beginning, with Mother Frank, a romantic Nazi wearing a sequined swastika and even a Helen Keller Mummy bursting onto the stage, it was a work of delightful insanity that defies description.
Possibly my favourite piece was Duet with a Dictionary, by the (established) playwright Noelle Janacewska. Perhaps it is largely the hand of a more experienced author at work, but this play was unfailingly engrossing, depicting an imprisoned woman whose isolated world becomes consumed by reading and memorising the dictionary of a foreign language. A fascinating meditation on language and identity laced with some malapropistic humour, this dark little play was enacted by Leah Astbury and, primarily, Felicity Ward. Better known for her work in sketch comedy, Ward dazzled with this heavily-accented and physically constrained character, delivering a moving performance with deft touches of humour amidst overarching pathos. It was a pleasure to see her tackle a challenging dramatic role. Although in my opinion unfairly overlooked for the any of the key awards, Dictionary received one of the sponsors’ prizes, which led to a hilariously discombobulated acceptance speech as none of the recipients had previously been listening to what they were getting or what it was for.
The final two plays of the evening were interesting comedies. A Lesson in Hand Holding by Mary Rachel Brown tells of the relationship pratfalls of an oddball couple with varying strange obsessions and pathetic compulsions. It deserves kudos for a hilarious swipe at Robyn Nevin as a hooded torturer.
If Terror on the Northside was this year’s Titanic, then Drew Fairley’s Stallion of Death was the Scorsese movie that came consistently second. A wacky commentary on Australia’s self-mythologising of its bush pioneers and colonial history, this sexy, quasi-gothic farce won both of the runner-up awards for Best Actress and Actor for Kate Worsley and Gibson Nolte, the latter wowing the crowd with not only his very funny acceptance speech, but also the revelation that he’s one of the few Americans on earth who can pull off a convincing Aussie accent. Stallion also won the People’s Choice Award (presented by Peter Garrett, still looking out of place in a ministerial coat and tie), which was a pleasing antidote to the dominance of the more mainstream Northside.
After the awkward and amateurish awards ceremony finished, the hard workers thanked, including the conspicuously absent Festival Director Van Badham, and a final spurt of sycophancy to the sponsors discharged, the proceedings were mercifully over. Slipping out to the bar for some free (promotional) beverages, one finally felt free to discuss the excellent collection of plays and try to forget the embarrassing framework as quickly as possible.
Short + Sweet is a terrific festival, and a wonderful opportunity for many theatre-makers. It’s just a shame that, at this final stage, the actual art was in threat of being subsumed by this orgy of grovelling and ineptitude.