Derelict pianos, Chinese junks, giant cockroaches, miniature houses … These are just some of the attractions of next year’s Ten Days on the Island, kicking off in March.
Australian Stage’s Briony Kidd gets the low down from Artistic Director Elizabeth Walsh.
What’s the inspiration behind the project Ruined?
It’s estimated that in the late 19th century there was one piano for every three people in Australia. That’s a lot of pianos, and some of them are still out there. Ross Belleter is a contemporary composer who’s going to be part of the festival for a four-month period. We’ve started a wanted campaign out across the community, looking for the ruined pianos of Tasmania. For him, these are not objects to be rescued, they’re objects to be played. His work is around the fact that you might hit a note four or five times and there is no sound. We hope we can gather 20 of these pianos here at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, with their stories. And Ross will be here playing them. He’ll also be running three regional workshops [in Stanley, Derby and Ross] in the lead up.
Who are the workshops for?
Anyone, kids. You know there’s that thing about ‘don’t touch the piano’? It’s an opportunity for people to get to have a play on these really special instruments. We’re hoping that the pianos from those regions can be drawn in together but Ross has already been up at King Island and they don’t want their piano to leave! So it’s going to be interesting to see whether we have some combination of real pianos and ‘ghost’ pianos that are living in other places.
Another musical act is ETHEL, described as the ‘fiercest string quartet ever’. What makes them fierce?
Because the music is driving, it’s quite energised. It demands as an audience, as a listener, that you have engage with it. They’re from Manhattan, all Julliard trained musicians, and they play contemporary composers. They also compose themselves. I first heard them play and just was electrified by what they were doing because it takes the idea of a string quartet and launches it into the 21st century.
I’ve invited them to come and do a concert, which is them doing their thing, but also to work with the Tasmanian Youth Orchestra. They’re going to be in a van travelling all over Tasmania, working with small groups of young people. We’ll bring them all together for a weekend at Port Arthur, which will include rehearsals, and then they’re going to do a concert on the lawns at Port Arthur on the first Sunday of the festival. Stravinsky’s Firebird, we hope.
Tell me about the production of King Lear from Taiwan. Is it the text of the play?
It isn’t a literal Lear, it is an interpretation of the characters of Lear for the stage. Wu Hsing-kuo does seven characters in Mandarin and there’s a live orchestra that accompanies him. In the first instance, he draws stylistically from Chinese Opera, high opera, and as the piece progresses he plays out the characters. There’s an English surtitle so you can follow what he’s doing. He’s a former lead dancer of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. It’s pretty special.
How did you get the Icelandic/English production of Metamorphosis for the festival?
I pursued this company for a number of years, the company being Theatre Vesturport, which is the Icelandic company, and then they worked on this production with the Lyric Hammersmith and it’s fantastic. To make it happen we had to find some partners, so it’s just that Sydney Theatre Company have bought it after us. So we’re setting up a short tour for them but it’s going to be an extraordinary experience to have it here at the Theatre Royal.
It looks like quite an elaborate production.
The set is two storeys and there’s a floor that runs through the middle of the set, with Gregor and the cockroach upstairs in his bedroom. He’s an acrobat and it’s probably one of the works that’s been most successful, in my opinion, of combing the whole idea of physical theatre and acrobatics, including aerial work, into a theatrical context. The music is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. For me it resonates around a whole range of issues that we face today around what is the ‘other’ and ‘who are these aliens?’ I'm not going to give it away but the set is full of some really beautiful theatrical invention and design. Some of the items in the set, while they look like normal objects, are in fact apparatus. I'm not going to say much more than that [laughs].
Is it a faithful adaptation of the short story?
Yes, but it’s certainly a modernisation of the language and they’ve taken the ending in a slightly different way. I saw Stephen Berkoff’s version when it came to Australia many years ago and this is like the antithesis of that, because that production was him with a light and a chair, you know? [laughs] This is like the full thing. It’s very rare in Tasmania to see theatrical sets that are this complex, so it was ambitious but I wanted to do it. I think people will really respond to the work.
Is there anything in the festival specifically for children?
Yes, we’ve got a really lovely production called Martha, which is from the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company in Scotland. It’s designed for littlies, probably under eights. It’s about a woman who lives on an island off the coast of Scotland and she’s very crabby. This goose arrives on her island and she begins to interact with the goose. It’s a story about friendship and how friendship gets revealed and it’s very funny. The goose is a puppet on wheels. When I saw it I misted up a little bit at the end: it’s truly one of those beautiful little shows.
There’s also a whole lot of free things across the program, like Junk Theory, which is a floating installation. It’s self-contained, it’s a Chinese junk that has films projected onto the sails and a sound system. We’ve got it going to a whole lot of communities, you can put the kids in the car with their jarmies and go and have a look, you know?
It sounds like a bit of a logistical challenge.
The piece is made by a company that’s based in Tasmania, Big Hart. It was originally shown as part of the Sydney Festival three years ago. I saw it in Adelaide earlier this year and it’s just really beautiful imagery, so I asked Big Hart if they’d be interested to bring it home to Tasmania. For me the fact that it can go to a whole range of communities is really important. It’s also part of our opening night in Hobart and it’s going to be on Constitution Dock.
So how much of the festival program has Tasmanian content?
The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is doing three concerts as part of the program. We’ve got Luke Plumb [of Celtic fusion band Shooglenifty] coming home and he’s doing music for mandolin. Big Hart is doing Junk Theory and also This is Living, which is a touring theatre show. We’ve got Tasmanian music as part of the Dance Hall and Tasdance with a new piece of work. Just over half the program involves local artists and participation by the community. To me that’s important, that you’re not just a passive audience member, you get your sleeves up and get involved in it.
Apart from the general theme of islands, what was your philosophy for commissioning the 2009 festival? [2007 was Walsh’s first year as artistic director]
Something like [Japanese contemporary dance] Hiroaki Umeda in S20, that’s a really adventurous piece of work, and so is [sound installation] Siren. I made a decision that we can take some steps into much more adventurous territory, coming out of the last festival and how people responded. I think that’s exciting and I think that’s what festivals are here to do.
I'm also interested in the idea of how we value things, like in the Ruined project. For example, with the big Dance Hall program that’s going to be all around the state, the two headliners are in their seventies. They’re not 24, they’re not ‘emerging’, they’re not pop stars; they are the real deal. Horace Andy is the most extraordinary reggae singer. Félix Baloy, he’s one of the founding members of the Cuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club, you know? They’re fantastic artists. It’s about being able to sustain careers and people having work that lasts over really long periods of time, and that having fun isn’t confined just to if you’re under 30.
So your decisions are based on what people responded to last time?
Absolutely, on the feedback from audiences and how people engaged with what was on offer. I thought, ‘Well, we can shift a bit further’. ETHEL is not that hard but then on the other hand you’ve got this beautiful male quartet who sing sacred music from Corsica [Barbara Furtuna]. For me it’s about finding different places for people to enter the festival. Sometimes that’s about price, so free and ticketed things, but also sometimes it’s about, ‘I didn’t know I’d like that and now I want to see more’.
Stephen Bain does this piece that’s a meditation on the quarter acre block [Baby, where are the fine things you promised me?]. It’s a replica of a New Zealand home built in the 1950s. Stephen puts himself into this house for four hours a day and he makes cups of tea, he’s got a little piano, he’ll play you a tune. But to talk to him of course you’ve got to get down on your hands and knees and look through the windows. It’s just that thing about ‘how do you interact with things?’
How did you approach the task of finding shows for the festival?
The premise of the festival remains the connection with other island cultures. I'm really fortunate in that we often get invitations, such as from the Canadian Government or I was just in Ireland as a guest of the Irish Theatre Institute. I usually try and make it a round the world ticket and get in as many stops on the way as I can. Also, colleagues will come across things and say, ‘Oh, you should look at this because it’s really interesting’. For example, Siren I saw last year in Edinburgh as part of the British Showcase program. I was at the show with the Artistic Director of the Auckland Festival and we both walked out and went, ‘Got to do that, it’s beautiful!’ So we’re presenting it together, which means we split all the freight costs and all the rest. That makes it possible.
How hard was it to persuade the artists to come?
[laughs] Not hard at all. What would you think if I came and said, ‘Would you like to come to Tasmania?’ Of course, it’s like ‘Yes, I’d love to’. But sometimes the scheduling is not good and sometimes the venues become an issue. For example, Siren needs a big empty space. It’s going to be in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery’s temporary exhibition space [in Launceston], a big empty cement box that we can black out. There’s very few spaces that you could put that piece and it would work. Likewise a piece like Aniwaniwa in the visual arts section. I saw it in Venice as part of the Biennale last year, and it’s absolutely beautiful. You lie on mattresses underneath five suspended pods and watch them. So it’s a combination of venue, people’s touring schedules and if it’s possible for them to take the time out and come. We’re a long way away.
Who’s your target audience for Ten Days on the Island?
Clearly the main audience that’s going to buy a ticket is Tasmanians and people who are living here. [But] we also aim to present an event of national significance, so that if people are interested in a particular art form or interested in these kinds of festivals, they will come down. So far the research we have indicates that people are doing that. About 23 per cent of our audience is from interstate.
It’s not like other festivals; it’s different because it’s all over the island. A lot of the work is staged so that it isn’t an urban experience. You’re in a hall in Burnie or you’re in a beautiful little church in Oatlands or you’re in the E.Scape Café in St Marys. The other thing is that the program isn’t necessary just about saying ‘There’s a big name and we’ll do that’. For me, it’s about ferreting out the little gems around the world. It’s not necessarily about the biggest stages and it doesn’t have to be for hundreds of thousands of people.
What’s your advice for serious festival-goers?
They’ll need to have a car. They’ll need to get out and about. We’ve got a program called the Grand Tour which takes you all around the island; you can circumnavigate it and there’s a map that helps you. You have to make some hard choices, and you might be sad about that, but you do. I’ve made some other itinerary suggestions [on the website]. On the other hand, you can see five shows in a day in Hobart, if you want to, on a weekend.
How early should people book?
Well, some of the venues are small and so if you’ve only got a hundred seats. A show like S20, he’s only got 320 tickets. He’s only here for three shows, he can’t stay any longer because he’ll be on his way to Paris to do another festival. What people tend to do is get the brochure and buy the things they absolutely want to see and them come back later on and make some other choices.
Finally, do you think there’s really a common thread running through all the work? What is it about art from island cultures?
Well, it’s about knowing the boundaries of where you are. So there’s environment, the sea, stories about isolation. [Welsh play] Floating is about a young man’s decision to leave his island home and the implications of that for him. Hatch [from Auckland Theatre Company] is about obsessiveness and that island part of your culture: how do you balance out development versus nature? Félix Baloy is all about freedom, it’s all about ‘speak up, stand up for your rights’, it’s a response to colonialism.
I would say when you get that story right, and there are artists who find that thread, you could transpose Tasmania, just transpose where the island’s from, and it actually fits. The experiences are very similar, particularly with islands that are off larger continents, like Tasmania to mainland Australia, New Zealand to Australia, Newfoundland to mainland Canada, Taiwan to China. There are things that those islanders have as part of the experience of being an islander.
And that gives [the artists] inroads to audiences here. You don’t have to have had the experience of living in the Yukon but you can go and see [singer songwriter] Old Man Luedecke, he’s from Nova Scotia, and you get it. Terra Che Brucia, from Sicily, includes films made by Panaria Films in the 1940s and 1950s. They made a whole series of documentaries in black and white and you think ‘That could be here! It could be my experience’. Aniwaniwa is about the flooding of a town to build a hydro-electric scheme. It’s those kind of connections.
The 2009 Ten Days on the Island Festival runs from March 27 - April 5, 2009. Further information»
Top Right: King Lear. Courtesy Contemporary Legend Theatre
Center Right: Metamorphosis. Photo - Eddi
Bottom Right: Floating. Photo - John Baucher