From 24 March until 29 March, as part of the 2015 Tasmanian International Arts Festival, Hobart's Ascot Private Hotel will become the venue for the world premiere of Big hART Inc's latest theatrical event Blue Angel. Jan Chandler recently spoke with Creative Producer Cecily Hardy, about her role and what audiences may expect from this unique performance.

Blue AngelAfter graduating from performing arts school and working for some years as a professional actor, Cecily decided that she wanted to put her energies into “work that matters” and began to “morph” into the zone of a Creative Producer, a zone which she says can have her talking to the Prime Minister one minute and cleaning the toilets the next! It is her role to champion the exploration of the issues that underllie the project (in this case Fair Shipping and the situation of Australian and International seafarers), however she also needs to make sure that every artist, creative and crew member is well looked after. Cecily describes her relationship with Creative Director Scott Rankin as “viscous”; they are in constant conversation and his creative ideas for the work often feed into the bigger picture and her discoveries into the theatrical work. Whilst experience helps, Cecily is convinced that it is much more about having a particular personality, one that allows you to throw yourself into quite divergent areas of a project with the aim of making it “live bigger and badder than it might otherwise”.

Blue Angel began its journey some years ago when Scott Rankin, co-founder and Creative Director of Big hART, visited Liverpool in the UK and met up with a retired seafarer. Listening to his life story – how he threw himself on the mercy of the sea, left home and never looked back – Rankin was impressed by his courage and couldn't help thinking about the inevitable loneliness of finding yourself in a foreign port without friends or contacts. He came to understand how important the Mission to Seafarers must be in offering services to all seafarers irrespective of religion, race or creed. Every port city has a Mission to Seafarers and yet, as Rankin realised, the general public know very little about seafarers or their lives.

Rankin takes time in developing his projects, or his “pearls” as Cecily calls them. No doubt he had been thinking about a project with seafarers for many years but it was only about two years ago that he called Cecily saying “here's all the juicy beginnings, you need to make something of it. Tell me what it's going to be Cecily.” Like so many of us Cecily knew virtually nothing about seafaring. In her inimitable way she dove in head first and began to immerse herself in the world of seafarers and shipping, asking herself endless questions about what is involved in such a lifestyle. Seafarer, she discovered, is a general term that you are allowed to use if you live or make your living on the sea. It is an inclusive term; “a lot of the old blokes will still say seaman, but women are slowly but surely making their way into the industry”. She very soon came to realise how deeply dependent Australians are on international labour: “over 90% of what we consume as an island nation comes to us on the back of international seaferers”; ordinary people “wearing their jeans and using their washing machines have no concept of this. It's not that they don't care it's simply that they are unaware.” Blue Angel sets out to make them aware as well as to entertain them.

So what have been some of the major challenges in the journey from concept to realisation?

Cecily describes the project as epic in the true sense of the word. Over the last year they have been developing intense relationships with seafarers from as far away as Rotterdam as well as closer to home – Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne, Burnie, Sydney. Their aim has been to understand their experiences, to capture their voices and to weave their stories into a theatrical work; a show that really is for everyone, seafarer or not. Whilst the issue of Fair Shipping is important in and of itself, “the quality of the work and the impact of the story is paramount”.

The size and scope of the project has meant that it has not always been an easy sell; it is looking at a global community and the issues it's dealing with are not widely known or understood. Cecily's first task was to encourage bodies to think a bit outside the square, to broaden their notion of community and the responsibilities we have to each other. “Once people turn their head to it they are utterly fascinated and really overwhelmed; and that goes for the actors too”. Along with a host of funding bodies, she also managed to secure the support of sections of the maritime industry, although they were understandably sceptical at first: “A social arts company! What the hell is that?”

Much work has gone into devising the experience that each audience member will have: the hotel room they will occupy; the original artwork that will be in that room; the actor who will talk with them; whether they will be taken to see the film work (new work by film maker Peter Greenaway); their participation in the specially created dining experience in the Astor Grill. The show will be a totally immersive experience with music, sound design, installations, video art, homebrew, shoeshine, beards, tattoos, Old Spice and rope splicing, and, most importantly, real life seafarers along with some wonderful actors and musicians, including Kerry Armstrong, Mikelangelo and Mike McLeish, as guides.

Audiences have the chance of attending a concert or spending the night as a guest of The Astor Hotel. Those who choose the overnight stay will receive a special gift to bring with them, a gift crucial to their story and connected with the hotel room they will occupy, “they will [potentially] be the caretakers of a particular story.” From the moment they enter the door they will become part of of the show.

Despite the fact that the performance will be part of this year's Melbourne Festival and the Adelaide Festival in 2016, the Hobart experience will be unique. For one the overnight experience is only happening in Hobart. Although there is the potential for Blue Angel to tour internationally future plans are still under wraps, but Cecily assures me that we should stay tuned as Blue Angel will definitely be visiting other ports. The work is still growing, “it's a seafarer in itself, growing, dropping, gathering, morphing... “ and Cecily, along with many others, will continue the voyage, “I have to. I'll be murdered if I don't I think!” Rankin is keen that the performance should have an authentic local quality wherever it goes so there will be elements that are specific to Hobart and left behind, whilst others will be part of future shows, along with new elements that are local and specific to the next port.

Cecily encourages everyone to “come and throw yourself at the mercy of the sea and have a rollicking time”. Sounds like good advice.

Blue Angel is performing as part of the 2015 Tasmanian International Arts Festival. Visit the Blue Angel event page»

Image credit:–
Top right – Cecily Hardy with Terry Relf one of the many seafarers she has engaged in the Blue Angel project

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