The Directors of the Melbourne's Poppy Seed Theatre Festival have just announced the 2016 program and Co-Director Scott Major recently made time to speak with Jan Chandler about what audiences may expect.

Scott MajorScott was thrilled by the turn-up at the launch and has no doubt that many people were there because of the critical success of last year's Festival; he made a point of personally thanking each of those who had been involved. John Marc Desengano (cast member of The Yellow Wave, which has already had two remounts, commented that 'if the whole idea of Poppy Seed, or one of the ideas of Poppy Seed, is to create opportunities for the ensemble members, it's been a success. I've had so many phone calls now because of my involvement in the festival so thank you'. 'It was an absolutely fantastic night' and the energy and excitement were high as this year's program was announced.

It's been four years since Philip Hayden first approached Scott Major with the idea of finding a way of supporting and encouraging local theatre makers. Together they came up with a concept of how things might work but then realised that they needed someone with 'chops' in terms of moving the project forward. Enter Sonya Suares whom Scott describes as an 'absolute machine' in getting things up and running; she was soon joined by Samantha Butterworth as Producer. After two exhausting years which culminated in the successful 2015 Festival and the Festival managing to secure triennial funding from the City of Melbourne, these two have moved on. Sonya is focusing on her production company Watch This and Samantha now works full time for Regional Arts Victoria. Emma Hayden has now joined the Festival Directors team and Siobhan Connors has come on board as Producer – the only one who is guaranteed any sort of financial return. The role of Producer is sold as two full days a week, 'more like four!' adds Scott. The remaining team may, in a successful year, receive some remuneration but mostly they donate their time and experience so that the money goes into supporting the artists, which is the whole reason for Poppy Seed's existence.

From its inception Poppy Seed's aim has been to offer new and emerging artists an 'incredible learning experience'; a chance to take a risk and improve their skills. Each year the four successful applicants are given a venue for the run of their show, as well as marketing support, and they work together as a de facto ensemble, supporting each other by sharing resources and ideas that help promote their shows; and the fact that there are often different experience levels within the ensemble means that participants are also able to learn from each other. 'One of the things we wanted to do was expand the artistic community' by expanding artists' group of contacts, hopefully creating a supportive and sustainable future for independent artists. 'I think sometimes the best art is created when we're out of our comfort zone and we have an outside eye', so this year there will be early showings with feedback forms delivered to the producer who can decide whether or not to hand them on to the director and the perfomers. It's about 'not being stuck in an hermetically sealed world … they can take it or leave it, but the offer is there'.

The Festival pays for the venues – this year The Tower theatre at Malthouse joins The Butterfly Club and the Trades Hall New Ball Room. In addition participants have been offered marketing workshops run by people from The Malthouse Theatre; social media workshops presented by the Arts Centre; regional touring support from Regional Arts Victoria; and budgeting workshops run by Auspicious Arts.

With 49 applications this year (41 last so they're on the increase) the fourteen strong Artistic Team have needed to devote a good deal of time to the selection process. First they have to read all of the applications (Scott estimates a minimum of 30 minutes for each) and then reduce the list to twelve works which will be pitched live over a full day. From the twelve, four works are seclected for inclusion in the Festival. The Artistic Team is really impressive, made up as it is by fourteen established artists. The Festival Patron is Nadine Garner and she is joined by, amongst others, Actor Bert LaBonte (stage and screen); Company Manager for Malthouse Theatre Alice Muhling; Costume and Set Designer Eugyeene Teh; and Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Rachael Maza (Yidinji from North Queensland and Meriam from Torres Strait Island of Mer). 'The people who want to be involved in our festival are amazing. We sit back in the room when they are all judging/assessing [and ask] how did we manage to get all these amazing people in one room!'

All works selected have to be new work for the particular production company. The companies have to effectively sell their artistic vision and the experience of all those involved. Poppy Seed gives them financial and logisitcal support with the aim of reducing the inevitable stress involved in mounting a production and freeing the artists to concentrate on producing their best possible art with the best possible theatrical outcome.

Over five weeks from 8 November till 11 December Melbourne theatre-goers will have the opportunity of seeing the result of all this effort; the premiere of four ambitious and challenging new works created by Melbourne-based independent artists: Blessed – Attic Erratic; LadyCake – Three Birds Theatre; What's Yours is Mine – Hotel Now; and F. – Riot Stage. Scott managed, just, to curb his enthusiasm when giving me a run down on what to expect.

Blessed (8 – 20 November 2016) is written by Fleur Kirkpatrick and directred by Danny Delahunty who are one of the more experienced teams. 'Fleur's script was a standout – the atmosphere, the almost raw poetry of it really jumped out from the page and when they came in and pitched the performers really made it lift off the page.' The work shines a light on aspects of society that we tend to overlook, to step over. Audiences will be in for a fast paced and dramatic ride with a twist in its tail. Spoiler Alert! Keep quiet about the ending.

LadyCake (15 – 27 November 2016) is created by three young women who graduated from the Victorian Colege of the Arts in 2015. They have already received critical acclaim for their work Three Birds One Cock (Melbourne Fringe 2015, FRISK 2015; Adelaide Fringe 2016 and Metanoia Theatre at the Mechanics Institute 2016). Scott comments that he has never met three women who are so determined, so keen to learn, and absorb everything that's thrown at them. LadyCake is a devised piece based on the myths surrounding the infamous last queen of France, Marie Antoinette. It investigates the issues surrounding celebrity and is described as 'an electrifying and darkly witty piece that sees a flamboyant collision between 18th century France and the modern day.'

What's Yours is Mine (22 November – 4 December 2016) has been created by three performers who 'have energy and really push the boundaries ... Their concepts and how they intend to bring the audience into this piece is, for me, some of the best ideas I've heard in terms of immersive theatre. Some immersive theatre can be too far in your face; theirs is at the right level ...Their show is about ownership, the fact that we really don't own anything.'

F. (30 November – 11 December 2016) will, for many, be the most confronting of all the theatre pieces.The work, told from the perspective of a 16 year old, exposes the different ways in which young people access information about sex; at the pitching session there was a shocked intake of breath from each of the seventeen people in the room. 'It really will shock, open your eyes, and make you think about what's going on in the world with technology … It's one of the most powerful two minutes of theatre I've seen all year.' A devised piece it draws on the experiences of young adults through common google searches. 'I really feel there's this circle of trust that the producers and director have created to allow true honesty to come out … [the work] has been developed over some time and I'm really, really excited to see the rawness of these performers living out what they've been working on for all these years. … I feel honoured that these young adults are sharing their stories at a very difficult time of life.'

Thar's just a taste of what's in store. Now it's up to Melbournians to take the challenge and embrace the Festival and support its aim of being one of the factors that works towards securing the artistic future of Melbourne.

The Poppy Seed Theatre Festival runs from 8 November – 11 December 2016. For full details visit»

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