Theatre People feature: “Watts Up With Alvin Sputnik”, Nov 2011

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A feature article I wrote for Theatre People, interviewing WA’s Tim Watts.

It’s the opening night of the Perth Theatre Company’s latest production at the State Theatre Centre. An eager crowd pours in, primed by two years of rave reviews from this show’s runs in New York, Seoul and Edinburgh. Reviewers have used no shortage of gushing adjectives for this show, even calling it the theatrical equivalent of a blockbuster Pixar film. But if this audience is expecting a big-budget production, they aren’t going to get it. They’ve come for the story of one little man made out of a buoy and a white glove. This is the fringe theatre darling known as The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is set in a bleak future where the seas have risen and wiped out most of humanity. Someone must volunteer to journey down into the watery depths to find a new place for the survivors to live. Alvin Sputnik takes on this dangerous mission, hoping to follow the soul of his beloved wife, to be with her once more. Alvin Sputnik is told through a fusion of live performance, animation, mime, puppetry, projections, music, live drawing and even a ukelele. Alvin himself is portrayed by a mix of performance, stick-figure animation, and clever puppetry.

Two weeks before the show’s opening night, I’m sitting in a North Perth café with Alvin Sputnik’s creator, Tim Watts. He has come a long way since the first performance of Alvin Sputnik at The Blue Room in 2009. The show was quickly picked up by the Perth Theatre Company and went on to tour the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea, India, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Watts and Alvin picked up a swag of awards along the way. Now, in 2011, Alvin has come back to Perth a hero, starting a season at the newly minted State Theatre Centre.

After all the positive press over Alvin Sputnik, is Watts feeling the pressure to deliver? “I’m just worried that it’s going to be over-hyped,” he admits. “Towards the end of the UK season, I think people came in with really high expectations. I think no matter what happens when you go into a show and your expectations are through the roof, it can never really measure up.

“At the beginning of the show, where I’m just doing the live drawing, I try to bring things down to a basic level, so that people aren’t necessarily going to expect a big song and dance. Then I can surprise them from there.”

Despite the show’s accolades and years of touring, Watts has been careful to preserve what he calls its “nice little handmade quality.” Since Alvin Sputnik’s first incarnation at The Blue Room in 2009, Watts has added more animation and more puppetry, but says it is still essentially the same show. “You don’t want to polish it up to where it doesn’t have any heart left.”

Watts developed Alvin Sputnik in collaboration with fellow Perth theatre peep Arielle Gray. Their development process focused on audience response; they would work on the show together, then present showings to their friends and ask for feedback. Watts was prompted to try this kind of process by watching stand-up comedians.

“I got really jealous of stand-up comedians who’d have an idea for a joke, and could get up that night and try it out. They got real feedback as to whether the delivery was right, whether the joke was any good. They could work on their set through actual response from the audience, as opposed to a lot of theatre shows where you have an idea, you write out a script, and you spend six months putting it on. Then you perform it for two weeks, and no one is really honest with you as to how it goes. If anything negative is said about it, you just go and sit in a hole. You think, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now’.”

The character Alvin was created in a puppetry workshop with ‘Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’ in Fremantle, out of a buoy and a white glove. Under Watts’ expert hand, these abstract objects take on a very human life. He attributes Alvin’s anthropomorphism to the audience’s imaginative engagement. “To be able to pretend that this is a little guy … it’s as though you’re delighted at your own imagination. Then, when he does something human, it looks even more human,” he says. “When you’re really imaginatively engaged with something, you’re more likely to be emotionally engaged as well.”

Whenever he mentions Alvin, Watts absently arranges his hands into the shape of the little puppet, so for a moment it’s as if the deep sea explorer is at the table with us. It’s clear that Watts has formed a strong bond with the little round-headed man. So, how long do they plan to stay together? “Next year I’m kind of winding it down a bit. I don’t have a finite date where I’m like, ‘2015: no more Alvin’. I’m happy to keep doing Alvin, but I’m hoping to introduce more shows into my repertoire.”

But for now, it looks like Alvin will be sticking around. It’s the opening night of Alvin Sputnik’s Perth season for 2011, and I’m sitting in the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, holding my breath in anticipation. Watts needn’t have worried about the hype. It’s not often you see a show that wins over the audience’s heart so quickly, or so completely. But Alvin Sputnik does it. During the performance, theatre-goers of all ages are sitting forward in their seats, faces shining, completely enamoured of Alvin. There are soft gasps of delight the first time puppet-Alvin emerges, and bursts of joyous applause throughout the 45-minute show.

Alvin’s underwater adventures arc towards a poignant finale. This is the second time I’ve seen The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik (having seen it during its inaugural season in 2009), so I reckon I’ll be able to steel myself against the emotional gutpunch and maintain a cool demeanour. Err, not so much. I straight-up weep. But I am relieved to see plenty of other patrons dabbing at their eyes as we leave the Studio. Something about this simple story of love and self-sacrifice has certainly captured people’s imagination. Perth audiences are usually dour and bestow admiration grudgingly, but Alvin Sputnik receives an ovation that seems to go on forever, and cheers such as are usually reserved for rock stars. But that’s how it is now. Alvin is a rock star. And it’s only a matter of time before Tim Watts achieves the same status.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is showing at the State Theatre Centre of WA (Perth) from Tuesday 22 November to Saturday 3 December.

Tim Watts performs with one of the Alvin puppets


Theatre People review: “Flirt Fiction”, Oct 2012

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A review I wrote for Theatre People, of Blue Room production Flirt Fiction.

Red Rabbit Collective, Perth’s sexiest new performance ensemble, brings their new show Flirt Fiction home to Australia, fresh off the back of a run in Edinburgh.

The show is a web of seductive tales woven around two competitive writers, Ana (Kathryn Delaney) and Henry (Lawrence Ashford). The two friends set each other a new writing challenge: sensual fiction. Each writer must attempt to write erotica. Henry accuses Ana of being uptight, and Ana tells Henry that sex isn’t all about penetration. They each struggle to take on the challenge, facing up to their personal taboos and secret fantasies. Centred in their sensual scenes is the waitress from their coffee shop, played by Zoe Cooper. The writers craft their characters in her image, and she becomes goddess, whore, dominatrix, whatever they need her to be.

Flirt Fiction production still, courtesy Angela H King
Zoe Cooper and Kathryn Delaney flirt with fiction.

Flirt Fiction is an interesting exploration of erotica, and how we craft our fantasies. With a strong script by Jessica Craig-Piper, the show explores the vulgar and the obvious in erotica, then goes deeper, reflecting on how our identities inform our consumption of sex. Woven through the story is a sweet thread of romance, which elevates the play from a collection of vulgar sketches and creates an engaging narrative.

Ashford is the stand-out performer of the show; he had the audience from his opening monologue and held them right through the play. Delaney, too, gave a strong performance and played her character with an admirable mix of strength and vulnerability. Cooper was perhaps the least engaging; although she gave a brave performance as the muse who is stripped of her clothes and bent into any position the others wish, she was somehow too brittle, and not terribly convincing as a flirt.

On the night this reviewer watched the play, it was unfortunate that the audience was not terribly responsive. There were a few murmurs of laughs at some of the naughty jokes, but mostly just the tense silence of an uncomfortable audience. While Ashford’s comic timing was spot-on, Delaney and Cooper missed a few chances for laughs, so that the energy fell flat. Unfortunately, the biggest laugh came in the middle of a heartfelt monologue about bestiality and rape, which was clearly intended to be an emotional peak in the story. Instead, the audience was left chuckling and hoping for relief from the confronting sound effects. The play’s finale was undercut by The Blue Room Studio’s black box set-up, which means that the actors freeze in their final position, then immediately unfreeze and wave goodbye to the audience. Awkward.

Despite some setbacks, this show is enjoyable and intensely interesting. Although not, perhaps, for the faint-hearted. At the end of the show, a man loudly said to his friend ‘I did NOT like that’, and two young women from the front row were evidently most concerned that they were going to be hit in the face by a strap-on dildo. It seems the show did not ‘find its audience’ that night. But if you can get past the graphic sexuality and the desire to giggle like a schoolgirl, then you’ll find Flirt Fiction a rewarding experience.

Flirt Fiction is showing at The Blue Room until Saturday 22 October.

Read this review and heaps of other up-to-the-minute info about Australian theatre on TheatrePeople.com.au

Theatre People review: “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Sept 2011

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This is a review I wrote for Theatre People of a theatrical adaptation of the famous short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a new Perth production based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gothic short story of the same name, adapted for stage by Silvia Lehmann and Teresa Izzard. This beautiful play gives a twisted physicality to the tale of a woman, Charlotte, who is struggling to cope after the birth of her first child. Her husband, a doctor, prescribes a ‘rest cure’ – a popular remedy for ‘hysterical tendencies’ in 1892. Stuck in the upstairs nursery with nothing but her imagination and the wallpaper, the woman desperately searches for an escape.

The role of Charlotte is shared between two actors – Jo Morris and Sarah Nelson. Morris is captivating as the ‘real’ Charlotte, the one still anchored in reality, while Nelson represents the part of Charlotte’s mind that she keeps hidden. From the very beginning of action, the two women are in perfect sync; they mirror each other’s movements around the stage in a way that is both fascinating and slightly unsettling. As Charlotte’s mental state deteriorates, the line separating the two women blurs, culminating in a breathtakingly disturbing choreography at the end.

Charlotte’s husband (Sean Walsh) orbits around the edge of the set. He sits to one side of the stage throughout the play, reading medical books in his winged armchair, an immediate symbol of nineteenth-century masculine authority. Walsh is perfect as the logic-minded doctor who treats his wife with fatherly condescension. The doctor ignores his wife’s pleas for help, insisting that she would get better if she would only practise some self-will. As infuriating as his character is, Walsh doesn’t let him descend into a monstrous figure; he makes him human, a man who is well-meaning but getting it completely wrong.

Though there are only three principals in The Yellow Wallpaper, I feel I should name a fourth: the wallpaper itself. Laura Heffernan’s brilliantly crafted set, complemented by clever lighting design from Karen Cook, gives the peeling yellow wallpaper a life of its own. The actors interact with the paper until it has a towering presence in The Blue Room’s small theatre; they stare into it, tear strips off it, and rub its dust onto their clothes. Silhouettes dance behind it and disembodied eyes blink through secret holes. It is delightfully creepy.

Perkins Gilman’s original story was composed of a first-person narrator’s journal entries, and I was curious to see how Lehmann and Izzard would flesh out the parts of the story that were left unwritten. For instance, the woman is never named in the original text, but in the play her name becomes Charlotte, an evident nod to the author. Except for a couple of changes, the play keeps true to the brooding drama and moments of black humour that made The Yellow Wallpaper such an arresting tale. However, I thought one of the company’s interpretations of the story was a bit odd: as Charlotte deteriorates, so does her husband. Charlotte’s decline into madness would have had more impact if it had been contrasted by the husband’s stoic belief in reason. Instead he was reduced to a crawling, collapsing wreck, which seemed uncharacteristic. This, perhaps, was why the play did not reach a stronger climax at the end; I think the audience was waiting for a more violent conclusion to Charlotte’s condition.

Despite an uncertain finale, The Yellow Wallpaper is a truly stunning production by Perth physical theatre company Movementworks. And, with a relatively short running time and no intermission, it holds the audience’s tense attention from start to finish.

The Yellow Wallpaper is showing at The Blue Room until Saturday, 3rd September 2011.

Theatre People feature: “Perth: A Cultural Wasteland?” June 2011

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This is an op-ed piece I wrote for Theatre People.

Earlier this year, reporter Liam Bartlett published an article in The Sunday Times entitled “Art’s a dirty word in WA”. In the article, Bartlett admonished Western Australia for being “culturally poor” despite our economic prosperity from the mining boom. This sentiment was recently echoed by international producer John Frost when he brought his joint production of Wicked to town. Frost fumed at WA, publicly stating, “You are the only State in the country that doesn’t have an arts centre and you are the wealthiest State in the country, supposedly. It is an outrage.”

Both Bartlett’s article and Frost’s comments have sparked much discussion within Perth’s arts community. Yes, Perth has always had a reputation for being an oversized country town that’s more concerned with footy than theatre, but is it fair to label us “culturally poor”? That kind of broad statement sweeps aside all the talented, committed creatives and arts workers in Perth who are tirelessly pumping life into the City’s arts community.

We’ve been working hard to shake off the moniker of “Dullsville”, but as usual we’re doing it at a glacial pace. With the mining industry’s help, Perth has the fastest expanding population in Australia. Our little city is growing up. But our perception of our city is slow to catch up, and the growing pains are indeed painful. In January, the new $100 million State Theatre Centre opened, the first theatre to be built in Perth by any state government. That is a massive step forward. However, the State Theatre Centre’s main stage ­– the Heath Ledger Theatre ­– only has a seating capacity of 575. The other stage seats 230. That’s small, even for Perth. (For comparison, the Regal Theatre seats 1074, and Burswood Theatre seats 2300.)  On top of that oversight, the venue is so expensive to use that WA’s flagship theatre company, Black Swan, has announced it may not be able to afford to put on its usual seven productions a year. So, somehow, the State government has managed to spend $100 million on making it more difficult for theatre to be produced in Perth.

No matter how much talent this state produces, it can’t flourish unless it has the infrastructure to support it. In the past few years, the City has spent millions of dollars on the public transport infrastructure, the main result of which was the extension of the train line to Mandurah. So now we can travel even further away from Perth. Great. But within the City, we still have very limited train and bus services after business hours, and taxis are prohibitively expensive, making it difficult and costly for residents from the suburbs to stay in the City after work. As a result, everyone crowds the trains and the freeways home at five o’clock every day, leaving the City relatively empty. After dark, Perth becomes a desolate wasteland of closed cafes and empty footpaths. I swear I saw a tumbleweed once. If the City was the kind of place more people wanted to hang around of a night, then they’d be more likely to go see a show, or drop into an art gallery, or listen to some live music. Instead, most people spend their spare time (and money) near their homes, out in the suburbs – nowhere near the few professional theatres that Perth has.

And then, of course there’s the long, painful debate about extended trading hours. This may not seem directly related to the arts community, but of course it is. If you go to see a show in Sydney or Melbourne, afterwards you can find a nice café or restaurant and sit down with your friends, grab a bite to eat, and discuss the play you just saw. The trip to the theatre becomes a night out, a relaxing and fun experience for everyone. However, in Perth, thanks to the limited trading hours, not many places are open on weeknights. Any restaurants that do stay open late usually close their kitchens before 9 p.m., so if the show you’re seeing finishes after then, you might as well just go home.

As a city, we’ve got the population size to warrant a bigger, more accommodating arts infrastructure. We’ve got the passionate, talented people needed to get a thriving theatre community going. At the moment, it’s like Perth is a tiny little fishbowl and we’re trying to grow whale sharks in it. It’s no wonder our best talent keeps outgrowing us and moving over to Melbourne, Sydney, or overseas. Perth’s theatre community may not be getting the support it needs from our State government, but that doesn’t mean we are “culturally poor”. I believe we are culturally rich, and we have the makings of a strong theatrical base here. Our theatre community is unfortunately scattered around the fringes of the city, in the suburbs, without a centre to hold us all together. Perhaps the new State Theatre Centre will be that rallying point for Perth’s theatre people. Perhaps not. Bartlett may have underestimated Perth’s cultural riches, but he was spot-on in assessing the lack of “cultural leadership” in WA. So, all we need now is a leader.

The successful Theatre People website has been a part of Victoria’s theatrical community for eleven years, and now they’re expanding to the national level. I’m proud to have been selected as the editor of Western Australia’s branch of Theatre People, and I’m looking forward to August when the website relaunches nationally.

I know there are plenty of theatre-y people kicking around WA, so if any of them would like to get involved with Theatre People, my email is kaitlyn at theatrepeople dot com dot au. I’ll need feature writers, reviewers, and people with their fingers on the pulse of Perth’s theatre community.

Read Theatre People’s official announcement!

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