Live from the Denmark Festival of Voice: bucket list TICKED.

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This weekend I am writing to you from the Festival of Voice in Denmark (not the country). Denmark is a lovely little town tucked away in the south-west of Western Australia, nestled amongst forests – the perfect place to wander around listening to choirs, bands and singers (and even a poet or two).

Down by the river in Denmark, WA.

Down by the river in Denmark, WA.

I’m here with my friend and fellow poet Kate Wilson; we are both performing in the festival, so I am very lucky to get to share my first solo-festival-show experience with a close friend. I also get to emcee her show tonight, which is a pretty great honour!

This weekend I have ticked two major things off my bucket list: I performed my first solo show in a festival (at the Denmark RSL Hall, rock ‘n’ roll). Secondly – and more terrifyingly – I sang. A song I wrote. In public. For actual people. And I survived, hurrah!

I’m selling merch here at the fest – it’s a little zine of one of my more popular poems, ‘What Is She’ (pictured below). I’ve hand-written each stanza of the poem in typography, inspired by kinetic poems. They’re also available for sale online – DM me on Twitter (@kplyley) or leave a message on here if you would like to buy a copy. They’re only $4 each! (Free postage within Australia. International peeps – message me and we can work something out.)

Festival program and merch.

Festival program and merch.

That’s all I have time to write, as there are still more shows to see, gigs to emcee, and deadlines for more future projects coming up … Exciting things! See you back in Brisbane, blogosphere.

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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


Runner-up in WA Poetry Festival SLAM!

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Photo courtesy of Allan Boyd (2011)

Last night was the WA Poetry Fest’s Slam. It was a fantastic night with an entertaining mix of old hats and new faces. We had an impressive line-up of 20 poets, but most notable were Janet Jackson‘s gorgeous pagan tribute to the moon, and James Hanlon’s touching tribute to his dad, which he ended with a big ol’ dad hug (Mr Hanlon was in the crowd).

And of course, DVS‘s rap ‘Pixel Junkie’ was fun and thought-provoking, and took out first place. DVS is devious indeed, and one of these days I’m actually going to beat that guy in a slam. One day …

But it was pretty sweet to take out second place with my slam of ‘Yeah Orright Princess’, and rack up the highest score I’ve ever gotten in a slam.

Bloody good night.

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.

NYWM interview: “Why I Write: David Vincent Smith”, May 2011

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Today I posted my interview with David Vincent Smith (the man known as DVS) on the NaNoWriMo blog – we discuss writer’s block, David Wenham (swoon), and being poor.

Have a read:


DVS

I’ve just sat down for a chat with Perth writer and filmmaker David Vincent Smith, also known as DVS (pronounced ‘Devious’ – see what he did there?). DVS is one of Perth’s best performance poets, as well as one of the founders of Seventh Continent Productions. He has been featured at poetry and spoken word events around Perth (including Cottonmouth just last night), and was invited to be a guest at the 2011 Bali Emerging Writers Festival. And he’s twenty-three years old. When he saunters in with his scruffy beard and wide grin, you might mistake him for a bad Gen Y stereotype – but this is one of the hardest working young writers in Perth. READ MORE…

Pelican article: “Man Gives Birth?” 2009

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*This article I wrote about gender reassignments was published in Pelican magazine, August 2009 – but not a whole lot has changed since then, so here it is again.

About a month ago, a man named Thomas Beatie (dubbed ‘the Pregnant Man’ by the media) gave birth to his baby daughter in the USA. This story sparked a highly intriguing headline: ‘Man Gives Birth’. Bad news for women – giving birth was the one thing we could claim over the male gender. Men get higher salaries, the Presidential candidacy, and standing up while they pee – and now, apparently, they can get pregnant as well. But … is Thomas Beatie really a man? He was born a woman, then went through a gender reassignment and had his gender legally changed to male. However, he kept his female reproductive organs. So, at least in a biological sense, it was a female giving birth. Yet Beatie is legally a man. Confused much?

In an article that Beatie wrote for an American newspaper, he repeatedly affirmed that throughout the pregnancy his ‘gender identity as male [was] constant’. I find it interesting that a transgender person such as Beatie can so emphatically claim a fixed gender identity. What defines the male gender? Beatie has had his female breasts removed, and has taken testosterone to grow facial hair, but kept his female reproductive organs. So does this mean that every woman of flat chest and hairy upper lip is actually teetering on the edge of the male gender? Or, that any man who cannot grow a full beard is not a man? (I’m sure there are numerous Facebook groups with opinions on that.) Gender is not governed by indisputable boundaries, not for anyone, and the issue of gender identity can become confusing when you are trying to shoehorn each unique individual into one of two categories. Philosopher Judith Butler stated that the body cannot serve as a foundation for gender definition; there are simply too many different kinds of bodies for us to categorize all of them into ‘male’ or ‘female’. When you consider gender as a fluid concept, it becomes easier to accept a wider range of gender identities.

In Oregon, where Thomas Beatie lives, he is legally recognised as a man. Despite this, he reportedly still has trouble convincing some of his neighbours to recognise this. However, the media coverage of the Beatie story has consistently referred to him in male pronouns. Since the story came to the media’s attention, even the most sceptical headlines said ‘Man Claims To Be Pregnant,’ instead of ‘Pregnant Woman Claims To Be A Man’. Looking closer to home, how does our own state treat its transgender community? If Thomas Beatie were a Western Australian and had delivered his baby in this state, would the papers have announced ‘Man Gives Birth’, or would WA have denied Beatie’s status as a man? It is true that in the last decade WA has radically improved its legislation with regards to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. However, many of WA’s transgender residents are still stranded in legal limbo. It all comes down to the question of defining gender, at least in terms of the law. Under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, a person hoping to apply for a recognition of gender change must have taken on the ‘characteristics’ of their adopted gender. The Act defines gender characteristics as ‘the physical characteristics by virtue of which a person is identified as male or female.’ Whether this extends to include such physical traits as muscle size or hair length is not specified; in fact, the Act’s definitions are extremely vague. At one point in Australian history, it was commonly considered a male characteristic to wear trousers. That social viewpoint has clearly changed; what else could change? Who decides which characteristics belong to each gender?

In 2006, New York City proposed a new rule, to allow people to legally change their gender without medical alteration or surgery. The intent of the new legislation was to let people decide for themselves which gender they are. In WA, however, in order to legally change your gender, you must have undergone ‘a medical or surgical procedure … to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person.’ Gender reassignment procedures can be extremely expensive and painful, and are not within everyone’s means. Some transgender people don’t view surgical alterations as necessary. Is gender, therefore, a personal choice or governed by our physiology? If it were the latter, where would that leave Thomas Beatie?

So far, in this article, I have used the word ‘gender’ twenty-four times. Often, when you have used a word so often within a short space of time, it begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps gender is beginning to lose its meaning and its importance – after all, why are we so concerned with gender? In making it difficult for people to change their gender, what is our society so jealously guarding? For many people, an ideal world would consist of men and women having equal opportunities and an end to gender discrimination. For decades, activist groups have been fighting for this very cause. In practicality, gender discrimination still occurs in Australia. For example, women in the army or navy are not permitted to fight in direct combat, on the basis that their physiology is inherently weaker. Where do transgender people fit into this? Could a man who was born a woman fight in combat?

If everyone was considered equal regardless of their gender, it wouldn’t matter which gender we claimed. Thomas Beatie is a man who wanted to have a baby, so he did. As Beatie said himself, ‘Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.’ While Beatie’s pregnancy may not quite be a biology-defying miracle (some women may have been thinking, ‘Damn, so I can’t get my man to go through labour for me, after all’), his story’s worldwide exposure has shown that our society’s view on gender is gradually broadening. And that, in itself, is a miracle.