Workshop Review: Creating site-specific spectacles in Australia with Joey Ruigrok van der Werven

Posted by Morgan Leek, July 4th, 2011

Independent director Marisa Garreffa takes a detailed look at Joey Ruigrok’s workshop “Creating European Style Spectacle and Site-specific Theatre for Australia”. Held at The Bakery over a weekend in April this year, Marisa was one of seventeen ‘renegade’ Perth artists who participated in the workshop and soaked up Joey’s skills.

Words: Marisa Garreffa Photos: Sarah Rowbottam

Joey Ruigrok's Perth Workshop
Workshop group in discussion. Location: The Bakery, Northbridge

I find it curious that sometimes it takes an out-of-towner to bring together a group of locals who all share a common purpose. Such was the case with Joey Ruigrok van der Werven’s lecture and workshop, held over a weekend in April at The Bakery in Northbridge. It was an invitation to come together and imagine theatre on a grand scale – to think bigger than we ever thought we’d be allowed to. The goal was simple – to change the theatre-making context in Perth to facilitate the creation of image-driven spectacle performances. Yes. Easy. Good.

What is so exciting about this kind of performance? In Joey’s words it’s “to bring theatre to people who don’t normally come to our palaces”. One only needs to attend the opening or closing of an international arts festival to understand the extraordinary power of these events, where a community has “a synchronised experience together on a deep level”. These spectacles don’t always follow the kind of linear narrative we are used to, but as Joey suggests, “sometimes poetic images are enough”.

However, shifts need to occur before Australia can be a creator of spectacle theatre. The way that our government funding is structured requires an artist to have a decided outcome when going into a creative process. There needs to be an element of assured outcome and this can hinder the encouragement of taking large creative risks. Sometimes an artist will explore an idea and it might not work! When funding is so limited, this style of exploration is not financially encouraged. In the face of “outcome” based pressures, Joey encourages artists to face their fears and not throwaway our desire to discover.

Joey Ruigrok van der Werven
Pictured (L-R): Poppy Van Oorde-Grainger, Joey Ruigrok van der Werven,
Antonio Giri Mazzella, Zoe Pepper, Claudia Alessi and Francis Italiano

So how do we achieve this kind of vision in a country where arts funding are minimal, at best, and often on the front line of funding cuts? Funding conditions in Europe are just as bad, if not worse, with theatre tickets subject to GST as high as 19%. The difference in Europe is that the artists have a deep and open connection with the community that they create within. As Australian theatre makers we need to begin to foster this relationship with our community and believe in their need for artists. As Joey suggests, “if you take away the arts, our culture becomes poor and barren”. As artists, it is our job to develop an engagement with the community so that they feel an ownership over their artists. Then the community are encouraged to become the major supporter of the arts. Companies can donate what you need. Crowds can fund your projects. People feel that they are part of an artistic family, and like family, you can call on them for support when you need it.

Chrissie Parrott
Pictured (L-R): Chrissie Parrott, myself (Marisa Garreffa) and Rachel Riggs

Coming to the table for this call-to-action was a diverse group of performance makers and artists: Poppy Van Oorde-Grainger, Rebecca Baumann, Zoe Pepper,  Claudia Alessi, Sarah Wilkinson, Chrissie Parrott, Ross Vegas, Sanjiva Margio, Jenny Villa, Antonio Giri Mazzella, Karen Hethey, Rachel Riggs, Sarah Rowbottam, Marcus Canning, Francis Italiano, Michelle Hovane and myself. Joey encouraged each person to identify the way that they engage with the creative community through four of their primary skills and a series of categories:

  1. – A freelance artist for hire – HIRE
  2. – An artist who creates work collaboratively – COLL
  3. – A member of an arts-based organization – ORG
  4. – An artist who works solo/individually – IND
  5. – An instigator of new arts projects – INST
  6. – An idea of what percentage of the year you have free to collaborate
    with other artists on projects – %

For example: Marisa Gareffa, Director, Devisor, Writer, Producer. COLL. HIRE. INST. 40%

In honour of Joey’s favourite word we dubbed ourselves “The Renegades”.

One idea which came out of the workshop was to create an online hub where artists looking to collaborate can identify themselves, their skill set and their availability or desire to be hired or contacted about projects.

Each production that Joey has worked on uses the process to explore the artists’ individual fascinations: Politics, Human Quality, Space, Genre. The larger the audience base the more universal the work needs to be so that it can be widely understood. The director functions more as a facilitator and the work is created collectively. When they create a production, they trust the phenomena of the artist who exists in the world and responds to it. There is trust that there is a link between the artists response and the wider human experience.

Claudia Alessi
Pictured: Claudia Alessi

Joey is passionate about creating visual theatre. An image is processed in our minds much faster than words are. When we hear and see, our mind works furiously to funnel that information into categories. Visual theatre bombards our minds with information and slows down our attempts to fit everything into a box. Visual productions resist linear storytelling – there is no beginning, middle and end. The production must somehow be perceptible and engage the audience on an emotional and experiential level (not just intellectually). When you are working from a non-linear logic, you must establish the rules at the start of the work so that the audience is able to go along with it. When creating images be careful that the meaning is not lost in translation. Take a step back and ask yourself: Is this really saying and doing what I want it to?

After a lot of passionate conversation about making work, Joey set us to task. He had identified a number of abandoned sites within walking distance of The Bakery and challenged us to work together in small teams to imagine how we would install a performance work into the site. He armed us with a detailed list of questions designed to help us investigate the sites and create our ideas based on what we received from the site itself, rather than just paste an idea on top of it.

Vacant site on William Street, Northbridge
Jenny Villa and I conducting site-research. Location: William Street, Northbridge

The final instruction was very specific: When presenting those ideas you may only talk in IMAGES and FEELINGS. It was absolutely forbidden to talk in concepts or theories. We were encouraged to be very specific – describe the visual that we imagine for the site in detail. Nothing else!

When the images we imagine feel strong then we can move forward to the next idea. If an image isn’t working, then we ask ourselves what it is we are trying to achieve or evoke with the image and explore if there is another way to achieve it. And finally, once we had imagined strong images for the site, we were asked to prepare a couple of questions that we would ask fellow collaborators in order to further develop the performance.

So off we went! And when we returned the presentations were a spectacular variety of creative flamboyance. They included photography, small-scale puppetry using jelly babies and snakes, a power-point presentation of a single flow chart design repeated to present infinite pairs of creative possibility, live drawing and even a splash of live performance. It was extraordinary how even the simplest stick figure drawing was able to evoke an incredibly vivid vision of the sites in performance.

Marcus Canning presenting his ideas
Pictured: Marcus Canning

Just to keep us on our toes Joey then asked us to choose one of the ideas presented that we really liked. Not the site that we had been working on already, but an idea another group had presented that we liked the sound of. We chose and we were given the list of questions. Off we went again, as individuals this time, to explore the new site and answer the list of questions. When we came back our instructions were the same. Present your answers visually – don’t describe it, SHOW IT. Presentations have never been so much fun. Marcus Canning transformed a car park installation into a burning hell-pit of death, Claudia Alessi physically led us through a sensory maze, Zoe Pepper imagined a couple of slobs stuffing their faces with a banquet of food out the front of PICA, Sarah Rowbottam envisaged a curious one-on-one encounter in a library elevator and Sarah Wilkinson drove a bus into the sky (okay maybe not literally). The results were inspiring, hilarious, captivating and mind bending – some all at the same time.

Zoe Pepper presenting her ideas
Pictured: Zoe Pepper

Antonio Giri Mazzella presenting his ideas
Pictured: Antonio Giri Mazzella

Sarah Wilkinson presenting her ideas
Pictured: Sarah Wilkinson

It was an inspiring weekend and Joey has ignited a fire in all of the creatives who had the pleasure of being there. But our joy isn’t over yet. The emails have begun to fly thick and fast as Joey prepares to lead us into realising one of the site specific projects that was seeded during the workshops. So forget the big screen because big theatre is coming to town… watch this space.

Marisa Garreffa is an independent director and theatre maker based in Perth. She founded Mondo Di Corpo in 2005 and toured its first production The World In Spite of Itself to Shanghai and Beijing in 2007. Her 2010 World Premier production of The Myth of Julian Rose at The Blue Room performed a sell-out season to critical acclaim and picked up seven award nominations. Currently Marisa is working with Sally Richardson as an Associate Artist on projects including The Ghost’s Child and the launch of the Place of Reflection in Kings Park.


Towards a new Australian theatre genre and Creating European Style Spectacle and site-specific theatre for Australia is part of Joey’s countrywide tour of lectures and workshops, marking the end of the Australia Council Theatre Board Fellowship that enabled him to formalise his lifelong experiences into theory and methodology. The talks advocate Joey’s kind of theatre, and the workshops teach a specific artistic approach and devising techniques to theatre practitioners. Over time, Joey hopes his theatre will diversify and mature into a distinctive recognisable genre in its own right as part of the Australian theatre landscape.

Read about Joey Ruigrok van der Werven’s Perth lecture here.

Performing Lines WA would like to thank the Western Australian Theatre Development Initiative (WATDI), Artrage, the Australia Council for the Arts and the Department of Culture and the Arts for their generous support for this event.