Posted by Fiona de Garis, September 19th, 2012
I’m in the south of France in the most beautiful studio space I could imagine being able to make a piece of work in. I am surrounded by cornfields on all sides, there is a stunning lake nearby to go swimming in and there are local markets at least three different times a week in the nearby towns. I have met theatre makers from all over the UK, here to develop a new production about the Orgasmatron. I have made and strengthened new friendships through a series of comic disasters that have still somehow managed to produce beautiful discoveries (just not the ones we had expected). And I have spent captivating hours in a stone-walled studio creating tiny installations, sharing writing exercises, learning sensory theatre exercises and creating images with a treasured new collaborator. How does this kind of experience happen?
I was forwarded one of those emails. You know the ones. The ones we all get throughout the year. The ones that talk about one-off funding, new spaces or rare opportunities for artistic development around the world. The ones we usually read, sigh and then delete because it’s really impractical and really expensive to travel across the world for a two week opportunity. Perth is a long, long way from the rest of the world. But this time, I was already about to cross the ocean on the quest for a refreshed artistic life. So why not?!
Au Brana is a centre for performance research and practice in rural southern France founded by Kate Hannah Perry and Oliviero Papi in 2005. Created by artists for artists, the centre is dedicated to the development and support of emerging artists and the exchange of practice across all performance disciplines. The application asked for: Any company or group of artists from any performance discipline that seek to undertake new work. This could take the form of;
– A first meeting between collaborators
– Early development of a new project
– Practical research of a new training approach
– Workshopping a text, story or idea for a new performance
– An exchange of practice between different groups or individuals
A first meeting between collaborators… I knew just the person. During PIAF 2012, I had the pleasure of working with Teatro de los Sentidos through the Festival’s Vital Stages program. I made a lot of friends within the company and had already begun to talk about creative ideas with one of them. Betina Birkjaer is a talented installation artist from Copenhagen with a love of languages and a gift for sensory theatre. She was the colour to my blacks, the soft to my hard, the gentle to my tough, the feminine to my masculine. I wooed her with a project exploring dual gendered identity in Drag King culture, with an idea that our different energies could bring the balance into the work that I felt it needed. First Lesson – Very few people will say no when you approach them with passion for a project and respect and enthusiasm for their work.
She said yes.
Immediately the response from Kate at Au Brana was warming. She was excited and supportive of the idea that I was moving to Europe to pursue the arts in a wider community. “No matter what happens with your application, come and visit us. We have a soft spot for Australians relocating to Europe, since Oli did it himself all those years ago”. Second Lesson – you are ALREADY connected to a global community. You just need to reach out to them.
We were accepted.
Then a whole lot of life happened. I presented a one woman production in Perth. With only four weeks from closing night to my exit flight, I panicked my way through bump outs, garage sales and packing up my life. I got on a plane and arrived alone in Milan with keys to an empty apartment and a date with some very long immigration lines. I plane hopped between Milan and Barcelona, desperately swinging between the horror of Italian paperwork and the delight of spending time with friends in Barcelona. I had my thirtieth birthday in a haze of madness, drank, danced, ate, made plans for a second phase development of my one woman show and packed my bags to head to Au Brana!
It was on the street that the first disaster happened. On route to the airport shuttle, I was wheeling my (shiny new) suitcase down the street when I began to feel like I was dragging the weight of the world. I was. On their maiden voyage the suitcase wheels had snapped under the pressure of carrying my entire life and given up the ghost. I was literally scraping the damn thing along the sidewalk. I made it another three blocks, covered with sweat and looming tears (the suitcase was NEW!), before I gave up and caught a taxi to the airport. One taxi and plane ride later I was lost in Tolouse airport with a broken bag that was never going to hold up against the pending train, bus and hike to space. Where was Betina?! In a stunning feat of coordination, we had managed to walk straight past each other and were both waiting at the others departure gate.
When we finally found each other, Betina’s bag was missing on the carousel. A small mission was launched and three help desks later we found Betina’s bag. Our trip between desks made us realise that I would need a new suitcase, with working wheels, before we tried the next part of the journey. When both myself and the shop assistant sitting on top of the cheapest suitcase in the airport shop was not enough to make it close over all my things, I finally sucked it up and coughed up the price of a small car for the bigger one. We bolted to the shuttle, desperate to make it in time for the third train due to depart after the two we’d already missed. We made it, sweaty and flustered, tickets in hand only to face a two hour train delay. When our train finally arrived and delivered us to Agen station, the entire carpark was under renovation and the bus stop was nowhere in sight. Neither of us speak French and it took twenty minutes to find the right coach bus, parked fifty metres away on the sidewalk amongst a dozen other buses also improvising bus stops. Kate picked us up at the other end and thankfully, with the help of every mode of transport known to man, we made it to Au Brana. Third Lesson – Improvisation is not just for the rehearsal room, sometimes you will need every skill you have just to get there.
It was day one in the French countryside and surprise, surprise – I immediately came down sick. We hitched a ride into town with our fellow theatre makers from England, thinking we would get some food and medicinal supplies. At the comically tall Roo wedged himself into the tiny hatchback he had borrowed to drive across Europe, we began to suspect that we were in the “French edition” of an English sitcom of some sort. A feeling that was greatly enhanced when the car promptly broke down with a flat tyre just as we hit the main road. Seriously. The irrepressible Erica wielded her mighty English bosom and secured a ride back to Au Brana to get help. After she hitchhiked a “very French, very pleasant, kissy kissy” ride in a car with no passenger seat, she returned with a replacement car. It was the longest trip for vegetables of our lives.
Not long after this Betina, exhausted from her own manic lead in, burst into tears on the street at the local market, clutching the green and yellow capsicums she had just bought. What if their flavour wouldn’t compliment the fish we were cooking for dinner?!
Not long after that, plagued with illness and a shared sense of exhaustion, I too dropped the capsicum. The company we were sharing the studio with had been blaring music (not unlike a European discotech) through the tranquil countryside since their rehearsal began at 8am. Our friends had also run 30 minutes overtime so we were late getting into the rehearsal room. Also late was my period and all I could think was “Oh please. Not now. Not in another country.” (Side lesson, never trust a Spaniard in a Batman t-shirt). It was the straw that broke the camels back. We spent the first hour of our rehearsal howling into the air – somewhat like Timone and Pumba at the end of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” in The Lion King. Fourth Lesson – You can never leave your life at home when you go to work in the arts. It always walks into the door of the studio with you.
We tried to do the best we could. We spent the first fragile days in the space sharing research, exchanging ideas, looking up artists and work that inspire us and talking through the world of Drag Kings. We were trying to soldier on but had no idea how we could possibly drag a show out of ourselves in this state. Oh the guilt of not producing at maximum! What happens when you find yourself in the middle of one of those most extraordinary opportunities in the world and you are both a complete wreck? You reconfigure the goal posts.
This happened in two ways. First, we were gentle on ourselves when we got on the floor. Betina drew on all her experience in creating sensory theatre. She began to share exercises with me in a gentle and soothing approach to easing into the studio space and into a rhythm with each other. Second, we went swimming with Kate and spoke to her about the selection process for the residency. At least thirty five people had applied and we had been chosen because our focus was on exploring a new collaboration. The creation of a piece of work was secondary, almost insignificant compared to the process of exchanging skills, styles and methods between artists. Hang on, we were already doing that. Fifth Lesson – The outcomes you should be reaching for are not always what you expect. If you have the chance, give yourself room to bond, create, learn and explore without imposing the pressure of a “performance outcome”. This is what really makes this opportunity so rare and so precious. To have the time in this extraordinary location to simply explore, learn and grow.
With relief, we cast off the pressure of “outcome” and allowed ourselves simply to share. Betina has been teaching me sensory warm-ups and exercises. I have been teaching Betina the exercises that I use to create pieces of writing. We have shared techniques for creating site-specific images and have robbed the kitchen dry for materials to build tiny installations into the little caves in the studio walls. And of course as the stress floated away the show has started to emerge (along with my long, lost period). Last night we sat by candlelight in the space until one am talking excitedly about ways we could combine the sensory and design worlds with beautiful text. Today we started creating new exercises – combining fragments of exercises we had shared with new elements to stimulate movement, poetic text and imagined images. Slowly but surely a beautiful new piece of work is emerging, along with new exercises and an inspiring new method for creating in collaboration together. Everything we could have hoped for and more.
We have four days left in this creative oasis. After everything we’ve travelled through, we still wish the journey could go on just a little longer. For now though, we’re going to eat some gorgeous cheese on fresh bread from the markets, have a swim in the lake and enjoy the immersion for the rest of the week. After that? Who knows… Next stop, Berlin.