OPINION | Jonathan Marshall responds to Steamworks Arts’ Trigger Warning

Posted by Thom Smyth, August 23rd, 2016

In the next installment of our Opinion section on the blog, we’ve commissioned Dr Jonathan Marshall, Senior Lecturer at WAAPA, to provide his thoughts on Steamworks Arts’ recent interdisciplinary performance Trigger Warning that premiered at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts last week.

In her account of choreographer Douglas Wright’s production Black Milk (2006), Suzanne Little notes that the piece begs “the question of how does one, or indeed, should one represent the ‘real’ suffering of others in artistic works and to what ends?” Director Sally Richardson’s collaboration with Cat Hope (sound/music), Hayley McElhinney (performer) and Joe Lui (lighting) insistently raises the same question to the point that this would seem to be the central topic of the production itself. The achievement and strength of Trigger Warning as a piece of performance art therefore lies precisely in the manner in which the piece confronts the audience with such problems. Convincing strategies to deal with these representational and critical dilemmas mark sections of the work, but I would venture that no entirely satisfactory solution can in fact arise, so one is left with questions. Trauma, which is the subject of this production, lies at the margins of what it is possible to represent, and hence it is unlikely it can in fact be accounted for or even fully dealt with via art. Trigger Warning asks us to consider this conundrum.

The production uses a personal account of violence and survival as a springboard to explore the traumatic more generally. The authority of the witness and the practice of retelling is foregrounded. McElhinney stands forward and slightly to the left for much of the piece, resting in front of a microphone into which she slowly and hesitantly relates events, pains and questions. She parallels however the witness Ka-Tzetnik from the Eichmann trial, who famously passed out in the stand unable to deliver any more testimony. The unadorned nature of her tale, its recurrent enunciation, and her only partially successful attempts to go further than a simple literal retelling, dramatizes both the power of testimony, and its limits. True horror remains somehow unspeakable even as it is given voice.

Testimony is therefore insufficient in itself. The central conceit of the production is to translate diverse affective states into sonic, musical and scenographic effects. Hope plays electric bass and electronics, at times offering a low, grainy noise which reflects the grating nature of the testimony, whilst at other points heavy metal / industrial music rifts seem to break out of the pain to signify transcendence and pleasure. McElhinney holds the microphone in the air in something like a moment of self-destructive ecstasy, as the sheer force of the aesthetic response here takes us far from scenes of literal violence. Lui has a grid of lights behind the performers pointed at the audience, and these flash and move in lines, adding luminal drumbeats, or moments in which the harsh glare of affect and its electric beams seem to burn away everything else. These moments of oscillation between where sound and light represent pain itself, before becoming something else, serve as the highlights of the performance. Some of Trigger Warning’s most subtle moments occur in the delicate nuancing of these transitions, as where Hope sings quietly, poetically and with a hint of tragedy into her own microphone, adding the merest of accompaniment with her guitar.

Despite the centrality of voice within the production, such aural poetry seems untrustworthy at almost every turn. McElhinney’s speech is inflected by a range of accents. After I had seen the performance, I read in the program that the original speaker had survived the Balkan wars. The phrasing however places us within the US or Britain. Trauma here becomes a horrific, fantasmic space which infiltrates all others. In a particularly affective monologue, McElhinney describes the city which one of her characters inhabits, one which is utterly and irredeemably corrupt. Trauma moves here from a warzone experience, or one particular in its nature to women (again, the program notes that the piece came out of initially exploring women’s trauma) to become the Existential state of contemporary modernity. In the lands where airplanes can collide with buildings at any time, where pandemics threaten, where human movement across borders has been reclassified as a threat rather than escape, traumatic anxiety infects our every moment.

I have therefore two concerns myself regarding the production, despite its manifest technical virtuosity and supremely effective staging as a sound and light event. The first of these is how explicit should the representation of traumatic states be, particularly when there is a very real possibility of actually traumatising the audience on some level? As Little and others have noted, to depict trauma can in some sense make one complicit with those who first inflicted it. There is an extended passage, presented to the audience as in-your-face direct address, which outlines in detail and at length acts of sexual violence. The audience is thereby placed in the position of the rapist, being spoken to by his (or her) victim. McElhinney’s character delivers this flippantly, as though to suggest the tale is too appalling for even her to fully acknowledge, which somehow makes it worse. I for one wonder not only whether one has the right to position the audience as a perpetrator of sexual violence, but more specifically what one possible outcome there is for actively upsetting the audience through such an address? I know of at least one audience member who was deeply disturbed by this material, and at least in this case, I do not think that anything positive eventuated from producing such a response. The issue is of course a very difficult one, and everyone’s threshold to hearing such material is different. This is therefore a question which it is not only I who ask, but which the production urgently asks of its audience members and of itself. I will be interested to see how or if this scene is modified as creative development continues.

As a trained historian, I also query the stripping away of cultural and historical specificity. By making it impossible to place the events or emotional states depicted here within any particular site of violence, be this the Balkan Wars, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, S11, or domestic abuse, the piece becomes more of an Existential exploration of the contemporary zeitgeist as inhabited by Western subjects today. This is of course a fascinating and important topic in and of itself, but the program blurb suggests the artists began by seeing the piece as a work of political commentary. Without a clear target, even in an abstract sense, I am not sure how Trigger Warning functions in this manner—which is not to say that it does not, merely that it remains an open point. Perhaps it is best to think of Trigger Warning as a response to the wave of increasingly abstract and unquantifiable wars which we have been waging over the last 50 years: the war on drugs, the war on terror. Perhaps Trigger Warning shifts us into mounting a new war on trauma, fought in this instance through sound, light and text; a battle of affective mourning and aesthetic intensities.

Suzanne Little, “Re-Presenting the Traumatic Real,” in Alexandra Kolb, ed., Dance and Politics (2006).
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1965).
Shoshana Felman & Dori Laub, Testimony (1992).
Monica Casper & Eric Wertheimer, Critical Trauma Studies (2016).
Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995).

Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is coordinator of postgraduate study at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, Perth. He and Cat Hope are the supervisors of Sally Richardson’s PhD at WAAPA. Jonathan has published on various matters related to trauma and hysteria (see https://edithcowan.academia.edu/JonathanWMarshall). His monograph, “Performing Neurology: The Dramaturgy of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot” is available through Palgrave Macmillan and Springer.

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PROFILE | Matt Edgerton Artistic Director at Barking Gecko Theatre Company

Posted by Fiona de Garis, August 11th, 2016

We recently caught up with Matt Edgerton, Artistic Director at one of  Australia’s leading children’s theatre companies Barking Gecko. Winners of the 2016 and 2015 Helpmann Award for Best Children’s Presentation, this year for the beautiful production of Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories, Matt chats about his first year with the company, their move to the State Theatre Centre of WA, access in regional areas  and what’s up next for the company!


RA | Your first year with Barking Gecko is almost over! What’s been your fondest memory so far?

Drifting off to sleep at the Barking Gecko Sleepover to the sound of harp music and weird ghost stories is a memory that definitely rates highly. Blissful and bizarre in the one moment! I loved putting the Sleepover together and then being a part of it, getting together with a bunch of crazy adventurous people of various ages and running amok in our pyjamas around the Heath Ledger Theatre. I’m really proud of how the company is building a loyal community of large and small humans, who get involved as creative partners with us in what we’re doing. It’s great fun and a pretty awesome reason to get up in the morning.


RA | You made the move from Sydney to Perth, what differences have you observed between the two local scenes?

The theatre community in Perth is much tighter and artists seem to have more diverse and amazing skills than the average artist in Sydney. In Sydney actors are usually just actors, but it feels like there’s a widespread “makers” culture here in Perth, with theatre artists often crossing over between roles of actor, director, writer, teaching artist, dramaturg, puppeteer, ventriloquist, magician, liturgical dancer, bingo caller etc. etc.

In Sydney, often fringe theatre work feels like a replication of what is happening on the main stage, with artists often trying to ‘audition’ for the main stage with their work. Here it’s a different animal entirely, with really diverse and eclectic work that seems to primarily exist because of an artistic imperative, which is exciting.

I do like politeness – I think it’s a pretty essential quality for getting on with one another – but I’ve found the Perth theatre scene can be a bit overly polite when talking to itself and so sometimes work doesn’t get dissected and held to account in the way it needs to. No one likes a mean spirited comment, but critical opinions and robust debates about work are essential for a healthy ecology.

And despite what you might hear about Bondi Beach, people in Perth are much sexier than people in Sydney – just saying.


RA| Speaking of moving, Barking Gecko have just moved house to the State Theatre Centre. How did the move go?

We joke that Helen our CEO and I are kind of “mum and dad” at the company. I was away in Sydney for most of the actual move and our Ed Coordinator Renee sees this as evidence that dads always get out of moving. So, now we’re magically settled in at the State without me lifting a finger, it’s great! The staff here and our neighbours at Black Swan have been very welcoming, we’ve had our Sleepover, we’re gearing up for our final show for the year and we’re busily programming ahead for 2017. Being asked to move here as a resident theatre company to sit alongside Black Swan is a really important recognition for us as a children’s theatre company. It’s a sign that our community understands the value of art in the lives of children. Children are not the audiences of tomorrow, but the audiences of today and they deserve to be welcomed with open arms at our premiere theatre venue. We love being here to do that.


RA| What do you see as the most pressing issues in WA arts at the moment?

Everyone deserves great art. But in WA there are vast areas where people have very limited access or no access at all to high quality arts experiences. Theatre in particular should not be a luxury product restricted to those in affluent suburbs of Perth. If we truly believe that theatre is an “empathy gym” and that artistic expression is a fundamental human right as well as a necessary part of being human then we need to do better at sharing this with our whole community. Regional areas need more than just fly-in-fly-out arts programs, as good as many of these are. We need to find ways to reach regional and outer metropolitan audiences with our work, and also engage year-round with communities with classes and projects that inspire creativity and a lifelong love of the arts. Yes, this is old news but it’s nonetheless a pressing issue, because there are thousands of kids growing up right now without who are missing out and it’s our responsibility to do something about it.

I also think we need to find ways to support great artists to stay and work in their communities and build sustainable careers here.


RA| Describe your first memory of going to the theatre. What made you want to be a part of that world?

I actually told this story for the first time earlier this year at the opening of our show Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories. The first time I ever saw a play I was eight years old in our primary school hall at Eastwood Public in Sydney. I had no idea who the actors were but I remember being gripped by the performances. The only other time school was this exciting was when kids were standing in a circle on the asphalt around two kids punching each other and chanting “fight” over and over. The play was so thrilling it was almost overwhelming. I remember particularly a lead performer who held the stage like a hypnotist. I now know that that lead actor was actually Hugo Weaving. I know this because my best friend at the time Greg Weeks, who was much more confident than I was, accosted Mr Weaving as he was leaving the hall. Greg informed him: “You were Douglas Jardine in the movie Bodyline”, to which Mr. Weaving replied “Yes I was” and swept out of the hall and our young lives. Somehow, that day left a powerful impression and set me on a path to where I am today. The next time I met that actor was almost twenty years later. I had been through WAAPA and was now an actor myself. And I was teaching his primary-school aged daughter at the NIDA open program. So it’s a beautiful thing how these cycles come around and we start to repay what we’ve been given to the next generation coming through.


RA| What does the future hold for Barking Gecko?

Big plans!! We are very excited about being anchored at the State Theatre Centre and building this place as a hub for the creative lives of young people here in Perth. And from our base here we’re planning lots of amazing, creative stuff to share with the Perth community, regional Western Australia and beyond. Each year we’re going to be programming exciting and provocative theatre for audiences of all ages, and touring it into communities round the state. We’re also growing our Gecko Ensembles, our unique year-round education programs that are expanding to new locations around the city and WA. We currently have five Gecko Ensemble locations and counting, including one in Broome. Hundreds of young people take these drama classes with us every week of the school year, with the artistic work from our main stage shows woven into the content we teach. Our ambition is to be a cultural thread through the lives of young people in this state, so they can grow up seeing Barking Gecko’s shows each year and being part of the creative community we are building. It’s a big, bold, exciting plan and we need help to do it! So (shameless plug) if you think art is important in the lives of young people please consider supporting what we do here>> See you in the theatre!

Barking Gecko are touring In A Dark Dark Wood – A Grim

To find out more about Barking Gecko Theatre Company check out their website and blog.

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