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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Sally Richardson on The Unknown Soldier

Posted by Thom Smyth, May 1st, 2015

Sally Richardson and a very talented team of creatives have been in the studio developing exciting new performance work The Unknown Soldier. Exploring the possibilities of an original text by Sally, the team have investigated new ways of telling the story through visual design, live music, audio looping and layering and performance, as well as getting some great images from the very talented Gibson Nolte. We can’t wait to see the final showing of this development! Sally has also made this development happen without funding – see below for how you can support the project.

Creative development can take you to new places and spaces. You can see an idea you had or a series of words become something so much more.

_L9A3695_smallA group of artists can find a meeting place, a dialogue, and challenge and inspire each other. This has been our PICA experience.

I am humbled and grateful for the generosity of my co-creators and collaborators, the artists; performer Hayley McElhinney, Composer/Sound Artist/Performer Cat Hope, Designer Zoe Atkinson, and joined on and off over the two weeks by Laura Boynes, Ian Sinclair, Yvan Karlsson and Gibson Nolte.

_L9A3414_smallWe are seeking to make something evocative, visceral, beautiful and powerful; a place where the human voice, body, sound, and space meet to ‘speak’ of the unspeakable.

In a week so haunted by senseless death and loss we have been exploring war, terrorism, abuse, trauma, violence, revenge, survival and hope… There is so much to say.

Sally Richardson | Creator + Director, The Unknown Soldier_L9A3646_small

Images by Gibson Nolte

Many of the artists participating in this development have to date generously donated their time, resources and skills. If you are interested and able to make a tax deductible donation to support this project we welcome you to join us and follow our creative journey.
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Making art happen | Top Tips on Crowdfunding

Posted by Thom Smyth, April 9th, 2015

Didn’t get grant funding but still want to make your project happen? Today we take a look at the world of crowdfunding and private giving as other avenues to raise vital funds to get your ideas off the ground. Thom Smyth sat down with Sally Richardson (Yirra Yaakin’s Partnerships Manager and Performing Lines WA core artist) to talk how to make things happen when you get a dreaded grant rejection letter. Image credits – Simon Pynt Photography, Sally Richardson.

There are other ways of doing things…
by Sally Richardson

The end of the financial year is a busy time for those who are fundraising. Currently there are two major matched funding campaigns running nationally through Creative Partnerships Australia, as well as all the other Pozible, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding platforms which artists and others are always using to seek out essential funds. There are a lot of our people out there looking for support, but evidence tells us that crowdfunding is a growth market and that it is going to continue to be a major source of support for artists well into the future.

Arguably the arts has always relied on the benevolence and patronage of others to exist. Official government or private foundation funding routes can take a long time and applications are very labour-intensive, particularly for smaller projects. The waiting and frustration can all seem a bit much, especially as more than a year can go by after that initial of the light bulb moment that sparked your project!

It’s more rewarding and fun to be actively ‘working’ on your project via a crowdfunding or philanthropic campaign: getting the message out there and feeling the energy that starts to come your way. It keeps a momentum – you are doing something and driving your own engine. I have found the process empowering and humbling…it’s so thrilling to be supported and have others believing in you and your work…real faces and real people.

Donors, fans and supporters have always been a source of income for artists and perhaps it’s time to be less embarrassed about making the ‘ask’. It can feel awkward to directly request support, but the various crowdfunding and donor platforms provide a means to put yourself and your project out there in a way that is approachable. They give the donor the ability to support at their level of capacity, helping both sides avoid the awkwardness of discussing actual $$$$.

In my experience there are also additional benefits. Crowdfunding has proved to be a great ‘free’ marketing and promotional tool, and an invitation to your audience to get more involved with you at a grassroots level. As a supporter you feel you are making art happen in all kinds of places and in cool ways – I have supported and been supported, and will definitely continue to do so. I think one of the less visible benefits is feeling the interest and engagement with your ideas, your project, and your team; a sense of a community rallying around you when art making often feels quite isolated and inward looking. You DO have to be prepared to put your face out there, and speak to your ideas and work…there is no hiding here, but that helps you engage with and build your profile and your audience.

Being an artist is a business too, not a sit down job or a wallflower waiting game for life support. You can do so much to grow your brand, develop a following and be part of the cultural picture. It’s about being active, backing yourself and your work…and others will want join you…I promise!




Read on for some top tips from Sally Richardson and Thom Smyth.


What to ask for:

Be really careful and brutally honest when setting your campaign totals and timeframe – how many people can you count on to donate, and how long will it take you to get them on board? As a super-rough guide, get the team to give you their total numbers of followers across all social media channels and their email contacts. Combine this total for the team – 10% of that total number MAY consider donating. The average donation amount on Pozible is around $30, so multiply your donors by $30 and you’ll have a ballpark idea of the maximum target you could expect. BE REALISTIC about what you can raise and carefully consider the capacity of your social networks to give.

IE:   Total followers = 5,000
5,000 x 10% = 500
500 x $30 = $15000 total ask




Who to approach?

Anywhere you work, play, study and visit is a potential site to share your info and seek support for your project.

We ALL LOVE to be acknowledged – patronage has feel good benefits!!!!


Making the ask?

Sally Richardson’s next development The Unknown Soldier is currently raising funds through the Australian Cultural Fund – all donations over $2 are tax deductible.

Yirra Yaakin are also running a matched funding campaign supported by Creative Partnerships Australia through Pozible – click here to pledge.

Interview with Tim Solly

Posted by Thom Smyth, January 22nd, 2015

Premiering soon at The Blue Room Theatre for Fringe World, The Dirty Cowboy is a tale of greed and revenge ripping a small town apart. Directed by Performing Lines WA core artist Sally Richardson, this new show weaves original music, Country and Western classics and storytelling to tell a good old fashioned story of heartbreak and murder in the bush.

Thom caught up with renowned performer, musician and writer Tim Solly ahead of the show’s debut at Summer Nights.

10847327_10153119234872518_793897020706133818_oThom: The Dirty Cowboy is hitting The Blue Room Theatre real soon. What can we expect?
Tim: A dark and gritty tale about a man searching for redemption. The story will make you question how much you would risk for love. The songs will shake you to your core and break your heart.

Thom: Where did the idea for the show come about?
Tim:After watching the Deadwood TV series and listening to a lot of Johnny Cash and Paul Kelly, I sat deep in a Country and Western world and began writing a lot of dark music about revenge, heartbreak, betrayal, guilt, corruption and love. Then I discovered an article from Michael Leunig  called Australia on the verge of combusting and it resonated deeply with me. I thought it was important to comment on whether people value their community anymore.

Thom: You’ve worked across music, TV, film and theatre, including in David Milroy’s Waltzing the Wilarra. What drives you to do what you do?
Tim: I love the power of storytelling. The fact that after a day of work, people can leave their everyday world and go on the journey with you through a story is such a powerful experience. As an actor you have the power to pose ethical, moral and emotional ideas with the audience and they might just walk out feeling differently about the world.

Thom: What’s up next after Cowboy wraps?
Tim: I begin the search for The Dirty Cowboy’s next life. The dream is for this show to travel nationally and internationally. I would love the opportunity for this story to be told to people all over the world. A Cowboy revolution!

Images by Triggerpoint Photography

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Interview with Jacqui Claus

Posted by Thom Smyth, November 4th, 2014

Spreading its wings all the way to Hong Kong, Sally Richardson’s Standing Bird 2 is currently appearing at the Hong Kong Fringe Club as part of the Peoples’ Fringe Festival. Solo performer Jacqui Claus has been involved in the project from it’s first season as part of the inaugural Fringe World Festival at Summer Nights at PICA. Thom Smyth caught up with Jacqui just before the team flew out._L9A1705_web

So you’re going to Hong Kong…excited?
Very! I’ve never been and I love Asia, the food especially – so yep I’m pretty excited.

For those that missed the first incarnations of the show, can you give a bit of background on the project?
The project started for Sally before I came into the work so for her the process to what is it today is much longer and involved. I began this journey in 2012 for the summer nights fringe festival and then again for the 2013 blue room season. The work is essentially about transformation from a young, somewhat naive girl to a strong powerful spirit of the same woman. It is difficult and uncomfortable at times as is any form of metamorphosis2

Are there any changes this time around, any tweaks for a new audience?
This tour makes the third season that I have performed the show and each one has had subtle differences. This version is actually in some ways closer to the first one. With the blue room season we were able to play with certain aspects that we couldn’t in the pervious version and may not be able to this time around also. It’s actually really nice for me to be bringing back so of the original moments.

How do you manage the demands of an intensely physical solo show like this?
Yes this show is insanely physical and most parts of my body hurt by the end of it but this is the part that I can actually manage. I’m lucky that I can push my body to extremes and it responds and recovers. The mental focus that this show requires however is something else entirely and it’s this aspect that I struggle with. A slight shift in what I’m focused on can change an entire section into something that neither Sally nor myself as a performer intended for the work, so for me this is by far harder than the physical. 1

Dance is an artform that crosses language barriers pretty fluidly. What do you hope Hong Kong audiences will take away from the production?
I guess I hope that they are taken out of their own worlds for an hour and into the journey of the woman. Being a fairly reserved culture I’m not sure how they will respond to the confrontational nature of the first section and this will be interesting as a performer to navigate throughout the season.

Standing Bird 2 | 5 – 8 November
Hong Kong Fringe Club
2 Lower Albert Rd, Central


Images by Gibson Nolte.

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