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.

Joey Ruigrok van der Werven talks with Perth creatives!

Posted by Morgan Leek, April 20th, 2011

Words: Tom Cramond Images: Sarah Rowbottam

Last Wednesday, the 13th of April saw a talk by Joey Ruigrok van der Werven a Dutch born, Sydney based artist specialising in large scale site specific works and theatre production. Held at The Bakery in Northbridge the presentation allowed over 80 Perth creatives to experience Joey’s unique blend of creative drive and technical skill giving him an opportunity to fully explore the creation of a new genre of theatre within Australia.

The night began with a discussion of ‘site specific, performance based visual arts’, or as Joey calls it ‘theatre of the unlikely’. Joey provided the audience with a number of examples of this ‘renegade theatre’ from the art forms anarchistic roots, to the modern day mainstream embrace into popular culture. From Joey’s own work with Holland’s Dogtreop Theatre Company through to the work of European based performance organisations such as  La Fura dels Baus, Romeo Castellucci and Vis-à-vis the audience was treated to a whirlwind tour of some incredible art pieces from across the globe.

Set Design by Joey Ruigrok van der Werven for Gravity Feed’s Monstrous Body

From the outset Joey preached the importance of staging performance based art away from traditional areas of production. Instead, he believes it is an artists responsibility to engage with the general public in locations not commonly associated with any type of art form. The work should work seamlessly with it’s surroundings, and be designed to exploit the natural or man made infrastructure currently occupying the space. Everything from the middle of a salt lake to the side of oil refinery plant should be fair game to artists.

The performances must as well seek to break through traditional notions of practicality and the expected. Joey detailed the work of subversive artists across Europe using everything from hundreds of kilo’s of chicken feathers fired from air cannons, to giant walls of collapsing microwaves, ‘smell cannons’ and entire performances staged in the back of a converted WWII bomber planes. At it’s core the renegade artist should seek to delight all the senses, with wild and ambitious performance pieces, transforming landscapes and creating powerful experiences for all those present.

It is this spirit of rebellion and creation that has transfixed audiences across the globe for decades and a type of performance that Joey believes has largely not been staged in Australia…

Image courtesy of Joey Ruigrok van der Werven

Following a short break, Joey continued his talk by discussing the current state of site specific spectacle work in Australia. Despite the increasing popularity of such work within our borders it is readily apparent that much of this work is being conceived and executed overseas with the performers only touring for short bursts at a time. As Joey argues there has not been a artistic climate conducive to such productions, nor has there been organisational support for such endeavors. He would go on to suggest that with most arts funding in Australia today, the emphasis is placed heavily on pre-planned performances leaving little room for experimentation in the more extreme ideas of performance and production.

It was against this background that Joey wrapped up his talk with a series of ideas about how best to cultivate such artistic endeavors in Australia. Albeit a difficult propositions, Joey believes that such an art form can flourish in Australia and that we already have the talent to do so. From an opening of urban spaces to artists to allow for more advanced productions, right through to re-envisioning of government and private funding practices Joey implored us as creatives to be ambitious in our ideas and fearless in our creations!

Image courtesy of Joey Ruigrok van der Werven

For the past 6 years Joey has been working with a variety of theatre and performing artists within Australia on a variety of site specific performances and installations. One piece that I found particularly captivating Dream Masons a performance piece run for the opening of the 2007 Ten Days On The Island festival in Tasmania.

Joey and his team transformed the side of the Salamanca Arts Centre building with a series of massive water pipes, projectors, giant screens and cabling to create a giant ship like vessel. It was then filled to the brim with performers, a band (or two?), acrobats and at one stage a giant wall created with the help of lots of overhead projectors and some very careful planning. The spectacle attracted over 14,000 people over 4 nights setting a standard for accessible site specific performance rarely seen in Australia.

My descriptions can hardly do this work justice, check out the video and images below:

Dream Masons, Salamanca Arts Centre. Images courtesy of Joey Ruigrok van der Werven

Dream Masons (youtube)

From all of us at Performing Lines WA we would like to extend a huge thank you to Joey for presenting such an engaging and inspiring work. We would also like to thank all of those who attended the talk and hope you remain as energised as we do!

Written by Tom Cramond, Arts Management Intern, Performing Lines WA

Towards a New Australian Theatre Genre in Australia with Joey Ruigrok van der Werven

Posted by Morgan Leek, April 8th, 2011

WEB_Dream Masons, Salamanca Arts Centre











Photo: ‘Fire Water’, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. Courtesy of Joey Ruigrok van der Werven.

If you had the chance to make a large-scale spectacle in Perth, what would it be about, what would it look like and where would you put it?

These are some of the questions 16 eclectic WA-based directors, choreographers, performers, lighting designs and all-round artists will be tackling next weekend as they enter a two day intensive workshop on creating European style spectacle and site-specific theatre for Australia.

Leading the group is an artist whose set and performance designs are more than just backdrops. Sydney-based Dutch director, designer, inventor and contraption maker Joey Ruigrok van der Werven creates performances and invents environments. His worlds perform and transform, conveying story through images and sensory experiences.
Photo: Dogtroep, Holland. Courtesy of Joey Ruigrok van der Werven.

Prior to moving to Australia in 1996 Joey was key artist and technical manager of Dogtroep, one of Europe’s renowned site-specific theatre companies, where he created images and facilitated the ideas of large groups of up to 25 professional sculptors, performers and inventors.

Marking the end of his Australia Council Theatre Board Fellowship, investigating European and Australian spectacle and performance making, Joey is now touring nationally, presenting a series of lectures and workshops which attempt to shed new light on Australia’s impasse with creating wild and epic theatre.

Volta 2, Performance Space
Photo: ‘Volta 2’, Performance Space. Courtesy of Joey Ruigrok van der Werven.

During the workshop, the group will identify an existing location in or near Northbridge where a fictitious performance could be created. Working in response to the site, Joey will teach methods of site research: its physicality, community and situation, and how to develop multiple performance possibilities relating to these.

The Perth workshop will take place in Northbridge after an invite-only lecture presented by Joey on Wednesday 13 April, in the evening at The Bakery.

For those keen on attending the lecture and hearing Joey’s vision for creating large-scale spectacles in our hometown, we have room for a handful of people to join us on the night.

To win a seat at the lecture, simply answer the following question in the comment box below or on our facebook wall.

“If you had the chance to make a large-scale spectacle in Perth, where would you put it?”

Written by Sarah Rowbottam, Communications Manager for Performing Lines WA.