Spotlight on Performance: National Forum on Performance in Cultural Institutions No 2. October 23-25, 2003, at National Museum of Australia, The Australian War Memorial, ScreenSound Australia and Old Parliament House. Chaired by Nigel Sutton (aka Hans the Storyteller).
This was the second of the biennial forums arranged by the National Museum of Australia as a member of the International Museum Theatre Alliance. There is almost a symbiotic relationship with the Museum of Science in Boston, USA, where 2001 keynote speaker Catherine Hughes established IMTA. This year's keynote speaker was John Lipsky, Associate Professor of Acting and Playwriting at Boston University's College for the Arts, who is also Associate Artistic Director of Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard. He writes and directs mainstage plays, as well as shows for the Museum of Science, a Planetarium and the Catalyst Collaborative (about science, scientists and scientific issues) and for the Boston History Collaborative (dramatising Boston's history).
From Australia, NMA Director Dawn Casey welcomed a long list of performers and cultural institution managers, with papers/performances presented by ACT's Jigsaw Theatre Company, Women on a Shoestring, Shortis & Simpson and The Street Theatre (with Violine opening October 30) alongside X-Ray Theatre, ERTH Visual & Physical Inc, storytellers Nigel Sutton, Ed Miller and Mary French, Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Australian National Maritime Museum, Art Gallery of NSW, Artback NT Arts Touring Inc, Cairns Regional Gallery, Parliament House Education Officer Camilla Blunden, Australian War Memorial, University of Newcastle, Robert Swieca on evaluation models, Melbourne Museum, freelance writer/actor Stephen Barker and ScreenSound Australia.
A packed program over 2 days, followed by a day of practical workshops led by Lipsky, obeyed the first and only commandment for performers: Thou shalt not be boring. Lipsky described how he wrote about the concept of gravity by creating Jumping Jack Flash, jester to Queen Gravitas. Though Jack believed only in levity, his Queen proved in the end he couldn't defy gravity. He also demonstrated how the American entrant in the Rooster's Olympics found it difficult to accept that other countries' roosters didn't say "cock-a-doodle-doo" (the French entrant said "coquerico") in a show about understanding other cultures.
Speaking of his play about the debate on stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which included talking embryos, Lipsky raised the key issue of the forum: cultural integrity. In his context, this was about presenting performances which are true first to the emotional life of complex characters (whether roosters, embryos or historical figures) and only then to the factual information museum educators and curators need to impart. The point is that people remember the scenes - and the embedded information - only if they have emotionally identified with the characters: an interesting twist on the Brechtian theory of theatre. Writing for museum performances is thus as demanding as writing major mainstream plays; and museum pieces are often only 20 minutes long.
From Boston to the Northern Territory, cultural integrity was the common theme. Andrish Saint-Clare of Artback NT explained that "fitting the institution to the performance" is crucial where indigenous performers are engaged. He was highly critical, for example, of galleries using indigenous performers for a first night opener, where the traditional dancers are not paid. This marginalises their performance, as opposed to the "real business" of selling paintings. "Curators," he said, "need to understand the place of performance in indigenous cultures." Performances are not merely re-creations of traditional pieces, but are new creations which are necessary to maintain peoples' cultures.
Institutions need to budget for professional technical support, dramaturgy, appropriate venues, proper negotiation with indigenous elders, and proper payment so that indigenous performances take their proper place in the total Australian cultural scene. He concluded, as many speakers from quite different perspectives agreed, "If you can't do it properly, don't do it."
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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