WTF: Wedhus Gembel

Part II of our  World Theatre Festival interviews series brings us into conversation with ANDY FREER of Snuff Puppets.

Wedhus Gembel

OFFSTREET: Describe your show in under 25 words.
ANDY FREER: Wedhus Gembel explores the tensions between traditional and contemporary Indonesian life. It is a parable about the cycle of life and duality; from destruction there is creation, from chaos there is harmony.

OS: What stands out for you about the festival’s aims and programming in 2014?
AF: WTF’s commitment to presenting irreverent, cross-cultural, globally relevant programming matches Snuff Puppets’ company ethos to push boundaries and create entertaining, experimental and culturally diverse performances that challenge the possibilities of theatre today.

OS: Wedhus Gembel is an Australian-Indonesian collaboration. What have cast members learned from one another during this extended collaboration, especially in travelling to India and Peru?
AF: Collaboration is key to this work; it was how it was created and it is how it continues to run and be presented. Wherever we tour the show we run a free two-day performance-making workshop with people from the local community. The work created over those days is then presented within the show. Sharing and learning from each other within new groups of people and cultures gives everyone an amazingly diverse place to learn and discover.
Having toured throughout Java, Indonesia and been presented in Melbourne, Australia and Lima, Peru, the cultural diversity of these places has impacted this collaboration, creating an endlessly rich and fascinating learning experience for everyone involved. Wedhus Gembel is essentially a visual spectacle that transcends language barriers and covers universal themes.
The form lends itself to being a cross-fertilisation of cultures primarily because of the Australian/Indonesian collaboration, but also because it includes a performance-making workshop in whatever country we are presenting. Inherently we absorb the culture, living and performing with the people of these new places.

OS: What are the challenges and benefits of telling a story with puppets of such epic proportions?
AF: The challenges technically are often transporting and storing our giant puppets. Interestingly, the solving of this problem became a benefit. We were able to pack the whole show into our luggage quota; now a five-metre mountain-volcano plus all the puppets and props travel with us in our luggage. The scale of our puppets, all being bigger than an average human, give a sense for the audience of being in a transgressive space. It is in this place that audiences are disarmed and perspectives shifted.
The puppets play in the realm of mythology and dreams, creating a joyously chaotic and transformative outdoor spectacle of epic proportions.

OS: What will Wedhus Gembel leave its audiences feeling?
AF: Our aim is to give our audiences an insight into an amazingly rich and exotic Javanese culture. They will be swept up in a story of love and nature, superstition, chaos, magic and mythology. There is also some very cool music and we invite the audience onto and into the performance . . . it must be seen to be believed.

WEDHUS GEMBEL runs from Feb 18 to 22 for World Theatre Festival.

WTF14: Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend

Throughout my life as an arts reviewer, World Theatre Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse has been my favourite Brissie festival. You’ll see work you’d never otherwise have a chance to see — and you’ll never know what to expect from each year’s diverse program. To kick off our series of WTF14 interviews, I asked STEFANIE PREISSNER about bringing her black comedy from Ireland to Australia.

Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend

OFFSTREET: Describe your show in under 25 words.
STEFANIE PREISSNER: It’s an Irish girl’s experience of trying to maintain relationships with people who keep emigrating to Australia. Basically.

OS: I reckon WTF is one of Australia’s most diverse and dynamic festivals. What stands out for you about the festival’s aims?
SP: Having the opportunity to be part of a festival that programmes such varied and diverse work is something that doesn’t happen often. The stakes are high and that’s always scary but I’m excited to stand up there with the best of them.

OS: Have you visited Brisbane before? If no, what are you expecting?
SP: I’m looking forward to seeing a city that I have only heard about on Facebook from my friends who have moved there. It’s a place that is idealised and sensationalised in Ireland as a destination where all the things that are awful about Ireland and the life of an Irish 20-something are answered. Also: Steve Irwin’s zoo.

OS: The entirety of the show is told in verse. What were the benefits and the challenges of incorporating poetry into contemporary theatre?
SP: I think there’s a risk of autobiographical work becoming a bit indulgent or overly sentimental and putting restrictions on the writing opens up a whole other part of my brain and stops me saying the things that I have to re-read through my hands because they are so totally cringe-worthy. So challenging myself to write in verse makes me far more creative. Also on a very basic level, I can write in rhyme and not many people can, so I think it’s a skill worth using, practising and honing.

OS: How do you think the show’s themes will resonate with audiences on the other side of the world?
SP: I’m scared. I’m not sure. There’s a chance that people will be offended at the message of the show. I’m hoping that a discussion might start on Twitter with people’s opinions on it, but I am not expecting everyone to love it or agree with it. It’s a challenging piece.

Start the conversation with Stef on Twitter: @stefpreissner. SOLAPADEINE IS MY BOYFRIEND runs from Feb 12 to 16 at Brisbane Powerhouse for World Theatre Festival.

3…2…1—Lift-off (of WTF11)

Brisbane Powerhouse put on a very fine evening of drinks and nibblies at the launch of World Theatre Festival this week. I liked the idea of WTF from the beginning because it meant Ben Law’s face was on posters all over Brisbane and every time I saw one, I remembered The Family Law and giggled. (Ben, are you even part of WTF, poster aside?) The festival itself has a great line-up from Europe, the USA, Chile and NZ, as well as home-grown talent.

While we clutched our free wine and cider (the twittersphere keeps mentioning the WTF cider!), The Rat Trap, part of the festival’s Scratch Series of works-in-progress played out on the Turbine Platform. Sure, Polytoxic’s latest work is a little rough around the edges, but the audience was enraptured. With great costumes and a fantastic soundtrack (CW Stoneking and Amanda Palmer, together at last), the Polytoxic crew showed off some very promising choreography. I particularly loved the remote-control ratties and the swinging-from-the-lampshades dance routine. I wanted more from a one-trick strip to Palmer’s Missed Me, and couldn’t help but feel that the Siamese twins with the ping-pong balls were getting a bit too close to being offensive. But that’s what the Scratch Series is about—trying things out and trying things on, and The Rat Trap hit the mark far more often than it missed. With a bit of polish and tightening up, this will probably have the same obsession-creating effect on me that Cantina had at last year’s Brisbane Festival.

Apollo 13: Mission Control is an “interactive, intergalactic theatre piece” from the Land of the Long White Cloud. I was really excited to be one of the 100 “staff” working at Mission Control to help safely launch and land the Apollo 13, so I was a little disappointed when I ended up in the Press Gallery, looking on. Luckily, the friend I brought along managed to get in right up the very front, in the middle of all the action. The set is fantastic; audience members sit at 1970s-style computer consoles with functioning phones and video and shiny buttons. The cast went around sprucing up the new staff by handing out ties and tubs of Brylcreem. We (the pretend press) were handed a clipboard to jot down questions for the astronauts. We were all ready to be lifted off into funland.

The difficulty with a show like this—a recreation of a shuttle launch—is how to turn it from a historical event into theatre. Punters at consoles were given (rather involved) manuals to read, equations to solve, numbers to ring, and questions to answer, but ultimately nothing the audience did had any effect on the plot or characters. From the press gallery, there were lots of flashing lights and goings on—and lots of shouting—but I couldn’t see much meaningful interaction. I enjoyed the chats with the newsreader (great moustache!) and the astronauts, but my favourite scenes in the control room involved my buddy up the front hijacking the set, taking hold of a microphone, and making an air filter out of a tissue box, a vacuum tube, and sticky tape. His feedback was that the play felt like it couldn’t choose between serious re-enactment and freeform play. When he steered Apollo 13 in the latter direction, faces in the audience lit up.

At its worst, it felt a bit like a dud Thank God You’re Here segment; at its best, it was a joyous and chaotic rush of actors and punters playing together whilst machines made exciting pinging noises. I saw a lot of genuinely bored and anxious faces sitting at consoles, which is certainly a pity—but I think the cheers, when our astronauts came safely back to earth, were genuine too. There were moments when we felt like we were part of something momentous. I just wish there’d been more of those.

Find out more about WTF at: www.brisbanepowerhouse.org or you can check out my previews in Rave Magazine.