Standing There Productions Diary

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Melbourne

 So Melbourne has decided to pretend it isn't the end of winter and the start of spring but rather the end of spring and the start of a rollicking summer with ice creams and top twenty hits being blasted from Mazdas at back beaches across the nation. It's doing an excellent job. If I didn't know better I'd pop down to the beach with me togs and have a bit of a splash about in the shallows. 

 

Instead, I will spend two hours on Wednesday inside a radio studio gleefully but sunlessly co-presenting (as I now regularly do) Aural Text with the disgustingly delightful Alicia Sometimes on 3RRR

 

This week, the Melbourne Writers' Festival hits town. Check it out. I know I'll be reading during every available second between now and the end of time to catch up with all the people who are writing interesting things and talking about them in dark rooms. 

 

Also, one of my favourite comedians is coming to Melbourne in the next couple of weeks. Louis CK. If you havent' seen him, here's an example of his work. That should get your Monday off to a good start.

Missing in action

Yes, okay, look. I know it has been a little while since Standing There Productions actually made an appearance on our own website in any substantial way. I know that's against every rule in the company rule book. I know there is nobody out there now, reading this with a sigh of relief after almost a year of wondering what we might be up to.

 

Nevertheless, I'm going to update you because our absence in recent months has not been due to lack of activity on our part but rather too much activity and no time in which to report it.

 

This was always my problem with keeping a journal. I only had time to report on things when things were so boring that I had time to report on them. The exciting things were always happening to me. I couldn't stop the rollercoaster mid rotation and get out my little book and my pen and write "Dear Diary, today is turning out to be quite exciting". So it's my fault. I will admit that. The metaphorical rollercoaster has been spinning out of control and my pen remains untouched, with my journal, at the bottom of the bag in my lap, alongside a rotting apple and a tram ticket from three years ago.

 

In short, Stewart and Rita and I have been doing many different things and some things, quietly, together, under the auspices of our old friend, Standing There Productions. Those things are, as they so often are, slow and steady like the tortoise rather than fast like the hare but you know how that story ends. (You don't? Let me summarise: tortoise is a winner, hare looks like a bit of a dork).

 

Stew and Rita have been working on all kinds of film and TV projects since this time last year. I have always been childishly impressed by every tiny aspect of what they do and tend to think they're basically working on the next Spielberg film. Recently though, when the two of them get together and talk about work, I have no idea what it is they're saying. There's a language, you see, involving words like dolly and handicam and gaffer - words that seem fake, as though what we're dealing with isn't a multi-million dollar production but the intricate workings of a very popular neighbourhood cubbyhouse. I'm sure it's a lot more sophisticated than that, but I must admit that to me it feels like maybe they're both having me on and really they work for the railroads.

 

So. Strong chance Rits and Stew work for the railroads.

 

What about me? Well in the past year I've done a lot of things but here are some edited highlights. I wrote an article about the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for Meanjin, which is here and which I talked about here. I talked about respecting audiences here and about teachers and, well, revolting injuries here. I'm also still writing for the excellent Big Issue, which you should go out and buy more or less immediately.

 

Hopefully this isn't the last installment for another year but you know what? You never know when the metaphorical rollercoaster will chug into action and you'll be hurled through space again and into a future you didn't see coming (in my rollercoastering experience that future usually involves dizziness, giggles, and - frankly - a teensy bit of vomiting).

 

Hopefully this next rollercoaster brings us to a pot of gold as well. And a cubbyhouse with dollies and gaffers. That sounds like fun.

Saying Goodbye

Arthur Boyd's paints. Lovely.

 

 Tomorrow morning, we're saying goodbye to Bundanon, the beautiful property we've been staying in for a month now as artists in residence. I'll miss the easy rhythm of the day - awoken from a solid sleep to birds singing outside, going for a run through the sunlit forest, working in the studio to the sound of the roof cracking under the morning sun, and talking and eating home-cooked food and writing and reading and watching and talking some more before bed. Even as I was experiencing it I was already feeling tiny droplets of the ocean of retrospective seething jealousy I know I'll be feeling for my current self when I return home. It's magical here. You miss it before you're even gone.

 

Bundanon skies

 

As with most goodbyes though, we're also saying goodbye to much ore than just a place. Here are some things we've learned at Bundanon:

 

1. Wombats poo on shelves. Anywhere you can find a slightly raised platform at about wombat-bum-height, you can be pretty sure there is a precariously balanced poo on it. Fact.

wombat poo

 

 2. Sunsets here can be lovely.

Sunset%20at%20Bunders

 

3. The neighbours are nice. 

Wombats and Kangas at Bunders

 

4. Reading is almost always worth it. The oldest typewriter repairman in New Haven exists, for instance, and we like him. He says business has bounced back since hipsters discovered typewriters were cool. You may have heard of him actually - he singlehandedly won the war. He also says: "It used to be when you were walking down the street and someone said "hello", he was being friendly. Today he's just answering a phone".

 

5. There's a horse in the apple store! A tiny pony!

 

6. So you know morals? Those things upon which the entirety of society is allegedly based? Well I don't want to worry you but there are people making all sorts of claims that morals have less to do with fine upstanding belief systems and more to do with rotting meat

 

7. Which means we may have been wrong. Which is okay. In fact, it's good. Being wrong is good for society

 

8. Virginia Woolf really was right when she said the thing about having a room of one's own. She should also have mentioned that cheese helps.

 

9. Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, and the entire extended Boyd family, really have left an amazing legacy to this country. It has been a privilege and a pleasure working here and we thank the Bundanon board and staff for their support. You really should come and visit. Or, if you have nine billion dollars you don't know what to do with, give them a call. They do some amazing things.

 

10. The neighbours really are awesome.

 

Hello little one

 

The cuckoo clock and the industrial revolution: what's the value of art?

 

At our artists' residency, we've been talking together a lot about our work (the content of it - what it is and what we'd like it to be and how to make it better) and we've been talking about our processes.

 

There are creative people in film and television and theatre who work towards the content while ignoring the fact that the process is, in some cases literally, killing them. They work too hard, they're stressed, they're competitive, they're jaded, they've forgotten why they wanted to do whatever it is they're doing in the first place. And who can blame them. More than half of Australia's professional artists earn less than $10,000 a year from their work. The least well-paid? Dancers and writers.

 

On a film set or in a theatre, there are quite often people who aren't being paid at all. Costs are cut, "internships" are created and young people enter the workforce believing it's a privilege that they're there at all. I subscribe to the ArtsHub newsletter. I subscribed because it claimed to be able to provide me with information on jobs in the arts industry. Distressingly, the field depicting "wage" is often left blank. There are endless entries boasting of "great opportunies for hardworking dedicated professional people" etc but there are some actual paid jobs. Most of them are full-time grant writing positions for struggling arts organisations.

 

The question of why we devalue the arts so much has been addressed by people more equipped than I. Personally, I think it has something to do with this idea that art exists on a sliding scale of importance with "saving people from famine" up one end and "having fun with costumes" down the other. People think artists are doing a fun job that they love. Why would I pay someone to dance? People who dance well look like they're really enjoying themselves. Why would I pay someone to DJ at my opening night event? Hell, it's free to push "genius" on your iTunes playlist and hook it up to some speakers.

 

Here's the thing: some of the best art looks easy. Uttering the words "foregone conclusion" or "one fell swoop" or referring to something vanishing "into thin air" is easy. It feels natural. I don't mean to project too much but I'm sure that when Shakespeare invented these phrases they felt new and different and he thought about them rather more than we might when we mention them in staff meetings or emails or when we haven't slept a wink, we're up in arms, we're on a wild goosechase or we're eating a meal fit for the gods. It looks easy because it's good. That doesn't mean Shakespeare didn't enjoy writing, I'm sure he did, but a lot of people enjoy their jobs. That doesn't mean they'd do them for nothing.

 

Also, on the sliding scale of "saving people from famine" to "having fun with costumes", it's pretty difficult to position the arts. Does it help people? Does it provoke people into thinking constructively about society? Does it entertain us? Is it one step away from a self-important cringeworthy school play? When you think about it though, this instinct to place jobs on a sliding scale isn't so stringent when it comes to other professions. Where do we position a swimming pool cleaner? A motivational speaker? Is it easier, perhaps, to see that those positions have a function?

 

There are studies that prove that the impact of the arts on society is profound, and all you have to do is be moved or challenged or provoked by an artwork or a piece of theatre or television to suspect that. Our industry doesn't reflect that. We're stuck in a pattern of self-abuse. And no, not the fun kind. We cut corners and make sacrifices and get stressed because in the narrative of "saving people from famine" versus "having fun with costumes" there's room for upward mobility in the form of martyrdom. We made this film on the smell of an oily rag and nobody got paid and everybody got sick and nobody's rights at work were respected and none of us are friends anymore but it might just become a big hit and our rags-to-riches story will be our own "saving people from famine" story because we saved ourselves and each other and believed in our own ideas.

 

The trouble is: did you? If you got the end result you wanted (a great film, a sublime painting) by disrespecting yourself and your friends and your own artistic processes, did you really get the result you were after? Perhaps you did. To paraphrase The Third Man, Switzerland had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

 

Whether it's an exploitative process or an inclusive and engaged one, nobody wants to earnestly construct a cuckoo clock when some wanker down the road is in post-production on the industrial revolution. Picking your way through all of this while under pressure and facing deadlines is difficult.

 

So we're enjoing a chance to think about these things without those pressures. It's difficult. Meanwhile, I'm very aware that our artists' residency at Bundanon is being shared by dancers. Who look like they're enjoying themselves. Like Shakespeare did.

Some photographic evidence

 ... and if you're thinking "too much talking and not enough pictures", well, here's an update. 

 

It was bring your kid to work day at Bundanon today. These guys came. That is all. 

 

Wombats and politics

Welcome back to the Standing There website, which has been up the back of the dance hall looking at its feet for too long while everybody else drinks punch and slides across the floor in their socks while singing the piano solo at the start of Old Time Rock n Roll.

 

Well. Enough of that.

 

Standing There Productions has been having some fun of our own in the past month.

 

For starters, we're artists in residence in one of the most beautiful and inspiring places in Australia at the moment. Once upon a time, Australian artists Arthur and Yvonne Boyd lived and worked on a farm on the Shoalhaven river in New South Wales. The property is called Bundanon, and they left it on trust with the Australian government so artists and members of the public could access the same space they found so inspiring. And it really is. 

 

We've been getting a lot of work done here. Working together, too, with the time and space to think through every element of what we're planning but with the projects as our motivator rather than one of us having to be somewhere or all of us having to make a decision while doing twelve other things.  We've been getting the giggles, disagreeing, floating stupid ideas, having them ridiculed and then riding that ridicule through to a healthy kernel of what might become an idea.

 

And then there's the other stuff.

 

It's funny what happens to you here. You start to see connections across networks of things that you wouldn't have noticed before. You notice that nature mimics itself. The river mimics the sky and the clouds mimic the tidal patterns of the water. The plants mimic the animals and the animals mimic each other. A wombat is a kind of sideways koala but its bent back elbows are like the strong, sequined arms of a fat blue tongue lizard in the sun. Wombats have an impressive family history, too, going back to prehistoric times and you can tell that, looking at them, and once again you feel like everything's part of everything else and looking a rock wallaby in the eye is as much a conversation as small talk in the post office.

 

You don't only see connections in nature though. You see connections in what you read and what you see and what you think. You read an article about evolution and an article about the internet and an article about, I don't know, how to cook a muffin and it's like cells pairing up and multiplying under a microscope - fragments from one idea float over towards another and then they slip as though by accident into each other and suddenly they're something new and tiny and if you give it time they might turn into something else.

 

Arthur Boyd did paintings of the rocks that surround us here, and the river, and the bush, and he felt that landscape was very important. His paintings weren't just about the bush and the river though. They were about religion and politics and power and fairness and barbarism. At the moment, in Australia, this is an interesting place to be, because the whole circle-of-life we-are-each-other business is a day-to-day reality, while our political lives are being shaped in an agonising tight-rope walk performed by people who - whatever else they might be - are treating our political system with the kind of respect that makes democracy, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the worst system in the world except for all the others. 

 

And so while the political machinations of the election seem, in many ways, a thousand miles from here (would a wombat have a preference for a particular system? Would a rock wallaby care what happened to the seat of Hasluck?)... it also feels like it really is the right place to consider the stimulating questions that are being raised by what's going on in Canberra. 

 

Bundanon feels like a place where you can be wrong. You can have someone explain something and you can say "oh I get it, I was wrong" more easily than you can when you're in the city and you're half way through something and the phone rings and it's someone to tell you they think you're wrong. 

 

I like challenging myself and being challenged here and it's interesting to see the same thing happen to the political status quo. I hope, in this ongoing political drama, that people can admit to doubt and ask the right questions and not hedge their answers and so far that's been enjoyable to watch.

 

Today, we went into a bookshop in a tiny town called Kangaroo Valley. The bookshelf was fantastic and was run by a man in a knitted jumper reading a book and holding a long piece of wood in his hand. The piece of wood was so that he could move a door stop back into place after someone came into the shop without having to get out of his chair. It was a dual-use stick, actually. It was also so he could change the dial on the music player without having to get up and do that either. 

 

In the bookshop, there was a collection of old photographs. Not in a book. Just personal photographs someone had bought in an auction of a deceased estate. They were black and white. Loads of them. I found one - it was a photo of what looked like what used to be a town. Sparse, burnt trees and a flat landscape that went on forever, with melted-looking buildings and clusters of people wandering through it. Standing in the kangaroo valley bookshop full of hot coffee from the cafe down the road, I didn't know what it was. I turned it over. On the back, in pencil, someone had written "atom bomb". How this apparently original slightly-cracked photo of an utterly destroyed town (Nagasaki? Hiroshima?) ended up here, with those two horrific words on the back of it, I can't tell you.

 

I think what Bundanon is best at is perspective. When you have perspective, and peace and quiet and time and space, you can think constructively and imaginatively and you can stand in a bookshop with your hand over your mouth and have all afternoon to think about why.

 

Airport TV

A version of the following appeared in a recent edition of The Big Issue Australia, which is an excellent publication you should immediately go and buy from your friendly local vendor (who is, at this stage in the year, probably much colder than you are). By way of catching up, however, here is a recent column of mine written from inside an airport:

 


Airport TV

I was at the airport recently and it occurred to me that for some people – stopping over on their way somewhere else – their entire experience of Australian culture consists of whatever is on the telly in the airport during the couple of hours they’re hydrating between flights. What was on TV the day I was in Gate Lounge 12? A news story about a rogue wombat on the loose in Melbourne.

I’m concerned about the impact airport televisions might have on our tourist industry. Firstly, I don’t want to alarm anybody, but people watching Australian TV in airports probably think Australia is an American colony. The Australian accent is a surprise rather than the norm on television, with the notable exception of voiceovers in advertisements for hardware stores.

Not only that, but you’d be forgiven for believing Australia contains only of white people. Some of them think they can dance, some of them are waiting for a panel of judges to taste their marinade, and some of them are breaking up with each other on Home and Away, but if it’s cultural diversity you’re after, it’s usually left to SBS or Border Security to teach tourists what multiculturalism looks like in Australia. Unless you’re American, in which case: welcome home.

Soaps don’t help. It has rained in Erinsborough a handful of times in more than twenty years, which, as we all know, would usually lead to strict water restrictions and lawns that look like the bottom of a woolshed after a bush dance. But Neighbours isn’t about reality. That’s what the evening news is all about.

Someone who hasn’t met a real-life Australian might watch the news and deduce that every sentence spoken by an Australian is concluded with a word made up – no matter how it’s spelled – of four syllables. On the news recently, I was informed by the white Australian lady who came on in between the American TV shows that an Australian sporting team was “this evening heading ho-wo-wo-oe-ome”. The team was, I suspect, heading home, but the word had been extended in order to signal that the sentence had come to an end. At least, I think that’s what it meant. Either that or there is a place called Howowoeme somewhere in the world that’s currently hosting an Australian sporting team.

The one factor that sets my mind at ease in relation to the Australian airport-television viewing experience is that most of the people in Gate Lounge 12 that day were asleep. What this says about Australian television, I will leave for another day.