Saturday, March 26, 2016

Are WOMADelaide and the Adelaide Fringe Losing Their Soul?

A couple of weeks ago English comedian Alexis Dubus begrudgingly conceded that he was done with the Adelaide Fringe. He had watched it change into something that no longer met his needs and he no longer wanted to be part of it. At the risk of starting a bandwagon I may have reached the same point with WOMADelaide. And for a veteran who has seen all but one of them and who often said that ‘WOMADelaide is my religion’ this is no small matter. If I did nothing else each year, I always attended this that was the greatest show on earth.
I saw things at WOMADelaide this year that I have never experienced before. Bins were often overflowing with rubbish, stages were named after sponsors, and technical stage problems were common. I can’t be sure but it seems that the only explanation for the technical glitches is that new crew were involved. Novatech? I heard more feedback in the first three days of the festival than I’d heard for the last 10 years. WOMADelaide had raised the bar in many areas, and one of those areas was stage management. Feedback just never happened. When performers were unable to hear themselves in the foldback, it was sorted within 30 seconds or so of a performance getting underway. The sound crews were slick and professional. For some reason this year that standard was let drop and it was sad and embarrassing.
But the main reason for my doubts about whether I’ll attend WOMADelaide again are based upon the music and programming. There is no doubt that over the years the program has been changing incrementally in favour of acts that are essentially bands, and mainstream acts like The Violent Femmes because they pull large crowds. These kinds of acts are primarily designed to get people up and dancing. The D in WOMAD stands for dance, so that’s fine, but it’s about the percentage of these high voltage acts that are now crowding the program.
I’m a WOMADelaide purist. What first attracted me to the festival was the truly exotic – Russia’s Terem Quartet, a lone kora player from Africa, throat singing from Sardinia, Madagascar’s Justin Vali Trio – music you would never hear anywhere else, and where you felt extraordinarily privileged to witness things you otherwise had no access to. Mostly these musical events happened on the small stages where you had the opportunity of a more intimate musical experience. Adelaide music magazine editor and critic Robert Dunstan once wrote “as I stood among the Moreton Bay fig trees with the sun going down listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I found myself thinking ‘I have never been happier’.” These kinds of intimate and exotic musical experiences at WOMADelaide can still happen, but they’re getting harder to find.
The bulk of the program now features what I have taken to calling ‘global funk’. It matters not where the performers come from – Africa, Europe, Latin America, or their Australian based derivatives – all of these bands have percussion and electric guitars, and after a few songs in desultory recognition of their origins, they descend into a frenetic version of global funk played at loud volume and high speed. (It’s interesting at these moments to close your eyes and see if you can pick where the players come from.) It is music designed to whip up dance frenzies and the masses dutifully oblige. But WOMADelaide diehards like me keep seeking that magical moment on the smaller stages where I hear something that I’ve never heard before, and that challenges my musical horizons. And after this year’s event I realised that it is no longer worth the money or the four days trying to find those magical exotic moments. There are too few of them.
WOMADelaide has gone mainstream. It is now mostly about high energy and frantic rhythms.
I can accept that things must change. It has been 24 years after all and nothing stays the same. I understand the need to change the programming to attract new audiences. And organisers would be foolish to continue to cater for the original Boomer types who were there at the beginning because we are beginning to disappear! There is some sadness in the realisation that it may be all over for me and WOMADelaide, but there’s a realistic acceptance too that the beast I fell in love with has changed. As it had to. I am enormously grateful to have had 22 years of musical wonderment. It was an organic experience that WOMADelaide performers frequently commented on, but it is now more about heaving masses and loud electronic rhythms.
In this quest to attract greater crowds WOMADelaide has become more commercial. What was a highly innovative and exotic experience now threatens to sound and feel like ‘just another festival.’ It was more than that once. It has lost its innovative edge.
And so back to Alex Dubus and the Adelaide Fringe. He is saying similar things about the Fringe and that in fact it is fringe no more. It too has caved in to featuring many mainstream acts to bring in the crowds and the strategy has worked. Again in 2016 it was bigger than ever. But perhaps bigger is not best. It seems that perhaps both the Adelaide Fringe and WOMADelaide have lost their ‘fringe feel’ in the quest for larger crowds. They have drifted away from the core mission that initially inspired them. Of course there is still evidence of ‘cutting edge’ acts in both festivals, but it’s about percentages and the truly fringe acts out there on the creative margins are being squeezed out by established artists and bands with bigger sounds. Perhaps it’s time for the artistic directors of these two events to get together and discuss where these festivals are heading. They are both still wonderful events, but they are changing and are being threatened by commercial imperatives. A conversation about their artistic soul and raison d’etre is needed.
Otherwise we may soon be attending the [insert major sponsor] WOMADelaide festival where every stage has a named sponsor.

(also published on The Clothesline)


Plant 1 Bowden, Tue 8 Mar

Five concurrent plays performed simultaneously in a pit of foam rubber on the site of the old Clipsal factory. Sounds like a recipe for total confusion but no, it was surprisingly cohesive.
Four years in the making by drama students from Flinders University this production explores the themes of alienation and information overload in a hyper connected world. It takes a while to sort out who’s talking to who but once that’s achieved it was easy enough to take turns focusing on the conversations that criss-crossed the performance space – in much the same way we’ve learned how to digest the information we want to hear from multiple streams of media in the contemporary world. It’s a cacophony if you try and take it all in, but quite manageable if you split your focus to those parts you find more interesting.

Two online gamers at opposite ends of the space did a great job of remaining connected. A couple who share a pregnancy are not sure how close they want to be. An earnest young man espouses the virtues of the Bahai religion on his YouTube channel, and gets side-tracked into another play when he spots a young woman who he feels is in need of spiritual assistance.
At several junctures the conversations dovetail as if they are on the same wavelength before drifting off again into separation. “We are all connected.” These could be random coincidences or a higher power exercising subliminal control.
It’s an intriguing premiere of a brave concept. Beautifully played, and artfully directed by Nescha Jelk, it subtly increases the level of angst until the various characters are eventually driven to physical closeness in a chaotic finale.
A really enjoyable spectacle and experience. The minimalist lighting was eye-catching and super effective, and there’s a delightful irony in the fact that this fable of modern life takes place in a relic of an industrial era that’s coming to an end.
(also published on The Clothesline)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Exquisite Corpse

Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Mon 7 Mar
Wikipedia tells me Exquisite Corpse is an old parlour game where people used to take turns writing stories by building on the work of the previous player. For this project the idea was extended to include twelve composers and two visual artists. Each composer built on the last piece of musical notation from the previous participant to create a collaborative score, and the visual artists did similarly.
It is important to understand the collaborative nature of this work to appreciate the final product. If it at times seems fragmented it’s because no one composer had an idea of what the final piece would sound like. Given the circumstances, it’s remarkable to say that it did by and large come across as a unified work, and that’s due to the artistry of the Zephyr Quartet. Two violins, a viola and cello bow, pluck and strum their way through a frequently changing soundscape that has many moods. I preferred the moments where all instruments were being bowed in traditional fashion but the experimental passages were often more rhythmic, and it was intriguing guessing where it would go next.
And then there were the visuals. Projected on screen throughout were a series of bizarre drawings of a surrealist world that reminded me of the animations of the type that the Monty Python team made famous. The Python versions we know were harmless fun and devoid of meaning. But what of these? Did they mean anything? Were they connected to the music is some way, and if so, how? While quite charming and often amusing (it didn’t seem appropriate to laugh) I ultimately found them intrusive. Rather than complement the musical score, I was being distracted. They were too assertive; too pronounced in their presence.
What worked well were the coloured tubes that snaked around the stage and emitted various hues and frequencies to create a pleasing aura of colour and movement around the quartet. For me, this was all the visual effect I needed.
It was like being at two performances – one musical and the other visual. I could enjoy one or the other, but not both simultaneously. But kudos to the Zephyr Quarter for this brave idea – musically it largely worked for me, but overall it felt like a metaphor for modern distracted life: there’s just too much going on.

(also published on The Clothesline)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

John Cleese and Eric Idle - Together Again At Last For the Very Last Time

Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Tue 1 Mar, 2016
In truth John Cleese and Eric Idle could have served up anything and I’d have been happy. I just wanted to pay homage to these comic masters who together with other members of the Monty Python team turned comedy on its head 40-plus years ago. The good news is they are still masters of comedy.
Things began unconventionally of course as we hear Cleese muttering that we don’t have to start on time and we can just show them some videos. So we got five minutes or so of a greatest hits collection of some of their best work before the stars of the show sat down for a relaxed chat about how the Python crew met, and the early shows they worked on with Peter Sellers and David Frost et al.
They then swapped stories about their favourite sketches from the past – complete with video clips. It was fascinating to hear them critique each other and comment on what they each considered was their best work.
Two live sketches followed and showed they haven’t lost any of their comic timing and sense of the absurd. Great stuff.
After interval John Cleese talked about the nature of comedy, what makes people laugh, and his love of the dark side of the genre. A string of politically incorrect jokes targeting various racial groups followed and Cleese drew spontaneous applause when he lamented the inability of contemporary society to distinguish between what is just teasing in good humour, and what is racist and mean spirited.
Eric Idle returned guitar in hand to demonstrate what a capable player and very fine songwriter he is – even if his songs are by his own admission a little on the filthy side.
They joined forces once more for a Q&A session with the audience and provided quick and witty off the cuff answers, and more good natured banter about the other Pythons – especially Michael Palin! Contrary to what is sometimes reported it is clear they have a great deal of respect and affection for the other members of the Python team, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make jokes about them at their expense!
The show predictably closed with the song that has become the most requested song at British funerals and we all sang along karaoke style.
An insightful, entertaining, and very funny show chock full of stories, jokes, sketches, videos, and songs that revealed their enormous comic talent. The Python era may have been their peak of commercial popularity, but they are still quite simply very funny guys who love making people laugh. “Say no more.”

(also published on The Clothesline)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Vin Garbutt in Adelaide (18/2/16)

Vin Garbutt is one of that wonderful breed of British folk singers who effortlessly combine comedy and music. They have you laughing away at their stories between songs and then melt your heart with delicious melodies and the joys and sorrows of the people they sing about.

For over 40 years Vin has been travelling the world mesmerising audiences with an extraordinary voice, an endless swag of wonderful songs, and an infectious warmth and love for humanity. In what could well be his last Australian tour he seemed anxious to give thanks to all those who have enabled his extended career.

The bulk of his songs have always featured stories about the little guy – the people who have worked hard or who life has treated harshly and who have no voice of their own. He has a knack for uncovering such stories, mostly from his native UK, and crafting songs around them. Like the miner who became a seamstress when he lost his job in the mines (Silver and Gold); the former musician from Iran who became a teacher (Teacher From Persia), the retired steel worker who took to growing vegetables in his tiny allotment (Man of the Earth). Stories like this have been a driving force behind his success. The purpose of Vin Garbutt’s version of folk music is to bring these stories to light. And to entertain of course.

And he does it such a joyous way that there’s nothing gloomy about it. Life can be tough but there’s always a funny story around the next bend. For Vin Garbutt life’s a wonderful and melancholy thing.

His quirky on stage demeanour is cheeky and endearing, and his care for his audiences and the gratitude for the life he leads is abundant.

“All the very best” he says every time he raises his glass to take a drink. Right back at you Vin. You’re a treasure. 

(Also published over on The Clothesline)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Penny Arcade - The Longing Lasts Longer (Feb 14th, 2016)

“Turns contemporary stand-up on its head” – yep. I’ve never seen or experienced anything quite like this. The promo continues: “you will never be the same.” Big call. Not quite true, but The Longing Lasts Longer made my brain work overtime. “Thinking is hard people” Penny Arcade said as she implored us to stay with her while she expounded on her unique take of the universe. You will likely be confronted with phrases you’ve never heard, and ideas you’ve never thought about. This is performance art. Intellectual comedy. And it’s been a long time coming.
Initially using New York City, her home of 50 years, as a metaphor for all Western society she tells us how it’s changed. How it has become gentrified and commodified. She tracks through the decades from the 60s onwards with reference to the friendship and work she’s done with famous friends, and then devotes a lot of time explaining how anyone born post 1980 was born into the fog of consumerism. It would be hard for anyone under 35 not to feel targeted, but Penny Arcade is not blaming then. She blames their parents.
Essentially this is a 75 minute monologue on how one intelligent, articulate and entertaining person who dares to take risks, sees the world.  It’s all done against a soundtrack of instrumental segments of very familiar tunes from “four decades of pop culture”. Occasionally lyrics are left in so Penny can inject her own commentary into the lyrics as she does with a couple of songs from Van Morrison and it feels like she was rapping with him – to great effect.

How much you enjoy this show is going to depend very much on whether you are prepared to think, really think, and whether or not you agree with her view of the world. I agreed with most of what she was saying – it was revelatory and refreshing – so I loved it.  Cherish individuality and authenticity. Never lose your sense of adventure, and above all, love yourself. If you’re listening you may end up loving Ms Penny Arcade.

(Also published on The Clothesline)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Did virtual learning ever take off?

Today over on Facebook a former TAFE colleague, Kate Wise, wrote:
"Thinking of our virtual learning Michael. Did it ever take off? Missed those wonderful sessions with the rest of the world.
Did virtual learning ever take off?"
 It certainly did. Virtual learning can mean different things but Kate is referring to those international events hosted by the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector where scores of people, and sometimes hundreds, joined live virtual classroom (webinar) sessions from across the world to discuss educational issues. They were enormously popular and most everyone who joined those sessions would testify to their effectiveness. The model worked brilliantly for professional development.
I always found it frustrating that the same model never really worked for classroom delivery in the VET sector. It got some traction in higher education, but even there the predominant model turned out to be the one way non-collaborative lecture style webinar offered by tools like Echo 360.
It seems that there were too many hurdles and ideological leaps for the average teacher to teach their classes this way. What’s interesting is that the corporate word adopted this model with gusto and today virtual meetings for companies with a distributed workforce is commonplace.
Virtual learning is also used as a synonym for online learning. Online learning is everywhere these days, but the model that has been widely adopted is essentially the set and forget model that offers little real interaction and almost no real time virtual sessions. Many people who were employed as e- or online learning specialists in professional development (ie people like me) have been discarded and deemed unnecessary. The prevailing model is still static content plus quizzes. It was decided that nothing more was necessary.
So people like myself who were encouraging a richer form of elearning that emphasised collaborative approaches with a synchronous real time component are left bemused that we spent so much of our professional lives promoting a model we knew was powerful and effective but in the end was deemed superfluous. It still sits uneasily with me. It feels sometimes as if I wasted my time; that my belief in this richer model was misguided and na├»ve. But I’m left with the memory, like Kate, that some remarkable and deep learning occurred in those virtual sessions sponsored by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. But we failed to in our quest to have that model become part of standard delivery.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making Meaning

I read today – I think on the ubiquitous Facebook – that if you don’t write about what you think then no one knows what you think. That seems particularly pertinent to me now in the ‘post permanent job - pre-retirement’ phase of my life. I was an educator. I didn’t appreciate till it was all over how much I enjoyed talking to groups of people. Classes. Of course the purpose of the classes was not for me to talk, but teachers do. Inevitably at regular intervals you got to talk about what you believed and thought. It’s part of the bonding process that needs to happen between educator and students. Students need to get to know you and trust you before they accept what you say as having value. So they ask you questions. That doesn’t happen to me much anymore J
My life now has long gaps where I can’t talk to groups of people. I rarely now have classes. And I find myself wanting to say things when I don’t have a ready-made audience. So it’s a good time to start writing again. There have been multiple occasions over the last 18 months where I’ve wanted to say things about all manner of topics: the state of the Australian VET system, the whole sorry Islamist phenomenon, the continuing role of the Internet in upending life as we know it, the state of Australian political life and its corruption by the major parties, the secrets to effective management (I have just been reading Fullan on change), the drift towards the public disclosure of every facet of life in social media, why I don’t want to do that, how social media has become mainstream and has consequently lost its sense of innovation and challenge….I could go on.
I used to write a lot. I used to write dutifully for about 30 minutes each day. That’s how these pieces came into being. It used to be called journalling, or keeping a diary. As someone once commented, I blogged, as many others did, before blogging was a thing. Along the way I got waylaid by images. I became entranced by the daily posting of photos on Flickr – a disease I caught from, and am eternally grateful to, Alan Levine. The 365 project he suggested – posting a photo for each day of the year – changed my life. I became a person who preferred to express and share their life with images. It has been a joy and a revelation about the power of random serendipity. (see more here). I’ve come to realise that what I have been doing with the posting of images of my daily life is in some sense trying to make meaning of my world.
Making meaning is a common concept in many disciplines. Humans by default try and make meaning of what is happening around them, and if for whatever reason that ability or opportunity to make meaning is denied us we are not at peace. It is not a conscious process; it is just what we do if we are a healthy functioning citizen. Apart from the field of linguistics and language learning I always struggled with this concept of making meaning. I wasn’t sure what it was or if it was even necessary. It’s one of the many insights that appear to accompany the process of getting older and contemplating one’s own life coming to an end. (No I'm not dying!) I do now try and make meaning out of things; for me now it is occasionally a conscious process. I’m no longer just satisfied to just do or experience something. I want to explore why I am doing it; I want to know what it means.
It crystallised for me very clearly when I watched the Lazarus video from David Bowie on the day he died. It was inspiring to watch this work from someone who, though dying, was intent on making meaning of existence and what was happening to him for the entertainment and cultural enrichment of others. Through art. Reinterpreting the last days of his life to make it more powerful and leave us all with an instructive culture artefact rather than just tears and sadness.
I could go on…..

..... but before I go I just want to acknowledge and thank my dear friend and colleague Stephan Ridgway for the amazing work he did in the Australian elearning arena over the last 15 years. Stephan today became another casualty of an Australian VET system that is methodically disposing of anyone with a sense of innovation and who might dare to do things differently. Today was Stephan's last day at work for Sydney Institute of TAFE. As Robyn Jay wrote, "with grace he goes."