Thursday, May 31, 2012

Robot vs. Art - Travis Cotton - INTERVIEWS

Art in the Age of Robots

Mental illness, addiction, recidivism, god and killer robots who don’t appreciate art. Travis Cotton isn’t shy when it comes to tackling big themes. PAUL ANDREW speaks to the writer and director.

Since writing his first comedy, The 5th at Randwick; “a racetrack play with a pro-gambling message” and winning the Naked Theatre Company Award for Best Writer of a Short Play in 2003 the playwright has continued trawling for mirth in the most extreme situations.His 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival feted play The Rites of Evil followed the rapid-fire musings of a pair of mismatched ex-cons recently released from prison who meet accidentally at a bus stop and discuss the failings of bureaucracy.

Failure is a central conceit to a Cotton play. His latest work Robot vs. Art considers an equally bleak scenario, “a time when robots have wiped out ninety percent of humanity and assigned the remaining ten percent of the population to hard labor in sustainable underground mines. “

According to the writer, developing humorous plays about human failings involves an equal measure of personal reflection and social soul searching. So it is not surprising to learn that one of Cotton’s earliest and most influential theatre memories was a farce, a famous Victorian play about one of societies most revered, yet grossly failed, institutions: marriage.It was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “I remember it clearly; it was the first play that really grabbed my attention. It was a production in 1988 with Ruth Cracknell playing Lady Bracknell. It was at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I remember it clearly because it was so apparent to me that the cast were having an absolute ball on stage. I could see them beaming at one another in between the lines and I decided that if a job could be that much fun then I wanted in.”

“I love clever writing”, he reveals.” Oscar Wilde remains my number one fave writer. He is the master of gag and I admire him most of all because I appreciate a well set-up gag. More recently I am inspired by wordsmith Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, In Bruges). He has introduced a level of black comedy into the theatre that is as grossly unforgivable as it is frickin’ hilarious.”

It was Cotton’s own early personal failings that provided him with the motivation that only a certain type of grief, pride, can provide. ” When I left WAAPA I was shocked that I wasn’t employed immediately”, he explains.” My best friend and housemate Toby Schmitz was also unemployed, but instead of whining about it as I was doing at the time, he would get up every morning and sit at his laptop writing plays. Toby’s discipline rubbed off on me, and soon enough I had won the Naked Theatre Company short play competition and I was hooked. “

“Robots?  Yes, so, robots take over the world to save it from humanity”, Cotton continues.”Robots “realize” that if they don’t destroy the human race, it will be at the cost of the earth. This creates a wicked dilemma about practicality and art; art is something that seems so impractical to so many, impractical to robots at least. “

Sounds heavy, and the humour?

“Laconic”, he replies. “One character is a robot, the other is a human being - need I say more?”

Robot vs. Art
May 31 - June 10
Written & directed by Travis Cotton
Performed by Daniel Frederiksen, Simon Maiden, Natasha Jacobs and Paul Goddard
Produced by Paul Ashcroft
$25 Full | $15 Concession
Tickets available online
or via 03 9347 6142
Wed, Sun 6.30pm | Thu, Fri, Sat 7.30pm
Running time: 90 minutes
La Mama Courthouse
349 Drummond Street Carlton

First Published INPRESS Melbourne Issue: 1226 30 May 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Malice Toward None- INTERVIEWS

Chris Aronsten

Written by Paul Andrew   
Monday, 28 May 2012 20:22

Chris Aronsten's play Human Resources was staged at the Darlinghurst Theatre in 2006 (Siren Theatre Company, directed by Kate Gaul) and was shortlisted for both the Premier's Literary Award and the Philip Parsons Young Playwright's Award. Human Resources was also staged at the Dog Theatre, Footscray in 2009 (Acto-matic 3000, directed by Matt Scholten). In 2012, two of Chris's new plays will be staged in Sydney: Malice Toward None at the Old Fitzroy Theatre and The Lunch Hour at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

Malice Toward NoneChris describe the play in six words?
Four addicts, three monologues, one carrot.

Your writer's training?
I spent two years in the NIDA Playwrights' Studio then did a BA in screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

What you value most now about that training?
Having some basic technique to fall back on when things get difficult.

Is there a particular wisdom you recall learning from this time?
No one thing sticks out. I remember studying some great plays and realising that no line is wasted and every line moves the drama forward. I think good training forces you to ask yourself hard questions about your writing: Must this piece be a play? Where is the drama? What do the characters want? Does the story start in the right place? Does every character have a journey? Why is this scene here?

Your earliest theatre memory?
I clearly remember being at Marian St Theatre with my Grandmother watching a pantomime. It must have been Snow White. And instead of poisoned apples, there were raspberry tartlet biscuits. The evil queen offered these to the kids in the audience – and I was way too scared to eat one. I was terrified. My grandmother, Joan Aronsten, is also a writer and we are kindred spirits in that sense. We both think the same way. We're always observing people and thinking how we can turn it into material.

The playwrights who inspire you?
I was very taken by Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues when first I saw them performed. They really struck a real chord with me. I think because he is so funny people overlook how dark his material is. It takes great skill to cloak something dark in a humorous shell. And of course being funny is just so much harder than being serious. I also love Edward Albee. His use of language is so precise and musical. I love the circular neuroses of his characters, and their valiant and baroque attempts to deny reality. I recently read Edward Bond's Saved and was struck by how modern and wonderful it was. In general, I love British plays and films from the 60's.

How do you begin writing a play?
Usually I begin with a general scenario or a character. But getting the character's voice is everything. I find if I can get that right, the plot will just flow.

Tell me how the writing and development on your earlier plays has helped – or indeed hindered – writing this work?
My first show, Human Resources was a monologue show. I learned a lot from the experience. One of the most important lessons was finding someone who I could trust to help me develop my work. Over time, I have developed a wonderful working relationship with director Kate Gaul. Writing is a lonely occupation at times. You reach the limits of your objectivity and you need someone to give you honest feedback and inspire you to take it to the next stage.

Three interwoven monologues, fringe dwellers, vice – tell me about Kings Cross as the setting for Malice?
I've lived in the Kings Cross area for a long time. Its' a place that draws together a very diverse population in a high density setting – drug addicts, lawyers, young families all co-exist there. A lot of drama comes out of all those conflicting needs. The Cross used to be a haven for artists, but high rents have largely ended that.

The artists who live there now are either financially successful or – like me – work other jobs in order to survive. I wanted Malice Toward None to give voice to some of the residents of Kings Cross you never hear from. I wanted to give them half an hour on stage to tell their story.

How did each of the four characters enter your imagination?
The character of Cathy is someone I met at a Surry Hills shopping centre. She and her partner in crime had just been kicked out for stealing. Her partner told the fascinated crowd outside that she had been cast in a film as a methadone addict, and was staying in character all the time. He said, "That makes it really hard to do normal things." Pete is based on a story I read about "Smurfs" in the newspaper. Smurfs are pensioners who buy cold and flu tablets and on-sell them to drug manufacturers. Jane and Janet are based on a story I heard at a BBQ.

Self-delusion and identity are central conceits in the play?
True. I see self-delusion as something we all do to cope with the reality of life. It's often gruelling to be at the coal face of life's hard truths, so I think we take little holidays from reality. Of course it can become a problem. You can sink too far into self-delusion. For me identity is something you decide as way of defining yourself. I suppose it's something we come up with as we ponder what our purpose is in life. I identify as a writer. That can be difficult, because when you create an identity, it's easy to pin all your self esteem on that one thing.

Tell me about the character Cathy?
Even now, five days into the run, I am still fascinated with Cathy. People aren't sure if she's a junkie pretending to be an actress, or an actress researching a role. There's an ambiguity there that's very compelling.

Does Kings Cross serve as a reality check for Cathy?
The gap between what Cathy tells the audience and what the audience sees in front of them grows ever wider as the monologue progresses. In that space between the reality of Kings Cross and Cathy's version of The Cross is the self-delusion that is at the heart of the play.

The intersecting of monologues like these can create a powerful comic or tragic effect, your thoughts?
These monologues are linked by location and theme, but not by character. So I've chosen a slightly abstract way to weave them together. There are structural similarities too: generally I've tried to use comedy to draw the audience into each story before I explore the darker side of the character. I've tried to avoid being too literal about the connection between the characters because I think this allows the audience make the connection themselves.

A favourite line?
It changes every night, but I think it might currently be "Fetch me a bonnet and watch me go."

A funny moment during the rehearsals?
Skye Wansey (Cathy) has a habit of going into character in social situations. I've been in shops with her and she suddenly becomes Cathy. But I think the highlight might have been when she sourced part of her costume from an abandoned car.

MALICE TOWARD NONE by Chris Aronsten is now playing at The Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo.

Image credit:–
Top Right – the cast of Malice Toward None

First Published Australian Stage 28 May 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Scott Matthew - Gallantry's Favourite Son - INTERVIEWS

New York-based Australian-born singer songwriter Scott Matthew has been likened to David Bowie, Antony Hegarty and any number of musicians from the annals of music history who shiver and quiver as they sing,  while the vibrato comparisons roll in, Matthew isn’t fussed, he is at his most content living life as a connoiseur of sadness, what matters more to Matthew than the folly of likenesses are the distinctive nuances and prismatic shades of melancholy. Paul Andrew speaks with Scott Matthew about his latest album Gallantry’s Favourite Son.

Let's get to your latest deep pop album in a jiff, but firstly l am curious about your earliest musical influences Scott?

There was a lot of music in our household. I grew up in an age of singer songwriters that has totally shaped my approach to song writing. My father would be listening to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, John Denver. These are songwriters who were ground breaking in their heyday but these days would be called traditional. 

I have no desire to be avant-garde or experimental.

I understand your Dad is a talented musician too?

He was the first and only one to teach me a few chords on the guitar.

For this I am grateful. He was in a band as a young man playing the fender electric. I remember seeing his band photos and thinking it was so cool.
He is a wonderful guitarist and sadly gave it up professionally to support his family and get a "real" job.  I believe he hated this choice his whole working life. He was a wonderful provider and I thank him for this too.
There would be many parties at our place over many years and always the guitar would come out and a sing along would ensue. 

I love these memories.

What music did you enjoy listening to while growing up in South East Queensland?

The Cure, The Smiths. The Cramps were all fascinating for me. I have just tracked down a t-shirt design of The Cramps I owned as a teenager and bought it out of sentiment.

Music and musicians were a way to give me solace. That the world was interesting, that suppression and being misunderstood was not the norm and that someday, there would be a time when I would find people who allowed me to fit into their world. 

Oh, and I loved The Jam and even The Sex Pistols. The Smiths were always my favourite band and I haven't outgrown them.

Tell me about the first album you purchased for your music collection?

Growing up in the Australian bush I didn’t have access to a lot of popular culture. My only connection to “cool” music was through community radio 4ZZZ. I would hole myself up in my room; lit incense to mask the smell of my cigarettes and listened avidly to the radio.

It was during these evening listening marathons that I discovered bands like The Smiths and The Cure. We would make trips to the city and with my small allowance- earned from washing cars, mowing lawns and other tawdry chores- I headed for the record shop in the mall.

Of course it was impossible to find “cool” music in this suburban record store. The only option I had was to order something at the store and then wait an agonizing two weeks for it to arrive.

This is what I did. The dilemma was what to order. I was given a huge catalogue and went straight to C for The Cure. I was surprised that they had released so many albums even back then. Me being the rebellious kid, I was always looking for ways to piss off my parents, so when I discovered they had made an album called Pornography my mind was made-up. Two weeks later and another trip to the mall in the city and Pornography was MINE.

It was the darkest, most deliciously depressing album ever made.
I cranked that album up in my room and listened to it with the repeat firmly ON. The imagery of spiders, blood and sickness were unbelievably amazing. I truly believe that it had a profound influence and shaped me as a teenager.

It also really pissed off my folks. Perfect.

I understand you studied music at Southern Cross University in Lismore?

Yes, and for me this time was formative. I wouldn't say so immediately for my song writing as song writing comes from life experience. It was my first year out of the family home and that rite of passage that accompanied this time was immense. It was a time of self-discovery, self-acceptance and expressing my sexuality for the first time. 

And, as painful and confusing as it was falling in love with everyone and anyone who wasn't available, it was so important to go through that process. In a way I still feel I am constantly processing who I am, my place and my worth in the world.

Tell me about your song writing journey since these awkward early beginnings?

Strangely I feel it keeps getting simpler.  I try less to be complicated these days lyrically. 

I have never had formal musical training so my chord structure was never challenging to start with. It’s even less so now. I strive to be spontaneous and pure. I am not approaching music with intellect, only emotion.

On reflection now, the lyricist (s) you admire most of all?

Morrissey will always be my favourite lyricist. His charm, wit and purity is utterly astounding. The lyrics to There is a Place in Hell are so simple and so damn insightful.

I also love to sing the praises of John Denver.  I adore his lyrical sensitivity, always singing of the concept of home while always travelling. His song Goodbye Again is so sentimental and honest. I believe he is vastly underrated as a great songwriter.

Tell me something about the writer's journey for your latest album, Gallantry’s Favourite Son?

It’s a strange thing to equate the want and joy of writing with the absolute need to make it for business reasons. Meaning, I need to fulfil my contract with my label but also I need to make albums to tour.  I also need to tour to earn money. 

I was conscious of this, while making this album and it felt like work for the first time. The songs are still my truth and highly personal, all inspired by love, or love lost, mostly. I feel it is my more self-conscious album. Truth be known, it was a bitch to make, working in confines, making something with nothing.

And the subject of friendship seems paramount on the album?

Friendship is the most precious thing to me. It is true love. It is family. I only work with friends. My band, my producer, my
photographer and so forth. All friends, all family.

I am particularly fond of the mystical elements of your song writing?

I am not religious however, for some reason religious imagery always comes out in my song writing. The demons, the dark romance of death and god. I have no idea why.

I despise the church but still use the symbolism. Though the last track on the album is titled No Place Called Hell for good reason.

Gallantry's Favourite Son- it's an evocative album title?

Oh, it was my favourite lyric and also, an affirmation.

Was there another contender for album title perhaps?

Yes there was. I wanted to call it Sweet Kiss in the Afterlife, however in German- my label is Berlin based- somehow this album title, translates into "rimming"; hilarious, but not so good for the old image; or is it?

There are many many shades of melancholy in your songs-what makes you so passionate about melancholy ?

I question that a lot. I have always been inspired by it. I think it’s a very long story going back to early childhood and I seem to not want to analyse it anymore. It’s my truth, it’s also a joy. 

I dearly hope it can translate joy to others. I never want to be depressing at all. I would rather this tendency of mine be a solace, like a friend’s shoulder.

“Rimming” aside for one moment, tell me about the funniest moment you had while making the album?

I think the last track, No Place Called Hell, a song that was so spontaneous in the making. I sang mouth trumpet. Eugene sang mouth trombone. All the cute backing vocals were improvised. It was the last song to record and we just decided to have freedom, and, most importantly, fun. Two aspects I love most next to melancholy.

What is the song from this album that admirers ask you about most of all? 

People are quite interested in Sinking. I am glad for this as it’s my favourite song on the album and the song I feel is also my most personal. The question- Who is it about?- is always asked. What is more interesting for me is that I wrote this song under the Pecan Trees in Australia on my parent’s property in the bush. That’s special to me.

It seems folks are most obsessed by the song The Wonder of Falling in Love, for obvious reasons. Perhaps this is because there is an expectation of melancholy or sad sentiment with my music. This song is purely a love song in feel, arrangement and lyric. They also want to know who this strange person was that inspired such positivity in me. Ha Ha!

Unfortunately the true life story is not as sweet as the song. I wrote it as affirmation, almost in a state of defiant positivity to break the habit, to source new love. It worked. I fell in love. However, I am cursed and was witness to this wonder, all too briefly. Square one, once again.

Your earliest and most memorable live music experience?

Funny that one,  my parents did not allow me to see Culture Club but I managed to get a glimpse of Boy George at a radio station opening in Brisbane. That was profound for me as it was super stardom at its purest and most forbidden form. 

As I mentioned just now, I lived in the bush and never had the chance to see live music very often. Though I do remember my first concert was Split Enz. So amazing to see a band I had seen on the telly, on Countdown. I was overwhelmed with joy. 

It was much later in life in NYC when I saw Cat Power perform her covers album before it even came out. It was with an audience of maybe forty people. Definitely the most intense and pure experience I have ever had in my life. This live music experience still inspires me today.

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PHOTOS: Michael Mann