Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

December 26

2009 – The Good, The Bad and The Bloody Marvellous

As the young folk say – So Random! That’s how i always feel about the end of the calendar year. Why do we insist on these numerical markers of change, when really we’ll all wake up on Friday and the same sun will be shining and the same possum will have relieved itself inside my loungeroom wall cavity again?

And yet I’m always exhaustedly grateful for the end of the year and feel a whole lot fresher on January 1st. In spite of the possum piss. Go figure.

But no journalist worth their salt can let the year end without doing some kind of sum up of the highlights and lowlights.

So here goes:

THE BAD

– ‘Poor Boy’ – Melbourne Theatre Company musical involving a bunch of songs by Tim Finn (whose work i love and for whom I am always happy to go into bat in the eternal Neil vs Tim debate that rages around me) strung together by (usually brilliant) playwright Matt Cameron and featuring a big-hearted performance by Guy Pearce. But good songs and big-hearted performances are not enough. It all felt strained and at times really obvious. Unmemorable, I’m afraid. (So why am i reminding you of it, you may well ask?)

– The Victorian bushfires of February 7th. Hard to comprehend the level of horror for those involved – and we all know someone. My parents former home disappeared in the inferno. I still shudder to remember my relief when the wind changed direction at dusk. That’s when things went from appalling to entirely hellish just about a hundred kilometres from my safe little inner suburb.

– Art Garfunkel’s original songs, which he sang at the ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ reunion tour gig at the Rod Laver Arena. Listening to them felt a bit like eating way too much fairy floss and later on finding pink shards of it sticking to your clothes. Thank god for Paul Simon’s songwriting genius.

– Swine flu. Well, any flu really. And i had about three of them. In a row. Winter wipe-out. Blech.

– St Kilda losing the Grand Final. I mean come ON guys! To take us so far, so gloriously, and then to throw it all away with some slip-sliding away on the day. Winter wipe-out. Blech again.

– Some idiots destroying The Knitted Bridge, a key part of the ever-inventive Big West Festival, the night before it was officially launched. Made me want to weep. I guess it’s just ignorance. If you knew how much heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears had gone into knitting that bridge, you wouldn’t dream of wrecking it. Would you?

– Another year of failure to grasp the nettle on a carbon-reduced economy. Twenty years ago i was campaigning for the Australian Conservation Foundation on the so-called ‘greenhouse effect, and two decades on we STILL haven’t acknowledged how bad climate change is gonna get. Read Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘Oryx and Craik’ if you need some scary scenarios to get your campaigning juices flowing.

– The new fee structure for TAFE courses, announced this year and to be introduced by the Victorian Government in 2010. So now if you’ve had some education but want more, you’ll have to pay thousands of dollars. Wanna become a writer or an editor? Considering doing a TAFE writing and editing course? Start saving now, and maybe i’ll see you there in about a decade.

THE GOOD

– ‘The Flood’ – a gothic drama by playwright Jacqui Smith at La Mama Theatre which was one of a raft of shows i’ve this year about children in danger. (See the post below for a weblink to my article about this cultural trend). Great performances by the three female actors and i loved the set design – incredible that a black box the size of a large bathroom could be transformed into a whole farmhouse in the middle of the wide green yonder, inundated by flooding rains

– ‘Spontaneous Broadway’ – a comic impro show by a bunch of folk whose imaginative leaps take my breath away (or is it just that i’m laughing so hard i can’t get any air in?) Julia Zemiro is a goddess. The Goddess of Naughtiness. And John Thorn’s piano improvisations in the style of whatever-the-hell-you-like just get better and better. (And better.)

– ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ – Opera Australia’s production of Andre Previn’s version of Tenessee Williams’ play. What a great choice, to stick so faithfully to the original text. And what a great example of how new(ish) operas can still feel so fresh and relevant and theatrically satisfying and musically listenable. (See my second-last post for a weblink to my review in The Age). OA’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ was definitely in the GOOD basket too – sexy, silly and beautifully sung.

– ‘Dirtsong’ – the latest musical production by The Black Armband. Almost all songs were performed in indigenous languages. Moving, inspiring, and yet another interesting new development from this ever-changing ensemble. Congratulations to the BAB on being awarded a big fat dollop of Australia Council funding for 2010.

– A bunch of great new Australian films – ‘Blessed’, ‘Beautiful Kate’, ‘Samson and Delilah’, ‘Balibo’, ‘Mary and Max’, to name just a few. What a relief, to come out of the cinema feeling like your money’s been well-spent on a home-grown product. Go see’em, cobbers.

– A bunch of great Australian theatre productions, including the MTC’s ‘Knives in Hens’ and ‘My Year of Magical Thinking’, Theatreworks’ ‘The Lower Depths’, Malthouse Theatre’s ‘One Night the Moon’ and ‘A Commercial farce’, and My Darling Patricia’s ‘The Night Garden’.

THE BLOODY MARVELLOUS

– Travelling the world – this year i went to Italy (Sicily and the Amalfi Coast), East Timor (third trip), New Zealand (to play at the Christchurch Festival), Byron Bay, NSW (twice), Cabarita, QLD (surf heaven), Alice Springs, NT (and the community of Santa Theresa), Sydney, NSW (no Bondi Beach Rescue required) and Altona Meadows, Vic (often). Hello Samantha!

– Devouring entire TV series on DVD – ‘The Wire’ (all seasons), followed by ‘In Treatment’, followed by ‘Mad Men’ (can’t wait for season three). Why leave home? (and yet it seems i did, often)

– ‘Africa’ – the latest show created by theatre ensemble My Darling Patricia. To all Ye who scoff at puppetry – eat Thy words. There was more subtle characterisation in the little child-puppets in ‘Africa’ than i’ve seen on offer from many flesh-and-blood actors on the theatre stage. This tale of three children who are struggling to make sense of an often indifferent and violent adult world was entirely gripping. Funny, sad, nutty, abject and cathartic. Suburban Australia is more dangerous for many children than the wilds of Africa, and the Victorian Ombudsman has the stats to prove it. My Darling Patricia are one of the most original and inventive theatre ensembles in the country at the moment and I can’t wait to see what they will do next.

– ‘Progress and Melancholy’ – the latest physical theatre show created by director/choreographer Bagryana Popov. She took Chekhov’s play ‘The Cherry Orchard’, delicately dismembered it and sewed it back together again with its own movement language and a cast of performers who were allowed to simultaneously play themselves AND the characters in the play, constantly blurring the lines between the two. As a result, the ground continually shifted under our feet – just as it does for the members of the Russian aristocracy whose beloved cherry orchard is about to go under the hammer. Even the performance space (forty-five downstairs) became part of the fluid universe of ‘Progress and Melancholy’, with subtle comparisons drawn between the history-laden, rickety old Melbourne city building (presumably eternally vulnerable to re-development) and the hallowed cherry orchard. The ensemble cast of actors from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds brought their own rich emotional and cultural provenance to the production. The third wall crumbled, the audience talked back, the violinist serenaded us and Chekhov would have been waltzing with joy to see his play so (dis)respectfully treated at the end of the twenty-‘noughties.

December 4

A Streetcar Named Desire; Remembering Balibo; Tiny Tots in Terror

Check out The Age website for my recent review of Andre Previn’s opera ‘A Streetcar Named Desire‘ (Opera Australia).

On the afternoon of Sunday December 13th i’ll be doing a reading at the St Kilda Library (Carlisle St) from my essay about the Balibo Five, ‘Remembering Balibo’, originally published in the 2009 Spring edition of Meanjin literary magazine. The event runs from 2 – 4 pm, there’ll be wine and cheese, and it’s free.

Keep an eye on the arts pages of The Age newspaper on Monday 14th December for my Canvas piece on our communal anxiety about children manifesting in Australian theatre and film.

November 20

Good Theatre and some Wireless Chat

On Tuesday 24th November i’ll be co-hosting The Conversation Hour on 774 ABC Melbourne with Jon Faine – 11:00 am to 12:00 midday. We’ll be talking about community newspapers and vexatious litigants.

Then later in the day i’ll be heading over to the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank to watch ‘Africa’, the new production from innovative theatre ensemble My Darling Patricia.

Tonight i’m heading into town to Fortyfive Downstairs (45 Little Collins St) to check out ‘Progress and Melancholy’, a new physical theatre work conceived and choreographed by Bagryana Popov and based on Chekhov’s play ‘The Cherry Orchard’.

And i can highly recommend Opera Australia’s latest production of Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte‘, which i saw at the Arts Centre in Melbourne last night. Brilliant set and costume design, a cast of sexy virtuoso singers who can ALSO ACT, and even the entirely naff plot becomes palatable in the hands of director Jim Sharman. He takes the silliness and runs with it.

November 6

Words, Words, Words – and Music

On Thursday November 12th i’ll be running the final of five non fiction writing workshops for the Victorian Writers Centre (who have just moved into their new home at the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas). If you missed out this year, or if you like the sound of the workshops, i’ll be running them again in the second half of 2010, so keep an eye on the VWC website for enrollment details.

On the evening of Tuesday November 17th I’ll be attending the 21st birthday celebrations of the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course (in which i’ve been teaching part-time for the past four years) at the Trades Hall in Carlton. As part of the celebrations an anthology of writing by former students (originally published in Visible Ink magazine) will be launched and one of my short stories (Una Festa) has been chosen for inclusion.

And on the afternoon of Sunday December 13th i’ll be doing a reading at the St Kilda Library (Carlisle St) from my essay about the Balibo Five, ‘Remembering Balibo’, originally published in the 2009 Spring edition of Meanjin literary magazine. The event runs from 2 – 4 pm and is free.

Diary date: i’ll be performing a recital of French art songs and clarinet pieces at the Benalla Art Gallery on March 13th, 2010 – all welcome.

October 18

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

This Thursday night (October 22nd) I’ll be reading a couple of my published ‘dodgy travel’ columns for the Visible Ink writers event ‘Read You Bastards’ at the Empress Hotel in North Fitzroy – all comers welcome. If you’re on Facebook you can check them out here.

On Saturday October 31st I’ll be running a workshop on non fiction writing for the Northern Rivers Writers Centre in Byron Bay. Hardship posting, i know… give me a wave in the surf if you’re up there too.

And i’ve been offered a work space for 2010 at the Glenfern Writers Studio in East St Kilda – hooray. Last weekend i went to a recital at Glenfern which was raising funds for the Dili Hospital in East Timor. I had the privilege of hearing some teen geniuses (genii?) performing on a Schimmel grand piano belonging to The Team of Pianists and I decided that listening to a Bach fugue was the closest i will ever get to understanding the beauty of mathematics.

October 2

Singing in the Mother Tongue

The Melbourne International Arts Festival begins on October 9th, and one of the highlights promises to be dirtsong, the latest creation of The Black Armband. This innovative musical ensemble features many of the best indigenous singers and songwriters in the country, and dirtsong can be seen on October 24th and 25th at the State Theatre. The musical coordinator of the project this year is Iain Grandage, who received the $20,000 Emerging Composer award at the 2009 Ian Potter Cultural Trust Music Commissions awards night that i hosted this week (to hear a broadcast of the award ceremony and a performance of music by some of the winning composers, listen to the audio streaming of ABC Classic FM’s New Music Up Late for Friday October 2nd).

Earlier this year i did a research project for the Black Armband, locating approximately fifteen songs in indigenous languages that could be considered for inclusion in the dirtsong program. Around eighty percent of the songs will be performed in language, and i look forward to hearing which ones made the final cut.

Here are a couple of quotes that informed my research:

‘Language is politics – it is the ‘earth tongue’ or ‘mother tongue’ that speaks the body and constructs dialects of ownership and knowledge. Song in Indigenous cultures is a key mechanism for enculturating land’ – Liza Lim, Australian composer, from notes for her work ‘The Compass’.

‘The world’s languages are melting away. According to UNESCO, they disappear at a rate of one every two weeks. And if we don’t stop the decline, 90% of the world’s languages will be gone by the end of this century…

Languages are part of the world’s intangible heritage. The inexorable march of English across the globe is partly to blame for this shrinking pool of language diversity. And this is nowhere more evident than in Australia. We have the worst record of language extinction on the planet. Before the arrival of Europeans, there were more than 250 languages spoken here. But only half of them are left, and all of them are critically endangered. This means they’ll cease to be spoken in the next generation if nothing is urgently done to save them…

Once a language tips into ‘extinction’, the process of bringing it back… is a long and very challenging journey. But that hasn’t stopped Aboriginal people from undertaking this project’ – Hindsight program, ABC Radio National, ‘Holding Our Tongues’.

September 11

Art in Alice, Stone Brothers at the cinema, music at the Melba Hall

Just back from five days in Alice Springs, where i had the pleasure of visiting the Desert Mob Art Market at the Araluen Arts Centre. Four hours, four gazillion works of Aboriginal art, all for under four hundred dollars each. I was counselled to avoid going early as the bunfights between serious art dealers over these bargains have been likened to the Myer post-Christmas sales – only uglier. So when i arrived at about midday it was busy but not bestial, and i was able to browse (like a child in a lolly shop) and pick up a few small hand-painted plates, mirrors and diary-covers – the only artworks i could justify purchasing given the lack of wall-space at my place.
I was also privileged to visit the Santa Teresa community, about an hour out of Alice, where they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Keringke Art Centre and the launch of a book about one of the most exciting artists to emerge from that centre – Kathleen Wallace (published by IAD Press). There was musical entertainment from Paul Kelly and some local musicians, traditional dancing, a big barbecue lunch, all followed by the cutting of a giant birthday cake for Keringke Arts.

And to top it all off, i got in a walk around Ormiston Gorge and a freezing swim in Ellery Creek, where the rainbow bee-eaters were having a feast on a tree branch above our heads. Hard to come home to Melbourne…

The consolation prize for heading back to the chilly south was an opportunity to see a preview of Richard Frankland’s new feature film ‘Stone Brothers‘ at the Nova Cinema in Carlton. It’s a kooky road movie featuring two Aboriginal cousins from Kalgoorlie, one Italian stallion, one transvestite and one big hairy spider journeying together across the Western Australian landscape in search of ‘home’. Plenty of giggles, plenty of hope and a feel-good ending make this a fascinating contrast to ‘Samson and Delilah’, the other impressive indigenous movie to come out this year. Next up – Rachel Perkins’ film adaptation of ‘Bran Nue Day’. Can’t wait.

If you’re interested in hearing The Conversation Hour that i recently co-hosted on 774 ABC Melbourne with Jon Faine (September 10th), you’ll hear us chatting with guest authors Jack Marx and Paul Kelly (from ‘The Australian’).

On September 18th i’ll be singing in a concert in the Melba Hall at the University of Melbourne, Parkville. ‘Songs for a Changing Planet’ features musical settings of the poetry of Michael Leunig, David Howard and Graeme Ellis by local composers Natalya Vagner and Johanna Selleck, and is a fund-raiser for the Australian Conservation Foundation. For bookings phone (03) 9758 2641

And on October 1st I’ll be hosting the Ian Potter Foundation Music Commissions awards night at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Two new Fellowships will be awarded to Australian composers, and there’ll be a special recital from musicians Michael Kieran-Harvey, Merlyn Qauife and Vanessa Tomlinson of works by previous award-winners.

August 14

Back from Byron, Watching Balibo, Singing for the Planet

Just back from the Byron Bay Writers Festival on the northern coast of NSW where i hosted two panels of writers and was interviewed by Meanjin journal editor Sophie Cunningham (click here to read Sophie’s Byron Bay blog). Delightful weather (cf. last year when apparently Noah’s Floodes sent everyone packing) and an eclectic mix of writers (from former undercover cops to sexagenarian rock stars to controversial bio-ethicists) combined to create an entirely enjoyable three days of words words words can’t get enough of those words.

My next essay for Meanjin is on the topic of the Balibo Five, the five newsmen murdered in East Timor in 1975 whilst reporting on the Indonesian invasion for Australian television. If you haven’t been to see the new Australian feature film ‘Balibo’ yet (directed by Rob Connolly), get onto it. One of the best films made in this country for years.

Looking forward to catching the fabulous King Curly on Sunday afternoon (16th August) at the Oakleigh Bowling Club before they head off on a tour of the US of A. If they don’t play ‘Sometimes i wish i was a girl’, this girl will weep.

And next week i’ll be getting my regular fix of Handel opera with the Victorian Opera’s new production of ‘Xerxes‘, being performed at the benighted new Melbourne Recital Hall.

If you’re interested in hearing a musical line-up including Paul Kelly, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, Katie Noonan and the Cat Empire (and who wouldn’t be), come along to the Melbourne Town Hall on Tuesday 25th August for a concert to raise funds for an Indigenous Literacy Project.

I’ll be co-hosting The Conversation Hour on 774 ABC Melbourne with Jon Faine at 11:00 am on Thursday September 10th – guests include journalists Jack Marx and Paul Kelly (the other PK).

On the same day i’ll be running the third of five non-fiction writing workshops for the Victorian Writers Centre in the Nicholas Building on Swanston St, Melbourne.

And on September 18th i’ll be singing in a concert in the Melba Hall at the University of Melbourne, Parkville. Called ‘Songs for a Changing Planet’, it features musical settings of poetry by Michael Leunig, David Howard and Graeme Ellis by local composers Natalya Wagner and Johanna Selleck, and is a fund-raiser for the Australian Conservation Foundation. For bookings phone (03) 9758 2641.

July 17

Festivals, Photographs and Non Fiction

– Next weekend from Thursday 23rd July to Sunday 26th July i’ll be performing nightly with singer/songwriter Paul Kelly in Christchurch, New Zealand for his A to Z concerts during the Christchurch Festival. I’m looking forward to catching some other events in the Festival and will report back on my return.

– From Friday August 7th to Sunday August 9th I’ll be appearing at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, ‘In Conversation’ with Sophie Cunningham, editor of Meanjin, about my essay on shyness in the June edition of that journal. I’ll also be hosting a range of forums with guests including songwriters Don Walker, Brian Cadd and James Griffin, and authors Tom Keneally and Bob Ellis. I’ll also be running some writing workshops in Byron Bay later in the year, via the Northern Rivers Writers Centre.

– On Saturday August 30th I’m hosting the launch screening of the new Australian feature film ‘Balibo’ at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre, and interviewing writer/director Robert Conolly (The Bank, Romulus My Father) and several cast members. The event is part of the Travelling Melbourne International Film Festival. The film will have an Australian cinema release some time soon after that, and i highly recommend it as a gripping and intensely moving cinematic experience. Keep an eye out also for my essay about the Balibo Five (the five television newsmen murdered in East Timor in 1975) in the September edition of the Meanjin journal.

– My next Victorian Writers Centre workshop on Writing Non Fiction will be held on August 13th, followed by one a month until the end of the year. Contact the VWC for more information.

– Anyone interested in applying for the excellent RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course (in which i teach journalism and non-fiction) would be well-advised to do so as soon as possible, before TAFE fees rise hugely (starting in 2010) for students who already have a degree or diploma – from approximately $800 a year to $8000!

– If you have a chance, take a look at the new interactive exhibition of photographs by Stuart Spence at the Mars Gallery (418 Bay Port Melbourne). The images are exquisitely beautiful and infinitely sad. Several talented Australian songwriters have composed songs to go with the images, which you can listen to through headphones as you wander round the gallery space.