Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

April 17

Nothing but a Dream

Is it true? Was i really at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre watching Paul Simon (tiny, aged, grandfatherly) strumming his guitar and singing songs from his musical ‘The Capeman’, accompanied by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra? Must be, i’ve got the obligatory photo of Me Walking Across The Brooklyn Bridge to prove it (see Photographs, in Portfolio section of website).

Sigh.

New York has floated off into the dimming past, and it’s back into the cultural fray in Mel-Born.

Whence i arrived just in time to catch a Comedy Festival show on the very last day of the festival. Frank Woodley (formerly of Lano and Woodley) had concocted a winning piece of physical theatre (with some ventriloquism and guitar-strumming thrown in for good measure) called ‘Possessed’ which was on at the daintily-dusty Comedy Theatre. Would you believe it was about a social introvert and model ship-maker who becomes possessed by an Irish slip of a girl from the 19th century who is seeking a mysterious object, wit’out which her accursed soul will never rest in peace, to be sure, to be sure. The ship-spotter falls in love with her, which leads to some interesting experiments in theatrical onanism, and a lot of falling down the stairs. Very funny, a little bit moving, and if not ground-breaking, a t’oroughly enjoyable afft’rnoon’s entertainment (to be sure, etc.)

Opera Australia is in town, and i saw ‘Carmen’ this week. The most important ingtedient was there – a charismatic, sexy mezzo-soprano in the role of Carmen – Pamela Helen Stephen – truly a slip of a girl, but with a voice that could stop a train. You could believe that sane men would throw away perfectly good careers in the military just for a chance to polish her dusty boots. The tenor (Rosario La Spina) was less believable, in part because his bulk makes it hard for him to move with any fluidity on stage. And the voice seemed tired at the beginning of the performance, but warmed up in the third and fourth acts. I loved the set – ACCA-style rust-red walls behind which i actually believed there might be a Spanish bullring. The orchestra sounded strong and sweet, and though (or perhaps because?) the stage direction was intensely busy, it was always interesting.
‘Un Ballo in Maschero’ next week, followed by ‘Arabella’ – watch this space.

April 4

What the Frick?

Walked from the East Village to the United Nations yesterday for a tour of the building. A beautiful but forbidding French woman told us all about the different meeting chambers, and the various Scandinavian countries who had donated and designed them, and somehow the vision and idealism of the UN’s original purpose was convincing, in spite of what we know about the awful compromises and corruption that have been the reality.

Then on to the Frick Museum, an astonishing private collection of paintings, sculptures and decorative arts housed in the mansion of a late American industrialist called Frick. Rooms and rooms of Whistlers and El Grecos and Rembrandts and Vermeers (three out of only 35 that exist!) and Bellinis and Renoirs. I didn’t want to leave. But Greewich Village beckoned – and an eating-and-drinking marathon that began with oysters and rose in Cornelia St, followed by gluten-free pizza in Bleecker St, followed by red wine at the Blue Ribbon bar around the corner.

I’ve also done the Staten Island ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty (where a man standing behind me at the rail told his friend a great story about how his father was rejected the first time he tried to emigrate from Europe to the USA, via immigration authorities on Ellis Island, because his brother, an actor in the Yiddish theatre scene in New York, tried to persuade the authorities he could support the younger brother and the mother – by flashing huge wads of stage money!)

And of course a visit to Macy’s department store, which is filled with flowers at the moment – an indoor, instore garden show – here i bought myelf a big black coat to combat the bitter cold of this freezulating city. Works a treat.

April 2

New York NY

Currently spending two weeks in New York, trying to choose from amongst the gazillions of cultural offerings here – no easy task. So i’ve been spreading the load – some visual arts, some performing arts, some music, some dance, some weird combinations of all of the above.

PS122 is a former primary school in the East Village, converted into an experimental performing arts venue and currently run by Australian artistic director Vallejo Gantner. Saw two shows there:

‘Bride’ – a funny, disturbing, dystopic puppet show which imagines God as a wrinkled old guy with a monkey-slave who patches him through to pleading humans via an old telephone exchange. Trouble is, God can’t really help – and even suicide is not an option, because all the big old books (the Bible, the Koran, the Torah) say he’s here for eternity. So he tries to create a son to take over the job, but each prototype (puppet) son turns out to be flawed, and is banished to a rat-infested basement of heaven. There’s a happy ending, involving a reconstructed giant goddess, and a moment of awkward sentimentality which undercuts and undermines the kooky, clever humour of the rest of the piece. Interesting enough, nevertheless.

‘Democracy in America’ – a concept show, in which every bit of it is for sale – each line, each movement, each song, each video projection. Bewildering. More anon.

PS1 is another former school, in Queens (graffiti capital of the world?), now a big multi-level gallery currently exhibiting Wack! a retrospective of feminist art from the last few decades. Paintings, videos, sculptures, collages, frocks, from women artists from all over the world. Funny, angry, clever, with work from women who are internationally famous (Louise Bourgeois) and others whose work has been important in the USA but hasn’t travelled as far.

Went to The Met to see a new production of Benjamin Britten’s opera ‘Peter Grimes’. Beautiful singing, such sweet acoustics in that enormous space. Very dark production, both literally and mood-wise, in which Teddy Tahu Rhodes made his Met debut as Ked Keene. Uniformly good acting – i guess they don’t have to choose, here, whether to go with the best actors or the best singers. They take their pick of the Complete Package. Loved the fact that New Yorkers didn’t bother dressing up to go the opera. No smell of mothballs, no fur coats. It’s all normalised.

Saw a couple of very interesting exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one called Design and the Elastic Mind – all about design and the digital age. Favourite exhibit there was the Future Families Project, by Elio Caccavale – a series of plastic blow-ups toys representing each of the ingredients potentially involved in creating a baby these days – eg. Dummy Tummy, Fertility Egg, Fertility Sperm, Fertility Tummy – ‘a baby today can have up to 5 people responsible for its birth – sperm donor, egg donor, surrogate mother, couple of any gender combination, or single mother or father.’ Why not use toys to explain it all to a child?

And next door on the same floor – ‘Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today’ – featuring the Andy Warhol silk-screened ‘Marilyn Flavors’ – Lemon Marilyn, Cherry Marilyn, Mint Marilyn, etc., and Marcel Duchamp’s last painting (before he moved on to urinals), featuring a cascade of lozenge-shaped color samples from a paint manufacturer’s catalogue.

And – of course – Paul Kelly, at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette – comfy chairs, tall ceilings, dim lighting, great acoustic, happy crowd, end of the tour – hooray!

March 21

Laughing, Moving and Flying

Moving Target is on at the Malthouse Theatre until March 29th, and if you have siblings, you’ll love the opening scene. A group of six people are spread around a sparsely furnished room, including a young man sitting on a office chair who teases a young woman by making silly mouth noises. This goes on for quite some time. As sibling teasing did, according to my recollections. Soon the group of people start to play hide and seek, which in a sparsely furnished room is no mean feat. They tell stories about children, they count up to one hundred, they roll themselves up in carpets, they hide behind the sofa, and by the end of the night, what began as a memory of the quiet cruelty of childhood games has become a deeply disturbing, prismatic look at our fear of The Other. You’ll laugh and then you’ll get goose bumps.

The Comedy Festival Gala moved to the Vodafone Arena this year. Sooooooooooooo big. I got lucky and sat near the front. It’s a great sampler for the Festival – so here’s who you should consider seeing:

Mark Watson – wacky Welshman who you’ll want to take home and keep as a pet

Shane Warne the Musical (in progress) – Eddie Perfect meets Casey Bennetto (Keating the Musical) meets a Playboy magazine

Fiona O’Loughlin – the Bad Mother is back, and now she’s menopausal (and has misplaced her cervix)

The Umbilical Brothers – so so so skilled, these boys – Marcel Marceau eat your heart out (and yet – may you rest in peace)

Nina Conti – ventriloquist with a monkey hand puppet – sounds dodgy but she’s clever and funny and a little bit sicko

I’m heading to New York this week for a couple of weeks. Will try to keep you posted as regards my adventures in the Big Apple.

March 5

Songs and Detention and Rock’n’Roll

On Monday 2 July 2007, Dr. Mohamed Haneef was arrested at Brisbane International Airport for allegedly assisting a terrorist organisation. Detained for 12 days, Haneef made history by becoming the first person detained under the extraordinary provisions of Australia’s new anti-terrorism laws.
Based on the transcripts of the following interrogation, playwright Graham Pitts and director Gorkem Acaroglu have turned Dr Haneef’s interrogation into a two-man play.

I saw the opening night of a short season of ‘Haneef: The Interrogation’ at the Gasworks Theatre in South Melbourne recently. Whilst it was interesting to eavesdrop on the interrogation techniques of an Australian Federal policeman, it didn’t work so well as theatre. The production claims to ‘raise the possibility of the extinction of civil liberties in an increasingly censored society’, a threat which i take very seriously. But this interrogation doesn’t offer strong evidence that such a threat is imminent. The policeman questioning Dr Haneef seemed to me to be simply doing his job, and in the absence of any outrage-provoking interrogation techniques, the writer was forced to create a small chorus of two commentators who try to persuade the audience that what they are watching is indeed outrageous.

The real outrage in the Haneef incident was in the way our conservative federal politicians used the case to provoke fear and xenophobia in the wider community, and how Dr Haneef was eventually deported from the country on the basis of selectively leaked information and innuendo. Now THAT would be an interesting subject for a work of theatre.

It will have another season soon at La Mama theatre in Carlton – decide for yourself.

Over at The Arts Centre, the Melbourne Theatre Company is offering a production of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock’n’Roll. It follows the lives of three generations of one English family caught up in the ideological battles of the Cold War, and of a Czech student who lives through the momentous political changes in Eastern Europe in the last three decades of the 20th century.

The acting is very strong; I’ve never seen Genevieve Picot do better work on the stage. It’s a long play, and at times the pace seems too hurried for the complex content – perhaps the director was worried about our short little spans of attention. But the intellectual and emotional content is fascinating – idealism versus the brutal reality of human political behaviour – Marxist communism versus the Stalinist corruption of that vision – and the anarchic, dionysian pleasures of rock’n’roll (and love) versus the authoritarian impulse to control and limit those pleasures. I came away wanting to read the script, at my own pace, to take it all in.

In the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre you can see ‘Love Song‘, a Seinfeld-meets-Woody-Allen-style American comedy about love and madness. It has a relentless kind of hysteria to it, and yet it’s also deeply sentimental. Funny, exhausting, and in the end not entirely satisfying. But Thomas Wright, who plays a vulnerable young man called Beane, is marvellous. Watch his hands closely, for a lesson in the craft of building up a character with physical idiosyncracies.

Paul Kelly: A to Z – “C” Songs Available For Free Download from March 1st

The rollout continues. On March 1 Paul posted new recordings of 8 songs starting with C and taking down February’s Bs.

A couple of songs released by other artists but not until now by Paul make their
debut – (The) Cake And The Candle first performed by Kate Ceberano and Renee Geyer
as well as Cradle Of Love by Ann Kirkpatrick and Kelly Willis. Coma, a tune
co-written with Professor Ratbaggy, is now a strange klezmerish mutation
with clarinet by Sian Prior. Check out Charlie Owen’s Slide Guitar, a
tribute to a man, and the stark and shivery Change Your Mind.

Click here to collect your free downloads.

February 24

Stage, Screen and Gallery update

For a long time now I’ve been planning to watch the Australian drama series ‘Love My Way’ on DVD. Having just seen the new adaptation of Moliere’s play Tartuffe at the Malthouse Theatre, written by the creator of ‘Love My Way’ – Louise Fox – i’m heading straight to the video store. Fox handles the English language like a Harlem Globetrotter handles a basketball – immense skill hidden behind delicious playfulness. This modern-day Tartuffe (Marcus Graham) has been transformed into a bling-wearing, Bible-bashing Don Juan. His victim, Orgon (Barry Otto) is a Toorak toady and the co-conspirator of a fictional fraudster called ‘Vizard’. It’s loud, it’s sexy, and it’s really really funny.

The Victorian Opera recently celebrated Puccini’s 150th anniversary with a concert that mixed some operatic ‘greatest hits’ with his less well-known religious work, the Messa di Gloria. There were some exhilarating solos from bass Paul Hughes, tenor James Egglestone and soprano Rosamund Illing, but the highlight for me was the Victorian Opera chorus, a thrilling sound en masse, and proof that there are many more excellent singers in this country than there is work for them.

You might like to check out the Sidney Nolan retrospective at the Ian Potter Centre (National Gallery of Victoria). I saw the same show at the Art Gallery of NSW over summer, and though i confess to not being a passionate fan of this Australian artist’s work, the exhibition does show you the full arc of his career as a painter. Keep an eye out for an exquisite early painting called ‘Luna Park in the Moonlight’. Takes your breath away.

So many good films out there at the moment! The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is directed by Julian Schnabel and is based on the autobiographical book of the same name (in French – Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) by Jean-Dominique Bauby. It’s an intensely visceral re-creation of what it would feel like to be completely paralysed by stroke, with the exception of one eye-lid. Somehow Schnabel creaties lyricism out of claustrophobia. Max von Sydow, who plays Bauby’s elderly father, will make you weep.

And if you’re in a book club, go and see The Jane Austen Book Club. Robin Swicord has made a charming chick flick for the literary-minded, and there is a bunch of great roles for women ‘d’un certain age’ in this film – enough reason to support it, i say!

February 6

Outlaw or resistance hero?

Just back from scorching Perth, where i’ve been making a radio feature for the Artworks program on Radio National all about a new play called ‘Jandamarra’ that’s about to open in the Perth International Arts Festival.

It’s based on the true story of a Bunuba man from the Kimberley who was (depending on your point of view) either a murderous outlaw or an indigenous resistance hero.
The program will be broadcast at 11:05 am Sunday 10th Feb, and then repeated at 8:35 pm on the evening of Monday 11th Feb.

It’s an amazing project – written by Steve Hawke (Bob’s son) and performed in four different languages – including Bunuba. The Black Swan Theatre Company took it on, after Steve and his collaborators at Bunuba Films had been unsuccessful in getting the story up as a feature film.

It’s been directed by Tim Gutteridge (possibly the most patient man on the planet) and translations done by Patsy bedford, Mona Oscar, Selina Middleton, and the Chair of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, June Oscar (possibly the most patient woman on the planet).

I had the privilege of sitting in on rehearsals at Black Swan for a few days. Highlights:

– watching the kids of various indigenous cast members hanging around the edges of the smallish rehearsal room, snoozing, whispering on their mobile phones, watching the action. One tiny boy picked up a big fat script and, in imitation of the cast and direction team, sat holding it in his lap with pencil poised, ready to ‘take notes’.
– watching George Brooking, a respected elder of the Bunuba clan and a singer in this production, laughing silently from the sidelines as the non-Bunuba speakers in the cast struggled valiantly to get their tongues around the language he has been speaking from birth.
– hearing occasional thumping and shrieking coming from the ceiling above where, on the second floor of Black Swan’s headquarters in Nedlands (a former Masonic Lodge), another cast was simultaneously rehearsing The Caucasian Chalk Circle. hmmm… the irony of the title only just strikes me now.
– the cast leaning into big microphones, stirring buckets of pebbles, flapping pairs of old gloves, and popping balloons, to simulate the sounds of giant snakes slithering, startled birds flying and shotguns firing. Close your eyes and you’d think you were in Windjana Gorge.

January 26

Go Sees and Don’t Bothers

I’ve been to a bunch of shows at The Arts Centre in the last week, including some Don’t Miss This Ones.

The Season at Sarsparilla is a Sydney Theatre Company import for the Melbourne Theatre Company, and it’s revelatory. I’ve always been a bit lukewarm about Patrick White’s plays; in the wrong directorial hands, they can seem awkward and self-conscious and dated. But I loved every minute of this one. The set design is ingenious – one suburban house, three families, all inhabiting it simultaneously, even though they are actually neighbours. Live cameras are placed around the house, solving the ‘problem’ of the characters’ odd, poetic monologues – they are spoken straight to camera, like the ramblings of a video blogger sent off into cyberspace.
Acting – uniformly marvellous. Direction – by Benedict Andrews – clear, strong, sympathetic, emphasising the comedy without going for cheap laughs.

Vaudeville X is part of the Full Tilt program, performed in The Black Box, and i laughed till i wept. Wickedly clever satire, from three blokes with great comic instincts. Dunno about Michael Dalley’s (writer/performer/director) politics – i suspect they’re often at odds with mine – but that’s the great thing about satire. If it’s good enough, you’ll still laugh, even if you’re being targetted. On till Saturday 2nd Feb.

Aeros was at the Hamer Hall and if you are old enough to remember 14 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comenica winning a gazillion gold medals at the Montreal Olympics, you’ll understand where the show has come from. Those Romanians must be good at handling pain, because this show must hurt. About 20 top-level gymnasts are choreographed into a fast-paced series of ‘dance’ routines which defy gravity. You know those dreams you have about being able to fly? Well these kids can.

Don Juan in Soho is another MTC production, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. Some dubious casting and some wobbly regional British accents undermined the performances in this Patrick Marber play, and quite frankly, i’d rather go and see Mozart’s version. The original story is communicated better, and the music in Don Giovanni is sublime.

And if live theatre’s not your thing, go and see Lust:Caution, the new Ang Lee film. A work of immense psychological complexity and subtlety – deeply disturbing, beautifully acted, and the art department must have been in seventh heaven, recreating Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1940’s.

For those of you interested in good writing – reading it or doing some yourself – check out the State Library of Victoria’s Summer Reading blogathon. A bunch of very good local writers, including Alice Pung, Cate Kennedy and Kate Holden, have been putting down some really useful and entertaining thoughts about the process of writing – how to find ideas, and how to turn them into stories that people will want to read. And there’s room for you to comment on their thoughts, and join in the conversation about the pleasures and perils of trying to write.

January 16

Sydney Festival highlights

Just back from a week in Sydney, where i caught up with several Sydney Festival events. A few highlights:

Seeing Brian Wilson perform with a Beach Boys cover band in the Domain on a drizzly but warm Saturday night. One giant, sweet singalong, bringing back memories of the first time i was introduced to the BB’s by my step-brother on a long drive to the Flinders Ranges, circa 1975. Tempting to credit Good Vibrations with inspiring my subsequent addiction to choral singing. Thinking maybe we should introduce the Beach Boys repertoire into the traditional family Xmas carol singing session. If there was a God, i reckon she’d approve.

Seeing some of Australia’s best singer-songwriters paying tribute to Kev Carmody in the Cannot Buy My Soul concert at the State Theatre – a man of righteous anger and soulful consolation, whose presence managed to dwarf all those stars, even as he sat quietly on the side of the stage in front of a mock camp-fire. Such an important story, told so graciously by so many talented and generous people.

Watching a bunch of young Scottish actors channelling a bunch of young Scottish soldiers in Black Watch, a curious theatrical production that was part opera, part ballet, part community theatre project, part history lesson. Not ground-breaking, but it has haunted me ever since, especially when i watch the evening news.

Watching indigenous actor/dancer Trevor Jamieson taking direction from a group of his ‘aunties’ as they taught the audience of Njapartji Njapartji how to sing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ in Pitjantjatjara language. A sprawling show, full of goodwill, and a virtuoso performance from Trevor J. See anything he’s in, if you can.

January 3

Melbourne University Up Close

In 2007 I hosted Melbourne University Up Close, a series of indepth interviews with Melbourne University academics, available as audio or downloadable as podcasts. Topics include medical tourism, post-natal depresison, mindful leadership, post-Soviet crime, and the geopolitics of global warming, and feature interviews with Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company Simon Phillips and internationally lauded French horn player Barry Tuckwell.