19 May FEATURE | Crikey, Double Feature
Melbourne’s MKA: Theatre of New Writing has been shaking up the Australian theatre since it was founded in 2010, picking up fans and accolades with its bold productions of new Australian work.
Amongst its many activities this year, MKA is opening Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon season with Double Feature, which is made up of Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s Lucky and Morgan Rose’s Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise.
We spoke to creative directors Tobias Manderson-Galvin and John Kachoyan about the work MKA has done over the last five years.
It’s now five years since MKA started. What have you done right?
Tobias Manderson-Galvin: Delivered a new writing theatre to Melbourne, and more and more to Australia too.
Has its success surprised you?
TMG: MKA risk our own money on most of our shows. MKA are still in the perilous position that most independent arts in this country share (antagonised no doubt by Brandis’ ridiculous cash shuffle this week). MKA still doesn’t have a home. So I’d say we’re still fighting for success.
Who are your audience?
About 60 percent women. Average age is 25-35, but in the past couple of years we’ve greatly expanded our 16-25 bracket, 35-45 has boomed, and we’ve had growth in 45 plus too. I guess we’re still a young people’s theatre but that’s continuing to broaden.
Do you think audiences have an idea of what kind of theatre they are going to get when they come to one of your shows?
TMG: For this double feature, they’re expecting something gothic. If you look at our shows in the past, MKA have been able to handle material that’s darker, more politically explicit and sexier than any other company.
John Kachoyan: We’re interested fundamentally in bold theatre — in all its different forms — and so that’s what our audiences expect most of all.
Is there a “house” look or style?
TMG: As above. We’ve often been pigeon holed as a sort of VICE magazine of theatre, but we’ve done your boutique cupcake, Northcote Frankie magazine style thing too. New writing is a broad church. John has come through the explicitly left-wing Finborough theatre amongst others, so I think between us and the hundreds of artists that make up MKA, there’s a dangerous mix of anarchists, socialists, pornographers, sex workers, bounty hunters, comedians, dramatists and violent environmentalists.
What approach do you take to developing new writing?
JK: Depth and time wherever possible — we’ve just revamped our literary department with a great team of readers; Bridget Mackey, Fleur Kilpatrick and Keziah Warner, so every script that comes to us — including the unsolicited ones — are read, discussed and reported on amongst the whole company.
MKA has an advantage in that we actually produce the plays and playwrights we work with (we did nearly a dozen productions last year alone). We’re not like some bigger companies with a dozen commissions of plays they never intend to produce, we actually put our money where our mouth is and make work — and sometimes that can be the best thing for a play or writer.
Can theatre writing be taught?
TMG: Given I hold post-graduate education in it, I’m going to have to go with yes on that. I don’t know, can a great sportsperson be taught? Or an academic? There are other elements at play though aren’t there?
JK: Craft can and should be taught — dramaturgy as a sensibility can be honed — but talent is bravery in disguise.
How can new writing be ‘tested’ before it goes to a paying audience?
TMG: Nothing tests a work like performing it for an audience. You can test a work inside and out; academically, viscerally, dramaturgically and by the time the work hits the stage you know it’s ready, you can market test, but ultimately an audience is going to make that decision. I’m not sure whether they pay or not is the important part though. That’s a rather Brandisian way of thinking about work.
Can a production still work when one of its elements doesn’t work as well as others (eg lights, costume, set, one actor)?
TMG: It’s too limiting to think of those things as ‘elements’; in a way that let’s the form dictate the content. If your show needs to happen in silence then it should. If your show doesn’t need actors, don’t have any. The ‘elements’ of a show, much like the periodic table, are forever growing; and any particular show is only going to require a certain combination of elements.
How do you keep the audience on their toes and not come to expect a certain style?
JK: I think the diversity of writers in Australia keeps us honest. We work with first time young urban writers, CALD writers, queer writers, established playwrights that might be neglected by the big companies, and performance makers who approach text differently again. Every play demands something different.
Do you call MKA indie? If so what’s your definition of indie?
TMG: Do people still say ‘indie’? I still wear tight black jeans. I guess so. JK has a top-knot. Remember Brashs? Brashs for those of you who don’t remember cassette tapes was like JB Hi-Fi but they had an ‘alternative’ section. Remember ‘alternative’?
How has MKA changed Melbourne’s theatre landscape?
JK: MKA led a resurgence in new writing across Australia — putting writers first, the ambition, output, indie touring, multi-work seasons and branding are now much imitated.
TMG: That and because City of Yarra booted us from our first theatre, that we’d built ourselves, we’ve become this icon for DIY, can-do theatre. Upstarts in warehouse etc. There’s been a boom in confidence in the very edge of the sector that’s come from MKA showing that it’s hard work but not impossibility to stage your work with or without support or a building.
What would you like to do differently or better at MKA?
JK: Pay artists more, commission writers properly. We work with co-pros and festivals increasingly now, and that’s great for our artists — but getting tours and professional buy-ins for all our shows is our goal now. It gives the show an extra life, pays artists a wage and exposes writing nationally.
TMG: No-one’s been arrested yet. I reckon we could have bigger enemies. We’re not reliant on the support of a corporation, the whim of a political party, or a subscriber audience block, this is one of the reasons MKA can make controversial work.
Is there any form of theatre that you would definitely not do at MKA?
TMG: As you know we’re not going to put on the famous work from dead, famous playwrights. That’s a pretty narrow field when you say it like that, and yet it’s still a great deal of the work out there.
Are you interested in telling stories in other art forms (eg screen, opera, installation)?
TMG: MKA just closed a live art installation work last week, we’ve a couple of song cycles in the works and are currently developing a number of screen projects but my lips are sealed! It’s been a while since a political party approached us to make propaganda for them but for the right cause…
What’s the most surprising/ perplexing/confusing/flattering or abusive reaction you’ve had to one of your shows?
TMG: There was the time I got a sheep’s head wrapped in cellophane, home delivered with a note saying, we were ‘never to perform in this town again’. There was the time angry right-wing protesters pissed on the MKA doorstep. And then there’s the continued lack of genuine government support of genuine art.
What have you learnt at MKA?
JK: We found that staging works as part of our own HYPRTXT Festival or touring them as part of a package of MKA shows (a la Perth Fringe 2014) means that each work can speak to, support and boost the others. Double Feature’s an extension of that idea. MKA is not like a lot of indie companies — built around one auteur personality making two shows every 18 months– we’re multi-talent…so our programming reflects that.
How does that translate to these two new shows in MKA Double Feature now playing at the Neon Festival ?
TMG: These are works that are professional in scope and execution, rich and diverse in talent, and not least, they’re actively engaged with the culture — with society — with the world.
What can audiences expect?
TMG: New writing. A man eats his girlfriend. A nation goes under. All in 2.5 hours.
And not expect?
TMG: The dead.