Postcard from Junction Arts Festival

Richard Watts

From a self-guided evening art walk to site specific dance and live music, Junction has an intimate charm.
Postcard from Junction Arts Festival

Audiences in the Festival Bar enjoy a local band. Image via Facebook.

Now in its seventh year, Launceston’s Junction Arts Festival has a renewed focus on local and Tasmanian artists under Creative Director Greg Clarke and his team. A festival of ‘art in unusual spaces’, Junction’s hub is the 19thcentury Prince’s Square, home to to a range of free and ticketed events and ringed about by shops and churches hosting live music, performances and installations.

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Unlike the international arts festivals held in our capital cities there’s a genuine intimacy to Junction, and a distinct sense of the local community’s sense of ownership, engagement and pride in the event, evidenced by the number of families who clustered in and around Prince’s Square over the festival’s five days from 6-10 September.

ArtsHub was present for four of those five days; here are our impressions of the festival.

Mudlark Theatre’s U L G

Commissioned by Junction, Lyndon Riggall’s U L G begins at the festival’s Prince’s Square home, where the audience gather before embarking on an adventure through the streets of the city – and also through the stages of grieving. 

The Friedman family’s patriarch, Arthur, has died. Youngest daughter Abby (Robyn Mae Daly) takes the news badly – more so when she is told she has to read her father’s eulogy at the funeral.

Scenes unfold in the cold confines of an empty car park where Abby’s older sister Elise (Jane Taylor) tells her the details of her father’s death; in Launceston’s small synagogue, and at the subsequent wake, held upstairs at a nearby pub. As the audience troop from scene to scene, a full moon shines overhead.

The play evokes tensions common to all families, but also some uniquely Tasmanian scenarios. Abby resents her older sister; Elise has moved to the mainland and become successful while Abby still lives at home. Similar tensions exist between the pair’s mother, Moira (Megan Jolly) and her brother-in-law Gordon (Jonathan Pedler), Arthur’s former business partner.

A shop in charred ruins, a mysterious bet between Abby and her late father, and one character’s private struggle and shame, further complicate proceedings.

Settings are well utilised, with the juxtaposition between the sisters’ raw grief and the desolate yet prosaic car park particularly pronounced. In the synagogue (one of the oldest in Australia, and with its oddly angled doors and windows, a rare example of Egyptian revival architecture) the audience are drawn into the story via a simple but effective technique as the mournful song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ plays on repeat. At the wake, beers are served – be careful not to drinks yours too quickly before a toast is made.

Although it has not been billed as such, U L G is still in development; the script is very new and has not yet been dramaturged. Consequently, it’s a difficult work to review knowing that existing flaws in the script may well be resolved before it sees a fully realised production. Tensions between characters and familial conflict need greater precision, with a late revelation from Gordon lacking dramatic weight when it is delivered. Conversely, Abby’s truth, when finally revealed, has greater resonance, though the resolution to her crisis feels too easily resolved.

Riggall’s characters are distinctive, his drama understated. The production moves smoothly through its scenes and performances are committed and focused, though one suspects director Gerard Lane and his cast might have benefited from longer rehearsals in order to drawn greater nuance from the script – again, a minor flaw which will doubtless be addressed with future workshops and developments. 

Warmly received, ULG suggests a hunger from Launceston audiences for local stories – a need Mudlark Theatre is well positioned to provide.

Uta Uber Kool Ja

Fame is a fickle mistress. Just ask faded pop star Uta (Georgina Symes) and her long-suffering manager, George (Nic Holas). The soft launch for the remix of her sole hit single has gone disastrously wrong; worse, George has roped in some 30-odd of Uta’s ‘fans’ for a decadent hotel room after-party only to find the diva passed out, face down on her bed upon our arrival. When she awakes she’s initially inconsolable, though champagne, parlour games and adulation go a long way towards raising her spirits.

Partially scripted, part improvised, Uta Uber Kool Ja is a playful piss-take on celebrity and pop culture. Beneath its superficial surface there’s a surprising amount of heart.

It’s a show about saying yes. Yes to audience participation, yes to experience, yes to opening yourself up to strangers – it’s even about saying yes in a divisive and unnecessary postal vote on marriage equality.

At 75 minutes, the production feels slightly over-stretched, with tighter scripting required to make some flatter moments sparkle. Uta herself is more caricature than complex creation, though Symes invests the role with heart; Holas is a dry, deadpan and very quick wit and shares great chemistry with his co-star. It’s a pleasure spending time in their company.

Three’s a Crowd

A showcase of Tasmanian comedy, Three’s a Crowd featured three local acts, each presenting a 20-minute set showcasing their separate styles.

Unfortunately, a technical drama meant opening act Emergency Poncho (musical comedians Dan Taylor and Gerard Lane) got off to an awkward start when their backing track refused to play for their first song. To their credit, they persevered. Sound bleed from a neighbouring band at the Fountain Bar further distracted both audience and performers. Nonetheless the pair struggled on.

Emergency Poncho’s set was nominally structured around the idea of Launceston hosting the 2032 Olympics, though the concept wasn’t explored in depth. Their likeable but unchallenging songs instead explored a range of easy targets, such as New Zealand clichés and what it means to be Tasmanian – including stereotypes about incest and inbreeding, and a warmly received dig at Liberal Senator Eric Abetz. Local gags were strong, including a joke about the macaque enclosure in nearby King’s Park. Though their material felt a trifle pedestrian, the pair performed with gusto and were clearly enjoyed by the crowd.

Spiky haired Stewart Bell mixed anecdotal comedy about his anger management issues with routines riffing off variations on the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ signs that have become ubiquitous in recent years. Though a trifle hit and miss, when such material struck its mark, it was potent indeed. Other parts of his set, such as reading aloud from fake children’s books and faux job applications penned by his less charismatic alter ego, were less successful and resulted in a palpable drop in energy in the tent. Bell has an engaging presence but based on this performance has yet to find the right material to fully showcase his talents.

The final act, Kerri Gay, unfortunately delivered a truncated set as the night was running overtime. Blue, bold and bloody funny, Gaye’s dry wit explored sex, body image and the pointlessness of men's sexist comments shouted from passing cars. Though her material – which included reading aloud from a printed list of slang terms for vagina – was occasionally pedestrian, her delivery and confidence ensured not a minute was wasted in her short on-stage appearance.

Pronoun

At the centre of UK playwright Evan Placey’s Pronoun is a teenager, Dean (convincingly embodied by Anna Barber) whose low-paying Mc-job means he is struggling to amass the cash required for his gender reassignment surgery.  

Dean’s transition and personal struggles take centre stage but this sensitively written and moving drama also acknowledges the anger and confusion experienced by those around him. We see the impact of Dean’s transition on his parents (played in gender-swapped and affecting performances by Tia Landeg and director Cheyne Mitchell), Dean’s school friends, and particularly his former boyfriend, Josh (a charismatic Lachie Murphy) who struggles with the knowledge that the girl he once loved has gone.

Helping Dean through his turbulent life is his imaginary role model, movie star James Dean (Luke Pash) who Dean has idolised for years. One memorable scene between the two deftly reduces the complex arguments around learned gender roles and the male/female binary down to a few simple words from the dead actor. As Dean grumbles about learning to walk like a man, James says wryly: ‘It’s all performance – I learned it. So can you!’

Touching on the difference between tolerance and acceptance, the complexities of gender, and the importance of truth and love, Pronoun is a beautifully written play. Its short Junction season was staged by Launceston’s newest theatre company, Relevant, founded by teachers from Launceston College (attended by students in years 11 and 12) and with a cast of past and present students from the school.

While the younger member’s performances were occasionally uneven and lacking nuance, there was a quiet magic in seeing actors so close in age to the characters they portrayed perfecting their craft on stage before their peers. The play’s conclusion left me weeping and delighted. A Junction highlight.

YouTunes

With a series of effects pedals, a saxophone, a keyboard and an iPhone app, musician Adam Page loops, samples and plays with audio he’s grabbed from the audience, to memorable effect. From a serious Radiohead cover to wonky beats and frantic jazz – even a memorable song inspired by one hapless audience member’s name, which added in a 'heard outside the club early in the morning muffled mix' – Page plays for virtually every taste, and his exuberance and delight are palpable. A clever blend of showmanship and craft, which when mixed with a vocal and enthusiastic audience, is a sure-fire recipe for festival success.

Nightlight

A series of site-specific installations and performances, Nightlight was a free program and one of the most popular and rewarding aspects of the Junction program. Armed with a large handkerchief on which a map showing the location of each site was printed – a map which could be easily stuffed into a pocket or bag without damaging it – visitors could guide themselves about Prince’s Square and its surrounds and discover works in their own time. The result was fascinating. Highlights included local artist Ben Winwood drawing brightly coloured cartoons of the watching crowd on an illuminated shop window, while nearby, poet Cameron Hindrum demonstrated his art in short, self-contained bursts of inspiration that were pegged to lines of string like a readable washing line.

Jen Brown’s Spin was an installation featuring a handmade wooden caravan built in the 1950s. Brightly painted, it drew the eye, evoking memories of travel and escape despite being solidly tethered at the edge of Prince’s Park. In each window, flat screens displayed streets the caravan had passed through in previous journeys; the memories of the caravan’s former owners? Or perhaps even the caravan’s dreams.

The sculptural installation Traces was exquisite. Sensitively placed in a church outside the square, it featured nine stratified, stone-like columns gently lit from below and echoing the rougher patches of stone inside the church itself. Like sea-stacks weathered by wind and wave, or a pile of sodden books whose pages have become wedded together while still retaining their basic form, this thoughtful work inspired quiet contemplation.

Also unfolding on the grounds of another, nearby church, but provoking a very different emotional response, was the latest work by youth dance company Stompin. A series of site-specific performances choreographed by the young members of the company, including solos, duo and trio work, the young dancers’ sharp gestures and fluid, interlocking movements were carefully lit and intelligently presented, inviting audiences into the grounds and encouraging us to follow. They were accompanied by a compelling and memorable sound design. The overall impact was exhilarating – another Junction highlight.

Richard Watts travelled to Launceston as a guest of Junction Arts Festival.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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