Fresh from an extended sell-out smash hit at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Glasgow-based interdisciplinary duo Fish & Game make their Melbourne debut with the Australian premier of Alma Mater – a work that sits between theatre, film and installation and invites a completely new view of the world.
Alma Mater is described as an intimate journey for one with an iPad as transport. An empty child’s bedroom is the portal to a 21st century fairytale – a haunting meditation on family, familiarity and growing-up. Sounds like something straight out of a Dr. Who episode wherein the line between the ordinary and extraordinary are often deliciously blurred to create that Ah moment result. Explains Robert Walton, Artistic director of Fish & Game, “For Alma Mater we set ourselves a considerable challenge: how do you make the experience of being alone in an empty child’s bedroom the most affecting and intriguing 20 minutes imaginable? This creative constraint, the room itself, was the inspiration for Alma Mater. Of course, people who come to experience Alma Mater don’t even think that this would be the starting point. Instead they experience a lot in 20 minutes: joy, terror, wonder, intrigue… it is a surprisingly affecting experience. Surprising because something quite momentous comes from simply being alone in a room with a silent film, specially composed music and an iPad.”
Eilidh MacAskill, Fish & Game co-artistic director, is very excited to be sharing Alma Mater with Melbourne audiences after the amazing response received in Edinburgh last year,” This is a unique performance work unlike anything you will have seen before and we are overwhelmed that Arts House is presenting the Australian premiere,” she says. Walton explains the meeting that began the artistic coupling of the two: “Eilidh MacAskill and I met by chance at the breakfast table of a B&B a few hours before starting the Theatre BA course at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England back in 1998. Eilidh had travelled from Glasgow with her mum and I had travelled from Burnley, Lancashire with mine. We finished breakfast, said goodbye to the mums (who look strangely alike) and then didn’t really speak again for a year until we went to Berlin together as part of an Erasmus exchange programme. It was in Berlin that we really met each other creatively and started an artistic collaboration that continues even now we are both on opposite sides of the world.”
The partnership has indeed been fruitful and satisfying. Says Walton:” This is a significant piece for me as it is the culmination of various strands of my professional practice of the last decade. Eilidh and I have made many one-to-one, site-specific and more conventional studio performances together since we first started to collaborate in Berlin in 2000. Every piece we make is always formally quite different to the rest, often not quite fitting in with the normal way people do things. But the content, what the work is about – namely our preoccupations – spread across all the projects. Alma Mater brings together our obsession of ‘encountering the audience’ with our experiments with video, with one to ones, with dream-logic story telling and our collaboration with composer John De Simone. It is a very complex piece using a new mode of story telling, but the audience experience it directly and intimately. For all the complexity in making it, Alma Mater is almost too easy to become completely immersed in. That’s why I know it is significant: it really works and it really moves people.”
The concept of this new artistic creation is certainly difficult to outline as individual audience members enter a specially constructed, full scale child’s bedroom to take part in an intimate experience which involves an iPad. “Because the form of Alma Mater is new, we don’t have a name for what it is. Yet,” states Walton. “It’s not a play or an art installation, it’s not a game or a film. Alma Mater is something in-between all of these things. This makes Alma Mater quite hard to tell people about before they have experienced it. But as soon as people are doing it, they get it. It’s a very intuitive form and people of all ages pick it up straight away. So we rely on brave venues like Arts House to champion exciting transdisciplinary work like Alma Mater. Once a few people see what it is they tell their friends and hopefully the news spreads. This is how we managed to sell out our four week run in Edinburgh last year.”
This style of performance is not for everyone but Walton and MacAskill are forerunners to a very new and very exciting trend of ‘experience’ style theatre to hit our shores over recent times. “I love to experience new kinds of performance, especially site-specific and immersive work that makes me reconsider what theatre is and can do,” explains Walton. “I also love it when people create shows in their front rooms. In this vein, Alma Mater is a small but perfectly formed gem of a show. You don’t know what you are going to get as you enter the child’s bedroom alone. It is seductive, drawing you in and then takes you on quite an adventure through the dreams and visions of a little girl. I like Alma Mater as it seems greater than the sum of its parts, and because it still leaves a lump in my throat even though I’ve seen it hundreds of time. It’s something about the extraordinary central performance by seven-year-old Lyla Gaizely-Gardiner combined with Anna Chaney’s exquisite cinematography and John De Simone’s richly complex score. It is a haunting piece that makes you wonder whether it’s you that’s the ghost.”
Alma Mater appeals on many levels but the one that holds my personal attention is this Peter Panesque doctrine: “Remember to allow childlike wonder and awe into your stern and proper adult life.” Walton’s hope is “that Alma Mater reminds you that 20 minutes is long enough to imagine almost anything, if you permit yourself to dream large.”
At a mere $10 the experience promises to be beautiful and haunting and fun and strange and small and vast.
We are also warned to not take the iPads as “sadly there are not enough to go round.”
Alma Mater play at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street
Season Wednesday, 18 April – Sunday, 13 May 2012
Note Performances take place in a specially constructed room suitable for solo audience members over the age of 12