I am fascinated by our relationship to objects, why we keep what we do, what we value and why. Clearly my childhood shaped this fascination, but I am deeply interested in memories and objects. What are we holding on to? What do we not dare to let go of? – Penelope Bartlau
Barking Spider Visual Theatre are renowned for their interactive theatre approach – they are unique in vision as well as presentation utilizing interactive, improvised storytelling with objects, puppetry, and an installation set as well as the latest social networking technology. The company is also community orientated and proudly so. Penelope Bartlau – Barking Spider's Artistic Director, puppeteer and performer – explains the genesis of the company. "I founded Barking Spider Visual Theatre in 2006, when I was still a student in VCA's (now defunct) puppetry course. My solo show Hatch was invited to tour to India, and we needed to establish an official not-for-profit company structure to attract the funds to support the tour. Since then, with a magnificent and growing cohort or rabble of artists, Barking Spider Visual Theatre has diversified dramatically, shifting from producing just works for theatre to our other major areas of production: works with museums, galleries, communities, schools, children and also roving works and workshops."
Their latest work is The Memorandium which is a theatrical exploration of memory that strives to uncover stories, feelings and impressions residing within us all. Bartlau explains that the work brings together so many things. "Firstly, as a child I grew up in a family that sometimes worked in deceased estates," she says. "My father would auction the houses, and my mum's job – and mine and my sister's, was to go through deceased estates and work out what was saleable, and what was not. The act of going through a person's house and belongings is intensely intimate, and fascinating. Why do we keep the things we keep? Why do we keep things in a particular order? The detritus of our lives leaves a physical patina and traces our thinking: our psychology. You find people's secrets – love letters concealed in a cardboard box in pelmet of a cupboard where a husband never found them. You see people's habits – collecting small bird cards from the tiny-tips tea packets and keeping them in alphabetical order in an elastic band, in the kitchen drawer. You see people's idiosyncrasies and people's madness – the woman who kept her daily newspapers: each day, meticulously, she would lay one out on her floor. Her entire house was about 30cms thick in newspaper dating back to the 1940's. My mum had to find her wedding ring for the family, and by some miracle, was successful."
"I am fascinated by our relationship to objects, why we keep what we do, what we value and why. Clearly my childhood shaped this fascination, but I am deeply interested in memories and objects. What are we holding on to? What do we not dare to let go of?"
"Secondly, in a Barking Spider children's work, Short Pants No Holes we interact with kids in telling stories. Kids have direct input and steerage of what happens in a story. Children are very free with their imaginations, and give ideas spontaneously, with ease and with passion. I wondered, would adults give as easily and spontaneously as do children? I felt that memories, aroused through carefully selected objects, would be a strong provocation, driving adults to freely share and engage. From the showings we have had over the last year the answer is yes; adults will, in fact need to, and strongly desire to share their stories and experiences."
"Lastly, through my research into memory, both through a survey I ran early in the process coupled with a more academic research approach, I am learning what a dynamic and malleable thing our memory is. What are the implications of the plasticity of memory? Jason Lehane, who is co-director of The Memorandium, has dared me to think deeply, and to go boldly into dark places with the work: this is artistically and personally challenging, and feels risky and fun."
This is a very rich and satisfying way to connect suggest Bartlau but this form of story telling does not come without some challenges and risks. "The Memorandium is, with every single performance and with each different story in each performance, a leap, a risk, a dare," she says. "I have no idea how a story is going to begin or where it will end. Every story is freshly cooked up with that particular group of people in the audience, with their particular memories, responses and ideas. It's like juggling, only the audience throws the things at me that have to be juggled. This demands mental and creative agility and deep focus and concentration." There are also practical challenges like building an installation style set into Theatre Works.
Bartlau is creating a space where technology sits beside more traditional forms of storytelling and offers a place for audiences to pour feeling into. "I have been very deliberate in establishing the technology feature as a post performance aspect, as the audience responses to the showings were so strong and so profound, I have needed to provide audiences a place to put their stories and their feelings," she says. "People are full of stories – WE are full of stories, and The Memorandium makes us want to share."
Above all else Bartlau and the other creatives hope to achieve a sense of wonder and a feeling of connection.
16 August – 1 September at Theatre Works in St Kilda,