koLABorAYshun, one of the largest artistic movements in Melbourne, is bringing their multitalented team to Sydney and Melbourne Fringe.
koLABorAYshun started three years ago. The focus was to try to find ways to present new, exciting work in which poets broke the box of solo work and stand-up recitation to present whole shows in company with musicians, composers, visual artists and performers in other fields, including dance and theatre. Thomas Kent, director of koLABorAYshun, tells me that in some ways, this is about social networking. "It's about how social networking affects poetry, writing. You don't get someone isolated, scribbling in their garret anymore. While they are scribbling they are talking to and sharing with friends all over the world. That's the spirit of this generation. This is what is genuinely new" says Kent.
Kent started reading poetry in Melbourne in 2007 after moving here in 2003. He tells me there were more than 30 venues around Melbourne but he found that there was usually one style of presentation: an open stage with a feature, although there was the occasional more fully-realised show. "Poets were divided into 'page poets' who just stand-up and read their material, usually with little expression and no rehearsal, and 'performance poets'. These used more dynamic, rehearsed performances and occasionally music, and the work was more designed for the nightclub audience, but it was hip-hop style, rhyming, and much of it wasn't outstanding in my opinion," Kent states. " It compromised. I wanted to put on my own shows where I could arrange every element to contribute to the feeling."
"So in 2008, I started the Big Read Out Series, in which I presented six top feature poets in one show, with the music and environment controlled even during the breaks. I couldn't even pay the features, and experienced organisers told me, "I don't know HOW you got these people to appear onstage together. This has almost never happened before." But the reason was that when the Features heard the names of the other features, they said "I'd be honored to read with those people!" They really wanted to. And something magic happened. With really professional poets all appearing, and the audience also of very high standard, the poets felt warm and supported and stretched out. I told them 'Give us the experimental stuff, the stuff that may fail, the new stuff you've been holding back", and they gave us things they never showed in public before."
In 2010, Kent started the koLABorAYshun readings, which encouraged collective work – poets working with other poets, with other artists off all kinds. "You see, usually poetry is a solo occupation. When poets work with say musicians, they just get a guitarist friend to make nice sounds while they read," says Kent. " But from working with musicians and being also a composer, I know that you have to give up ownership, you have to accept modification of your work. I love that. In 2011, we started regular gigs at the Willow Bar, Northcote. People began to keep coming back and it developed. We incorporated visuals into the performance, lightning, and also using the performances as photography and videography opportunities – at one show we had five photographers and two videographers!"
"In 2012, I changed the format. Now I had an open stage, but the second half, I asked the feature to bring other performers and to present a whole show, over an hour. I wanted people to work on presenting poetry as a real show, a theatre experience, a real show for a wider (and paying) audience. Again, something special happened. People started thinking of themselves as a team. I wanted not just people who collaborated, but I wanted us ALL to collaborate, to cross-fertilise. At this point we started drawing a little notice; people also started working on their own shows."
"2013 has been magical, incredible. Early on in the year, I arranged us to perform as an ensemble of collected short pieces at the Newport Folk Festival. Then I thought 'If people are putting such effort into Newport , why waste it?" So I arranged for us to do Sydney Fringe and Melbourne Fringe. At the same time I found other people, actors, dancers, I made friends with a lot of burlesque artists who I thought were fantastic people. They are mainly not in this year's shows; I'm just trying to think of how to work with these people with it still being centred on spoken word. But I want to meet more people. MORE, MORE! More weird ideas! More brilliant people!"
"So the philosophy of koLABorAYshun is to joyfully throw everything together and see what comes out. Two words: collaboration, and experimentation. But we're not so interested in developing new performers – though that happens – as we are in helping people who are already accomplished and competent push their own envelopes, try new things. Most of us also like the surreal, the unexpected, the absurd, and a social conscience. And humour. Not taking ourselves too seriously!!! But we have all ages and backgrounds, three disabled performers… And failure is OK. If you want to bake wonderful new soufflés, you have to expect that some of them will go flat."
Kent is the core of the group describing himself as the impresario, the entrepreneur, and the director. "I have some idea and throw it out and see who grabs it, who wants to take hold. Of course some people always help, always come. Then I consult with everyone, ask people about everything. At the moment everyone is given a slot and they have complete control of what happens in that slot, the people they work with in that slot."
"So we had to bring actor/director Cory Corbett on as producer. He's still involved, but he was offered two feature movies, so he can't do as much. Then we increased Daizee Boucher's role, she was stage manager, now she's also assistant producer. The team we have on Melbourne Fringe is singer, writer and actress, Lady Hannah Cadaver, she's doing a solo piece, very 'out there', Penelope Swales is a fantastic folk guitarist, very fiery, very Australian, gets five star reviews everywhere. Amanda Anastasti and Steve Smart will be doing some very cut-down excerpts from ' Loop City ', an amazing piece they've been working on all year and just started presenting with MSO violist Sarah Curro playing specially-composed music by Yvette Audain, Sarah will probably not be in Fringe. Amanda has won many awards, and Steve tours and he has probably been the leading figure in Melbourne for fifteen years in presenting mixed spoken word shows, he did one fourteen years ago as big as our Melbourne Fringe show, these are the most complex shows of their type ever done in Melbourne ."
" Well-known environmental and human rights campaigner Brian Walters will be working with poet and beautiful singer John McKelvie presenting an environmental piece based on classical mythology. Respected emerging poet Bronwen Manger with her twin Emily Manger, twice Audience Choice at Melbourne Poetry Idol, will be sharing the stage. Fjalar de Haan, who is also the lead singer of metal band Blackwater, will be presenting an edgy solo theatrical piece about isolation. I will be there with my guitar and electronica as My Melbourne Down, and Emma Kathryn will be singing and doing some burlesque, we hope."
"So as I say, these are not all emerging artists. Some of them are very experienced artists returning to the stage because they have finally found people they want to work with, something they want to be part of. Another thing I have to say we look for in koLAB people, is we look for great hearts. Love."
About this upcoming string of shows Kent stresses that THEORETICALLY the theme is 'Dark Cabaret'. "And if someone wants to be part of koLAB, come and buttonhole me!" One things is for certain – It's a big show. Kent feels that the original idea of Fringe was that it allowed new people to present their shows simply. "It's not like that now: a very experienced colleague dropped out of presenting her own show, because now you have seminars, mail-outs, meet-and-greets, websites, insurance, there's a heap of stuff," says Kent. " But it's not all that much more challenging with 15 people than with 3, because everyone has to look after their segment. The challenge is just really in keeping up the consultation, communication, so that everyone is heard and everyone knows what's happening. And arranging rehearsals, of course. And GETTING stuff! Poets are not like performers – they don't have bios, they don't have show reels, they don't have CVs, and they NEVER get anywhere on time. It's always a challenge to bring together poets, who are head-ey introverts, with other performers, who are highly emotional and rather extraverted in some ways. Narcissists, I like narcissists, they're easy to understand. But the main challenge is I don't have the time to work on my own act nearly enough!"
Kent says his show has to be one of the best value shows in the whole festival. "I mean come on! People like Penelope and Hannah ands the others all in one night? It's a FEAST! You would never see this. Some things will go flat. At least one or two will leave your mouth hanging open. Some things we've done – they were just extraordinary, I wanted everyone in Melbourne to see them."
"Having said that, we're not looking for a big audience. Not yet. We would like to see a lot of our peers, other artists, reviewers, people who may want to work with us. You see, KoLAB is in some ways internationally groundbreaking. There are people who are doing something similar with music and multimedia internationally, there always have been a few, right since the days of Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, and Beat. Those were movements. I see this as a movement. This is something I think will make waves internationally. This is koLABorAYshun as a philosophy."
This is just the beginning feels Kent. "This year we have begun to attract real interest. The audiences have become bigger. And so have the door charges – I believe in paying my performers – I started paying nothing, now the performer's share is the best in town. We've been offered residencies at two prestigious, important, medium-size venues, we're also talking sponsorships with some important partners. I'd like to be able to work with others – such as the Burlesque people, singers like the Pacific Belles, many others I have met through Fringe, to be able to fill a regular residency with different shows."
"But myself, I'm disabled and my energy runs out. I'd like to share direction and production duties more. I'd like people to take responsibility for shows at these venues from go to whoa, without me having to do more than cast a sceptical eye. I want koLABorAYshun to encompass all sorts of different ideas. But I especially want to concentrate on Dark Cabaret, modern Weimar . Especially in these times. We need to be a bit political. I think the people I want to work with want to be part of my vision, and we have that warmth, we share that big vision. But to not 'own' things is koLABorAYshun."