Fringe is now a brand, laments theatre artist Stephen Bain, curator of the latest addition to Auckland’s arts calendar, the New Performance Festival. It’s a showcase of what’s hot in the definition-stretching realm of artistic performance but, he insists, it is not fringe theatre.
Bain’s been a fringe-dweller both at home and away for over 20 years after tossing in architecture for original, forward-thinking and – let’s not be coy – arty theatre. He has been touring his piece Baby where are the fine things you promised me?, a type of installation-art-meets-street-theatre in which Bain is tucked away in a miniature house and invites passers-by to lie on the lawn and linger over tea, and perhaps reflect on the utopia of real estate or ponder the intersection of private and public space.
What spins Bain’s wheels is deeply considered performance that provokes and startles. While traipsing from festival to festival in Asia, Europe and the Americas, he’s lapped up loads of shows. Funded by the Aotea Centre’s The Edge, this festival is what Bain calls his “dream mix-tape” of 12 innovators from the global and local arts scene.
“I said, ‘Look, the most interesting work is being made outside the commercial theatres, because that’s where the greatest level of risk and experimentation can take place, so they’re already going on but they’re in disparate, weird little places – and if we put them all in one place, the public will understand that this kind of work is a very clear movement and not one-off performances.’ That was the beginning, and [The Edge] said, ‘Oh yes, we like it a lot, can you make it a bigger event?’, so it’s turned into an nine-day festival!”
But isn’t the brief of the major festivals to present work we wouldn’t otherwise see? “The big festivals have more commercial restrictions in order to bring large-scale shows to our shores,” says Bain. “Their $80 tickets are immediately restrictive. We’re sold a show mostly on its entertainment value and we’re missing out on a lot of the intellectual and emotional connection we have with artwork that happens elsewhere. Being an audience in some big shows is a very passive experience.” The recent Elam School of Fine Arts Open Day was attended by about 7000 people, says Bain, “a huge part of the population who want to engage with ideas”.
“They’re just being asked to walk into a room and contemplate something that someone’s been thinking deeply about. They don’t even know what it’s going to be, whether it’s a painting or an object, and I think that live performance on the main stage has stopped doing that because we have to try so hard to define the work in commercial terms.” Bain is thrilled about his pop-up venue. Refurbishment of the ASB auditorium’s stage means they can’t use their Convention Centre underneath, “so we’re turning it into three theatres and a bar”.
Straddling the performances there will be a Ping-Pong-Pit where artists banter over a game of table tennis and a barber’s chair where artists converse with an actual barber over a haircut. Performance art encompasses surprise, so Bain won’t reveal too much. Favourites are local well-kept secret Sean Curham, a dancer who has been genre-hopping for years, and Berliners Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta in a Box, a one-to-one telephone performance that takes place live from a call centre in India. “They push the idea of documentary theatre into new territory. In documentary theatre, you’d expect to write a script, then give it to actors. Well, Rimini Protokoll ask stories of, say, a CEO and a fishmonger and then invite those people onto the stage to tell their own stories. It’s very sophisticated theatrically but you’re hearing it from the horse’s mouth.”
A lovely work, he reckons, is Fleur Elise Noble’s 2 Dimensional Life of Her. “She’s spent years working on her ideas, filming and drawing, then projecting that drawing on film onto another surface. She’s going in and out of the projected world and the real world, and there’s a really beautiful playfulness. It’s made in the spirit of real personal ownership, which is the other thing all these shows have in common. A show like [Noble’s] could never ever be made as a big company. It really has to come from someone who’s been able to experiment and lose themselves in the world of the idea they’ve created.”
NEW PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL, Aotea Centre, Auckland, February 17-25.