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Arts Fest Box: Week 1

Breath of the Volcano
The Man Who Planted Trees - pic credit - Chris Bennion
Rhinoceros in Love
Kronos Quartet and Wu Man
Renee Liang wraps up week one of her Auckland Arts Festival experience by musing on what she would steal emulate.

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Renee Liang wraps up week one of her Auckland Arts Festival experience by musing on what she would steal  emulate.

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As an emerging artist, I go to Festival shows with all my antennae out, senses on high alert. I can be sitting there in the dark, one part of my brain blissfully enjoying the audience experience, the other part busily thinking what I can steal  emulate. Yep, I’ll admit I get green with envy at the cool things which are being done (and the correspondingly cool production budgets.)  So as I wrap up week one of my Auckland Arts Festival experience, rather than review, I’ll let you in on my mental scribbles.

Breath of the Volcano: Counter-intuitively for a fireworks spectacular, this used stillness and darkness to great effect. I’ll remember the moment it dawned on me that I was listening to the pulse of the city, its ECG being etched on the walls of the Museum at the same time.  We were given time and space for the concepts to develop in our minds, increasing their power (and making us feel smart and satisfied). Having a human element (little men running around in lighted suits) both lightened and anchored the experience. What a difference having a considered artistic vision makes to a fireworks display. Why can’t they do this every time they decide to blow up tens of thousands of dollars? Mental note to self: Fireworks in a piece is awesome. (Someone suggested it once for a play of mine, but unfortunately the health and safety people are a non-humorous bunch.)

The Man Who Planted Trees: Note - kids giggle at dogs.  As soon as the dog puppet appeared, and every time he spoke, everyone started laughing.  The set and staging were very simple – more like two men telling a story with the aid of hand puppets than any of the sophisticated puppetry we’ve seen in other shows.  But the story was deep, celebrated love and commitment and touched something deeply human. The performers were committed to the story and spoke directly to the audience. And so the whole thing worked beautifully, the kids and adults sat still for an hour, listened, and loved the dog. Even our 8 month old baby was still (well most of the time, though you couldn't stop her from commenting loudly.) Learning point: Commit to the humanity of a piece. Break down that fourth wall, if it’s kids. And consider having a dog character.

Rhinoceros in Love: The play, although often drawing laughs of recognition from the Chinese members of the audience, was timeless and international. Its poetry and language, as well as belief in the overwhelming nature of love, reminded me of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. There was bold staging including wrapping everything in plastic, flooding the stage halfway through, a cascade of ping pong balls (dramatic rather than comic in effect) and a waterfall in the ultimate scene. Despite being about the awkwardness and isolation of youthful love, the show was unashamedly hip: tattered but trendy furniture that looked like it belonged in a student flat, hip actors, and hip clothes.  My Mandarin is pretty poor and the subtitles flashed by quickly but what they were saying sounded hip and poetic, too. Even when translated into our relatively stodgy English language. Learning points: Theatre transcends boundaries of space and time, bold theatrical statements make a (literal) splash, and shows from a particular culture don’t have to reference that culture to resonate with their audience.

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man: An utterly classy partnership between one of the most famous and busy string quartets in the world, and a master of ancient Chinese lute. Both their pieces, Ghost Opera and A Chinese Home – long and complex, often experimental, interlinking explorations of culture and history – were more like novels in their approach than symphonies.  Both were the result of long and exhaustive research and multidisciplinary collaboration. They were also breathtakingly precise, and very theatrical – the music is available on CD but I think there would be something lost by not seeing the visual elements. Learning point: Make friends with talented people in all disciplines and take your time to make, practice and refine great work. Keep your friends a long, long time (Wu Man has had multiple collaborations with Kronos Quartet over 17 or so years.)

So that’s my Auckland Arts Festival so far. I have a busy week ahead, so you can be sure that I will be sitting in a dark theatre most nights, busily scribbling on my mental notepad. Look out for more artist interviews too.

Written by

Renee Liang

14 Mar 2013

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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