Porcelain Punch… a theatre-making memory

Two performers on stage. A male performer is holding a medicine bottle with bow tied arounf the top, accompanied by a female performer playing an accordion piano.

In 2013 Critical Stages Touring (then ‘Critical Stages’)  took The Porcelain Punch Traveling Medicine Show on a whirlwind tour of regional Victoria from Kingston Arts to Colac Otway Performing Arts Centre, and from Apollo Bay’s Mechanic Hall to the lovely Phee Broadway Theatre in Castlemaine. It was the beginning of a beautiful arts friendship that continues today with two of those artists Christy Flaws and Luke O’Connor of the multi award winning indie company Asking For Trouble.

Immediately following the tour the team captured their tour experience with writer Ailsa Wild in an article that we are so lucky to be able to share here with you. It’s an emotional reminder of the camaraderie, passion and care that theatre makers have for their craft, each other and their audiences…


I went to a Porcelain Punch rehearsal last week: up the Irene-warehouse stairs, through smells of spices and acrylic paint. I made room for myself on a floor covered in velvet curtains, a baby-change mat, juggling knives and hoop skirts. And of course, the Punchies – the five current performers of Porcelain Punch, an independent theatre company making contemporary vaudeville.

The Punchies: Madeline (Madz) plays the accordion and the mandolin and sings out rich and wild, her voice driving me into the secret corners of the show. Alex has a clear face with wide, blue eyes, which make me forget to watch his tricks. He has passed me in a festival crowd, feet on bicycle handlebars, his face bright and silent. As a performer he doesn’t ask the audience for anything. He simply holds a compelling spot in the space and I am drawn to watch.

Luke and Christy are acrobats who’ve lived together in a 1963 J2 Bedford truck for five years now, sharing a tiny bed and key roles in at least three independent theatre companies. With the fifth performer Emilie, they are the producers of Porcelain Punch. Emilie and Christy bounce off each other to tell me what they like about co-producing:

“Knowing that things get done.”

“Knowing you can delegate.”

“Knowing that other people are as passionate as you are.”

Porcelain Punch have lugged their old-time wooden props cases across several Australian states and New Zealand, and set up their red velvet stage drapes in Fringe Festivals, Falls Festivals and small-town regional theatres. They last set off on tour when Emilie’s baby, Olive, was just 6 ½ weeks old. Now, two months later, she lies in my lap, eyes slipping around the room in charming, baby amazement.

Emilie says touring with Olive gave her a bigger sense of what the ‘carnie family’ really is: “It’s professional work meets family meets ‘you can do anything’ meets everybody looking after each other.” She pauses. “It’s pretty nice.”

Two performers on stage in vintage costumes. A male wearing baggy pants and braces stands with a curious look, holding the hand of a female performer who is kneeling in a sailor-style dress. She is shouting with a comical expression.

Amongst these performers there’s a fierce and wonderful determination to make this tour possible for parents.

Their tour stories are full of peacock feathers falling apart all over Emilie, hot-glue-gunning costumes at the last minute, while Olive is settled in a bouncer in the corner. The punchies laugh about winning pub trivia while feasting on oversized parmas and talk with delight about gorgeous old country theatres refurbished since Kevin 07’s stimulus package and tables laden with vanilla slice, lamingtons and party sausage rolls after the show. Not to mention regional arts workers who are full of warmth and welcome. On a regional tour your contacts are so often the people who work the hardest for arts in their community.

The Punchies love getting a sense of each community as they travel. And they really tell the story of community when they talk about their art – a community of makers. “No one person sits down and says, this is what you’re going to do,” Emilie says. “Things get dreamed up collectively… so ideas almost have their own wings.” They develop characters out of found objects and costumes and they play together. They play while searching for moments of gold, trying, choosing, developing, digging and playing some more. They’ve been doing it for long enough that they trust each other’s ideas.

A woman in period costume with a flower in her hair sings while strumming an acoustic guitar

“You learn to communicate so the others can play with you.” Christy says. “You’re thinking about them [your collaborators]. You think, these people need this kind of attention right now, so they can listen to the next idea.”

Their process is collaborative, not just with each other, but also with previous cast members, a crew of directors, engineers, costume designers, lighting designers, writers and musicians. Even Emilie’s tattoo artist. Nick, who has been tattooing Emilie for the last ten years, is a collaborator. From these collaborations come luscious visuals, performance with exquisite precision and a theatrical world pulsing with nostalgia.

In one scene Emilie, as little Shirley Crumple, spins around and around, her dizzy face drunken and cross eyed, while a morphed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang track escalates with tension. Audiences from have laughed so uncontrollably at this scene it’s stopped the show. Such a connection with theatre tells audiences something about themselves and the Punchies are very conscious of a responsibility in this. “We don’t do crap gender roles,” one of them says as they discuss their philosophy as makers. The others nod emphatically. As we talk, it becomes clear that the Punchies care deeply about what ideas they represent.

They also care deeply about each other, and this caring is what enables their work. When Olive gets restless Christy takes her and tries to keep the attention of those wandering baby-eyes. It gives Emilie time to stay beside me. Time to articulate her thoughts.

“We’re ferocious theatre makers,” she says.

Two vaudeville characters on stage shake hands. One is in trousers and braces, the other a comical vintage swimming costume

You can find out more about Asking For Trouble and their work at www.askingfortrouble.com.au. Keep an eye our What’s On page for future production and touring news.

How to Make Online Events Accessible

In the last couple of months we’ve seen a huge number of artists, arts organisations and commercial entities rush to digital platforms to continue to engage their audiences, explore new ways of making theatre, and to connect with each other from isolation. What has become apparent is that many artists, particularly in the independent sector, have less resources and knowledge to ensure their work is accessible to all.  Now, perhaps more than ever, accessibility has never been more important.

Yes, some of the reasons relating to a lack of accessibility will be financial. We can’t all afford an Auslan interpreter or live captioning. But, for those of us choosing major platforms like YouTube and Facebook Live there are in-built services that are freely available and make the start of things like captioning easier,  if you’re willing to put in a little time for editing. But captions and signing aren’t the only ways you can bring your digital theatre and cabaret into the homes and devices of accessible audiences.

Accessible Arts NSW have created something that can help. Their top ten tips for running online events is packed with ways you can do more to ensure that your work can be seen by even more people. There’s even potential for you to be engaging with all-new audiences for your work, and that’s a great thing right now!

The full list is below but we highly encourage you to click on their links and visit www.aarts.net.au for the full suite of resources.

  1. Access needs to be included.
    If you are running an event, you are responsible for access. This is a
    legal responsibility, so no excuses.
  2. Consider what access to provide.
    Whether you’re hosting a webinar, live performance, exhibition, or tutoring, you’ll want to consider including Auslan interpreting, captioning, and audio description. Check your online platform’s provisions for including access services in real time and after the event. You can find a list of service providers here.
  3. Auto-captioning can be hit and miss.
    Some online platforms generate automatic captions when uploading videos. While convenient, these captions will often contain errors so be sure to take the time to edit for a perfect result.
  4. Think about format.
    Best practice is to always consider a variety of communication and information sharing styles. Be sure to have a variety of ways people can engage with your event. It’s easy for online events to turn into talk fests, which are not everyone’s preferred method of communicating and engaging. Consider how you can engage in a variety of ways (e.g. live chats, activities, etc).  
  5. Think about length and time.
    How long is your online event? Online events can be tiring for everyone. Have you considered having shorter sessions and/or included regular breaks? What time is your event?
  6. Ensure all materials used within the session are accessible.
    If you’re using a PowerPoint, ensure it’s accessible by removing unnecessary text and borders, and making headings 44pt and body text 32pt. Always use sans serif fonts. Be aware, PDFs are generally not accessible to a screen reader. Always provide Word document versions alongside any PDFs provided.
  7. Provide detailed access information to both audience and presenters prior to your event.
    Alert your audience to any specific login requirements for easy access within the online platform you are using. Remind presenters to be inclusive in their approach and to speak simply, directly and clearly, and at a good pace for Auslan interpreters and captioning.
  8. Let people know about the access you’re providing.
    Communicating what access is available is key to delivering inclusive events. Let audiences know what you can and cannot provide for them. Be open and straightforward about what you do and any limitations this may have. Actively market your event to people with disability and this will grow and diversify your audiences. Include an email and phone contact and then they can ask if they need more info or a further adjustment too. 
  9. Consider post-event access.
    Are you recording the event? Will transcriptions be made available? Some platforms such as Zoom Pro include automatic recording and transcription delivered straight to your email address.
  10. Representation matters.
    Access is also about what you program, who you invite to speak, and what your content is. Does it involve people with disability? Is it relevant to people with disability? And have people with disability been involved in designing and shaping the program in any way?

The most important thing is to keep learning. Access is an ever-evolving area, and especially within the online space.

Accessible Arts provides a range of learning and development services that can help you make some very easy and practical changes which will make a world of difference to how you and your team connect with and support people with disability. They also provide consulting services across a range of areas, including making your digital content and online events accessible.

Get in touch with Accessible Arts: +61 02 9251 6499 | info@aarts.net.au | e-news sign up | www.aarts.net.au

Download a PDF of the Accessible Arts Top Ten Tips

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A person sits alone in a darkened theatre, the only person seated on red velvet chairs. there is nothing in the background.

Independent artists are the lifeblood of Australia’s theatre sector. They are the source of our most innovative and exciting new work, they stimulate our entire industry, provoke and often challenge our audiences, push the boundaries of what is possible and inspire us all.

Independent artists create work for venues, festivals and communities large and small right around Australia, and often their work tours to every corner of the country and right around the globe.

The independent sector in Australia is nimble and quick to adapt and this flexibility is often what makes these artists so attractive as collaborators. But we are testing the resilience of the sector right now. During the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all employment opportunities have been decimated for independent artists and the overwhelming majority of these artists are falling between the gaps of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments offered by the federal government.

For Critical Stages Touring to continue we need the dynamic Australian independent arts sector to survive, and to thrive once again.

This is why today we are asking for your help.

Theatre Network Australia, along with Creative Partnerships Australia, have set up this campaign to help provide Crisis Cash to Independent Artists. If you are in a position to make a tax-deductible donation today, please help. 100% of donations raised will go to artists.

Thank You.

 

Celebrating Women’s Voices this International Women’s Day

This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating the amazing creative minds behind the works that Critical Stages Touring is taking across Australia in 2020.

From heartbreaking drama and powerful verbatim theatre, to inspiring children’s programs and show-stopping cabaret, 88% of the work on our stage this year has been written or co-written by women. It is their words and experiences that have helped shape what you will see, and we couldn’t be prouder to be taking their voices to communities across Australia and beyond.

So this year, we celebrate International Women’s Day by celebrating these inspiring women, and we hope to see you in the audience of one of their works this year! (pictured L-R above)

Jane Bodie – Lamb (Red Stitch Actos’ Theatre)

Michaela Burger – A Migrant’s Son

Lauren Clelland – I Want to Know What Love Is (The Good Room)

Caroline Dunphy – I Want to Know What Love Is (The Good Room)

Christy Flaws – Fort (Asking for Trouble)

Amy Ingram – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You and I Want to Know What Love Is (The Good Room)

Katherine Lyall-Watson – Rovers (Belloo Creative)

Joanna Murray-Smith – American Song (Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre)

To all of these women, and the countless more creating places for us to understand our world and our place in it, we say ‘thank you’.

A Short Message About the Bushfires

As we return to the business of theatre in 2020 the Critical Stages team would like to take a moment to acknowledge the devastating fire events of this Summer, and extend our heartfelt best to all of those who have, and continue to be, affected.

As a touring theatre company we find so much of our planning involves pouring over maps and routes across Australia. It has been heartbreaking and at times terrifying to look at these same maps through the lens of this national tragedy.

We are so fortunate to be welcomed into regional communities around the country, and this gratitude becomes ever more acute when we think of how many of our friends and partners have been at the forefront of the fires.

We hope that you are all safe, that the coming months bring respite, and that the process of repair and rebuilding is a swift one for all of you.

Here at Critical Stages Touring, we’re about to kick off a big year of bringing communities together for great entertainment, and we’ll be talking about that very soon. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team for support if you need it. Whether it’s a friendly chat about theatre, an ear to hear your concerns, or some other way we can help support your community, please let us know.

Chris & the CST Team.