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.

CST Commissions 16 New Australian Stories for Stage and Screen

a collage of headshots featuring the selected writers is presented without colour over three rows with the Come To Where i Am Logo placed in the middle of the image.

CST Commissions 16 New Australian Stories for Stage and Screen

After a rigorous selection process, sixteen new plays about the places we live are destined for both live performance and digital distribution for Come to Where I Am – Australia, the exciting new writing and performance initiative from Paines Plough and Critical Stages Touring, Australia’s national touring theatre company.

In response to a rapidly changing world, where all touring and live performance is currently on hiatus, Paines Plough launched Come To Where I Am. In partnership with theatres across the UK and beyond, 30+ new short plays from writers about the places they call home have been shared with online audiences as visual-audio pieces. All donations made to this project go directly towards employing writers to deliver more excellent new writing during COVID-19.

Come to Where I Am – Australia was initially created to support the development of seven new stories, engaging writers in regional and remote towns to craft a snapshot of what life is like in their part of the country right now. The program has been recently expanded to accommodate an additional nine writers thanks to a Covid-19 support grant from the Australia Council for the Arts and private donations.

The sixteen stories come from across the country and represent a mix of rural, regional, suburban and city experiences from a diverse group of authors that includes award-winners Samah Sabawi (VIC), Mary Anne Butler (NT), Jeanette Cronin (QLD), Vanessa Bates (NSW) and comedian Jon Bennett (SA).

Highlights include a story of music and connection between generations in Western Sydney from James Elazzi (Lady Tabouli); a tree-change tale from Tahli Corin (One for the Ugly Girls) and Joshua Tyler (Top End Wedding); and a new piece weaving together old and new stories of the Noongar people from Wilman Noongar artist Ian Michael (HART).

The project is based on an exceptionally successful program from UK project partner Paines Plough. Since 2010 Paines Plough have engaged more than 160 playwrights with invitations to write and perform short plays about their home towns and the places that shaped them, distributed globally through their smartphone and tablet app – Come to Where I’m From.

The new Australian works will be produced as video postcards, filmed on location by the writers in the region they are writing about. It is intended that the short films will live beyond their initial digital premieres, with live performances to be staged at venues across the country when restrictions are lifted. They will also be hosted on Paines Plough’s YouTube channel.

Chris Bendall, CEO of Critical Stages Touring said, “I couldn’t be more excited to share this project, which started as a creative response to the lockdown, an inversion of our usual model of touring artists to perform for audiences in all corners of the country. This project gives us all an opportunity, from the safety our homes, to hear stories directly from the places that inspired them.” Chris continued, “It’s been a joy to work with Paines Plough, a company I have long admired for their deep commitment to new writing and regional audiences. I hope that this is just the beginning of our relationship with them, and I also hope that our collaboration with these wonderful artists and their work continues beyond the digital form, so that when our theatres re-open we will be able to present these new works to live audiences in the very places that inspired them.”

Charlotte Bennet and Katie Posner, Joint Artistic Directors of Paines Plough, said “We are so delighted to be working with Critical Stages on the International arm of Come To Where I Am. This project gives us an opportunity to share stories from a group of outstanding writers that we may not have been able to connect with otherwise, and we are so excited to be able to platform their voices through our digital channels. We are looking forward to growing our relationship as two national touring companies who share a commitment to developing writers and championing new stories.”

Come to Where I Am – Australia is part of a broader digital production and engagement strategy undertaken by Critical Stages touring in response to the pandemic. The first episode of Come to Where I Am – Australia will premiere on the Critical Stages Touring website, social channels and streaming service Vimeo and on the Paines Plough YouTube channel on Wednesday, August 19th.

The selected writers are:

  • James Elazzi
  • Margaret Davis
  • Peter Matheson
  • Vanessa Bates
  • Mary Anne Butler
  • Tessa Rose
  • Kathryn Ash
  • Merlynn Tong
  • Jeanette Cronin
  • Alyssha Hermann
  • Jon Bennett
  • Alison Mann
  • Samah Sabawi
  • Tahli Corin & Joshua Tyler
  • Ian Michael
  • Ross Mueller

To see the full list including the places they’ll be writing from visit the Come To Where I Am -Australia page. For more information about the project and participants please contact:

Robbi James | Marketing & Engagement | robbi @ criticalstages.com.au
Mel Carolan | Senior Producer | mel @ criticalstages.com.au