Shakespeare Dance Party – Lisa chats with Curly Fries (Theatre Review)
Shakespeare Dance Party is at the Hustle and Flow Bar this Sunday 11 march from 4 PM onwards. You can grab more details here.
Harold Pinter said in his 2005 Nobel Prize speech, “… The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of The Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Ggreece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, Eel Salvador, and, of course Chile. The horror the United States inlficted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and never be forgiven.” For these comments, and others made against the United States, Harold Pinter was accused of anti-Americanism. The actor (and in this case writer) was criticised to avoid dealing with the words. If these accusers were in the room when he made his statements, would they have thrown pies? Who is the actor, the writer, the artist in this scenario? How much is the artist meant to represent society and to what extent is the artist liable for what they deliver to society? Does the artist compete for this space? If so, against whom? When artists are forced to compete against each other, what does this mean for what they deliver to society? These questions are analysed in the Leftovers Collective’s new show, Shakespeare Dance Party. Here is what the website blurb has to say about this show:
“The artists use their artistry to jam their classic speeches to beats in a fearless competition to win a role on a web series. If they’re successful – as determined by the audience. the audience dance. if not the audience throw cream pies at artists. The top 2 competitors | ARTISTS will rap battle their Shakespeare to win the role on acclaimed web series Ang Wilson season 3 courtesy of Asinpatti Films.”
I was lucky enough to get to chat to Curly Fries of Team Fernandez about this show. Inside this lovely conversation we looked at what it means to be an actor in a competitive, capitalist environment and what artists hope to achieve within society.
LT: Some think competition is static and appears in every fabric of reality (Typing this sentence efficiently is a competition with my brain to advance/maintain my coherence) and underscores all we do. We compete all of the time 100% whether we like it or not. Living is competition, our reason for blindly competing is to “be happy”. If this is so with whom should artists compete?
CF: For me competition comes out of scarcity. So for example, there’s one prize and many compete to get that prize. Simple examples would be medals in sport, studies, Art prizes, winning residences and commissions / tenders in all fields. It works under the assumption that the demand is more than supply. However this can be also seen in sport as part of the game, to ultimately be the best and win or earn the coveted cup. There are also similar parallels in yesteryear courtship to ‘win the hand in marriage’, or ‘to win the heart of a true love’. To be your shiny self.
Competition in its essence can be seen as capitalist. That is, private entities have control over their domain and set rules of how to play for a prize that they offer. Our choice is really not to take part, but the structure has been set up and everyone has bought into the rules. Competition by definition implies there’s an opposition and that one has to defeat or strive or gain superiority over others.
We do live in a competitive world. Sydney especially; housing, food, family, leisure however as artists although we strive to fulfil our expectations of career fulfilment in a market that is fragile, where there is currently more demand than supply we do so in an effort to be happy. To be aligned with our true selves. As artists we have taken big risks in jumping off what society has set up. Living in a variety of worlds, juggling jobs, creative projects, commercial work, family and friends. Artists whether they admit it or not are constantly reinforced with competition.
We do have the choice – to re train, or find a place where your supply is demanded.
Happiness, I believe in this context refers to an artists ability to have complete their job and live comfortably however in this climate and culture those very positions of employ are scare and underpaid at best. With the Leftovers we flip this on its head and make joy the cornerstone of the work regardless of theme, content or subversion. Can an artists be prioritised first?
Despite this, commercial work is generally is the goal. Yet this does not make many artists happy, it can and some find relief but many find to ‘be happy’ their must follow their creative impulse into Art practice. We try to find ‘happy’ in a market and structure that exists. Even to create new work, work that is different from current modes of entertainment or art, we do bend and flex within a competitive structure that exists. Logistically for venues, media, supplies, access to talent, and resources .
Artists should not in my belief compete. We ideally must create. Socially there needs to be more fundamental focus on nurturing artists at every stage and level, recognising experienced and young artists and looking at how art in this beautiful country of ours can further lay solid roots and flourish.
LT: For those of us who have no desire to compete, striving still exists. A will to power, as Nietzsche would claim. Is the lure of performance in self mastery rather than public display?
CF: Ambition, achievement and striving to reach (Nietzsche’s the will to power) really resonates with local artists. Acting | Performance | Visual Arts | Writing | Dance all reside with a culmination of an audience whether that be 500 seats in the Drama Theatre or an audience for 1 in a gallery or any hybrid cross in between. The public display has immense power and self mastery may in fact lie within that. Can one create art without public audience? That’s an interesting notion, it begs what is Art? Is art the process and the showing and the collaboration between showing and viewer or can it exist by itself? Can the Mona Lisa be a work of art without having ever being discovered?
Is it that our economic worth as artists that validate us? We’ve all had experiences of working on shows where an actors had to leave for a day shoot or a commercial job or needed to be replaced. Regardless of the artistic merit of the work rehearsed and /or the commercial job, the commercial job always wins out. It’s the economic artistic validation that makes us feel we are moving closer to our true goal. Selling chicken, telco’s, insurance, television, goods and services that make the world go round. As artists we peg our artistry up against our ability to survive economically. Sometimes what the lure to performance entails is a rationalist decision based on survival, where you are economically cared for and (hopefully) creatively nourished.
I don’t want this to sound too dire, we’re generally a happy bunch.
The lure of performance is the right of expression of the artist, even though we will saddle up to the economic performance choice first. A study by Equity in 2015 found that 25% of actors live below the poverty line. It’s only natural that the will to power resonates so strongly with artists.
LT: Shakespeare has been venerated as the gold standard for playwriting and performance. Shakespeare Dance Party places these standards into a competitive form and requests judgement from the audience. If the Shakespeare rite of passage is so absurd for all concerned, why is it so difficult to shift us away from the competitive model?
CF: This is interesting. As a black migrant male whose history, heritage, interests and historical blood date back to pre colonialisation, drama from a western standpoint in the theatrical format does revolve around Shakespeare. It was indeed the birth of great stories told with absolute humanity, gorgeous poetic language and innovative new script formats and structures. Why I use Shakespeare as a jumping off point is the notion of the classic wall. Where it’s rigid and stuck – but get a sledge hammer to it and then real contemporary creations birth with classical foundations. Shakespeare plays were written for white males only, black people were villainous or creatures, homosexuality and queerness was comedic, and women were impersonated. This is the Gold Standard that we now as society have made efforts to change.
Shakespeare Dance Party is no different. I have taken this Eurocentric ideal and mixed it with meaningful contemporary black culture. The show takes Shakespeare classical poetry, and the artists fashion it into hip hop, using their skill. They will have not heard the rhythm the DJ lays down for them before either. They have just ‘prepared’ for the ‘competition’. Trained so to speak. It’s multi layered.
Mixing dated notions of age old poetry with urban black art culture, the real vying for a role on a web series, and the actors skill in art making, the show asks you humorously – Is Acting ART or COMPETITION? The night gives you permission to throw a ‘cream pie’. The real question is do you throw it? And if so why? This will differ from audience member to audience member. What are your attitudes towards performance?
It can be difficult to shift from this competitive society model, namely because of our beliefs. We believe there is finite ‘pie’ so to speak. We all want a slice and of different varying amounts, if someone has a large slice that means there’s less for us. My take is that the pie is not finite but in fact infinite. We have been conditioned in society to beliefs of lack, and finite rewards. I’m interested to see who this event plays out and giving the audience a safe space to activate their beliefs around this concept.
LT: Artists are notoriously competitive with each other. Why is recognition so important to artists and is this an essential component of performance anyway?
CF: Recognition is extremely important to actors, partly the belief that the more visible you are the more commercial opportunities you’ll be offered with economic and artistic satisfaction. Recognition forms a visual business card so to speak, or gives you a reputation. Recognition also buys your freedom, power, ease, a different point of view and public and peer acclaim.
Actors do get quite competitive and partly thats due to the auditioning process for castings, you tend to be in rooms with similar looking actors all with similar physiques and similar demeanours and you tend to feel the scarcity or lack of ‘pie’. It’s the same for theatre. This process brings out insecurity, bluff, blame, phoniness and disappointment. It’s different again for someone who’s not caucasian. The visible recognition is important from a cultural standpoint and I’m not talking just in look I’m taking artistic signature and viewpoint.
As actors we want our work to be ‘just a job’ we do and this argument has been cited forever – but actually with the advent of social media and online platforms the recognition and validation from the outside world is more important than ever. It does feel short term though. I imagine 100 years ago when there were other artists who have made creations, maybe didn’t achieve recognition but continued. Did they feel the same?
There is a wonderful solidarity between actors though a common knowingness, an understanding of the gypsy life that we all live, and there’s also genuine celebrations when one of us makes it big or cracks the big show or gets the great contract. It lets us know that its there. It stirs our feelings which gives us fuel. Simply put recognition validates us. Like all fields we want to feel loved unconditionally for what we do, appreciated, trusted and valued.
LT: According to Nietzsche, our greatest selves (the Ubermensch) must create a set of moral values counter to those established by Christianity (and other religions). These values should be life affirming and creative. Competition insists on a loss in order to identify a win. Competition is inherently Christian. It is also patriarchal. If we rid ourselves of competition, what would be a good replacement for it?
CF: Competition does have a slightly uneasy reputation. Other words such as challenge have been used, as well as fight and tournament. All very masculine and very aggressive, again its this idea of a prize or a thing that cant be shared enough only for one. As artists our best selves make up our own minds. We tend to question everything including, society rules, human interactions, politics and religions born into or learned. If competition did not exist, for example and we were all shared among all actors all performance jobs where equality was guaranteed for arguments sake then potentially we would all be homogenised. Competition does give us that spark of vitality, that eagerness to fly. Our survival instinct rises to the surface. But the flip side is someone’s got to be defeated in this art bloodbath, and the game you play is that it could easily be you. It’s interesting looking at Indigenous cultures and the hierarchy they have with art making and story telling. Certain ages hold certain knowledges. Everyone does not do everything. Knowledge is shared with small ownership in small bundles. Together it’s all present. I wonder if there’s something there for the future of Australian art makers.
 Harold Pinter, “Art, Truth and Politics.”