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Review: Town Hall Ticket – Festival of Live Arts


Our festival correspondent, Will Dawson, attended multiple shows at the Festival of Live Arts (FOLA) with the Town Hall Ticket. With little to no knowledge of what performances  he was going to see, Will took a risk and signed up to see AlterVanitas  and Erotic Dance. Have a listen/ read what he experienced!

Audiences are so often risk-averse when it comes to performance. It’s why we keep seeing the same Shakespeare plays over and over again at our major theatre companies. But the Festival of Live Art is different. Not unlike a music festival, you buy a Town Hall pass for a whole night, without much knowledge of what you’re going to be in for. The works throughout Arts House in North Melbourne are often quite disparate, but a common throughline is the theme of discovery. For those willing to take a bit of risk, it’s a gamble that pays off in spades.

Throughout the night there’s FOLA staff roaming around the Town Hall with appointment lists. We sign up for something called Alter with no knowledge of what it is except that we’re to meet in the clubhouse of the old Australian legion of ex-servicemen and women, a slice of a world quickly fading away in the inner city. The room smells like school camp; faded posters adorn the walls, and a wizened man with plenty of stories to tell serves drinks. To my slight disappointment this isn’t the location of what we’re here to see, and we’re whisked down the alleyway and through a fire exit into the back of the old Lithuanian Club. We’re asked to take off our shoes and enter into a pitch-black room. There are sixteen chairs in a circle. One by one, the sixteen of us are handed a glowing iPad. We all sit around the circle, staring at each other over the eerie white glow of the iPads, the 21st century version of kids holding a torch under their chins around a campfire.

And then everything goes black.

All of a sudden the iPads flicker around the circle with incredible precision. My iPad lights up for seconds, accompanied by bursts of static, then just as quickly it’s gone again, the light moving to the person next to me. The speed gets quicker and quicker, moving around the circle, until it’s a cacophony of noise and static. Then everything is black again.

I don’t want to talk too much more about what happens in Alter, because part of what makes it so good is the element of surprise, but what follows is another half an hour of fascinating digital art. The work was commissioned as part of the Australia Council’s New Digital Theatre initiative, and it’s great to see support for such innovative performance work. We had no idea what we were getting into, but it was one risk that paid off in spades.

Alter isn’t the only technological work at Arts House for FOLA. In another room off the main foyer, but also very much in the realm of the digital smartphone, is Vanitas. Before we enter, we’re told to download an app onto our phones. Part podcast, part journalistic inquiry, part thriller, Vanitas traverses the line between the digital and the physical. We are encouraged to sit in a plushly-furnished room with a large TV showing a famous Dutch painting of a bouquet of flowers. It’s almost enough to lull you to sleep, if the story happening in your headphones wasn’t so fascinating. We’re told to look closely at the painting of the flowers. At first glance it’s a beautiful still life, but with closer inspection there’s something not quite right: the flowers are wilting, and in the middle of the painting there’s a stalk that’s quite obviously been cut. What happened here? That’s the question that Robert Walton & Jason Maling, the creators of Vanitas, asked themselves. The first episode of the podcast is an exploration of the mystery behind this painting. Once it’s over though, things start to get really interesting. I get a text on my phone telling me to go to an address a couple of blocks away from Arts House. As we walk around the streets of North Melbourne, the story continues in our ears.

There’s currently three episodes of Vanitas, but the creators promise there’ll be more. It’s a great example of how digital art can escape from the confines of the screen and into the real world- and not just for the duration of FOLA, but long after as well.

The first mainstage show of the evening is Erotic Dance, a collaboration between Luke George, a dancer, and Nick Roux, a sound artist. The Arts House stage is sparse and harshly lit; the only set a couple of amps, drums and guitar effects pedals. Nick sits facing away from the audience fiddling with some strings on his guitar. A low drone emanates from the amps, and Luke George appears clad only in a t-shirt and a shawl, and moves extemporaneously around the room. The drone slowly builds as he slowly loses what little clothing he has, and we’re watching a naked man writhe around stage. For 50 minutes. The expectation in the audience for something more is almost palpable, but it never comes. This is literally just a naked man on stage dancing, and not overly well either.

The blurb for Erotic Dance talks about exploring the intimacy between performer and spectator. That’s something that live art can do better than almost anything else – after all, it is the audience that completes the work, simply by being there. It’s what makes works like Alter and Vanitas so special – they actively involve the audience member, who becomes much more than a passive participant. But that connection is completely missing in Erotic Dance – the large hall that it takes place in certainly doesn’t help, physically separating the performers from the audience. But the performers effectively ignore the fact that a hundred-odd people are in the theatre – in fact, we only see Nick’s face through mirrors behind the guitars. I can’t help but think that this is what people who hate art think that art is. 

Review written by Will Dawson

The Town Hall Ticket is running during Week 2 of FOLA – Wednesday 9th, Thursday 10th and Friday 11th from 5pm. For more information about the festival, check out the official website here:


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