Adele Chynoweth is a theatre director, curator and researcher. She has curated exhibitions for the National Museum of Australia and the Hawke Centre at the University of South Australia. Adele is also an international consultant for Welfare Stories: from the Edge of Society, a social history and justice project undertaken in Denmark, in collaboration between the Welfare Museum, Svendborg, the Prison Museum, Horsens, and the Centre for Welfare State Research, University of Southern Denmark. Adele trained as a theatre director at the Flinders University Drama Centre. Her directing credits include State Theatre SA, Vitalstatistix – National Women’s Theatre and 3rd International Women’s Playwrights Conference. Adele has also directed new work as part of the Street’s Hive and First Seen programs.
The Street talks to Adele Chynoweth about her new project in development: Under Sedation: A Performance Anthology of Canberra Poetry
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DEVELOP A PERFORMANCE ANTHOLOGY OF CANBERRA POETRY FOR THE STAGE?
So many reasons. I love poetry. I always have. I was a child with a hand-me-down, well-worn copy of A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. But then I grew up and read Christopher Milne’s autobiography and thought he was phallocentric and middle-class and unconscious (of course those characteristics can be mutually exclusive but in his case, I didn’t think they were!). And so I learnt about privilege and the canon of literature – who gets published, who doesn’t, who gets to write and who is written about. And good poem is a good poem, no matter who writes it but a culture can judge the ‘good’ by superficial reasons. So I’ve always read poetry and thought critically about what I was reading. My honours degree was in the performance of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry.
And I have always lived with song. My Dad would come home from working in the factory and then play his opera records full blast. He’d swear loudly at the stereo, at the character of Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly, for example, “That bloody bastard!” So the arts were never about being polite. It was about big emotions, catharsis, facing the most difficult predicaments. Poetry and song encapsulates that.
For a while I worked as a cabaret performer and as a DJ. I earned my living by performing and playing songs. Then I studied theatre direction at the Flinders University Drama Centre and we were ‘encouraged’ (euphemism!) away from the genre of linear realism and so my theatre work has always been informed by that – creating an alternative aesthetic to the conventional dramatic text.
And poetry is so significant in Canberra. It is fair to call Canberra the poetry capital of Australia. When I moved here I came across anthologies of the work of Canberra poets. I have never stopped reading it. And I went to the gigs of local bands and learned of those local songwriters that pounded the stages years before them. There you have it – an extraordinary, endless body of verse emanating from the nation’s capital. This work that has come out of Canberra for decades needs to be applauded in a variety of ways.
So the creation of a performance anthology is a constellation of my work and study in theatre, poetry and song and living in Canberra.
PERFORMANCE POETRY HAS ROOTS IN PRE-LITERATE SOCIETIES WHERE POEMS WERE TRANSMITTED FROM PERFORMER TO PERFORMER, GIVING EACH PERFORMER THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADD THEIR OWN FLAVOUR. WHAT ARE YOUR IDEAS BEHIND TRANSFORMING POETRY READING INTO A NEW CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE GENRE?
Really? I didn’t know that! What’s the reference so I can read more about that? I think you’ve just planted a seed for a possible approach to audience participation!
A ‘new’ contemporary performance? Now that’s pressure but I get it. Good art should either present new aesthetics or new content. Ideally there should always be something ‘new’, even amidst postmodern sampling but that’s tough. To create the ‘new’ is genius territory. Look, I can guarantee ‘contemporary’. I may struggle with the ‘new’ but I’ll give it my damned-est. Because poetry has always gone to the theatre. This is not new. However, this is not Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or Shakespeare’s Lear. There are multiple authors in Under Sedation and the works will meet together for the first time in this work and there will be a constructed overarching meaning through the juxtaposition of these varying poems and accompanying voices. And then too, bringing to that all those other elements of the theatre that add meaning – design, sound, movement – and most importantly, actors to breathe motivated life into the verse.
CANBERRA HAS A STRONG POETIC CULTURE AND HIGH PROPORTION OF POETS TO THE POPULATION. THERE IS SO MUCH POETRY AND SO LITTLE TIME IN A THEATRE PERFORMANCE TO CAPTURE IT ALL – WHAT IS FRAMING YOUR SELECTION OF WORK FOR UNDER SEDATION?
This is the most angst-inducing part of the process. Choosing the poems for the final cut. Oh it’s agonising. Honestly, with the amount of poetry that comes out of Canberra, one could devise several performance anthologies. Poetry is huge here! Every month here there are at least five separate, regular poetry events – in a town of 350,000 people. That’s unbelievable. Australian poet Geoff Page has compiled a list of over 50 Canberra poets who he thinks have “made the mark” and on top of that you have the additional street poets, the poetry coming out of workshops across the capital, the songwriters, hip hop artists, etc. It’s huge.
So I have to be focussed – three main drivers frame my selection: the overall idea in A. D Hope’s poem, pluralism of discourse, subjectivity and tone and thirdly, that piercing feeling in the heart. I hope to move the audience. There must be a range of emotions and I hope that they will be bold – primary colours, not pastel.
AND THE TITLE? HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT UNDER SEDATION?
It’s taken from A. D. Hope’s poem of the same name. Now excuse my while I commit the literary sin of translating poetry to prose – this’ll mean at least ten years in arts purgatory for me – but his poem is inspired by Goya’s painting Saturn – pretty gruesome, which he reckons epitomises the worst of civilisation – the devouring of one’s own child – and then he ponders how we sedate ourselves to escape this. So there it was – the guiding purpose for the work – in that poem.
POETRY SLAMS HAVE DEMONSTRATED THE POWER OF CREATING REAL-TIME DISCOURSE BETWEEN PERFORMER AND AUDIENCE. WHAT STRUCTURES WILL YOU USE TO BE INCLUSIVE IN ENGAGING THE AUDIENCE IN THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE?
I love poetry slams! They excel at the aesthetics of direct address from poets and spontaneous answering back from the audience- busting down the fourth wall of the bourgeois theatre and exchanging it for the popular performance tradition Brilliant. What a relief!
What I’m doing with Under Sedation is moving the poetry away from the aesthetic of a poet reading/reciting to an audience and instead bringing actors to the work. This will enable audience engagement through the empathetic relationship with characters. So this is then not just about listening but also watching and kinaesthetic responses. Theatre is about engagement with bodies and so I envisage that movement will also be an important element in the work. And there will still be scope for direct address!
CANBERRA IS A CULTURALLY DIVERSE CITY. WILL UNDER SEDATION INCLUDE POEMS IN OTHER LANGUAGES?
There is certainly multilingual poetry written here in Canberra – the amazing work that comes out of Mother Tongue workshops, for example. So good question. I don’t know yet. I am certainly sourcing local poetry written by those for whom English is their second language. I haven’t decided yet if the Under Sedation will be multilingual.
WITH BOB DYLAN WINNING THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE WHERE DO SONG AND SONG LYRICS FIT INTO YOUR CONCEPTION OF A PERFORMANCE ANTHOLOGY OF CANBERRA POETRY?
Speaking of that – I’m still grieving for writer and performer Dario Fo who passed away this month– a great inspiration for me and another winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In terms of Under Sedation songs are right in there. Absolutely. Lyrics are poetry – pure and simple. Canberra songwriters must be part of the mix – “tangled up in blue” to quote Dylan or better yet: “And may your song always be sung/ May you stay forever young”.
NEW ZEALAND POET ALAN LONEY HAS SAID “THE POEM IS THE LAST UNPARAPHRASEABLE CHUNK OF LANGUAGE LEFT TO US”. WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THIS?
That’s not very Canberra! But let’s not be parochial…
That’s true that quote. Spot on. The poet looks at an object of enquiry through a different lens or sums up a moment in words that just pierces the heart with knowing. The poet makes us stop, exhale, think and in that instant, the world has shifted.
WHERE ARE YOU NOW ON THIS NEW CREATIVE JOURNEY? WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
I’m focussed, disciplined and a stickler for deadlines but I don’t work in a linear fashion. I write as I research and read. Anyway, I‘ve got a solid first draft but I’m still sourcing material. You know, you don’t want to pull up the draw bridge until the eleventh hour (I think I just mixed my metaphors…). Anyway, I’m working towards a second draft and it would be interesting to workshop it with actors to see how/if it translates from page to stage, then re-work it in the hope that it will be production-worthy.
HAVE YOU DISCOVERED A NEW POEM OR SONG THAT HAS BECOME A FAVOURITE?
Not just one! Melinda Smith’s untitled provoked projectile tears while I was in the Main Reading Room of the National Library. Just another day at the office. Matter More by Canberra rap duo Coda Conduct also strikes a chord. They’ve moved to Sydney but I was happy to see them when they performed in Canberra a couple of weeks ago – such a great gig. But such a hard question to answer. I have dozens of favourites!
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Reading, the passion and generosity of local poets and very loud music. My neighbours may be grateful for my headphones…
But truly – it’s in the rigour of work. To work even when I’m not inspired. The inspiration comes, not always on cue but it will come but when it is absent, I will still work. Inspiration does not always precede perspiration. Dylan Thomas wrote, “I labour by singing light” – that’s about it.
And the ancient notion of inspiration was based on a view that a limited few had access to the divine. It justifies the construction of an elite. So I don’t know if I buy into an idea of inspiration and I don’t always know where my ideas come from to be honest but with Under Sedation, I think that the credit should fall at the feet of Canberra poets.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
Uhm..apart from social media…because let’s not hierarchise high over low art…. I’ve just finished reading The Midnight Watch by Australian author David Dyer. It’s a historical novel about the Californian, the ship that did not respond to the distress signals of the Titanic. Really gripping. I’m now onto One and All by Philip Payton which is an account of how Cornish migrants contributed to the labour movement in South Australia. That’s my background – my surname is Cornish and I grew up in South Australia. Philip Payton has undertaken years of research. I think it’s a really important work because in Australia there’s an understanding of the Irish but the Cornish contribution to Australian culture has been overlooked. And on stand by is Tracy Thorn’s autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen because Everything but the Girl was a fantastic musical duo.
In terms of what I’m watching, I’m addicted to the Danish TV series Borgen. The women are so well written but I am also fascinated by the portrait of Kasper. Next will probably be the TV series Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – the genre of the mockumentary keeps on keeping on.
I recently saw the film The First Monday in May about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it made me so incredibly angry but that concerns my other work in human rights museology – a subject perhaps best suited to another conversation!