GETTING TO KNOW: HANNA CORMICK

Hanna Cormick is a performance artist with a background in physical theatre, dance, circus and interdisciplinary art. She is a graduate of Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq (Paris), and Charles Sturt University’s Acting for the Screen and Stage degree, as well as having trained with Ecole des Arts Chinois du Spectacle (Paris), Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini (the Grotowski Center, ARTA Paris), and Pan Théâtre (The Roy Hart Centre, Malerargues).

Cormick’s practice has spanned many genres and continents: she performed in cirque-cabaret in Paris with Apollo Garcia as Les Douleurs Exquises, and in clown as Salade & Socks, which included work with Her Yerde Sanat Social Circus in refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border. She was a founding member of interdisciplinary art-science group Last Man To Die, who between 2009-2011 toured Australia with their audience-interactive tech-driven performance-installations, and was shortlisted for an ArtsHub award for Innovation in the Arts. As an Australia Council JUMP Mentee, she undertook a mentorship in traditional Balinese mask creation and dance in Indonesia, with master mask maker and dancer Ida Bagus Anom in 2011. She continued her mask practice in Paris, gaining an apprenticeship with Commedia master Stefano Perocco di Meduna over 2012-2013.

Her recent work is centred around disability activism. For her performance artwork, The Mermaid, she was a finalist for the National Disability Leadership Award (Arts), and the ACT Chief Minister’s Inclusion Award (Young Leader). Other recent works include Little Monsters, for Art, Not Apart, and Canary, for Climate Change Theatre Action 2019. Her current practice is a reclamation of body through radical visibility.   

Photo Credit: Alexander J.E. Bradley

The Street talked to Hanna Cormick as she prepares to go into creative development for her new work, Zebracorn.

WHY PHYSICAL THEATRE?

I’m attracted to art that implicates the body; where the primary vehicle for investigation and expression is this breathing, beating, moving animal and its relationship to space. That nebulous phrase “physical theatre” generally refers to a dizzying array of theatre genres in which the body is the first tool for communication, and all other aspects support and complement that primacy. But theatre has always been a physical medium to me. I grew up as a dancer, and when I started acting in my teens, I brought that somatic sensibility to the work. I was fortunate to have had formative contact with local directors – people like barb barnett, David Branson, a decade-long working relationship with Joe Woodward at Shadow House PITS – who cultivate expressive and poetic bodies in their art. I also fell into an intense love affair with mask and trance performance that brought me into contact with many different cultural styles of theatre and dance in countries where art has not suffered the same cartesian division as mainstream western theatre. My later training at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, and contact with luminary pedagogues like Thomas Richards, Mario Biagini, Per Brahe and Peter Brook, tattooed these underlying principles so deeply that there’s no way back.

WHAT INSPIRES YOU ABOUT THEATRE AS A FORM?

I enjoy how theatre requires a symbiosis between the performer/s and audience. I see theatre not as the event presented onstage, but a phenomenon that happens in the liminal space. Actually, I would say the same is true of any artform, even ones we normally consider to be artifact-based and non-durational, such as visual art; a painting is something which occurs over a period of time between the image and the spectator. But what makes theatre different, is that this communion is between two living breathing bodies, or groups of bodies, in the same space, and because of that it is a two-way channel. The way a performer’s voice resonates in your own bones, the way our muscles respond to their movements. As an actor, you listen to the breath of the audience, you take their pulse, you dance with their presence. And we meet each other in a kind of voluntary folie à deux to make something real with our bodies and imaginations in this empty space.

YOUR WORK, ZEBRACORN, IS SOON TO BE SHOWN AS PART OF THE STREET’S FIRST SEEN 2019 PROGRAM. TELL US MORE ABOUT THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA.

Zebracorn began as an experiment to cope with the tectonic shifts happening in my life as I became disabled. When I first moved back to Canberra, my friend and sometimes-collaborator, playwright David Finnigan, came to visit. We talked over tea (plain filtered hot water for me); I was in a difficult place, struggling with the inability to create and the inability to comprehend what was happening to my body and my life. Artists tend to turn to their art to help them process the world around them, and Finnigan gave me the task of writing everyday – but just two sentences, as I could manage – and that over time, these little fragments would form something larger, and “accumulate like snowflakes into a blizzard”. The threads uncovered by this practice have become the underlying themes, imagery and events of Zebracorn.

WHAT NARRATIVES ARE YOU EXPLORING?

Zebracorn is drawn from my own life, but it doesn’t exist as a linear narrative with a neat Aristotelian arc; chronic illness and rare disease life don’t exist in the same time-stream as regular life. Time feels like it occurs out of sequence and also all at once. Some parts run interminably slowly, never changing, like a Beckett wasteland, simultaneously multiple events of chaos and disorder flicker by so quickly that it’s as if you live inside an apocalyptic action film, and often you are blasted out of time entirely by the destabilisation of brushes with death, debilitating symptoms and engulfing grief. Zebracorn tries to give a sense of real events, but told through this fractured phenomenological lens of my illness, and distorted by the forces of politics, hallucinations, love, fear, anger and absurd humour.

YOU ARE DEVELOPING THE WORK WITH THREE ACTORS. WHAT WILL BE THIS PROCESS?

Christopher Samuel Carroll, Lloyd Allison-Young and Chloe Martin are such strong creative minds that a large part of this process will be trusting to their artistic instincts and their response to the work. In some ways the actors will be a proxy for my body in the space, an extension of my imagination, going where my body cannot, but they will also be agitators, provocateurs, and deviser-writer-choreographers in their own right. We all trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, so that common history and style of creation will definitely contribute to the process, but I’m especially excited about how their own strengths and sensibilities as individual artists will inform the creation: Lloyd is an exceptional actor and musician, whom I’ve worked with on numerous projects over the past thirteen years, and will always jump at the chance to work with again; Chloe has an intelligent eye for visual and spatial creation, but is also a sharp improviser (as seen in her work in Ten’s Dee-Brief); Christopher is a seasoned deviser and consummate physical artist, and has been staging challenging physical solo works in Canberra and interstate (recently Icarus, produced by The Street). I’m very excited to discover the specific chemistry of this ensemble and where it takes us.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?

My primary goal is to gain a better understanding of the physical language of the work. We’re not going to be exploring the text so much as the physicality of scenes, the stylistic and theatrical conceits, the choreography and spatio-visual aspects. A traditional play may begin with text and layer the other elements on top, but we are working in a style of theatre where the movement or the image is just as valid a starting point for creation. I’m looking to preference exploration and risk – we’ll play and build up and tear down – and I expect to leave with many questions, many failures, many newly uncovered ideas, that will ultimately help propel the work forward into more innovative and more authentic realms.

WHAT DOES THE FIRST SEEN PROGRAM OFFER AN ARTIST LIKE YOU?

This residency is as much an experiment in access as it is a play development. I can’t safely be in public, without significant medical risk, so we are exploring ways I can still be involved in the creative process, between technology and trialing ways to make spaces more accessible, that will open up the possibilities for my continued involvement in theatre, hopefully as both creator and performer. My style of creation is primarily spatial-visual-physical; writing was something I did in the space, on the stage, with my body. But writing on a page, without movement, has been really tricky for me; it’s like I can’t see it without using the space. The opportunity through First Seen to work with this team on the floor, to test the visual and physical concepts, is invaluable to me to break through to the next stage of creating this work.

WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?

For me, this project is actually a whole new process of writing. I used to create physically and at a breakneck pace; I was prolific, using sheer stress and speed as fuel. When I became disabled, that all changed, and I actually thought that I would never be able to create art again, because that was the only way I knew how. I had to find a different way to work, one that valued my new relationship with body, time and energy. A process that is slow-burning, relies on a gentle and sustainable growing and unfolding, one that values curiosity over quick results, that meanders and hibernates and is tended to in tiny bursts. But this new process indulges my propensity to let ideas sit in a kind of creative quantum superposition of indecision. I have to push myself to make concrete things, then test how those ideas hold up in the physical world. I have to learn to love the imperfect draft that is more real than, and therefore superior to, the perfect idea. Simultaneously, within this process, I have to not be afraid to tear it all up and start again – and I have done this with shows in the past, reworking and rebirthing them until the form finally suits the content. But, most of all, I have to be very patient.

WHAT IS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON THE STATE OF INCLUSIVENESS IN THE ARTS AND ACCESSIBILITY?

It’s in a teething phase – we’re in the midst of a burst of awareness and good will from many corners of the arts – major companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company casting disabled actors in their seasons, strong initiatives from the Sydney Festival and Perth International Arts Festival to program the work of renowned professional disabled artists, and more strong female performers in the media breaking stigma around disability and beauty – Viktoria Modesta, Selma Blair, Jameela Jamil. But there are still more problems than solutions: casting can be tokenistic, reserved to minor incidental characters or overtly “freakish” roles (side-show performers, elves, monsters); Hollywood still preferences cripping-up to casting a disabled actor, and doesn’t seem to see why this is problematic – though movements like #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow and #DisTheOscars are a push against that trend; storylines are usually not from real disabled perspectives, and push harmful ableist view-points; and there is still a tendency that inclusion falls into a pattern of what Naomi Klein refers to as “trickle-down identity politics”, where opportunity is offered to those from privileged backgrounds with acceptable “easy” forms of disability, but there isn’t enough work being done for the most marginalised. Some of these are necessary-evils – stepping-stones on the way towards better visibility and more equitable inclusion – yes, a non-disabled actor taking a disabled role is preferable to no representation at all, and yes, a small tokenistic role is better than being entirely excluded from work. We’ve seen similar trends with the slow increase of People of Colour and LGBTQI representation (both fights which are also still not over), and I hope that disability inclusion can follow in that pattern. But Ali Stroker winning a Tony doesn’t suddenly mean we’ve solved the inclusion issue: 20% of people identify as disabled, but only around 2% of top grossing films and tv shows include a disabled character, and 95% of the time that character is played by a non-disabled actor, and written and created by non-disabled people. We need to do a hell of a lot better.

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS AND STIGMA AROUND INVISIBLE CHRONIC ILLNESS THROUGH ARTS PRACTICE?

Invisible Chronic Illness is a subset of disability that is often overlooked, even within the disability community. It also sits on a weird axis in disability politics, which creates its own internal conflict for me; part of Crip Pride is rejecting the notion of bodily fault and the need to be “cured”, but when you are actually sick, really, really sickall the time, yes, you do want that pain and suffering to go away. And so we receive lateral violence alongside the hostility from outsiders, and I think a large part of that stems from misunderstanding. The spectacle of disability art exploits a natural instinct for curiosity – like a modern-day freak show – but with disability-led arts practice, the power dynamic is flipped and we “freaks” control the narrative. Visibility and Story are our best weapons against the stigma and divisive myths that sustain those barriers, and Art allows us to rewrite those harmful and inaccurate cultural narratives with our own truth.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

There have been many moments in my life where I have entered a theatre and left it a different person; some transformative event had taken place in the darkness and shifted something inside me, sometimes something large and profound, but sometimes something small and intimate – my mind stretched by a new idea, the wonder of new possibilities, the resonance of a truth being told, the surprise of beauty, the feeling of being less alone. I want to make theatre that speaks to that part of us all that seeks out experience, and makes people feel more alive for having experienced it.

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?

It is a great pity that the artform I have given my heart to, live performance, is now largely inaccessible to me. I capture glimpses in the media of things happening, and can be inspired by the concepts or my imaginary idealised version of the work: I recently read about Nick Cave’s current tour, which mixes music with autobiographic monologue with questions from the audience, centering around his experience of bereavement, and something about the open, direct vulnerability of that, the type of unpretentious connection it creates, struck a chord with me. Occasionally colleagues will send me videos or scripts of their currently touring works, which is a great joy.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

A couple of years ago, my younger sister, who also lives with (different) chronic illnesses, recommended Ru Paul’s Drag Race to me as perfect bedridden viewing. Being, both ethically and interest-wise, not a big fan of reality television, I was reluctant. But one night in a bout of painsomnia, I took her advice, and as I binged through the seasons, became hooked. Perhaps it reminded me of the delirious stress of performing for a panel of Lecoq teachers, perhaps it made me feel a bit closer to my dearest yet distant friends who dabble in drag (here’s looking at you: Lady Bephany Landslide, Chianti Milan, Anna Drogynous). The biggest impact, though, was the slow seep-in of the underlying message behind the glitter; one of radical self-love, of owning, celebrating and performing your difference as an act of rebellion against a society that tells you that you should not exist. I felt the solidarity of the marginalised. The subtle change in my underlying thinking, from shame to performative defiance, was fundamental in me making the shift to openly and proudly identifying as disabled. So, when this most recent season’s winner, Yvie Oddly, was a queen with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, one of the rare conditions I live with, it was a beautiful and triumphant meeting of worlds.

I am breathlessly awaiting Anne Boyer’s new book, The Undying, and consuming any snippets I can find online. Her poetry-essays have been described as “a balm and a bomb”, which I think is a perfect summation. Boyer’s articles for Poetry Journal on her experience with breast cancer were an incredible salve to me when I first became ill, especially her righteous anger against the construct of the illness/wellness dichotomy manufactured by the capitalist machine. She was a formative influence in me becoming Politicised, instead of seeing illness as a failure of my body.

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