The Uncommercial Traveller: Melbourne (Punchdrunk & Arcola Theatre in collaboration with local Melbourne writers)
It’s late February in Melbourne town, the sun still beats down on the newly constructed tram works on Swanston Street. Young women dressed up in penguin costumes guide gaggles of newly minted college students around the city’s drinking holes and mishmash milk-crate cafes. The street is swimming with activity, suits, sandals, and straw hats; and I dive right in.
You see I’m heading into town with map in hand and MP3 player in ear to participate in Punchdrunk’s The Uncommercial Traveller: Melbourne. It’s an immersive theatrical audio tour of Melbourne written following a series of workshops with Melbourne writers and takes place at five locations across the city (and if all are done takes a little over an hour).
The Uncommercial Traveller is inspired by the wanderings of Charles Dickens through the streets of London. A classic flaneur he took to the streets to observe, idle and take in the stories, textures and vibrancy of the everyday experience. He’d observe the grit in life, both the tragedy and the sublime. The Uncommercial Traveler: Melbourne delves into the theatricality of experience and explores how a city can perform itself, and to a lesser extent how an audient can be guided through the everyday.
Each of the five works succeeds in this exploration in various ways. From the climbing of car park peaks, to the banging on the handleless metal doors of an exclusive men’s club. The work written by ten local writers seemed united by a thematic unity of tactility. Of touch and reaching for something behind that experience. In the sharp observance of the minutiae. I’ll never look the same way at a certain crayfish in the window of a Chinese restaurant again and perhaps I’ll not only look at the message in a sprawl of graffiti but wonder who wrote it and why.
Ironically the most successful moments of The Uncommercial Traveller is when the real life canvas forces you to diverge from the theatrical construction of the audio tour. The most striking example of divergence occurred in Ten Past The Hour by Laura Bentley & Kerith Manderson-Galvin. In the audio tour you are invited by a young female character to follow her around the corner of a church, pick one of the flowers from a garden bed and then play hide and seek with her. The real life divergence appeared as a physical barrier in the form of a group of police who were surrounding a large collection of tough looking teenagers. As the narrator reappeared in the audio tour, in real life one of the teens, a woman of about fifteen, was handcuffed and carted off into a police van by two bullish baby-faced policemen. The juxtaposition of real life image with the audio-tour was uncanny, unsettling, and at the same time a robust theatrical image.
Another intervention occurred in The Lobster Palace by Brienna Macnish and Bridget Mackey. This work starts with very specific, detailed and wry observations about a crustacean in a Chinese Restaurant. It then guides us into an open air car park and asks us to imagine what is happening below. Unfortunately, on the large wall of the car park a dozen French graffiti artists armed with hundreds of cans of paint, a cherry picker and a few ladders are busy painting one of the largest street works I’ve seen in a long time. Again, real life demanded my attention more than the audio tour.
What is obvious about this type of work is that it is going to have an individual response from each person. The audio tour attempted to guide our observations but this path was often blocked by the very happenings of everyday life which the work seemed to want us to observe. This begs the question; if the artwork guides us, slows us down to the beats and scenarios of the street is it then responsible for the juxtapositions of real life images with theatrical ones? Ten Past The Hour created one of the most unsettling theatrical images I’ve ever seen. Is that to it’s credit? Can a work like this allow for a dramaturgy of failure? In The Lobster Palace does the work allow for the unintentional but dramaturgically sound movement from the tiny details of a crayfish to large scale international public artwork?
I love collecting stories from the street. Other people have always seemed more interesting to me than the internal. So perhaps I was always going to be biased in my enjoyment of this work. For me it gave permission to slow down, to take things in, to linger, and in a time where word counts, deadlines and diaries demand prudent attention, the work of Punchdrunk is invaluable. I’d recommend you take a tour of Melbourne one day, perhaps guided by a young woman in a penguin suit or alternatively by Punchdrunk; the choice is really up to you.
(Download the audio tour here: http://artsfrontier.britishcouncil.org.au/?p=1130)