Nicola Gunn is one of Melbourne’s most adventurous theatre-makers and live artists. The first time we saw her perform, it was a hilarious and entirely participatory show called Hello My Name is, set inside a community hall where an audience performs all variety of activities ranging from the banal to the extraordinary. It was part aerobics session, part life drawing class and part surreal stand-up set.
She pushes the envelope of audience expectations, so it’s safe to say Gunn is used to dealing with unpredictable reactions. But when she started work on a new live art project in 2016 – which had children at its core – Gunn was shocked by the response.
“I did kind of find it horrendous and terrifying because kids are not scared to tell you when something sucks,” she says. “They’re very honest and they just show you when they’re bored. It’s super demoralising, and it’s mean. What’s so great about it is that they’re just not programmed with this kind of social etiquette yet.”
In the project, called Playing Shop, Gunn facilitates an art fair by child artists aged six to ten. It’s still in development, but Gunn is now exploring the relationship between adult artists and the kids they work with as the launchpad for a new show at Melbourne Theatre Company.
"...what does a child represent symbolically that we find compelling?"
Working With Children is a one-woman show that tells the story of an artist who works with children. It’s not based on Gunn’s own experiences – or really any individual’s experiences – but Gunn was inspired to make the show after seeing an explosion in the number of artists using children in their work.
“I didn’t really have any real opinions on [the trend],” Gunn says. “I just became curious about the rationale behind it and the fascination in it; why is watching a child so compelling? And what does a child represent symbolically that we find compelling?”
Gunn immediately discovered there were extensive regulations around how artists work with young people, ranging from prohibited content to the fact that an artist cannot be alone in a space with a child and that even teenagers must have a chaperone to take them to and from a bathroom.
“What we think of as art-making; that’s supposedly a very creative, freeing process, but it became very structured and regulated and inhibited,” she says.
“I inevitably began thinking: what are we protecting children from? Apart from obvious dangers. The idea of child restricted content – things like nudity – I just think, why is a naked body not suitable for children, and what is that saying? It’s kind of making something more shameful than it needs to be.”
She also started to wonder if the very reason an artist might use a child in their work is compromised by these restrictions.
“I find it really interesting, what content is appropriate,” she says. “The stuff kids say, do and think about is not appropriate for them to do, say and think about on stage in front of an audience… I guess an artist wants this kind of creature on stage because it’s like a real thing – a real child, a real teenager – but at the same time they’re not being real or authentic, because they can’t be.”
If that all sounds like particularly heavy material, audiences needn’t worry – it’ll be delivered in Gunn’s trademark comedic style as she narrates this story for an audience.
"The stuff kids say, do and think about is not appropriate for them to do, say and think about on stage in front of an audience…"
Gunn previously presented Green Screen as part of Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon independent season, but this new show is part of Neon Next, which means it was commissioned by the company. While MTC has very much a hands-off approach to Gunn’s work, she says it’s a very different process to the one she usually experiences working as an independent artist.
“You ask for something one day, and the next day it turns up in the rehearsal room,” she says. “It’s very luxurious and something that I have to be careful that I don’t get used to. It’s a really nice way of working.”
The other major difference is that Gunn’s work, usually seen in venues that are more experimental or focused on performance art than traditional theatre, will have to play for audiences who mightn’t usually see the kind of boundary-pushing work that she creates.
“Hopefully it reaches both ends of the spectrum – the traditional theatre-going audience and the people that are more attuned to contemporary performance and live art. I think the work is accessible to both.”
Working With Children is at Southbank Theatre from August 30 to September 29.