Melbourne’s Nicola Gunn hilariously subverts the serious matter of making theatre with young artists
In the last moments of Nicola Gunn’s Working with Children, a woman near me leaned to her date and said, “that’s stupid”. Some people don’t get Gunn’s theatre. That’s cool; if we all agreed, going to the theatre would be very boring. But Gunn’s work is far from “stupid”. With layers of meaning that may not be clear until hours later when you’re still thinking about it, it’s as unexpected and original as it is delightfully silly and brain-hurting serious.
Working with Children is described as a very worthy and timely examination of the moral complexities of working with young artists and children. Which is ideal for an artist who’s toured her work overseas and received some prestigious fellowships. It’s also especially relevant in Melbourne, which has recently seen a spate of productions for adults made with child performers. Local outfits the Rabble and Fraught Outfit have featured child performers, as have some remarkable Belgian companies visiting for Melbourne Festival.
Some of these shows left me exhilarated and cheering, while others left me wondering what’s going to happen when the young artists get older and understand the stories and images they were creating. Part of seeing work made with young artists is thinking about the creative process and their wellbeing.
For theatregoers who have seen these shows, there are bonus too-close-for-comfort laughs or uncomfortable silences in Working with Children.
There are no children in this work. Gunn, who also wrote, directed and designed, is safely alone on the stage. But she worked with a creative team of adults, including Kelly Ryall (sound – listen for the birds), Nick Roux (AV), Bosco Shaw (lighting) and Eugyeene Teh (costume and set).
With a sheer curtain backdrop splashed with geometric-shape projections and a spring-breeze movement, Gunn, in jeans and a white t-shirt, thinks aloud as she repeats choreography that’s part warm-up exercise and part Rock Eisteddfod for the kids who can’t dance. Its repetition, repetition, repetition can leave you screaming for change, or obsessed with looking for the differences and hoping that she does it all a few more times before the breeze becomes too strong. Or just hoping that she doesn’t slip on the floor that’s drying from the slip‘n’slide. There’s a slip‘n’slide; that’s all I can say.
Her quizzically-toned monologue follows the rhythm of her movement and includes wondering about the sex life of her neighbour, wondering why the children in a show-like-those-ones didn’t ask good questions on stage, and why no one told them how a sex toy worked. And a story about a mid-forties theatre director (Marten with an E) making a show with children.
At times, she talks to herself but it’s more directly to us. What seems introverted and personal is really about audiences and how we react to theatre. Are we wondering if Marten can work with children or wondering what’s being made on the slippery stage in front of us?
The complexity of Gunn’s work is found in its seemingly simple world. It’s theatre that seeps into your brain while you’re trying to figure it out. And you’re unlikely to have an experience that’s even similar to that of the person sitting next to you. Be OK with that. There’s nothing wrong being the only person laughing or the one who has no idea what the joke is. Or even the one who thinks the blue bi-carb volcano is stupid. But it’s not; it’s glorious.