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Why do I keep making works about flight?

So here I am, over a week since my theatre work The Swallows, a collaboration with some wonderful artists, finished its sell out season to critical acclaim at La Mama theatre in Melbourne.

It was an amazing experience, and I felt so honoured to work with this team, including actor Helen Morse, who is legendary in Australia for her roles on stage and screen, including iconic Australian films Caddie and Picnic at Hanging Rock, and TV series A Town like Alice, and many many credits in main stage and experimental independent theatre productions, including my work Duets for Lovers and Dreamers in 2010. Helen is an amazing, powerful and dedicated actress who really cares deeply about what she is working on. Throughout the process of The Swallows, on and off over the couple of years from when we started working on The Swallows in 2022, Helen and I would catch up for a chat on the phone, or sometimes meet in person. Then after our team (with musician/performers Ria Soemardjo and Helen Mountfort) had a small development at the end of March, Helen caught a train weekly to my house in Reservoir throughout April. We would read the script, hone the language and eat lunch together. It was sort of a process of ’embodied dramaturgy’ with Helen responding very directly to the language as an actor. If something didn’t resonate we would explore that, both from the perspective of the text and of the nuance of embodiment of it. I learnt a lot from Helen during this time. It was an interesting time for me in terms of my house. As some of you know who have read other posts here or on facebook, I have had some challenges with my housing situation. The Swallows also delved a little into the challenges of urban living and housing, and there was something very comforting about meeting and working with Helen there during that quite vulnerable time.

I also loved working again with my close music collaborator Ria Soemardjo, a sublime vocalist and sound artist who crosses into movement and installation with her beautiful work. We first created performance work together in 2001, a shadow work when I was very pregnant with my first child. We also created a site specific performance work in 2014, where Ria poured tea and sang as part of a larger installation. Then more intensively over the last 5 years, we have gone on to create quite a body of work together, each one getting more refined. The Swallows was first inspired by an audio walk we created together for the City of Darebin Fuse Festival during COVID lock downs in 2020. It then continued developing through the chain of other works leading up to it, some of which you can see on my performance site if you are interested. I find it so effortless to work with Ria and we are so often on the same page with our ideas so it is exhilarating and very productive. Also I could listen to Ria sing forever.

Cellist Helen Mountfort was also inspiring to work with. She is a multidimensional musician, composer and performer who is so creative and inventive. Here’s a little snippet of Helen creating during our process. This was my first time working with her, but Ria has worked closely with her for years in their group Fine Blue Thread.

I was also blessed to work with my dear friend and collaborator Jo Mott. Jo created a delicate ephemeral set which lighting designer Shane Grant interacted with beautifully. There was a beautiful symbiosis between the two. I loved how Jo thought about the lighting right from the start with her design, using leaves, reeds, hanging pieces and even a mobile of swallows. She also integrated my map lanterns idea into the design which ended up being symbolic of urbanisation, toll roads and loss waterways and habitat, and yet created a beautiful mystical ambience in the work. Jo and I have been friends since the beginning of high school and have worked on may projects together crossing theatre, installation and community workshops.

Another wonderful aspect of this project for me personally was working with my young adult son Aaron for the second time, and seeing him blossom and gain confidence working with such a skilled and dedicated team. He has now got into a course on production and technical management which is exciting for me. Aaron especially learnt a lot on the project from Cole McKenna, a creative logistics extraordinaire who has worked with Ria and I a total of 4 times now (and we adore him). Here is our team, minus our producers Kath and Takashi, our videographer Takeshi Kondo and photographer Darren Gill. Also a candid shot of Ria Soemardjo and Helen Morse. Both photos taken by Cole McKenna.

There are so many examples while in rehearsals for this show which demonstrate how making something theatre which is meaningful and impactful often feels like flying by the seat of your pants. For so many years I felt like I have to know exactly what I am doing and be very together to be considered ‘professional’. I hid the imbalance and instability of my life so people wouldn’t think I was ‘unprofessional’. I also felt there was something wrong with the fact that I didn’t know exactly what the outcome will be, and even though at a deep level I trusted my instinct, I would often lose connection with it if others doubted me. I talked about this a bit in my recent post ‘At home with my friend Rejection Dysphoria’.

As a child I made theatre with such knowingness, until at some point, probably at school where we have to live up to someone else’s standards , I started to judge myself. Now I have no idea at all what it means to be professional. I accept that everything I make is created out of instability, out of not knowing, out of play, risk, going beyond knowledge and beyond known experience, riding the chaos and uncertainty that arises as you go. I am slowly accepting that the fear will not go away. It never gets smaller. We just get bigger. This is something all artists must make peace with.

I have not always been able to hold such a calm stable place whilst in the middle of great uncertainty. The main difference now is that I trust my instinct. I trust a more knowing version of myself, one who is way ahead of me, who guides me along, and distracts me away from the doubtful and judging thoughts, keeping the flow of inspiration and instinct going even when the outcome is not fully clear yet.

With this work, The Swallows, I really didn’t know how it was going to land until production week when we were all in the theatre together. As a highly composed piece of theatre every element is crucial. The length of the space, the design, the lighting, the sound, and the live performance aspects all are intricately linked. And the rhythmic relationship between all of these interlinking elements were key to creating a coherent work that would conjure a physical and visceral response rather than just an intellectual response. I knew instinctively what this rhythmic alignment would feel like if we could get it, but didn’t get to experience it in full till we were in the space and fine tuning the technical elements, the week of the performance.  So it took a large amount of faith from all of us to trust in the unfoldment of this composition.

There were times when I thought ‘oh no, this could be really bad’ and was filled with fear, disappointment and dread. But I kept clearing those thoughts away and focussed on allowing the next best steps to come to me. What tweaks and adjustments were needed?

And they did. In a constant flowing stream, the next best steps came to me. Many little shifts and adjustments and details. Like the fine detailing of a clay sculpture. And suddenly, it flowed, with a compositional beauty and depth that I recognised as soon as I saw it. With much relief. Yes. It’s going to work.

I couldn’t think of anything else during that time. I couldn’t do much mentoring (my mentee Henry was very understanding!), and I had to leave my VCAT compensation claim, related to issues with my landlord, aside. I couldn’t get on to my website and write a blog or do anything in my business. My finances slowed to a halt.

I had to keep hiring a car, because I had no headspace to think about what car to buy to replace the one that was stolen months back.

I was buying food out more, rather than cooking because I didn’t have the brain power to shop and prepare food properly a lot of the time. I missed a doctors appointment which I had to pay a fee for. I forgot to email people about the show till it had opened.

It took all my focus and headspace. Not thinking as such, but more ‘dreaming’. It was like a space of ‘dreaming’ just came over me. That state of ‘hyperfocus’, often associated with ADHD, where it is impossible to focus on anything else but the object of the focus. But however you might want to label it, this only highlights the power and beauty of our brains when allowed to flow in a way which is natural to us. Regardless of whether or not we identify with the experience of ‘Neurodivergence’, what we can achieve when bringing a hyperfocus state together with something we love, our calling if you like, while removing money, success, power etc out of the equation, is powerful beyond words.

So I allowed myself the space to ‘dream’ through the whole thing.  Outside of rehearsals, and even during the show’s season, I gave myself full permission and space to do this. To just immerse myself in my imagination of the world of The Swallows, and let the next best move come to me from that. Often just tiny tweaks- sound tweak, a timing tweak, an interpretive tweak, a spatial tweak, a volume tweak, a lighting tweak. Each show there was something. The team also. It was a lovely atmosphere of shared permission to keep tweaking and evolving it, seeing it get more and more detailed as it went. Even the last show had tweaks and changes. And there is still more to come before we do it again. Because there is only so far you can get with one season. But I am very proud of working with this team to create this work, and so thankful of the support and willingness of the team to continually let it evolve and synthesise.   

So why do I keep making works about flight? Especially about birds. And is this the last one? I am just starting to pack up my house ready to move. Now my kids are adults, and I am learning to find my wings, I am ready fly. I think making this work has really taken me to the edge, ready to leap. It was in a sense a shamanic experience. A ritual of faith and trust in the greater currents which we can ride when attuned to it. No more bird works in the pipes at the moment but let’s see.

Here are some other of my bird works: Birdcage Thursdays, performed by Geneive Picot, Sophia Constantine and Sandra Fiona Long, director Caitlin Dullard and designer Jo Mott at fortyfivedownstairs, How the nightingale so innocently loved (or how it feels to make art) Director Wawan Sofwan (Bandung Indonesia), Windcrafters bird spinner workshops (also with Jo Mott) and Swallow Walk, an audio guided walk created with Ria Soemardjo

I don’t know if I will keep making works about flight. Let’s see. We are awaiting video from The Swallows, so I will share that when it is ready. If you want to know more about The Swallows, see our producer’s page here: https://kathpapas.net/the-swallows/

And feel free to reach out with enquires about lanterns!

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