Re-Imagine the World

July 6, 2012 § 7 Comments

I grew up in the church.

This won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me well – and for this reason I am still surprised when conversations grind to a halt when new acquaintances start asking me about my life and I answer them honestly.

Each new person that I come into contact with has a hand in my evolution, and I try very hard to work as a positive force in theirs. Sometimes it is the briefest of encounters that can change things. A friendly glance, a lingering hand, a five minute conversation, an hour in the back corner of a dimly lit bar.

Several years ago, when I was living in Korea, I read a book that changed my life. The author describes a Mediterranean Jewish peasant that dared to re-imagine the world and, through his parables, described a new reality that he constantly referred to as “the kingdom of God”. This kingdom was a liberating and terrifying place where being rich could not assure you righteousness; social class, ethnicity and gender were not signifiers of a person’s intrinsic worth; and people worked together to relieve the suffering of their neighbours. He made a lot of people angry. Angry enough to kill. The message was clear: the kingdom of God is not a utopia that we have to look forward to in another life, but a reality that we can work towards today.

Living in Korea exposed me to another of the profound guiding forces in my life. I think that “force” is quite an adequate way to describe Roger Rynd. Equally so would be director, mentor, mate. He would hate me to draw the parallel; but his vision of fostering friendships across the perceived boundaries of culture and language and opening up spaces for art to thrive wherever these friendships formed, have a lot in common with the efforts of the aforementioned labouring Jewish anarchist. Or maybe he wouldn’t mind: Roger is the son of a retired merchant navy chaplain, and we spent many hours in his apartment singing the old hymns while he kept time on his battered guitar. Roger passed away two years ago but his spirit is kept alive through his legacy – the artistic institutions that he helped found, and the network of friends and colleagues that he left behind.

In 2010 I sat down to a meeting with Dan Evans at Metro Arts, not long after Roger passed away, and told him that I wanted to give people in Brisbane an experience that they could only have wandering the back streets of Seoul. I told him that I wanted people to find themselves dragged underground – a portal to another reality that, by morning they would not be entirely sure was real. I rambled incoherently about “the transient nature of love” and being “caught across cultures, languages and genders”. I insisted that I wanted it to be real in every painstaking detail. That it would have music and dance, but it would not be a musical, or a cabaret: I could hardly even bring myself to call it a piece of theatre. Half the cast were Korean, and my partner, co-writer and composer Nathan Stoneham had just left to spend a year in Tonga without any reliable means of communication. It was the same conversation I had with Dave Sleswick several weeks earlier when I asked if his fledgeling company, Motherboard Productions would take me on. The only physical documentation I had was a half-finished piece of prose and some blurry photos that I had taken with my Holga on a drunken night out the year before.

And that was enough.

The seed of the work was so small and precious that I didn’t want to tell anyone, I didn’t want to spoil it. My friends knew that something was going on, but I didn’t have the language to tell them what it was. Liz Burcham and her team at Metro Arts got behind the work and bent all of the rules in doing so. McK McKeague was coaxed into designing and co-directing. I asked Noni Harrison to dress us and Hamish Clift to light us and Candice Diana to look after us. The personalities that were to inhabit this alternate reality were some of Rogers dearest friends and oldest collaborators: Tak Hoyoung, Park Younghee, Lee Chunnam, Thom Browning, Abe Mitchell, Nathan and I. We were joined in the space by Andy Ackerly, Alix Lencz, Kelsey Stables. Gerwyn Davies and FenLan Chuang helped document the underground, just in case we could never go back.

And at all times Roger’s wife Catherine Pease was just around the corner, at the other end of the phone, or pouring us a glass of wine.

Everyone took a gamble – none more so than the staff at Metro Arts and the board of the Australia-Korea Foundation (AKF) who gave us the money to make sure that we were not naked and that we would not starve and that there would be wine, beer and soju for everyone that made it to 지하 Underground. AKF is supporting us for the second year in a row, but those taking the real gamble are Britt Guy and the team at Brisbane Festival. For three weeks in September we are going to invite people to come underground with us.

And together, we are going to re-imagine the world.

PHOTO: Gerwyn Davies

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