From Melbourne to London with promiscuous/cities
by Sarah Hall
For two decades, Professor Alyson Campbell has straddled the worlds of the academy and independent theatre, while recognising a tension between the two.
With the support of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, and the British Council, Campbell has just been in London with Dr Steve Farrier from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD).
Campbell and Farrier have organised an exchange between the RCSSD and the Victorian College of the Arts, for which Campbell has directed a production of promiscuous/cities, with a cohort of the school’s acting students.
Australian playwright Lachlan Philpott wrote promiscuous/cities when on a Fulbright scholarship, working with a group of MFA actors at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. The play encompasses one night in a big city where “each of us is frantically maintaining the myth of ourselves we’ve created”. The play explores queer lives and the relationship between online and embodied life. It is complex, and in Campbell’s RCSSD London production there was a cast of fourteen, with students in the roles of stage manager, deputy stage manager, assistant stage managers and lighting designer.
Among other things, Campbell has spent two decades as an academic working primarily at the University of Melbourne, is co-editor of Queer Dramaturgies with Steve Farrier and co-editor of a collection about performance and HIV called Viral Dramaturgies. Together with Lachlan Philpott, she has run a queer assemblage collective (“I wouldn’t call it a company”) called Wrecked All Prods for 20 years.
“When Steve and I wrote the introduction to Queer Dramaturgies, we had to do the impossible task of going, what is a queer dramaturgy and what makes a theater piece queer or performance work queer?” she says.
They ended up deciding that queer theatre needed to do more than have content about gay people and gay lives.
“We could go and see something at the National Theatre in London or at MTC or whatever, and there might be a gay character and she may not even die anymore,” says Campbell, deadpan.
“But that won't necessarily make it queer performance.”
They decided that queer theatre was more to do with the makers being queer, the work being directed towards a queer audience, and the relationship with the venue.
While in the UK, Campbell and some other leading thinkers in queer performance Dr Stephen Farrier, Dr Nando Messias, Dr Vanessa Macaulay, Meta Cohen and Amelia Cavallo, planned to hold a Roundtable Discussion (though it has been postponed twice for COVID reasons). Its synopsis read:
The roots of queer performance are present in the non-conformist, the antinormative and the anti-institutional. Despite these resistances, queer performance has found a strong concentration within the academy and is increasingly present in performer training. This discussion looks at this paradoxical homing, asking if it is a process of ‘domesticating’ queer performance by wrapping it into frameworks of learning and training.
“It becomes interesting when you take a play like promiscuous/cities into a university setting,” says Campbell.
The writer, director, composer and sound designer and many of the cast are queer.
“But the institution is not, and many of the cast are not,” says Campbell.
“But it's doing a lot queer things.”
Last year Campbell staged promiscuous/cities with a graduating cohort of VCA Theatre students to an empty theatre, in the midst of lockdowns. Shortly after, they were invited to perform with an audience at Midsumma in January, but that was also cancelled at the last minute, due to the Omicron wave.
“My history with [the performance] is utterly COVID affected,” says Campbell.
“[I’ve seen] two different third year graduating cohorts in their final show of that COVID affected generation.”
Campbell and Farrier will continue their conversation about queerness and the academy during the Australian leg of the exchange, while Farrier directs a performance with a cohort of VCA Theatre students.
- Find out more about promiscuous/cities
- Find out more about studying Acting and Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts
- The Victorian College of the Arts turns 50 this year! Find out how you can get involved