Willow Sizer on cowboys, taxes … and fighting the status quo

L–R Willow Sizer and Rachel Lewindon. Image by Lucy Cawood.
L–R Willow Sizer and Rachel Lewindon. Image by Lucy Cawood.

Willow Sizer, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2017 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Music Theatre), is one of 30 student and alumni artists from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music to take part in First Commissions, for which artists were commissioned to create new works inspired by historically significant artworks, with no knowledge of the source material. Here, she discusses her artistic response.

Hi Willow, can you tell us about Cowboys and Taxes, your work for First Commissions? 

Cowboys and Taxes looks at the imbalance of power in Australia and the silencing effect of the poverty line. We [Sizer and University of Melbourne Interactive Composition alumna Rachel Lewindon] also examine pop culture, as we see it as the current means of hearing stories and voices.

We created four comedy sketches, three of which are parody music videos. We wanted a strong aesthetic from the start – it’s super trendy, jovial and fashionable, yet weirdly eclectic. It’s very ironic, and a little cutting. There’s a through line of consumerism/ falsity that ties all the sketches together.

The brief you were given was: “Create a work that examines debates in your society about an ongoing struggle to give voice to the powerless.” How did you feel about that?

I thought the brief was incredibly ironic. I see my privilege very clearly, having been chosen to attend a prestigious arts school, in being encouraged to pursue art by my family, and everything that has happened in my life on my journey to be there. It hasn’t been "easy", but I have been incredibly fortunate. I thought it was funny – giving me a voice to talk about people who are "voiceless". My initial response was, “Give them a voice – why is that so difficult?” So that’s kind of what I did. We asked ourselves, "Why aren’t we hearing the voice of the powerless?"

Usually you perform live. So why did you choose to film your work – and how did you collaborate with filmmakers?

I've been thinking for some time about embracing film in my work. It’s very modern for me and I’m not particularly tech-savvy. Recently, I’ve been mulling over the way society uses the internet and how we’re receiving the majority of our information and art through visual media, especially film. It's a huge part of our lives and culture. I’ve been floating the idea around for a while about adapting political variety acts and somehow getting that online, to reach more people.

First Commissions was the perfect opportunity because the project allowed all of the artists access to the Faculty of Fie Arts and Music's facilities. And on a practical level, I could finally afford to make the works, buy costumes and have a cast and crew.

Another great thing about film is that it sticks, it’s there forever – your contribution to the internet ethos is floating there, eternal. Of course, there's the beauty of live performance as a unique one-off event, but there’s something wonderful about eternity.

I chanced upon Andrew Mills’ [University alum and Funnies Writer at The Project, who worked as director of photography and editor on the films] when I was sounding ideas with a friend of mine. I showed her my scripts and she said, ‘You’ve got to get Andrew’. She sent him a really funny text, something ridiculous like, “They’re making four sketches, three parody musical videos, one sketch is funny ... they can pay you!’ "and he replied within five minutes.

Andrew has a real talent for capturing humour cleanly and simply, and an eye for style. It was an incredible experience working with him. I’d see these images in my mind and we’d sit in the editing room and it would materialise. I work visually and it was surreal having my visions come to life.

He’s made a name for himself in my social circles as being generous, easy to work with, and really wanting to get his work out there. It was the same with the whole cast and crew really – teamwork makes the dream work! Everyone I collaborated with came with rave reviews from my peers. It was one of the most blissful artistic processes I’ve had. Everyone in the crew is in the same boat as twenty-something artists, making a little from the honorariums and turning up for the banter and good catering.

How did you develop and change as an artist through your time studying Music Theatre at the VCA?

I gained so much perspective. It’s a course of immense variety so I had many discoveries and experiences in my time there. It deepened my knowledge as a writer through studying text, working through them and discussing the historical effect and background of the art.

I learnt that I had the power to decide how I told a story and what stories I wanted to tell. The course not only encourages actors to think of themselves as artists, but teaches the power that artists can wield, the power of our voices. We were encouraged to get creative and make bold choices and take risks.

[Former Head of Music Theatre] Margot Fenley was the coordinator during my time. She spearheaded this wonderful idea: change. Music theatre as an artform is often associated with tradition and the status quo. It can easily be an artform where change doesn’t to happen – if a show is a jolly old success, we can keep using the same feel-good recipe over and over. Margot really believed in music theatre as a platform for change – and what an empowering way to see it!

I also learnt about the importance of representation and how life-affirming it is to see yourself on a mainstage. As a result, I am more aware of the impact I make. I am constantly asking questions of myself and my work. What am I contributing? What ideas am I encouraging? What is the use of this stuff if it’s prolonging an oppressive status quo?

An important idea from the beginning of writing Cowboys and Taxes was I wanted to cast and write for the change I want to see in all industries. More diversity and creative representation, different bodies and backgrounds and stories.

What’s next for you, Willow?

Who knows! At this point in my career I’m going with wherever the industry is taking me. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster right now – one minute I’m travelling to Canberra with a burlesque company, the next I’m in Brunswick singing weird opera.

I’ve got a couple of exciting musical projects I’m performing in soon. The next one is Ghost Quartet by the wonderful writer Dave Malloy at Gasworks Arts Park this month with Antipodes Theatre Co. It’s a bizarre four-hander thriller where we accompany ourselves. It’s wonderful to be playing instruments again, and the music is exquisite.

I also want to initiate more change in the industry – so I’m thinking of producing a Savoy opera sometime in the future. It will be diverse and completely exciting. I want to excavate the bedrock of political music theatre and see what waves we can make!