Get set for a golden oldie with today’s archive feature, Living Rooms, which was staged at the historic Linden Gallery in 1986. You may recall our previous exploration of Paul Davies’ site specific work The Tram Show, which proved to be the catalyst for a long trend of site specific works that swept Melbourne throughout the eighties. Similar to The Tram Show, Living Rooms saw Davies continue his exploration of class division within the Southern suburbs through the lens of location based performance. It presented a notable contribution to TheatreWorks’ fast establishing legacy for daring, community based and experimental works.
As is the case with many of our ‘pre internet’ productions, digging into the archive of performance history is a challenge unto itself. Thankfully, Davies has written extensively on his own writing. Through access to his academic analysis of these past productions, I have been able to absorb and interpret these works ‘straight from the horses mouth,’so to speak.
Living Rooms consisted of three thirty minute scenes: The Drawing Room, The Flattette and The Gallery. The historic mansion where it was staged served as a symbol of St Kilda’s chequered history with each scene structured to represent a different historical and social moment associated with the suburb. As audience members entered the front of the building they were handed one of three coloured floor plans, effectively dividing them into three separate groups. Each scene was then staged simultaneously and repeated until everyone had witnessed the complete story, however in varied orders. A short, concluding scene was then staged in The Hallway which drew together all characters from the different time periods, and “the ‘house’ had the final say.”
Events in The Drawing Room took place on the eve of Federation in 1901, capturing the initial affluence of the area. Its narrative followed a soon to be deployed Lieutenant as he struggled to articulate his inner most feelings for the politically savvy mistress of the house, Estelle.
The construction of the St Kilda railway line later in the century granted, for the first time, those from the surrounding working class suburbs ready access to the seaside charm and allure of the area. Previous owners of the area were quick to flee the arrival of ‘commoners’, triggering a shift towards a new visage for the suburb for St Kilda; one that embraced sex work, illegal gambling and drug dealing. This rapid descent quickly usurped the abundance of once grand mansions that littered the area and saw them transfigured to cheap, densely packed boarding houses. Cue out second scene, The Flattete.
Events in The Flattete occurred on the eve of Whitlam’s electoral win in 1972. Here audiences met a Vietnam draft dodger as he planned to risk arrest and publicly celebrate the dawning of a new era in progressive politics and an end to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
The Gallery rounded out the trio of scene, taking place on the eve of the Bicentennial in 1988 (at the time of staging, the future!) This final chapter acknowledged the re-gentrification of the area, as educated, urban and middle classed Melburnians once again embraced the suburb’s quaint old buildings, seas side views and easy proximity to jobs in the city. Here we were introduced to Monika (a social worker) and her partner Leon (a town planner and architect) who entered the show as audience members under the pretence of attending a gallery a performance. As a fight between them broke out, they quickly realised that they themselves were in fact the show.
As the action of each room played out, their separation in time and space began to shift and crumble. Sounds, objects, narrative coincidences, and characters bled across from one space to another. At one point a blackout caused by Paul Bugden’s failure to pay his electricity bill in The Flatette allowed Cuthbert Beaumgardiner to wander from The Drawing Room into a suddenly darkened Gallery only to mistake Monika for his mistress.
In Living Rooms, Davies appears to argue against the trend of gentrification, while also making a case for the repurposing of historic building for public use and valuing the needs of local communities.
In the show notes for the production, Davies describes the ideology underpinning the show as a need to interrogate social progress.
“You need change, getting rid of certain things. But you require peoples desire for change. Living Rooms gets people involved in that future and the extraordinary things that have happened and are still happening here.”
In an essay for the University of Queensland, Davies describes the cultural and contextual events leading to the development of Theatre Works as a company and their choice to produce Living Rooms:
“In 1985 ‘Linden,’ by then a dilapidated boarding house, was purchased by St. Kilda Council with the intention of restoring it to its former architectural glory as a gallery and arts centre. Having just arrived in the area, Theatre Works saw an opportunity to extend their ‘location’ theatre project from items of public transport to an actual building. The ‘community theatre’ agenda of Living Rooms therefore, was to portray a sense of the building’s demographic roller coaster ride by situating the three major acts of a drama at these key moments of change: aristocratic seaside suburb, red light district, and up‐market gallery. In contrast to the plays on public transport, the ‘stage’ of Living Rooms’ remained static while here it was the spectators that moved. “
Paul Davies was a driving force in the creation of Theatre Works and is synonymous with the success and direction of the companies early creative endeavours. In addition to Living Rooms and The Tram Show, Davies was support by Theatre Works to embark on a long line of site specific works including Breaking Up In Balwyn (1983, on a riverboat) and Full House/No Vacancies (1989, in a boarding house), among others.
From within his writing, Davies speaks passionately and at length about his interest in the untapped potential of non traditional performance spaces and the ‘poly-dimensional’ experience of live performance (an increasingly common approach to performance from within the growing view that art should speak to and represent the everyday Australia.)
“Such stagings permitted spectators to be moved (literally) and implicated in the dramas they were witnessing in ways that were challenging and adventurous and effectively helped encourage theatre practise to regard all the world as a (potential) stage. …”
Six years on from the travelling nature of The Tram Show, critics appeared to regard Living Rooms with more a willing approach to participation than they did its predecessor. Living Rooms was subsequently met with acclaim and enjoyed extended seasons, playing to full ‘houses’ for several months.
Clark Forbes writing for The Herald quoted that:
“What could so easily end in mayhem works surprisingly smoothly. The result is a hugely enjoyable ramble round an inventive mind and a delightful extension of the normal theatrical boundaries.”
Helen Thomson of The Australian declared the work to be:
“inventive and intriguing,”
“community theatre at its best; socially relevant, artistically challenging, thought provoking in the contemporary issues it raises”
Finally, Leonard Radic noted in The Age that:
“Living Rooms “consciously sets out to extend the boundaries of theatre to give audiences a new and interesting experience. At that level it succeeds admirably. Who knows? It may even inspire one or two theatergoers to think about the environmental issues which the play raises.”
The full team of the 1986 production is listed below.
Written and Created by
PAUL DAVIES, CAZ HOWARD, ANDREA LEMON, PETER SOMMERFELD
KEVIN COTTER, PAUL DAVIES, CLIFF ELLEN, AZ HOWARD, PETER SOMMERFELD, ROSIE TONKIN
Much of this article was researched from the following article written by Paul Davies and published by the School Of Drama, Fine Art and Music, Faculty of Education & Arts, The University of Newcastle, Australia.
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