Being in Manila, presenting Symposium Royale

Sipat Lawin’s Meila Romero and JK Anicoche at Symposium Royale

This week back in Manila, hanging with fellow playwrights Sam Burns-Warr, Georgie McAuley and Jordan Prosser, my co-writers of Battalia Royale. Since last rolling to the Philippines with these guys, we’ve adopted the collective name of Too Many Weapons, which is a good name (albeit already taken by a Texan hardcore outfit, but we can share). Anyway, we’ve come back to Manila for two reasons:

1. To attend the third season of Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s Battalia Royale, which is on at Museo Pambata, previewing TONIGHT. Things are getting pretty exciting on this front, we attended a rehearsal at the abandoned school in Cubao the other day, and yesterday morning I even did a 7.30am radio interview on FM radio in Mandaluyong with Isab Martinez and Meila Romero. Battalia Royale is a site-specific interactive performance, an adaptation of Koushon Takami’s pulp thriller Battle Royale, in which a class of high school students are kidnapped and forced to fight one another until only one is left alive.

Battalia Royale image from Theaterati.

This has been one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with in my life, and a culmination of conversations with director JK Anicoche starting back at the beginning of 2009, so it’s pretty extraordinary to be finally here to see it happen.

However, as well as attending the show, we came here for a very specific purpose:

2. To present Symposium Royale. When Battalia Royale premiered in February this year, the audience response was way out of proportion to anything we (the playwrights or Sipat Lawin) had anticipated. There was fan fiction, fan art, fan tumblrs and a fan club, as well as over 2,600 live participants at six shows. And the audience response at the shows themselves was above and beyond anything we were prepared for – shouting, screaming, cheering and general chaos. Sipat Lawin constructed an extraordinary experiential work, but still – it was properly out of hand. The scale of audience reaction was enough to get the show coverage on international news services including Reuters, BBC, Al-Jazeera and CNN. Meanwhile, the critical reaction from bloggers and professional reviewers ranged from extremely positive to thoroughly dubious – what was the point or value in presenting this hyper-violent work on stage? Were we making a point or just ‘getting our kicks watching kids destroy each other’?

As the writers, Sam, Georgie, Jordan and myself had lots of thoughts in response to these questions, but no clear answers. Three out of the four of us have not even seen a full performance of the play, so we had no proper idea of the experience from an audience perspective. Nevertheless, we were fascinated by what had happened and we wanted to know more – as well as to stand behind our work and answer any criticisms personally.

So with that in mind, we presented a forum at the Cultural Center of the Philippines entitled Symposium Royale. To an audience of more than 40 we discussed the background of the play, the process of creating the work, and highlighted some of the more interesting reviews and fan responses to the work. Then we held an open discussion asking artists and audiences alike for their opinons on the work, what they took from it and whether they thought the portrayal of violence was justified, or how the production fit into a Filipino context.

We had a range of fascinating responses. Battalia Royale fan club (should we call them that?) Class Love provided an insight into why they had created their own alternative class in the Battalia Royale world. One gentleman explained how the experience had evoked memories of a hostage situation, and how it had revived his sense of urgency in being involved in peace advocacy. A number of people described attending the work over a number of different nights and how their understanding and appreciation of it had changed and evolved over different runs. Several theatre artists helped us place the work in the greater context of recent Pinoy theatre. Overall, the experience was pretty extraordinary and humbling.

Sam and I chattin.

One thing that Symposium Royale hammered home was how lucky we are to be associated with a group like Sipat Lawin Ensemble. My association with Sipat goes back to their first production in 2009 of my script To Heat You Up And Cool You Down (alongside Bent) at the Penguin Cafe in Malate. I was blown away then by their skill, dedication and uncompromising creativity. That respect has grown exponentially with every subsequent partnership.

It’s also a very particular kind of pleasure to be back here working with Jordan, Sam and Georgie. I met Sam when I was in my final year of high school and he was in his first, when Jackal and I assistant directed in the Radford College Junior Drama production Three Who Would, which Sam was featuring in. Sam then exchanged some of his early scripts with me, as well as featuring in some early Boho works including w3 w3lcome the future (2003). Jordan I met when I was running the WET Season at Belconnen Theatre in 2007 and provided Radford College with a drama prize (which Jordan won), curating and producing a work by one graduating drama student. This is a creative relationship which has gradually grown and blossomed, to the point that we are now living together (with the excellent Georgie McAuley, also a Radford graduate) in a 10th floor apartment overlooking Rizal Park in Metro Manila.

The moral of this story is, treasure your collaborators. Life is very long, and over time, amazing opportunities will arise to do things with the right people.

the end of a sudden rush of Finnigan and Brother activity

image by adam thomas

Well, Colombia is pretty magic.

For five weeks over July-August, my brother Chris and my self were living and working in the city of Medellin in central Colombia. Or more precisely, just above the city of Medellin, on the north-east slopes of the valley that leads upwards to the town of Santa Elena and the peaks of the Andes. We were in residence at 19th century coffee plantation-turned-artist-residence Campos de Gutierrez, writing and composing a series of new music and spoken word pieces.

Although the farmhouse was built in 1844, Campos is a very young arts space – Chris and I were the 11th and 12th artists in the residents program, which kicked off a year ago in mid-2011. Debonair artist and curator Andres Monzon was born and raised in Medellin, but his family moved to the US in the late 90s to escape the violence and corruption, and Andres studied as an artist in Florida, New York and Korea. Returning to Colombia in 2010, Andres was inspired to transform his old family home into a space for international artists to live and create in the lush beauty of the equatorial mountains.

image by adam thomas

Chris and my self operate in a duo called Finnigan and Brother – Chris plays guitar, loops and FX, and I say words and sometimes play an FM/AM radio. We’ve worked and played together for most of our lives, but since 2007 we’ve also collaborated musically, placing my spoken word and fragmented stories against Chris’ ambient psychedelia. We’ve performed at festivals and concerts in and around Canberra and presented a live radio play on Sydney’s FBI Radio, but owing to life circumstances we haven’t been able to play together much in the last two years. So we applied to Campos and they accepted us. And over the course of a month, in between hanging with our awesome fellow residents, exploring Medellin, exploring Colombia, chilling with the cow cat dog and roosters, Chris and I locked ourselves in our beautiful (haunted) downstairs studio and hammered out 18 new songs. We had planned to play a gig while we were over there and ended up playing four, including an outdoor gig in the town of Altavista, a performance as part of a Latin American dance event at La Mantana que Piense in Itagui, and presenting our own solo concert at the Centro Plazarte Gallery.

Colombia was manic – so much so that I feel like I don’t even have the energy to talk about it – and inspiring and exhausting and exciting and – and –

at plazarte. image by michaela dabson

So we got back several weeks ago. We flew over the Antarctic ice shelf (it is pretty!), landed in Australia, then a few hours later we were setting up in the Phoenix Pub for our feature set at the Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! poetry slam. Bad Slam is always fun, but this was without doubt the best time I’ve ever had at that event – amazing poetry, great mix of readers and writers, and Chris and I had heaps of fun playing. We played a tune that we’d written in honour of the fact that we were sharing a bill with Fred Smith (our song Fireflies in the Dark is an echo of Fred’s song Blue Guitar, with political unrest in Colombia replacing political unrest in the Solomon Islands), we played a song about making art in Canberra named after our beloved Skyspike, we played our ridiculous 90s Spin Doctors cover, and we were finally able to try out our tune Anyone Can Play A Christian Music Festival, which had never felt like a good fit for our Colombian audiences.

Exactly one week later we performed our second Canberra set, featuring as part of Scissors Paper Pen‘s new storytelling evening Something Else at Smiths Alternative Bookshop. Smiths has become my favourite Canberra venue, and it was lovely to perform some of the slower, sadder and more abstract tunes that wouldn’t work in a noisy pub. Also we performed our cover of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, about which all I can say is,

image by adam thomas

And then we did a live set on 2XX FM on the Live and Local show with Leon Twardy, Bad Slam’s Andrew Galan and Ashley Harrison. And it was great, good debates about the Canberra arts scene punctuated by a few songs performed live on air.

So then, next, what next, we travelled to Melbourne for the week, where the redoubtable Nickamc, aka Mr Nick McCorriston, had invited Finnigan and Brother to record our new material at the RMIT studios. So we entered into a world of strange new luxury, plugging our instruments into sleek high-functioning machinery, yelling our spittle-ridden nonsense into finely filtered microphones and performing our semi-coherent Colombian fairy tales to the padded basement walls. And Nickamc took us well in hand, too, squeezing us for the best performances we could give, tweaking every element of the sound and feel until we stumbled onto something new and real-feeling. And Nickamc’s RMIT comrades jumped in as well, with a Mr Cameron even stepping in to play the filing cabinet for Elephants at the Walls when I proved myself utterly incapable of keeping the beat. And at last, we had 18 tracks recorded, and while we mixed them we debated and discussed which song will go where, what makes it to the album and in what order, and what’s the B-side of a B-side, and so on. And that was fun, believe me.


image by adam thomas

And now: so for now, we put Finnigan and Brother aside for a brief moment. I’m going to the Philippines in a couple of days and then London, and Chris has another band plus his solo recording plus an imminent interstate move up his sleeve, and so for the next few weeks we pretend that this all never happened.

Then, over October and November, the tracks will be mixed and mastered, ready for the release. When December hits, we start work on the music video for our I-want-to-call-it-a-single-but-really-what-does-that-mean song, a love story about our nation’s fair capital. And just as Christmas returns every year, with no hurry or delay discernible in its steady approach, so Finnigan and Brother will return, strolling towards you

with a sack full of presents.

image by adam thomas

image by adam thomas