Kids Killing Kids review round-up

Alright, it’s time. A review round-up for Kids Killing Kids.

Quick background: myself and Sam Burns-Warr, Georgie McAuley and Jordan Prosser (aka Too Many Weapons) created a documentary theatre work entitled Kids Killing Kids about our experience creating Battalia Royale with Sipat Lawin in Manila over 2011-12. MKA and the Q Theatre produced it, Bridget Balodis directed it, Mel Koomen designed it, and we performed it at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, Crack Theatre Festival in Newcastle and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith over the last two months. Among other good things, we won the Melbourne Fringe Festival’s award for Best Experimental Performance. So there’s that.

The response to the show was fascinating – as JK Anicoche and Sarah Salazar from Sipat joked, we had our own baby version of the controversy surrounding Battalia. This sampling of reviews hopefully gives you some idea of how people felt about the work. (And all these dope images, of course, are by the extraordinary Sarah Walker.)

Aussie Theatre
by Anne-Marie Peard

I thought Kids Killing Kids was astonishing; the friend I saw it with was astonished that I even applauded at the end.  We’re not the only people experiencing such a chasm of differing opinion about this show that’s pushing buttons and forcing a discussion that extends way beyond the smugness of “is it good theatre?”.

As writers, they told it with a mixture of honesty and distance, created a structure and likely bent the truth to make the story better.  Their story kept asking “and then what?” and they underscored it with a dilemma that has more questions than solutions.

Did they make a successful piece of art that should be celebrated or a piece of crap that continues to do harm?

They don’t answer this. And imply many more questions about violence, the western eye looking at the Philipines, their own skills, what the hell they were doing there in the first place, and whether they should have done or still do anything to address the criticism. Again, they don’t answer these questions, but the audience do.

It’s these answers that are making this one of the most talked about shows this festival. And this is the success of Kids Killing Kids. So many shows are forgotten by the time the first post-show drink is orders; this one is resulting in arguments and discussions and anger and elation. Any work that does this is damn good theatre.

Thank you Anne-Marie. And it’s true that this dilemma has more questions than solutions.

Issimo Mag
by Tim Richards

The story of Battle Royale is an undeniably interesting one, and the quartet expertly lead us through its history to a selection of live footage, its shock factor amplified by our psychological preparation.

The collective’s members seem sincerely torn by whether the work they created was harmful, and it’s a gripping tale; but they never do resolve the three questions they say were often posed to them: “Why here? Why now? Why you?” The result is a show that’s both fascinating and a little unfulfilling, posing more questions than it answers.

So Tim Richards from Issimo Mag feels that the show is a little unfulfilling as we pose more questions than we answer – on the flip-side…

Australian Stage
by Jodi McAlister

This show offers no answers, and this is one of the main reasons it is so deeply interesting. It is not a defence of Battalia Royale, but rather a sincere exploration of what it means to make art and what happens when art assumes its own life. Does the artist have a duty to make sure their art is moral? How do you know when art becomes actively harmful? What is the role of the artist in a work like this, which has spawned a fandom so far out of their domain of control?

The fact that questions like these can be raised – questions which are fascinating in the critical sphere – in something which is itself art, is something I find truly amazing. I’m not normally a huge fan of meta-theatre, which I generally find self-indulgent, but Kids Killing Kids is genuinely exhilarating. It’s the kind of theatre which leaves you slightly breathless, the kind of theatre that gives you an adrenaline rush. It’s viscerally, as well as intellectually, exciting.

There seemed to be a split between those audience members who wanted us to answer the questions that we raised and those who preferred them to be left hanging. The truth is, we probably would have answered them if we could – but if we’d had those answers, we may well not have bothered doing the show in the first place. We certainly could have discussed the issues more deeply, but these are the challenges of condensing an incredibly complex story with lots of threads into an hour long show. Even to convey the basic facts – who, what, where, when – took so much time and required so much explanation, that if we’d wanted to get into more in-depth discussions, it would have been a two-hour work at least.

And maybe it should have been. But certainly when we were making it, we never considered that people would want to sit through two and a half hours of this story. Things you learn, hey.

Theatre Press
by Myron My

The production of Kids Killing Kids is slick: the writing is sharp and the flow of information is smooth and well-thought-out. However, I did have a problem with the emotive but obvious pauses and silences and questioned their dramatic purpose being in conflict with their authenticity. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the four people involved, but such theatrical devices remind me I am watching a deliberate performance rather than sharing this real-life experience with them.

But perhaps this is the point. Is it a documentary? Is it theatre? Either way, MKA: Kids Killing Kids is going to leave any artist with a lot of questions about the complex roles we play in creating theatre and what boundaries we should and should not cross.

Man, what do you do with this? Myron’s right, there is a natural tension between theatrical devices and a simple retelling, but how do you do a simple retelling to an audience of strangers, night after night? You can’t tell a story to a group of 50+ randoms the same way you’d tell a group of friends a story around a dinner table. How to resolve this?

Sydney Arts Guide
by Mark Pigott

The theatre group Too Many Weapons have produced a fascinating and intriguing drama. It is an engrossing documentary substantially narrated live but also includes videos, slides and audio clips augmenting the performance. Whether it is a documentary or a play is irrelevant as it is such a great piece of theatre.

The presenters explain their feelings about the somewhat out of control developments that continued to snowball. Their exposition is a very thoughtful piece of theatre reflecting on theatre. They examine the purpose of theatre and their responsibility to the audience and the cast members with candour and honesty. Too Many Weapons’ script is excellent, Bridget Balodis’ direction is sharp and Melanie Koomen’s design is exactly what is required.

Mark Pigott meanwhile comments on our candour and honesty. There’s a split here, between audiences accusing us of being deceitful and audiences commenting on our sincerity.

The Age
Cameron Woodhead

The four theatremakers – David Finnigan, Georgie McAuley, Jordan Prosser and Sam Burns-Warr – give a tag team lecture on their exploits, complete with slides and recorded segments. It’s delivered with a sense of barely controlled elation, both from the intensity of twentysomethings living overseas, as well as the wild success of their play and the controversy it generated.

That lens seems slightly inappropriate given the playwrights were so ignorant of the country they were working in they did not realise it had real child soldiers.

I’m all for artistic freedom, but with it comes responsibility, and I wish the show had a more sober and sophisticated reflection on what that responsibility might be. If it had been clearer on the importance of knowledge in cross-cultural collaboration, and the ethics of representing violence in art, it might have seemed less self-indulgent.

And given how confronting the play was, you can’t help wishing you were seeing that, rather than being told about it. Documentary theatre has an obligation to drama and there’s little in the show that wouldn’t have been just as suited to television or even a long essay.

This review, when it came out, jarred with me. Not really for the first and second paragraphs (I appreciate that Cameron felt our retelling was too lighthearted, and I respectfully disagree) or the last paragraph (I 100% agree, we wished we could’ve shown you guys Battalia Royale rather than our pale retelling of it, but it was just not possible), but that third one: ‘I wish the show had a more sober and sophisticated reflection on what that responsibility might be.’ I’m not being facetious when I say I don’t fully understand what that means, or what Woodhead is suggesting.

I got in touch with Cameron, and he was kind enough to meet with us for a cup of coffee to discuss the work in more depth. He had a lot of interesting feedback, which I think was a lot richer and more constructive than what appeared in print, but sadly I wasn’t taking notes and can’t reproduce any of it from memory. But: a huge thanks to him for taking time out to unpack his critique in person – was really valuable and I appreciate it hugely.

Concrete Playground
by Meg Watson

Written and performed by the playwrights as a unique combination of documentary, lecture and narrative, Kids Killing Kids has some obvious tensions. To start with, you want to see the blood. You can’t help but feel desperate for the action and mayhem on those streets — the exhilaration of the experience. But instead, you are kept at a distance. Everything is methodical and sanitised. When there is blood, it is handled delicately in a glass jug with a lid — those on stage wear plastic ponchos and take the time to lay sheeting on the ground before a controlled usage.

This is all so excellently deliberate though. Through each step of the story, the audience is positioned alongside them. We are polite tourists trying to respect the Filipino culture while being pushed around Manila’s gritty streets. We experience the success and the failures of the show as the writers explore their role and seek absolution from it. The retelling is so honest, precise and relatable, the performance can effortlessly springboard from violent civil war to the straight-up hilarity that is six-year-old street kids krumping to Lil Jon.

For all this ambition, Kids Killing Kids comes together seamlessly. In just over an hour it addresses our  fascination with violence, the problems with cross-cultural collaboration, an entire nation’s political history, and the role of theatre itself. Who would have thought such a beautifully surreal and thought-provoking story would involve little more than some milk crates, a few plastic blood packs, and an OHP?

Excellently deliberate – this is where I think it’s worth tipping my hat to Bridget Balodis, who is a kind of crazy maestro all unto herself. If this show had been left to the four of us writers, it would have been a kind of shambolic rambling story, which might have been occasionally curious but probably mostly quite inane. It’s thanks to Bridget’s outside eye – not to mention Mel Koomen’s exquisite design – that comments like ‘seamless’ kept emerging.

Time Out
by Andrew Fuhrmann

It’s a lo-fi but lovingly made production, with overhead projections, dance numbers, YouTube clips from the original Batallia and lots of t-shirts with nonsensical slogans ‑ apparently a big thing in the Philippines. Our hosts, the four writers, are engaging and open, and the fact that they are not natural performers gives the whole thing an artlessness that easily convinces us of their honest desire to confront the issues raised by their adventures in cross-cultural collaboration.

But is this show perhaps too artless? It’s informative, and it’s very fair ‑ though brief ‑ in framing the different arguments around Batallia’s depiction of violence, but we get very little insight into how the experience might have impacted the four playwrights, apart from pulling down their naivety. There’s a lot of description ‑ of the show and the aftermath ‑ but where’s the debate, even among themselves? Where’s the heat? Where’s the personality? There is passion here, but it remains unarticulated, stifled by facts, figures, summaries and a kind of remnant touristic awe. Perhaps Kids Killing Kids at some point needed to go in a more lateral dramaturgical direction?

Still, it is a remarkable story, and as it’s unlikely ‑ alas ‑ that we’ll ever see anything so visceral and controversial as Batallia Royale in Melbourne, we should at least give thanks for this fascinating insight into the ongoing power of theatre to excite, confuse and dismay.

Perhaps we did need to go in a more lateral dramaturgical direction? I don’t know – and god knows what that would have looked like – but yes, maybe Mr Fuhrmann’s right. Where’s the heat? Where’s the personality? It’s not much of an excuse to say that there was heat, and personality, and passionate debate, happening between the four of us, and the members of Sipat, and it continued all through the rehearsal process and through three seasons. Should we have staged some of those debates, those arguments between the four of us? But it would have felt weird and artificial to dramatise those conversations on stage. But maybe that’s not what Fuhrmann means when he says a ‘lateral dramaturgical direction’. I don’t know.

Stage Whispers
by Suzanne Sandow

Kids Killing Kids is one out of the bag and not to be missed due to questions of ethics and Theatre Making it broaches, particularly in regard to unwitting appropriation.  This work sits right on a cultural pulse, albeit, seemingly inadvertently. Hey sometimes, creative choices have a strange way of emerging from the ether, don’t they?

This doco/drama presentation reminds us that Theatre is rooted in ritual and the incredible power the medium of Theatre can actually hold – but seldom elicits – certainly in the West.

‘The work sits right on a cultural pulse, albeit, seemingly inadvertently.’ This is very true. While we didn’t set out to do this show purely for our own benefit, none of us really anticipated that there would be this much debate and conversation around it. This story has some resonance with Australian theatre-makers in 2013, apparently.

Beat Magazine
by Jofacekillah

This documentary style production provided a platform for the group to go back and reflect on the accidental spectacle they created. It raised questions of the nature of violence, onstage and off, the spectacular power of social media and the responsibilities that come with artistic expression. While the writers seemed aware that there were big questions to be answered, their reflections – at least in this work – mostly remained shallow, much like their motivations for heading to the Philippines in the first place. I found Kids Killing Kids and the story of Battle Royale troubling, but it was certainly compelling. It definitely made for entertaining and thought provoking theatre. Even so, I didn’t leave liking these guys all that much.

As Sam said, throughout the show we carefully build a case against ourselves, so when people walk out at the end hating us, that’s sort of a victory. Which is a weird feeling. When you consciously, deliberately tell a story in which you are the bad guy, and people respond at the end by saying ‘you’re a bad person’ – well, it’s not as good as when people began rigorously asking why we chose to tell the story that way, but fair enough, Jofacekillah, fair enough.

School for Birds
by Fleur Kilpatrick

I applaud Too Many Weapons for not retroactively justifying themselves. It would be so easy with hindsight to say ‘yes, yes, that is exactly what we meant, that is what we were saying’! Instead, they let us see their bewilderment as their bloodbath became a cult hit. When the performers asked repeatedly ‘why are we doing this? Why here? Why now?’ they did not have a good answer and still do not.

And still do not. Though I’m not gonna lie, doing Kids Killing Kids nudged me further towards the ‘we did the right thing’ side of the debate. But that’s another blog post and not for now.

Sarah Walker

Works like Battalia Royale are important because they remind us of our primitive selves, allow us to dissolve the bullshit that our brains play us every day and just be. Be nerves. Be adrenaline. Be out of control. And then go home, have a shower, kiss our lovers and sleep it off. The complexities come, of course, when the actors can’t do the same. When the hundreds of people demanding that you die start to get to you. Kids Killing Kids digs into the heart of theatre, of art itself – to what lengths are we willing to go? There are no clear answers in the show because there are none outside it.

If I’ve learned anything from the critical discourse around this show, there are no clear answers, full stop. But thank you all for weighing in, and thank you everyone who came to see it, and thanks so fucking much to Glyn Roberts, Katrina Douglas, Mel Koomen, JK Anicoche, Sarah Salazar, thank you Melbourne Fringe, Crack Theatre cats, the JSPAC guys, thank you thank you Bridget Balodis, and so much fucking love to Jordan Sam and Georgie.

Okay, let’s do the next one.