ArtZine interview with Simon Abrahams, Polyglot General Manager
First of all, a very happy birthday to Polyglot, who turned 30 earlier this month. How has the company changed in that time?
Thankyou! It’s been an extraordinary time for the company, and we were even able to fit in a birthday party while busily preparing for our upcoming works. Polyglot’s been on an enormous journey over the last 30 years – from a tiny in-schools touring theatre company with a budget of $3000 set-up to promote multiculturalism in Melbourne, to an international company unique in the diversity of its program, its exploration of puppetry arts, its engagement with communities, its artist support programs and its creative processes which place children’s imaginations at the centre of a collaborative arts practice. Along the way, the company has steadily built its reputation and reach, creating work for theatres and festivals and touring extensively. Our interactive Play Space works are quite unique and are really expanding people’s expectations of art for children and of puppetry. One thing’s stayed the same over the last 30 years – Polyglot still only tells original Australian stories, with no book adaptations or fairy stories, instead the company has retained a commitment to completely original work.
The Big Game sounds like tremendous fun. Can you explain how it works? What can people expect to see and experience when the come to Arts House Meat Market?
It’s enormous fun. We’re turning the entire Meat Market space into a world of games – The Big Game is a multisensory three-dimensional world, which audiences can participate in by watching, playing, touching, cheering… It is a place where the unexpected can happen. A place where there are many things to see and look at and touch. We’ve created a huge world where giant sculptures dwarf the participants, a world of rainbows, swamps, oceans, houses, dice towers, kings, princesses and a giant erupting volcano.
Audiences watching the Big Game performance become part of the show themselves, with all the rituals we are used to at a sporting match but not at the theatre – there will be flags to wave and chants to learn as the audience becomes cheer squad and are deeply entrenched in the stakes of the game itself – they desperately want to win! At the end of the performance – win or lose – the audience are invited onto the game board itself where with a group of friends they’ve brought or some of the new ones they’ve just made, families can play their own game on our giant board. The game is big, so they won’t be able to see the end when they start, all they need to do is follow the path…
What does the Performance element involve?
Each session starts with a massive theatre show which takes place on the board game, with audiences on three sides. Three Game Masters tell the story of a world in six parts, linked by a pathway – The Big Game – and ruled by chance, where a roll of the dice can have enormous consequences. A puppet character becomes our heroine and children are plucked from the audience to become tokens in the game, and it’s here that the audiences become cheer squad. Music plays a huge part in this event with a live band, sound score and original music featuring throughout the performance. It’s really quite unlike anything you’ve seen before – it’s absolutely enormous in every sense of the word.
It really is the sort of set up kids dream about. A game on a massive scale! In fact, the idea behind the work was created in collaboration with kids. You worked very closely with a bunch of kids from the Carlton High Rise commission flats – how did this come about?
Yes, the stories, designs and concepts came from children themselves, and we worked with a group of kids from the Carlton Housing Estate for about 12 months leading up to this festival premiere. We in fact first worked with this group on a massive community project called High Rise in 2001, so it’s been great to return to this community to create a fun work like The Big Game.
And how did the collaboration work?
Community Artist and Designer Geoff Kennedy ran a series of workshops with the kids, later joined by Polyglot’s Artistic Director Sue Giles and a number of guest artists working on the project, exploring concepts of games and art and how they inter-relate. The kids visited the National Gallery, picked out their favourite artworks and created their own versions of the artworks, which now form part of the design of the game. We also used kids’ designs to form part of the game world – for example pictures of houses kids drew one afternoon were turned into three-dimensional buildings which you can get inside of. A character sketch of a young girl was made into the main puppet character. So everything – costumes, plots, designs, characters – was brainstormed by the kids and then made into reality by a group of professional artists – making the work rich and dense, so an element of the game that may seem to an audience to be a completely random inclusion in fact comes but quite a deep connection with that particular community.
Will these kids be involved in the work during the Festival?
We hope they’ll be coming to see it and could well be chosen to be the tokens who play the game, cheered on by the audiences. We’re also taking a version of the game to the community where we’ll have a special day for that community only.
How is the work being created, physically?
At the moment we’re deep in rehearsing and building the final work. Giant sculptures have been carved from lightweight polystyrene materials and covered in a tough, durable coating, while other set elements are made from wood or plastic. The performance elements have been created by a collaborative team of performers, musicians and artists.
Games usually conjure a certain amount of competitiveness and frustration, and not just with kids – do these have a place in the work?
Absolutely! This is a game with a winner – not a party game where every kid gets a prize. That’s what makes the stakes so high. The performance component explores these elements theatrically including one of the greatest human virtues – the good sport.
What is The Big Game about, ultimately?
Well, this story was created in collaboration with a community that has limited control over their own lives. A community that must become accustomed to new lands, new language and new ways of fitting into the society. So the work really deals with themes of control: control of our fate, our future, our lives. Control of the world, over others and over ourselves. Control over children and how children gain control over their own decisions and choices. But ultimately – The Big Game is about having fun.
Photography: Gavin D Andrew