Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic

Open mic.

Peer backstage with nine Gippslandians who are challenging convention by taking their performance art to new [metaphysical] spaces. From hoops to hip-hop, film to drag, LA to WA, Berlin to Bairnsdale, these performers speak from the heart on Gippsland, discovering their identity, following lofty dreams and the wild ride that’s life as a star.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open MicPhoto // Melina Aguad

Hayley Hoopla — Hoop
Hayley greets me wearing an outrageous white fluffy jacket, hugging black jumpsuit and a schoolboy cap. Her lips are strawberry-kissed, her pigtails blonde-tipped. Just as the pow-zam-ka-boom! of a superhero leaps out of a comic book, Hayley Hoopla is so vibrantly alive she leaps out of life itself! She’s other dimensional.

Inside Hoopla’s mum’s Bairnsdale home there are hula hoops of every size and colour everywhere. They form rainbows across the walls. Admittedly, I’ve been here before. Hayley and I attended Bairnsdale Secondary College, and our group of friends would wag school and hang at her house to dress-up wildly and dance to Jamiroquai.

It’s as though nothing, yet everything, has changed for Hayley. She still dances, constantly, and remains a fashion genre mashing icon. But now she’s also a world-class performer and a hula hooping sensation! Hayley’s performed at the Australian Tennis Open, in Fed Square and at the Rainbow Serpent Festival. She teaches at the World Hoop Convention, and she has also choreographed, costume designed (she studied this at Swinburne University) and performed in circuses and on stages the world over. Hayley’s generous with her time, running the Hoop Army and Bam Bam Circus, in-between her own busy schedule of performances. Heck, she’s even released her own single, Theme Song, and accompanying video clip.

Hayley opens up about why she loves hooping, “There’s no barrier between hoop performance and the audience. The hula hoop creates opportunities for people to interact, be playful and feel like kids again. Adults don’t play enough. We grow up playing, then suddenly we’re like, ‘Okay, no more playing. Adult stuff now’. The hoop reminds us to be silly and free. Play, maybe even hooping, should be a human right!

“Hoop as a performance art is growing fast because of the opportunities online. Once you realise that Instagram and the internet are not an egotistical thing, but more of a vehicle to get your stuff out there—the world’s yours”.

Hayley still cares about her Gippsland roots. She teaches a dance movement she invented herself, called Hoop Hop, at dance schools in Bairnsdale. “When I think about Gippsland and performance I think about scope and opportunity. It’s a place where you can create opportunities,” she says.

Hayley’s family still live in Bairnsdale. “I think Mum and Dad are stoked about what I do. They’re like, ‘You just created a job for yourself!’ Yeah, I did, and I can’t believe it. It feels wacky and also very lucky.

“The best thing is to do what you love doing… If you’re just, ‘I feel like baking a cake’, then bake your cake and you’ll find bliss. Yeah, find your bliss, then trust and follow that”.

Finally, Hayley’s tips for budding Gippsland performers, “Make your lounge room your stage. Do cabaret in your backyard. Perform to family and friends. Why not be each other’s audience? Give yourself a deadline, set a backyard date, get out the speakers and fairy lights, and create your own space to let it all out”.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Supplied

Jarred Ciavarella — Drag
“For an everyday normal person I would be a Drag Queen, but I call it ‘Gender Illusion’. My style identifies with gender illusion, art and exploring femininity. The way I look it’s easy to go between being a male and a female”.

Jarred is part of a performance group called Hey Henny. They’re based in Fitzroy, Melbourne, and have travelled across Australia to perform. He’s performed in Britney Spears and Spice Girls impersonation concerts in nightclubs and venues nationally. Yet, he grew up in Paynesville, East Gippsland, in a quiet fishing village with more seagulls than people.

Jarred says he is ‘he’ when talking about Jarred and ‘she’ when talking about his drag persona, Kali Forni-Kate, “But I don’t really mind, I’m not too fussy when it comes to those things”.

The computer camera is next to the mirror as we talk over Skype, Jarred is becoming Kali. She’s preparing to perform at Love Machine, Melbourne. Her pink hair, on-fleek eyebrows and layers of makeup are all slowly transforming, enhancing and creating Kali. I’m watching an artist at work and it feels sacred.

Through brushstrokes, Jarred talks of his childhood, “There are lots of photos of me wearing dresses as a kid. I liked dressing-up and playing a female character but it was just for fun. It wasn’t until I left school and moved to Melbourne that I started exploring with makeup. I’ve got a very supportive family that loves me for what I do. My parents come and watch my shows.

“Looking back at growing up in Paynesville, I’d go back and do things differently in a heartbeat. I’d have more confidence to be myself. It was only when I moved to the city and saw how normal I was and embraced being gay that I got confidence.

“In Melbourne, I found my charisma. Doing drag you’re really able to channel all your femininity and character. It’s you, but in a heightened way. You’re saying, ‘Here I am!’. There’s something about being dressed as a female and it being a performance that’s powerful. I’m very shy as a boy. As Kali, it’s easy to push myself out there.

“I think drag should exist in rural areas. I’ve performed in Traralgon. I’m a country boy at heart. Performing in Gippsland, where there are people like you, it’s so adorable. They love it. They’re so impressed by it, and there’s a connection with the audience that’s deeper than in the city. People are like, ‘Good for you for being proud and having the confidence to do this’, and it reminds me that this is something special that takes confidence. They remind you that by doing drag you have the ability to know yourself in a way many people probably don’t.

“I would love to create a show for Bairnsdale! People love drag, they’re fascinated by it. Everyone loves Priscilla right?! Drag in Gippsland would bring acceptance. It would allow people to accept themselves and others. It would inspire creativity and bring people together. There’s something when watching drag that makes you starstruck. It’s impressive and playful. It should lift the audience and feel like a party. The audience should feel as though they’re sharing the stage with you”.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Supplied

Kim David Smith — Cabaret
Kim was born in the Traralgon hospital, yet he eventually packed his suitcase for life in New York, USA. Kim’s cabaret performances have earned him sensational reviews in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He’s been called cabaret’s ‘David Bowie’ and has starred in both musicals and plays. Asked for the highlight of his career, Kim replied, “I was really honoured to be cast in Hunter Foster’s 2016 production of Cabaret, landing my dream-role of the emcee”.

Kim says, “As a teenager, the Gippsland community was quite supportive. I was participating in projects at school or with the theatre companies. I had a teacher who always stressed the importance of not waiting around for auditions, but to create your own opportunities, so I started writing cabaret”.

“I was very interested in exploring intimate performances”, says Kim. “NYC is the global centre of cabaret and theatre, so it made perfect sense to move here. I’ve really loved honing my performances and building an audience over here, where I’ve lived 11 years now. I’m currently in the throes of creating a new, Kylie Minogue–based show for Joe’s Pub. Creating a new show is daunting, but a ton of fun, especially when the subject matter is so close to my heart. The Kylie show is going to be very true to my own style, both in terms of instrumentation and the strange, but conversational atmosphere I usually go for, but without the usual dark, storytelling songs I’m normally drawn to”.

“I like being able to express myself, be creative and earn a living. I’ve met so many wonderful people through performing, and have had fantastic opportunities to travel too. I love the challenge of singing in other languages and of putting together a program of music. Performing is a job, like any other, sometimes it’s fabulous, absolutely, but sometimes it’s gruelling and unpleasant.

“My message to Gippslandians who want to perform? I would strongly suggest investing in singing and dance lessons. It’s amazing how much there is to learn about your voice and body. Learn, learn, learn. Go to school! Spend more time than you think you need practising or rehearsing. Anything is possible”.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Lisa Hayman

Stratford Shakespeare Festival with Gavin Prior, Alexis and Claire Ingram — Community Theatre
Lexy and her nine-year-old daughter, Claire, are only half ready for the community play, The Tempest. They have braided hair and lipstick shining but are still in their jeans and t-shirts. The way they look at each other, it’s freaking beautiful. Mother-daughter love is special. Alexis is brimming with a calm pride as she watches Claire excitedly wriggle in her seat. It’s Claire’s first real stage performance and their first show together.

“I think it’s really cool that I can perform with my Mum”, says Claire, “I’m in the Courthouse Kids (a children’s acting group in Stratford), but this is my first really big play”.

“Claire’s dad and I met through doing Grease together”, says Alexis. “I was in my first play in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival when I was 14 and have been heavily involved in theatre ever since. So when Claire said she wanted to act, it was a fist-pumping parenting moment.

“More towns should embrace theatre. It’s easy to forget how lucky we are in Stratford. Being involved in theatre is so good for young people. It gives them a sense of identity and belonging—that you are accepted for who you are. It’s strengthening for the whole community. Your theatre family is your second family”.

Claire agrees, “Theatre gives me hope for the future because I know these people will always support me… just do it. Go outside the box, be bold, brave and follow your dreams”.

Claire is an invisible spirit and Alexis is playing King Alonso and Goddess Ceres. Director Joanne Watt has created a fabulous twist on history by having women playing male characters.

It’s a Saturday night at the Shakespeare Festival and Stratford is a surreal underwater dreamscape—including women dressed as octopi, sea monsters and a rogue crew of pirates. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. The Tempest is a (successful) storm, one rollicked by a sea of applause, after which everyone washes over to the Great Shakespeare Debate and feast in the Mechanics Hall.

King Neptune, also known as festival organiser Gavin Prior, offers me wine and tells me about “… performance in Gippsland. The Shakespeare Festival is a three-week event held annually. All the town comes together. It’s about celebration and creating something. Not many small towns can say they have a 90 seat theatre that doubles as a cinema. We’re so lucky to have that venue and the vibe of the town year round is shaped by our love of theatre and performance”.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Melbourne Museum

Yaraan Bundle — Indigenous Dance
“Our culture is always changing, it never stays stagnant. It fully evolves with each generation and with each specific cultural teacher. I want to carry the whole tradition forward, with the old school dream time energy and the new creation energy”, says traditional indigenous dancer Yaraan Bundle, a member of the Kirrae Woorroong tribe, Gunditjmara Nation, southwest Victoria.

Yaraan’s childhood was spent in Bruthen, East Gippsland. “The Tambo River, Monkey Creek, Ramrod and Fairy Dell; these parts of the Tambo are a real strength and inspiration to me. Even though we weren’t Gunai Kurnai mob, we grew up there and had a responsibility to look after country as well. This was our family stomping ground. We grew up dancing, swimming, painting ourselves with ochre and having big family feeds. It’s a place I will always call home”, says Yaraan.

Yaraan talks of the motivation behind her performances, “Connecting with my culture is amazing. The strength of spirit really comes out. Sadly, so much of our culture has been lost. Where my people come from is one of the biggest massacre sites in Victoria—the ‘Convincing Ground’. Learning this really shaped me. It was a real drive to get informed and educate myself, then to share my culture and keep it alive. I spend lots of time learning my language and hanging out with my elders, learning and creating dances”.

One of Yaraan’s dances is the Koontapool Dance—the Whale Dance. “Along the coast of Warrnambool and Port Fairy, the Southern Right whales give birth every year and this is part of a really special Dreaming. We would call them in and the sick whales would beach themselves and there’d be this huge big ceremony and festival. Mobs would come from Wathaurong, a neighbouring nation, and from Coorong, South Australia, and they’d travel miles to have this big family whale feast. A really important cultural aspect is we honour our animals by eating them and by using every part of them. We celebrate their existence and give thanks. We revived a whale dance based on these events; where the whales come into bays to give birth in the shallower water. Out in the deeper water, the fathers, uncles and brothers would guard the birthing women from sharks coming due to the blood. We dance this story”.

Yaraan has danced solo and in community or family groups across Victoria. She’s undertaken an artist residency at the Footscray Arts Centre and is teaching her children her dances and the Kirrae Woorroong dialect.

Yaraan speaks of an epiphany driving her to perform, “A shift in energy, a pivotal point in time, was that I was present at the tent embassy in Canberra when Kevin Rudd apologised. Since the national apology, we have more of a voice about who we are and where we come from. We’re making slow, small, but significant changes”.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Lauren Murphy Photography

Angus McLaren — Actor
Fittingly, Angus’ acting career began in Gippsland. The now nostalgic and cult ABC drama Something in the Air was being filmed near Angus’ childhood home in Loch, South Gippsland. Angus, his two older brothers and Mum jumped in the family car (that they’d won in a raffle!), spun out of the gravel driveway of their dairy farm and put their names down as extras. That’s the McLarens—they’re people who put themselves out there and do extraordinary things, such as starting the Hills Are Alive festivals. They follow creative endeavours and see what happens next.

Angus didn’t last long as an extra. He’s now enjoying a stunning acting career, having starred in Something in the Air, Silver Sun and H2O. “I got to miss a lot of school to be in these roles!” he says jubilantly. Angus then played Nathan Rafter in Packed to the Rafters. “Doing Packed to the Rafters was a big thing at the time. A pretty defining experience. I was 18 when I started there, and it was a bit of a baptism. It’s an interesting age to go through it. I was exposed to a lot”.

Angus is currently working on a film with John Cleese in Western Australia called The Naked Wanderer. Angus is the naked wanderer. “Ha! There’s a lot of exposure therapy in this role!”, he remarks.

Angus reckons Gippsland is the cherry-on-the-top for film locations in Australia. He says Gippsland has the perfect mise-en-scène, “Increasingly, as Gippsland becomes known, we will see more filming here. The landscape is attractive for production.

“I think there’s room for Gippsland’s stories to be told, as well, through film and television. There’s so much that’s happened here. I’d love to be involved in bringing these stories attention.

“For a lot of acting-related stuff, I definitely draw on home, as a preparation technique and for grounding my imagination. I visit South Gippsland in my imagination a lot, more than I do physically”.

Fondest farm memory? Angus remembers the cowshed his parents turned into a stage for his Dad’s band ‘Back to Scratch’ (recently rebranded ‘Fossil Fuel’). “My parents and their friends would have parties in the shed and I loved being part of this festival vibe. Being an audience, watching the stage… these are formative memories”.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Shelly Nundra

Rosalind Crisp — Dance
When Rosalind talks about herself, she speaks of her body and mind simultaneously. There is none of Descartes’ mind-body dualism here. It’s beyond being ‘connected with your body’. Rosalind is her body. Even while talking, it’s like she’s thinking inside her atoms. Her mind and body dance together.

Rosalind’s calling from Berlin, where she’s been asked to choreograph a work for 25 dancers. Her portfolio is so dense it’s hard to list. Rosalind is revered, respected and loved across the globe. She’s involved in avant-garde dance research, performance and choreography across Europe and Australia (please visit her website).

Due to the angle of Rosalind’s laptop, I’m watching her talk from the side. The screen broadcasts her sharp jawline and more of her lithe neck and shoulders, than her forehead. I have a feeling Rosalind would like me watching her askew. That’s part of what she does: exploring the human body and our perception of it. Rosalind challenges our understandings of movement, performance and dance altogether.

Rosalind appears simultaneously strong and fragile. Her emotions are visible in her body and words. Rosalind spends six months of the year living in Marlo, East Gippsland. She describes the motivation behind her dance project DIRt (Dance In Regional disasTer zones), where she takes performance to logged and post-bushfire sites in East Gippsland.

“As a human, I feel responsible for the environmental destruction in East Gippsland and I can’t keep dancing and ignore it. It feels like it’s got into my body, and I’m really exploring how to give it a voice in my dancing without being too heavy about it, but it is a heavy thing. Dancing in the clear-fell on the aptly named Mount Delusion with the DIRt project, the audience watching wept.

“It’s something about being there with the body, in that devastation that is so raw and exposing. People were truly touched, so I feel like dance can do something. It can bring a sensitivity to people, an ability to experience this issue. What’s going on in the environment in East Gippsland isn’t positive. It’s tragic but there is beauty in there somewhere as well, in the humanity. It’s not like I’m looking for a solution… this all crashes together and I’m living in the middle of it and exploring all of this in my dance practice.”

Although Rosalind’s pain due to the rapid destruction of the natural environment is palpable (I can feel her anguish even through impersonal online communication), she feels positive about performance in Gippsland. “Interest in the arts is growing in Gippsland. I was touched that people came to our performance outside of Marlo. It’s a remote place”.

Rosalind comments that sparking interest in the arts can be a challenge, but that, “There is a shift in vision for art in Gippsland. I have never been one for vision though, my nose is always to close up to the work I’m doing”.

In this writer’s opinion, Rosalind’s dance practice is visionary.

“It’s really dance that decomposes dance moves. People often think dance needs explaining. I don’t think it does. It’s an experience, like music, where you let it wash over you and be attentive to what it shifts in yourself.

“I’ve been quite critical of dance training for what it leaves in dancers—they repeat the moves they know and this is not really art. I’m really interested in the discovery of what makes up movement and what’s underneath those habitual movements. How is the materiality of the body also an agent? Not just what the choreographer thinks I can do with my body, but how can the body’s material be present, palpable and transparent for an audience rather than a presentation of moves or virtuosic movements that are designed to impress… that have a hard edge with the audience.

I’ve been very engaged in this deconstruction, although I prefer to use the word ‘decomposing’—I like that word better. It’s still composition, but it’s questioning—why is the dancer moving? Does it come from the body, is it a habit or is it something the present material needs to express?”

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Supplied

Cate Wolfe — Actress
“I live right under the Hollywood sign!”, exclaims Cate via Skype. Equipped with an elusive ‘green card’, Cate’s a permanent resident of the United States. Yet, way back, before Offspring, the Doctor Blake Mysteries and her Cannes Film Festival nominations, Cate spent her days running around in muddy gumboots on a dairy farm near Meeniyan, South Gippsland.

Calling from Paynesville, where all I can hear is the whir of motorised wheelchairs going past, I listen to Cate talk about her life in Los Angeles. “LA’s an industry town. Everyone’s here for their career; whether they want to act, write or produce… in porn, film, TV or whatever. It’s such a creative place. Everyone’s trying to make something happen. Lots of time is spent at auditions and networking, but you have a survival job too. Mine’s catering. I’ve given Adam Sandler a cup of tea and a ginger ale to Samuel L Jackson! I was eating pizza at the same restaurant as Dustin Hoffman the other night. You walk down the street and see people from TV”.

While we discuss the Aussie shows she’s currently famous for, Cate possibly lets slip that season seven was the last season of Offspring… after a quick recovery, she insists she’s not sure. But what Cate really wants to talk about is Gippsland, and what art and performance can bring to our rural communities.

Cate believes opportunities in performance art could transform communities, “Something I always get from doing theatre is that the folk involved are the healthiest bunch of humans possible. You have to open up. It teaches you to embrace being vulnerable. When you do drama you have to be out of your comfort zone and to be okay with that. Performance makes you deal with mental and emotional health. It teaches you empathy. It teaches you perspective… that there are different points of view and they can all come together. You learn so much that you can apply to the ‘real’ world.

“Theatre’s a mirror. People watch their lives or lives they can relate to. You watch the most traumatic or dramatic events and lives playing out before you, and you feel a sense of peace afterwards. It’s a very important art form. It’s visceral. Performance shifts you, transforms you or heals you”, says Cate.

Cate describes being a performer as, “Walking onto the stage is meant to be the same feeling a pilot gets when they land a plane. It’s an incredibly heightened state.

“I always knew I wanted to act. I constantly wrote plays and played make-believe. When I was at Meeniyan Primary, we did the Christmas show at the town hall and I was centre of the stage singing Little Drummer Boy. I remember looking out to the audience and I had no fear. I just remember feeling a gush of love and a sense of, ‘I’m really comfortable here’.

“As a teenager, I told people, ‘I’m going to be an actor’, and they would reply with things like, ‘It’s really tough’, ‘You need a backup plan’. I felt like no one thought I could actually do it. I got a sense people didn’t take me seriously”.

Cate Wolfe’s teenage self must be incredibly proud of how far her acting talents have taken her from the family dairy farm, and the best is likely still to come.

Gippslandia #7 - Feature - Open Mic
Photo // Supplied

Paul Malek — Dance
“I believe Gippsland produces some of the finest artists in the country. I’m not sure what’s in the water but there are so many dancers and musical theatre performers that come out of the region. Gippsland has brilliant dance training and schools. There’s this amazing lineage of dance teachers and students that have been sharing knowledge for decades”, says dancer Paul Malek.

“There’s something about coming from regional Victoria that makes you built for success. People in the country are humble, yet we have an extremely hard work ethic and that combination really works well in the dance industry. It’s a difficult industry, especially in Australia because of limited opportunities. You need talent, but it’s work ethic that gets people a long and illustrious career”, says Paul.

Paul Malek runs Transit Dance in Melbourne. “We offer performance opportunities and dance training. We want to make dance entrepreneurs, not just dancers. People who can make a career out of dancing. People who can create opportunities for other dancers in Australia”.

Paul went to primary school in Morwell, but his family moved to Melbourne to support his entry into the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) secondary college. Paul completed contemporary dance training, then explored cabaret and commercial dance before he travelled the world performing on cruise ships and being part of massive productions like the 75th Anniversary of Mickey Mouse celebrations. Of which he says, “I did lots of jazz hands and lots of big hits”.

Now he teaches and choreographs. “I’ve technically hung up the boots, but I get itchy feet a lot. I’ve choreographed for So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars”.

For Paul, getting youth involved in performance arts is vital, “It’s everything. I’m so passionate about youth in performance, especially in today’s climate. The arts are integral and it’s almost like the government is pushing it into a corner. We have kids who are dealing with mental health issues more than ever—social media provides a constant fear of being judged. The arts allow you to be yourself. To celebrate individuality.

“We’re all born with imagination and I feel as we get older and our responsibilities get greater we lose that, we shut that off. We put this amazing thing—our imagination—to the side and I feel that the more we can discuss how we’re thinking and feeling, then expressing it through the arts, the greater sense of community we’ll have”.

We apologise that the printed version of this article incorrectly stated the photo credit for Rosalind Crisp’s portrait; the photographer is Shelly Nundra.

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