Theatre is ephemeral. We experience it and then, once we leave, it’s gone. It remains only in our memories.
Each show of a season is different. Each season of a show is different. Different productions. Different countries.
Our different selves might experience the same show differently when we revisit.
Our experience of one show may not be the same as the person sitting next to us.
Veteran theatre maker David Williams has collaborated with experimental collective Pony Cam to devise, Grand Theft Theatre, to examine the memorable theatre of their lives. While David’s experience recalls theatre across decades, the young performers of Pony Cam tell us about life-changing theatre from this century – shows that changed them when they were very young, when they were teenagers and when they were starting out making theatre themselves.
The audience enters St Ambrose Hall in Brunswick and is asked not to give themselves a name tag, but to write down the name of one of their most memorable theatrical experiences – and stick it to their chest. Later, during one of the intermissions, we’d use these to strike up conversations with fellow audience members or one of the Pony Cam performers themselves.
I wrote “Angels in America” because the text has long been one of my favourites and though I have seen it both at Belvoir and Fortyfive Downstairs, I still regret not seeing the Melbourne Theatre Company production in 1993 – when I was studying and hugely impressionable.
The plastic chairs are scattered in the middle of the room, no form, no order, reminiscent of Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess that David saw at the Malthouse in 2005. The audience has to find a chair for themselves and choose whether to follow the rows other audience members have formed or to go rogue and push back against the rigidity of traditional theatre seating.
Each chair is labelled with the name of local theatre makers. I was in the “Susie Dee” chair at one point. Later I was sitting near “Jane Montgomery Griffiths”.
Once the show begins, though it kind of already has, David assures us that they are stealing theatre like Spotify steals from recording artists. But what they really are doing, even in their recreations, is reminiscing, memorialising and remembering the theatre that shook them and changed them – as people and as theatremakers themselves.
It was strange to see a recreation of Thyestes, which I saw back in 2010, or to hear a retelling of Betty Grumble’s vagina/vase double-act or to experience a PG-rated version of Charles Horse Lays an Egg that happened at Melbourne Fringe in 2018. But it wasn’t all local theatre that opened these performer’s minds – some of their recollections came from life-altering works in Berlin or nagging their mums to take them two-and-a-half hours to Hobart to see the film of Chicago when they were nine years old.
Between acts, the performers rearrange the chairs in the space, reminding us all of how varied and versatile theatre spaces can be. By the end, the audience is on stage, watching Pony Cam scattered across the church hall, trying to figure out how best to end their epic trip down memory lane – even while they have hundreds of other memories to share.
Theatre is an experience you cannot really recapture. Your memories of it can last years and decades, though. And the only way some of it can live is for you to talk about it – to people who saw it, to people who didn’t like it and to people who have no idea what you’re talking about.
David Williams and Pony Cam have seen a lot. They provoked memories in me that I had forgotten; reminding me of shows that I saw deep in the past. Revived thoughts of long-forgotten discussions of controversial shows and contrasted my own feelings of performances I remember being overwhelmed by.
In Grand Theft Theatre, the company has taken an experience we’ve all had and reminded us that even if we experience it differently or remember it differently, theatre often only lives if we talk about it. And in an era where mainstream press is printing fewer and fewer reviews, it’s up to audiences and theatremakers to remind us of great works of the past. So it can inspire us all over again. Or for the first time.
Pony Cam’s work is truly inventive, unpredictable, hilarious and moving. They might claim to be stealing from the works of others but what I saw was them acknowledging the foundations they are building their own theatre on. Great artists following in the steps of other great artists.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photos: Wild Hardt