Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Down Under with Lana Schwarcz

Lana Schwarcz is a Melbourne-based multi-disciplinary performance artist who prefers the medium of puppetry. She is one half of the Slam Noir team and the current secretary for UNIMA-Australia.  In her work, Lana straddles the line between comedy and "narrative that can challenge", all the while embracing the love of the utter stupid.  Her signature piece, Minute Exhibit Boxes are one minute shows for audiences of one.  She often combines character work with her puppetry in her longer stage shows, so is rarely seen in puppeteer’s hood (although she did admit to owning a couple during this interview).

Lana Schwarcz & Hamish Fletcher, 2011

Marsian: So you are hosting Slam Noir this month?

Lana Schwarcz: Yes it's very exciting!! We're so happy to be the first official Slam in Australia!  We had the first one in November last year, which was packed to the rafters! And we also hosted another one at the Inaugural Tarrengower Puppet Festival in Maldon.  

M: How did you get started?
LS: I was inspired by attending the National Puppet Slam in Atlanta when I visited in 2011. I saw the great work that was created by the themed slams in the US and the strong community that it created, and I started to feel upset that we didn't have that same sense of community here in Australia.

M: Is the vibe you got at the National Slam is similar to that of the Melbourne puppet community?
LS: The puppet community here is very different, and we hadn't really bonded through a united sense of fun and work.  It's quite amazing really how the slams, even in this short period of time, have managed to help unite a community.  It's understood that the works are created for the night or are works in progress, so no one expects seamless performances, but already a few pieces have grown and developed out of the seeds of the slams and I am super proud of that. 

I also blame Beau Brown. Inspiration or "persuasion" - it's a fine line. Basically, he backed me into a corner, asked me whether I would prefer being fed to the fishes or strung up like a marionette, and I caved when he showed me how he had strung his last victim. Phillip Huber would have been proud, but it just made me scared. Beau Brown is Puppet Slam Mafia. Just sayin'. It's a FINE LINE BEAU!!!

M: Oh Dear! Are there any other puppet slams or cabarets happening in Australia?
LS: Not that I know about.  I am running a rogue slam event this Thursday for Melbourne Comedy Festival called Set Up, Punch - a comedy focused slam event.  It sits outside of the Slam Noir series because it will have a stage and will be lit with tech, not torchlight like the others. Plus the only theme is Comedy, which isn't really a theme, so it's a once off event for the Festival, which is happening now. I do believe another super lady is wanting to organize one in Canberra, but this has yet to eventuate. I understand that Beau blackmailed her as well, but I have no idea how he got that horse's head to Canberra.

M: Did you perform at any slams when you were in the US?
LS: No I WISH!!! Oh hang on. Actually, yes, I did my Minute Exhibit peep box at the O'Neill Puppet Pandemic, so I suppose then yes I have.  But I'd love to come back with the new piece developed for one of the slams here, you know, so more than one person at a time can see it.  If money can be raised to get me there from Melbourne, that'd be awesome.  That's a hint (if you didn't get it by now)

M: Rewind: your slams are torch lit?!?
LS: ..Most of our slams are no tech, and we ask the audience to bring torches to light the artists.  It's slightly shambolic but a really great way to present the night and the audience stays engaged and interactive.  I'd love to say it was my idea, but really, it was only my idea in that I decided to steal it - from a midnight fundraising cabaret we used to do in Winnipeg Fringe.  The torches actually mean that we can set up anywhere, in any found space, AND because they can be focused anywhere around the room, we can have two or three (or more) performance areas so that artists can reset while another one is playing - therefore no delay and the acts flow nicely from one to the other without the host needing to fill time. It does mean the audience misses out on the throwing of candy, but we're cool with that. Shhhhh... Don’t tell them they're missing out they still don't know.

Slam Noir #Melbourne

  "..we ask the audience to bring torches to light the artists.."

M: How do you find acts for Slam Noir?
LS: Generally we ask them directly, but we also receive submissions. I have no idea, but somehow word seems to get around and acts come to us. Our last theme was dance, so our acts made shows based on that theme. Except for one or two who didn't realize we had a theme. Oops...

M: How do you define yourself as an artist and performer?
LS: Oh god. I have no idea how to answer that question. I don't feel experienced enough to call myself a puppet artist, although I work with puppets. To everyone else, I am a puppeteer, because somehow it seems easier to put a label on it and leave it at that. But in truth, I have no idea what I am. I write. I perform. I make films. I make simple puppets. I make people laugh. I find venues and produce. I explore. I pretend I can do things and then I fail. I fail a lot. A LOT!!! That's the one thing I completely succeed at.  But that's cool, caus I try to embrace the clown, and embracing failure is a big part of that. I am also really good at procrastinating and avoiding. Which, if you are astute, you will see I have done that really well, and completely not answered this question at all. I should have been a politician.

M: Any memorable failures you’d like to share?
LS: Hmmm... I think we've had a couple of pieces go longer than five minutes, and that was tough. I don't feel comfortable to name names or even describe these shows, but sometimes new pieces (which is what they are for the slams) can drag on a bit - the fat needs to be cut from them.  If there is one thing I have really learned from Pam Arciero (and by gosh there were many many things learned from that Hawaiian goddess) it's that things really have to be too short to suck.  So I think in the future, we really stick to that 5-minute rule. If it doesn't fit in 5 minutes, it doesn't go on. It makes the artist really think about what absolutely needs to be in there. Although sometimes that still gets ignored....

M: What is the funniest, freakiest, edgiest, or weirdest slam piece you have seen?
LS: Hmmm.... I think I was pretty impressed seeing Spencer Lott in Atlanta. His piece made no sense whatsoever and I *loved* that. Liz Hara is also my hero. Awesome! And Honey Goodenough's marionette just killed me.

M: Why do you think Puppet Slams are important?
LS: At the last slam, I made a new piece called Sir Dancealot, especially for the Dance theme. I NEVER would have created him otherwise - as I never would have thought to explore a dance-based character.  Sir Dancealot is now my new favorite piece.  I love him. This would never have come about without the slam.  I was worried that people wouldn't have the time to create things outside their usual work.  But they have flocked to this.  They MAKE the time, and it's a fun event. And did I mention completely shambolic?  The slams seem almost random, although they are, of course, completely planned. They also serve to unite the community in the non-judgmental creation and viewing of new work. 

M: Would you say in Melbourne that you are part of a slam circuit?
LS: Unfortunately, Australia is huge, with no cities between the cities like you guys have in the USA or in Europe/UK. Our closest cities are a day's drive away at least, and we have only just started the slams here in Melbourne. We'd LOVE to do national tours, but funding is scarce. It's something for the future, for sure. The only way I think I personally could go on a slam tour would be in the US. Another hint.

M: What are some misconceptions about the Australian puppet scene?
LS: ..that we have some of the most dangerous puppet wildlife in the world.. ..that all the puppets here will kill you.. ..that's a complete myth and misconception. You only have to worry about the redback - They can hide under your chair and bite you when you least expect it. But they're easy to spot with their red backs, and the arm attached to the puppet, so you shouldn't be scared to travel here.

M: Thanks for the travel advisory.. Any other misconceptions?
LS: Other misconceptions - that it's a raging and huge scene.  It's not.  I wish it was, but it's not. It's tiny. It's also difficult to find training in - our one puppet training facility at the Victorian College of the Arts was discontinued due to some reshuffling at the university, and there is a real need for good training. .  . Also, Aussies will tell you about Drop Bear puppets and how they are dangerous for a laugh. Don't believe them. A Drop Bear puppet is a Koala Puppet. They're just taking the piss.

M: You've been warned!

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