Blurring the lines of art, and questing the supposed ability that art has for pushing agenda. The Chat is a work that has been created for audience by both artist and ex-offenders, it wishes to explore or perhaps create subliminal shifts between realities and counter realities – from a theatrical space, a tense and heavily monitored interview room emerges, and in where a new world order for ‘justice arts’ – of crime stories, interpretive dance and bleak, possibly horrific, comedy is shaped. At the helm of this project is theatre maker and former parole officer, J R Brennan, who sat down for a coffee at Ruckers Hill Cafe with writer Jessi Lewis,
James, introduce us to the work,
I’m a former parole officer and I worked in theatre all my life I had a period of four years working as a parole officer in New South Wales, now I make art about crime.
The Chat that will surprise; it will probably shock you at times, maybe because your laughing at something you think is inappropriate. Maybe its because it’s so joyful to be inside this show even if its about such a serious issue. Maybe because its so hard to past judgment on the individual because you don’t know if they are being themselves or a character.
There is a lot of slippage for the audience, where you think you understand what’s happening but possibly don’t understand. You’re challenged to look at it differently
The Chat is a performance created by artists and ex-offenders, and the politics of that is something in the theatre that has one sort of meaning, but also has other various different meanings in the criminal justices context. So the intersection of the arts and the criminal justice system was an interesting starting point.
Are you a believer in art’s ability or wanting to, push agenda or illicit some form of conversation surrounding topics or areas that might often be seen as taboo in the broader context of society?
No, I’m sceptical about its role, I’m skeptical about its capacity, but I’m also hopeful about its capacity; it’s worth a try. There are some things that need addressing, I think criminal justice deserves some fresh eyes, and I think arts got good eyesight. Its not always pinpointing a perfectly accurate picture but it has ways of prying open the box to reveal whatever is in the box.
It’s a strategy for illumination, a strategy for provocation; sometimes I feel very pessimistic about the capacity of art to change, but I’m also just compelled to also “do” at the same time.
So how do you feel about artists being born into their role inherently?
I choose to be an artist, I’ve worked with people, I’ve worked under a very well known director in Poland, who say’s your born a director, but I think he just said that because he was trying to delineate himself from me. He was suggesting I wasn’t born a director, at the time I disagreed.
I think now you choose to be an artist I choose to be an artist; I think more and more in this context, in this climate anyway, the choice is also very political and probably very idiotic for a lot of people, you’re unlikely to make any money.
But on the other hand you have the opportunity to explore things with a freedom you may not be able to, in a rigorous way, if your not looking at it through an artist’s lens, an artistic lens.
How did you come to work as parole officer, and what where some of the experiences that this offered up?
I had a very interesting time, it’s a place where I learnt about peoples lives, who have committed these at times horrific offences, and there was some surprises in there.
I sort of fell into it, I was a little bit jack of theatre at the time, I mean I’ve never really been sold on it, I try to avoid calling myself an actor when possible and I wasn’t really compelled to hang around the acting scene or get a job on television.
Being a parole officer is a great job. You know, I’d never imagined myself as a bureaucrat, its abstract isn’t it? It’s bizarre, you don’t think you’ll fit in because you’re not suited to the role of strategically analysing peoples lives so that they fit into bundles.
I found I had to negotiate my way through those issues, and still do the job of managing decisions about peoples liberty, looking at the bigger picture of their lives, while trying to balance and manage a caseload, that part I didn’t appreciate too much. A parole officer having too much work doesn’t address the problem very well; too much work means less time solving problems.
Was it difficult to come home at the end of days work, and just switch off?
Yeah it is, but you get better, it gets easier, and that’s just disturbing when it happens. You come home and would be having wine and cheese with your friend, and you’re having a great time, but its only an hour since you walked out of door of the office there, they ask “What did you do today?” and you tell them and they are like “Oh fuck” but actually I was fine. So first you carry it though after a while you just get used to that.
Let’s talk more about the performance, what do you think helps to differentiate The Chat ?
Its experimental, its narrative, it’s the blurring of fiction and reality, it’s not straight theatre where it’s a very particular group of artists. In The Chat, the team is made up of very experience artist and people who’ve never been on stage before. So we’ve run workshops for them, a crash course in performance.
The team is unusual and the aesthetic is unusual in that this combination has been completely custom made for this show. The Chat has its own logic, its own illogic, everything around the aesthetic and everything around the meaning we have been building also feeds back into the aesthetic.
Could you compare The Chat to any other works being presented here and now, and how do think it either fits within or bucks any current trends in theatre?
I’ve never seen anything like this before, I think people say that all the time but I really haven’t, though I’d love to. That’s my whole mode inside theatre; to make something I’d want to watch, and my compulsion to make theatre is because I didn’t see the things I wanted to see. People may call it out for having elements of documentary theatre, which is not quite true, because our starting point wasn’t these people’s stories, it was a fictional world, which we’ve weaved into elements of nonfiction. You really, won’t know what is fiction and what is reality when you watch it.
The Chat opens on Wednesday the 27th of July at Arts House in North Melbourne, the performance promises to be nothing short of a compelling night of drama, for more information or to books your tickets click here