Martina Murray: MTC’s NEON Festival of Independent Theatre

Following the resounding success of its 2013 inception, the NEON Festival of Independent Theatre returns with a stellar line-up of productions, talks and workshops. Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum caught up with NEON’s Managing Producer Martina Murray for a glimpse of what’s in store for the festival and its audiences in 2014.

Martina Murray Photo:  Mandy Jones
Martina Murray
Photo: Mandy Jones

If any proof were needed of the tremendous impact that Melbourne’s independent theatre scene continues to have on the culture and output of Australia’s main stages, one need look no further than MTC’s NEON Festival of Independent Theatre, returning this May for the second time after the outstanding success of its inaugural season last year. The brainchild of Brett Sheehy, who took the Artistic Director’s chair at MTC in 2013, NEON was a concerted attempt to mitigate the conservative reputation that had accrued around the company. The strategy paid off, with audiences celebrating the diversity of the program, and independent theatre-makers rising to the provocation to produce some of the best theatre anywhere on the Australian stage.

“We had nothing to measure it against,” says NEON’s Managing Producer Martina Murray. “However, the audience and critical response was hugely positive and exceeded our most optimistic expectations”. For Murray, this result stood as “testament to the remarkable work of Melbourne’s independent artists, and the hunger from audiences for more.” This year’s program looks set to further deliver on the founding promise of NEON, with no fewer than ten independent companies brought under the umbrella of the MTC and the Lawler Studio given over to what is set to be a feast for theatre-goers.

When asked about the challenges of marshaling together such a slew of emerging (and, in one or two cases, well established but nonetheless dazzlingly unconventional) artists, Murray expresses the nuts and bolts truth that will ring a familiar bell to any event manager or director – scheduling. “There are many moving parts that rely heavily on clear communication, collaboration, enthusiasm and, to a degree, luck – especially when working with countless people’s availability,” Murray says. “Like putting together any production the individual companies go through their own highs and lows as they select their works, as they approach their ideal creative teams and casts, as they write or apply for rights … but we hope to be with them along the way to support these ups and downs the best we can”.

First and foremost of the festival’s concerns, it seems, has been ensuring the autonomy of the participating artists and enabling the exposure that Murray feels their work demands. MTC has commendably served as host and facilitator for NEON with the intention of simply getting out of the way and letting these artists do their particular thing. “With the model of NEON, each participating company maintains complete creative freedom on the works they choose to do, so I am sure we are in for a treat!” Murray affirms.

Brian Lipson & Dr Jean-Martin Charcot’s Attaque Hystéro-Épileptique Arc De Cerdle Antechamber Productions & Daniel Keene
Brian Lipson & Dr Jean-Martin Charcot’s Attaque Hystéro-Épileptique Arc De Cerdle
Antechamber Productions & Daniel Keene

So what can audiences expect from the festival? For anyone who has been paying attention to the smaller stages for the past five years, there is much to get excited about: for instance, a new work by internationally acclaimed playwright Daniel Keene and Antechamber Productions, Photographs of A directed by the visionary Brian Lipson; the raw, expressionistic power of Resplendence from Angus Cerini / Doubletap; and a lavish rendition of Dangerous Liaisons from wunderkind Stephen Nicolazzo and his erotically charged Little Ones Theatre.

Also showing is the first ‘episode’ in what promises to be a boldly imaginative, highly physical work by the Arthur ensemble, dubbed The Myth Project: Twin; and the further interrogations of identity and change from rising auteur Nicola Gunn in Sans Hotel. To round out the performance program Melbourne’s resident enfant terribles MKA have been handed the keys to the late night slot, overseeing a series of readings of new works from aspiring writers in their NEON Up Late program.

When asked what helped determine the composition of the festival Murray offers a straightforward response as to what makes these artists resonate in the contemporary theatre landscape. “They’re all intelligent and highly skilled theatre makers who create great work”, she says.

Angus Cerini Photo: Pier Carthew
Angus Cerini
Photo: Pier Carthew

While audiences will have plenty to engage with, for emerging theatre-makers the plate seems even more loaded with sweetmeats to entice. In addition to the festival’s primary program, NEON EXTRA offers an assortment of free talks and workshops for writers, lighting and sound designers, production managers, producers, and more besides.

It is a hallmark of the spirit of generosity and collaboration that fuels the independent scene, one that NEON EXTRA extends to its programming. “Open dialogue and access to information is vital to the evolution and sustainability of the Australian theatre community,” says Murray. “NEON aims to provide an accessible platform for this by ensuring that all NEON activity, beyond the productions, remains free and open to people at all levels of experience.”

If the above were not enough to inspire and provoke, NEON has secured the inimitable Barrie Kosky to give the keynote talk of the festival, an occasion that has Murray particularly effusive. “Barrie has been an inspiration to many and whether you agree with his thoughts and choices, admire his work, or not, he will undoubtedly make you think – and that to me is exciting” says Murray.

Sans Hotel Photo: Pier Carthew
Sans Hotel
Photo: Pier Carthew

Kosky, for those unfamiliar with his work and reputation, looms large over the Australian theatre landscape. Having pioneered a new movement of Melbourne independent theatre over twenty years ago with his Gilgul Theatre Company, Kosky now serves as the current Intendant and Chef Regisseur of the Komische Oper Berlin. His work and opinions have long served as a lightning rod for discussion around the integrity and intent of Australian theatre, and programming him for the festival is something of a minor coup. “Inviting him to NEON for the inaugural key note conversation event,” Murray explains, “is about asking an Australian who has chosen to pursue a career overseas to discuss their work, why they have made the choices they have, and their relationship with the Arts in Australia, igniting contemporary discourse around the possibilities for the future of arts in Australia”.

It is a sentiment that succinctly encapsulates the stated intent of the NEON Festival. “Our hope is that throughout the future and evolution of NEON, we continue to find ways of supporting and celebrating the diverse and innovative work being made in Melbourne’s independent sector, and the artists creating it,” says Murray.

Provocative, generative, collaborative, and with an eye to a future where the mainstream and fringe embrace that little bit closer in their long-standing dance, the NEON Festival of Independent Theatre looks set to impact profoundly on the cultural landscape of not just Melbourne, but Australian theatre. Have you made your bookings yet?

MTC’s NEON Festival runs from May 29 to August 3 this year. For full details of the Festival program and bookings, visit the MTC website.

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