Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Place of Theatre Practice: Training and Aesthetic Tradition at Belvoir Street

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Place of Theatre Practice: Training and Aesthetic Tradition at Belvoir Street

Article excerpt

For 20 odd years Company B at Belvoir St has been building its traditions, putting down layers of story.

Neil Armfield1

The concept of 'place' has been the subject of an explosion of interest and debate in recent decades, prompting renewed consideration of the interconnectedness of person and world. In theatre and performance, this has been manifest in an increased investigation of the function of space and place in production and reception and in the growth of site-based work. Recognising that 'there is no artistic choice which is not fundamentally transformed by the physical environment in which it must be realised',2 practitioners and scholars alike have questioned the legacy of modernist theatre design and its championing of empty, transformable space. In his recent Short History of Western Performance Space, David Wiles argues that 'twentieth-century theatre has been characterized by the rise and fall of "the empty space'".3 Wiles points to Peter Brook's own use of The Bouffes du Nord in Paris as an example of a wider 'desire to create theatre in places rather than containers'.4 In this context, it is therefore important to consider that while the work of theatre and performance artists grows out of communities and social networks - the topic of concern for this focus issue of Australasian Drama Studies - these communities and networks also grow out of places.

In this article I examine how a particular theatre - the Belvoir Street Theatre in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills in Sydney - has been pivotal in the training of artists and in the development of a distinct mise-en-scène. Although a modest brick structure, the Belvoir Street building has been inscribed through its history of use with a sensibility of artistic labour and integrity. Accordingly, it has generated a tremendous attachment among performers and patrons. Not only is there 'a certain cachet' associated with working at Belvoir Street,5 but many performers perceive it as 'an art space', a place for 'practising your craft'.6 For authences, the Belvoir Street Theatre and Company B, its resident theatre company, are associated with a strong 'house style' characterised by socially progressive programming and a focus on the relationship between performers and authence.

What is particularly interesting about Belvoir Street is the sense that the place itself, the Belvoir building, is integral to the work that is produced there. The common practice of conflating the names of the theatre and the company and referring to them as a single entity - simply 'Belvoir' or 'Belvoir Street' - hints at the strong connection that exists between place, work practice and culture. To draw this out, I will first discuss how performers' lived embodied experiences of working in the backstage spaces at Belvoir might constitute a form of training, before turning to examine how Belvoir is discursively positioned within the wider field of professional theatre production in Sydney. I finish by considering the aesthetic implications of Belvoir' s idiosyncratic Upstairs Theatre stage layout.

Performing at Belvoir Street

Amid the transient and hermetic working conditions that prevail in the field of theatrical performance, theatre buildings are significant in performers' lives and careers by virtue of their relative stability. Edward Casey has observed that places possess 'tenacity', they 'come into us lastingly', with the result that 'traces are continually laid down in the body, sedimenting themselves there'.7 For this reason, argues Casey, 'where we are - the place we occupy, however briefly - has everything to do with what and who we are'.8 Viewed from this perspective, performers' embodied experiences in theatres can be seen as a form of training, informing and affecting their understandings of what it is to be a performer. In discussing performers' backstage experiences at Belvoir Street, I am interested in how the various negotiations and compromises that are part of working there might constitute a form of training in artistic professionalism. …

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