Mapping Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Splinters Archive Project
Findlay, Gavin, Australasian Drama Studies
You can't have the wildlife without the jungle.
Bruce Keller, 1991
For a few dazzling years in the early 1990s, many eyes in the Australian theatre world were turning to Canberra. The centre of attention was a brash young company called Splinters, recommended to those of us then working at The Performance Space by the late Bruce Keller, who had been working in Canberra with theatre-in-education company Jigsaw. Splinters was arguably the most remarkable and influential, truly home-grown artistic venture that Canberra has produced. It grew from the local (counter-)culture, and arose in and around the national government, the cultural institutions and the embassies of many nations that the city was designed to serve. The company's meteoric rise to national prominence in the early 1990s has not, to date, been documented and shared with the community that nurtured it, and its astonishing works and techniques deserve to be made available for overdue critical analysis.
Renowned for large outdoor spectacles, site-specific performance and transgressive, cutting-edge theatre, Splinters produced more than twenty works that played at theatres and festivals around the country between 1985 and 1998 and provided a springboard for many individual artists and a number of successful other companies. Very little literature about the company existed until this project began: there was a partial entry in the AusStage database and couple of mentions in Geoffrey Milne's Theatre Australia (Un)limited.1 The dispersal of the key Splinters players and of the company's records and artefacts after 1998 had meant that no proper record of the company's works was entered into collecting institutions or gathered to make it accessible to academic study.
It is impossible to convey in a few words what Splinters was about, or to capture the essence of its many, often huge and chaotic, performances. In its heyday, the company became known as Splinters Theatre of Spectacle, which highlights its trademark: seducing and overwhelming the audience through bravado, trickery, enticement and sheer audio-visual power. In order to begin to do justice to the work after so many years, a new approach to presenting the archival material is called for. David Branson, Patrick Troy and Ross Cameron founded Splinters in 1985, with another key member, Stuart Vaskess, joining the following year. It began as an anarchist collective but, even as it became professionalised, retained an open structure: well over a thousand people performed with the company over the years, including hundreds of young performers fostered by Splinters members working as tutors. Several key members were sculptors, painters and photographers trained at the Canberra School of Art. Musicians in the group played in many bands, some of which have gone on to national and international success. In addition to the theatrical performances, Splinters ran regular cabaret-style events in pubs and later established a training arm, the School for Performance Investigation and Training or SPIT. In 1993, Splinters even received an unprecedented commission to produce a spectacular for the many thousands at that most bogan of events, the Summernats National Street Machine Festival.
A brief tabulation of some of the company's most notable achievements provides signposts of the impact of the group in Canberra and around Australia in the early 1990s:
* Cathedral of Flesh·. Old Adelaide Gaol, Adelaide Fringe Festival 1992; named Best Promenade Theatre of the 1992 Festival and Fringe by the Adelaide Advertiser,
* Guardians of the Concourse: commissioned by Robyn Archer for the 1993 National Festival of Australian Theatre;
* ICON: commissioned performance for the 1993 Sydney Opera House 20th Anniversary;
* 25 Years of Performance Art in Australia, 1994: commissioned performance for the opening of the exhibition curated by Nie Waterlow at Ivan Dougherty Gallery, University of New South Wales;
* Village of Captive Souls: 1994 tour to Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra, Deniliquin, Hay and Albury (all New South Wales), supported by one of the first Playing Australia grants;
* Faust: 1995 commission for the Australian National University 50th Anniversary, including an original score by Larry Sitsky;
* Mysteries: 1996 commission to produce the closing ceremonies and final season of theatre for the original Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse. …