Street theatre according to Punch & Judy


By Denis Olsen

Readers of Green Left Weekly will know Dave Riley from his regular satirical column, "The Life of Riley" . But written satire is not his only cultural pursuit. He also does a lot of theatre work. The theatre Riley practises, however, is very different from the norm.

"I got back into theatre", he told Green Left Weekly, "as an extension of, I guess, writing for the paper".

Riley established a local street theatre group, New World Order Theatre, which was active in anti-racist campaigns and around the issue of East Timor. It many techniques that had been pursued in the past.

"While NWOT was an exciting exercise in exploring what was possible I soon realised that what we were doing had limitations. Working in the street presents a few practical problems. Being heard, being seen, gathering and holding an audience is not easily done. You need to be rather opportunistic and employ any tool that will help you to get your message across.

"So we started to use masks and move rather outlandishly. There's nothing like a mask to focus attention on a performer in a busy mall."

It was through making these masks that Riley developed various construction techniques which he now employs today as one of the few mask-makers in the country.

But wearing and making masks was only a beginning. Riley soon found that there were many skills that could be harnessed to enhance this form of theatre. Now, when he designs an outdoor performance, he builds it through a process of improvisation, masking and puppetry.

"Puppetry was the most recent discovery," he said. "Unfortunately, it is a neglected tool so often relegated to the status of kids' entertainment. There is no audience more responsive than children and they know a good thing when they see it. So I've been doing a lot of street theatre using puppets in the traditional form of a Punch and Judy show."

Punch was originally an Everyman-type figure. His and Judy's popularity relied on their ability to make fun of the status quo. It wasn't until the late 19th century that Punch became primarily a children's entertainment.

"When I discovered Punch and created my own show around him a lot of things began to fall into place. There seemed to be a wonderful logic about each performance," he said.

"While a Punch and Judy show is not a formula, it standardly employs techniques that rest on 300 years of practical experience drawing and holding audiences in the street. That's when the penny dropped and I started a serious study of the history of theatre in public places.

"That rich tradition is hidden from us by this facade we are used to of commercialised entertainments," he argues. "Street theatre is historically the most common form of theatre. As festivals, travelling players and busking, it has been around for over 2000 years. Despite such a long period, there is a remarkable similarity of approach and political thrust. When you base theatre within the mass of people as they go about their daily lives it tends to harness their outlook and articulate it."

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the history of street theatre is a history of performers being repressed by the authorities of church or state. The medieval commedia dell'arte troupes of travelling street performers were expelled from Italy because they were too critical of the ruling classes. Mask wearing was banned by the Catholic Church for centuries, simply because it was seen as a threat to the authority of the bishops.

When the revolution triumphed in Russia in 1917 it was to that rich dissenting tradition of street theatre that many cultural activists turned. By 1923 Punch, in the form of his Russian cousin Petrushka, was an icon of this new movement.

Riley recognises that street theatre isn't easy to do well and laments the embarrassing examples of it he has witnessed over the last 30 years.

"But once you understand it — how to do it and use it — then the potential becomes startling. So many activists are blinded by obscure ideas about art and culture that they miss a very basic lesson: that you need to capture and hold a person's attention long enough to get your message across."

Dave Riley will be running a one-day street theatre workshop on Sunday May 14 from 11am in Northgate on Brisbane's north-side. Cost $5/$3 concession. Bookings are essential. Phone (07) 32664281.