A potted history of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle

Speech delivered by Patrick Troy, co-founder and co-director of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle, at the opening of the exhibition Massive Love of Risk: the Arts of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle (1985-98) at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, Friday 27 September 2013. This version including links contained was originally published by Splinters member Sarah Moss on the ABC Open site.

At its best Splinters Theatre of Spectacle was a forum for ideas, for experiments, and artworks working primarily in performance and the theatre arts where there were many avenues for exploration.

Splinters focussed on visual arts through sets and props and through promotional material; in music, costume, in dance, video art, and pyrotechnics and in performance which Splinters extended out to Puppetry, to outdoor performance, sculptural installation and also through audience interaction or ‘Crowd Theory’. 

This Crowd Theory was a name used for the process of moving the audience through spaces, of asking them to crawl through tunnels, look through slits, wear headsets, ride on ferries, etc. This interest originated, for Splinters, when in the first venue an audience observing one scene in front was then turned around for the next scene behind. It created an interesting tension between the audience and the performers.

In the performance stream Splinters continued a practice of professional development and conducted classes to further develop the skills of the ensemble, finding experts from fields as diverse as Martial Arts & Fencing, through Gymnastics and Commedia del Arte, to Harmonic Chanting. 

Some of the teachers engaged were Renald Navarro, Cheryl Heazlewood, Stephen Champion, Nico Lathouris, and Nigel Kellaway. Some of these teachers also entered into a deeper relationship with Splinters, actually working on shows and designing the works. 

Additionally a number of the artists that joined in Splinters’ shows interstate travelled back to Canberra to make work. These were often sophisticated and experienced performance artists : Victoria Spence, Jai McHenry, Tod Smart, Mar Bucknell, Khalil Juredini and Sarah Glezer to name a few. 

Because of the often isolated nature of Canberra artistic life this injection of interesting performers and tutors was instrumental to the continued growth of a company like Splinters.

I say isolated but the 1980s in Canberra was a stimulating time, bands and shows were regular: The Cock and Bull Bar at the Civic Hotel, The ANU Bar and Refectory, Café Boom Boom, The Performing Arts Café, the various theatres at Gorman House, indeed the grounds of Gorman House itself often seemed be a very stimulating place, also with Human Veins Dance Company, Meryl Tankard Company, Café Jax, The Pits, etc. etc were all venues of interesting performance.

In 1985 a small group got together to discuss the potential for performance and some ideas we wanted to express. After deciding to “put on a show” we found a venue – the Downer Community Centre, where we could also rehearse weekly, chose a name and looked around for participants. Several students from the Canberra Art School were interested and brainstorming sessions commenced.

A $500 grant from the International Youth Year fund paid for the space and scrounging for set, prop, costume materials started. This scrounging was to become an integral part of the methodology of Splinters and it is only because David Branson is not here that I can say that he was not alone in being arrested late at night on a building site scavenging for junk.

The next couple of years saw Splinters grow in confidence and scope with tours to Newcastle, Melbourne, and Perth bringing the resulting shows back to Canberra to a partisan audience. Those early shows were largely reflective of young adults concerns; self-conscious, carefree, yet serious. They infused music, dance, comedy and theatre into a heady, fun brew.

With some bureaucratic help Splinters managed to secure the largely disused Old Canberra Brickworks as a venue for the 1989 processional show “Whirled on a Fatal Floor” It was at the Brickworks that Splinters took up a more permanent storage and workshop space. Along with an office at Gorman House the group prepared to organise more serious tours and the following five or six years saw an extraordinary output of work. I think if any of the participants look back on the sheer volume of the work they can find something to be proud of. In those shows and the people involved in making them. Literally hundreds of terrific people.

A handful of my memories of those times include getting an exceptionally good sleep in the maximum security cells of the disused Old Adelaide Gaol; of writing scripts while camping down the coast; of travelling to Lismore to cut down a semi-trailer load of bamboo for a show on Springbank Island. 

Of hanging Steven Howard by his ankles nude from a tree outside a Sydney Gallery; of crossing the Nullabor with my mates; of the Sydney Opera House Spectacular (ICON) ; the forecourt of the ANU spectacular; and an explosive event in Canberra’s Civic Square …. too many to mention.

Among our many supporters in Canberra Peter Haynes was an invaluable advocate, and Helen Musa provided valuable critical feedback of Splinters’ work. But ultimately, as many collectives had found previously, a group of artists trying to form families and relationships, and build lives under conditions of zero wages is too taxing. Also many of the artistic and social experiments did not work. 

It would be remiss not to touch on some of the unsavoury aspects of any collective ideal. The ego and arrogance, theft and embezzlement, the drug abuse, violence, poverty and moral infamy that bedevils many groups of young adults all contributed to the demise of Splinters.

Somewhere around 1998 the collective of idealist artists had completely dissolved. Yet many good ripples spread out and several Splinter groups split off. 

Groups like ODD Productions, Triclops, and Temple State made impressive installations and Fire Sculptures for Big Day Out, and dance parties across the country. 

Snuff Puppets focussed their energies and expanded on the puppet methods started in Garema Place and still tour them around the world. 

The Village” still creates environments for communities and artists to gather and display ideas and performances.

Individual artists are currently achieving and creating in many sectors of the arts, through television, mainstage and experimental theatre, music, photography, visual arts, the internet, and so on. The list goes on and on.

I’ll finish with one of the questions that I think was somewhere near the heart of the reason for the work we did. And the work that many artists do. A questing for answers to the unknown. A question that obviously remains.

Here it is found in a quote from Lord of the Flies:
“What are we going to do about the Beastie?”



About GavinF

I am undertaking a PhD at the Centre for Digital Humanities Research , Australian National University. My research is developing a theoretical framework for using online archives of theatre and performance video to research audiences over long time periods. The Splinters archive is a case study for my research.
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