In the wake of many years of funding cutbacks and general neglect, the situation has changed, so much so that last month playwright Patricia Cornelius publicly questioned whether Melbourne had lost its indie theatre crown to Sydney.
The independent sector is integral to the creative process, the crucible in which many of the most notable works of Australian performance will be forged in the 21st century.
The first development season of Andi Snelling’s Happy-Go-Wrong proves an inoculation against despair. It’s also a knockdown argument for why indie theatre should benefit from a coherent and generous arts policy.
Snelling is a sublimely talented performer dealt a serious blow by fate. Diagnosed with a chronic illness – Lyme disease – her career has been interrupted, and this show draws inspiration from adversity with the lightest of touches.
Charmingly costumed as an accident-prone aviatrix on roller-skates, Snelling wobbles across the stage as «Lucky», a guardian angel with a French accent.
Andi and her disease start offstage «behind the fourth wall» and darkness and suffering emerge only by degrees, as layers of performance strip the artist bare.
It’s an entertaining and moving exploration of the visceral, psychological, social and existential aspects of chronic illness and unfurls with winning humour, unflinching honesty and hard-won wisdom.
Happy-Go-Wrong gets much right by avoiding the common pitfalls – sentimentality chief among them – associated with making art from personal misery. It’s a surprising and tangential odyssey that combines offbeat shtick, precarious dance theatre, entropic visual clowning and soul-scouring burlesque.
As the cuteness of the initial comic persona crashes to earth, the piece surges into a blur of confusion, fury and pain, from a convulsive sequence that probes responses to illness on social media to an agonised recitation of Olivia Newton-John’s (Let’s Get) Physical.
Further development will refine the script and tighten some loose screws, but that this work is already, at an early stage, so shaped and mature, and so novel in its dramaturgical approach, is a healthy sign. If it doesn’t take a larger stage at some point it’s our lack of support for the arts that’s sick.
La Mama’s Explorations season will run at The Burrow until June 30.