Grand Theft Theatre: An Unreliable Memoir

First, this title. Grand Theft Theater.

Is David Williams dreading a call from intellectual property lawyers for a certain video game company? Or a quick cease-and-desist letter before he’s even launched his new show?

“I actually can’t believe someone hasn’t used it before,” Williams told ArtsHub. ‘It’s just really cool. We did some research – Google searches, really – on this and found nothing. We initially feared that the whole Grand theft idea might be a bit too much. But then we thought if we didn’t do it now, someone else would.

Commissioned by the Melbourne Fringe Festival to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Grand Theft Theater sees Williams (co-founder and director, Alternative Facts) and Melbourne company Pony Cam agree on a low-fi ode to theatre, its transience and our attempts to hold on to the experience as memories.

In Grand Theft Auto, the object of the game is to steal cars for fun and profit. In Grand Theft Theaterthe object – no less playful – is to present 12 moments of past productions in 90 chaotic minutes of tribute and reflection.

Works cited (to varying degrees of inaccuracy) include productions by Sydney’s Sidetrack Performance Group, Melbourne’s The Rabble and The Hayloft Project, Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre, Dutch company Hotel Pro Forma, Gob Squad from Berlin, the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter and the British troupe Forced Entertainment.

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The impetus for GTT came from Williams’ discovery of a crate of documents and videos (“some were even on VHS”) of productions he amassed during his doctoral studies.

“I hadn’t watched any of that since 2007,” Williams said. “Was I going to see him again someday?” I didn’t want to throw it all away because it was too important somehow. I was wondering if I could donate them to some kind of archive, so they have a continued life and maybe inspire other artists in the same way they inspired me.

Around this time, Williams met the production of Pony Cam All you can doa theatrical experience that brought together a group of over 50s to explore grief, regret and “the things we don’t say, should say and have forgotten how to say”.

“There was this beautiful joy and generosity in a show that for me was a play about trying to capture memories,” Williams said. “And there I was, paring down my personal archive and thinking about my own past practice and the legacy that I’ve drawn on.”

Selective memories

Meetings between Williams and Pony Cam usually took place in the foyers of theaters. ‘One of the reasons I liked these guys [from Pony Cam] is I always saw them in the theater,” Williams said. “There are a lot of artists for whom this is not true, who for one reason or another are not going to see other people’s stuff. These guys have a very high curiosity and generosity, which I think is very valuable.

Later, a series of sit-down meetings produced a long list of meaningful encounters with theater and performance works. From there, the team is rehearsing a series of vignettes that Grand Theft Theater.

David Williams (third from left) and Pony Cam. Photo: Tess Campbell.

They don’t try to recreate scenes in great detail, Williams told ArtsHub. GTT is partly an exercise in the imperfection of memory. “That’s part of the fun.

“For example, we were trying to re-do choreography from a particular show, and it wasn’t until we did a quick video reference check that we realized we were wrong. But we liked the way we did it better.

“We want to recognize that theater is absolutely about time and space, but it’s also about the person looking at it,” Williams continued. “When we look at something, we are at a specific moment in our life. We could be in the middle of a bad breakup, or we’re really excited about something brewing in the future. We might be seeing something with someone we like or sitting in a room full of strangers. These elements also help shape what we see and how we remember it.

“There are moments of beauty, or horror, or stupidity. The things we hate also stay with us.

Williams and Pony Cam did not request permission to use material from other shows. In fact, some of the thumbnails might not be recognizable to the people who created them in the first place, he explained.

“For example, there is a moment that is my memory of how a performer crossed the stage from side to side, but I don’t remember anything else from the show from which it came. Some memories are presented as stories, others as small echoes or performative fragments, sometimes we represent a spectacle in an object – something that contains the memory of a performance.

One scene, for example, is a quote from a work Williams himself created in 1995, one that, in turn, quotes a Sidetrack production made a decade earlier. “A lot of what we’re going to do is pretty abstract or deconstructed and with minimal costuming and props.” Everything is emphatically lo-fi.

A scene vaguely reminiscent of Hayloft Project’s Thyestes will also appear. “For some of the Pony Cam guys, it was their first experience of crossover theater and also the time when Hayloft was bringing that Tarantino-esque sensibility to theater,” Williams said.

One show every GTT creatives saw and remembered as significant was that of Caroline Guiela Nguyen Saigon. “This piece was important on so many levels, but it was pretty much the last thing we all saw before the COVID lockdown,” Williams said.

The GTT will invite some of the artists whose works have inspired them. “People we contacted were very warm to the idea that we could try to remember their performances,” Williams said. “And of course that opens up the idea that we might also be thought of ourselves at some point in the future.” It would be great if people spoke fondly or even scornfully of Grand Theft Theater. It’s always flattering to remember.

‘It’s a bit like the Pixar movie coconut‘, added Williams. ‘Where the dead can only live in the afterlife as long as there are people alive who remember them. I like to think that theater is the same.

The Grand Theft Theater plays October 13-23 at Ambrose Hall in Brunswick, as part of the 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival.