The love in the squares: creating Power Up!

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Produced by Vitae Veritas and The Arts Wellbeing Collective, Power Up! is a brand new performance energy video by Fog Theatre and video artist Kate Geck. Power Up! was made in the living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and offices of the performers and creatives during 2020.

Through abundant visuals, music, dancing and voice-over narration, Power Up! explores positively re-engaging with performance spaces and creative work after a period of isolation due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Power Up! is an energising work that moves us all towards increasing connection, getting out and about again, and coming back to the stage.

Led by Artistic Director Nilgun Guven, Power Up! showcases the performances, artworks and voices of Fog Theatre Ensemble, an incredible group of emerging and established theatre and dance artists including:

Clem Baade, William Bailey, Michael Buxton, India Boyd, Ian Caplan, Tim D’Rozario, John Eslick, Lincoln Holt, Debbie Lissek, Jordan Low, Mattie Michael, Mark Polonsky, Danny Quinlivan, Ruth Ruschinek, Melissa Slaviero, Brinley Stephens and Eleanor Vogdanos.

Power Up! combines the evocative language of the theatre with personal reflections to provide a strong sense of community for all people who work creatively. It is, above all, a resounding affirmation and acknowledgement of hope, encouragement and empowerment for everyone in the performing arts as we get back to creative work, workplaces and collaborations again.

Three distinct versions of the work have been produced:

Deeply immersive and engaging, Power Up! combines bold artistic elements with movement, music and voice to shift the viewer’s energy from isolation and separation towards expansion, fun, and renewed creative connection. It is just what we all need right now.

Spotlight recently met with Fog Theatre and took part in their weekly face-to-face session. Spotlight chatted with members of the Ensemble as well as lead artist Nilgun Guven from Vitae Veritas and collaborating video-artist Kate Geck about their new multimedia video work, Power Up! made in conjunction with the Arts Wellbeing Collective.

You can read the interview with performers and creatives from Fog Theatre here.

Tell us a little about the background of Power Up! What was the intention behind this piece?

Nilgun: We have a structure for our days at Fog that includes dancing, singing, acting, lunch, and we celebrate everyone’s birthday and other rituals. A few years ago we asked, is something missing from this day?

The Ensemble often reflect at the end of the day and we asked the question – how do you feel about meditation being part of our days? Then we began to explore meditation from a physical, breathing, mindfulness point of view as well as sharing visualisations and guiding people through meditations. It was a really beautiful revelation over time.

Creatively we then went into mandala making, which was another meditative form of art-making and working together quietly – so we mixed those two and that became the early concept for our show at the time called Signature which led me to seek out Kate.

Kate: I’d done some other guided meditations in my practice with moving images so when Nilgun got in touch, I thought it sounded really interesting. Then I came out and met everybody and it was just so much fun.

We made the mandalas move and experimented with projecting them onto people so that the performers could move with the texture of their own artworks on their bodies. It was a really interesting process because the mandalas being projected onto the body and the movements were calming and restorative.

Then the Ensemble developed the guided meditation Signature – the Ensemble members wrote the meditation and verbalised it – and we combined that with the moving images of everyone dancing and the projections. It was just great!

The Arts Wellbeing Collective team connected with Nilgun through Signature. We loved it and could see that it was something that could benefit people across the sector. We are so grateful that you reached out, and that we could share the Signature video.

Nilgun: Pleasure. We consciously made it as a gift.

Signature and Power Up! are kind of a pair: one where you take the energy down and one where you take it up again. Can you talk about why that felt like the right theme and what drove that choice?

Kate: When Nilgun and I had our first phone conversation about this piece, it was during lockdown and I was power-walking around my local oval!

We talked about offerings to reconnect and re-engage with the world and how important that was going to be for everyone. These were themes that Nilgun had been working on with the Ensemble already. It was a really interesting conversation because it felt like that’s what we needed: a series of gestures to reconnect with the world after so long being isolated and dormant.

Nilgun: At that time in the Ensemble we were exploring what we appreciated in 2020 as much as what was difficult, and also what we were looking forward to and what the future would bring.

Fog have an amazing ability to transfer their positivity both in-person and on-screen and to move people. In Signature we created a peaceful, safe, welcoming, self-acceptance piece. Power Up! is more of an invitation back into the world again. In it we acknowledge that this is a time of transition and that it may be an awkward transition. It’s a mixed feelings space, but Fog are forever positive and resilient.

The Ensemble are so ready and able to investigate these ideas and to put their insights and experiences into form and share it with others. We thought Power Up! would be useful for a lot of people and another nice gift.

It was quite moving to make this piece. There was one session for instance, where we were referring to stage terms – we’re all performers in Fog, including the staff – and these words were so poignant to us, just saying them was poignant. So, we’ve included an audio only version as well that incorporates more of these terms as well.

Who do you hope Power Up! will reach?

Nilgun: I’m going to say everyone!

Kate: Same! I don’t think it’s specifically for any demographic. It’s for people, particularly people in Melbourne, who have endured all of these lockdowns and prolonged periods of isolation who are now trying to readjust to three dimensions in real time.

Nilgun: There are also people in the background to the creative’s life; their family and their friends, who can equally benefit. Vicariously we’ve been affected by each other’s joys and challenges at the same time over the last year or so it’s for all of us. It’s for everyone.

Why do you think it’s important to look after our mental health and wellbeing?

Kate: It feels like that should have a really zappy simple answer, but it doesn’t! For me, it’s about finding some kind of balance between giving and receiving – to others and to yourself.

It’s about not falling off kilter by finding that balance which means you can keep going and keep doing what you need to do.

Nilgun: To be functional (laughs)

Kate: Yeah, to keep going (laughs)

Nilgun: To not be lonely – and to be at the centre of whatever your experience may be.

To continually refine those skills of tuning into yourself and your surrounds. It’s about being in conversation with lots of things interacting, so finding a balance is constantly at play.

Why do you think it’s important to have a mental health and wellbeing program in our industry?

Kate: That’s another big question! The creative arts is defined by precarity: by long hours and short contracts. It doesn’t often lend itself to practices of wellbeing.

You have to be able to give quite a lot and I think precarity is really at odds with wellbeing. So it’s good to acknowledge this and to try and embed practices of slowness and care-taking and allowing people to make space for themselves.

(To Nilgun) And what you said before about centring yourself so that you can actually have an experience – that’s a really interesting idea.

Nilgun: When I started my career there was nothing like the Arts Wellbeing Collective, so for it to exist and be out there is in and of itself an important and good thing. For it to continue is just as important. We’re all human, so vulnerable things happen in our lives and not just creatively and that can be very challenging.

With that in mind, what sorts of things do you do to support your own mental health and wellbeing? And what do you do to support the Ensemble when you are all working together?

Nilgun: In supporting my own health, I am practicing setting different kinds of boundaries and learning from others who either role-model or encourage me to include other things in my work/life balance.

You need to have a commitment to it – a stronger commitment to not prioritise work constantly or the tasks that are involved in it above everything else. To be able to switch effectively has been really helpful to me personally for the past few years!

Kate: I try to do all of the things that we’re reminded to do – I try to look after myself and I try to sleep well and I try to exercise and I try to meditate.

I think really what it comes down to is what Nilgun is saying [to Nilgun] and I feel like you’re a few steps ahead of me maybe – but this idea of having boundaries that give yourself permission to prioritise the things that make you happy as opposed to the things that you feel like you need to get done.

It’s so difficult! I think it’s about navigating sets of values as opposed to doing tasks. It’s about creating a set of values that you can prioritise; that you want to do. So instead of exercising or meditating because you’re ‘supposed to’, you’re doing it because you know it makes you feel better and that if you do it you will be better at the things you need to do. It’s really hard though. I’ll let you know when it actually works!

Nilgun: That’s why it’s so important to know and explore values in the room and with each other, no matter who has what role. To have a sense of that and to make room for those conversations is really helpful, because that then defines the culture that you work within and the types of relationships that can be had.

Values are at play in the Fog setting all the time. It’s all constantly negotiated and compromised – we do check-ins all the time and use other tools to look after each other too. We allow honesty. We ask directly or if we observe something from each other then there’s a lot of peer support for people to get what they need. We allow care and love to play a part, and humour. It’s a very real space as much as it’s a working professional space.

People arrive with different needs, week to week, and they can take their time or through the creative process what they are experiencing can transform into another thing that can be helpful to them. Sometimes, someone comes in with low energy and just by connection or participation they can put out something different and beneficial.

Being available is important and so is listening. It is all the many micro-moments throughout the day and between weeks that add up. I think the evidence of that is also reflected in who is behind the performers in their support circles – there’s a real awareness that we have an intimate knowledge of each other’s emotional landscapes and mental landscapes and insights into that. We make sure there’s always open communication and exchange around that to inform the Ensemble or to take feedback from them.

We were really struck by how many things that you’re explicitly doing in the room that address and support psychosocial safety, it was great to see.

Nilgun: It’s constantly exercised! We do have curveballs, but we don’t do a censor approach. It’s not like ‘you’re not allowed to’ on anything. People in the Ensemble are communicating, quite directly, and I get feedback all the time about how things are working.

There’s a recognition of other people’s needs and perspectives. The peers are talking to each other about that, they’re defining their own things and the expectations between people or a group. Over the years, it’s evolved to show itself now in that way which is why you see those sorts of things in the room.

What have you enjoyed about making Power Up! and what have you learned along the way?

Kate: I was thinking about the Foggies a lot during lockdown and wondering ‘how are they going?’ When I spent time with them in person a few years ago, it was so apparent how much love and care was in the space. So I did think about them during lockdown when I knew they wouldn’t be able to get together in the same space.

It was awesome when Nilgun got in touch and shared some videos from Zoom of the Ensemble connecting. I felt really overwhelmed because the love was in the squares. It was stunning how all of that energy was flowing between everyone on Zoom and I couldn’t believe how well Fog had translated as an online space. There was still the same level of energy and laughter but also management of moods and opinions and things that was all still happening in a similar way!

For me I just really loved seeing everyone’s faces again and seeing when people were seeing each other for the first time. I think there was one video, the first one, that captured that and that was pretty emotional and significant.

Everyone at Fog knows each other so well so it was special when everyone was able to see each other again because everyone feels that way, you know? I felt that way when I saw my friends too! Everyone has these same experiences. It’s a very universally human thing to be overjoyed when you see your friends when you’ve been alone for ages.

The Foggie’s experience can be something that other people can relate to and learn from when trying to re-engage with the world.

Nilgun: I think something that the Ensemble can do quite immediately is make people feel comfortable. I don’t want to take that for granted or assume that but there is feeling that you can just drop into your skin with them and we’re hoping that people can feel that in the video. That feeling that it’s okay to be where ever you’re at – to be absolutely non-critical at that moment.

But as a creative process, as a collaboration, it’s also been a really interesting challenge creatively. There’s been some very strong parameters in place to transpose all that but also there’s the reception by the world to consider!

Asking, is this what people might need right now? And what are we offering, and why and how? – making those kinds of very intangible things a part of the decision-making processes has been really interesting. Working with Kate, especially whose practice is in the care space, is the right sort of partnership for this work.

 

Kate: I feel really lucky to be back. Signature was one of my favourite projects I’ve worked on – so much fun! (laughs)

Nilgun: In making Power Up! we continued the Fog Theatre practice of ongoing feedback to really consolidate the Ensemble’s involvement. The performers have say on what is put out there and they very clearly communicate what they like and what they don’t like. They’re very generous with their sharing – physically and verbally – and they’re really proud of being part of the arts world and creative industries.

Do you have any advice for someone about to start out in the industry? What would you tell someone starting out about how to do creative work in a personally supportive or mentally healthy way?

Kate: Pace yourself and pace your projects. Try to figure out your expectations of what it is you want to achieve and how achievable it might be.

Definitely consider the people you’re working with! Try to have as much control over who you work with as possible. This can be hard when you’re starting out!

If you’re having an experience that is good, remember what’s good about it and aim for that to be a benchmark or a standard. And if you’re having a bad experience, do what you can to get through it but then make a decision to maybe not do that again.

Don’t think that just because someone asks you to do something that you have to say yes if it’s not a good situation for you. It comes back to values – making sure the things that you’re doing as much as possible can line up with what’s important to you because that makes the work more rewarding.

Nilgun: Always ask yourself, was it the best process? For me, having a shared vision or alignment to the nature and intention of the group, project or work is paramount.

Like Kate, I’m also careful about who I choose to work with because I am really aware of the position of responsibility I have in care-taking the artists I manage or am involved with. I’m always reflecting on how things have gone and working to improve things to ensure the artists I work with have safety of experience and that their agency is upheld.

So my advice would be keep learning, and always enter processes with integrity, especially when negotiating partnerships and collaborations. It’s hard when you are just starting out, but even in the very early days of your career I think it’s reasonable to expect that there should be clarity, transparency and structure or clear expectations.

At the same time in this creative world, you do need to be relatively open and flexible. Therefore you need to know thyself and your boundaries and if you go beyond them – if you’re asked for too much – it should be okay to say ‘woah, let’s just take a minute and review all that.’ Communication is really important.

Kate: In the creative industries, I think everyone feels really lucky to be working here. That means that sometimes boundaries get blurry and you can overcommit or be exploited. I think it’s important for people to remember if you burn out or can’t do the work then you can really suffer. It’s really important to prioritise those practices of care – they make the work better.

Nilgun: In terms of Fog Theatre or the inclusive arts space more generally, there’s a lot that we have put in place over the years. We have put into venues or presenters or festivals awareness that these are the types of things that may need to be accommodated or provided. Internally we design schedules that take into account a lot of different factors and care and health and wellbeing really inform that scheduling process. Why should that not apply for other mainstage or major project designs or schedules as well?

Where possible and as much as possible, we also build in extra support and we have the right people in our networks to bring in during intense times or if particular people need more support. We really tailor and think what that looks like and what that needs.

We also think about how that ripples into ‘how can you still do a tech while providing this kind of support?’ We still achieve all the milestones of intense periods and productions.

It comes down to having a really great team, as well as a receptivity and generosity from the people that you’re making the work for or with. You need co-resourcing and co-making for that to happen. Having the right support in place makes it easier for people to adapt to what’s happening and not come in with that stress already.

About

Led by Artistic Director Nilgun Guven, Power Up! showcases the performances, artworks and voices of Fog Theatre Ensemble, an incredible group of emerging and established theatre and dance artists including: Clem Baade, William Bailey, Michael Buxton, India Boyd, Ian Caplan, Tim D’Rozario, John Eslick, Lincoln Holt, Jordan Low, Debbie Lissek, Mattie Michael, Mark Polonsky, Danny Quinlivan, Ruth Ruschinek, Melissa Slaviero, Brinley Stephens and Eleanor Vogdanos.

Fog Theatre is a dynamic and diverse performing arts program for adults with disability where members explore and develop skills in drama, acting, singing, improvisation, script, dance, movement and choreography in a socially, creatively and culturally inclusive, safe and welcoming environment, supported by highly experienced inclusive arts practitioners and accessibility specialists.

Fog Theatre’s bold artistic practice and culture of inclusivity embeds creative leadership development opportunities and nurtures vital pathways to further artistic collaborations, partnerships and exchanges across industries and sectors, as well as the production and presentation of numerous critically successful theatre and film works since its formation in 1991.

Kate Geck is an artist who works with code and textiles to create interactive surfaces and immersive spaces. Her PhD explores extended reality (XR) experiences that reimagine human computer interaction to mindfully engage the body, drawing on somaesthetics, offering an alternative to ‘attention-extracting’ design systems.

Kate has exhibited locally, online, and abroad, with funding and commissions from a range of organisations. As an Industry Fellow in Interior Design at RMIT, Kate collaborates with diverse creative organisations such as Artful Dodgers, Signal Arts, Polyglot Theatre, 100 Stories, Charcoal Lane and Fog Theatre.

Vitae Veritas is a not-for-profit arts and cultural organisation based in Melbourne with a dedicated aim to promote and support cultural diversity, artistic excellence and inclusive arts leadership. At the centre of VV’s work it champions people, their creative practice and explores the role of artistic experimentation and how this directly informs co-designing accessible creative and aesthetic innovations and strategies for collaboration.

Founded by Nilgün Güven, a Turkish-Australian producer, director, artist and culture agent, Vitae Veritas’ ethos and practice is concerned with the intersectionality of human rights, inclusion & access, aesthetic innovation and creative production.

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