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Summoning the ghost of Union House Theatre in Pony Cam’s Theatre Takeover

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“I think often when we respond to place, we respond to its history and its use as two different things. And I think for this new theatre those are two incredibly hard questions to answer in that it’s a very prescriptive building…you walk in and it feels like, this feels like a lecture hall; a university asset…

And yet,” he folds his hands, “We were like, does the ghost from the old Union House Theatre—which definitely existed, there’s no debating that—”

“Really?” I gasp. My openness to ghosts has widened with age. 

“No, I don’t believe in ghosts,” Dom says, “We were like, does a theatre inherit a ghost, or is it site-specific?” 

I’m talking to Dom about an eight-day theatre intensive—the “theatre takeover”—which took place in Union House Theatre (UHT) in late March, ran by the award-winning experimental theatre collective of which he is a part, Pony Cam.

By “ghost”, he refers to the mythology of a theatre always having a ghost. There is a long-standing tradition of ghost-lights being left on in theatres to ward them off—or keep them happy.

As someone who has never been involved in theatre, the whole theatre ghost mythology fell a little short on me. Responding to ghosts as a prompt throughout the intensive, my interpretation of it was rather literal, leaving me with this strange feeling of artificiality. It was like the attempt at inviting mystery into a new building so devoid of human touch only reinforced its synthetic feel.

Photography by @undersith.

But the essence of what Dom is getting at wasn’t lost on me entirely.

What Dom suggests is that UHT, built in 2023, still inherits a history—a set of “codified behaviours, financial structures, mythologies…” says Dom—and Pony Cam’s intensive was about making this inheritance visible.

“Act like you don’t give a fuck about this theatre,” Pony Cam member Hugo shouts on the second day of the intensive as we strut and play along the seating aisles. Curiously, I notice my compulsion to simply sit and look at the stage. I try to push against it.

“Because of the financial risk of programming a show in big theatres, young people in particular are often denied performing in those spaces,” Dom says. “So, creating a show where young people could take ownership of a theatre feels political.”

This is Pony Cam’s second in-theatre community-based intensive, the first being with seniors in the Darebin Arts Centre. Pony Cam do most shows in “disused” and non-theatre places like car parks and old churches.

UHT is obviously a theatre young people can access. But Dom emphasises the broader context Pony Cam speaks to—not only are there structural barriers to accessing big theatres, but when you go to one, you face “a whole set of codified behaviours…motivated by class.”
 
Hence, Hugo’s invitation to not give a fuck about the theatre.
   
But this is only a partial aspect of Pony Cam’s radicalness. It’s arguably Pony Cam’s act of relating to space itself—particularly a space where our relationship to it feels invisible or negated—which is most radical. It’s an invitation to engage with the implicit structures of a theatre—and with that, perhaps, the structures of modern Western storytelling.

“When you walk into a carpark,” says Dom, “it comes loaded with meaning; as soon as you walk into a church-hall you are hit with rebellions, and marriages, and all of the things that happened in that place. But when you walk into a black-box theatre, all you are greeted with is, ‘I’m sure many other plays happened in this room, and there were lots of people like me, who sat in chairs like this, to watch people say lines’…it’s a space which just serves the performer.”
 

Photography by @undersith.


I meet Julie in the A&C gallery, pondering a mat seemingly made of dirt—an “anti-mat”, she calls it. 

“I’ve actually never been here,” I say.

“Really?” she replies, lifting a salad-filled tote bag from the Queen Victoria Market.
I’m talking to Julie about the theatre takeover because my grasp of the whole experience feels a bit slippery.

Sprawled out on the stage floor the day before the performance as Hugo skims over a map, I latch onto fragments which will get me through as his voice floats past: start behind the left audience door; walk through the seating aisles the way Jasper walks; go to the green room; play flute and read out a line; run back to stage to do a mirror version of the seat stuff.

And slipping between these fragments I sprawled into Thursday night, mist wafting out of the smoke machine in the green room (a.k.a. the smoky jazz lounge), where velvet curtains are strung, sectioning off seating for a spoken-word rendition interspersed with music we improvise with flute, saxophone, and piano; the audience wanders through the haze, taking off their ghost sheets.

Three audience sub-groups go on different routes through various performances, though I only have an inkling of what these other performances are. It feels a little like Donna Haraway’s concept of “sympoeisis”—us all performing in these interdependent webs from which no one can see the “whole”. Haraway says relaxing into the partialness of our position allows our interdependencies, and the “whole”, to flow best. 

That’s why I’m talking to Julie, I guess, because I still want to see the “whole”.

“Like, what happened?” I stumble. Julie was in the jazz lounge with me, of course, so she’s the worst person to ask, but I hoped she’d have been more attentive.

“Did you see the photos?” Julie offers as a response.

Photography by @undersith.

“When you take photos from theatre shows, it looks totally whack… you could probably weave together a story of a cult,” says Julie, echoing the “you had to be there” nature of theatre.

Abandoning this search for an overarching viewpoint, then, I speak to Julie about the process.

“A big reason for me doing this was just the theatre games,” she says, recalling how we spent seemingly half our rehearsals playing variations of tag. The games felt pretty random, but she comments on how we could sense into their having a broader purpose, like group-building, which probably encapsulates the unstructured-but-actually-structured feeling of the whole intensive.

“It was also really nice seeing how other people think,” she says, referring to the skits we made up everyday, “everyone’s work was pretty good but also pretty crap… like shit in a good way.”

Indeed, shit in a good way. And also a little terrifying.
 

Photography by @undersith.

 

I recall sitting in the green room with two thirds of my page crossed out and 5 minutes left to respond to a prompt. Pressure to quickly write and perform has me disengaging altogether.


But Dom explains how it’s not the finesse of community intensives but the vulnerability they like to centre. “Often people get really awkward when they’ve shared something which is crap, but we love that, because in the crap-ness is the humanness,” he says.

Not everyone feels comfortable with such vulnerability, but Dom mentions always being struck by how open seniors tend to be when it comes to sharing their lives in Pony Cam’s process.

“It makes me think about how few opportunities we might get in life to tell our story,” he says.

But there is something particular about Pony Cam’s approach that enables this, I think. Pony Cam doesn't have a hierarchy.
 
“It was reassuring that you could just show up as you are…kind of that feeling like you are enough,” says Julie.

I am curious to come full circle about how this feeling interconnects with Pony Cam’s engagement with space. I wonder how our relating to space in UHT, summoning its ghosts, also affirms how we exist in-relation-to, within the whole of it. Perhaps it’s this affirming of our interconnected, partial existences that creates a feeling of being able to engage in a dialogue, or like we can have an influence. But I’m not writing an anthropology research grant. All I can say is it’s cool, and there’s something in it I can’t quite figure out but find inspiring. 

Dom hopes they’ll get another chance to use a big theatre for a project.

“There were lots of interesting fragments that came up in this that I’d love to go back to,” he says, “We’ll keep on refining what our exact question is.”

I hope so too.

In the meantime, Pony Cam will be performing their acclaimed Burnout Paradise for Rising Festival in June, for which they were recently nominated for a Green Room Award in Best Direction.

 
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