Interview with Shaun Parker

Shaun Parker: This Show Is About PeopleIn the midst of rehearsals for his upcoming Melbourne Arts Festival production, This Show Is About People, Shaun Parker took time out to talk to us about the work and what brought him to it.

Parker graduated from the VCA dance school in 1992 and is credited as the director-choreographer of This Show Is About People but, as became clear in our conversation, music and song has been just as vital as dance in shaping his artistic vision. In his childhood, up until the age of seven, Parker struggled with a speech impediment. However, his mother quickly noticed that his stutters vanished whenever he joined in with the songs on Playschool and thus began his continuing fascination with song. While working as a dancer with Meryl Tankard’s ADT in Adelaide, Parker researched mediaeval music. Being a natural countertenor, Parker’s voice was inherently suited to the style and he was taken under the wing of Leslie Lewis who developed his knowledge of baroque and early music. Parker’s talents as a singer led him into work with groups like Adelaide Baroque and artists like that doyenne of avant-garde voice, Meredith Monk.

In This Show Is About People, Parker’s passions for music and dance have come together in a thoroughly entwined manner. Of course, dance and music are hardly odd bedfellows, but Parker started this project with the conceptual undertaking of using live music and dance as interactive elements that, through the development process, would react with each other in a loop of mutual inspiration. This development of the project began well over two years ago with an initial three weeks of work in January 2005. A collaborative understanding of the rehearsal room was key, especially in this early phase, and Parker was keen to have the idiosyncrasies of the dancers feed into the work. He set tasks for them, with each individual’s personal style and background ensuring a plurality of responses. At the same time, musicians came into the process on a regular basis in order to begin matching the growing physical vocabulary of the group to songs.

A year later, Parker returned to the project with a further fortnight of development, this time focused on music. During his seven year stint with Tankard at ADT, Parker was involved with the production and tour of Songs with Mara, which brought him into contact with Mara and Llew Kiek—musicians who are now the musical directors of This Show Is About People. Their involvement ensures that the show is steeped in the rich vocal heritage of Bulgaria, but their work with Parker has been as much about finding a coherency for the musical smorgasbord that has made its way into the show: word art, beat box, baroque, Hawaiian slide guitar and pop. And now, with only weeks to go until the world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, director, musicians and dancers alike are applying the finishing touches to Parker’s debut major-cast work.

In Kristy Edmunds’ recent chat with Spark Online, she stressed how important it was for the local artists she commissions to have a confidence in their vision and aesthetic. In Parker’s case, seventeen years in the dance world has given him the opportunity to absorb the processes of many significant choreographers. He is a strong believer in aspiring choreographers taking the time to dance and learn through rehearsal and performance before looking to stamp their own footprint.

Indeed, the harsh realities of the arts world can be a daunting slap in the face for the unseasoned. Making This Show Is About People a reality has taken Parker several failed grant applications and several successful ones over the course of several years. Keeping a large-scale project such as this one afloat for so long has at times felt overwhelming for him. Nevertheless, he has been staying afloat and supporting his family thanks to a Robert Helpmann Scholarship from Arts NSW and the fiscal bonuses of commercials and film work. In the end, it was Edmunds’ support that guaranteed Parker’s hard work would receive an audience.

The effect his work has on an audience—its capacity to transform them—is fundamental to Parker’s approach. He wants This Show Is About People to be viscerally engaging and thought-provoking, with meaning that is neither obscure nor ham-fisted. From a thematic point of view, the piece began its evolution around various perceived dualities: life/death-afterlife, religion/war, violence/undoing it, man/woman. They are grand themes all and it is an ambitious undertaking to render such weighty matters in a coherent and unsentimental manner, but for Parker they are tied together.

Why belong? This seems to be the question at the heart of Parker’s investigation of the human condition. The answer for him has been an optimistic affirmation rather than a bleak abyss, though Parker is quick to point out the distinction between optimism and cheesiness—there will, we can thankfully assume, be no Hallmark cards folded in with the program.

This Show Is About People will play from Thursday October 11 to Sunday October 14 at the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre as part of the 2007 Melbourne International Arts Festival. Further festival dates in other cities can be anticipated in 2008-2010.