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On Melbourne: La Mama Theatre, Liz Jones, and Time Travel

November 15, 2012

By debtaffa

La Mama Theater will present “We Were Almost Entirely Happy” and other one-hour works during the annual EXPLORATIONS season performance. The show runs for three nights during my stay in Melbourne, good timing on the part of the NFN conference organizers. La Mama’s website says the EXPLORATIONS festival aims to support artists who wish “to challenge boundaries, experiment with process and explore new ideas.”

The Lonely Planet guidebook on Melbourne says La Mama’s experimental theater, headed by the fabulous Liz Jones, emerged in the late sixties as a leader in avant-garde plays: “La Mama is literally the mother of independent theater in Melbourne.”

Here is a link to the theater’s address: http://lamama.com.au/home/

La Mama’s second venue, the Courthouse, also has ongoing events. The theater’s website lists Cate Blanchett as one of the its successful alumni and it is known for discovering important, upcoming playwrights. Here are links to a few of EXPLORATIONS 28 performances, along with dates and ticket information:

We Were Almost Entirely HappyNovember 18, 19 ,20, buy tickets | read more
A Story About a DressNovember 18, 19, 20, buy tickets | read more
Death At IntervalsNovember 16, 17, 18, buy tickets | read more

But I would not be blogging about Melbourne if I was not going to Melbourne and as I went to the basement for my luggage today, I reflected on my earliest Australian education. Australia is the lowest, flattest, and oldest continental landmass on Earth. It’s the only country that is also a continent. The geography and animal kingdom are incredibly diverse; the platypus, ostrich, dingo, kangaroo, and koala all belong to Australia. In short, Australians have all the fun. As a kid, I always wanted to see the massive sandstone in the Northern Territory formerly known as Ayer’s Rock. The famous red rock now goes by its original name, Uluru. I remember a movie shot near Uluru in which a baby is snatched from the tent by a dingo, the parents charged with their daughter’s death. Nonfiction people take on upsetting projects.

Having checked the Melbourne weather, I know what to take and what to leave in Iowa City. I’m ready with a list of things to be purchased, items needed for the trip and as I head out the door I remember having a brief obsession with Melaleuca oil, an Australian genus belonging to the myrtle family. “If the kids came down with a sore throat I whipped it out, poured a little into a bowl, and swabbed it on their tonsils with a cotton ball” I read about the oil in holistic health journals, and “If it’s tea tree oil on the label, the product is probably diluted”. The oil was favored as an ingredient in dish liquid and shampoo. I read about the oil’s discovery by Captain James Cook, the famous explorer who landed in Botany Bay in 1770. Noting the sticky aromatic leaves Cook pondered the Melaleuca tree. With time he discovered the local people crushed the foliage to make a poultice for cuts and wounds. Many botanists on the topic of Melaleuca’s history cite the discovery of penicillin as the reason it fell out of favor as an antiseptic in the first half of the 1800’s. Researching this post I discovered that the wave of interest I was swept into during the early ‘90s, had to do with the scientific discovery that some skin infections are resistant to methicillin and vancomycin antibiotics.

Steve Irwin was at the height of his fame when I was raising my kids. We saw albino crocodiles at the New Orleans zoo, called albino “tongue-in-cheek” by the local zookeepers. The crocodile’s appearance at first glance is deceptive -it looks albino-like- but on closer inspection zoologists discovered that the family allows brown eyes rather than pink, negating the term. But what I really set out to write about, in terms of travel, involves the idea of time travel. I sometimes say “All travel is time travel,” meaning every land has its own historic trajectory.  Some places are closer to a mythological past.

My awareness of time travel is a tool that helps me prepare. I can most accurately imagine the country’s infrastructure by knowing its modern history, i.e. the history will offer clues to the infrastructure, what to expect in regards to food availability, building codes, public transportation, and sense of time schedules. If I consider leaving urban areas for rural ones, I think more about the mindset of the people. I expect fewer western notions and more familiarity with local myth and pre-Christian belief systems. Rural populations signal closeness to another way of thinking; the spectrum of closeness to myth differs according to what part of the world I am visiting. When I tread a country with rural folks and its existing old rituals, I must not impose. My mainstream views are outside; in some places I become an ugly modern anachronism. I am a conspiracy theorist, a representative supporting the great way of capitalism and a bossy global economy. I become a minority in rural areas due to my education and thought.

I can explain more about the notion that “all travel is time travel” by using an anecdote from American history involving Geronimo. Geronimo and his compatriots, 500 in number, were exiled to a prison in Florida in the 1880’s. Riding the rails east, the climate changed; it softened the farther east he went. The crowds who gathered to gawk at him were less hostile than those in Arizona -in Arizona they spat on him. As he headed east he entered states that viewed the Indian as a quaint relic. In San Antonio, a news reporter wrote: “The bloodthirsty villain [was] gawked at, covered with given flowers and delicacies.” In Pensacola, Florida, Geronimo became a tourist attraction. “You can go over to Santa Rosa Island, see Fort Pickens and Geronimo, and gather beautiful shells and marine curiosities on the beach”, it says in The Pensacola Commercial. When the state of Florida had to give Geronimo up to an Alabama prison in 1888, the news staff at The Pensacolian complained: “Just think of it, our Big Injun, and large-sized curiosity, Geronimo, together with those held with him at Fort Pickens were conveyed to Mobile.”

Modern society is fascinated with its own advancement. More importantly, we are in awe of what we have sacrificed for modern conveniences: global travel, information at high speeds, and luxuries only the privileged can afford. This anecdote illustrates our coping strategies, our neurotic attempt to get away from earth mythologies while also missing them. The Mobile Register celebrated their coup, the new draw on tourists, when Geronimo arrived. The reporter wrote: “The placing of the Indians at Mt. Vernon will add greatly to the attractiveness of that place as a Sunday school picnic resort.” Those with the concept of vacation took it.

This is my admission; I go to Australia thinking of it as an exotic locale. Everybody has unfamiliar spaces. Aware of my privilege and the stratification of society, I try to place Australia (not just Melbourne) on the world map in my mind. Where does it stand historically in relation to European power structures? I hope to look deeper into the country’s origins and learn something about its unique features related to adaptation and change. As a nonfiction writer and scholar, I have read Edward Said. I understand the argument against myopic Western stereotyping and the exoticization of the other but I believe that the alternative, an individual perspective mired in my its own ethnocentric take, is far worse. Seeking engagement with other cultures has the potential to be wrongheaded but I ask myself: What is the alternative?”. Tolerance is only a theory until after the initial encounter. Experiencing the foreign is essential to our human education.

The image below uses Geronimo’s military surrender to lampoon the establishment for its difficulty capturing him. Created by W.A. Rogers in 1886 for an issue of Life magazine, the cartoon features the Apache warrior teaching at West Point above a caption that reads “A Suggestion as to Geronimo’s Future.” Ironically as a traveler, holding the memory of war and genocide in my viewfinder increases my chances of being a respectful on-the-cheap traveler who is just passing through.

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