Meet Me At Kissing Point was a community project initiated, devised, coordinated and directed by Dancenorth in 1994 for the Townsville Community with financial assistance from the Townsville City Council and the Australia Council.
The concept of celebrating Townsville's natural beauty and one of its most charming recreational areas through a large-scale community project was at first a personal one—a dream of the artistic director of Dancenorth to bring to the public eye the magic that surrounds Kissing Point; a magic which so often goes unnoticed even by those who regularly walk or swim there.
1994 seemed the appropriate year to bring this dream to fruition. It was the 130th birthday of Townsville, and the 10th anniversary of Dancenorth who wanted to provide a celebratory and participatory performance experience for and with the local community to thank them for their support over the last decade.
The extensive touring commitments of the company do not often allow us to respond to the many requests we receive from our local community for our participation in projects. Part of the purpose of the Kissing Point Project was to allow the entire company to share skills and creative thinking directly with the community for an extended period of time.
It also provided an opportunity for community groups and individuals to come together with a common goal and to work with professional performing and visual artists on a scale never before attempted in Townsville. In the process, participants were able to improve existing skills, and/or learn new ones, as well as being encouraged to creatively develop their own deas into a final performance.
The focal point for the project was, of course, its location, and our title Meet Me At Kissing Point was used both literally and metaphorically. For those who do not know Townsville, Kissing Point and in particular the Rockpool, at the Northern end of the Strand, stands between Townsville's two dominating landmarks—the craggy imposing Castle Hill rising out of the middle of the city and the romantic Magnetic Island occupying so insistently the sea which skirts Townsville.
In the area around Kissing Point families mix freely, and regularly take advantage of one of Townsville's most lovely recreational areas. Gently sloping lawns to the man-enclosed circle of sea provide a natural amphitheatre. The rock wall of the pool which keeps out the deadly box jellyfish and makes it safe to swim all year round, provides a perfect cyclorama for a theatrical event. The beauty of sea and sky divided by the purple outlines of Magnetic Island provides a stunning backdrop.
It is a place w here drifting in the present frees the mind for future dreams and aspirations—it is poetic and dreamy, yet accessible and practical. Every age range, social class and culture is to be found there enjoying its simple delights in their own way. At dusk the mauves and pinks imbue the surrounds with a magical and reassuring quality—the rocks take on a richness not discernible in the glaring sun and the sea and sky assume a softness that is irresistible.
For the site of our community project it was ideal—not too large and unwieldy, but rather intimate in feel because of the circular nature of the pool and bay. Processional access was possible along the beach and by water in boats and rafts. The audience was able to comfortably sit on sand or lawns with their picnic teas and afforded a good view. A huge stage built in the pool allowed many performance possibilities with access by water or by foot along the circular stone path which runs around the outer edge of the pool.
Dancenorth felt strongly that for the project to be truly community-based, it must be owned by that community and the participating groups within it, so although Dancenorth initiated the project and chose the site, it was important that the content of the work was determined by the participants themselves, and that they were able to shape and hone the themes that evolved throughout the process.
On the other hand, the cohesiveness essential in working together towards a common goal, suggested certain parameters in order for the project to remain focused. Obviously in choosing the site, the essence of water was central to any themes that emerged. What was unexpected and inspiring, was just how differently each group approached their task, resulting in 11 segments which were not only varied, but innovative and imaginative. Of course, the final performance did not happen 'magically' despite its magic moments. The event was a huge logistics exercise beginning 15 months before the actual performance.
April 1993 – February 1994
In April 1993, the acting general manager of Dancenorth at the time, Maureen Hafner, and I made an initial approach to the Townsville City Council regarding forming a partnership with them to undertake the project. These initial meetings met with enthusiasm and support from Frank Hornby, the director of the Community and Cultural development section of the City Council. As a result, the City Council and Dancenorth applied jointly to the Community Cultural Development Board of the Australia Council for assistance with professional fees for the composer/musical director, the design co-ordinator, administrative co-ordination and for the professional visual artists involved.
We believe that it is the first time that such a partnership has been funded by the Australia Council. The Townsville City Council in turn provided Dancenorth with $13,000 towards the costs of staging the performance—scaffolding and materials, to build the stage and an audience grandstand, cost of the two generators needed to produce enough power, and hire of technical (sound and light) equipment needed to run the show.
All of Dancenorth's equipment and personnel resources were used in the project as well as financial resources which we could ill afford. However, since the amount of money needed was twice what we actually received, it was inevitable that there was some over-run, no matt r how much we pared the budget back.
From June until February, initial planning included mostly working out technical and staging logistics, for which we employed Bernd Neumann, part-time. General manager, Lorna Hempstead, who had returned from sabbatical in July, worked on permission to close and use the Rockpool, outdoor amenities and sponsorship for materials and equipment.
Over the same period, I made contact with groups and individuals to gauge the interest and enthusiasm of the community, as well as appointing Linsey Pollak as musical director and composer and Christine Spain as design coordinator and director. At this stage research was also undertaken o the history and uses of the Kissing Point area.
Making contact with community groups & development of initial concepts
A series of meetings with interested members of the community in March and May resulted in a number of ideas and contacts being made between individuals and existing groups. Visual artists, school and youth groups, writers, musicians and later swimmers and regular users of the Rockpool let their imaginations run free, and some exciting concepts began to form.
On 9 May, around 50 people met at the Rockpool with Dancenorth to begin to formulate ideas and to look at possible collaborative combinations. Each dancer of the company (7), plus myself were to be the 'co-ordinator' of a group—either an existing one which wanted to participate or a group of individuals forming a group for the duration of the project. From that meeting was formed the nucleus of our various segments and their teams, though many others joined in once rehearsals actually began. Following this meeting informal interaction occurred between the coordinators, myself, Lorna and the groups' own designated contact people or directors.
Design director, Christine Spa in was naturally involved in these initial discussions and meetings, whilst musical director, Linsey Pollak was kept informed by fax and phone as to new ideas and developme ts, as well as feeding in many of his own.
First rehearsal/workshop period
27 July–1 August 1994
The first series of activities occurred in the last weekend in July when musical director and composer Linsey Pollak visited Townsville for five days to meet with interested groups and run a series of workshops for musical participants. Linsey is well known throughout Australia for his expertise in cross-cultural music, his charismatic performance skills in a range of innovative music theatre productions, and especially for the quirky and fantastic musical instruments he invents, makes and plays in both his own shows and for large community events.
Linsey's enthusiasm and genuine interest in the people with whom he works soon produced an air of excitement and commitment to the project. Dancenorth unfortunately was on tour during Linsey's visit, but as artistic director, I returned to meet with Linsey and accompany him to the various meetings and participate in the workshops. Linsey and I spent a good deal of time at the Rockpool doing some very pleasant research both in and out of the water! Just observing the site and the people in it, at various times of the day and night, was a source of many ideas for the September celebration.
We were keen to take advantage of the resources already there, both in terms of ideas and how to execute them, and to use as many of the objects natural and man-made as possible. In addition to taking groups down to the Rockpool to discuss concepts, Linsey and I met with the community arts officer, Paula Johnson, Fiona Perry from the Trellis of Lizards Youth Theatre, Noel Price and the Pimlico High School Percussion Ensemble, Tara Harriden and the Pimlico High School dance students.
We also met with Bernd Neumann, the technical co-ordinator to discuss sound possibilities, as Linsey was keen to use all live sound and compose original music for each segment. On Saturday morning Linsey held the first workshop for those interested in forming part of the ‘Independent Music Group' at the reception room of the Townsville City Council Chambers.
About 14 people arrived, ranging from percussionists to visual artists who wished to have a musical experience, a couple of performing arts students and others interested in learning new skills. By the time Linsey had taught us to play various lengths of drainage pipe and made us into a passable 'panpipe' ensemble we were hooked.
We then went on to chanting which turned into a vocal jam session—quite exhilarating and the following day we played the high-tech triggers—innovative devices that can be placed on any surface and when that surface is struck, it 'triggers' sound produced in a magic black box which works somewhat like an electronic synthesiser. Any sound—water, human voices, musical instruments can be sampled and played back through the triggered surface. These were later introduced to La Luna Youth Theatre who were keen to utilise them in their section of the show.
Other groups met by Linsey included Umbrella Studio, consisting of professional independent visual artists, and Malu Beizam—a Torres Strait Islander Dance Company with whom we shared a fantastic evening learning and watching some of their dances. Linsey returned to his home, Kin Kin, for a very busy three weeks developing musical scores for the groups with whom he had met, whilst in Townsville further concepts were devised and rehearsals began for the 11 sections which were to make up the Kissing Point Celebrations.
Creative process & rehearsals
1 August–12 September
In the first week of August, groups continued to develop ideas ready for the intensive rehearsal period beginning on Sunday 7 August when Dancenorth returned home from tour and was able to commit itself full-time to the project. Linsey arrived soon after our return to Townsville and rehearsals were soon in full swing seven days a week. Most groups met twice a week for rehearsals, usually one evening and one day during the weekend.
Fortunately some groups had their own spaces in which to rehearse, such as La Luna Youth Group and the students from both Kirwan and Pimlico High Schools. Groups formed especially for the project, such as the musicians (Independent Music Group) used either the Dancenorth Studio or the Dancenorth workshop, where they built the enormous and stunningly effective 'musical raft' from segments of fourteen, 44 gallon drums hung with chimes and other musical paraphernalia. Through 'Inter-Rec' we were also able to integrate disabled participants into the project.
In all, 11 segments emerged through a wide range of creative processes, which involved people using existing skills in a different way such as the recreational tap class of women from 25 to 35 years of age who donned flippers to tap and splash, the water carrying it from underneath.
Writers from the University of the Third Age went on stage for the first time in their lives to read out their work inspired by memories and reflections of Kissing Point. They included a blind woman in her late 70s who memorised her text from a tape she had made. This was accompanied by a visual backdrop of older people who regularly used the Rockpool and were quite happy to fish, swim, ride, walk, use their bait, net etc. for the duration of the text.
Other segments were more energetic and spectacular, such as the myth of the sea and land lizard and the moon goddess rising, evolved by Trellis of Lizards with a cast of over 100, and the most wonderful puppet sculptures which entered the water or appeared floating on it to the delighted gasps of the audience.
The Dancenorth dancers played music, but did not dance; musicians danced, and the Torres Strait Islander group Malu Beizam proudly incorporated a contemporary dance work choreographed by company member Lisa Wilson into their segment, which also contained traditional dances. Chrissie George, an elder of the Wulgurukaba Aboriginal tribe, who are the traditional and cultural owners of the area, opened the event and told us some of her people's history of that area.
As the sun set, the haunting sounds from Ralph Rigby's didgeridoo set the ambience for what became a wonderful visual and musical experience. Performers not on foot or swimming, were transported by a boat which had been decorated by Malu Beizam in bougainvillea and coconut palms with fairy lights around it to light the way.
La Luna Youth Group brought speed to the area with their entrance on rollerblades and a futuristic approach incorporating the latest sound technology. Kirwan High School dance and visual arts students delighted the audience with surprising appearances in every possible place as all manner of exotic sea creatures; whilst Pimlico High School performed a dance piece which took us from the 1900s, to the 1950s, to the 1990s.
Townsville State High School brought the water a live with their segment in which they dived like a school of porpoises, as well as performing movement sequences on and off the dive platform and through the water, all accompanied by the 'musical raft'. And for most of these segments, the Independent Music Group played a variety of instruments made by Linsey and themselves—pan-pipes from irrigation hosing, the metal drums of the raft, the high-tech electronic 'triggers' and drums. Even the surrounding railings and rubbish bins became musical sources for the evening.
Although the performance was spectacular and an unqualified success, as well as a satisfying culmination of the project, the process in developing the various segments was the most important aspect of Meet Me At Kissing Point.
As with all community projects, it was sometimes frustrating for the professionals involved to always have someone missing from the group, or even drop out at a late stage due to other commitments, but the spirit of co-operation, enthusiasm and willingness to 'have a go' and contribute ideas made the rehearsal process for most groups a fun, relaxing and at the same time focused experience.
Linsey's clear instructions, patience and energised inspiring direction were much appreciated by coordinators and participants alike and set the ambience for the entire project. The willingness of participants to assist with other aspects of the production where possible, was indicative of the integrated nature of most groups.
Each Dancenorth company member also learnt a great deal by having to take responsibility for all aspects of their group—liaising with designers, musicians, myself, the technical and staging crew; directing the work they evolved with their group; and staging it in the massive outdoor venue. Each and every one established a wonderful rapport with their group and competently supervised all areas of their group's requirements.
Sponsorship and co-ordinatlon
Undoubtedly one of the most difficult and time-consuming areas of the project was the logistics of coordinating the finances, material and human resources. For the manager of the project, Lorna Hempstead, safety and legal concerns were also a primary responsibility with over 400 volunteering participants in the project. In addition, with no production budget for the actual performance, it was essential to receive sponsorship for almost all the materials needed. The generosity of Townsville's business community and Lorna's extraordinary tenacity and ability to track down and have donated items, ranging from large amounts of wood and irrigation hosing, to flippers and sparklers, was impressive, and essential to the success of the project.
Lorna's tireless energy and attention to details in terms of the public's and participants' needs, such as parking security, seating arrangements, temporary dressing rooms, extra toilets, food and beverages etc. was also essential for the effective final outcome. Together with Dancenorth's office administrator, Margaret Ince, an army of volunteers was efficiently organised for front-of-house, parking, program distribution, security duty etc.
Staglng and technlcal requlrements
Certainly the single most massive undertaking was the technical preparation for the venue during production week. No amount of pre-planning, of which there were months of preparation on paper, could have really prepared us for the mammoth and daunting task of transforming Kissing Point into a performance venue. A crew of 29 volunteers and professionals working cohesively in a wonderful team spirit, worked for 36 hours straight when the Rockpool was emptied of water to erect scaffolding, hang lights and connect up two generators for sound and lights.
Organising waterproof cove ring for electric cables, which were to be underwater; engineering sound requirements to combat the wind factor; amplifying such a huge area whilst retaining subtlety for the gentler instruments such as the panpipes—these were just some of the challenges the technicians grappled with and overcame. Lighting the stage was not such a problem with four huge lighting towers at each corner of the 14 metre square stage which sat just above the water level. However, lighting the 300 metre circular pathway enclosing the water, the circular expanse of water itself, the sandy foreshore, all performing areas at some point, was more difficult.
Seven follow-spot operators perched atop the four towers, the restaurant, and t he grandstand behind the audience solved some of these problems. Focusing the audience on where to look next through carefully planned lighting proved the most effective way to direct the visual flow of the evening. Literally kilometres of cabling was necessary to fulfil the technical requirements of the performance.
The crew, led by Dancenorth's production manager, Rick Heath and stage manager, Angela Winters, with the project's technical co-ordinator, Bernd Neumann and sound engineer, Paul Scully, worked tirelessly all week with set-up, technical and dress rehearsals going into the early hours of the morning Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the performance week, and a massive bump-out on the Saturday until 5am.
The transformation of the area through their efforts was awe inspiring—no one had any idea of the scale until the water came flooding back in and the sound and lighting equipment was installed on stage, in the towers and on top of the grandstand, which was also especially built for the audience on the lawns. Nothing was left to chance. The previous Sunday 'a dry run' was held in a huge paddock besides the Civic Theatre, where the actual dimensions of the Kissing Point area had been taped out, so that performers and crew could practise and time entrances and exits.
I was most anxious that there were no waiting times for the audience, and that the show ran uninterrupted with the exit of one group being linked to the entrance of the following one in an efficient and organic manner. The 'marshals' (or assistant stage managers) also had a chance to practice organizing each group to a stand-by position from the tent dressing rooms, and how long it would take to transfer radio microphones from one group to another. This paddock rehearsal proved to be enormously helpful in solving some of the logistics in running the show, prior to all the groups coming together at the Rockpool.
Transporting some of the enormous 'creatures' which had been built was also a challenge, and here the Australian Army generously helped out, whilst Townsville City Council provided us with the community bus for people transfers. 'Putting it together' at the technical and dress rehearsals was a little like an army manoeuvre in itself, but good humour, a patient crew and willing performers made it all surprisingly calm, despite the inevitable unexpected delays and late nights.
By opening night the strong winds that had caused us such concern, had miraculously dropped, the evening was balmy but cool and the sunset perfect, as they were the two following evenings. Although the performances did not begin until 6.30pm, audience began arriving at around 5pm to get the best seats, and those on the lawns brought picnic teas and rugs and settled down for the evening. Despite some minor problems, all three performances ran smoothly without a hitch.
In terms of artistic co-ordination of the event, my primary concern was with continuity. Each group had a maximum duration of 10 minutes for their segment and my main role, apart from the three sections which I evolved with my groups, was to work out an order with Linsey that provided a varied dynamic flow for the audience, whilst being the most practical in terms of areas of stage being used, microphone exchange, smooth entrances and exits etc.
This was no mean feat, but thanks to all the creative and technical personnel's cooperation, we succeeded in providing the huge audiences each night with 75 minutes of non-stop magical outdoor theatre, with the audience left wanting more. Although the process is the most important aspect of a community project, if it culminates in a performance with attendance by the public, I feel it is essential to provide a tight professional-looking show, without curbing the spontaneity and enjoyment of the participants.
That this in fact did happen with Meet Me At Kissing Point was in large part due to the professionals working on the project, but equally to the incredible commitment and determination of the participants, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves at the same time. This enthusiasm certainly infected the audience, who responded in kind. Our only real problem was the overflow of audience down the street, up on the hill and sometimes spilling into some of our performance areas. Good humour abounded however, and the odd 'straggler' was soon returned to the audience area before being surrounded by performers!
The final evening was an electrifying ending with a huge congo line of all 400 participants, as the musicians played reprise after reprise of the finale. Leading the line, I had nearly completed the length of the circular pathway and was heading onto the sandy foreshore, when I looked back and saw that performers were still entering the pathway!
The audience was going wild and we all finished dancing on the beach and in the water. It was truly an exhilarating finish to a series of performances which captured Townsville's imagination.
The public response to Meet Me At Kissing Point was overwhelmingly positive and was beyond anyone's expectations. The media were extremely supportive with all TV stations featuring it on their news programs, and with significant sponsorship by Sunshine TV (Channel 7), who filmed every performance and showed different footage every night during production week. Print and radio coverage was equally good.
Two months later, many of us are still being stopped in the street and congratulated, phone calls at our homes and in the office and many written letters of appreciation have, and are still being, received.
Audience numbers were enormous and hard to estimate, but certainly up to 2000 people managed to crowd in each night. There were some problems with people unable to see, or complaints of not being able to get a seat or a 'spot', but no complaints that we heard about the performance as such. There were of course some complaints about groups that wanted to be involved but were not or wanted to join in at a late stage when it was no longer possible.
Material resources were minimal, but each group managed wonderfully with the limited materials available and was extremely inventive with what they used. Rumours abounded about 'how much it must have cost', with a ball-park figure of $200,000 being bandied a round. That it actually only cost $35,000 in cash, including payment for the guest professionals, staging and lighting and sound was impossible for some to believe. This was, of course, only possible because of the sponsorship from Townsville businesses and all the volunteer assistance.
Benefits of the project
Although it was not the motivation for the project, the public relations benefits of Meet Me At Kissing Point for Dancenorth have been enormous. Goodwill and respect between the community groups who participated is another noticeable benefit of the project.
Left behind from a material point-of-view are some wonderful 'sculptures' such as the lchthyosaur and the Lizards, and, of course, the musical raft. These 'left-overs' will be available for community groups to use and already ideas for their further use are being mooted by some organisations.
Plans for future collaborations are also a healthy by-product of t he project. Inter-group collaboration is one of the most valuable aspects of a project like this. One of the results that is a firm proposal is the sharing of some of Dancenorth's 1995 luncht ime shows with Malu Beizam, the Torres Strait Island group, as well as a request from them for further contemporary work to add to their repertoire.
Another invaluable aspect of Meet Me At Kissing Point has been the cross-fertilisation of the artforms involved and the encouragement for groups to explore new processes and practices, which will undoubtedly expand their current approaches. In the past, Townsville's Community Arts events have often consisted of an invitation to groups to perform and usually each group performs something they already know or have done before.
To my knowledge this is the first time each participating group has devised and developed something new in collaboration with other groups, but at the same time retaining the group's unique identity. There is no doubt that the high-profile nature of the performance in which commitment and standards were important, has been vital for ongoing development of community groups both in terms of quality and accessibility.
We believe it has also enhanced the work of the Townsville City Council and community-based cultural organisations and that it has reinforced the diversity of artforms and cultures available to the community through both participation and as an audience.
In conclusion the short-term benefits of the project have been to give a high public profile to a genuinely collaborative project and to the participating organisations in their own right. Through interaction with quality professionals, significant skills enhancement in areas of creativity, technique and presentation can be carried forward into each group's own future work.
Through the performance, participants were able to share with the general public (our audience) a celebration of the quality of lifestyle which the participatory arts bring to the this region and to provide a deeper link between the professional and amateur artists of the cities.
The project was also able to highlight and celebrate the importance of the natural environment to this region. Long-term, it is hoped this project has provided skills and techniques to a variety of arts organisations which they can then choose to use in their own projects over a period of time. It has also served to foster links between organisations of both similar and dissimilar artforms and to encourage further collaborative projects which are arts driven.