Looking Back on Merrigong Digital Residencies

Last month Performing Lines delivered a digital residency program with Merrigong Theatre in Wollongong connecting artists from the Illawarra, Southern Highlands and Shoalhaven under the mentorship of some of the industry’s finest, Kate Champion, Phil Spencer and Chris Drummond.

Regional Australia is full of talented artists creating interesting and challenging work, and this pilot program demonstrates opportunities for Performing Lines to deepen its relationship with regional arts communities.

Following the Merrigong residency we spoke to two residents, Katja Handt and Michael Pigott about their experiences.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves. Who are you and what do you do?

We are Katja Handt and Michael Pigott from Flightpath Theatre Company.  Katja is a designer and Michael is a Director and we have been making work under the name Flightpath Theatre since around 2006.  Lately, we have been exploring ways to make work and develop dramaturgical frameworks to articulate the contemporary experience – what it is to be a human being at this point in time. Most recently this has involved looking for ways in which to invite communities into our process of making work but at other times it has been about smashing a whole lot of different forms together to see what happens. All of our work is about exploring ways to connect ideas and people as well as engage audiences through the weaving of text, movement and design into new forms of theatrical storytelling.

What project were you working on as part of the residency?

We worked on Fault / Lines which is a brand new project in its early stages of development.

Is this your first digital residency? What was the experience like?

Katja: This was my first digital residency. It was great! An excellent infusion of creativity into this year. It was so good to be in a ‘room’ with other artists and to talk about projects.

Michael: This was my second digital residency. I feel similar to Katja, the best thing about this was carving out space to do nothing but talk about projects – both our own and other peoples. The format gives you an intensive deep dive into the ideas of all these different artists at various stages of development. At the same time, it allows you to draw on their knowledge and experience as well as tap into the expertise and generosity of the mentoring artists and producers.

What’s your relationship to Merrigong?

Fault Lines is the second project development supported by Merrigong. Flightpath Theatre were part of the Merrigong X season, 2019 with the development and presentation of In Transit (in partnership with theIllawarra Multicultural Services) which saw us turn the Wollongong Town Hall into an international airport transit lounge for a piece that explored arrivals, departures and belonging.

As an individual artist Katja has designed set and costumes for the Merrigong productions of The Outside Man, Lost Boys, The Surfer and the Mermaid and Trash Talk.

“The format gives you an intensive deep dive into the ideas of all these different artists at various stages of development.” – Michael Pigott

“If in residency with other artists your mind is generally more open to thoughts and discussion, to connect and to receive feedback from others you don’t usually have access to.” – Katja Handt

What do you think the advantages of a digital residency are as opposed to a typical residency?

Katja: Logistically it is easier to fit in and it is much easier to connect with (and get access to) artists from outside your region or even country as no travelling is involved.

Michael: There is something about the digital format that allows you to feedback in a different way. I have noticed this in both the digital residencies that I have been part of but also in teaching online. There is a distance that the screen creates that is actually really conducive to listening to ideas but also to receiving feedback – you lose some of the body language and the emotional response – particularly around nervousness and shyness – but that is actually helpful when discussing new ideas. It becomes about the idea rather than the person, you get completely focused and engaged really quickly –  the flip side is you get super tired because the concentration is so intense.

What do residencies offer to artists? Why are they an important part of the arts ecology?

Katja: It depends on the residency. All residencies are a unique opportunity to focus on a work without any interference from everyday duties. If in residency with other artists your mind is generally more open to thoughts and discussion, to connect and to receive feedback from others you don’t usually have access to. These exchanges can push ideas in unexpected directions or clear up creative knots.

Residencies in places like Bundanon also offer a unique environment to connect with the land and your inner calm, sometimes that is all you need to keep going when back in your everyday.

Residencies are an essential part of the arts ecology, to keep it fresh and to connect artists with each other.

Michael: I think this year in particular has shown us how important and impactful residencies can be and confirmed that they are a vital part of the arts ecology. I am sure that other artists have had a similar experience but this year I have relied on residencies to connect, to sustain practice and to remind myself that art is worth making. Even pre Covid, residencies of all kinds are vital in opening up your process, meeting other artists and engaging in different practices for a short amount of time. They offer you new ways of seeing ideas and ways of making work. They are like someone pulling at the horizon line – widening the scope of what you can see; of what you thought was possible.

What’s inspiring you right now?

Katja: A general direction in the arts towards fostering homegrown and local work and watching a lot of people starting to rethink how they source for their needs.

The story of Mittens, a domestic cat in Wellington, NZ, who wanders Te Aro and the CBD and who has been given the key to the city, was nominated for New Zealander of the year for bringing so much happy relief in 2020 to his thousands of followers on FB.

The US election results!

Michael: I don’t know. People. People doing everyday things – finding a way through. But also the people I know and work with – who are making work despite everything, playing gigs, creating festivals, teaching physical theatre online, fighting for live music and performance, making us aware that we can make stuff and connect with others in all these different ways.

Obviously it’s not been a great year for the delivery of live performance, but what have been your favourite bits of arts this year, whether they’re live shows or other mediums?

Katja: Instagram: Actual cabin, actual fever by Drew Fairly.

Music: Springtime in the Heart by Heath Cullen.

Photography: This series from the National Geographic; and just generally watching artists invent extraordinary ways to continue.

Michael: Declan Directed by Lorn Macdonald, With original text from Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley – Traverse Theatre.

Portrait of Five Artists – Video installation by Laura Turner for Sydney Fringe Festival.

And I am currently obsessed with the feel the rhythm of Korea tourism ads that feature the Ambiguous Dance Company and the music of the band LEENALCHI. I swear I do not work for the Korean tourism board but this is just an amazing and joyous intersection between art and commerce.

*Image by Laura turner.

The Merrigong Digital Artist Residency is produced by Merrigong Theatre Company and Performing Lines and supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW’s Digitise Initiative. Original concept developed by Tasmania Performs, part of Performing Lines, and supported by Arts Tasmania.

“[I’m inspired by] a general direction in the arts towards fostering homegrown and local work…” – Katja Handt

In everything we do, we acknowledge that we live on Aboriginal land and constantly learn from the wisdom of our First Peoples.

Where we are and the history that precedes us informs how we work and how we move forward.