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14 May 2018

Forest Collective - dream big, and make room for conversation

Evan Lawson Image: Evan Lawson  
© Meghan Scerri

Forest Collective's artistic director Evan Lawson writes about the importance of conversation for successful collaboration - conversation both before, and, crucially, also after the concert. Forest Collective's next event takes place at Abbotsford Convent on 25-27 May, a collaboration with queer artist Addison, with arrangements by Lawson. The Collective's concert in November 2018 will feature works by three of the AMC's Associate artists, Jakob Bragg, Alex Turley and Samantha Wolf.

There are two prongs to programming - firstly, the fun one: creating a 'pipe dream' list and dreaming up huge possibilities for collaborators, commissions, and venues. And then the pragmatic one: how the project will actually work, and what it will take from an operational perspective to make it happen. At Forest Collective, we have limitations because of tight finances - a challenge faced by many ensembles and artistic collectives, both emerging and otherwise - but this limitation also allows us significant freedoms. We do not have to adhere to any specific funding guidelines, so working creatively within those aforementioned limitations, we are afforded the opportunity to dream as big as we possibly can.

When I'm speaking with collaborators, I frequently quote a piece of advice given to me by my theatre mentor, David Chisholm, who said the best way to approach any new project is to work within the largest canvas you can dream up. There's no point putting restrictions on yourself to begin with because you can always make things smaller or narrow the plans down the track. I've learned it's significantly harder to go big after you undersell your idea than cut back if you've drafted something huge.

There are always risks that are taken at the beginning of a project, that may work spectacularly or fail just as well. As I continue to build works, both with Forest and outside of it, I'm learning that the inevitability of failure is not something to shy away from, but, in fact, something to embrace from the beginning. Allowing yourself the opportunity to create and acknowledging that things will, in fact, go wrong at some point during the process, is the exact freedom that I try to instill in all the members of the Collective.

A huge part of this process has been fostering conversation between performers, collaborators, patrons and management personnel, with a focus on what is discussed once the applause has died down and the project has come to an end. In classical music, you often don't get the opportunity to debrief after a performance - there are the usual discussions during the rehearsal period before an audience is invited in, and, while you may consider how to make the work better for next time once the concert is over, there is often not the time allocated to talk about the process of putting the work on stage in the first place.

With Forest Collective, I'm interested in developing a space for collaboration and conversation, and am seeing the most value in having these conversations once the project is over. Regardless of how well the project has gone, we bring people together and talk about the process from start to finish, allowing everyone to share their thoughts and suggestions for how things can run next time. It means shifting the focus from the wrong notes or technical difficulties to the rehearsal period, the conversations, and the value of collaborating. We hear a lot about the fact that the performance is the 'final' thing, but I've found this to be untrue. Focussing on the life of a work outside of our performance, even if it was a commission from the collective, is crucial not only for the composer but for the wider artistic community. Compositions deserve more airtime than they're given, and the philosophy that any given work has room to grow and be improved upon helps us stay accountable to the people we collaborate with.

My job as Artistic Director of Forest Collective means a lot of artistic things, as the title suggests - creating programs and approaching composers, lighting designers, and opera singers - but the most important role I play is one of mediator; allowing conversations to happen and managing expectations. It's my job to make sure everyone has a voice in the ensemble, not only artistically but personally. In all forms of art, the most important factor is the people - those onstage and those offstage - and balancing collaborations and conversations between people is how we get things done. For all the roles I play within the ensemble, the thing I've always been most interested in is teamwork. Honestly, only 10% of your time is spent on music, when you account for the management and administrative work that is required ahead of mounting a show!

Giving composers, including myself, a constructive but nourishing environment is a really important part of Forest, and one we take very seriously. Part of our philosophy has always been the importance of supporting emerging composers and giving them the opportunity to work 'up-close-and-personal' with individual musicians, meaning part of my job is facilitating those opportunities with the ensemble. For our end-of-year concert in November, we have commissioned two works from young Australian composers - Jakob Bragg (QLD) and Alex Turley (WA) - and we will be giving the second performance of a work from Samantha Wolf (QLD).

I have been a fan of Jakob's music for a while and have admired his compositional aesthetic and work ethic since I met him in 2016. I heard Alex Turley's work during the Cybec showcase with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was impressed with his cinematic colour palette and understanding of orchestration. Samantha's work, The more I talk about it the bigger it gets, which she wrote during her studies in composition at the University of Melbourne, is an important one, focusing on the experience, as a woman, of walking home at night. The piece explores danger and freedom for women and is an important conversation for us to continue in this second performance of the work.

I am always thrilled and excited to provide opportunities to create and perform new sounds. I think it's essential that emerging and developing artists are given wide and many opportunities to broaden their practice, but most importantly an environment where risks can be taken without judgement.

Further links

Forest Collective -(http://forestcollective.com.au)

Forest Collective at Abbotsford Convent 25-27 May (event details in the AMC Calendar)

Evan Lawson - (www.evanjlawson.com)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Evan J Lawson is one of Australia’s leading emerging queer artists, working at the forefront of contemporary culture as composer, curator, and conductor, chiefly as artistic director of Forest Collective.


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