All posts tagged low

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Sight Unseen: Audio description for blind theatregoers’, September 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review. Excerpt below.

    Sight Unseen

    For theatregoers with impaired vision, audio description services help to make sense of what’s happening on stage.

    'Sight Unseen: Audio description for blind Australian theatregoers' story in The Weekend Australian Review by Andrew McMillen, September 2017

    You are sitting in the front row of a theatre when a calm, male voice begins­ to speak into your ear, welcoming­ you and setting out key details about the play you are here to see. “The Merlyn theatre is a flexible, black-box theatre space,” says the voice. “For Elephant Man, the audience sits in a rectangular seating bank opposite to the stage. The stage is raised about 40cm off the ground, and takes up the full width of the Merlyn, about 10m wide.”

    You are listening intently to the voice because­ you cannot see what it is describing. You are blind, but you love going to the theatre, and you want to better understand the performance beyond the dialogue that all attendees can hear from the stage. This is why you are at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne’s inner city on a rainy Friday night, listening as the shape and layout of the stage begins to take shape in your mind’s eye.

    “A black proscenium arch frames the playing area, about 5m tall, creating a wide rectangul­ar space,” continues the voice. “A ­curtain of black gauze covers the entire width of the stage at its front edge, separating us from the playing area. We can see through the sheer material, but it softens the edges of everything behind it.”

    You are hearing the voice because your earphones are connected to a wireless radio receive­r that sits inside the palm of your hand. Later, this wonderful technology will allow you to follow the action you can’t follow with your eyes.

    While the boisterous audience take their seats behind you in the minutes before a performan­ce of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man begins, you are listening to pre-show notes that are being broadcast into your ears from the green room on the building’s third floor. There, a bespectacled 26-year-old named Will McRostie sits before a computer, a live video feed of the stage, and some audio equipment that allows him to speak into the ears of theatregoers who have registered for audio description services this evening.

    “The play makes extensive use of smoke and haze effects,” says McRostie’s voice. “Nozzles emitting smoke are hidden in the walls of the set, sometimes leaking heavy mist that tracks along the ground, and sometimes blasting plumes of light smoke that billows to fill the space. Two powerful fans set into the floor of the space are sometimes activated to catch this smoke and propel it toward the ceiling. On occasion, the smoke is so heavy it becomes difficult to see the performers.”

    Difficulty in seeing the performers is the entire­ purpose of audio description, a niche and little-known service that is sometimes — but not often — available for people with low vision who attend theatres and cinemas. Because of its exclusivity and the resources required to produce­ the service, it is usually available only in Australia’s capital cities, and only for the bigges­t productions on the annual theatre and cinema calendars.

    To date, audio description has largely been provided in an ad hoc manner by volunteers and, as a result, the quality of the service exper­ienced by blind patrons can vary wildly. McRostie is at the forefront of a movement to professionalise it, however, which is why he founded an arts start-up named Description Victoria in March this year.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: David Geraghty.

  • Australian Penthouse story: ‘The Low Down: male mental health and Soften The Fuck Up’, March 2012

    A story published in the February 2012 issue of Australian Penthouse.

    Click the below image to read as a PDF in a new window, or scroll down to read the article text.

    The Low Down

    Feelings. We don’t like them – they’re awkward and can suck the joy out of a night on the town with the boys. But can deliberately avoiding our emotions be killing us? New website campaign Soften The Fuck Up believes so, and with youth suicide statistics showing a disproportionate number of men are killing themselves, they might just have a point.

    Story: Andrew McMillen

    ++

    Ehon Chan, 24

    I grew up in Malaysia. When I was 16, my best friend died in a drowning accident. For three months, I went through a period where I was, in some sense, questioning what life was all about. I asked myself, “If everyone lives to die, why do we all live?” I found it really hard to understand that we all could die tomorrow. I did what every man does at that time; the whole “suck it up, just move on,” kind of thing. I kept thinking, “I have to be strong for everyone else”. I kept a very strong face; on the outside I was normal, I was happy. When I’d get home and be in my bedroom at night, all these self-reflective questions would come up.

    When I moved Australia in 2006, I discovered that there is a really low level of mental health literacy in this country; for men, even moreso. Australian men generally can’t pick up mental health signs and symptoms. They don’t know where to get help. A lot of people don’t know that their first point of call could be their GP, or they could call Lifeline. I decided to start something to challenge that knowledge gap. What’s the most common thing that Australian men get when they talk about any kind of weaknesses? The response is generally, “Harden the fuck up.” There’s no equivalent phrase for that in Malaysian!

    My friend said, “why don’t we call it Soften The Fuck Up?” Initially it was a joke; we all laughed at it. It’s currently an online campaign (softenthefckup.com.au, launched in July 2011), but we also want to make it an offline conversation. We want to take the conversation to the next level, so it’s not just about having a conversation with your mates, but equipping young people – in particular, men – with an idea of how to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health issues. And also, when someone comes up to you and says “I’ve got depression”, or “I haven’t been feeling well for the past five days”, what do you tell that person? What are the things you can and can’t say? Where do I get help?

    I was hesitant when the name was first suggested, because the word ‘fuck’ was in there. I wasn’t comfortable going ahead with it, but the more we thought about it, the more we decided, “you know what? That’s the whole point of this campaign”. We want to be unapologetic, we want to be in your face, and we want to push the extreme because we really want to change the culture. The more extreme we go, the more conversation it’s going to generate.

    ++

    Paul Klotz, 51

    At the age of 13, I suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the Catholic boarding system in Brisbane. After many months of being abused in every form you could imagine, I was then beaten with a leather strap for being a ‘bad boy’. After 36 years of hiding in a false existence and having to support a facade of a personality, I finally collapsed, and all of my defences began to crumble. I told a very select group; immediate family, my psychiatrist, and a few other friends. They were shocked, angry, and frustrated in terms of not knowing all these years. It’s not something that was easy to talk about.

    I’ve spent most of my life under the influence of drugs or alcohol to pretend that I was a normal, sane person. Despite that, I was extremely successful throughout my business career. But I’ve always lived with that self-destructive path. Once I achieved, I didn’t feel worthy. Because of this lack of self-esteem and self-belief, I was just continually and totally despising myself. Two years ago, I was able to look in the rear vision mirror, look at all those demons that had been there for the last 35-plus years and say, “enough’s enough; I need to deal with this”.

    This decision came at a huge cost. It’s doubtful if I’ll work again in anything near the capacity that I was before, because I’ve withdrawn from society. I feel uncomfortable around people, moreso than I ever did. It’s great to finally confront those demons and understand and recognise that I’ve suffered from severe depression, and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. I see a psychiatrist. I’m on all sorts of drugs and pills to try and keep that balance of life.

    In the last eight months I’ve been through five suicide attempts, and I’ve had to resign from the last two jobs because of the impact that my mental condition was having, and the episodes of depression, and being put into hospital. That started a period of living on the streets. I have nothing to hide. I’m quite comfortable in saying that if it wasn’t for my four beautiful boys, I wouldn’t be here. I have no doubt about that. During the last few suicide attempts, when I was fading away, it was the image of those guys that allowed me to get some strength, and fight back.

    If I get through all of this, my burning ambition is to assist other males out there. I want to let other males know that it is okay to put your hand up, it is okay to cry. It is okay to say, “I have been abused”, as difficult as that is. It is okay to say, “I’m suffering from depression”. It is okay to say, “I feel suicidal”. I live with the thoughts of suicide every single day of my life. We need to break down all these stereotypes that my generation – and I suppose it continues on, of – “Harden up son. Big boys don’t cry. You’ve just gotta suck it in, and move on,” because that’s such a narrow-minded, dead-end approach. Those feelings of discomfort, unhappiness, pain, guilt, shame; if they’re left inside, they do fester, and fester badly.

    ++

    Nick Backo, 23

    I’ve lived in the same house in Parramatta all my life. I’m a social worker for child protection services, as well as studying post-graduate psychology and refereeing soccer. When I was 15, my Dad died. There was a lot of shock initially, because his death was unexpected. I became the eldest male in the house. I felt that I had to be strong, and look after my family. I saw a counsellor for two years, on and off, which was really useful for just talking with someone who was neutral, and who could give me some strategies around managing grief. I had a lot of support from friends, who gave me someone to talk to, even if it was just, “hey, I’m feeling shit”.

    It was hard to talk about. It brought up a lot of my own emotions, and you feel vulnerable sharing that sort of experience with people. It was also hard because a lot of people wouldn’t know what to say, or how to manage it. They were generally lost for words, so it was an awkward experience for me in bringing that up with them. To an extent, it’s something that you’ve got to live to understand. It would be beneficial for others to learn about grief, though. More broadly, it’s about educating people on supporting their mates, and being open to those types of conversations. Even if you don’t know what to say, just being there to listen and saying how you feel during those conversations is helpful.

    It’s important to embrace the characteristics of masculinity. One of those is ‘being strong’, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s also really important to talk about how you’re feeling, and your experiences. When Dad died, I was at that ‘coming of age’ stage in life. A lot of people were saying to me, “make sure you look after your Mum”, or “you’re the man of the house now”. I don’t think they were meaning it to put pressure on me. I guess it’s just what people say.

    For people currently experiencing grief, I’d tell them that it’s OK to feel however you’re feeling. If you’re angry or upset, or if you’re feeling okay or happy, that’s all part of the experience of grief. It’s fine to have those emotions. I’d really encourage them to talk to people that they feel comfortable with, and to talk about their grief and the person who has died. Even if it seems a bit crazy or unusual, that’s OK, because it’s an unusual experience to go through. I think about Dad every day, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to manage my grief better. I took away a lot of positives from it, as well. I think I’m a better person because of that experience. On the same hand, if I could change that and have Dad back, I would in a second.

    ++

    Ben Pobjie, 32

    I only recognised this year that I am suffering an illness. Since I was a teenager I’ve suffered periodical depression; I’d sink into a deep low for no particular reason. In the past I’ve been advised by people close to me that I should seek counselling. I’d shrug it off, saying “no, no, I’m just sad. Just going through a bad patch.” Which is not the right thing to do, really. You try and fight through it, because I didn’t want to appear weak or like I was making a big fuss over nothing. It builds up and gets worse and worse, and you have to admit that it’s not nothing. I broke down early this year, then realised that it’s not normal. I generally write jokes, and comedy. I’ve been writing more serious reflective things, having admitted to this. It’s possibly made me a little bit more honest as a writer. I’m on medication now, and I’m seeing a therapist.

    When I’ve been at my worst, I’ve self-harmed. I’ve cut myself. It’s hard to explain after the event, when you’re not in that headspace, exactly why you did something like that. It’s a culmination of trying to distract yourself from an emotional pain by giving yourself some physical pain. It’s a confusing time because when you go through those episodes, because obviously you’re not thinking rationally, and you don’t react to your own feelings rationally.

    When you’re depressed, you feel ashamed of yourself. It feels like something that you shouldn’t talk about. But I came to the realisation that if I didn’t tell people about it, then this can’t really be recognised as an illness. It couldn’t just be a secret that I kept. It takes courage to admit that you have a weakness. Everyone has weaknesses. It’s gutsy to own up to that. Most people are very willing to understand, and to show sympathy and support if it’s brought out into the open. That’s what I’ve found.

    ++

    William Wander, 24

    I’m Brisbane born and bred. I went through various Catholic schools, though I’m definitely not Catholic. I work in sales for a software company. By night, I’m a writer and blogger. I’m that guy in their group of friends who always says the things that nobody really wants to hear. I’m a little bit too honest. I’ve always had something to do with depression, even from the age of 11 or 12. I had a very rough childhood; I had an abusive father, and was quite sick as well, while growing up. From the age of 13 or 14, I was on anti-depressants. For me, having depression is like having asthma; it’s just part of your genetic makeup, and you learn how to appropriately deal with it.

    I hadn’t been on anti-depressants for years until the GFC hit. I lost my job, I was unemployed for the first time in my life. I applied for 250 jobs and couldn’t get a single one. I hit rock bottom. The thing about depression is: it’s a hole that you can’t get out yourself. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about depression, and I’ve never met anybody that’s got out of it by themselves. I don’t think it can happen, honestly. You need to have somebody else, or some other group that helps you get out. You can take the first step, obviously, and say “I need help”. But in the end, it’s the support of other people that helps you to get out of that, and start to feel better.

    Depression is a disease that you can’t see. If you get hit by a car and your leg is twisted, that’s very visible and we can understand that. When people talk about depression, they feel weird about it for one of two reasons: they’re experienced it and they’re embarrassed about it and don’t know how to talk about it, or they have never experienced it and they can’t conceptualise it in their own head.

    I don’t care who you are, or how in touch with your emotions you are; it’s never easy to admit that you’re depressed. It’s always difficult, because the nature of depression is that you don’t want to acknowledge it. It’s easy to talk about it now, but when I am actually depressed, it is hard to acknowledge that, even to myself. I’m a very emotional guy. At the same time, I’m a fairly typical Aussie bloke, but I’ve always thought it’s ridiculous how closed-up guys are in general in Australia. Let’s not skirt around the issue. Let’s be men about it. Which, ironically, means approaching something, rather than just avoiding it.

    An enormous thanks to the brave men I interviewed for this story, and to Australian Penthouse for publishing.

    For more on Soften The Fuck Up, watch the below video and visit their website.

    For more about depression, visit Beyond Blue.

    If you are distressed after reading this story, please call Lifeline immediately on 13 11 14 (free call from all telephones in Australia).

  • The Weekend Australian story: ‘Dirty Three’s divine trinity of sound’, March 2012

    A story for The Weekend Australian’s Review section, published in the March 3-4 edition.

    Dirty Three’s divine trinity of sound
    by Andrew McMillen

    In his 2009 book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, Australian singer-songwriter Robert Forster wrote that “the three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression”. The author had American band Nirvana in mind when he penned that line but admits instrumental trio Dirty Three fits “the whole theory and idea perfectly”.

    Brandishing an unconventional guitar-drums-violin configuration, Dirty Three formed in Melbourne in 1992 and has celebrated its 20th anniversary by releasing its eighth album, Toward the Low Sun. Forster, co-founder of Brisbane pop giants the Go-Betweens, describes the band’s unique musical style as “the magic of a chemical explosion”, and notes “they come from the time of grunge. They existed when Nirvana existed; another three-piece who were chaotic, mad and intense on stage. You can probably still see a bit of that in them.”

    Dirty Three’s catalogue evokes by turns deep melancholia – due largely to Warren Ellis’s emotive violin strokes – and sublime euphoria when the three members lock into a rhythmic pulse that is, oddly, reliant more on guitarist Mick Turner than drummer Jim White. Bobby Gillespie of Scottish rock band Primal Scream has referred to Turner’s idiosyncratic playing as “the way that stars are spaced out in the sky”, while White is more interested in exploring experimental percussive techniques than holding down anything resembling a standard rock drumbeat.

    Yet viewing Dirty Three through the lens of rock – or, for that matter, jazz or folk – is wrong. And although the band lacks a vocalist, it doesn’t sit comfortably with what’s typically understood as instrumental music, either. “Normally people who do instrumental music can be quite dry and sedate, whereas Dirty Three put on a show,” Forster says. “They have an aesthetic of something like ‘minimal’, or instrumental music, but they have a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. It’s almost like there was an invisible lead singer there. That was part of their appeal, besides the fact that they have very good melodies, and that there was something charismatic about the band.”

    The group’s absence of vocals has affected the course of contemporary Australian music in strange ways.

    Gareth Liddiard says Dirty Three has been “a huge influence on what I do lyrically” with Melbourne band The Drones, of which he is lead singer, as well as his solo material. “They made me realise that if you’re going to have words, they need a f. . king good excuse to be there in the first place. They better be good, otherwise why bother?”

    Liddiard says Dirty Three’s music “sounds like someone pushed a drum kit down the stairs and plugged a violin into a f. . kin’ Marshall [amplifier]”. He follows this stark assessment with the highest compliment: “For my money, they’re the best band from this country, ever.”

    Before the band’s formation, all three members had spent years playing in various rock groups. “It seemed like there was this healthy live scene starting in Melbourne,” Ellis says of the early 1990s. “There was a lot of venues to play in, a lot of opportunities to get out and play in front of people. The live scene provided a livelihood for a lot of people. Bands were really trying to confront and challenge you, and there was this great crowd of people going along to check it out each week.”

    Ellis puts the band’s irregular musical components down to a desire to be different. “When we started off, we really wanted to challenge people’s conceptions and also to go against the mainstream,” he says. “There’s something great about feeling like you’re out there, flying your own flag. There is something really empowering about it.”

    The story behind the trio’s debut gig is emblematic of the hunger for original live music in Melbourne at the time. Ellis had a friend who owned a bar called the Baker’s Arms; he told the violinist that he wanted background music but didn’t want to play CDs. Ellis asked White to play drums; he, in turn, asked Turner to play guitar. On a Friday afternoon, hours ahead of the band’s first performance, the trio rehearsed some ideas in Ellis’s kitchen, then played them that night.

    “We had to play for three hours, so we made the songs really long,” Ellis says. This ideology is occasionally reflected in the length of the band’s recordings, too: ‘Deep Waters’, from the 1998 album Ocean Songs, runs for 16 minutes. Ellis’s pal enjoyed the performance, paid them $50 apiece and asked them to come back the next week. To three young men trying to support themselves as working musicians, this was a great deal. “We’d go down and play every Friday night, and get out of our brains,” Ellis says. “Our mates would come along; it was just this great Friday night where nobody had to clean up the mess after.”

    Two decades later, the trio commands a worldwide following and the kind of deep respect among the Australian music community that has been afforded to few acts. All three attribute the band’s longevity to the fact they rarely meet face to face: Turner lives in Melbourne, Ellis calls Paris home, and White splits his time between Brooklyn, Detroit and Australia.

    A week or two before its national tour in March to celebrate the release of Toward the Low Sun, the band will convene in the Victorian capital for rehearsals and simply to catch up. “We usually sit around talking for a few hours talking, just because we haven’t seen each other for so long,” Turner says. “We don’t necessarily talk about music; just about life, our friends, our families.”

    The guitarist believes this close friendship is another reason they have lasted the distance. “We’ve all got a high regard for each other,” Turner says. “If you lose respect for your bandmates, that’s when it’s going to fall apart, I think.” Ellis agrees. “We’ve always treated each other as equal in the musical sense, and in terms of the group’s profile. We share all the songwriting, and royalties equally,” he says.

    “Nobody’s seen as contributing more or less. We’re a group, in the purest sense.” The trio are in regular contact via phone and email; a necessity, given that they split band management duties three ways.

    “We did that a long time ago,” White says. They were once managed by Rayner Jesson, who also handled Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but that relationship ended a few years before Jesson’s death in 2007. “It ebbs and flows over the years in terms of how engaged we are,” says the drummer, who handles their tour bookings. Last year the band played just two shows together: a festival slot at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Tokyo and a benefit concert in January for 3RRR announcer Stephen Walker (to raise money for the legendary broadcaster’s multiple sclerosis treatment) at the Forum in Melbourne, featuring Cave on keyboard.

    Turner admits the lack of a single decision-maker can be problematic. “If a question comes up, it’s got to be fielded around, so it takes a while to be answered,” he says. “One of us might be on tour, and it’s hard to get down and do your email when you’re in the middle of travelling.”

    The three men occupy themselves with other creative outlets during the band’s downtime. White regularly tours and records with other bands: last year he toured with Australian folk-pop trio Seeker Lover Keeper, and the week after we spoke he was scheduled to play shows in Helsinki, Geneva, Istanbul and Tel Aviv with American singer-songwriter Cat Power (real name Chan Marshall) who is one of only two vocalists to have lent their voices to Dirty Three songs. The other singer is Sally Timms, of British rock act The Mekons; both contributions appeared on the trio’s previous release, 2005’s Cinder.

    Ellis has been a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since 1995; he plays electric mandolin and guitar in the band. With Cave, he has scored several films, including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Road and Australian film The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat, which won the pair an AFI award for best original music score in 2005. He also played in Cave’s other rock band, Grinderman, which announced a hiatus at the Meredith Music Festival last December after releasing two albums together.

    Turner splits his focus 50-50 between art and music. His distinctive paintings have appeared on the cover of all of the band’s albums besides its 1995 debut, Sad & Dangerous. His work has been exhibited at galleries across the world and he plans to release a fourth solo album later this year. The guitarist recently attended his primary school reunion, and was amused to discover not one of his former Black Rock State School classmates had heard of his 20-year-old band; unsurprising, perhaps, given that the trio’s sound exists on the periphery of contemporary Australian music tastes.

    Ellis’s Bad Seeds bandmate, Ed Kuepper, calls Dirty Three’s output “a form of pure expression”. According to Kuepper – who co-founded Brisbane punk rock group the Saints and whom Turner considers “one of my only guitar hero figures” – the band consists of “three very recognisable, distinct musicians and they don’t get in each others’ way. They probably become even stronger together. It’s a rare thing.

    “It’s a really unusual thing that they do in terms of Australian music; the approach to the way they play, and the non-standard rhythm [section],” Kuepper says.

    “Very few people do that. Even fewer have any sort of success because in some way it’s quite an esoteric thing that sits outside of the kind that seems to get lauded in Australia, which is generally a lot more mainstream and musically conventional.”

    Since Toward the Low Sun is an extension of the band’s remarkably consistent canon, rather than a stylistic reinvention, it’s unlikely Dirty Three’s eighth album will set the ARIA charts alight on release. The nine theatre shows the band has booked in March, though, are likely to sell out, if its previous national trek two years ago – billed as a performance of the 1998 LP Ocean Songs in full – is to be used as a benchmark of popularity on the live circuit.

    The new album had a particularly long gestation period: the band recorded for six days in February 2010, then didn’t review the recordings for more than a year. It did some additional recording in March last year. An American producer based in Melbourne, Casey Rice, captured the first session at Head Gap Studio in Preston: he worked with the band on its last release, Cinder, too.

    “They’re very focused,” Rice says of Dirty Three’s work ethic in the studio. “A lot of time it’s not just a matter of trying to get it right in a performative sense; it’s more of a feel thing.” The band will play a song slowly, then speed it up for the next take; it will try a song played softly, and then louder; White will work the kit with his drumsticks, then try his brushes for a softer percussive tone.

    “The basis of everything is tracked live,” Rice says. “If there’s more than an electric violin, guitar, and drums on a song, then it’s been added as an overdub. So the bass, extra strings, mellotron, and nylon stringed guitar were overdubbed. But the process remained the same for Toward the Low Sun: they set up, and played it down. That’s what works about Dirty Three; that’s where the magic comes from.”

    There’s that word again, the one Forster used: magic. A distinct sense of the otherworldly encompasses everything the trio does. Yet it’s not exactly the most accessible sound in the world, and there are few points of reference for unfamiliar listeners to latch on to. Liddiard recounts an anecdote that highlights the band’s divisive nature.

    “I’ve seen Dirty Three 40,000 times,” says Liddiard, exaggerating only slightly. “I remember standing behind two dudes at one of their gigs; it could have been in Sydney, or Perth. One guy’s like, ‘This sounds like cat shit, let’s go.’ The other guy just looks at him, incredulous. Like: ‘What the f. . k? Can you not hear that?’ That really sums them up. Some people just don’t get it. And if they don’t get it, there’s something wrong with them, I find.”

    Dirty Three‘s tour starts in Perth on Friday, then WOMADelaide, Adelaide, March 10; Port Macquarie, March 12; Melbourne, March 16; One Perfect Day Festival, Gippsland, March 17; Castlemaine, March 18; Sydney, March 21; Brisbane, March 22; Lismore, March 23.

    Toward the Low Sun is out on Remote Control Records.

    This story was originally published in The Australian; view online version here. For more Dirty Three, visit their website.