By Oliver Lees
Inside the Memorial Hall in Sunbury, Andrew Nicolaides is delivering an unconventional, yet thunderous drum solo.
Surrounded by his peers of the BoilOver Performance Ensemble, Nicolaides is using state-of-the-art sensory technology to rehearse a section from the troupe’s upcoming performance entitled Buoy.
Established in 2009, BoilOver is the brainchild of Bernadette Hetherington who saw the need for an inclusive theatre company based in Sunbury, one that provided a creative outlet and professional skill development in a safe and supportive environment.
Buoy is the company’s newest work, which creative producer Carmen Maddison says was inspired by the performer’s experience of coronavirus lockdown and how their art brought balance to their lives.
“BoilOver itself is a creative family, where people can bring to life their creative ideas,” she said.
“The word ‘Buoy’ is used to explore the idea of what keeps us afloat.
“The consequences of Covid were a lot more real for people with disabilities, as many have underlying health conditions that forced a stricter lockdown.
“For someone like Andrew, his painting and his dancing, that creative expression is really what kept him going.”
In order to bring their dream to life, BoilOver has drawn on external resources of Sunbury and Cobaw Community Health and received funding from Brimbank City Council.
Research team SensiLab, based out of Monash University, has been tailoring its sensory technology specifically to BoilOver’s artistic needs.
Among their inventions is the Air Stick.
To the naked eye, the Air Stick appears to be a simple drum stick, but in fact it’s rigged with sensor technology that allows whoever is wielding it to create a percussive performance without the need to strike a drum kit.
The technology means that performers such as Nicolaides can engage with musical instruments, which is often difficult for someone with a disability.
PhD student and composer Ciaran Frame’s research explores autonomy in musical instruments. He said he’s loved putting his creative project into practice.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said, watching a performer using the equipment.
“It’s a way for the music to interact with the art form and to personalise that to each individual performer is special.
“We try to cater to people’s needs and find ways they can best enjoy the technology.”
Sam Trolland and Alon Ilsar are fellow on the SensiLab team and have created a visual element to accompany the AirStick.
Playing off of Buoy’s oceanic theme, Trolland has incorporated video footage of the ocean into the performance, with a projection of a wave scene lighting up the roof and a screen at the front of the hall.
On either side of the stage Trolland has placed two depth sensors which react to the performers by projecting their image on the screen. It creates an effect that the performer is in the water itself, manipulating the waves.
Trolland said this type of project, that creates an immersive environment, is his favourite to work on.
“It’s really amazing seeing people wanting to engage with the technology,” he said.
BoilOver has also employed the aerial expertise of Fleur Dean, of physical theatre ensemble 5angrymen.
Dean will be assisting the cast create an aerial performance, using rigging and harnesses to add another dimension.
Having worked for years in the performing arts, Dean said she’s enjoyed shifting her focus to working with disabled performers.
“Disability performing arts is a largely untapped sector,” she said.
“It’s refreshing in its nature, working with people who haven’t had every opportunity handed to them, there is a freshness and a buoyancy to their attitude.”
The BoilOver team is made up of more than just performers.
Stage manager Justin O’Brien is tasked with making sure everything runs smoothly backstage.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, wearing his black and white ‘stage manager’ cap.
“I make sure everybody comes on and off stage at the right time with the right costumes, it’s important because you have to get the audience hooked.”
Creative director Maddison says she and O’Brien have a special bond that helps the performance tick.
“Justin has a cochlear implant which is actually quite useful for stage management, because I can speak directly into his ear piece,” she said.
O’Brien has been with BoilOver for a few years and says he particularly enjoys the opportunity to make friends.
“It’s a big adventure, we get to meet other people with disabilities and travel, one time we went to Geelong.”
The feeling of camaraderie was shared by Savannah Coots, another performer who particularly enjoys making her own dance moves.
“Everyone is so wonderful,” she said.
Likewise Jaymie-lee McMahon said the program has allowed her to make new friends.
The company has been involved in a number of performances over the years, including a show at the Melba Spiegeltent for the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2019.
Creating a space where disabled performers can reach their artistic potential is the core purpose of the group, says Maddison, who stressed that at their best, BoilOver could put on a show as good as any.
“I don’t refer to them as participants or clients, they are artists with their own unique expressions,” she said.
“We believe all artists have important creative offerings and diverse abilities and it is our mission to push the boundaries and raise the bar of what artists living with a disability can achieve.”
BoilOver will perform twice on Saturday, June 26 at the Bowery Theatre in St Albans.
You can book tickets online at creativebrimbank.com.au/buoy-by-boilover-inclusive-performance-ensemble