Mumbai in the rains isn’t what you would prescribe to a visitor on her maiden trip to the country, but for Australian theatre practitioner Leisa Shelton, a stopover in the city proved to be quite the diversion. Last weekend, she got through a three-day workshop organised by the Shapeshift Collective at Bandra’s Mumbai Assembly, in which a motley crew of artist-makers, both budding and experienced, were asked to ‘consider their practice’. Shelton is no stranger to India, thanks to the multicultural pockets of Melbourne, where Indian cuisine and culture (in that order) have long been demystified. She has childhood memories of Bollywood cinema watched on video cassettes redolent with the aromas of Indian spices. Her own transnational practice, entrenched in diverse communities, allows her to bridge perceived or potential cultural gaps adroitly, even if she is often conflicted by the privileging of her own language in her work.

New directions

In an accomplished career, Shelton has struck a fair balance between artistic practice and pedagogy. “Teaching has always been my core income,” she says. A long tenure at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne included a six-year performance-making stint with post-graduates. Although Shelton had herself come through a highly hierarchical and rigidly structured arts tutelage in Paris, her focus on practice-based training allowed her to resist curriculum-based models of training to great results. “I wouldn’t submit to an agenda as the University might have liked. Every year had a completely different outlook,” she says. Students who have emerged from those programs have been responsible for some exceptionally diverse contemporary works. The teaching also enabled Shelton’s work to grow and change, and find new direction and perspectives. Fragment31, her performance collective (likely named for Greek poet Sappho’s most famous poem), specialises in multidisciplinary collaborations.

For instance, a ‘live writing’ project called
that she has been working on for two years, has been engendered in an ethos where arts discourse is vanishing, with editorial space in newspapers drying up, and conduits for artist feedback virtually non-existent or inefficient. The awkwardly managed standard-issue festival Q&A comes to mind. In Shelton’s project, that usually takes place in the context of an arts festival, she harnesses a team of ‘scribes’ who listen to members of the audience and record their ‘felt experiences’ in the manner of traditional letter-writers. What emerges from this is what is termed the ‘democratic document’ of a festival, in which it is the voices of the people that take centre stage. The patriarchal concept of an expert is turned on its head, because in
, the ostensible layperson is emboldened to provide real insight. “Because the scribes could be visual artists, or poets, or academics, the place they listen from changes,” elaborates Shelton. The public archives are then fed back to the artist in question.
was first commissioned by Arts House Melbourne for the 2015 Festival of Live Art, and has since moved on to several other events.

Melting pot

The word ‘practice’ is key to Shelton’s workshops that have taken place across countries. “I think the arts took that word from industry in the 1970s, which which lends itself to the notion of art in civic space,” she says. A shoemaker’s practice, or those of a doctor, a cook or a librarian are cases in point.

These are all instantly recognisable and valuable parts of society, as an artist must be as well. “We are in practice because we make things. It is not some high-minded notion,” says the theatre practioner. In Australia, her workshops typically take place in countryside residencies where participants live together, and cook together. The Mumbai sessions ended in a pot-luck lunch symbolic of the ‘community of practice’ that she wanted to leave us with.

A maker’s life is characterised by periods of intense introspection and conflict. Shelton’s current community-based projects are much more significant to her now than the large-scale main stage works that she may have been attracted to in her 30s. “Given how the world is changing, I cannot justify making or having the budgets for that kind of work,” explains Shelton. Similarly, in the Bandra workshop, writers, actors and directors (including this writer) confronted their own trajectories, by taking part in processes that led them to interrogate one another’s practices as a group. All this, while weighing in balance their own values and approaches to work, and contemplating the journeys that lie ahead in the arts eco-system in which they situate themselves.

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