RRAMP – The Collector, The Archivist & The Electrocrat
Christine Johnston has been a familiar presence in Australian theatres for some time now, not least of all as a member of the surreal performance troupe The Kransky Sisters. But her new show RRAMP – The Collector, The Archivist & The Electrocrat, takes a stranger, darker turn. It tells the story of a lonesome lady who fills her house with her various collections, and then lures two musicians inside to help her live out her dream of being a singer. It’s a bold work that combines music, dance, and even animation, with a bracing electronic soundtrack and a variety or twisted stories. And many of them are from Johnston’s real life – she herself is a collector.
“Well, I’ve been a collector all my life – unconsciously at least. When I was young, I used to dream of being a bone specialist, because I was so interested in the human body and how it works,” Johnston tells me. “I grew up in the outer suburbs, in a semi-rural area, and I was always very excited when I came across the skeleton of some animal.” It wasn’t just animals, either – it was fish from the beach, too, and frilly lizards, even birds. Then there were cows and goats she would sometimes find on her adventures. “I was fascinated with them,” she says. “Not in any gruesome way, just with how they pieced together, and the layers.
Johnston still has her childhood collection of bones and is still fascinated by them. In many ways, RRAMP represent the natural progression of her love for accumulating things. These days, she says with a laugh, she’s moved on to collecting things of a more exotic nature – other artists. “Lisa O’Neill and Peter Nelson worked with me on this show,” she says. “I’ve known them for a long time, and we’ve worked together on a lot of different things. You could almost say I’ve collected them –that’s the way I’ve chosen to look at it, anyway! The first time I saw them and got to know their work, I knew one day I wanted to work with them, and eventually I was able to. I collected them!”
RRAMP is the result of a lot of intimate collaboration, and the great admiration that Johnston has for her fellow artists. “When you have a connection with another person, creatively, it’s just so exciting,” she says. “Ahmarnya Price did the animations, and I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time. Lisa comes from a dance background, and the first time I saw her, she was doing a performance in a warehouse, and I just knew I wanted to do something with her. When we met, we hardly spoke at all, but it was one of those situations where we didn’t need to, because there was a lot of conversation going on in our heads. Dance is a bit like that anyway – expression is based on movement rather than speech. I like to use words sparingly in performance anyway. RRAMP is about telling stories, but I’m still sparing with the words.”
Peter Nelson is RRAMP’s resident musician, and Johnston sings his praises rapturously. “Peter’s one of those multi-talented people who are great with electronic instruments,” she says, “but also trumpet and guitar and all sort of other things. I just love his melodies.” The music for the show moves around from electro to harder-edged sounds, even metal, and I’m curious to know what sources Johnston and her collaborators drew on as inspiration. “It’s hard to think of specific ones,” she says. “I really enjoy The Prodigy, for instance. The music in the show is quite heavy, although it goes from much quieter music to much more extreme. I don’t like to use the word ballads necessarily, but the songs all tell stories, so in a sense, that’s what they are. How does the media release describe it?” she asks. “Something like an electronica metal rock opera? I think that sums it up.”
Living artists aside, I ask Johnston what else makes up her collection these days. “I collect things I like to look at,” she says. “Unusual things, but they’re generally vintage. I like things that have lasted a long time, that have the look of life in them, and some sort of history to them. I just like looking at things, and having lots of stuff around me. Some might call me a hoarder,” she adds with a laugh. “Also, I collect stories. I really like to reminisce. There are a lot of stories that I’ve collected and found over the years.”
“When I first worked with Peter, we wandered around the city collecting sounds,” she continues. “I’ve always liked to do things like that, to bring my collection into the shows somehow. We all worked on a children’s show together once, it was a commission we had a few years back, and we built that around my collection of old bed lamps. I have a collection of beautiful ‘60s bed lamps, plastic ones that are shaped like various creatures. I like old things that have had a life, and old hand-made things that get lost. We all love similar music, and I’ve always wanted to have a band, and so we play on that I guess. The collector in the show brings these people in so they can help her have a band.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
RRAMP – The Collector, The Archivist & The Electrocrat plays at Arts House, from Wednesday September 5 – Saturday September 8.