Producers Authors Composers Talent. PACT. A space which has been crammed full of names/projects/ideas in Sydney’s alternative theatre landscape, rich with history. I remember meeting Patrick Milligan (Spike’s brother) at the PACT 40th celebrations some years ago (I had written something for a troupe of “ordinaries” that ended in them busting out with glitter and enthusiasm into a dance number to Petula Clarke’s “I know a Place”… anyway… ) and learning about the early days of PACT when it was in Pitt Street in a squat, effectively. It had been set up by a bunch of alternative theatre makers and over the years has developed into the current “Centre for Emerging Artists” – NOT a youth theatre.

In the past year or so, PACT has had a change of guard. Previously, and for quite some time Regina Heilmann and Chris Murphy had been joint artistic directors, and in a brave an bold move Cat Jones (some may know as a writer, producer, curator with an interest in live interactive art and performance works – I know her through Electrofringe, TINA) has taken the reigns. Under Cat Jones the direction and identity of PACT has been reinvigorated. A fresh coat of coffee’n’cream coloured paint, new signage a clean up of the space, a new website it all represents a new positioning for the organisation – and it isn’t merely superficial – it reaches into the structure of the organisation, the board. In the context of spaces that are branded as “Centres for emerging artists” – ATYP and Shopfront are two examples. PACT is now moving into territory which may have previously been regarded as the turf of The Performance Space – facilitating artists as a space for hire (something a little trickier in the grandeur of Carriageworks). Acknowledging perhaps, that to emerge in Australia as an artist can take 10 years, PACT’s ensemble comprises of 18-30 year olds who have sought out creative and professional development.

PACT’s ensemble is an important part of training and development for artists, in fact I would claim that very rarely does an artist have the opportunity to dive into the world of ensemble. Training institutions are often forced ensembles where it is understood that at any moment your colleagues may be discarded and ultimately you will be competing for attention and agents on agents day. Shopfront’s ARTSLAB programme is vivacious example of how supporting individuals may subsequently result in a collegiate atmosphere – which is also invaluable. And PACT’s programme offers a great compliment to that idea. Training, discovering, uncovering and creating with a group of artists regularly over a period is a wonderful thing… and it is a great thing that BBM Ltd is supporting this program. (You never know who could be emerging out of imPACT the next Tk Pok, Shagging Julie, Ash Dyer, Jenny Leong (one time Greens candidate for Grayndler), Annette Madden or even Augusta Supple. It’s a great program.

Unsettlings is the latest PACT show featuring the work of the ensemble Alice Cooper, Noni Cowan, Sam Duncan, Wilna Fourie, Jonathan Gurton, Mayu Iwasaki, Grant Moxom, Lisa Mumford, Sean Serpa, Amelia Wallin, Lucy Watson, Maria White. When I arrive at the space, I am given a business cards with the photo of one of the performers. On the opposite side of the card are statements/quotes made by the artists one assumes. In the foyer, as we mill like cattle hoping to be fed – we are aware that we are also milling with the performers. Not in an actorly “I’m performing at you, near you, without you” way – but as humans saying hello – not assuming an obvious role – but this is unexpected -and you should always expect the unexpected at PACT.

The divide between the performers and audience and usual pre-foyer behaviour is redefined. I am chatting to Grant Moxom (one of the performers I know in the show) and talking about how strange it feels to have a post show chat and hug, pre-show. I meet some of the other performers who are in sparkly clothes and red lipstick. We slowly leak into the space at some invisible transitional stage. In the space, we are welcomed by performers who have clipboards and smiles. Before too long, they properly introduce themselves – explaining that the quotes on the cards we received may have given a false impression of who they were. Before long -it is the audiences’ turn to reveal who we are – a chalk line dives the space and audience. As each side of the chalk line is defined we must choose which we identify with – cat person or dog person; MAC or PC; earthquake/blackhole; heterosexual/gay; matrix/inception; good judge of character/bad judge of character; missionary/doggy style; action movie/rom com; etc. After a vigorating leaping about for about 20 minutes it was clear it wasn’t as easy as one may think – especially when asked to quickly decide.

Before long I was safely seated – unsettled – but seated.

The second half of the show was a series of vignettes, images and direct address on the ideas of representation, history, identity, imagination and ancestry, Physical duets and tandem acts of theatre. Strangely no “ensemble” pieces as such – it felt more like a collective of pieces, curated and presented. As I had mentioned previously, you learn very quickly that you can’t really expect anything but the unexpected – and the unexpected this time in the piece was the lack of nudity and fruit abuse (many a watermelon has been dramatically smashed in the space). It was a far more meditative presentation. If you are expecting a puppy, you might be disappointed that you are presented with a goldfish. And I do not mean that in a pejorative way – it is an indication of the tone or the mood. This is the first sample of directing I have seen of Cat Jones – so I have nothing to compare nor to draw from – so I encounter the work on it’s terms… a series of vignettes which seem to establish and disintegrate expectation.

Sometimes emerging artists feel an urgency, a frustration to say and shock and move and confront in violent and aggressive ways – this show resists that tendency. It is slow and measured and at times very quite and very languid and some sections are drawn to uncomfortable lengths. repetitive. Very repetitive – and in watching the repetition you see the flaws (or the innovation) or the progressions (or the regressions.) And that is largely the point. If you expect something, if you assume something – you may be disappointed… and in this case, unsettled.

This piece, like that of PACT’s changing identity in Sydney’s emerging arts landscape is shifting, and for some that is unsettling and for others a welcome change.