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April 3, 2014 / Siobhan Argent

Edge! – Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2014


Edited version published in Beat magazine

Edge!

Edge! appears to have some very clear objectives in mind. One is to make you so insanely uncomfortable you want to melt into the furnishings. The other is to make your testicles (or lady plums) shrivel to molecular proportions as the topic of child sexualisation literally takes centre stage under the thin veil of satirical mimcry.

Miley Cyrus apparently has the market cornered on transitioning from pre-teen pop princess to post-tween sex poppet. So thank goodness the protagonist of Edge! is still only an eleven-year-old mildly talented YouTube hit named Stella (Isabel Angus). Her mother, via the wonders of Bluetooth, stage mothers her to death via mobile phone while her daughter dutifully devotes her stage time to sexing it up and executing the most well-known formula for young female stardom.

Stella’s mute, much-older assistant (Rachel Davis) plays soft foil at key points, effectively breaking up the more hard-hitting skits. But the main comedic success here lies in the satire. Child sexualisation in the media has been bemoaned since time eternal, but here it feels fresh simply because of the uncomfortable extremes to which the satire has been taken. It’s relentless, pushing on past most barriers of good taste but doing it with a consciousness that prevents it from becoming tackier than necessary.

That said, Edge! doesn’t have high-quality production values and the themes can sometimes feel a little too thickly laid. Still, it’s a strong debut show that clearly demonstrates Angus’ and Davis’ canny comedic sensibilities and a sensitivity for issues that are both current and pervasive.

Edge! is currently playing at the The Tuxedo Cat until April 8.

July 31, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

ABC radio interview: famous author pseudonyms


A few weeks ago, I did an interview on ABC Illawarra radio with host Nick Rheinberger. Some background information: earlier in the week, J.K. Rowling had been revealed as Robert Galbraith, author of the quietly successful The Cuckoo’s Calling. Coincidentally, I’d written a piece for Arts Hub on famous author pseudonyms a few years beforehand, so I was called in as a bit of a know-it-all on the subject.

Anyway, here’s the audio!

June 28, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Shane Warne – The Musical


Published June 2013 in Beat magazine

Shane Warne the musical

It’s the perfect Aussie-style love story: Bogan Barbie meets Sporty Ken. It’s all ‘happily ever after’ until the text messages start rolling in, after which Ken upgrades to a British B-grade celebrity more famous for wearing safety pins than she is for actually achieving anything. Such is the gist of Shane Warne: The Musical, and to be honest, it’s much kinder than it is cruel. It could really have stuck the knife in, but it plays relatively nice with some truly juicy material.

In general, the musical numbers are diverse and inventive, skewering hypocritical machismo, vicious mid-play sledging and the what-goes-on-tour-stays-on-tour permissive adultery of certain sporting cultures. Casting’s also good, if predictable. Eddie Perfect is spot-on as a sporting layabout who still needs to be able to carry a tune. Lisa McCune, as Simone Warne, has mediocre vocal talent but nails the bogan-beauty accent. Shane Jacobson also turns in a noticeably effective performance as Terry, Warnie’s almost-sensei. He, too, is limited in vocal range but has the right kind of blokey earnestness to take the listener a little by surprise.

The show’s greatest weakness is that it’s not particularly strong on narrative. Every major event in Warnie’s life seems to happen off stage, which can be a little irritating when it makes the musical numbers covering each event feel a little like walking into a room five minutes after someone’s finished talking about you. There are also some racial depictions that skirt dangerously close to reinforcing uninventive racist stereotypes. The Indian bookmaker character is particularly noteworthy in this respect.

It’s strange, but at some points Shane Warne: The Musical! could have done with being less crass. There’s simply so much trashy material pre-loaded into this Warnie’s biography that jazzing up the script with a few C-bombs is like shoving Howard Sattler into a room full of angry women; the target’s just too easy. But if you want a good show and know the Warnie story, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a musical better suited to your tastes.

May 17, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Slutmonster (MICF 2013)


Published April 2013 in Crikey

slutmonster

If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to be slapped in the face with a dildo, Slutmonster goes some of the way to making that a viable possibility. Thankfully in this instance, the dildo-slapping experience is happening to somebody else. Literally.

For what opens as a sexed-up, highly warped fairytale, the plot of Slutmonster manages to get ever more twisted as it progresses. The titular Monster (played by Jessie Ngaio in the most anatomically incorrect onesie ever made) bumps into Larch (Lucas Heil) and Bovril (Wes Gardner), two princes lost in a land full of poisonous berries, boob flowers and friendly puppets. The pair attempt to socialise the Monster, but their increasingly dire situation sends the course of this fairytale spinning into ever filthier, crasser, funnier territory.

The production is surprisingly polished for a team of people that don’t appear to have been on the comedy circuit too long. The set pieces are beautiful and absurd things, packed full of genitalia-like imagery. The music cues and comic timing are almost always spot on, the cartoons that link each section are beautifully and cleverly rendered, and the puppetry is basic but very effective. While there are one or two scenes that drag (both musical soliloquies), the show sails along on the strength of its ideas and production values.

The whole show is a completely bonkers idea.  On one hand, you’re likely to exhaust any need you might have to hear another crude joke. And there seem to be more penises and nipples on stage than there are audience members watching the show unfold. When operating on this level of crassness, most shows stumble, crash and burn in a spiralling attempt to milk the filth out of every last sex joke simply because they’ve got nothing better to fall back on.

But here’s the thing: Slutmonster actually works. Magnificently. At first glance, this seems like one of those shows that is happily swept along by the madness of its own ridiculous plotline. But on closer inspection it becomes abundantly clear just how well each element of the show is structured. It’s a show that’s happy to roll about in its own muck, but it’s also capable of pulling out all these other relatively clean jokes that demonstrate the team behind this is no one-trick pony. Simply put, most of the jokes are in there partially because they’re disgusting, but mostly because they’re good.

Slutmonster is gross-out porn of the highest quality, and dammit if you don’t just swallow your gag reflex and wade through this festering delight of a show.

May 17, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Arj Barker: Go Time (MICF 2013)


Published April 2013 in Crikey

arj barker

Here’s a lesson to remember: never go and see a show thinking ‘I really wanted to see this guy in my university days’.

Welcome to Arj Barker’s Go Time, the so-so comedy show that makes you feel like you’re watching a used-car salesman put sawdust in a gearbox. The aim, of course, is to successfully keep the whole shebang going until the cash is safely in the till. Rehash some of the old, semi-reliable material, chuck in some new stuff, make sure the build-ups are long-winded enough to fill in some time and bam! You’ve got yourself an hour-long touring vehicle, good for the next few months.

It’s not all that bad. But it’s getting there; the structure of the show is virtually non-existent, the jokes take forever in the build-up, and for all that, the payoff isn’t actually all that good. Usually, in a decent long-form joke, even the build-up has some laughs to get you rolling before the final line knocks you flat. But the second half of the show just seems to comprise Barker’s ‘this is just the way I feel’ proselytising on his deliverance from the sad-sack lifestyle of a 9-5 working week. It’s enough to make you blank out midway through one of Barker’s long runs and come back before he’s delivered the punch line. And you still won’t laugh. The show is a cavalcade of blandness, with one random joke seeping into the next.

Masters of comedy spend hours on their routines, and it shows in their structure, tone, delivery and execution. But Barker isn’t one of those guys. Arj Barker is the go-to comedian for people who don’t know what comedy show they want to see.

Go Time is a good reason why it’s worth spending a little more time doing your comedy research and giving a few different shows a shot. You might get one or two misses, but at least you’ll get a proper hit rather than this shambling, lacklustre show.

February 4, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Pinning down the oily fish: ebooks, publishing, and content management


 Published November 2012 on the Killings blog (a Kill Your Darlings initiative)

This article is a summary of discussions covered in my minor thesis, which analyses ebooks and how they affect editorial processes at an Australian educational publisher.

The only editors who haven’t heard about the rise of the ebook must be those who live and work on tiny islands. Specifically, islands that have no access to the internet, libraries, media, messages in bottles or telepathic individuals. The rise of the ebook has been, after all, quite hard to miss. Two major publishers (Penguin and Random House) have become merger casualties, a result heavily influenced by rising ebook popularity. Big technology companies are also paying attention to consumer demand. Microsoft predicts that it will take until 2017 to grab a 51 per cent market share in the US ebook market, and only then because of technological issues. In terms of digital devices, Apple’s iPad has given some considerable boost to the consumers’ familiarity with digitised reading, while Amazon claims to have 950,000 ebook titles in their catalogue.

But what is an ebook, exactly? An ebook is, by its own definition, a taciturn, confusing beast, which means that researching what to do about accommodating ebooks becomes a matter of constantly trying to reach shifting goalposts. But in terms of a simple definition, ebooks can, for example, be used on a range of devices (iPad, Kobo, Kindle), within a range of formats (such as mobi, epub, and Kindle-friendly files), and display the gamut of book types.

Given the increasing popularity of ebooks, it’s important that publishers adjust their processes to ensure optimal production of book ebooks and print books. This area of the discussion centres around a publisher’s content management system, or CMS. Transitioning a publisher from a book-centric CMS to an ebook-friendly one has several steps involved in the process. The challenge in modern-day publishing is to find a CMS that can produce content for a project, digital or print, in a manner that makes the content easily adaptable and available for use within the parameters of almost any other format.

Still, there are risks inherent in change, which is perhaps why the publishing industry, particularly the commercial element, has been so slow to act on improving production processes that may benefit both print and electronic elements of publishing. The negatives are clear: failing to get a system flexible enough to withstand ongoing technological development could mean gaping, long-term production inefficiencies and ultimately, wasted expenditure compounded by a failure to maximise profit. It’s a process complex enough to justify the government establishing a Book Industry Strategy Group, tasked with developing viable strategies for publishers transitioning to an ebook-friendly production model. But this process takes time, allowing technology to drift ahead of a publisher’s technological capabilities before it has even been able to efficiently exploit what was commonly available for consumer use several years ago.

But what do these changes mean for people central to the publishing process? To be an editor of an ‘ebook’, for example, is to be master of several different content-display systems, all of which have their own inherent quirks and layout challenges. The fundamental role of an editor won’t change, but this is still a simplified example of a larger, more fundamental change at the heart of what an editor does; that editors may no longer be editing ‘books’ but simply ‘content’. While some books might try and resemble the ‘look’ of a book (such as those produced for iPad), print and electronic books are about as similar as an en and em dash. Both serve a similar communicative function, but the content within them is manipulated in significantly different ways.

For starters, ebook devices make it incredibly difficult to avoid instances where one word is left ‘hanging’ on its own line at the start or end of a paragraph. How, for example, can you reliably eradicate these in an ebook when the user can customise font size, and thereby re-flow the layout of the text themselves? Checking that an ebook works in both landscape and portrait mode can stretch an editor’s checking time, as can checking for poorly-interpreted fonts, dud or missing links and, in the case of an adaptation, checking that all the text from the original print book has been correctly translated to an onscreen, usable format. This, on top of the regular ‘book’ editing that applies to both print and electronic products.

Whatever happens, it will be fascinating to watch how the publishing industry in Australia develops and implements convergence-friendly CMS. For editors, the challenges appear to be wide-ranging but ultimately fascinating. Ebooks, in whatever format they take, will allow editors to literally test the boundaries of what is possible in this field. Even then, the boundaries will continue moving outwards as technology develops new and better ways to present content on electronic devices.

January 29, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Spell it out – David Crystal


Published by the Society of Editors newsletter, 2012

Spell it out - David Crystal

Spell It Out

David Crystal

Profile Books

Given the intricate and highly convoluted nature of the history of spelling, one gets the impression that calling an etymological historian a pedant is something of a compliment. Following the trail of spelling variations through English history is a monumental task, even more so if the explorer in question is foolhardy enough to translate this history for the masses. But here, in David Crystal’s Spell It Out, is a largely intelligible plain-English resource that is perfect for anyone willing to spend their reading time verbally enunciating letter sounds as they go. This is something worth avoiding on trains if you don’t favour looking like a monkey.

Typically, it’s easy for any editor to appreciate what must have been some serious structural editing for this particular project. The thirty-seven chapters are split primarily into three main sections: the history of spelling; famous spelling ‘rules’ and supposed misdemeanours of spelling; and a sort of miscellaneous section towards the end that deals with exotic spellings, unspellable noises and the now-mandatory final chapter discussing the ‘future’ of English spelling.

One of the most distinctive elements of this book is its illustration of the truly inconsistent and chameleon-like state of English spelling since the time of sixth-century monks in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, envisioning spelling as anything with a ‘fixed’ state has been largely a concoction of the post-Gutenberg era, when mass-produced books made it necessary to settle on agreed forms of spelling.

Spell It Out also highlights several ironies. For one, Crystal argues that people who are efficient at writing abbreviated text messages are actually displaying a fairly developed capacity for understanding the rules of legibility. Ostensibly, people who are good texters are generally good spellers, since abbreviation requires an understanding of which letters can be omitted and which cannot in order for a text message to be understood. And there is plenty of room in Crystal’s work for a general, light-hearted scolding of English spelling curriculums throughout history. Crystal argues, for example, that English classes past and present are guilty of enforcing ‘rules’ that, when the history or spelling evolution is explained, do little to aid new spellers. Instead, Crystal suggests classrooms would be better off replacing these ‘rules’ with a lesson on how to recognise words of Latin or French origin (the logic being that words with similar origins follow similar spelling practices).

Indeed, for any teacher or editor responsible for dictating useful tips on spelling practice to young learners, this is a useful (if highly detailed) tool. Spell It Out is a beginner’s manual on why English spelling has become so bloody complicated and why it has so many relatively unfathomable and exception-filled rules. What is perhaps most fascinating about Spell It Out is Crystal’s ability to make even dry subject matter a relatively interesting read—as long as you’ve had your morning coffee.

This isn’t really a book around which you can curl your exhausted body in bed after a hard day at the office. It’s a book for those interested in grasping the foundations of what is an intricate topic. Thankfully, Crystal’s style is clear-cut enough (and firmly edited enough) for readers who might be overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject matter covered by this book. Crystal allows the reader to grasp how easily the history of English spelling could easily fill several volumes before it reaches the current era, a time in which spelling pedants write passionate blog posts lambasting the increasing use of the greengrocer’s apostrophe or nosediving spelling skills amongst teens.

If anything, Crystal gives us hope that the internet, and indeed the future of spelling, need not be as dire as some editors fear. We may work at the very nucleus of the spelling atom, spending our days with our noses buried in dictionaries and prizing (or despising) the spelling consistency with which we must align our projects. But like any human invention, Crystal’s Spell It Out illustrates just how susceptible—and beneficial—spelling evolution can be to a language that has survived the centuries to become one of the predominant languages on the planet.

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