A Curious Arcade - Imaginary Theatre

‘A Curious Arcade’ // Imaginary Theatre and Brisbane Festival

‘A Curious Arcade’ was curious.

Imaginary Theatre’s latest weird and wonderful project takes the form of seemingly old fashioned contraptions filled with stories that twist and turn at the push of a button. ‘A Curious Arcade’ takes centre stage on the main level of the Brisbane Powerhouse; a fitting location for timeless stories told to modern audiences. 

Guiding inquisitive visitors through the life of elusive Australian inventor Celeste Mackellan, Imaginary Theatre became fascinated by her mysterious disappearance and in ‘A Curious Arcade’ they worked to uncover more information and restore her inventions. The exhibit showcases Mackellan’s remarkable storytelling and engineering skills, allowing audiences to interact with her machines and unravel her fascinating life story.

There is little known about Celeste Mackellan, who disappeared in 1929 along with her original creations. The inventor largely created storytelling machines that combined sound, images and ‘choose your own adventure’ style interaction, which travelled between funfairs and parlour arcades, allowing ‘players’ to be placed at the centre of surreal, intimate tales. 

The four machines available for curious visitors were recreated after notes, journals and drawings by Mackellan were discovered, with each apparatus telling a different story from Celeste’s repertoire. Brisbane Powerhouse displayed a suspenseful thriller delivered through a telephone, a ghost story-esque tale told by an old radio, and a fantastical, dream-like story in a cabinet, among others. 

Written by Finegan Kruckemeyer, each story featured themes of exploring one’s inner self, who we are as people, and in doing so finding the magic in our own lives, extraordinary or bizarre. Complete with quippy dialogue and plenty of opportunities to explore different paths in each story, the experience was well designed to be highly entertaining and engaging.

Technical design by Thom Browning and system engineer Matthew Strachan brought the machines to life. Each contraption was clearly displayed with a spotlight, distanced around the stage area which enveloped the exhibits with soft, sepia light, a charming reminder that we are entering another time. A highlight of the arcade was ‘The Memory Collector’, a wardrobe style build, with multiple coloured lights that flashed and danced around the objects inside. ‘The Music Box’ was also displayed with bright green lights that enhanced the rugged tree that spun around inside, allowing each detail to be seen. It was mesmerising and elevated the interactivity of each machine. 

Accompanying such visual effects was a wide range of sounds and music by Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra. The musical ensemble heightened the stories being told, from bright, jaunty rhythms to smooth, delicate tones, each reflecting the story’s different locations and moments in time. The sound transitioned from one melodic line to the next without seams and was perfectly balanced to indicate what the listener should be focussing on at each point in the story. However, ‘The Telephone Story’ was often hard to hear over the muffled static effects, which made it difficult to tell what was going on and what ‘choice’ to make to progress the story.

There is something so intriguing about vintage, wooden objects that makes one want to get up close and personal with them. Designed by Sarah Winter and Aimee Pouzet with original designs by Mackellan herself, the machines appeared like common yet vintage household appliances and furniture, but which became uncommon when interacted with. In particular, ‘The Memory Collector’ had a myriad of nicknacks displayed behind glass panels. Once the ‘wardrobe’ doors were opened a rabbit statue, a family photograph, a treasure map scattered in tiny pieces, an ancient ring and a tiny war tank were displayed, each with their own contribution to the larger story being told and equally fascinating to look at.

Under the direction of Imaginary Theatre’s Creative Director, Thom Browning, ‘A Curious Arcade’ was a deeply intriguing, nostalgic trip through some of life’s strange moments and fantastical creations. While we may not be able to directly relate to the cosy, dust-covered ‘granddad’s study’, the artistic decisions gave the stories deeper, more intimate meaning, together with the narrator of each machine who speaks directly to listeners. Stepping into the experience, you couldn’t help but feel an itch that needed to be scratched, secrets to be heard, tales to be told, things you just had to know about. But firstly, of course, a reminder to ‘cleanse thyself’ displayed at the entrance, accompanied by a brass bottle of hand sanitiser.

‘A Curious Arcade’ is a unique, highly detailed exhibition combining the old and the new to bring about an interactive storytelling experience. The piece ultimately tells us that memories are the true treasures of the world, that we must cherish and learn from our reminiscence, and that sharing stories makes our lives that more magical. Celeste Mackellan saw a way to communicate her life experiences through her wondrous machines, which will live in through Imaginary Theatre’s continued exploration of her inventions.

‘A Curious Arcade’ runs until Saturday, 26 September 2020, at the Brisbane Powerhouse. For more information visit the Brisbane Festival’s website.

Photography sourced via Imaginary Theatre. 

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