Cecil Street Studio: an interview

<proximity> magazine
vol. 10 ed. 3, pp 4 – 10, December 2007
© 2007, slightly moving productions

cecil street studio: an interview
by Josef Lehrer

Martin Hughes & Fiona Cook founded and established Cecil Street Studio in 1997. Since that time they have supported its development into the current hub of Melbourne’s improvisational community. In early June, as they prepared to handover the studio’s operations to the newly formed committee Cecil’s Moving Body, I caught up with them to hear some stories from their past decade. This interview took place shortly after The Jolly Good Show – a special benefit concert put on for Cecil Street Studio by Cecil’s Moving Body.

Josef Lehrer: Hello

Fiona Cook: Hello

Martin Hughes: Good Evening and welcome to our kitchen. (laughter)

F: The kids are in beds; reading. (laughter)

J: So last week, you guys were at The Jolly Good Show. How did you enjoy it?

M: It was a beautiful show.

F: Yeah, it was a great night, a really great night. I thought they did a fantastic job of bringing people together, and great performances. It was a really great feel-good night and a really great credit to the new group.

M: Yeah, it was really good. A great testament of how well they’re hanging together and doing what they need to do. But also, Dancehouse, how good were they? You know, squeezing everybody in.

F: Yeah, great support from everyone there, I thought.

M: That was really good actually, ‘cos that’s the kind of thing I experienced overseas a couple of times, you know, where different venues would actually do stuff like that to support other venues, it felt really good. It’s so what we need to do.

J: And so with such an audience turnout, and with such a wealth of talent performing, how does it make you feel about Cecil Street’s place in the improvisation / dance / arts community?

F: Well it’s held together, and the community’s sort of grown itself, really. And it must be quite an established place! It’s sort of funny looking at it from [that angle]…but yeah, it’s held together and is really growing, and great [to see] all these people who I’ve no idea who they are. That’s fantastic too, to see unknowns.

M: I think Michael Shaw put it really beautifully. Wasn’t he the one who said something like we’re the grandparents now, like our kid’s growing up and it’s mature enough to go on it’s own and we can just have the ‘all care, no responsibility’ experience of being grandparents and just watching it go on now. So that’s a good feeling, that’s a very nice feeling.

J: Yep. So, from this point now I’d like to return to the beginning, the very beginning, and since Cecil Street is as much a story about the two of you as about a space, where and when did you meet?

(A very long pause, then laughter)

F: Well, Cecil Street started as a conversation in the pub.

M: Oh, really?

F: Yep. We’d met before that. And we’d known each other for, I don’t know…

M: …oh, her memory’s good. Go on…

Martin and Fiona having a good laugh
Martin Hughes and Fiona Cook at home. (photograph: Tom Hughes)

F: … a bit of time. It was a conversation around there not being enough accessible dance venues, and Flux were rehearsing and finding it really difficult to find regular accessible spaces, that weren’t turned into performance spaces. And, you know, we had a few dreams and ideas, and just decided that we would start to look for a space that we would live in and start running ourselves.

M: That’s good, I forgot all about that. That’s really good, but it’s quite true accessible was something we always wanted. We didn’t push very hard for it ‘cos, really, accessible meant just available, in many ways. Well, it meant it was for Janice [Florence] – wheel-chair accessible – that was part of it ‘cos we knew we didn’t want lots of stairs, but we could handle a couple. But dealing with all the other venues that we were sometimes using and were often co-opted for performances, or compromised by performances. So, the best one we ever did was we turned up to a space and there was a great big pile of dirt, not just sand or something, but garden soil in the middle of the space. We were supposed to teach a class there. So the idea was to make a space that never did that. You know, you booked it, it was yours, it was for the making of work, for the rehearsing of work, for the teaching of… for the time you had it.

F: And we were going to live there forever. (giggles into full laughter)

J: And so you actively went on the hunt for a space? Or…

F: So, yeah, we just kept looking around and then we saw Cecil Street and we really, really liked it, straight away. But it had, you know… it was really grotty, it was really grunge and…

M: The floor was extraordinary. Remember the dirt on the floor?

F: Mmmm, and the walls and everything. And we had the idea of making it liveable, so we knew we were going to have to put a lot of elbow-grease in. Which we just did. Which was great, that was one of the best parts about the whole project.

M: Yeah, and all those lovely people who came and helped.

F: Yeah, it was fantastic.

J: How long did it take you to fix up?

F: We got it in…

M: …May…

F: …May and we didn’t… we opened as a studio, I think that was in July.

M: July. Yeah, the first of July was the first month we opened.

F: We had the floor sanded originally, which is what we were really excited about that venue ‘cos it had a springy floor and a wooden floor. And everything else we’d seen was concrete, and we were really excited.

J: So, it was just a matter of cleaning up the floor?

F: We had it sanded and polished. We spent a bomb on the floor.

M: We spent a bomb on the floor… (chuckles)

F: And then it broke up.

J: Was it daunting taking on the studio? I mean, from deciding to want a space and then finding it and then… was there any…

M: No, it was fantastic. It was so exciting, to find it. And then to go ‘yeah, we can do it!’ And we did all the maths and worked it all out and, you know, that’s all nonsense (laughter). And we thought we could…you know, it made sense to us.

F: It was great, just great. It was a really exciting adventure.

M: Yeah, really exciting. And so many people helped. Hence it was never something we were doing on our own, rarely.

J: And so, some of your regular tenants, had they come and joined you at that stage?

F: Peter Trotman, pretty much as soon as we opened, took Monday nights and he has had every single Monday night without a break for ten years.

M: Christmas and New Year’s.

F: Monday nights has been Peter, for ten years; Tuesday nights has been the Jam, for ten years…

M: But that’s was the thing… We were trying to remember that, when did Cubitt Street fold? When did Al start? Not ‘til… Christmas.

F: Well he phoned us and said ‘Look, Cubitt Street is being redeveloped’. The timing of it was…

M: …extraordinary…

F: …bizarre. Because we had no idea at that [stage] and neither did he. And he said, ‘Would you have space? Do you think we would be able to talk?’ And we went ‘Sure!’ That happened faster than we had time to plan other things too. But it was such a…yeah, it was a godsend.

M: But, was that by Christmas that he was in there?

F: We have it back…

M: Yeah, we have the diaries. Oh wow, that’s right. We could go back…

F: We’ve got all the original diaries and message books and all that stuff.

J: So, in those first couple of years, what were some of the challenges that you faced?

M: Living there was a pretty big challenge. It was a beautiful place to live, actually. That room upstairs is a beautiful place to be. It’s got fantastic light and is very warm. Fi did beautiful things in setting it up. But sharing your – it wasn’t really your lounge room – but the space between your bedroom and the toilet, bedroom and the kitchen, with whoever comes and goes was tough.

But the challenges of running the space…

F: You know, it did put financial challenges in front of us, but for some naïve reason we weren’t daunted by that. (chuckles) And it’s not like we were overflowing with money, I mean I think people had ideas that we had all this money. I mean, we didn’t, we really didn’t. We weren’t on huge salaries, you know, we were just naïve and willing, just really determined and willing to know that we could make this work.

J: And what was your vision for that time? Did you have an [idea of] where you wanted the studio to be in two or three years time? Or were you simply about getting it up, getting it running?

F: Well, I mean, right from the beginning it was about a place for workshops and classes; right from when we opened up, we were really clear that it was for workshops and classes and research, and for explorations. That was… performance wasn’t…

M: ‘For the making of…’

F: Yeah, we talked a lot about ‘the making of…’. And exploring our own practices and finding a home for the Contact [Improvisation] community, and that was exciting. And that we just believed there was enough happening out there, enough independent people, that things would just happen! (laughter)

M: But, you know, pretty much they did.

F: I know.

M: I know how we first worked out how we had to have a feast.

F: Yeah, we worked that out pretty quick. We realised pretty quickly that in the school holidays…

M: …we had nothing…

F: …nobody came. And we went ‘we have to do something.’

M: So the first feast was fantastic. The first feast was just an extraordinary thing to have made and to have been a part of.

F: It was a yum-cha.

M: Yeah, the yum-cha. That’s where the idea of the feast came from. It was something of the model that we were after too, to try and bring people and different disciplines together, bring different teachers together. Let people experience a range of things and open up their experience outside the particular niche they had found themselves in. So the yum-cha was the idea of offering lots and lots of little tasters of lots of different styles of improvisation, and…

F: …and you were very keen too, ‘cos it was something that interested you, was as a teacher doing collaborative teaching too and learning from other teachers. You know, that idea of bringing teachers together and sharing disciplines.

M: So, it was definitely meant to be just as much for the teachers as the participants. That the teachers would be participants, that we tried to encourage the teachers to come to classes as students and then go to each others classes and share ideas, kind of like a conference, a physical conference. And it was great, it really worked and we had so many people and so many classes.

F: So, yeah, that first feast was really encouraging. We just went ‘ohhh, the [potential]’, you know, and people came. And they talked about it in a really positive way.

J: And so, at what point did you guys shift out from the studio?

F: When I was pregnant. (laughter)

M: On my thirty-fifth birthday, the house across the road went up for auction, right? And as a birthday present we bought me a house (laughter). It was great. We had a birthday party that night and there was [the question], ‘so what did you get for your birthday?’. And, at the door, I’d just point to the other house.

F: But all of that too was incredible. That I was pregnant, we had to move, we didn’t want to go far, cos we just wanted to stay there. So we sort of didn’t move out of the space, which I think was good at that time. It was about a year [after opening].

J: And so you guys had been basically running the studio yourselves, so as you moved, you took the running of the studio with you. And how has that impacted on your life over the past time?

F: Different stages, different impacts, for me. Cos when we first moved out we had Tom, and oh, you know, it was a big impact. Cos I was coping with a new baby and answering the phone, cos I was doing all the bookings. It was madness at times. But then there were other times when it seemed to just slot into our lives, we got so used to it, and we got smarter about it.

M: Yeah, a lot smarter about it.

F: We stopped answering the phone during the day.

M: There were times of the year that were difficult, that we needed to plan better for and, with a small child, we never managed to plan early enough. But we always managed to make something happen, The month of January was always a disaster ‘cos there was no one here, so we’d run a feast. Some of those were sublime. None of them were ever as good as that very first one, just in terms of the energy of it. And then we’d run winter feasts, and things like that. There were moments when the fun got out of it and there was work to be done to just simply pay the bills. But, you know, what would happen is that you’d get involved in one of these things and you’d discover that you’d created this beautiful thing, another great event would be happening and these wonderful people would come and learn and teach and be a part of the event.

J: And you have run the studio this whole time independent of funding?

F: Yep.

J: Was that a very conscious decision that you wanted it to be clearly independent? Or did you ever investigate funding options?

M: The answer to that one’s quite mixed. No, we didn’t investigate funding. The money was always a big problem, but getting funding is also another problem that you have to buy into – to find the time, to write the applications well, to find the sources to write the applications, and then fufill the requirements that are placed around that money. So, there was always a sense that it was better for us to stay clear of that. And – I’ve written stuff about this – there’s a whole way that that worked for what we wanted to have happen there too. If you stay taking money from the public purse then the public and other artists, teachers and dancers start looking at you as competition. It changes your relationship to the group, to all of the people that you’d love to have come in, you know. And it was always great to be able to be a neutral partner and have a neutral exchange with other artists. ‘We’re not after your turf, we’re not taking [your funding]’ …we’ll just make it work, somehow. I’ve always liked that stand.

F: Yeah. And things were bubbling along I suppose. It would have been getting project money for feasts and things like that, but we got ourselves caught out. Both of us were working full time, apart from the studio…

M: …and children…

F: …and kids, and we just didn’t have the time. Even at times when we’d sort of go, ‘yeah it would be good if we had got a little bit of funding’

M: Yeah, but there’s another thing that you’re reminding me of, which is there’s the double bind that getting funding can get you into where… because Cecil Street was not a project, Cecil Street was a ten year commitment. So, getting project money meant we had to put a lot of effort into getting a small amount of money to last a month or two, right? And we did do that anyway, but its not a model that actually is a sustainable model; its not a long term model, it’s a one-off model, unless you get enough money, in order to get someone as an administrator to go looking for money all the time. So, we needed to find ways of making Cecil Street fund itself that worked differently to that.

J: And at one point I know you had someone else come on board. You had Kate Sumner as an intern come on board. I had a chat with her the other day and she had some beautiful things to say about how her time with you gave her an a real understanding of behind-the-arts, in terms of the fact that…

M: …jumping on the bed with our kids?! (Laughter)

J: Well, that art is where art exists and the behind-the-scenes effort that you put in to running an independent studio. How was it, when she was around for that six months?

F: It was great.

M: She was fantastic.

F: It was really great to know that a place like Deakin [University] acknowledged us, ‘cos she was Deakin student. That they had us down as an option [for work experience], made us go, ‘oh! We’re, oh, goodness. Ok!’ And she was fantastic and it was so helpful to have her because we had small children and so she would just come and let herself in. And she did a number of things, I mean she got us on the internet, when the internet came in.

M: She got us on the email! Fantastic! Fantastic! You know, what do I do for my real job? (Laughter – Martin works with computers)

F: She was really enthusiastic, and she did one of the feasts. It was really great having Kate. Also knowing she was so wanting to learn about it. She was really wanting to learn, so we tried to be a bit systematic it. I’m sure she left at times going…

M: ‘…Oh My lord!’

F: ‘…Oh my Lord!’ (Laughter) How not to do it! And then, the kids fell in love with her …

M: She’d come and look after them.

F: She’d be babysitting! (Laughter)

Martin Hughes and David Corbet at the Melbourne CI Jam
Martin Hughes (flying!) and David Corbet dancing at the
Cecil Street Tuesday night jam. (photograph: Hellene Gronda)

J: And because it’s been such a part of your family, for Tom and Cora, what’s their relationship to Cecil Street?

F: It’s Tom’s lounge room.

M: Yeah, it’s just Tom’s lounge room.

F: And still is I think… ‘cos when he was a baby, he lived across the road and that was his space.

M: He’s a great audience member, you know, I love watching him watch things, he’s very respectful of the space when people are dancing and things. I hope that’s really true. But then when there’s a break or when it’s just us in that space then he just loves to be in the middle of that space, playing around, you know, with the balls …

F: And he now does Zoe’s [Phillips] classes.

M: Aw yeah, that’s right, that’s right… I haven’t spoken to him about that.

F: Cora I think has a slightly different relationship to the studio ‘cos she was born here (Thornbury – a few suburbs north of Cecil Street). But she talks about it as our studio. Mmm.

M: Shall we pause for a minute and just put them to bed?

F: You go into him, I’ll go into her…

The interview was paused as Martin & Fiona put the children to bed. Fiona returned first to the table before Martin returned bearing the early Cecil Street diaries

J: Ah, Martin’s got the diaries.

M: I just wanted to get the dates, cos I’m so struck by how quickly, you know…

F: We should go through… I mean, not now. Not now darling, but the very first diary would be… remember we used to walk down to Officeworks and get our diaries? And everything was done in written form. Like there was nothing, none of it was done over email, it was all…

J: So, Fi, you were just saying then while we had the mic off that the story of Cecil Street is such a personal story. So when it came up to the ten years and you were making the decision whether to go on or not, was it hard?

F: No. Cos I was quite clear, I think we both were, that we weren’t gonna go past ten. And for me to, I actually don’t find it a sad thing, like, we took on [the studio], but the potential for Cecil Street… we felt at times that if other people were doing this they could do so much more…

M: …like the funding opportunities…

F: …and we just didn’t even have the time to organise it, cos we did it at night in our lounge room. No, I think we were both clear that after ten years we were out. And it would have been sad if [Cecil Street closed]… I was actually surprised that the owners let the lease continue. I actually thought it would have been sold to developers, and we wouldn’t have had any choice anyway. But its just been fantastic. Just another little bit of the sort of magic pie of Cecil Street that the owners have gone, ‘no it’s a good thing, keep going’. You know, they’ve got prime real estate in Fitzroy! And they’re not dancers! So, with all that stuff, it’s just meant to keep going. And it’s not about us going anywhere else, in fact, we’d love to actually start using it?! Cos that was something that became very hard, for me particularly, that I felt I was doing all the admin and never dancing. But that was also because I had small children, and it was just a combination of choices. But I wouldn’t do it differently.

There was another short pause in the interview as Martin tends to one of the children.

J: Alright, well, third time lucky. (Laughter) So I guess, to end off, I wanted to ask you some of the highlights of the last ten years, or some of the things that Cecil Street has hosted that you’ve been most proud of. Small moments, big moments.

M: First feast, the yum-cha… all the Conundrums. Those weren’t something that Cecil Street produced, but I’m pleased that we were the venue, you know. There’s lots of that. I’m so pleased that we were the venue for Peter Trotman, for Al’s work, for the jam, you know, for all that. That’s great to think that, that all those things happening in a space that we facilitated.

F: Yeah, there’s so many, you’d go to class or a workshop and have those moments. I’d lie on the floor, warming up, and look up at that stupid sign on the ceiling, from when we had a garage sale, and that was the only piece…! It was a really lovely meeting place, to be living there and have people coming in. And other people’s enthusiasm has always felt great.

M: On hot Feast workshop days, it’d be a stinker, and everyone would take a break sitting on the loading bay, dangling their legs over the side… Or the barbeque we had out the front. That was a feast, and we had a barbeque out the front, on the Weber, everyone hanging out the front there…

F: And conversations around that kitchen table. That was often lovely too, at night after classes, and people staying and chatting… Your fortieth, that was really nice…

M: That was pretty beautiful. Our wedding.

F: Our wedding. That was great.

F: This is where it is so intertwined with our personal lives! Its our…

J: Your other lounge room.

M: Yeah, the other lounge room.

F: Moving up here (Thornbury) changed that a bit.

M: Yeah. But then people just moved into the bungalow. We just brought them up, so we’d have conversations around this table.

F: Some lovely moments. Just living there, just getting home, to actually come in and go, wow, people are doing this amazing stuff here.

M: That’s it, you know, it is just it. Just the fact that it is and it was, that’s always the thing that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. I always joke with Fi about when I’m a grandparent, or even now, you look back and go, its just the grand stupidity of it, you know? The grand naivety of it.

J: Well, you know, naivety, or what someone calls naivety, is actually someone not knowing they could do it, and thus making it happen.

F: Yeah…

J: And, as you pass it on, do you have any kind of hopes for where it may go in the future, or in the next ten years what would you like to see Cecil Street as?

M: I was just gonna say, more of it. And more of what Fi was saying about taking the potential of Cecil Street and making the most of it.

F: I think its great that this group have come together, its so exciting. And whatever, yeah, I really trust that whatever direction it goes, it’ll be fine. There is so much potential there. Just the fact that it stays open and remains a place that people can go is good and anything else that happens is … great!

J: Thank you very much for your time, and having me around your kitchen table. Its inspiring to hear your stories, and I hope this forty-odd minutes gives some justice to what Cecil Street, was, is, can be and…

M: Don’t worry, we’ll write a book. (laughter)

J: I love how in one of those diaries, I opened it up, and the first thing on the yearly planner is Tom and Cora’s scribbles!

M: Yeah, that’s about as good as the planning got.

F: Yep. And what happened tonight, with having to go in to [tend to them]. You know, that’s how we’ve run the studio, basically. “Hang on”, “can you hold on a minute, somebody’s drowning” (laughter) “I really mean it”. (lots more laughter)

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The unedited interview is available as a podcast on the Proximity website: proximity.slightly.net/podcast.