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Dinner with the Revolutionary Arts Ensemble

On a Tuesday evening I sit down to dinner with the Revolutionary Arts Ensemble to discuss, amongst locker topics like gentrification and politicians, their debut show for the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival, Music Box, and their particular brand of home-grown, authentic ‘Hastings folk’, which all began when Anton Wuts started teaching Adrian Thornton sax...

The exuberant, anarchic, 8-piece Revolutionary Arts Ensemble has been active, in one form or another, since 2006, installating avant garde musical exploits, replete with costumes, visuals and special effects, and garnering something of a cult following amongst the locals. Previous shows We Travel the Spaceways (2019), which paid homage to the Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra, and Hieronymos Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (2018) have been pinnacle experiences of the Fringe in the ‘Stings festival.  Epically entertaining, thrillingly, masterfully executed, divinely absurd and joyously uplifting, a Revolutionary Arts Ensemble show elicits spontaneous, face-splitting grins from its audience and a sense of palpable participation, however peripheral.

Hawke’s Bay musical polyglots

They’re some of our finest creative instigators and musicians, involved in myriad arts and community projects in Hawke’s Bay, from Tropical Downbeat Orchestra and Council-funded street art to designing the arts festival programme itself. I won’t mention jazz school, suffice to say, some are not only musically gifted but musically qualified too.

The band gets together every Tuesday, and have been doing so for years – it’s as much about the banter, the comradery, the political chat and cultural dissections as it is about creating music and art – a 49/51 split to be precise. The process of creation itself is organic – “we chuck everything in the mix and see what comes out… We’re not trying to get anywhere, there’s no pressure, no ego; it just all comes together, concept by concept.”

Adrian Thorton, an old-school stencil-cutter for screen-printing with a penchant for stop-motion animation, is “the lightning rod”, “the force”, the crazy god of ideas, who comes up with the concepts and the visual animations.

Anton Wuts calls himself the musical “transcriber”, taking Adrian’s concepts down into musical form. Others call him genius. He’s the ‘yes’ guy who’ll run with the ideas, shape-shifting them into a musical possibility. His musical universe is massive, and he has incredible ear to pull anything out and play it, and he’s “really fucking clever”, everyone agrees.

Winnie DuPont (“please don’t use my real name”), one of the founding members of the band and an excellent, imaginative “non-guitarist guitarist”, has been through all 15 Rev Arts projects, and provides a NZ First-like counter as the sceptic of the band – they’re all unrealistic in their ideas (85% of them don’t happen) but he’s cynically so.

Willie Devine prefers to be in the background but he’s “the backbone” of the ensemble, the others insist, the one who holds everything together – from sound-work and set-up to pack-down, and everything in between – he’s often on the keys. A “technical genius by necessity”, he’s done everything from sawmilling and nursing, to graphic and web design, from music and art (note: his artwork for Troy Kingi’s show) to accounting and teaching, and brings it all to the ensemble.

Joe Dobson, the engineering component of the band, “awesome organiser and chief note-maker” who “makes shit happen”, is one of Hawke’s Bay’s most sought-after percussionists. And though Max Parkes may be “a basic garage band drummer”, he’s a “wilful collaborator” with great hair and a great collection of gear.

Greg Sims (who was once bitten by a shark in Haumoana and tourniquet his own leg) joined the band this year to “play the visuals” (a super important component of the show); while the multi-talented Will Derbyshire plays trumpet and vocals.

The revolution will not be televised

Tonight, in an unmentionable part of town where the shop rents have doubled in the last year, we’re eating spaghetti bolognaise with DIY grated parmesan and giant marinade olives, local craft beer poured from the chilled keg in the corner. Adrian is late – he locked himself inside his own bookshop and calls Joe to be rescued – and his first contribution to our dinner chat ‘interview’ is to rail against PR, the kind of thing that ruined Andrew Little: “They cleaned up Angry Andy, who we all loved – took off his glasses, shaved him and stuck him on the cover of Women’s Weekly!”

The Revolutionary Arts Ensemble don’t want cute definitions, he insists. We’re not willing to reveal the concept of our show, or what we’re about: “As soon as you try and pin it down, it’s like sticking a pin in a balloon; you pop the magic.”

Greg quietly muses: “Sometimes it’s better to look at things outside the corner of your eye.”

“All you need to know,” says Adrian, “is that he dies in the end.”

“And that’s not necessarily a sad thing,” Anton reassures me.

So, what can audiences expect from Music Box?

“We always want our shows to be really immersive for the audience, to be surprising, with lots of elements – for it to be a unique experience, where you have to have been there,” says Joe. Musically, it’s quite complicated, and despite being crafted, there’s always an element of improvisation. It’s resourceful, playful, epic.

This show is way more ambitious production than anything they’ve ever done. “It’s more articulate, with more moments that have been really thought out,” explains Joe, “with more tech available to us, more people involved… it’s twice the price but we’ve put in twice the work.”

“Everyone should come and be transformed by the experience,” says Adrian, before making a direct appeal: “This isn’t the curtain-call for your life, right, so come and try something new out. The best parties are the spontaneous ones, not the planned, and this will be a bit like one of those.”

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