Interview: ‘Konstantin: Grandmother’s Tongue’ creators on post-Brechtian cabaret, chickens and puppetry

Interview: ‘Konstantin: Grandmother’s Tongue’ creators on post-Brechtian cabaret, chickens and puppetry

Grandmother's Tongue
words by jacob mccormack

Combining music, design, puppetry and storytelling, 'Grandmother's Tongue' infuses tales of the past with narratives of the present in a fantastical fairytale stacked with relevant social critique.

‘Grandmother’s Tongue’ is the collaborative brainchild of Néla Trifković, Dagmara Gieysztor and Alison Richards. For this premiere, presented in association with The Boite with support from City of Melbourne Arts Grants and a crowdfunding campaign through the Australian Cultural Fund, Néla has composed an original song-cycle featuring 10 unique pieces that draw inspiration from the traditional folk music of her Balkan origins and other references including modernist classical, Jewish Klezmer, Slavic music and post-Brechtian cabaret. The work unfolds from the perspective of chickens as well as humans, using live performance, puppetry and design elements to drive the characters.

“They are 10 compositions, connected together by Alison’s storytelling and also smaller musical fragments from these individual compositions that will appear as a motif, the way you would almost hear it in a soundtrack, there might be wandering motifs that accompany Alison’s storytelling.”

Overlaid atop the musical folktale are story interludes from Alison as Grandmother Babcia, written specifically for this version of the work as a dialogue with puppet character Kazia the Hen. These interludes draw on the ancient forms of fable and fairytale to ignite discussion and critique patterns of exploitation still rife in the contemporary world.

“We are talking about things that are very important to think about; it’s that mix of the fairytale metaphor but also the bang of reality including the reality of the oppression of chickens.”

“We take these little birds, and we breed them up, treat them shamefully, lock them up and exploit them, and that itself is in parallel with other things that we really ought to be paying attention to and don’t. We’ve made a mess of this planet and we need to start taking responsibility for it.”

Conversations between Alison and Dagmara Gieysztor – the artist responsible for design and images – in 2017 ignited an interest in classic folklore and fairy tale as a means of pursuing this tale of chickens and immigration.

“Dagmara and I started to talk around the way folk tales and fairytale ideas can be used in a subversive way, which they have anyway for thousands of years.  They allow us to get people engaged with things you might want to protest about, change or address in the world you live in.”


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“That’s one of the reasons our story world is set in Eastern Europe. That whole world of Slavic Folktale is so rich with animal characters, and fantastic events and magic and transformations.”

Alison and Néla have expanded upon that richness, through the combination of music, visuals, and narrration, while never straying from their efforts to interrogate, as well as incite inquiry amongst the audience.

“We are also returning to a notion of storytelling that is older than just this idea of genre or form. We have created a world that is musical, visual and a world of ideas. We’re moving through that but at the same time we are making sure that we’ve got something that makes sense as a creative work.”

Alison and Néla have teamed up with an array of talented vocalists and musicians with diverse cultural roots, musical techniques and aesthetic influences, including but not exclusively contemporary classical and folk music.

“Eastern European political cabaret has always been easily recognisable as a means of commenting on oppression, unrest and on that which often remains silent. But I actually think it’s incredibly important to share this in the context of the coming election, and whilst I certainly don’t see tanks coming down our streets, a lot of what we are commenting on societally, politically and philosophically is not too far a stretch from what is happening here in Australia, in a different manner.” says Néla.

With a strong sense of community in mind, both Alison and Néla are hoping that this project can empower more cohesive and supportive exchanges on and off stage,

“We are creating another experience of community, the tight knit, warm, friendly community feel that maybe we have lost a bit in the big cities, in the modern world and especially recently during the COVID crisis.”

But communities are diverse, and all stories are open to interpretation.

“It’s very important that we are not saying we own this land, we own this story. We don’t own the story, it’s an immigrant too across cultures and borders. The Indigenous people of this land have their own rich traditions; apart from that, we are all immigrants.”

You can see the premiere performances of Konstantin: Grandmother’s Tongue at the Mission to Seafarers Victoria on Sunday May 22 at 5pm, Monday May 23 at 6pm or view the Monday performance remotely via livestream, from 6pm. Grab your tickets by heading here.