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The Only Question: Norwich - Melbourne– Elena Traina and Penelope Bartlau

АФиша встречи

The Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature Program Directorate continues publishing The Only Question - new international project - materials. 40 authors from 18 UNESCO literary cities (or related cities) participate in the project.  Authors from Norwich and Melbourne – Elena Traina and Penelope Bartlau – are our guests of the project.

The organizers invited writers, poets, playwrights, translators from UNESCO literary cities to imagine they have the opportunity to ask just one question to an author from any other literary city. The initiative will help to introduce the authors from the literary cities to each other and establish their dialogue. The project will also let to understand what issues are of concern to authors from different countries today. Besides, it will provide an opportunity for readers to get to know new writers and poets.

Questions and answers by the authors (in Russian and English) along with a short biography of each participant and links to their publications will regularly appear on the Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature Website, other literary cities' websites, and social media, etc. Writers' dialogs will also be offered for publication on the project partners' platforms (literary magazines, libraries, literary media, and mass media). As a result of the project, in summer 2022 an online anthology will be released (in Russian and English) with all the conversations.

Penelope Bartlau

Hello Elena,

I write to you from a beautiful and sunny late Spring day in Victoria, Australia, and I have one question for you:

How does time feel to you?

I look forward to your response.

Elena Traina

Dear Penelope,

What a terrific question to wake up to -- though it did take me some days to process!

Time feels like my laptop battery lying to me over and over again. It says that I have 30 minutes left and suddenly, after opening three tabs in my browser, it shuts down with no warning. My life feels like this, too!

I have read your profile and seen your portfolio and I am in awe of all the work you have done. My question for you is: have you always had the courage to put yourself out there or did it take some convincing to be able to identify yourself as an artist to yourself and to others?

Lovely to meet you, I hope we will stay in touch.

Penelope Bartlau

Hello Elena,

What a beautiful and succinct metaphor for time: a laptop battery. Grazie tanto!

To answer your question: have you always had the courage to put yourself out there or did it take some convincing to be able to identify yourself as an artist to yourself and to others?

I was an actor for a very long time, I actually trained in Comedia Dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia over 25 years ago! I love improvisation, comedy and mask work. But, coming back to Australia I discovered how anxious acting made me, and how it impacted my feelings of confidence and self-worth. What made me feel bad was working for television. TV shoots move so quickly. When you are not full-time as an actor on a tv show, maybe going in for a week only, you feel so small in a huge machine. Also, you are “pampered” before you get onto the set, and made to feel “special”, which for me was a very superficial experience, and worked in opposition to the experience on set, in front of the camera. 

On set, you are a little moveable part - a flesh chess piece, who only is spoken to by the director if you are not getting it right (so you want to be ignored by the director). I’m not saying TV directors are monsters - far from it. It’s just that television moves so fast,“time is money”. There is no space to craft your work as an actor on set. In Australia tv productions are not brilliantly financed, so if you are lucky, you’d get one rehearsal (again, time is money). 

In my late 20’s I decided to add a string to my bow, and as a side job worked in my family’s business as an auctioneer (antiques and collectibles). It was the experience of auctioneering that provided an epiphany. When you are auctioning an object, the audience are focused on the object - not you. What a delight! This epiphany taught me that the audience will watch the story, and the character is a mask. Still, acting is a very tough and soul-destroying gig and I needed to make a change. In 2006 I went back to art school (the Victorian College of the Arts - VCA) and trained as a puppeteer. This time, the audience were, once again, watching the object (the puppet), as they listened to and experienced a story. It was only once I was immersed at the VCA that I dared to call myself an artist (I was 38 years old, so it took a while!)

I started Barking Spider Visual Theatre in that same year - 2006. The "auctioneer epiphany" worked its magic once again. I had trouble selling myself, but I could easily speak about Barking Spider Visual Theatre objectively. Having this company as an entity outside of myself made it very easy to speak to others about the art I create. The company became the mask that I could hide behind. Right now though, everything has come full circle. Over the last year I have had a mentor who has helped me work out where I fit as a creator, meaning, where does Barking Spider Visual Theatre stop and where does Penelope start? It turns out, we are one and the same. So now, I am confident to be out in the world as an artist who is the creative force behind Barking Spider Visual Theatre. I’m 54. I started acting professionally when I was 24. So it has taken 30 years to learn that confidence.

I’m in Europe next year and hope to get to Italy. If I come to Europe and don’t go to Italy it feels like I haven’t gone home. COVID permitting, I plan to go to Venice Bienniale. Maybe we can catch up somehow!

Let’s keep in touch. :-)



Elena Traina

Портрет Елены Трайна

Lena Traina wrote her first novel when she was eleven. It was a fantasy story set in Stone Henge, which at the time she believed to be in Cornwall. She saved it on a floppy-disk and gave it to read to a boy she fancied. He didn’t read it, but passed it to his mum, who was an Italian teacher. She was the first of a very long list of supportive women who motivated her to keep writing.

She won her first national poetry competition at 16 and her second at 22, with her poetry collection Tre Concerti being awarded the Primavera della Poesia Prize, dedicated to Alda Merini. She was also one of the selected Italian poets for the Milan Rain of Poems by Colectivo Casagrande in 2015.

She received her MA in Literary Translation at University of East Anglia, in Norwich, where she started a career in public libraries while working on her creative projects.

She wrote the Italian version of her debut novel Amarantha between 2015 and 2018, and published it with a small press co-directed by a man who was then involved in a sexual harassment scandal. For this and other reasons, she fought to regain the rights to the novel, which by that time had been selected to be re-edited and published in translation by Kurumuru Books.

During the pandemic, she took a year off living and working in the UK to stay closer to her family, so she moved to Turin to gain a Diploma in Contemporary Humanities at the Scuola Holden, where she experimented with writing for other media and wrote an award for her first script of a short film, The Morning After.

She is an independent researcher in Creative Writing Studies, investigating the theory, pedagogy and practice of creative writing in non-anglophone countries. She hopes to write a PhD thesis on the same subject, one day.

A decent singer and guitar-player, and novice accordionist and singer-songwriter, she has been seen and heard busking in the streets of Norwich, Milan and Turin. Who knows where to, next.


Penelope Bartlau

портрет ПЕнелопы Бартлау


Penelope Bartlau is an established multi-disciplinary artist specialising in theatrical visual interpretation and creative writing. Her practice includes devising image-based experiences that activate audiences. Penelope generates, creates and directs projects which respond to people and places and which are defined by ambition in purpose and by astonishing beauty. Her works inspire awe, wonder and curiosity and provoke thought and feeling. She aims to make us feel differently about the world and for us to question what we think we know about time, place and fact. Passionate, driven, collaborative, organised and a sustained improviser. Penelope thrives on change, welcomes uncertainty, believes in "not knowing" as one of the greatest providers of inspiration. She loves research, play and is dedicated to equality.

Penelope is highly skilled at drawing artists, non-artists and non-arts industries and technologies together in the generation of unusual experiences engaging with broad audiences. Fascinated by hidden, obscured, denied, unrecognised, invisible and unsung stories, Penelope’s interest lies in unearthing these stories, which are often historical, an interpreting them for contemporary audiences. ART FORMS Penelope works in installation creation and theatre devising and often her works combine both. Her written works range from short stories to poetry and plays. BACKGROUND: Penelope is highly skilled in puppetry, performance, installation design and creative writing. She has worked professionally in the arts for 30 years and is currently the Artistic Director for Barking Spider Visual Theatre. She has generated, collaborated and directed works with diverse communities across Australia and internationally. Her multidisciplinary creations are presented in sites as wide-ranging as museums and galleries, theatres, site-specific/heritage buildings/locations, in-school residencies, scientific collaborations and for works radio. As a part of Penelope’s practice, wherever possible, she works with young people as equal creative collaborators and innovators.

Previous issues:

  1. Heidelberg-Ulyanovsk – Şafak Sariçiçek and Sergei Gogin
  2. Melbourne - Heidelberg – Christopher Raja and Klaus Kayser
  3. Calgary-Mannheim - Kelly Kaur And Claudia Schmid
  4. Melbourne And Ulyanovsk - Rijn Collins and Gala Uzryutova
  5. Heidelberg - Nottingham – Ingeborg von Zadow and Leanne Moden
  6. Durban-Ulyanovsk – Adiela Akoo and Sergei Gogin
  7. Heidelberg-Ulyanovsk|Moscow – Şafak Sarıçiçek and Irina Bogatyryova
  8. Yekaterinburg-Iowa City – Ekaterina Simonova and Jacquelyn Bengfort
  9. Iowa City-Québec – Jeremy Geragotelis and Vanessa Bell
  10. Heidelberg-Ulyanovsk – Juliane Sophie Kayser and Gala Uzryutova
  11. Durban-Melbourne – Adiela Akoo and Rijn Collins
  12. Heidelberg – Dublin – Şafak Sarıçiçek and Csilla Toldy
  13. Ulyanovsk - Heidelberg - Gala Uzryutova and Juliane Sophie Kayser
  14. Melbourne-Heidelberg:   Anne Richter And Judith Rossell
  15. Ljubljana-Melbourne – Andrej Tomazin and Jo Langdon
  16. Melbourne and Heidelberg - Christopher Raja and Konstantin Hanack
  17. Seattle and Ulyanovsk - Cara Diaconoff and Sergei Gogin
  18. Melbourne - Ulyanovsk – Penelope Bartlau and Danila Nozdryakov
  19. Durban - Manchester – Adiela Akoo and Roma Havers