While training as a concert pianist, Dan Thorpe was once told to roll his sleeves down when playing because the piano was, “a very formal instrument”. He replied, “I play in my boxers. Is that a problem?”

In his new performance work, XXX Neon Sign, Thorpe casts off more than his underwear to make a stand against preconceived notions around what classical music is, how it’s composed and whose stories it tells.

It’s the perfect work to kick off Rumpus – Adelaide’s new independent theatre collective and venue. Its manifesto is to bring innovative, cross-discipline indie theatre works to local audiences. It’s bold, punk and defiantly ambitious.

When Broadsheet meets Thorpe at Rumpus’s semi-gentrified Bowden warehouse, he’s keen to take a break from bumping-in his one-man show and just talk about it for a while. We sit on colourful plastic chairs salvaged from a primary school and, to be honest, it’s an awkward context for a conversation about pornography, addiction and True Blue Aussie Sexism™. But feeling on edge is precisely what Thorpe is shooting for.

“The beauty of dragging a grand piano into this space and talking about porn is that it’s obscene and it’s sacrilegious in a way that I think is deeply necessary,” he says.

The experimental composer and performer has toured extensively across Australia, the US and South America. He’s released albums of original music and produced commissions for the Western Australian and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras.

In 2013 he was working at Hindley Street art den Format when he unearthed a copy of James Andre's poem, XXX Neon Sign. The autobiographical work recounts Andre’s experience working at an adult shop in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, and the people he encountered there. It’s about someone embedded in a community where he feels incredibly vulnerable.

“It’s a really interesting study of Australian men, in a way that you wouldn’t expect,” Thorpe says. “Much of the text is the shit men say to other men, only when they think the other person is on their side.” It comes from an assumption that, “You’re a man so you must feel this way about women too”. He found the work transfixing and instantly relatable. “As a masculine-presenting queer man – a stealth faggot if you will – the violence and misogyny of it could easily be directed at me … if they found out [I wasn’t straight],” he says.

It would be another six years before he processed it fully. “I knew I had to make something from it and, basically, I felt ready early last year,” he says. “This show has been about taking the teeth out of that [and] having a laugh at these gross men’s expense. But something I admire about the text is … there’s a sense of compassion and pathos.

“What really stuck me when performing it is, this is a bogan story. It’s raw, it’s working class, it’s post-addiction and it’s set in scummy Brisbane. Those stories aren’t privileged in classical music. Ever.”

Thorpe’s interpretation of the poem is presented as a work of “composed theatre”. It’s performed by him, at or near a grand piano, with lighting and projection framing the various scenes. He doesn’t sing – this isn’t cabaret or opera – rather, he delivers the text while playing rehearsed passages or structured improvisation. “It’s not quite music, not quite theatre, not quite comedy, not quite [an] earnest piece of queer performance art … but something that exists in all of those spaces,” Thorpe says. “There’s a stage, there’s a piano, there’s film, there’s haze, there’s an open flame, I get naked.”

Thorpe enlisted theatre-maker Paolo Castro to bring his concept to the stage, and says having an experienced pair of eyes look over the work helped refine his vision. Early in the development, Castro declared, “We need to go in the opposite direction to the text. I know it is set in a porno shop, but it needs to be in a forest,” Thorpe says. He quickly dismissed the idea, but gradually it began making sense. The protagonist is in the wilderness. “He’s living out of his car, he’s homeless, he’s working at the porno shop after going on a month-long meth binge,” Thorpe says. “He’s trying to regain a sense of his body.”

XXX Neon Sign is a musical work accompanied by vocal performance, or the other way around. He loads up the score on his laptop for further explanation. It’s written as a hectic array of octave jumps and shifts in time signature, with Andre’s “lyrics” prescribing tempo and rhythm. It includes directions such as “Cooked As” for the performer to follow.

Composed theatre is unique in that it’s made for musicians who don’t usually act. Thorpe has devised and is performing the work himself, so his personal narrative is intimately entwined with the author’s. Unlike an actor playing a role, he isn’t trying to be someone he’s not. He calls the piece, “a weird hybrid, crossing point of our two stories”. “I can’t escape me when I make this sort of work.”

XXX Neon Sign opens tonight and plays until September 21. Tickets are available online.