from "Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things."
We were activists, our work with the poor and disadvantaged was based on dreams of equality and opportunity. Theatre was a metaphor for inter-dependency and collaboration. Our commitment was to unleashing creativity, believing it to be the essence of all human life and that the potential to heal was embodied in the arts.
We shared salaries, shared facilities and promoted a generalist, anti-celebrity, anti-elitist approach. Our work was influenced by Paolo Freire and August Boal, our aim to give voice to the disenfranchised. I worked with Inter–Action, a pioneering social arts trust, performing on the streets, in pubs and on play sites in deprived neighbourhoods. At the same time, in Inter-Action's West End theatre, the Almost-Free, Ed Berman was initiating the first season of Gay plays, and collaborating with the first Women’s season
Then there is the content. What stories will engage our chosen audience? What will fire the imagination? What will stir an audience to action? Issue based themes? Political satire? Fantasy? Metaphor, stories that echo the culture and experiences of our ancestors?
My own theatre work during that time focused on form rather than content. We became most preoccupied with the process we led the audience through. Our key question was what form does a dramatic intervention take to initially engage, then inspire and shift the thinking of the audience?
Theatre itself is the metaphor for social action and collaborative practice. The work of Boal, or Dorothy Heathcote and of Ross Kyd, theatre for development, the dramatic form was essentially participatory, leading the audience to become an integral part of the action and cause a change in the dramatic narrative. That process, we observed, often led to feelings of empowerment within the audience we had gathered. This might be short lived, but maybe created a window of energy and motivation.
The metaphor of theatre is therefore found within the structure of the piece, but also in the process of making theatre itself, a truly collaborative art form, where there is total inter dependency, the need to appreciate different skills and subsequently build on each other’s creativity.
Defining where was the audience
Where is the audience? There is an arrogance in expecting them to come to you, within an intimidating building. To reach poor people, marginalised, people, those struggling to survive, physically, emotionally, spiritually, we need to find them, we need to walk the streets where they live, find their gathering places, meet them on their own territory but most of all work with them, to create theatre, publish their own stories and experiences in their language in a form they respect and understand within their own experience.
The theatre work we developed at this time focused on creating and supporting community.
Were we working with the community, for the community, or developing theatre by the community?
Our initial involvement would be the use of participatory theatre working with our audience but our intent was mainly to develop programmes that were by the community, slowly withdrawing our own level of input.
Make a Newspaper - Australia 980
The UK was seen as a global leader in community arts when, in 1980, the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council created partnerships with state and local organisations to develop projects, aiming to mobilise local communities.
Three projects were to be nourished and informed by artists, from the UK, who had been working for a sustained period in community contexts.
These interventions were designed to have a ripple effect. The project would be of value in itself, it would be an example of possibilities and each artist would be a national role model for other artists. In addition each artist had a mentoring/ role to play with local practitioners at different levels. Two projects addressed community sculpture ,the third, my intervention, used theatre to create community and connection between disparate residents, many refugees and migrants , marginalised through poverty and lack of education opportunity, unable to speak English and fearful of state intervention and ‘officialdom’.
Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne; a series of high rise apartment blocks around a health/community centre adjacent to a football pitch and neglected children’s play.
Amongst the 5,000 tenants in the flats, over half were refugees from Chile, Poland, Vietnam, Turkey and East Timor, there were several other ethnic groups.
I was invited to try and reach the teenage mums, single parent families, refugees, elderly, all isolated in these flats.
I was an outsider, there for a two month period. I needed a team, trusted by residents, who would provide continuity and identify those who would be interested in participating. A meeting was convened with health staff, community workers and interpreters in the centre. I showed slides of other projects and we generated ideas.
They knew families from different ethnic groups and had gained their trust. The most difficult residents to reach were on their caseloads. They could immediately identify people who would be enthusiastic and get the project going.
Questions I needed to ask them about their workplace, later would be transferred to residents
What do I need to understand about Richmond Flats?
What do you enjoy about visiting your job?
What would residents like to do together? What are their dreams and wishes?
And many more questions.
That meeting we drafted and photocopied a leaflet explaining the project, interpreters immediately translated. There was an explanation on one side and, overleaf, a questionnaire. We were embedding the idea of the community implementing research and inviting the curiosity of residents about each other. The emphasis was on the importance of the stories of local people and their questions and hopes. We were talking about a print project which could take place over six weeks.
I suggested Make a Newspaper and explained the function of theatre, visual impact, gathering and recruiting children and young people, creating a focus of attention which was celebratory. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and so we met a week later to devise our play around making a newspaper. The central, theme was about different refugee stories, curiosity about the journeys and how they got here. We wrote a simple song presenting newspaper themed characters. There was a protagonist and antagonist and the audience would decide who to follow...
The local workers found a core group of residents in each tower block. We would work one per week, producing a total of six newspapers and there would be a grand finale with food and fire at the end.
Processions to advertise the programme and recruit children and young people to interview residents took place up and down the tower block stairwells
We were welcomed by residents with cups of tea. As we processed we encouraged our audience of adults and children to
Find someone to whom they had never spoken and ask them where they come from, what they like best about being in Australia/Richmond, just find their story and bring it back.
That simple game became the first newspaper, written stories, cartoons, illustrations, even grainy photographs. The papers were printed on a spirit duplicator, drawn on coloured carbons. They were produced on stairwells, interviews took place in peoples living rooms.
A Turkish family made meals every day for all of us, whilst they showed mementos from their homeland and sang Turkish folk songs.
Chilean women were knitting and talking, crying and laughing and giving little children home-made cakes.
Polish women worked the Gestetner and controlled the print-run.
Each edition of the newspaper was distributed on Friday through a street parade and reprise of the show we had performed on the first day, a song with verses added each week, more and more people involved, the previous week’s journalists and subjects came out to see, bringing cakes and tea.
The last week ended with a party a barbecue and a bonfire. It was the lap of honour, the reprise of the play with added songs and characters. The audience signed up for continuing the paper and initiating further activities. A teenager brought his band along to play and everyone danced in the firelight until late.
Theatre again was the focus of the last night. It was the bread and the newspaper was the filling, the bread that holds the sandwich together and provides the basic nourishment.
The alchemy of theatre created the magic, singing together, celebrating different languages, dancing linking arms, it was the beginning, the spirit of energy connection.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James