It’s clear that having a classical education in theatre and the arts is not a prerequisite for inspired interpretation in theatre production. In fact the lack of it gave Kaz Therese and Damien Ryan the freedom to develop their own approaches.
Both contemporary theatre directors were students at Bidwill Public School when a TV channel helicopter landed on the roof in 1983 and fomented the media beat-up, which became the “Bidwill Riots”. Bidwill is a suburb of Mt Druitt, an area largely developed for public housing in the 1970s and 80s, and a continuing exemplar of poor infrastructure planning by governments and social disadvantage.
Kaz Therese remembers as a nine year old hearing her street described on 60 Minutes that night as the worst in Sydney. It contributed to her resolution to refute the stereotype and ultimately to develop an international career as a creative producer and artist. Her work is grounded in performance, political activism and community building. She is currently director of Powerhouse Youth Theatre, at Fairfield, and earlier this year directed Fun Park as part of Sydney Festival (see Bidwill Hoopsters above). She plans an extension of the Fun Park experience and has won many academic and arts accolades
Fellow Bidwill student Damien Ryan also has vivid memories of the helicopter on the school roof. The subsequent media hysteria and dismissive stereotyping of locals certainly didn’t deter him from absorbing a passion for Shakespeare’s plays through his mother’s love of the Bard’s work. He developed a professional career in school teaching and theatre. In 2009, he launched the independent theatre company Sport for Jove with the first of a series of annual outdoor productions of Shakespearean and other classic plays in The Hills district and Blue Mountains. In January this year, Sport for Jove won several accolades at the Sydney Theatre Awards for its summer production of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Of Shakespeare’s plays, Damien says, “Probably the thing that appeals to me most . . . is that they are so overflowing with life and passion and imagination and incredible poetry, while also being among the most psychologically detailed observations ever made of what it is to be a human being. Young people can learn so much about life and loyalty and love and family and pressure and violence and forgiveness from ‘experiencing’ these plays, not just reading but jostling with them as performers or audience members.”
In 2012, Damien established a NSW school education program in partnership with the Seymour Centre, beginning with a production of Hamlet (see photo above). His philosophy in introducing Shakespeare to students is, “Just plunge into the world of it, make them recognise themselves in it – which it is impossible not to – and they will work out for themselves that some of this stuff is incomparably good. It is far more effective and fulfilling for a student to feel they have discovered something for themselves than to let them share in your ‘ownership’ of it.”
Sport for Jove has increasingly embraced other theatre classics, remaining as faithful as possible to original texts, but offering stimulating interpretations and fresh insights. The latest education program at the Seymour Centre was Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, directed by Adam Cook.
You could hear a pin drop, so absorbed was the audience in A Doll’s House, last month. Henrik Ibsen’s play was first performed in Denmark in 1879 and has lost none of its power to move and provoke an audience. Although the stifling mores of middle class society and the powerlessness of women within that context has eased, the play still resonates strongly with a contemporary audience.
Outstanding in the controversial role of Norma Helmer was Matilda Ridgway (see photo above with Douglas Hansell as husband Torvald). Her gradual transition from devoted wife and mother to a figure of distraught disillusion and conviction that she was harming her children was entirely credible and deeply moving. In the Q & A following the performance, students questioned the role of women and men in society then and now. To a question about separation of the actor from her role, Matilda responded that acting required the sensitivity of a butterfly and the hide of a rhinoceros.
Damien Ryan himself can be seen in the production of Nora, Upstairs, Belvoir St Theatre, from August 9 to September 14. Nora is a new work by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks written in response to Ibsen’s original. Damien plays the role of Nora’s husband.