When Urban Theatre Projects’ artistic director Rosie Dennis set out to create Bankstown Live, her goal was to get to know the neighbourhood better where the company works. By offering the opportunity for locals to work with a range of different artists, it was a chance for neighbours to get to know each other a little better and to tell their stories to a wider world. It was a four day event and part of Sydney Festival 2015.
For long established resident David Cranston, Urban Theatre Projects’ Bankstown Live offered the possibility of gently pushing a door open to catch a glimpse of what the future might be. When Rosie met David at his house in Northam Ave, 18 months ago, she found his yard perfect as the stage for the premiere season of The Tribe. Michael Mohammed Ahmad grew up in the area, is director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a doctoral candidate at UWS’ Writing and Society Research Centre. The Tribe is his semi-autobiographical first novel in which he reflects on family and his Arab-Australian Muslim community as seen through the eyes of a child. David welcomed the proposal.
Given the support of theatre director, Janice Muller, actor Hazem Shamas and composer and performer Oonagh Sherrard, Michael Mohammed adapted his novel for the stage. With minimal props and sympathetic background sound by Oonagh (top photo), Hazem evoked Bani the young boy and traced his relationship with his Tayta, the grandmother central to his young life, through his Tayta’s death and some of his extended family’s experience. It was a vivid, insightful and humorous evocation, just like the book, and greeted by the audience with warmth and recognition.
Director of Emu Heights Theatre Company, Ian Zammit, from the Penrith area, describes Michael Mohammed’s book as beautiful. In light of the Martin Place siege in December and the Charlie Ebdo attack in Paris, Ian is especially drawn to Michael Mohammed’s nuanced response about freedom – “Freedom of speech is a freedom worth fighting for, but there are equally important freedoms – the freedom to love. We may be granted the right to offend, but out of respect we can always choose not to exercise that right.
“I call this freedom, “Taking a step toward each other”,” Michael Mohammed says.
There were many instances of this approach in the different presentations comprising Bankstown Live. Artists worked respectfully with each group. There was no sense of voyeurism or judgement as visitors were invited to share the experiences, hopes and dreams of local residents. Left, multi-media artist Joanne Saad captures Wafa Ziam in conversation with residents in Family Portraits. Joanne created an outdoor studio, using a life-size photo of the interior of four different family homes. She ensured the permission of each participant to publish their portraits and each of the four families hosted the event against the backdrop of their own home on successive evenings.
Through headphones, local writers shared intimate stories, read by another performer, of their responses to the death of a loved one. The Last Word was created with Rosie Dennis. The Bankstown Dancing Project was another with a generous spirit presented in two parts and developed by Emma Saunders. Emma was delighted to work with local couple Albert and Nancy Oh, whose suggestion of the Rumba 1 set the tone for an exuberant street celebration. Albert, above, puts his heart into the feeling of spring.
Left, the second dance was described by Emma as a kind of hokey pokey for the 21st century. The audience was left in no doubt about the dancers’ enjoyment. This dance was performed in front of the Bankstown Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, which had been lifted, see below, by a willing group of supporters and transported to the other end of the performance area in Northam Ave. This followed the launch of Bankstown Live by Aboriginal elder, Uncle Steve Williams’ traditional smoking ceremony and acknowledgement to country, lower left.
The Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House was the work of Filipino visual artist Alwin Reamillo and part of an ongoing collaboration with Urban Theatre Projects. The spirit house was reminiscent of the light structured houses of his homeland and the impact of Typhoon Haiyan last year. Bayanihan is the spirit of community action, which can be triggered by devastating events and lead to powerful links in volunteer assistance. Among the many meanings of moving the spirit house described by Alwin were the transience of housing in such climatic conditions, continuing change in the streets of Bankstown, the spirit of cooperation engendered by the need of mutual support and the movement of the house in a “creative spirit of community, diversity and togetherness”.
The spirit house became the backdrop to another new initiative by Urban Theatre Projects – their film debut. Bre & Back follows four Aboriginal women, Grace and Jenny Shillingworth, and Noeleen and Lily Shearer as they head to Brewarrina to visit family and reminisce about their lives. It’s a gentle, meandering film, full of glimpses into the lives of families profoundly affected by the removal of children decades ago, but coming together to reflect and share stories and culture in an atmosphere of humour, acceptance and quiet optimism.
A lullaby project, original songs and a short animated film were further enrichments of Bankstown Live and really required a second visit to fully appreciate the event.
Taking a step toward each other by different means is The Diet Starts on Monday published late last year in Bankstown. Author Tamar Chnorhokian is another founding member of Sweatshop and an arts and communications graduate from UWS. Drawing on her lifetime in western Sydney and her Armenian background, Tamar says The Diet Starts On
Monday tackles themes of obesity, cultural expectations and body image. “My novel is about the pressure teens today feel to emulate the perfect body image created by the mass
media.” It’s a story told with a light, but poignant touch and plenty of humour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it.