Breaking new ground in telling our own stories through theatre and writing

More and more people are telling the stories of western Sydney and regional New South Wales. Felicity Castagna won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2014 for her debut novel The Incredible Here and Now. With a spare writing style she evokes a picture of the inner life and thoughts of Michael a teenage boy in Parramatta, who undergoes the sudden loss of his older brother and its impact on his family and his own growing up. It’s a gentle story of a quest for understanding and finding his place in the world and is filled with intimate glimpses of his home and family and the places where he hangs out with friends.

Yes, there is drama, but the story is more about Michael’s responses to it rather than the events themselves. The Incredible Here and Now has a quiet, meditative quality about it so it will be very interesting to see how it makes the transition to the stage. The National Theatre of Parramatta commissioned Felicity to create a play of the same name from her novel, which opens at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, on July 13 and runs to Saturday, July 22. For Felicity, it has been a great learning curve as she works with directors Jeneffa Soldatic, right, and Wayne Harrison. Jeneffa herself grew up in Sydney’s south west, at Ingleburn, and feels that Michael’s teenage experience has many similarities to her own. To make her way in theatre, she had to leave Sydney for New York, where she graduated from the Actors Studio in 2004 and became one of only a few Australians to be accepted as a life member.

Felicity says, “I’ve been attending shows at Riverside Theatres for more than 15 years. To see my own work on stage there, in my own community is such a privilege. The support and guidance provided to me by National Theatre of Parramatta, has been incredibly important in developing my own career as a writer and as a voice in the community that I love so much.”

“Fundamentally,” she says, “it’s a play about language and silence. Our personal grief is such a fundamentally hard thing to articulate whether you’re a teenage boy or a mother. That grief therefore, needed to be expressed in the visual language of the play; a box, a stack of pancakes, an older brother who is not there anymore but continually returns to stage like a memory that is always in the back of one’s mind.”

Performing the lead role of Michael is Bardiya McKinnon, above, (TV’s As the Bell Rings and In Your Dreams) and as Dom, Alex Cubis (TV’s Mako Mermaids and Rake). In addition, The Incredible Here stars Caroline Brazier, Libby Asiack, Olivia Simone, Ryan Peters and Sal Sharah. Information and bookings.

Two young women are taking the concept of storytelling across the regions of NSW to new heights. Natalie Wadwell, left, of south western Sydney and Lucinda Davison of the NSW south coast have been developing a comprehensive website State of the Arts – SOTAau – for the last two years. They “support the next generation of Australia’s storytellers”. It’s a big vision and requires a lot of work and financial investment. This year, Natalie was a recipient of a Layne Beachley Foundation ‘Aim for the Stars Scholarship.’ This money was put towards SOTAau to gain legal support and redevelop their platform. SOTA is also among the first initiatives to be supported by Arts Initiatives Australia – an organisation aimed at making Australian arts more sustainable.

You can now explore the prototype of SOTA’s new platform. Over the next six months they will be shortlisting and targeting five areas, the independent artists within and the organisations servicing them. This will help them learn where the platform can improve and how they can scale it to effectively service the vast geography that is greater western Sydney, regional NSW and the ACT.

They provide publishing opportunities for writers based in suburban and regional areas and access to a growing network of mentors and other creatives to help build sustainable career pathways. SOTA is a social enterprise: a business that generates profit for a social purpose. They say, “Local writers are best positioned to share experiences of art and culture.” Watch this space!


The fight for federal arts funding intensifies, even as new programs emerge

Art Changes Lives - June 2016



A National Day of Action begins today with demonstrations by artists and the arts community against drastic funding cuts. On May 13 this year, 50% of small
to medium arts companies did not receive funding as a result of the government’s
cuts to the Australia Council. These cuts will result in job losses and will have flow on effects across cultural industries, educational institutions and the commercial sector. The arts employ more people than agriculture, construction or mining and the creative industries generate $50 billion for the Australian economy. Independent artists and organisations are the backbone of arts in Australia, generating new ideas and new talent.
Artists are the innovators of our nation.

Rosie Dennis, artistic director of Urban Theatre Projects, based in Bankstown says, “Join us at 12.30pm outside Bankstown train station to show your support. Follow #Istandforthearts and join in, wherever you are. Now more than ever is the time to hold onto our democratic right and freedom to speak out and protest, and let our leaders know that we want to see and hear great stories, told by talented artists, that are connected to the country, the city, the suburb, that we call home.”

UTP - One Day for Peace - 2The National Day of Action launches a two week campaign highlighting the importance of the arts in the lead-up to the federal election on July 2. The Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Association for the Visual Arts will be asking visitors today to tell politicians about why the arts are important in their own lives. Theatre companies are taking similar actions with their audiences. Rosie Dennis says, “Increasingly the arts are disappearing from our daily lives and are almost always under-valued as a career path. Yet it’s one of the most valuable industries we have in terms of reminding us of our humanity.” Above, is an image from UTP’s 2015 film One Day for Peace, which featured members of many different faiths in western Sydney and was shown to a range of audiences across the region in September. One Day For Peace will feature on ABC’s Compass program in August this year.

Family Portraits - Joanne SaadFederal funding has been vital to the success of UTP programs, which work closely with communities in western Sydney and regions across NSW to highlight the experiences of many different cultural groups and offer them the opportunity for deeper understanding and sharing common ground. Left, is an image from Bankstown Live, UTP’s four day event in last year’s Sydney Festival.

Organisers urge –

→ Get on social media and post about your support with #istandwiththearts
and #ausvotesarts
→ Write a letter of support for the arts to your local member (or email)
→ Write to the Arts Minister Hon. Mitch Fifield
→ Vote for the candidates with the best arts policies on July 2

Rosie Dennis says, “I urge you to have a conversation with your neighbours, your local school, the people you work with, your friends, your family about the value and importance of the arts – theatre, film, dance, literature, visual arts. And not the Hollywood blockbusters, or the big names that play at the top end of town, but the little guys, like us, here at UTP, who reach out to a broad range of people and see the impact that our work has on people’s daily lives.”

Blacktown Arts Centre 1In the meantime, state government funding through Arts NSW has allowed the development and launch of a new program for young Aboriginal people Solid Ground 2016. A new partnership between Carriageworks in inner city Redfern and Blacktown Arts Centre, right, Solid Ground 2016 is a new three-year strategy that will provide pathways for young Indigenous people in NSW into the arts and cultural industries. Solid Ground will create designed tertiary education and on the job training programs for 90 young Indigenous people from across Redfern, Waterloo and Blacktown. It has been a long time in preparation and aims to give young indigenous people meaningful connection with school and rewarding pathways for their own futures.

Sydney Sacred Music Fest 16 - headlineState funding is also assisting the 2016 Sydney Sacred Music Festival, now in its sixth year, scheduled for September 2 to 18 throughout Sydney. Their first major fundraising event presents a great line-up of Sydney’s best world music performers at Camelot Lounge, Marrickville, July 3, 6.30pm for 7.30pm show. Festival founder and director Richard Petkovic, of western Sydney, promises a night of “the authentic, the fusion and the future in world music!”  Tickets and information – click here.

In the meantime, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre has opened bookings for its Way Out West Festival for Children program. An annual event funded by Liverpool City Council, the children’s festival is Sydney’s only free contemporary arts festival for children and will run from July 13 to 16. It’s an extensive and varied program promising lots of fun and which has also been assisted by state funding. Although free, bookings are essential.

Sydney’s west moves against absurd heritage and arts funding discrimination

Hyde Park BarracksIt would be an absurdist comedy if the consequences weren’t so serious. Suzette Meade, president of North Parramatta Residents Action Group dubs it a tale of two cities. She also thinks she might become a script writer for ABC TV’s satirical comedy Utopia. It offers such a parallel to local experience of nonsensical political and bureaucratic behaviour.

Last Tuesday, August 25, the state government announced a revitalisation of Sydney’s oldest and most important historic precinct in Macquarie St, including Hyde Park Barracks, above. The convict architect Francis Greenway designed the barracks and some of the buildings in both the Sydney and Parramatta precincts. No mention was made of selling off parts of nearby Hyde Park or The Domain to finance the Sydney changes. This is despite the government’s chosen method to finance conservation of buildings from the same era in North Parramatta, by selling off vast tracts of land around them to allow massive new development.

1-NPRAG - Jack MundeyLast Thursday, August 27, Suzette hosted a media conference on the site of the early colonial Parramatta Female Factory Precinct. Among those represented were NPRAG, the National Trust, Friends of the Parramatta Female Factory, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project, the CFMEU, political parties and various heritage groups.Since early February, when the resident action group was formed, members have been working to persuade the state government to “Press Pause” on its proposal to turn the World Heritage class site into an infill dormitory suburb of 4000 residential apartments in blocks up to 30 storeys high. The group has networked and built a comprehensive community coalition.

Suzette said, “Make no mistake. Despite UrbanGrowth NSW and the state government’s rhetoric, the current proposal is not heritage driven. It is a fast-tracked, poorly and unimaginatively conceived cash grab of public assets to fulfil government housing quotas that are being and can be satisfied in more appropriate locations. Parramatta is the cradle of our modern nation. Since 1788, this extensive and unrivalled site with its more than 70  historic intact buildings, has been witness to exceptional personal stories and social changes that have shaped and informed who we are today.

1-NPRAG - Jack Mundey“Green bans saved the historic Sydney we all love and which international visitors flock to. The Rocks, Victoria Street, Centennial Park, Woolloomooloo, the QVB building for instance would not be here today if it were not for our great national icon and environmental activist, Jack Mundey, protecting these unique places from inappropriate development.”

During the 1970s, Jack, right, was secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation, which introduced “Green Bans” in response to community advocacy when residents were desperately trying to protect their homes and cherished sites from gross redevelopment. Though often against their own need to earn a wage, a “Green Ban” meant that BLF members refused to take any action to demolish or build on a threatened site. Long since retired, Jack was present at the conference with the state secretary, Brian Parker of the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which now represents the builders. Brian can be seen to the right of Jack and Suzette to the left, behind Jack.

“How disgraceful it would be that this part of Australia’s history would be destroyed,” Jack said. “The Green Bans in the 70s and 80s stopped so much of Sydney being destroyed. The Green Bans will be reborn in this part of Parramatta and we will win this fight as well.” PFFP - Roman Catholic OrphanageAn earlier Green Ban that the union put on the Female Factory site has now been extended to include the entire precinct, including the 1840s Roman Catholic Orphanage, left, and the children’s hospital Bethel.

Brian Parker reiterated Jack’s concern that communities need green spaces and the chance for future generations to to be educated in their own history. He spoke of the huge scale of coming development, which will have an enormous impact on Parramatta in the next decade and of the vital need to balance this with open space. He said workers would stop the North Parramatta development from going ahead by putting their “bodies on the line”. “The CFMEU is going to show our muscle if they try and bring one bulldozer in here to tear this place apart,” he said. “But we won’t win without the support of all local residents.”

In the meantime, arts and cultural representatives from across western Sydney have been meeting for the last 18 months to instigate collective thinking across the arts in the region. The primary aims of the Western Sydney Arts and Cultural Lobby are to secure equity in arts funding for the half of Sydney’s population living in western Sydney, a place at the table where decisions are made and to communicate the success of arts activity across the region. In a paper just published by the lobby, members say that the funding paradigm needs to change.

“The dynamic art scene of western Sydney has evolved enormously over the past 40 years yet it has been woefully underfunded – A point made clear in an independent report from Deloitte, which found that despite its burgeoning population and booming economy, the region’s art scene has flourished and thrived into a rich and dynamic force but remains well short of its potential as a result of being grossly underfunded.”

1-OKS - April 2011The lobby is pressing for the establishment of an infrastructure development fund – $200 million of the $600 million already allocated to arts infrastructure by the state government. After losing a 10 year battle for the Old King’s School in Parramatta, left, among its allocations would be the development of a new cultural precinct to house arts and cultural companies that require permanent accommodation. “The government must deliver on the commitments made in its State Infrastructure Plan to build facilities in western Sydney.” Members want funding doubled to a Western Sydney Cultural Fund over the next four years for artists, programs and cultural organisations, and specific investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts development. They are currently making submissions to government and opposition parliamentarians.

In North Parramatta, Suzette Meade announced a symposium to be held at Parramatta Leagues Club, on Tuesday, October 13. “To lead the paradigm shift for a better vision, NPRAG will be hosting an event the public didn’t get through UrbanGrowth NSW: the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct Symposium. Speakers from academia, tourism, the arts and successful heritage organisations and towns such as Abbotsford Convent, Port Arthur, and Ballarat, will be invited to share their experiences and brainstorm alternative master plans and funding options for this iconic site.” More detail will be announced later.

PYT supports young people’s lead in finding the sacred in their shared humanity

PYT - Jump First - 1One dictionary definition of Sacred is “worthy of or regarded with reverence, awe, or respect.” I guess it was that definition that caused me to link UTP’s film One Day of Peace, and Sydney Sacred Music Festival to Powerhouse Youth Theatre’s latest show in my last blog post. I had booked to see Jump First, Ask Later twice last Saturday and I wasn’t disappointed. There is usually so much depth of thought, range of skills and speed of delivery in PYT productions that I need time to absorb it all – well as best I can, anyway.

Jump First, Ask Later was created by six young people from Fairfield who came together through their shared love of movement. Several were members of the parkour group Team 9 Lives, but by the time this project began last year, they had separated to become DMC (Dauntless Movement Crew), with a focus on art and movement. Powerhouse Youth Theatre and Force Majeure co-produced their show, which was directed and choreographed by Byron Perry, supported by AV designer Sean Bacon and sound designer Luke Smiles. Reviews have been full of praise.

PYT - Jump First - 3The show began with demonstrations of typical training, building strength, precision, timing, tight discipline and concentration – five young men – Joseph Carbone, Johny Do, Patrick Uy, Justin Kilic, Jimmy James Pham – and one girl, Natalie Siri, right. The delivery was frequently tongue-in-cheek. Members teased each other, but even as they seemed to compete, they were there to help each other and improve their skills. Safety consciousness was paramount. Gradually, they began to tell their stories, how they came to be involved, seeing challenges in physical elements just while they were walking in the streets. It’s not showing off. If you are worrying about what others think of you, you are not focused, one said.

As Joseph said, movement has become a way of life for all of them. They feel so good when they challenge themselves, exploring and experimenting and then passing on their skills to other young people. They love Fairfield, know its streets intimately and feel entirely at home there. They were making their way financially through teaching classes, commissioned performances, video and film recordings and bigger visions for the future. When you push yourself, it blocks out everything else. Movement is liberating, they say. They told stories of parents worried that they were just wasting opportunities to continue at university or to find a proper job, but expressed gratitude for their support and encouragement. Perhaps most poignant of all was Justin’s honesty in explaining how training helps him manage anger provoked by fractured family relationships. His “fight duet” with Joseph was a clever and very funny send up of stereotypes.

PYT - Jump First - 4The crew’s commitment to each other and to the other young people of their  neighbourhood is inspiring. Patrick and Johnny each came to DMC through their love of street dance. Patrick’s Cambodian background and Johnny’s from Vietnam can sometimes mean tension and distrust. Instead, they delivered wryly humorous performances that included a relaxed and highly entertaining exchange of quick hand and arm movements that brought shouts of approval from their audience.

Until they worked together on this show, crew members had never known each other’s stories, they say. That closer knowledge has welded them together as a totally interconnected team based on trust and coordination. For some like Joseph, who began 10 years ago, street movement was an underground activity distrusted by police. As they gained confidence and acceptance, they began engaging and training other young people. This week, lots of school groups have booked to see the performances and be inspired about their own potential. Classes are now expanding to Bankstown and Campbelltown and will shortly begin in Parramatta. Next year, DMC performs Jump First, Ask Later at Sydney Opera House, from where their show will be streamed live to regional schools.

1-Guido GonzalesBetween performances, I was lucky to run into film director Guido Gonzales, right, and some of his young team. They made the film Riz, which debuted to a capacity audience at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. They were all locals and enthusiastic about Jump First, Ask Later. Guido said, “It’s vitally important that we tell our own stories.” He has noticed a big change since making Riz and beginning work on their next production. Relaxation with a few drinks after work sessions has been common practice. Now some avoid alcohol. Respect for self, each other and the young people they reach is the underlying spirit – liberation and unlimited possibilities. This suggests finding the sacred in our everyday lives.

It’s a sharp contrast to the picture of life in suburban Sydney fostered by lazy media reporting and too many state cultural institutions. In her PhD thesis just published online by UTS, Penny Stannard begins her introduction: In 2011 Hollywood star and Sydney resident Cate Blanchett and her Sydney Theatre Company co-artistic director husband Andrew Upton recounted their suburban youth in the 1980s for the purpose of securing further state and local government investment in Sydney’s harbourside cultural precinct. For them, Sydney suburbs were ‘flat, dry (and) filled with sinister silence’, while ‘town (the city) was the centre’, a ‘magnetic attractor’, a chance to invent and create. Blanchett and Upton insisted passionately that it is ‘vital for the children of the suburbs that capital cities act like capital cities’ and develop metropolitan inner city precincts filled with artists and cultural organisations. But they also stressed that the key to success of such precincts lay in them being located where people live. Blanchett and Upton were unaware of the paradoxical nature of their statement. The majority of Sydneysiders, and indeed Australians, live in the suburbs.

It was ePYT - Jump First - 2nough to win state government budget support, which has again left western Sydney scraping for crumbs. As Guido says, “If we can make a film like Riz in nine days with only $85,000 and have it selected for Sydney Film Festival, imagine what we could do with decent funding!” Jump First, Ask Later plays till Saturday and tickets are selling fast. Click here to buy tickets.

Multi-faith film projects “One Day for Peace” across multiple sites

UTP - One Day for Peace - 3It was an act of faith that launched Urban Theatre Projects‘ crowd funding campaign for their second documentary film One Day for Peace. They had already won a Western Sydney Arts Initiative grant funded by the Crown Resorts Foundation and Packer Family Foundation, but they needed a further $15,000. They began 22 days of filming, just as they launched their Pozible campaign. As filming finished on July 21, 76 supporters helped them reach their target. It was a great achievement and one warmly acknowledged by Rosie Dennis, UTP’s artistic director and the film’s director.

Just as this blog has grown out of our daily experience of western Sydney as a frontier society where were “working out the multicultural project day by day”, Rosie says, “One Day For Peace takes us on a journey across the suburbs of western Sydney to ask: what do you believe? We see everyday ritual combine with reflections on humanity, impermanence and social justice. An epic undertaking, One Day For Peace wrestles with some big (and not so big) questions inside homes, prayer houses and from the back seat of a taxi.

UTP - One Day for Peace - 1 “During the making of One Day For Peace, Urban Theatre Projects collaborated with dozens of people of different faiths, beliefs and cultural backgrounds. The film aims to provide viewers with a deeper understanding about the role of faith as something greater than the individual, and look to the importance of belief in people’s daily lives. The work was also designed to be a compelling counterpoint to the perceived differences between cultures and religions, which are often inflated by the media.”

Exploration of difference, whether it be cultural, religious, art form or experience has long been a theme of arts projects and programs in western Sydney. It allows the opening up of dialogue between groups, the acceptance and understanding of difference and the discovery of commonalities. Just like One Day for Peace, it leads to opportunities for creative collaborations and a sharing of vision and inspiration. This is very much the theme of Sydney Sacred Music Festival, opening September 5, and I’m guessing, PYT’s Jump First, Ask Later, launched today at Fairfield. I’m looking forward to seeing it on Saturday.

UTP - One Day for Peace - 2One Day for Peace will be screened over two weeks in high pedestrian traffic locations across Western Sydney from 14–27 September, with the video work to be projected onto buildings, screens and in train stations in Auburn, Bankstown, Blacktown, Canley Heights, Liverpool, Mt Druitt and Parramatta. Click here for location details and times.

Western Sydney arts advocacy packs a growing political and economic punch

SMH funding imbalance

Ian Milliss‘s Facebook posts this morning say it all. He is responding to the figures above as published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 26, 2015, and an item today Western Sydney Arts Funding an ‘insult’– a quote from Andrew Taylor’s CAC future plansinterview with Christopher Brown, chairman of the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue. Christopher was speaking in support of Campbelltown Arts Centre’s $30 million proposal for redevelopment – see artist’s impression, right.

“There is a revolt brewing for sure, this is not just rhetoric,” says Ian. “I’ve been at meetings with local councils and politicians where growing anger is palpable. Some areas like the Blue Mountains which now has one of the largest concentrations of artists in Ian MllissNSW receive close to zero funding. Basically the AGNSW Bloat has to be cancelled and the money put into something between Parramatta and Penrith, an enormous area in itself. Remember, it is the people living out west who are paying for this but can’t get to it. I recommend Billy Gruner’s idea of buying up the Marcel Breuer factory at Penrith and all surrounding buildings and using it as a centrepiece for a complex called AGNSW West.”

Ian, left, says “The Deloitte’s report that spells out the extraordinary disparity in arts funding is shocking. Basically a majority of the Sydney population is funding a concentration of arts facilities in the city centre for tourists and the eastern suburbs’ wealthy. This is not a sustainable situation and the AGNSW Bloat project plus the cancellation of the Parramatta Kings School arts precinct are really bringing it to a head. This is not a storm in a teacup and it is not going away, it is barely beginning.”

More than 2000 submissions have been made to the Senate enquiry into arts funding, including many of high calibre from western Sydney – see Carl Sciberras, July 14. The enquiry was called by the Senate as a result of the dramatic changes to funding in the last federal budget, which took $27 million a year for four years from the Australia Council budget for allocation by the Ministry for the Arts to a National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). The impact in western Sydney will be disproportionately severe.

1-IMG_4031An example of successful arts advocacy at work is the now annual Funpark celebrations at Bidwill, near Mt Druitt. Held for the second time only last weekend, the achievements of the first Funpark, held as part of Sydney Festival 2014, were clear for everyone to see, right. The whole carpark had been resurfaced, the kebab shop was upgraded and a new FoodWorks supermarket had been operating for six months. This was the result after Funpark 2014, highlighted the lack of adequate shopping facilities for locals, poor public transport to access other shops, and limited recreational outlets for young people. Blacktown Council has been a great supporter of these initiatives and plans a new basketball court for Bidwill.

But the improvements are fragile. FoodWorks has been very cooperative, but to survive economically, it needs other businesses to join them to attract sufficient custom. It has trained about 20 local people to work there, but can currently employ only two. Therese Wilson, the local resident who willingly opened her home in Cuppa Tea with Therese, as part of Funpark, see below, offered insights and answered questions about life in Bidwill. She spoke of many people in public housing surviving on little more than $500 per fortnight, from which the Department of Housing takes 25% in rent.

1-1-IMG_4030-001“The half hour walk to other shops is alright, but the $20 taxi fare back home with a load of groceries is out of the question,” she said. “Careful budgeting is very important. You have to save for weeks if you need a new pair of shoes.” Therese, who is a deeply committed community volunteer, describes doing her own survey among local teenagers and finding many of them want theatre, music and dance opportunities. When offered an opportunity for young people to participate in an inner Sydney theatre company, she pointed out that they could afford neither the time nor the fares to get there. An offer from an outreach director of another company might prove more fruitful. Stay tuned.