Self help and mutual support are key components of region’s theatre development

1-Team Australia - PYT A wealth of activity in theatre making continues around the region. Two recent youth theatre productions have demonstrated the diversity of theatre making and the people involved in its creation in western Sydney. After 18 months of weekly workshops developing their self-devised show, Powerhouse Youth Theatre presented Team Australia: Stories from Fairfield, left, last month. After warnings that it was intimate, irreverent and deeply political, it seemed surprising that it wasn’t a more blatant political satire, given that “Team Australia” was a favourite slogan of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Maybe that was a benefit. That Prime Minister had only just lost power and the issues of concern to the young people involved were undoubtedly political in other ways – education, immigration, and the rights and opportunities for young women, among them. As with the problem of a simplistic slogan, Team Australia proved an unruly bunch, who never quite corresponded to the expectations of their trainers. An absorbing experience.

Outsiders - Johnny - Ivan HuiThen Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) Youth Theatre, presented their western Sydney adaptation of the 1967 American novel by S E Hinton The Outsiders. It was an ambitious undertaking involving a cast and production team of 60 and engaging local talent and others from metropolitan Sydney, all between the ages of 15 and 25. The Outsiders was the Youth Theatre’s contribution to CPAC’s 21st birthday celebrations and a substantial achievement. Some of the core performers already have fine acting credentials and there were some excellent performances. Perhaps the role that sticks most in my memory is that of Johnny, played by Ivan Hui, above. Ivan provided a convincing portrait of a vulnerable teenager who had been severely bullied, but whose loyalty and commitment to Ponyboy carries them both through dark times.

Outsiders - Ponyboy - Sam NasserPonyboy himself, played by Sam Nasser from Sir Joseph Banks High School, was very credible as a 14 year old with an unusual interest in literature and a flair for keen observation and writing. It’s unfair to single out performers, but among the girls, Ariel Kozelj impressed with her independence and steady demeanor as Cherry, an “insider” who had witnessed the conflict at the centre of the drama.

CPAC Youth Theatre also fosters a close relationship with a specialist school for local students. Campbell House School is a school for specific purposes at Glenfield, which is preparing for their first creative arts festival. CPAC Youth Theatre arranged a fundraising screening of the classic film The Outsiders, with the support of Westfield and Event Cinemas, Liverpool, with proceeds to the school to develop the festival.

Emu Heights TC moves out 1015In the Penrith area Nepean Creative and Performing Arts High School at Emu Plains has been the beneficiary of another local theatre company. Emu Heights Theatre Company is steadily dismantling after five years of a successful program of public productions and workshops tailored for schools. Director Ian Zammit posted photos, left, to EHTC’s Facebook page of the bump-out and farewell to sets and props from Penrith Lock-Up Storage, on Saturday, October 31. He says, “Thankfully we were able to send all our set-pieces and materials to people who will get the most out of it. We are delighted that the legacy of Emu Heights Theatre will continue with bright young creatives in the region: we wish the students and teachers at Nepean many years of usage out of them!”

1-Theatre Links #11Ian is also the founder and administrator of Theatre Links in the West. It is open to professionally-minded theatre arts practitioners and supporters of all levels of experience, based in or working from Western Sydney. From the November meeting, he reported, “Electric discussion on the topic of leadership, with several local & freelance performing artists attending, as well as representation for Nepean Creative and Performing Arts High School, Ruby Productions and the Acting Factory.”

Among the topics raised were:

• the need in wider western Sydney culture for our own theatre artists and stories, reflecting the most vibrant cultures from around the world, to be recognised as a vital force for social cohesion and change
• a need for a local theatre hub / venue for networking that also provides access and support for local theatre-makers and companies
• tertiary education for theatre professionals in western Sydney, given growing performing arts school student populations
• more robust and connected career path advice and leadership for theatre arts in primary and secondary schools

Q Lab 15 - Kay Armstrong - If We Are MadThe page also carries notice of Q Lab ’16, for which submissions close, November 20. During the first half of 2016 Q Theatre at Penrith will support four independent artists or groups of artists in the development of a new project. Right is Kay Armstrong, If We Are Mad, Q Lab ’15.

Finally, anyone interested in theatre making is invited to attend Theatre Links in the West’s final gathering for the year. It will be a relaxed and informal dinner at Michidora Korean BBQ Restaurant, Penrith, on Tuesday 1 December at 6.30-9 pm. Detail and bookings, click here.


Deloitte report debunks myths and urges arts investment in western Sydney economy

1-WESTIR map 2011A decision by the state government to relocate the Powerhouse Museum from the Sydney CBD to Parramatta is provoking controversy. There are those who say that Australia’s only Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences should remain on its present Darling Harbour site, where it is easily accessible. One commentator, who was involved in the establishment of the museum at Darling Harbour, describes Parramatta as being on the periphery of Sydney. In fact Parramatta is now recognised as the geographic and demographic centre of Sydney. People in the east still fail to understand the size and characteristics of Sydney’s western region. At its most expansive, the region encompasses 14 local government areas and almost 9,000 square kilometres. Outlined in black in the map above are the 14 local government areas, with the shaded area to the east (right), the rest of Sydney. It is reproduced with permission of WESTIR in my book, Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney.

Specious comments from Sydneysiders resisting the move include that people from western Sydney prefer coming to the CBD for the total experience of an outing. Others claim that people from the west are not interested anyway as attendance figures attest, they don’t want to pay and they have other priorities. A report released shortly before the state election debunks these myths. You only have to look at the map to realise that distance, and therefore travel cost, are the major issues preventing access to Sydney CBD from the west. The DeloittThe Joan PAC - Penrithe report was jointly commissioned by the Sydney Business Chamber – Western Sydney and the regional river cities of Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool, with statistical input from other councils, including Blacktown and Campbelltown. Right, Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre (The Joan), Penrith – photo, Penrith Council.

Instead of arguing for social equity in funding, the Deloitte report Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Arts Economy – a key to Sydney’s success argues that greater investment in cultural arts in western Sydney creates opportunities for the government to deliver jobs, investment and social outcomes for the region. The executive summary highlights the grossly inequitable funding to cultural arts in western Sydney, which was first highlighted in 1985 in a report by Fairfield Council. The Deloitte report states, “Today western Sydney represents 1 in 10 Australians yet attracts only 1% of Commonwealth arts program funding, and 5.5% of the state’s cultural arts, heritage and events funding” – despite having 30% of NSW’s population. It defines the first factor driving demand for cultural arts in western Sydney as the region’s population.

Casula Powerhouse - L'pool Council“In 2011 western Sydney’s population was 2.03 million, compared to 2.3 million for eastern Sydney. By 2031 western Sydney’s population will reach 2.9 million, overtaking eastern Sydney’s.”  The report discusses culture exclusively in terms of venues and events, but says “the arts however play a unique and central role in cultures development and expression.” Other factors are the gradual transformation of the population to white collar occupations, tertiary educated and a surplus of high value, creative and cultural workers. It states that the cultural and creative economy is a significant contributor to Australia’s economy – contributing a similar gross value as health care and social assistance. Above left, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre – photo Liverpool Council.

The report argues that additional government investment in western Sydney cultural arts venues and events would provide far greater return on investment than other options. Current urban renewal programs in its identified regional cities provide an opportunity for governments to leverage other economic advantages. It cites international examples of such leverage in successful cultural arts precincts in Newark, New Jersey, Brooklyn in New York and Shanghai in China. It notes that NSW’s overall attendance at cultural venues and events is the lowest in Australia and suggests that cultural arts development in western Sydney is already driving attendance growth in NSW.

Riverside Theatres - ParramattaRecommendations in the report include a commitment of $300 million infrastructure funding over five years to 2020, doubled program funding, relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to western Sydney, the development of a western Sydney cultural arts advisory group, greater coordination between western Sydney councils and “That the state government develops a long term western Sydney cultural arts infrastructure and industry development strategy.” Above, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta – photo Arts NSW.

Among other recommendations are that the Australian Film, Television School and Radio School, along with the National Art School be relocated to the region and that the University of Western Sydney develops new programs to deliver vital tertiary training. Since the closure of UWS Theatre Nepean in 2006, the tertiary education pathways for the cultural and creative arts have been severely constrained.

Right now, there is an example of a talented and well organised group in the Penrith area  facing closure as a result of inadequate funding and resources. Emu Heights Theatre Company is a professional theatre company that has operated successfully for five years. Co-founded by Michele and Ian Zammit, the company’s first production was The Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto, the story of two women who were prisoners of war of the Japanese, who meet again 50 years later. It is the production which is now ending the present incarnation of the company and is timely for the 100 year commemoration of the ANZAC landing and the outbreak of the World War I. It is also a fine production, gently nuanced, humorous and deeply moving.

JSPAC 25 years 2In the five years, EHTC has presented seven productions at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, and three sets of Shakespeare seminars taken to schools around western Sydney. It has worked with scores of talented professional artists and engaged the interest of more than 5000 students and their teachers. Public audiences have been growing. The company believes “that theatre is a means for connection and force for change, and Penrith deserves its own theatre company to share these stories with its community. There is also a sense of frustration: we want to continue! We have learned after five years the ins and outs of what it takes to run an independent theatre company, and we now understand we do not have the funds, resource, nor the personnel and business expertise to do so.” Above, at The Joan, artistic director Ian Zammit with his two leading ladies from The Shoe-Horn Sonata, Annette Emerton, left, and Diana Jeffrey.

Give yourself the pleasure of attending the show before it finishes on May 2 and expand your appreciation of the story by participating in a Q&A session with actors and director at the end of each performance. Click here for bookings. You also have the opportunity to be part of creating a new vision and future for the company. Contact Ian Zammit.

The Merchant of Venice

From Ian Zammit, artistic director Emu Heights Theatre Company:

It’s done! “The Merchant of Venice” has wrapped with an ovation- inducing performance last Saturday night.
Wonderful reviews are being received for the for the production – including this wonderful reflection from Sam Schroder, Head Teacher of English at Bossley Park High School. Read and relive “Merchant” brought to the Joan this year.

Merchant - court scene


I have read, taught, and marked HSC responses to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but I have never seen it performed.

Last week I received a lovely email from Emu Heights Theatre Company, offering me two free tickets to see their production. I jumped at the chance as there were tickets available on one of our very rare, free Saturday nights.

And so, last night, we found ourselves in the third row (!!!) in fantastic seats, in my first ever experience of being ‘comped’ for a show.

The Merchant of Venice is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is often talked about, at least in my teacher circles, as being more of a tragedy, courtesy of Shylock’s ‘hath not a Jew’ soliloquy. However, both the Director, Ian Zammit’s notes, and my actual audience experience last night, proved the comedy claim correct. There were many, many laugh out loud moments. This was a clear intention by…

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The Merchant has it all – revenge, selfies and celebrity

Huge eMerchant of Venice - Shylock, Jessica, Bassanioffort has gone into Emu Heights Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare – and it has undoubtedly paid off. The show has been interpreted by director Ian Zammit with a comic and contemporary slant on issues like gambling, racism, greed, deceit, power, revenge, love and loyalty.

Many actors pMerchant - Bassiano and Antoniolay more than one role and the transformations are consistently skilful and convincing. John Michael Burdon is dignified, solemn and anxious as Antonio, seated, left, Christian merchant of Venice. Minutes later he is the frenetic clown Launcelot Gobbo, servant to Shylock, the Jewish money lender. In the photo, top, Shylock (played by Errol Henderson), left, watched by his daughter Jessica (Jessica Belle Keogh),  negotiates the terms of a loan to Bassanio (Luke Middlebrook).

Emily Elise is an energetic and mischievous Nerissa, lower right, with impeccable timing, maid to Portia (Julia Kennedy Scott), centre, the rich heiress courted by a series of suitors. In an instant, Merchant - Stephanie, Portia and NerissaEmily is any one of a number of diverse characters in supporting roles. David Attrill moves with ease from being the Duke of Venice, to Shylock’s enigmatic Jewish friend Tubal and then shambling Old Gobbo, father to Launcelot. James Hartley is Solanio, Christian investor colleague to Antonio and then Prince of Morocco,below, pompous and scheming suitor to Portia.

But it’s not really fair to single out any performer above another. There is no weak link – only one or two minor roles ideal for giving young and less experienced actors a chance to develop their skills. Here they are filled very ably by two Year 11 students from Nepean Creative and Performing Arts High School at Emu Plains, Emily Yali, left above, and Kodie Amos. And that’s part of Ian’s purpose – to provide training and professional experience for young and emerging actors, alongside established professionals, especially those who live local to Penrith or in western Sydney. Ian’s attitude is warm and supportive, while also ensuring discipline and structure.

Merchant - Prince of Morocco with casketIan’s program notes are generous in detail about his choice of biting satire as the tone of the production and the relevance of so much of the play to today’s preoccupation with financial success and celebrity. The notes also ring with pride in the skills and achievements of local actors and production workers. It seems a recipe for success with local high schools, where students can laugh at the attitudes of their own contemporaries reflected on stage and ask questions after performances.

Don’t miss this production of The Merchant of Venice. Click here for booking and production information.

Taking a gamble with The Merchant at Penrith

Merchant of Venice promo 2 - EHTCThe Merchant of Venice “is being put on by Ian Zammit and the fantastic Emu Heights Theatre Company – we went to their production of The Crucible last year and it was as good as any City production!” High praise in a recent Facebook post, echoing many earlier comments, for the company’s productions. The Merchant opens November 7, at The Joan, Penrith, and continues to November 15.

Artistic director Ian Zammit grew up locally. Inspired by Doreen Warburton’s Q Theatre, he developed a commitment to high quality theatre productions that were meaningful and stimulating to other residents like himself. He was a driving force behind the 2010 establishment of the independent Emu Heights Theatre Company. Such a company relies for its success on being embedded in itsEHTC - David Attrill prepares for Western Sydney Marathon local community. EHTC made an excellent start when a group of artists, teachers and local business people got together to promote access for students in the western Sydney region to professional & entertaining theatrical productions in their own backyard. They continue to form the backbone of fundraising and promotional initiatives by the company. The Merchant of Venice actor, David Attrill, left, limbers up for his part in the five kilometre Western Sydney Marathon at Penrith International Regatta Centre, earlier this month. Cast members helped celebrate healthy lifestyles and conducted a fundraising stall there.

Emu Heights Theatre Company now has a series of successful productions under its belt and a well-developed educational program delivered to schools, which also brings students into the theatre. This year alone, they have presented a Shakespeare Seminar Series for western Sydney high schools. A team of six presenters created three teams of two, with each pair of presenters leading one of the following seminars: Romeo & Juliet (Years EHTC - Sophie Cook and Ian - Macbeth seminar8-11), Macbeth (Years 9-11), and Hamlet (Years 11-12). In its full stage productions, the company gives emerging theatre practitioners the chance to collaborate with respected and experienced professionals. Sophie Cook and Ian Zammit are seen here demonstrating Romeo and Juliet to students at St Mark’s School, Doonside (photo by teacher, Julia Audova).

Augusta Supple, theatre director and creative producer says ,”These productions, whilst supporting local artists, provide an example for local students that high-quality thought-provoking theatre is not something that is strictly reserved for metropolitan audiences but which is closer to home.”

Merchant of Venice promo - EHTCThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.

Love. Take a gamble.

Superstar Bassanio risks his close friendship with the merchant, Antonio, to win the hand of the fabled lady of Belmont, Portia… cash-strapped Antonio takes a chance with his enemy, the Jewish refugee Shylock, to get the money for Bassanio… the vilified Shylock takes no risks to ensure Antonio pays him either his money or a pound of flesh… and the lady Portia, who must marry to keep her royal estate, tries everything in her power to snag the perfect bachelor.

Emu Heights Theatre Company proudly presents Shakespeare’s satirical comedy as a biting commentary of money, bigotry, and the masks we wear for love.

Directed by Ian Zammit.

Click here for booking details.

Passion for theatre finds focus in Penrith

Ian ZammitThere’s energy and enterprise aplenty when theatre makers get together at Theatre Links, in Penrith, on the first Tuesday of every month. Initiated by Ian Zammit, left, of Emu Heights Theatre Company, Theatre Links gives western Sydney theatre people the chance to swap notes about productions, auditions and professional development opportunities. The atmosphere is totally informal and intended to provide simple face to face networking, which can produce some very fruitful connections.

Ian’s mild and unassuming manner belies a passionate commitment to theatre and his local community. He grew up in Emu Heights, pursued music and theatre studies and completed an honours degree at Middlesex University in the UK, in 2006. He returned to live in Penrith and from 2007 to 2012 had a key development role at Carriageworks arts centre in Redfern. At that point he took a gamble on working full time to develop Emu Heights 1-The Crucible - Emu Heights TC 2013Theatre Company with a group of local artists, teachers and business people. They are all committed to delivering high quality theatre experience to local students and the community and to developing a range of opportunities for them to become actively involved in creating their own theatrical expressions. Left is a scene from their 2013 production of The Crucible, presented at Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre.

Ian is inspired by the role of Q Theatre at Penrith, in the 1970s and 80s, when it was under the direction of Doreen Warburton. He is aware of the high quality of training and production offered by David Hollywood, when he ran his Blue Mountains company Out of the Blue in the early 2000s (see The Book). His vision finds support elsewhere in western Sydney, too. Sport for Jove‘s artistic and managing director, Damien Ryan says “Emu Heights Productions represent precisely the sort of the initiative this country and this region needs – home-grown, high-quality theatre drawn from and giving back to the local community too often starved of a representative voice that genuinely reflects their local space and culture, and access to classical theatre particularly”

Discus1-Theatre Links 0614sions at the June Theatre Links meeting, held 6pm at San Churro, Riley Street, Penrith, covered lots of ground including Emu Heights’ upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, previous film work done by Leo Domigan for National Parks to introduce visitors to the convict built Great North Road, at Wisemans Ferry, and Steve Donelan’s role in Pygmalion, at Riverside Theatres. Freelancer David Attrill is working on an independent production based on one of Shakespeare’s most enduring characters and Sari Hickey is sharing her time between working for Henry Lawson Theatre and The Acting Factory. In the photo above, David Attrill, left, Leo Domigan, Katherine Knight, and Steve Donelan.

Theatre Links welcomes newcomers. The next meeting is Tuesday, July 1.