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.



Campbelltown Arts Centre aims at local engagement and participation

The List Install Documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Megan MonteThe opening night party for The List, Campbelltown Arts Centre‘s latest exhibition, was fairly jumping with energy. Milling among the hundreds present were lots of young people taking part in performances or coming to see the results of their own part in the multidisciplinary  project addressing youth culture in Campbelltown. Their enthusiasm alone seemed an important indicator of success. Under the directorship of Michael Dagostino, the centre aims to engage with new audiences, especially local audiences. A high proportion of Campbelltown’s population is aged under 26.

Installation photos supplied by Campbelltown Arts Centre are included in this post.

The exhibition was the culmination of 12 newly commissioned works developed by artists working with different groups of young people. Among them were Abdul and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah who worked with a group of teenage boys of Pacific Islander background from Eagle Vale High School – see photo above. Working together revealed a shared experience of frustration about cultural and economic marginalisation, vilification and a broad sense of displacement.

The List Install Documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Megan MonteMarvin Gaye Chetwynd worked with students from Campbelltown Performing Arts High School on a highly theatrical performance and video – YOLO – combining narratives from two texts they were studying.The local legend of Fisher’s Ghost is the central focus of Uji Handoko Eko Saputro (a.k.a Hahan’s) work with young people. The result is a large scale graphic mural – above, exploring multiple uses of image and story.

Zanny Begg worked with Aboriginal teenage boys in the Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre to create a collaborative video reflecting on their current circumstances, dreams and possibilities. Kate Blackmore worked with 14 and 15 year old girls at the Claymore Mission Australia community centre. The results of their conversations led to their collaboration on a video recording their thoughts and ideas, and reflections on their everyday environment.

1-Shaun GladwellIn her notes about the project, Kate described its focus on “the significance of the moment – how it can hold the power  to change young lives”. Perhaps that summarises the philosophy guiding the projects – not proceeding to a preconceived outcome, but jointly investigating present experience and considering meanings, options and opportunities. Artist Shaun Gladwell adapted the “hearts and minds” strategy he had observed in the Afghanistan conflict to create a theatrical intervention among young riders at Campbelltown Skate Park – see left. Performers dressed in camouflage fashion approached local skaters offering to swap new wheels for old.

Megan Monte is curator of contemporary art at the centre and responsible for managing The List. She says, “A commonality across the projects is the exploration of utopia, identity, culture, technology, dreams and aspirations.” Combining social engagement and contemporary arts practice, The List aims to address the issues young people face today, while empowering them to engage in a creative hub encouraging participation and involvement.

The List Install Documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Megan MonteWhat is community and how do you measure vibrancy in community engagement? These are questions director of Campbelltown Arts Centre Michael Dagostino says they grapple with all the time. The centre aims “to engage, inspire and respond to the issues of the region’s communities through the production of contemporary, multidisciplinary cultural programs”. Great care is taken in the selection of artists to work on projects. Through informal conversations, the centre tries to assess the sincerity of an artist’s proposal – why would you want to work with the centre and why would the centre want to work with you?

Above is the first of five billboards, part of The List, seen west of the rail line between Minto and Ingleburn. Using another approach, artist Tom Polo has distilled an essence from young people’s conversations overheard on the train. ALL I KNOW – IS THAT – WE – JUST KEEP – DOUBTING OURSELVES.

Prescribed outcomes are deeply unsatisfactory. Strong community relevance and artistic excellence are both important, engagement needs to be honest and ethical and the process authentic and humanistic in character. While the project has clear goals, the process needs to be flexible in response to the needs and ideas that emerge.

The List continues to Sunday, October 12. If you can make it to Campbelltown on Saturday, October 4 or 11, you could experience the culmination of another Campbelltown Arts Centre project Temporary Democracies, within the framework of the Airds Bradbury public housing renewal project. Click here and here for more information.

Bidwill hones originality and commitment

Bidwell hoopsters 0114It’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.

1-SFJ Hamlet 2012Of 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 pi1-SFJ dollshouse01n 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.

Bidwill revolution to counter doomsayers

Young Aboriginal dancersThe revolution has begun declares theatre director and former Bidwill resident Kaz Therese.

Here, a recently formed group of young Aboriginal dancers performed at Bidwill’s Funpark, directed by Kaz, as part of January’s Sydney Festival. The local energy and enthusiasm released by the event run entirely counter to the suggestion by Minister for Family and Community Services that social dysfunction is a creation of the community itself. Government concerns for local public housing tenants are contradicted by evidence from residents that recent reductions in bus services have further limited access to services and that the shopping centre leaseholder may be under no obligation to provide the shops and services that existed more than a decade ago. Life is undoubtedly difficult, but locals are determined to change that.