All a part of something

Lauren Carroll Harris: BYDS, The Way

Matuse, Naomi Nazarin, Aida Zjakic, The Way

Matuse, Naomi Nazarin, Aida Zjakic, The Way

Matuse, Naomi Nazarin, Aida Zjakic, The Way

David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads, once wrote of Australia’s suburbs as “a residential theme park in what is essentially a desert.” Though there’s some truth to this, I can only guess Byrne didn’t visit the western suburb of Bankstown, a small metropolis 45 minutes away from the city but vastly different from it. Greater Western Sydney is highly culturally diverse, with 40% of the population born overseas and with predictions that in the next 15 years, the area will accommodate 60% of Sydney residents; it’s hardly a marginal area despite its meagre arts funding allocation.

So it’s little surprise there’s something unique developing in the art world here. Though there is not one artist-run gallery in Greater Western Sydney (Hazelbrook’s West Space was recently moved on from its home), institutions like Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects and Casula Powerhouse continue to craft innovative programs that aim to find a home for arts and culture in the region rather than export the best of the west to the city.

To this list we can add Bankstown Arts Centre, which in October hosted a 10-night run of The Way, the final in a trilogy directed by Stefo Nantsou, produced by Bankstown Youth Development Service and gathering a number of local companies including the Australian-Macedonian Theatre Group. The production was born of a series of workshops from which participants’ own stories were crafted into a loose narrative. It’s one of those ‘day in a life of a community’ premises, tracing abundant subplots and families, beginning with an early morning scene at Sydney Airport Arrivals Hall and moving into the heart of Bankstown as characters find their way through the big personal-political issues of today. On the way, we detour through Bankstown Central shopping centre, the Sports Club, the main bus stop and a bunch of other locales that audibly stir audience recognition.

It’s a minimalist production, from the barebones set, live musical accompaniment from local musicians and large-scale projections providing backdrops of shifting locations. I counted roughly 30 people on stage and heard at least half a dozen languages. The subplots range from forgettable to compelling, the most fully realised being the stories of the Islander Tamati family reuniting after a brother’s death; a man called Minh Tran dealing with the break-up of his family and the migration of his elderly father; and a young Arab Australian, Mohammed, reacting with anger and shock to racist treatment by Border Security after a holiday in Thailand.

Though these subjects might seem dark, the show is less about a deep engagement with politics than empowering participants by just placing them on stage. Nantsou has crafted an irony-free zone with the dramatic stakes set low, creating a feel-good production about the unity of community—something Hollywood marketers might call the human spirit but which is really just the beliefs we all hold in common. Music is a particularly important storytelling ingredient in The Way, with the Tamati family leading the show’s high point—a mourning song at their vigil, which raised the hairs on my arms.

It’s telling that a community-based cultural development group rather than a traditional theatre organisation has produced The Way. Though the trilogy of which it is a part was originally made under the auspices of Sydney Theatre Company, where Nantsou has been artist in residence, The Way has the feel and the vitality of community theatre. This is its strength and its weakness. The night I attended was sold out, many of the audience members clearly friends and family—vocal, diverse and conveying the sense that we were all part of something. I felt that I participated rather than attended and was being spoken with rather than spoken to. It’s the kind of a show whose heart-on-sleeve hyper-sincerity would be considered discomfiting any closer to the CBD, a show during which you realise that the Chippendale ARI you’ve been frequenting is comparatively a pretty white place in contemporary art right now.

The Way isn’t a great show, nor is it deeply ambitious or substantial, it’s more like a lovely gathering. The directive is inclusivity and the drive is for optimism and theme over character and plot. This is the stuff that Bankstown Arts Centre specialises in alongside professional productions and development: cultural events like their excellent regular poetry slam, that highlight first-hand experiences of migration, gender, race, ethnicity, religion and class. The Way might not meet all the ‘excellence’ criteria being thrown around by arts policymakers; rather, it provides serious access to participation in the arts. That’s its function in the arts ecology. The Way understands that theatre is a shared experience—an exercise in empathy, for everybody.

BYDS [Bankstown Youth Development Service], The Way, Bankstown Arts Centre, 1-8 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 45

© Lauren Carroll Harris; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015