Extraordinary lives

RealTime talks with Alicia Talbot

Alicia Talbot

Alicia Talbot

Alicia Talbot makes passionate speeches with a fluent, bright-eyed fervour, head cocked, a touch of defiance, brisk. Unapologetically she self-edits anything that sounds like missionary zeal, ‘healing’ for example, when talking about performance with and for a community. Her pitch is determindedly political, with a hint of Western Sydney-upwards-inflection? Or somethiing rural? Performer, director and Artistic Director of Bankstown-based Urban Theatre Projects, she is hard at work, shuttling between Sydney and Adelaide, working on the Sellars’ dimension of the 2002 Adelaide Festival: her productions with UTP, The Longest Night and Cement Garage.
The Longest Night is about Bernie the homeless young woman from Cement Garage having her baby and getting a housing estate house. One day her friends rock up to say hello. And they stay and they stay and they stay. And it is one long night…I guess if Cement Garage is about survival, The Longest Night is about change and day to day challenges. I remember some people who didn’t like the Cement Garage felt that the characters started off as homeless young people and ended up that way…there was a cycle without every really filling in the gaps. For me, that’s kind of the point. But I thought, well let’s give her the resource of a house and a pension, and the responsibility of her child and getting on with her life.

We originally devised The Cement Garage in collaboration with High Street Youth Health Service in 1999, and there was a Western Sydney tour in 2000 co-produced by Urban Theatre Projects and HSYHS. Angharad Wynne Jones, Associate Director Adelaide Festival saw it, and suggested we make a proposal for Adelaide Festival 2002.

We pitched the idea of The Longest Night to the festival and asked them to fund the production of a new work by Urban Theatre Projects. The team would create the work in-residence in an Adelaide site that was populated by disadvantaged young people…They matched us with The Parks Community Centre…it was a really great match, to have The Cement Garage in-residence in a homeless service and then to make The Longest Night in-residence in a housing estate, apparently the poorest postcode in SA. We also got a Western Sydney Artists Fellowship to do a creative development of the new show at High Street Youth Health Service [Parramatta]. So that knocked down the amount of residency time we’d need in Adelaide. Then confirmation came for the festival commission. We met up with the Parks community in late May 2001 and spent a couple of days meeting the community.

How do you meet a community?

The Parks Community Centre covers 4 suburbs. It’s a whole 70s conglomeration of Whitlam-Dunstan-inspired buildings and initiatives which includes a health service, youth service, arts and crafts complex. When we knew we were coming we set the agenda, and found out who the key people were, the managers of the different services we’d be working with and set up a number of meetings with them over 2 days, just to get a snapshot of the place. After those 2 days we realised there’s no way we could do this project on the time line set out for the Adelaide Festival. These services don’t necessarily collaborate on site. They have different operating philosophies and agendas. This is not to say that they haven’t worked together in many ways but we wanted to work with the community centre as a holistic entity.

What we try to do before bringing the [creative] team in, is to build a really strong foundation where people know who we are and what we’re doing and know we’re on this journey and that we’ve got this finite deadline. And not just the young people but also the staff, security, cafeteria, the cleaning and the grounds people, the site manager for council—the team has made connections with them all.

There’s a large African community at The Parks: Somalian, Ethiopian, Sudanese. The first time it was arranged for me to meet those young people in May, nobody came. The second time I went and we set up a meeting, 5 young men came. Then the third time I asked them, what would you like to do, how will we get together. And I said, what about a meal? The next time I came we advertised “Dinner with Alicia” and we cooked a big halal pot of beef and then had to order vegetarian pizza and I think 30 young people came and it turned into a bit of a dance, a blue light disco. So the next time, we set up a blue light disco. On one visit Shannon Williams, one of the performers from Sydney (an MC in the hip-hop band South West Syndicate) did some rapping and some workshops. And the next time the whole team came. We also ran a full day drama workshop because they’re so interested. In one corner there’s all these people breaking with Morgan (Lewis) and Shannon. In the middle of the room there are young African women doing acrobatics with Lucia (Mastrantone) and Bernie (Regan). Carlos Russell, Rose Ertler and Caitlin Newton-Broad are out on the dance floor. Celina McEwen, a researcher from the University of Technology Sydney, Centre for Popular Education, was leading capoeira in another corner.

So what comes out of that process? Are you focussing on their lives, their needs, their problems? Or is it focussed very much on what you’re going to do.

I don’t think we can solve social problems. I’m not a welfare worker. I can support and listen to young people and encourage them to hook up with one of the youth or health workers who are also closely involved with the collaboration. The aim within those environments is to come in with this artistic process that goes, we’re here now, this is where we’re going and these are some of the steps we’re going to take. I think I’ve worked out the process takes about 9 months so it’s kind of like a baby, I reckon, the gestation period.

I have a framework of questions. Generally we don’t work on personal stories. We work on a common interest based on some sort of popular culture. Rather than saying, oh you’re in detention so let’s do a show about life in jail, or, you have a mental illness, let’s make a show about that, it’s more like, what are you listening to, what are you interested in? And that’s the point we come together. As one young man said to me recently, as I tried to explain how we worked, oh you’re interested in my social and political opinions and ideas about the world. We consider them to be experts and dramaturgs in the process.

To me it’s like Sigourney Weaver in Alien. She’s just an ordinary girl on her spaceship doing her own thing with an ordinary group of people. And then this extraordinary thing known as an alien comes along and she responds in an extraordinary way. In a community, the people I’m working with have extraordinary circumstances that fluctuate in and out of their everyday lives. The way they respond is to be extraordinary people and develop coping mechanisms to get through each day and negotiate their lives.

It’s not about the moral judgements of right or wrong or can you please do this so I can show you the error of your ways. We start on a one word conceptual brainstorm and go from there. And I guess people do talk about their lives in some form of disclosure. But we aim to set it up really clearly so they can protect themselves in the discussion. I can’t remember who coined this phrase but I’ll repeat it: “It’s about a generated fiction that’s based in reality.” So together, the artistic team and the young people who are involved in this collaboration generate something that is without back story but is very much focussed on now and where you’re going and looks at how you negotiate your way through everyday life.

But how do their ideas become manifest in the work?

From the very first day of rehearsal we start with a formal consultation. That’s when we have about 10 to 12 young people who are paid for their time and expertise because they’re consulting and they’re coming up with ideas. So 20 people are sitting around the room, an artistic team of 10, and 10 young people. We’re all paid to be there so it is some kind of level playing field. We might start with a concept like ‘belonging’ and ask “what do you understand ‘belonging’ to be?” And I’ll ask them to just come up with one word. Someone may have written “housekeys”, or “my cap” and might say “my cap makes me feel like I belong because it’s the only thing I know is mine.” And then more and more words come up. And inevitably there are numerous drugs up there. I’ll go okay, why does dope make you feel like you belong? And people start to talk about the relaxation and the freedom. I ask, why is it good and all these words come up and then we’ll maybe talk about what’s not good about it, and another pile of words comes out. And before you know it we’ve got whiteboards full of words and images. We take that into the rehearsal room next day and we set up some kind of improvisation that, for example, might start with your centre of gravity. Where is it? Is it really low. Think about what substance you might have taken. Does it take your head up high or does it take your weight down low. As the performers start taking that imaging through it starts an action, an exploration from the team on stage. And they’ll start to make some offers. From that process a huge amount of material will be generated and maybe one kind of direct set of actions. And we might call that block “Substance Night” or “Waiting” or it might even belong to the original word, say, “Housekeys”. Boom. Up it goes

The next time we see the young people in a formal capacity it could be 2 days or a week later, depending on how much money we’ve got. If I could I’d have a formal consult twice a week. Usually, it’s once a week. But at least one or 2 of the young people will have been around in the rehearsal room while we’re developing stuff and they’ll feed back directly. And it’s all dramaturgical questions. People will stand up and say, I don’t understand the relationship between Carlos and Bernie at that point. And they start to feed ideas and details and characters’ paths into the process. Or I’ll say, what’s happening here? And they’ll explain it. But at some point we always tussle too because it’s a collaboration. We don’t go with everything they suggest. Just as everything that we create, they don’t go with. And for me the process is this: you take an artistic team and put them in residence. That destabilises your artistic team if they’re really working in residence, and it’s an open door. The young people or the community are also destabilised because there’s this new, wacky kind of, force—you know what teams of artists are like. Neither group has a platform they can hold onto. And within that we have to go forward in a real collaboration. That’s the process that we try to encourage and support and facilitate.

Where will you perform the work at The Parks?

Someone offered to show us the theatres—you know, they’ve got these 2 beautiful red velvet theatres—and I said I’ve heard that from the Wingfield Dump you can see all of The Parks. Why don’t we go there? We drove up there and decided it wouldn’t work. But after walking around, The Parks with Harley Stumm [Executive Producer Urban Theatre Projects], Janine Peacock [Production Manager, Community Liaison for The Longest Night], Mathew Ives [The Parks Arts and Function Complex Coordinator] and Jeff Creek [Site Manager of The Park Community Centre], we zeroed in on the Motor Maintenance Workshop. It’s got lathes and a vehicle hoist and stuff so we’re taking those out. It’s a very long building. Half of it will be the performance area and in the other half we’ll put in raked seating. So you’re in this one long lounge room. Outside the workshop is a big carport and garage in a big wire enclosure—so Cement Garage outside, Longest Night inside. The staff of The Parks Community Centre, the Parks Community Health Service, The Parks Youth Service and the Parks Arts and Function Complex and Adelaide Festival have all played a role in negotiating the use of the Centre as a hub for Adelaide Festival 2002 activities, and in particular the site based residency for The Longest Night.

The South Australian Department of Human Services in association with Adelaide Festival have also contributed extra support to assist with additional hours for youth workers throughout the process.

Is that because in the process people’s problems manifest, and they have to be dealt with?

The artistic process we undertake generates a great deal of fictitious material about day to day living for a group of friends in a housing estate in Adelaide’s Western suburbs. Some of the images may reflect aspects of young people’s lives and lived experiences, and this can be confronting for them and they may need support such as transport, or half an hour for someone to find them a bed for the night. The process has to be flexible and well supported by the staff of the collaborating services and agencies. These workers become integral to the process, both in the support and facilitation of young people’s participation, but also within the creative and logistical organisation of the entire project.

And how is life at UTP? What’s lined up for the year?

I love Urban Theatre Projects. I’ve never worked in an arts organisation. All I’ve ever wanted to do was to make theatre. I only went into directing because I knew I couldn’t make a living as a performer getting my gear off. It didn’t sell well in rural Australia, in fact it nearly caused a riot in a bar in Tasmania. I love Western Sydney and I thrive on making work in collaboration with communities and artists, it pulls together into an exciting and challenging process. I love the variety of the work and the diversity of the people who make up the many parts of each process. I certainly feel the weight of the responsibility: the work before me that Fiona Winning, Harley Stumm and John Baylis created in collaborations with team of artists and communities over the last 10 years has been quite astounding, as well as the long and impressive history of the company.

Our big community participation project later in the year has the working title Mechanix and it’s a collaboration with Joey Ruigrok van Der Werven [set engineer with Stalker and The Marrugeku Company] Simon Wise and Richard Montgomery [both widely experienced production managers and lighting designers] and all the miracles and illusions that they generate, along with acrobatics and movement from Lee Wilson, and sound and music from Liberty Kerr and Reza Achman. This is building a show that is designed not only for performers and artists but for tradespeople and tinkerers and older people in Western Sydney, and for inventors and the CFMEU. We’re looking to do a show which asks: what if you could engineer your identity with the perfect contraption, something that constantly evolves and changes, what would it be and what would be your place within that? It’ll be a bit of a wild journey. I really am interested in big spectacle.

Urban Theatre Projects, The Longest Night, March 2-10, 7.30pm; The Cement Garage, March 6 & 9, 11.00am; Machine Maintenance Workshop, The Parks Community Centre, Adelaide Festival 2002

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 33

© RealTime ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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