THE FO­RUM

MARY TRAVERS ON ARTISTS AND NA­TION BUILD­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

IN a few weeks, when the Vic­to­rian fire tragedy moves to the re­build­ing and re­newal stage, the arts could be of great ser­vice. Mu­sic, sto­ry­telling, po­etry and chil­dren’s shows can help the heal­ing process in no small mea­sure while bring­ing peo­ple to­gether to par­tic­i­pate, or for­get for a few mo­ments the im­men­sity of their predica­ment. Later, de­sign­ers and oth­ers can help in the re­build­ing of towns and com­mu­ni­ties.

By cre­at­ing jobs for artists, gov­ern­ments work­ing to stim­u­late the econ­omy could also help towns and sub­urbs fac­ing a dif­fi­cult fu­ture share hope, vi­sion, self-es­teem, joy and re­flec­tion. This con­tri­bu­tion to in­di­vid­ual, com­mu­nity and na­tional well­be­ing will boost hu­man cap­i­tal far be­yond the arts and help Aus­tralia re­main buoy­ant. Con­sid­ered in this way, the arts are a prime can­di­date for gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment in na­tion build­ing and jobs. We have a largely un­der-used arts work­force of sig­nif­i­cant num­ber. The sys­tems and in­fra­struc­ture are in place across Aus­tralia to quickly es­tab­lish hun­dreds of jobs for artists, and we have a ton of ex­pe­ri­ence in de­vis­ing such schemes.

Also, there has been a quiet revo­lu­tion across the coun­try in the past two decades as state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments built arts cen­tres and hired arts work­ers to fa­cil­i­tate projects. It’s been far eas­ier, though, to gain mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ments in bricks and mor­tar and ad­min­is­tra­tors than a few thou­sand dol­lars for artist fees.

Many highly trained Aus­tralian artists work as jour­nal­ists, teach­ers, cu­ra­tors and ad­min­is­tra­tors, while far fewer earn a de­cent liv­ing from creative work. Fam­i­lies sup­port oth­ers to eke out a liv­ing in pur­suit of their art. Now we have a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity: cre­ate jobs for artists through which they can con­trib­ute to na­tion build­ing in their own unique ways.

Artists can make works with com­mu­nity mem­bers that cul­mi­nate in a ma­jor shared event. A spare school­room or un­used lo­cal hall could house an artist ( mu­si­cian, writer, mul­ti­me­dia work) for six months to work with teach­ers and stu­dents three days a week, us­ing the re­main­ing time on their own projects. New hous­ing es­tates could em­ploy artists to de­sign and make works for pub­lic ar­eas. Top-class mu­si­cians would add ex­cite­ment and lus­tre to the of­ten rather drab cul­tural cer­e­monies in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and might be based at the lo­cal arts cen­tre.

Burt Lan­caster, Sid­ney Lumet, Or­son Welles and John House­man all par­tic­i­pated in the New Deal cul­tural pro­grams of 1930s which em­ployed thou­sands of writ­ers, artists, mu­si­cians and the­atre work­ers. Studs Terkel, Saul Bel­low, Philip

MEM­O­RIES of school con­certs came flood­ing back re­cently when my friend told me she’d been to her grand­daugh­ter’s con­cert. Her grand­daugh­ter had prac­tised her part at home and danced and sang heartily, but on the day of the con­cert she just folded her arms tightly, stood un­smil­ing through her item, ut­tered not a word and danced not a step. I laughed as I pic­tured this scene, and told my friend that no one can ever be sure of what will hap­pen on the day of the school con­cert.

It’s more than two decades since I left teach­ing small chil­dren but I still re­mem­ber with great af­fec­tion the many, many school con­certs of which I was a part. In my day there were endof-term con­certs, Easter con­certs, Ed­u­ca­tion Day con­certs and, at the end of the year, the grand­est one of all, the Christ­mas con­cert. To be­gin with the teach­ers chose an item, pupils were given their parts to per­form and re­hearsals be­gan. Notes were sent home ask­ing par­ents if they would kindly sup­ply a cos­tume for their child. Fairies, ghosts and wise men were fairly easy to dress. Bees, kings and Easter bun­nies were not too dif­fi­cult. But jel­ly­fish, spi­ders and mer­maids re­quired a lit­tle more ex­per­tise.

Par­ents, grand­par­ents, re­la­tions and neigh­bours were al­ways mar­vel­lously re­source­ful and creative. They cut and pinned and sewed and pasted to make the most splen­did and sur­pris­ing out­fits. Am­ber’s mother made a black­bird suit that so closely re­sem­bled an ex­e­cu­tioner’s grisly Gus­ton, Mark Rothko and nu­mer­ous mu­ral­ists in­spired by Mex­i­can artist Diego Rivera, who painted the in­te­ri­ors of post offices, are oth­ers. The long list of New Deal projects in­clude ex­per­i­ments in mu­sic ther­apy, low-cost con­certs and teach­ing in the com­mu­nity.

Among the great lega­cies of the New Deal are the oral his­to­ries recorded of for­mer slaves, ma­te­rial that has richly in­formed many a scriptwriter and his­to­rian. Imag­ine if the real words and feel­ings of th­ese peo­ple had been lost; our un­der­stand­ing of that world would be more of a shadow. Gov­ern­ments and phi­lan­thropists were not in­ter­ested in this his­tory at the time.

The ‘‘ liv­ing news­pa­per’’ was in­vented in the New Deal pro­gram, the legacy of which we of­ten en­joy on tele­vi­sion to­day. Jour­nal­ists re­searched so­cial is­sues of the day.

They were then trans­formed into a new form of doc­u­men­tary the­atre us­ing large casts and mul­ti­me­dia, in­clud­ing film and an­i­ma­tion pro­jected on cur­tains, loud­speak­ers and sound ef­fects off stage. This was new; a pre­cur­sor to uni­form that Kristy, the maid who ‘‘ was in the gar­den peg­ging out the clothes’’, was eas­ily for­given for scream­ing in fear and sur­prise when the black­bird swooped to ‘‘ peck off her nose’’.

Not all schools were for­tu­nate enough to have a hall to per­form in, and not all halls had a stage. The mar­shalling ar­eas var­ied greatly. Some halls had small rooms at the back of the stage where Santa’s elves and rein­deers jos­tled for space with angels and a don­key, and help­ing par­ents strug­gled to ap­ply last minute make-up and read­just head­gear. Where there was no room at­tached to the hall, per­form­ers were herded into nearby porta­bles and some­times even had to sit on the grass out­side. On hot days, kan­ga­roos, cats, sheep and other furry char­ac­ters suf­fered bravely. And if it rained, coloured crepe pa­per be­came a soggy mess.

As ex­cite­ment mounted, re­quests to go to the toi­let be­came more fre­quent, and anx­ious teach­ers were heard re­mind­ing the chil­dren to be mod­ern the­atre, film doc­u­men­tary forms and ways to tell his­tory that are fa­mil­iar in our mul­ti­me­dia world. Aus­tralian artists have much ex­pe­ri­ence en­gag­ing com­mu­ni­ties. In west­ern NSW, the group Big hArt works with fam­i­lies and young peo­ple in the medi­ums of film, photography, sto­ry­telling and other projects ex­plor­ing the im­pact of cli­mate change on their lives, with an in­ter­ac­tive web­site.

As far back as May 1980, in Al­bury, NSW, the pride and ex­cite­ment were pal­pa­ble in the town when the Fly­ing Fruit Fly Cir­cus pre­sented its first show in a big top, and hun­dreds of par­ents and friends came to­gether to put on the show. A cou­ple of years ago, St Paul’s Gram­mar School, lo­cated near Pen­rith in west­ern Syd­ney, com­mis­sioned jazz pi­anist Gary Da­ley to make a work which in­volved the school’s singers in re­mark­able choral work. They brought top-class mu­si­cians to the school.

Th­ese projects are spe­cial; many sto­ries flow from the ex­pe­ri­ence. They bring new out­looks that could be added to the re­build­ing of our flood-rav­aged and fire-rav­aged com­mu­ni­ties.

Most artists are small busi­nesses or con­trac­tors. The idea of artists be­ing em­ployed is not so dif­fer­ent to nurses or garbage col­lec­tors hav­ing jobs in which they con­trib­ute to the well­be­ing of our com­mu­ni­ties. At present the in­dus­try rates for a free­lance the­atre di­rec­tor who works full­time for a year is equiv­a­lent to the pay a 20-yearold can earn in a call cen­tre.

The two cru­cial el­e­ments for a 2009 pro­gram were also present in the New Deal: jobs for artists and artists’ in­ter­ac­tion with the com­mu­nity. It would be a true in­no­va­tion in a time of emer­gency to es­tab­lish a sys­tem in which artists rise to the mid­dle of the work­place and, for once, are paid a de­cent wage. It might up the ante for treat­ment of artists, even if the pro­gram doesn’t last for­ever.

Best of all it will bring to­gether com­mu­ni­ties to make a more re­silient Aus­tralia.

The arts are shovel-ready! quick, as they were on next. ( It was not al­ways easy for an oc­to­pus to be quick).

Dur­ing the wait­ing pe­riod a few prob­lems were in­vari­ably re­ported: ‘‘ Tracey can’t find her wand’’; ‘‘ Joseph has vom­ited and Mary is cry­ing’’, and ‘‘ Joanne wants to take the tin­sel off her wrists be­cause it feels hot’’.

Sooth­ing as­sur­ances by the teach­ers that all would be well cheered every­one up, and at last the long-awaited con­cert be­gan.

The lit­tle sto­ry­teller walked to the cen­tre of the stage and ad­dressed a hushed au­di­ence of ador­ing faces. There was no mi­cro­phone and there were no stage lights.

Then the kinder­garten teacher smiled at the au­di­ence and sat down at the school pi­ano and be­gan to play Twin­kle, Twin­kle, Lit­tle Star and the stars did twin­kle as they danced on to the stage. It didn’t mat­ter if a wing or a halo was bent or if a tail or a shoe fell off.

It didn’t mat­ter if Julie stopped mid-sen­tence to wave to her fam­ily or if Tim’s crown fell over his ears, be­cause the chil­dren had loving re­la­tions and friends who clapped and cheered for the school con­cert. And I did, too.

Who knows, maybe my friend’s grand­daugh­ter will be the star at her next school con­cert. Mary Travers is a free­lance writer and arts con­sul­tant.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiedemann

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