MARY TRAVERS ON ARTISTS AND NATION BUILDING
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.
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