A STAGE FOR THEIR VOICE

A not-for-profit arts troupe has teamed up with a Pil­bara com­mu­nity in its lat­est so­cial in­ter­ven­tion pro­ject, writes Alex Speed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre -

IT’S MUCH HARDER TO HURT SOME­ONE IF YOU KNOW THEIR STORY

SCOTT RANKIN

VET­ERAN ac­tor Lex Mari­nos sounds worn out. Last seen on our screens in the ABC drama­ti­sa­tion of Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s novel The Slap, Mari­nos tele­phones af­ter all-day re­hearsals in Syd­ney. Next month, he will ap­pear in Hip­bone Stick­ing Out, a new stage pro­duc­tion by Big hART, the national arts and so­cial jus­tice com­pany.

‘‘ To­day was gru­elling,’’ Mari­nos rasps down the phone line. ‘‘ This is an am­bi­tious piece that in­volves a lot of peo­ple and a lot of tech­nol­ogy, and al­though ev­ery­thing is com­ing to­gether, I feel quite knackered.’’

The not-for-profit Big hART doesn’t do things by halves. Since its in­cep­tion in 1992, it has worked along­side 7000 in­di­vid­u­als across 47 dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties in ur­ban, re­gional and re­mote Aus­tralia. Funded by a range of govern­ment, cor­po­rate and phil­an­thropic stake­hold­ers, the com­pany has an an­nual turnover of $2 mil­lion. Af­ter the Tas­ma­nian Sym­phony Orches­tra, it is the is­land state’s sec­ond largest arts ex­port.

Hip­bone Stick­ing Out is part of Big hART’s five-year Yi­jala Yala pro­ject, based in Roe­bourne, on the edge of Western Aus­tralia’s Pil­bara. Yi­jala means ‘‘ now’’ in Ngar­luma and Yala means ‘‘ now’’ in Yind­jibarndi, Roe­bourne’s two main lan­guage groups.

Nearly three years in, the multi-lay­ered pro­ject’s fo­cus is on help­ing the tra­di­tional own­ers of Mu­ru­juga — the Bur­rup Penin­sula — tell their story. This in­volves en­gag­ing with and giv­ing a voice to the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity of Ier­a­mu­gadu (Roe­bourne) to bring is­sues fac­ing the com­mu­nity into the spot­light.

One of th­ese is­sues is in­dige­nous in­car­cer­a­tion rates. Ac­cord­ing to a 2011 study by the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Crim­i­nol­ogy, one in four adults in prison is in­dige­nous and nearly half the chil­dren in ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion are of in­dige­nous back­ground. Big hART is us­ing in­ter­gen­er­a­tional and in­ter­cul­tural com­mu­nity projects in Roe­bourne, such as Hip­bone Stick­ing Out, to try to ef­fect change. As part of the Yi­jala Yala pro­ject, Big hART em­ploys five men­tors who work full-time in the lo­cal prison, the school and within the broader com­mu­nity of Roe­bourne. Im­prove­ments in lit­er­acy rates and ed­u­ca­tional and em­ploy­ment prospects are at the heart of Big hART’s ap­proach and are eval­u­ated on a pro­ject’s com­ple­tion. Last week, for in­stance, a group of 12-year-olds in­volved with the pro­ject trav­elled to Par­lia­ment House in Can­berra to launch an Abo­rig­i­nal in­ter­ac­tive comic book for iPad.

Hip­bone Stick­ing Out, which premieres at Can­berra’s Play­house this week as part of the cap­i­tal’s cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions, is writ­ten and di­rected by Scott Rankin, a co-founder of Big hART. In the pro­duc­tion, ac­tors Mari­nos, Trevor Jamieson, Derik Lynch and Si­mon Glee­son work along­side non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors and tech­ni­cal sup­port staff, some from Roe­bourne, who have learned their skills through the Yi­jala Yala pro­ject.

Set against Mu­ru­juga, home to a mil­lion pet­ro­glyphs and some­times de­scribed as the world’s largest out­door art gallery, the play tells the story of Roe­bourne’s cul­tural his­tory, be­gin­ning in 1602. It in­cludes the story of John Pat, a lo­cal 16-year-old whose death in po­lice cus­tody there in 1983 trig­gered the Royal Com­mis­sion into Abo­rig­i­nal Deaths in Cus­tody. An­other com­po­nent of the Yi­jala Yala pro­ject, Murru: In Mem­ory of John Pat, will be launched in Septem­ber, on the 30th an­niver­sary of the teenager’s death.

(Yet an­other layer of the pro­ject, a mu­sic pro­gram, was held in Roe­bourne Re­gional Prison: it in­volved pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians such as Archie Roach and Emma Dono­van col­lab­o­rat­ing with in­mates to write and record tracks for an al­bum.)

Mari­nos is a long-time ad­vo­cate of Big hART’s work. He was at the coal­face when the com­pany per­formed its first the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion, GIRL, in the Tas­ma­nian mill town of Burnie in 1992, and has sub­se­quently acted in more than a dozen Big hART pro­duc­tions.

‘‘ The Burnie pro­ject was just fan­tas­tic on so many lev­els, not least in that th­ese kids who had ba­si­cally been of­fend­ing ev­ery week got in­volved in the pro­ject and stopped of­fend­ing,’’ Mari­nos re­calls.

At the time, Burnie was a pa­per mill town ‘‘ go­ing through enor­mous eco­nomic up­heaval’’, Rankin says. ‘‘ Mills were clos­ing af­ter seven decades and fam­i­lies and their kids were hurt­ing, so ju­ve­nile jus­tice rates were go­ing up. We were asked to [work] with those in the so­cial wel­fare busi­ness to try and di­vert those kids from that path. It was an art in­ter­ven­tion pro­ject, al­though they didn’t call it that in those days.’’

The suc­cess of GIRL paved the way for other Big hART the­atri­cal works, in­clud­ing the ac­claimed Na­matjira and Nga­partji Nga­partji.

Mari­nos at­tributes a large part of the com­pany’s suc­cess to Rankin’s abil­ity to work with non-ca­reer artists, of­ten younger peo­ple, and ‘‘ just to al­low them to be part of the sto­ry­telling process’’. Be­hind the scenes, he adds, is a ‘‘ highly so­phis­ti­cated struc­ture of sup­port’’ Rankin has cre­ated for th­ese com­mu­ni­ties ‘‘ that makes him unique in terms of writ­ers and di­rec­tors I have worked with’’.

In Burnie, Rankin helped de­vise a model to in­volve the trou­bled kids of the town in ev­ery pro­duc­tion process of GIRL. This in­cluded, in a 15-month pe­riod, act­ing and skills ac­qui­si­tion work­shops, a com­mu­nity leader dia­logue and me­dia skill de­vel­op­ment.

Fol­low-up stud­ies high­lighted the suc­cess of the pro­ject’s re­form­ing aims. Half of the 22 young peo­ple in the core cast and crew of GIRL had crim­i­nal records when they be­gan par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­duc­tion; 12 months later only one had re-of­fended and half the group no longer abused drugs or al­co­hol.

Next, Robyn Archer, then artis­tic di­rec­tor of the National Theatre Fes­ti­val, in­vited GIRL to Can­berra. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the night the show opened, Mari­nos and Rankin re­call.

‘‘ We kicked two goals we were go­ing for,’’ Rankin says. ‘‘ Cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful that had in­tegrity but at the same time us­ing our artis­tic skills to help bring other peo­ple’s sto­ries into the lime­light. I think the ethos be­hind Big hART be­came clear from that mo­ment: ‘ It’s much harder to hurt some­one if you know their story.’ ’’

Mean­while, one of a num­ber of Big hART ‘‘ arts in­ter­ven­tions’’ in the pipe­line in­volves a re­turn to north­west Tas­ma­nia, where un­em­ploy­ment re­mains high. A sec­ond pro­ject, based on the NSW south coast, is look­ing at the en­vi­ron­men­tal risk to marine kelp forests.

And a third is fo­cus­ing on the ‘‘ new slav­ery of in­ter­na­tional sea­far­ing’’, Rankin says. ‘‘ The sea­far­ers who bring our flat-screen tele­vi­sions from China or Korea, who are run­ning those enor­mous con­tainer ships, are our new slaves. Their lives are des­per­ate and they are pro­tected by few laws. Th­ese are the peo­ple Big hART is in­ter­ested in mak­ing vis­i­ble — to bring their sto­ries into the main­stream nar­ra­tive.’’

Rankin, 53, was born into a loving, if un­con­ven­tional Syd­ney fam­ily. Home was a Chi­nese junk on the Lane Cove River. His par­ents were po­lit­i­cally and so­cially aware; his mother worked in a union rep­re­sent­ing kinder­garten staff.

‘‘ In my late 20s, a friend and I took over a build­ing in Kent Street as squat­ters and ran it as a kind of creative space,’’ Rankin says. ‘‘ Young kids were hang­ing around the city all night and there was a lot of con­cern . . . about [them] end­ing up in cri­sis ac­com­mo­da­tion. It was a huge eye-opener and my first ex­pe­ri­ence of so­cial work and art ex­pres­sion and what hap­pens when you put them to­gether.’’

Big hART’s work has been recog­nised widely. It has re­ceived eight Coun­cil of Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ments awards and a World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion award. Ten of the com­pany’s theatre pro­duc­tions have toured Aus­tralian fes­ti­vals. Na­matjira will open in Lon­don in Novem­ber, in tan­dem with an ex­ten­sive ret­ro­spec­tive of Aus­tralian art at the Royal Acad­emy.

Rankin likens Big hART’s ap­proach in im­ple­ment­ing so­cial change to a mas­sive vi­ta­min pill: ‘‘ Our projects are about build­ing lead­ers and giv­ing young peo­ple a range of dig­i­tal, tech­ni­cal and per­for­ma­tive skills. They be­come ac­tive own­ers of their own sto­ries.’’

Hip­bone Stick­ing Out, The Play­house,

Can­berra, July 3-6.

Scott Rankin, left, and Lex Mari­nos; be­low, re­hearsals for Hip­bone Stick­ing Out

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