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