Welcome to my traveling adventure with Big hART’s This is Living
It was with an excitedly beating heart that I watched the northern coastline of Tasmania tip into view: rocks and cliffs and surf and green farm fields. Burnie is the nearest big town, but the airport is in Wynyard. I am met by Stephanie Finn, with a gift of two welcoming balloons, and off we head to the This Is Living office where I meet other administration team members including Creative Producer Sophia Marinos. One of Stephanie’s jobs is as coordinator of my modest contribution to the project called ‘Everyone’s a Critic’ – but more about that on another post. It’s really just a matter of dropping bags and heading down to the local theatre where rehearsals are in full sway. There’s also a screenprinting workshop in action in an adjacent building – t-shirts and hoodies and the like.
Beyond a bank of production folk and space for seating yet to be installed is a raised wooded stage, dominated by a tilted sphere a few metres across upon which much of the core action is played out. I arrive part-way through a run of the opening scenes where various contingents of the ensemble are coming together for the first time. Poised on the tilted platform are the three professional members of the cast: Bruce Myles (Morgan) and Anne Grigg (Jan) play a married couple who face a crisis of faith in their relationship after so many years together, in the wake of Morgan’s recent retirement from life as a professional newspaper photographer. Lex Marinos (Ron) is their best friend of many decades and their lives turn out to be more closely intertwined than the audience initially imagine.
Marinos has worked on several Big hART shows before, including Ngapartji Ngapartji and Drive-In Holiday. Speaking a week out from opening night, when time pressures are starting to seriously kick in, Marinos says he is still “having fun – as much as any Big hART gig, a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, a lot of frustration from time to time, but always with rewarding results.” On crazily low budgets, Big hART is getting a reputation for putting together increasingly complex shows - which bring together the participation of professional actors with ‘volunteers’. This one intertwines three groups: an intimate drama played out by the trio of professional actors; community seniors who play ‘witnesses’ to the unfolding story; and a posse of young skateboarders. Yes, it’s an unlikely mix, and that is what’s clearly bringing a special zing to this show.
The core theme looks to some of the challenges facing people getting older in today’s society – so many more of us living; and living for many more years. How do we live out these extra years productively? And how do we cope with increasing frailty in an increasingly isolating world?
“It’s dealing with a generation of which I am,” says Marinos, “if I’m not already there, I’m looking at it very closely. We are an aging population in Australia. My own selfish personal terms? I don’t know what’s going to happen. Are my kids going to look after me? Is the community going to look after me? Is the society going to look after me? Or do I just have to grow old and shut up and put up with it?” Good questions all of us are going to have to face – sooner of later. In the case of Ron, the character Marinos is palying, the crisis turns up ‘sooner’.
Seated in rows along both sides walls are the ‘chorus of otherworldly witnesses’. These are local seniors with close connections to the history of Wynyard. One of the features of this Big hART show is that while the professional actors remain a constant, the ‘witnesses’ are composed of a different set individuals in each of the four towns the production is playing during this upcoming premiere season - part of the 2009 Ten Days On The Island Festival.
That said, to assist in continuity, four of the Wynyard ‘witnesses’ will remain with the production throughout the tour. After Wynyard, the show goes to Latrobe, a town not far south of Devonport, a little further east on the north-Tasmanian coast. The show then goes to Glenorchy, greater Hobart; and then finally to Huon Valley in Tasmania’s south. So there are four versions of the drama re-crafted in each instance with input from town locals.
It is a clever device in the script to make Morgan a retiring local newspaper photographer, which means a package of ‘real’ images from the history of the four towns can be spliced into each version of the show. A tremendous number of archival images have been collected by Rick Eaves, many drawn from the collections of retired local press photographers.
The story of Big hART has its origins in Tasmania, and has had several works included in previous Ten Days on the Island Festivals, including Radio Holiday and Drive-In Holiday. Scott Rankin’s creative ethos takes him deeply into specific communities and every production builds and grows slowly overtime – as trust is nurtured with the locals.
There is usually a surprise twist – or evolution from previous practice – and, in this instance, Rankin brings together two community subsets who rarely cross paths: or if they do, the consequences may not have always been particularly joyful. Working alongside the seniors, guardians of each town’s history, is a posse of teenage skate-boarders. A couple from the Wynyard skate team are also staying with the show throughout the tour, linking up with fresh groups of skaters in each of the other towns.
Not surprisingly these are mostly boys; but young women have also been involved. Teenage mums have been among the young people involved in collecting life stories from seniors (not all participants in the show). As Rankin explained to me, the elders being interviewed often describe what life was like for them when they were young: getting through the depression, world wars, mining catastrophes, and the struggle among the women, for example, to bring up their own kids, often as not with the loss of husbands to accidents and wars.
Through a series of editorial layers, the quintessence of these interviews appear in the script in the form of blank-verse poems delivered by the participating seniors. And so the project works in parallel lines – ‘intertwined’ might be a better word – of social/communal and aesthetic/creative. On one level, the young and the old in these communities, often previously unknown to each other (perhaps even fearful), make contact: their stories are shared and new, unlikely friendships are formed.
The above photo offers a hint of the darker side of the story, but what I see before me on stage – in raw form – is a drama of unfolding tenderness among the main characters; backed with the musical support of the Dunaways.
The Dunaways are another of the discrete creative units who have been working directly with Rankin over the past year or so, putting together what one senses is going to be a very evocative musical environment for the play. More local connections: all the above Dunaway band-members (who often work out of Melbourne now), have Tasmanian origins.
At a break I get to catch up with a number of the crew I have met before out at Ernabella, on the Ngapartji Ngapartji tour: including Production Manager Mel Robertson, Stage Manager Jessica Smithett, Nicholas Higgins (Lighting and Audio-Visual Design), Zoe Churchill (Costume Design), Actor Lex Marinos, and of course low-key Big hART front-man, Director and Writer of This is Living, Scott Rankin.
I go outside with Scott onto the street to check out the ‘youth component’ of the cast, the skaters! They have set up a rail and are honing their skills and spills, in a spirited mix of self-consciousness and bravado. We’ve got a bunch of, I guess approximately a dozen ten-to-twenty year olds, under the direction of Youth Arts Liaison Director, Telen Rodwell. Not all of the youth on stage are skaters, some (especially the young women) have other roles to play.
Rankin takes the opportunity to ask particular individuals, male and female, to come up with some new tableaux - typical of contemporary youth lifestyle. Not surprisingly a ‘texting moment’ among a mixed group is quickly put together. The boys come with a pretty cool knockabout image also. These, among others previously created, will be likely be dropped into the show.
With my photographer colleague from the Ngapartji Ngapartji trip, Brett Monaghan, not arriving until the company is in Hobart, I discover fifteen-year-old Amelia Dearnley with a camera taking shots of the skateboarders. I get to take a look at some of her images on her view-finder, and I discover – along with Neal Rodwell’s personal Big hART archive to draw from – I also have access to the work of an up-and-coming talent.
After the break we all go back inside, and rerun the opening scenes. This time to my utter astonishment, not only do we get a spray of visuals across the scrim the hangs behind the main performing space. In breaks in the action the lights are flicked to vaudeville, as Paul Keating might say, and we discover a skate ramp – a proscenium-wide half-pipe behind the screen with the kids ‘shredding the coping’, if you get my meaning dude. I’ve been off the plane only a few hours and I am already well ‘embedded’, tantalized by the glimpses I have already witnessed into Big hArt’s latest entree into innovative theatre making.
Hot off the Press
It’s the next day and the big news is that Big hArt local Peter Dixon’s entry, for another year, has taken out First Prize in the pumpkin-growing competition in the Wynyard Agricultural Show. There are scurrilous rumours that he feeds them steroids. But apparently it’s all about love, including wrapping these copious Rubenesque nymphets in blankets on cool nights. Very Big hART – lol!