Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bankstown: Live

Urban Theatre Projects and Sydney Festival present, BANKSTOWN: LIVE.

Urban Theatre Projects (UTP) is a theatre organisation that has been developing work - stories - from within a 'community', of a community, for the community, in Sydney's south west for 30-years.

BANKSTOWN: LIVE, is the latest project from this company.

This work is the only event I attended, in the 2015 Sydney Festival. We caught the train to Bankstown from Bondi Junction, changing at Central, in the late afternoon, and then using our GPS on the phone, walked through Bankstown shopping, restaurant centre and out into the suburbs of Bankstown (following, as well, well placed arrow guides on the telegraph poles), to a sanctioned block of Northam Avenue, between Edward Street and the round-about on Irvine Street. The weather had, thankfully cooled down. Walking through the suburb past new - being built; newish - some, surprisingly, on a kind of 'McMansion' scale; well established -  care for, and otherwise, relatively, 'ancient', decaying homes; with a compelling multi-cultural mix of, some smiling, nodding, and some ignoring neighbours, young, youngish and older: closing gates, driving into garages, gardening, repairing fences-gates and/or vehicles, gathering for dinner or family party, barbecue, even one or two seemingly glowering, it was a nostalgically comforting pleasure. Just before arriving at the actual location, at a local corner shop-florist, painted blue, run by a young mother, in hijab, we bought some water, an ice block to replenish ourselves, and some bargain-priced Halumi cheese and Bulgarian sheep milk cheese to take home. Some smoky-flavoured corn nuts to munch on straight away - 'be careful for your teeth'.

Young volunteers checked our booking, gave us our tickets, and secured us with our green paper 'bracelet', handing us a map and timetable of happenings. We were early, and the set up of the event by the UTP 'roadies' was still in process. Four houses had volunteered to 'host' the staging of some of the program. We bumped into Rosie Dennis, the Artistic Director/CEO of UTP, and the curator of this program, excited, nervous, grounded and friendly. We chatted.

Along the street some deck-chairs had been laid out, and a tea-coffee stall, with real, old fashioned cups and saucers, run by some more volunteers, happily 'improvising' their way through their task, beckoning us - "White, no sugar, please.". We selected and laid out on a striped deck chair. More and more people, curious locals, were gathering, and many familiar people from the arts community (the Australian Theatre Forum [AFT] had the day before finished-up) had made the time to join in. Drinking our tea, reading the program, we worked out our priorities of what to see. There are two session rounds of events, one at 6.40, the next at 8.00, so you can see a selection. We decide to catch THE TRIBE, first, as we had heard, it was much in demand, and some had missed it at both sessions the night before. We wave to the actor Hazem Shammas, who I had read had just finished playing Othello for the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA), we chatted.

A group of musicians led by Toby Martin, who have created SONGS FROM NORTHAM AVENUE, are rehearsing, the sounds are drifting around us, instruments included an oud, zither and coin percussion - a middle eastern magic.

The event began in the sunset of the day with the Acknowledgement to Country, with a smoking ceremony led by Uncle Steve Williams; and the carrying of the Bankstown Bayanihan Hopping Sprit House down the centre of the street, built by the community. We met two of the locals, neighbours, and talked to them of the beautiful eucalypt tree, that had been 'doctored', in the front yard of one of the venue 'homes' - it belonged to Harry, to whom, co-incidently we were talking. We gathered the history of the tree and his relation to it. A large collection of (40-odd) community dancers, presented the Bankstown Dancing Project, choreographed by Emma Saunders, with an adaptation of the Rumba 1, with live music. Later, a  version of the Hokey/Pokey! (Check photo above.)

Later, we pass that magnificent shiny grey barked tree in Harry's front yard, towering way above us, past his garden of tomato, Vietnamese mint and other herbs, passionfruit vine, to sit in his backyard , facing the well-lived back wall and kitchen door of the house, and to the left, the outdoor laundry, to hear an adaptation from, THE TRIBE, a book by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, recalling his memories through the persona of 'Bari Adam', of the ghosts and magic tales of his family and friends using the traditions of Arabic storytelling. Some sit on make shift benches, others on white plastic chairs, others on rugs on the ground, a crowd standing at the back. It is performed with charm, wit and warmth by Hazem Shammas, accompanied by the composer, Oonagh Sherrard, on her cello. The twilight had crept in, the birds of the neighbourhood, flying from tree to tree, also, providing, further, to the soundtrack, combined with the trailing sounds, applause, from other performances, occurring at the same time a few front yards down from where we have been mesmerised.

Food awaited us, a vegetarian or meat bread roll, or Vietnamese wraps. We bump into composer and sound designer James Brown, who had helped prepare some of the work for THE LAST WORD, a collection of 6 stories, written by locals, "contemplative and deeply personal", experienced through headphones, and recorded by other performers. Some of us in deck chairs, some lying on the front lawn of a family home - the family, sitting on their verandah watching us - stretch out and watch the clouds that have been gathering above us as we listen - it is, says Ms Dennis, " a contemporary take on the radio plays broadcast in the 50's and 60's and enjoyed around the wireless on a Sunday afternoon." Sprinkle of rain falls, occasionally, on us as we lay there. I bump into 'professional' friends from interstate, who I haven't seen for years - smiles, laughter, hugs etc.

We surrender our head sets, thank the family for their hospitality, walk out into Northam Avenue, view the Family Portrait installation, are given an ice cream, and walk into the backyard of the first house, near the Edward Street end, and in the now darkness, watch an animation, VAN, by Vinh Nguyen, with music by Domenico Pandolfo, which is "a visual timeline of (his) father's journey from Vietnam to Australia - of escaping from the war at home, and starting a new life in a new country." It is educational, moving and exceedingly well done. A large screen has been set up in the street, the deck chairs re-arranged for the screening of BRE and BACK, a little movie, Ms Dennis' first, telling of the relationship between four Aboriginal women: Grace and Jenny Shillingworth, and Noeleen and Lily Shearer, and their mothers.

We see Ms Dennis again, give her our thanks and appreciation. She looks, now, 3 hours later, relaxed, pleased, smiling.

We decide to walk back through the neighbourhood, back to the station instead of waiting for the bus. One feels as if one had visited one's home, my mum and dad's place, and my own neighbourhood, as a kid, out in North Ryde. The evening is so pleasant - cool, the gardens resting from the heat. We found a toilet in an arcade, and search out a restaurant - a Vietnamese eatery, still open and at 9.30 o', bustling with families, young couples and single men, all dressed casually, some youngsters with no shirts - yummy, quick food. Walk to the station, wait for the train, get on, and catch-up with a friend who had seen the Project too, and talk of what we had all had being doing since last we saw each other - a year or so ago - she working with a community circus up in the Northern Rivers. Home by 11pm, the bus to Clovelly, at Central, conveniently waiting for us, when we got to Eddy Avenue!

The success of this project from Urban Theatre Projects is the ease of charm of neighbourly sharing of tea, food and human story. The sheer scale of the organisation of this event is amazing. Much effort from Ms Dennis's team, professionals and volunteers, and the co-operation of neighbours and 'authorities', cannot be underestimated. It is an achievement.

It is the content of the 'showings', that though pleasant and warm, is where disappointment can lie. Most times only the expected, the sentimental usual, was given. More time to dig deeper, pressing past the bourgeois 'skin', surfaces of the stories, beyond the usual griefs of family, finding of sexual identity etc (not to under appreciate the courage of what we heard), and more of the realities, of say, the content of the presented animation: VAN, would make this event even more important and life changing. Too much of this work was simply a relaxed and comfortable rendering of the veneer of 'polite' life, in Bankstown, in 2015. It is comforting to see that, but, there are other stories, as well, are there not? Important and culturally more urgent stories. Two other events, I had experienced, from the Bankstown community: MOVING PEOPLE, presented by Bankstown Youth Development Services (BYDS); and THREE JERKS from Mr Ahmad's Sweatshop, presented at the Sydney Writer's Festival, last year, had given me hope of more complex content and context from BANKSTOWN: LIVE.

Still, I am glad I went. Urban Theatre Projects, an invaluable agent for the Arts and Community, not just for Bankstown, but for Sydney, all over.

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