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inside the lives of others

lauren carroll harris: urban theatre projects, life as we know it

Lauren Carroll Harris is a Sydney-based writer, artist and PhD candidate at UNSW. Her Currency House Platform Paper on the Australian film industry and digital and innovative film distribution will be published in November.

 (l-r) June Hickey, Ivan Sevrovic, Dorothy Weir, Judy Murray; Life As We Know It, Urban Theatre Projects (l-r) June Hickey, Ivan Sevrovic, Dorothy Weir, Judy Murray; Life As We Know It, Urban Theatre Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr
I HAVE NEVER SEEN A THEATRE WORK FEATURING SEVEN ELDERLY NON-ACTORS. IN SOME WAYS, TO DESCRIBE LIFE AS WE KNOW IT LIKE THIS DOES IT AN INJUSTICE, SINCE IT OCCURS WHERE THEATRE, PERFORMANCE AND PARTICIPATORY ART CROSS PATHS.

Urban Theatre Projects’ new artistic director Rosie Dennis’ production is the culmination of 18 months of organic workshopping and story swapping with mature-aged residents of the south west Sydney suburb of Minto about their life experiences. In that sense, Life As We Know It is neither improvisational theatre nor a traditional play. It’s something else: a collective autobiography and an instance of the diversity of practices that now encompass theatre and performance.

The first thing the audience sees is a lush, green, vertical garden fashioned from timber paletts. The impact of this transformation of the black box theatre space is akin to sitting in your own grandparents’ backyard. Subtle links to the ‘outer world’ are everywhere—a breeze through the open windows rustles the flowers and lettuce leaves in one corner, and a roaring jet outside seems less like an intrusion than another part of the production. It’s a joyful, inclusive, living set that unifies what could otherwise be a disparate collection of stories and characters. Immediately, we are put at ease, a feeling that grows as performers—people, rather—with names like June, Judy, Daryl and Dot leave their seats in the audience and enter the stage, one by one. One is a European migrant, married for close to half a century; one put her own ambitions on hold to raise a family; another was raised on a mission for Indigenous people in Kellyville. Unmannered in movements and speech, all of them appear distinctly nonplussed about their onstage roles.

A series of conversations, monologues and musical numbers interweave seamlessly, unrolling with ease and humour potentially depressing themes of aging, mortality, compromise in marriage and loneliness. The production balances stylisation and naturalism to produce a kind of mediated realism that is moving but not schmaltzy, life-affirming but not preachy, and honest but not too earnest. There are no big false life lessons learned, no dramatic character arcs. There is barely a fourth wall, just very frank, funny and direct theatrical communication. It’s the kind of theatre that appeals to people who think they loathe theatre.

Surely this is what contemporary theatre is demanding of practitioners—to produce work that embraces audiences and values their generative contribution to the art-making process. To throw light on barely heard communities and to contribute to them. To go beyond merely theoretical exercise in participatory principles.

This is not theatre as a fringe activity. Rosie Dennis’ work matters—to the communities she is enabling on stage and to the audiences she is connecting with.


Urban Theatre Projects, Life As We Know It, director Rosie Dennis, with Judy Murray, June Hickey, Jenny Shillingsworth, Daryl Cooke, Ivan Sevrovic, Dorothy Weir, Vicky Andrews, musicians Matthew Steffen, Toby Martin, lighting Frank Mainoo, design Joey Ruigrok Van Der Werven; a Campbelltown Arts Centre Commission, produced by Urban Theatre Projects; Carriageworks, March 13-16

Lauren Carroll Harris is a Sydney-based writer, artist and PhD candidate at UNSW. Her Currency House Platform Paper on the Australian film industry and digital and innovative film distribution will be published in November.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 46

© Lauren Carroll Harris; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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