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RT PROFILER 5, 30 JULY, 2014

On the road & closer to home

Benjamin Brooker: interview, PJ Rose, No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability

Kym Mackenzie, Sons & Mothers Kym Mackenzie, Sons & Mothers
photo Alex Frayne
Next month No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability’s Sons & Mothers will embark on a national tour that will commence at the Darwin Festival and culminate in October in the company’s home state of South Australia with performances in the regional centres of Renmark and Port Pirie. The show (which I reviewed in RT118) premiered in 2012 at the Adelaide Fringe and last year enjoyed a season at Adelaide’s Space Theatre alongside the premiere of a documentary feature film by POP Pictures as part of the Adelaide Film Festival. Evolving out of writer/director Alirio Zavarce’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s illness, Sons & Mothers coalesced around the No Strings Attached Men’s Ensemble, a group of 12 performers with disabilities.


Artistic Director PJ Rose tells me that Zavarce was forced to take time out from the company when his mother fell ill and he was deeply moved by the reaction of the Men’s Ensemble on his return: “They were all so sympathetic, so genuinely sad at the thought of what they would do without their own mothers. That’s where the idea started. So it lived in Alirio’s mind until 2009 when they did one big workshop which POP Pictures filmed. In fact, some of the things that ended up in the production happened on that one day. Kym Mackenzie’s birthing of himself under the skirt came out of that workshop and it was such gold that it stayed.”

Funding from the Richard Llewellyn Arts and Disability Fund allowed NSA to undertake the show’s first full creative development, a period characterised by Rose as “a lot of sitting and writing, the guys writing stories of their mothers, collecting photographs, family things. We had seven people in the beginning. There are still seven performers, but Alirio is now one of them because, as you know from the film, we lost one [Abner Bradley, multi-instrumentalist and core Men’s Ensemble member had to withdraw]. He hadn’t recovered in time for the first season so the decision for Alirio to join the cast was made about a month before we opened. The Men’s Ensemble is the longest-surviving workshop group we have. Sons & Mothers is the culmination of their work so far but I expect they’ll do more.”

PJ Rose PJ Rose
courtesy the artist

One of NSA’s most recent ventures is Tracking Culture, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) performance workshop launched in 2005 as a partnership between the company and Kura Yerlo, a services provider to Adelaide’s western metropolitan Aboriginal community. Kura Yerlo facilitates a visual arts and crafts program called Karrarendi (translation: To be proud and rise above) for 30 ATSI participants with disabilities and it is from this group that Tracking Culture has emerged. I suggest to Rose that the workshop must present NSA with a unique set of challenges, bringing together as it does participants whose disadvantage in many cases straddle physical and mental impairment in addition to the socio-economic inequalities particular to indigeneity in Australia. “Certainly,” she says, “we get to the most disadvantaged people in the culture. Most of them can’t speak. Many can’t move. So finding the way in with any particular show is an amazing challenge.”

Tracking Culture’s latest project is Echoes… of Knowing Home, a new, multidisciplinary play by playwright Alexis West who is of Birra Gubba, Waka Waka, Kanak and Anglo-Australian descent. Now in its third phase of creative development, a series of six work-in-progress showings took place in late June and early July. Like previous Tracking Culture productions, the work is steeped in Indigenous myth and ritual, uniting a ‘fish out of water’ parable about a dolphin born in the desert with the use of animal puppets created by the ensemble in conjunction with contemporary fibre artist Sandy Elverd. The elusive ‘way in’ revealed itself gradually, through a process by which the over-protectiveness of the ensemble members’ support workers was redressed by an increasing, shared acknowledgment of the performers’ agency. “Agency,” according to Rose, “is crucial—and being able to demonstrate that agency. So it’s about ways of finding situations in which these performers can be the active ones. And the trick is in finding directors who delight in improvising, playing and creating from what is possible in the moment. That’s what we get from working with Alirio, with Paulo Castro and others—artists who appreciate how they can find and bring forward other artistic experiences.”

John Mack protects his dolphin child from an attack, Echoes ... of Knowing Home, by Alexis West John Mack protects his dolphin child from an attack, Echoes ... of Knowing Home, by Alexis West
photo Jonny Ratke
Leaving home

Although not members of the Stolen Generations, all 13 of the performers in Echoes… were removed from their homes and either institutionalised or placed in shared care facilities. Aboriginality was sometimes given as the reason for removal, in other cases disability, limited regional support services or some admixture of all three. Rose says, “Mary, the woman who is introduced as the songstress of the group, was removed from her country at three months. She often warbles exactly as if she is in the middle of a corroboree. How would she know that? She’s never been back home. So this work came out of that, talking about where people are from. These folks have never before had an opportunity to grieve for that loss of home, for that loss of identity.

“I don’t know what the next piece will be yet,” continues Rose. She mentions an embryonic project—a piece about sexuality and disability that will see Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius and actor and burlesque performer Maude Davey collaborate—but nothing beyond the current Sons & Mothers tour is fixed. “I’ve been doing this for quite a while now so it’s not necessarily my intention to see myself into the grave here. I hope that eventually a person with a disability leads the company, someone who has a passion for this kind of work and whose artistry I admire. It’s grown much more than I planned for. I just keep programming as these things bubble up.”

No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, Sons & Mothers, devisor, writer, director Alirio Zavarce, performers No Strings Attached Men’s Ensemble, Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin, 14-15 Aug and touring nationally until Oct 22; Echoes… of Knowing Home, writer Alexis West, co-directors PJ Rose, Alexis West, performers Tracking Culture workshop participants, Tandanya, Adelaide, 24 June-4 July, 2014.

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. web

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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