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urban theatre projects

urban theatre projects: urgent agendas

jo litson on UTP then, now and next

UTP, Back Home (2006) UTP, Back Home (2006)
photo Heidrun Löhr

As one Australia’s leading social and political theatre companies (Talbot refutes the term “community theatre”) all of UTP’s work is concerned with contemporary Australian life and how we are navigating our way through complex urban society, particularly in Western Sydney where the company is based. Talbot had no idea whether UTP would end up being involved with the Berry project but felt instinctively it was something the company should support.

“It started out as simply giving them a week’s wages and rehearsal space as part of our support program so they could go through the script and see what they needed to do with it”, says Talbot. An Asialink residency then took Paschal to the Philippines to work with the Anino Shadowplay Collective, a group of young multimedia artists, who became involved with the project.

Three years on, UTP is presenting the resulting work, The Folding Wife, in association with Blacktown Arts Centre. “So it’s been a long process”, says Talbot. “The way that relationship evolved is completely different to others. But each is unique. The company is constantly responsive. It builds all kinds of very personal and idiosyncratic relationships but actually it’s about an artistic process and that’s exciting.”
Dr Floyd’s Fly by Night Medicine Show (1982) Dr Floyd’s Fly by Night Medicine Show (1982)
synthesis & difference

The productions that emerge are equally unique. Few if any other Australian theatre companies have consistently created such diverse work for so many different audiences. TrackWorks (1997) took people on a surreal journey performed on railway stations and trains. For Speed Street (1998) the location was an actual street in Liverpool and featured residents. brought Goths, revheads and hip-hoppers together on the roof of a Bankstown car park. For Asylum (2001) the company turned a disused wallpaper showroom in Lidcombe into a prison cell to tell refugees’ stories. Fast Cars & Tractor Engines (2005) saw three actors with headphones telling eight Bankstown residents’ stories by repeating interviews with them word-for-word. Last year’s Back Home was performed over a barbeque in a backyard in Blacktown.
As Talbot says: “There’s no aesthetic cohesion and there shouldn’t be. There’s a synthesis of ideas but in terms of how that manifests, it’s remarkably different [for each production].”

UTP defines its mission statement as: “making new performance works that engage in socially relevant questions and are intimately connected to specific sites and diverse communities. These stories and images of contemporary urban life are drawn from, and heavily influenced by, the company’s geographic and social location in the western suburbs of Sydney.

“In increasingly conservative times, one of the key roles for Urban Theatre Projects is to provide individuals, communities, artists and audiences the opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the world we live in.”

The company has done this so successfully that in 2002 it was presented with the Sidney Myer Award in recognition of its outstanding contribution to Australian theatre. Last year, UTP turned 25—a major achievement for any Australian theatre company, particularly in the small-to-medium sector—which gave it occasion to look back over its history. UTP published a book of commissioned essays about the company and its work, a project it continues to develop via its website, commissioning writing that examines the relationship between practice, critical thinking and contemporary culture.
UTP, TrackWorks (1997) UTP, TrackWorks (1997)
photo Heidrun Löhr
adaptation & transformation

The company began life in 1981 as Death Defying Theatre, formed by Kim Spinks, Paul Brown and Christine Sammers in order to challenge existing notions of theatre and existing relationships with audiences. In 1991, under artistic director Fiona Winning, it began the move west, relocating from Bondi to Auburn then Casula and later Bankstown where it is now based. In 1997, artistic director John Baylis changed its name to Urban Theatre Projects. Mentored by Baylis, Talbot became artistic director five years ago, joined a year later by Simon Wellington as general manager. Together they are a dynamic team.

Artists involved with the company over the years agree that the reason for its longevity and continuing relevance is that it has managed to constantly reinvent itself and re-evaluate its practices whilst retaining a strong sense of its original purpose. Says Winning: “There’s been a lot of redefining and rethinking around community and cultural practices in the last 20 years and I think the company has always kept ahead of that. The capacity to be able to shift and redefine contemporary ways of thinking has been very significant.”

Winning points out that the company has also moved with the times structurally, changing from an ensemble and adopting the model of shared artistic director/general manager leadership around 12 years.
The company has always attracted good cultural thinkers and cutting-edge artists, which has given it a significant creative capital and allowed it to move from strength to strength.
UTP, Asylum (2001) UTP, Asylum (2001)
photo Heidrun Löhr
the folding wife

There are several strands to UTP’s work: productions; seeding and research work for the creative development of future productions; and the professional development of artists. Each year it runs a research development or master class that relates to the annual programming. In March, in the lead-up to The Folding Wife, UTP held a five-day intensive workshop called Unravelling the Bride that explored cross-cultural and cross-artform practices. Facilitators included Anino Shadowplay Collective, Australian-based Filipino installation artists Alfredo Juan Aquilizan and his wife Isabel, Paschal Daantos Berry and Deborah Pollard, who directs The Folding Wife.

The Folding Wife opens in the recently refurbished Blacktown Arts Centre, continuing a partnership that began with the production, Back Home. Blacktown is home to a large Filipino community, which makes the venue particularly appropriate. Valerie Berry plays three Filipina women—a grandmother, mother and daughter—each desperate to escape a different era and political situation in their homeland. Berry is joined on stage by two members of Anino, who create a metaphorical landscape with a blend of animation and projection that shifts and shapes before the audience’s eyes. The piece explores notions of nationalism, the reasons that propel people to migrate in search of a new home and its ramifications in terms of displacement and cultural identity.

back home to toronto

In June, UTP undertakes its first international tour when Back Home goes to Toronto in partnership with the Harbourfront Centre. The production will also tour Australia between August and November. Back Home features four men from different cultural backgrounds who are reunited after many years for a barbeque. What starts as a celebration, disintegrates as broken promises, old wounds and cultural differences emerge. Originally workshopped in collaboration with Indigenous and immigrant communities in Sydney’s west, Back Home is a powerful examination of masculinity, disharmony and reconciliation. UTP will do some free community showings in Toronto prior to performances at the inaugural Luminato Festival. The company will also undertake a community research and development process for a new work to be developed in collaboration with Harbourfront during 2008/09.

riots and shift work

Works in early stages of creative development, for production next year, include The Last Highway and Stories of Love & Hate. Set late at night in a service station, The Last Highway brings together the station attendant, a doner kebab salesman, two sex workers, a taxi driver and someone who has just wandered in. Directed by Talbot, it will be created through community consultation with late night shift workers using the model she employed for Back Home and The Longest Night. “In terms of the bigger picture it poses questions about land and territory, and navigating borders and terrain”, she says. “On the personal level it looks at how late night workers, who often come from different cultural backgrounds, navigate shift work and danger, so it’s about what gets us through the night.”

Stories of Love & Hate is being made by director Roslyn Oades in response to the Cronulla riots. Like Oades’ hugely successful Fast Cars & Tractor Engines, it will tell a series of personal stories of people directly involved in the incident through audio interviews.

In 2008, UTP is likely to move into a new venue: a multi-purpose arts facility being developed in partnership with the NSW State Government and Bankstown City Council, which will also house Bankstown Youth Development Service and Citymoon, a company of Vietnamese-Australian artists, with whom UTP shares its current premises.

As for future work, reinvention remains a given. “As I always say, the company makes work based on sets of questions and the relationship between site, artist and community, and fuelled by ideas. That is a really potent combination and it can’t be stagnant and it can’t be contained. It has to transcend funding and political environments,” says Talbot.

“In the current Australian context where we’re not telling that many stories about ourselves, I think the importance of images and words and visions of contemporary Australia, told by artists with urgent social and political agendas, become more and more pressing. So if you ask me what the future is, I go—well 25 years ago that was agenda and it still is now.”

The Folding Wife, Blacktown Arts Centre, April 19-28,

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 4,5

© Jo Litson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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