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sydney festival preview


innocents retrieved

david williams: the fence, utp, sydney festival


Richard Green, Kelton Pell, The Fence, Urban Theatre Projects Richard Green, Kelton Pell, The Fence, Urban Theatre Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr
THE FENCE, URBAN THEATRE PROJECTS’ NEW PERFORMANCE FOR THE 2010 SYDNEY FESTIVAL, PROMISES “AN EXPLOSIVE TALE OF LOVE, BELONGING AND DISPOSSESSION.” TAKING PLACE IN AN UNDISCLOSED BACKYARD IN PARRAMATTA, THE PERFORMANCE INVESTIGATES THE “RESILIENCE AND WISDOM OF FIVE MIDDLE-AGED AUSTRALIANS, FOUR OF WHOM WERE REMOVED FROM THEIR HOMES AND GREW UP IN CARE AS PART OF THE STOLEN GENERATIONS AND THE FORGOTTEN AUSTRALIANS.”

Directed by Alicia Talbot, The Fence features a formidable creative team. The cast includes Helen Dallas, Richard Green, Kelton Pell, Skye Quill and Vicki van Hout, with Wayne Blair contributing as a story consultant, design by Alison Page, composer Liberty Kerr and lighting design by Neil Simpson.

As director Alicia Talbot explains, the title for the work emerged during Urban Theatre Project’s 2002 residency at The Parks Community Centre in the western suburbs of Adelaide during the making of the gut-wrenching performance The Longest Night. One of the community consultants who had been removed from his home at age six for being what authorities declared to be a ‘naughty’ child, described his experience of living in out-of-home care with damning understatement: “All I saw for the next 11 years was a fence.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this phrase stayed with Talbot, and she’s been “chipping away at the idea” ever since.

The Longest Night opened with the removal of a child, Ollie, from his mother, Bernie, by a Department of Community Services worker. The performance delineates the chain of events that follow. Bernie is an ex-junkie, but she’s trying to get clean so she can get her son back. Unsurprisingly, this journey is far from easy for her, especially when faced with the temptations of an ex-boyfriend who can offer her drugs that carry the promise of taking her pain away. The resultant performance was a unique blend of gritty naturalism, startling physicality, punctured by moments of dazzling, almost surrealist stage magic. This produced moments of acute ethical discomfort for spectators. Whose behaviour is justified here? What responses to emotional crisis are permissible? Who should be forgiven, and how often? Are there limits to forgiveness? By contrast, The Fence tells the story of those removed as children, now middle-aged. Where The Longest Night followed the story of their parents’ struggles, The Fence aims to explore the fallout of removal from the perspective of those who were taken away.

Vicki van Hout, The Fence, Urban Theatre Projects Vicki van Hout, The Fence, Urban Theatre Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr
Like all of Talbot’s hugely impressive body of work with Urban Theatre Projects over the last decade, The Fence addresses a thorny, uncomfortable and complex topic, and does so without promising any easy answers. But what seems especially remarkable about The Fence is its timeliness. In November 2009, while the performance was still in rehearsal, the Prime Minister issued an apology to recognise the ongoing hurt suffered by the Forgotten Australians—the 500,000 children who, between 1930 and 1970, were forcibly removed from their families and grew up in institutional care. Federal Community Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin stated that “the apology will acknowledge that what happened in the past was both real and wrong. It will make sure that a largely invisible part of our history is put firmly on the record. And it will remind the community of what happened to many of these children—the loss of family, the loss of identity and, in the case of child migrants, the loss of their country.”

For many, this is an apology that has been a very long time coming. But Talbot is hesitant to overstress the topicality of the theme. For her, the critical questions she hopes to reflect on in The Fence are, “What have we learnt from this? How do we care for our children?” She notes that her “aesthetic grapples with where we are”, politically, culturally and geographically, acknowledging the complex histories that surround these stories and the places in which they occur. In the case of The Fence the domestic space within which the performance takes place is uneasily shadowed by institutional proximity. “How does the site evoke other resonances about the story?”, she asks. The backyard in Parramatta is a contested site, one with “deep cultural significance as well as more recent history.” To illustrate this point she describes the artwork of Sally Morgan’s autobiographical My Place (1987), which she believes elegantly outlines the “layers and depth that always underpin psychic and geographic location. This is old territory that we stand on.”

Talbot sees The Fence as “building on a body of work”, including The Cement Garage (2000), The Longest Night (2002), Back Home (2006) and The Last Highway (2008). For Talbot, this represents “a substantial and sustained investigation of an aesthetic”, and continues longstanding collaborative relationships. She does note however that, “devising around big themes to make a story is hard.” In order to make this possible, The Fence, like Talbot’s previous works, has been developed through a deep consultative process, in this case with 25 community members who have had similar experiences to the characters. Talbot acknowledges these community collaborators as ‘experts’, who “look directly at the work” and give their opinion. They are paid collaborators in the development of the performance, attending rehearsals “every 10 days or two weeks” to respond to the work as it develops on the rehearsal room floor. “The strength is in how we make the work”, Talbot says, with the consultative process forcing “ideas to be tested and changed.” In the dialogues that follow each rehearsal showing, the experts measure the credibility of the scenarios, the environment, the characters and their behaviours.

To make performance in such a manner requires a great generosity between artists and experts in order to build a truly shared dialogue from very different perspectives, but for Talbot this multi-layered consultative process ensures that “what comes out at the end is rich”, the performance that results from this process is “a snapshot of people’s lives, made in dialogue with the people who’ve had these experiences.” While she believes that The Fence will “transcend stories of individual homes”, a sense of authenticity is nevertheless critical to her approach to theatre-making. This mode of theatre has been previously described as “fictionalised reality”, and Talbot describes her work as utilising “documentary and filmic frames—but not making a film.” Instead, the rigorous research and the dialogue with community experts is aimed at keeping the performance work grounded, and keeping the questions the performance raises live. This means that for audience members, the “questions stay with you for a long time.”

When asked about her political convictions, Talbot always suggests people “should look at the work”, but she is adamant that each of these theatre works have been deeply political, if refusing to fit neatly within any easily-identifiable political ideology. Talbot acknowledges her kind of sustained, political aesthetic is rare in theatrical circles these days, but has no plans to change direction any time soon. “UTP is such a reflexive organization—the form keeps changing, always driven by questions. It’s an exciting company that enables sustained investigation.”





Urban Theatre Projects, The Fence, Jan 14-30; Sydney Festival, www.sydneyfestival.org.au, www.urbantheatre.com.au/

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 16

© David Williams; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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