You have my heart

HOUSEWIVES, A HUNDRED or more women at each performance, call out to an actor as she wanders mindlessly around her kitchen doing chores. They encourage her to stay positive, correcting her mistakes, answering her soliloquies. Roma is her audience, engaged with them in a rowdy exchange, a chorus of Romas sounding an anthem to stay sane in their suburban isolation, a rally to keep Roma's head out of the oven.

The year is 1978 and we are in the YMCA Hall in Essendon, Melbourne. The actor, director, writers, technicians, costume designer, producer, front of house staff, and marketing team – four of us – are students at the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School. We have written and rehearsed Roma, a one-woman play about agoraphobia, with a group of five local housewives, meeting together every week for six months. We show our play mid-morning and afternoon when other housewives from the area find it easy to come. We are trialling a recipe for theatre with and for communities.

We four students are part of Company 78 – the year marked for our graduation from the Drama School. In 1978 we begin to change the face of Australian theatre – that is Peter Oyston's plan. Peter Oyston is dean of this new school at the VCA renowned for training commensurate performers in music and dance and with a nationally acclaimed School of Art. The Drama School is the only professional theatre training school in the country other than NIDA in Sydney.

Peter returned from directing repertory theatre in Britain to take up the role as dean. With him he brought voice, movement, technical and acting teachers he could trust to share his vision. Juggling, fire-eating, acrobatics, singing and mime teachers he chose from those in Australia who supported his philosophy. And the philosophy? Well, that was Peter Oyston's genius and some would say his downfall.

Peter's mother was an actress and in a household where doyens of the theatre partied into the wee hours of the morning, Peter was a rebel. He didn't drink or party. He studied. He hated pretension and he hated indulgence. In Peter's view, theatre has a responsibility and that responsibility is to the community it serves. He doesn't like institutions, either. The feeling is mutual so his stay at the VCA is short but long enough to grow three state and federally funded professional community theatre companies: The Murray River Performing Group (including the Fruit Fly Circus) in Albury Wodonga, West Theatre Company in Melbourne's western region, and Theatre Works in St Kilda.

Peter creates controversy even before the first term of the drama school has begun. The students are unconventional. Peter's radical experiment is to choose first generation artists for training, not those born to the theatre or with an arts background. We have less bad theatre habits, he says. For entry to the course he has chosen a shark fisherman, a nurse, a couple of school teachers, a secretary, a crim recently released from a seven-year incarceration, a child television prodigy who'd already had enough, a dealer, a psychologist of course, a boxer who had stepped out of the ring at an early age to become a showman, the ethnically diverse, some token seasoned performers – and me. I am the girl from the bush born and bred on wide open space, correspondence school in between mustering sheep and cattle, followed by years of mind-warping boarding school and then a classic Bachelor of Arts, University of Queensland double English major. I filled the Australiana spot with a few additional features. At my interview, Peter asked if I wanted to see my name up in lights? What for? I thought and shook my head. I am from the Sunshine State of the '70s where street rallies protesting social injustice are much more dramatic than the bright lights of Broadway.

The thirty of us are a microcosm of Australia, not of the theatre. For company meetings we sit in a circle in the old Police Academy on St Kilda Road and argue, laugh, get angry and impassioned. We use 'the buzz' – a technique for achieving consensus. Agreement is often hard earned, but we are finding our authentic Australian voice on the stage and off it. This new community theatre is the theatre of ideas. 'Skills can always be learnt when you need them,' Peter says. 'It's ideas that really matter.'

Standing in the centre of the circle, Peter tosses his head wildly and shakes his fist at heavens way beyond the confined rehearsal room. Theatre is nothing if not passionate. Theatre is not just entertainment, it is an expression of the human condition. Theatre is transformational, an enactment of mystery, it can change lives. Theatre is identity. As theatre artists we will grow the identity of our nation. But we need to know our own identity first. Where we come from, the footsteps we walk in, and how to make ordinary experience into extraordinary drama. Our craft is to dig deep into people's souls and express their concerns, their hopes and dreams, despair and sorrow. To do this we have to dig deep into our own. Our first major production is an adaptation of Xavier Herbert's Poor Fella My Country. A group of us take the freight train to Alice Springs to hear first hand stories of the black history that we as new, even off-the-first-boat Australians know little about.

Peter is fiercely loyal to his experiment and he doesn't let any of us slip easily through his fingers. Within a month of starting the course, one of the original thirty in Company 78 is jailed for the rest of first term. Peter makes sure he is kept up with classes and on release returns to the company. By the second year, there are Aboriginal students in the drama course. We all perform the classics – Shakespeare and Chekhov – and study the Stanislavsky acting method, but more than this, we learn to hold our own in conversations where the word 'theatre' is a foreign language if not a four-letter word.

On Peter's office wall is a map with coloured pins marking towns across Victoria where small ensemble theatre companies will start their work. So eager are we, that four of us have already started making a community performance. The director of the YMCA contacted Peter. He'd read about this new approach in the newspaper and wanted 'that sort of theatre' to happen at his centre. We create Roma with and for women in the neighbourhood of the Y. The success of this production leads to four of us on graduation forming a full-time professional community theatre – West Theatre Company – creating theatre with and for the people of the western region.

THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR of the Playbox sits off to the left of the YMCA kitchen in his bowtie. He is curious to see what four students from the VCA course have created. Soon he is not sure which drama to watch. The fourth wall, the invisible boundary between actor and audience is all but dissolved. This is more like a tennis match. The director is so enamoured with the experience that he restages Roma at the Playbox with a leading actress and for general theatregoers.

In the formality of the theatre with lights and a constructed set, comfortable seating and an audience of strangers, the play becomes a tragedy. The Playbox audience is quiet. They don't call out to Roma when she puts her cup of tea in the fridge. They don't even laugh at this. You can feel pity fill the darkness. The drama retreats behind the safety of the fourth wall.

No longer students, we four set up West Theatre Company in a small broken-down band hall in Essendon. A council worker approaches me as the artistic director of the company and says he will bare his bum in Myer's window at Christmas if theatre works in the west of Melbourne. West runs successfully for ten years creating original theatre for hundreds of thousands. I never ask the council worker to bare his bum in Myer's window. There is something about West that has little to do with the theatre he imagined.

From football club changing rooms with the performers stripping down and showering alongside the local team; to striking nurses creating human pyramids and chorus lines in uniform; to survivors of domestic violence and recently arrived migrants voicing their anger and confusion, we create narratives for performance with a new script, in new places and with new communities. The performers have to be brave, commanding attention rather than assuming they are owed this favour. We tour with new bands like Men at Work and Real Life performing plays written with school truants and housing estate residents, some of them in the shows. We are not creating an audience for mainstream theatre as some in the theatre industry hoped. We have run away with our audience and aren't coming back.

MARIO IS GOOD on a horse. Mario, like many young people where he comes from, isn't as good at getting a job or staying out of trouble. In St Albans in the early '80s, where people of more than forty nationalities are making a new life together, issues of unemployment, education, transport, poverty and disillusionment make for high jumps hard to clear on horse or on foot. It is here that West Theatre Company takes its next step beyond conventional theatre.

Mario and his horse join us on stage. So do a hundred and twenty other residents. Only months earlier, a theatre director from Scotland knocked on our door. Neil Cameron has come straight from Craigmillar Housing Estate in Edinburgh where residents and artists are working side by side. The project is funded by the Common Market Anti-Poverty Fund. If Peter radicalised professional theatre training, encouraging students to open their ears to the community, Neil goes one step further. He invites the community up on stage with the professional actors.

Neil came to Australia on a Gulbenkian Foundation Scholarship. Word had reached Britain that professional community arts in Australia was producing innovative ideas. The Australia Council for the Arts has set up a Community Arts Board supporting arts officers in as many local councils across the country as can match funding. Neil is offered production costs to direct a showcase production with artists and community members anywhere in Australia. He chooses West Theatre Company. We choose St Albans.

Under a big top in a windswept paddock in outer St Albans with a crowd of residents on stage, Mario and his horse and our small troupe of actors are stretching ourselves. We're learning new and fast techniques for creating performance. The Stanislavsky method is shoved backstage. Mario and his horse baulk at the ramp. With a coax, then a push, they are cheered onto stage. For three nights with four or five hundred people cramming under the canvas, we perform in the circus tent because there is no other indoor space big enough. The directing, design and technical side of the show is driven by a professional team. The West company actors are the glue, holding together the timing and sequencing of the show while each segment of the story of St Albans is told by groups of people of all ages, mostly who have never performed before. In no more than a month, they have learned to be acrobats, singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, fire-eaters, costume makers and technicians. The skill level is erratic. The passion second to none. What holds the audience in their seats – and at times spontaneously leaping up to applaud – is that this is their story.

Phillip Adams is here at The St Albans Show to see his old friend and MP for the area, Barry Jones, performing alongside his constituents. Tomorrow and for years to come Phillip raves about the experience on ABC Radio. He has never seen anything like it. 'Something miraculous just happened in a tent on the edge of the unknown,' he says. 'It will remain with me forever.'

On the final night's performance the tent blows down in a storm and Mario and his horse ride off into the night. He keeps riding. It is not unusual for those who have learned to tell their story, to juggle or dance or balance on shoulders or walk on stilts to walk out of their old selves and into a life closer to their dreams.

At the core of the St Albans project is a large, middle-aged woman in a tin shed. She never goes alone to a meeting. Gathered around her are those dedicated to improving the lives of their youth. They too are learning meeting skills. When funders and supporters – philanthropists, local, state and federal government officers, corporate leaders, politicians and the media – come, every visitor is treated in the same way. They are sat down in a circle with whoever is in the shed at the time for a cup of tea and a yarn. If the visitors seem like decent people and those in the shed can understand what they say, the big woman accepts their support. If not, they are shown the door. This is partnership, not pity. The power has shifted. The community is boss.

After Neil's showcase, West is asked back to St Albans for several years and he stays on at West sharing the role of artistic director with me. What is good for communities is good for the company, in Neil's opinion. Soon partners and children and family pets are rehearsing music, juggling, fire-eating and learning acrobatics alongside the full-time actors, trainees and office staff. The Essendon Policewomen's Marching Band is born: men, women and a dog in policewomen's uniforms, spilling onto the streets of Essendon, then Melbourne, then festivals around Australia and finally overseas. Not everyone with VCA training agreed with this new performance style. Soon half the actors in the company left. As one professional singer observed years later: 'It's a real challenge when the person who gets the biggest applause on stage is one of the audience.' A new breed of performers stepped into the company.

At the next housing estate production in Ascot Vale, Neil challenges the company – and the estate residents – to live together. A couple of caravans are driven into the middle of the grass patch between the housing blocks. Some of the younger estate residents decide to make the stay one to remember, but mostly living onsite brings performers and residents together over cups of tea and around guitars, writing the show. Stepping onto stage together for the production we are one cast telling one story. At moments, the profound sense of common humanity is more than an act.

Estate of Change is a story owned by the residents. The woes of estate living are only a backdrop to a louder voice of optimism. A funding officer comes to the show. Afterwards, he takes me to one side. 'The show is not political,' he says. 'It needs to be. This is a shocking place to live.' Backstage lives are changing. There is excitement in the stairwells and couches in front of the television are empty for weeks. Residents are finding new ways of solving old problems, what action to take, what needs to change. Fire-eating is igniting self-determination.

IT'S SUMMER 1989. The puppeteer points to a slender-billed, brown and beige bird on the mudflats of Western Port Bay, Victoria. 'Follow that bird,' are the words that come to mind. This bird pushes my imagination onto a whole new stage, a vast stage, a stage as long as the necklace of wetlands that stretch from Aotearoa New Zealand in the south to Siberia in the north. These wetlands sustain a life of eternal summer for the Eastern curlew, the largest and most endangered of the migratory waders, on its annual migrations.

This bird – and the call to draw public attention to the importance of preserving the wetlands for feeding stops on their 25,000, sometimes more than 30,000 kilometre migration – demands a new form of community theatre to tell its story. This theatre needs to command global attention. In the early '90s news about environmental degradation is devastating. The hole in the sky is expanding and people are waning, numbed by perpetual bad press. If we lose the birds, we lose a grand songline. To keep this songline singing, we firstly have to know it's there, then learn to sing about it and encourage others to join the chorus. The flight of the birds is a story of triumph – the kind of story needed in a pervading atmosphere of failure. The stage is too big for the individual performer or for separation between artists and communities, or between art and science or between art and sport, or between storytellers. We are in shared space now, bigger than national or cultural boundaries.

Waderbirds – odyssey of the wetlands, the 1990 international arts/science tour that grew from the thought to 'follow that bird', steps from theatre towards ritual to reflect this bigger drama. Indigenous understanding of the inseparable link between art and life deepens our understanding.

'You are the people of my dreams,' the young Māori woman said when we met on her family marae. The entrance to the marae was carved with godwits, migratory wading birds like the Eastern curlew. As a child she dreamt that one day people would come across the world to tell of the flight of the waders. We are welcomed onto the land by her elders, the tangata whenua, the spiritual guardians of that place, and given their blessings for the performance. This ceremony of welcome stretches across two days. We only have twelve left to make the show with a large canoe, a giant bird, and many effects to make. The elder explains, 'You must firstly get the relationships right. If you get the relationships right, then these props will make themselves.' What could take ten long days for the visual artists to make is done in three – with many hands.

On sunset, after two weeks of rehearsal with two hundred and fifty people in Mangere, we parade to the edge of the Manakau wetlands. Over two thousand people join the procession then watch large puppets, visual images, dance, music and pyrotechnics tell the story of the birds.Waderbirds took three years to establish connections across the pre-internet world. It then takes the next three months for our team of artists and scientists to travel north along the flyway – the East Asian–Australasian Flyway – staging three more one-off events on wetlands along the way.

Six Māori elders from Mangere buy flights to Melbourne for the second leg of the journey. The relationships matter. The Māori want to meet face to face with the custodians of the land in Melbourne – for the birds. A Wurundjeri elder welcomes all of us to the land under Westgate Bridge. It is the first welcome to country in recent times. As one Wurundjeri man leaving that night calls out from his car, 'If only this had happened two hundred years ago, we'd be a different nation.'

Many thousands of people come down to Westgate Park on sunset. Five hundred people are part of telling the story of the birds. Three weeks later, in Western Australia on Broome's Town Beach with its massive ten-metre tide washing in and out, rehearsals and performance are carefully timed to nature's rhythms. Wurundjeri meet Yawuru. Yawuru welcome us to their land – for the birds.

Our final performance of Waderbirds is in Kushiro on the north island of Hokkaido, Japan where we are welcomed by an Ainu elder. For the Japanese leg of the Waderbirds journey, a businessman is our patron, giving us use of a spare kitchen in his sushi factory to make our puppets and costumes. Each day for two weeks we work from early morning into the night, side by side with staff and chefs. Although we think we are as sensitive and polite as we can be, our production manager is taken aside and reproached. Slippers have been left untidily at the front door, toilet paper is not folded correctly on the roll with respect for the next person. We have one interpreter for a team of nine artists, two carers and two babies. Often we have no spoken language to communicate with as we sit in the evenings eating together. There is much laughter, though, simply being in eachother's company in such extraordinary circumstances – for the birds.

Our patron takes us to the Wild Bird Park in Kushiro and introduces the man who speaks the language of the Japanese crane. Twenty-five years ago, there were only six pairs of Japanese crane left in the world. The businessman and the birdman and others created a program in schools. School children scattered corn on the snow through the long winter months to feed the birds. When we visit twenty-five years later, there are more than six hundred Japanese crane dancing in the marshes.

Seventy people of all ages and experiences from Kushiro joined us in the final performance of Waderbirds. Delegates with a commitment to wetland sites around the world are gathered in Kushiro this April for the international migratory birds Ramsa Convention, named after the town in Iran where the first wetland convention was held in 1971. Six hundred of these delegates form a procession through the parkland to watch the story of the Eastern Curlew. Some of the delegates were with us in Broome and so know their roles as puppeteers working two metre high bamboo poles beneath bird wings.

When our last dinner at the sushi factory is finished and the dishes cleared and washed, the Aboriginal dancer travelling with us plays didgeridoo and clapsticks. With chef and staff, there are more than twenty of us. Soon we are all up dancing the kangaroo and emu, our patron included. He offers a precious kimono as first prize. To the dismay of most of the performers, he judges the winner of the dance to be the Australian photographer.

When we leave the sushi factory on Hokkaido, the Japanese businessman, owner of the factory, and our patron, stands beside the cars that are to take us to the airport for departure. One hand is on his suit coat covering his heart. Two tears, one on each cheek, make their way neatly down to his chin. His voice is quiet. 'I may not see you again in this life. You have my heart.'

IN ASH WEDNESDAY, TS Eliot writes: '…I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice.' In Geelong, a contemporary songline is to be walked as part of a project called Connecting Identities. Art creating a contemporary pilgrimage is a construct. Perhaps, it will be something on which to rejoice.

In 2007 I began as a consultant artistic director on the Connecting Identities project based in the Arts and Culture Department of the City of Greater Geelong. My brief was to take the issue of rapid change and its impact on community identity and create an arts program that could impact positively. The first question I asked myself was: what connects us?

When we come from vastly different backgrounds, often from cultures and experiences that share no common language, and we struggle to know our own walk from one day to the next let alone understand another's, what is it that can bring us together? I began looking at maps of the municipality. Twelve wards clustered around a coastline with a yawn of a bay filled with shipping and industry. Driving around the region, the You Yangs mountains present themselves at every corner no matter where you face, it seems. People say, 'When I see the You Yangs I know I am home'.

Identity is about permanence and impermanence. Both the seen and the unseen landscapes are changing rapidly for all of us, particularly in Geelong. With the closure of Ford and Alcoa and the flame of the Shell refinery chimney about to blow out, defining features around which this municipality grew are crumbling and new residents arriving with new expectations are finding a fractured foundation.

There is a tough underbelly in Geelong and now with a popularly elected 'Mr Paparazzi' mayor, images of what the future of the municipality might be are busily being hairdressed, very colourfully, for the camera. The health of the re-growth is hard to determine, so quickly are the advertising banners hoisted calling for Geelong to 'giddy up' into the bigger and better. Quieter cultural solutions have to keep their foothold in this consumer rush.

Extreme times call for 'extreme arts'. What has emerged in Geelong is M~M, Mountain to Mouth. After six years of staged development, starting with story collecting in digital form online, and then a preliminary walk in 2009, M~M2014 begins a biennial extreme arts walk. M~M2014 brings together the arts, environment and sport, connecting people with the land.

On May 9 and 10, 2014, water is going to be walked from Big Rock Waterhole – a stopover on an ancient songline – in the You Yangs. Over twenty-four hours, a five metre long ephemeral sculpture, 'Canoe', will be carried across the city's twelve wards for eighty kilometres to the mouth of the Barwon River. Other ephemeral artworks, beautiful and yet as transient as human life, are the lead characters. The stage is the landscape, changing in light from afternoon, evening, into night and from dawn the next day to sunset. This is epic storytelling, tugging at memory as far back as first footprint and as present as a tap on the touchscreen to Tweet along the walk. M~M is a platform not only digitally but for the soles that still grow at the bottom of our feet – an ancient interface of skin and magnetic earth now realised to be essential for the vitality of our body's energetic system. This is the theatre of pilgrimage, the feet in service to the soul.

M~M is a response to the unchanging human urge to find meaning not only alone but in congregation. We no longer have vibrant institutions to provide these rituals. It is not only the factories crumbling but it is religious manufacture of all faiths that is returning to dust. Art making in essence is spiritual – it is creation. It can construct the 'something' that TS Eliot wrote about, 'something on which to rejoice' in the face of the void: of isolation, dislocation, post-industrial trauma and catastrophe.

CREATING BIG OUTDOOR community-based events is intense. It demands faith in the face of many unknowns. The depth of connection between those who step into the maelstrom is heartfelt and lasting and can stretch across a globe. Recently, walking on the beach near my house in Melbourne, my dog makes friends with a stranger's and soon we are talking. It is a balmy night and bridge lights have begun tracing the curved spine of the Westgate against the deepening orange sunset. One woman points and comments that she was part of a spectacular show about birds under that bridge. So was the other. Had I heard of it? It was called Waderbirds? The woman is now part of Friends of Westgate Park that meet regularly to care for the wetlands there. 'That performance is legend now,' she says dreamily.

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