On the top level of a multi-level car park in Blacktown, Western Sydney, a Greek-Australian migrant dreams of his family’s village, an Aboriginal man is caught between the past and future, and a pair of workmates – swept away on a dance floor – realise that their assumptions about each other have dissolved. As storm clouds loom across the evening sky, the electricity in the air feels palpable.
This performance of Home Country is a difficult experience to forget. The play is an ambitious production by Urban Theatre Projects (UTP), a Western Sydney theatre company that’s told contemporary Australian stories on highways, backyards and service stations for the past three decades.
"Time stops and it’s an invitation to say, ‘we’re all in this together.’"
For UTP’s artistic director Rosie Dennis, the show, which premiered at the Sydney Festival this January to rave reviews, is proof that we need the transformative power of theatre now — more than ever.
“Now we have we have the 24-hour news cycle, opinions and social media, which can be incredible but also scary and that’s where I think ‘wow, that’s a huge opportunity for art,” says Dennis, who spent 25 years touring and creating theatre across festivals in Europe and has been artistic director of UTP for the past four years.
“We come together for story. Online, even if we’re connecting over a big chat, it’s still singular.
“When you have a theatrical experience, like Home Country, the nature of that work asks you to slow down. Many of the projects that I’ve done with UTP start with an Indigenous smoking ceremony because that smoke unites us. Time stops and it’s an invitation to say, ‘we’re all in this together.’”
UTP has always made theatre that reflects the ways in which our personal struggles — however specific or painful — are part of universal experiences that can cut across identity, class and race. The Last Highway (2008) invited audiences to witness the interweaving lives of service station attendants, sex workers and cab drivers on the fringes of the city. Bankstown Live (2008) saw theatre and audio stories play out in backyards and living rooms, thanks to the suburb’s immigrant communities. Home Country, which revolves around three narratives of loss, longing and connection, punctuated halfway by a communal feast involving spanakopita, and Ethiopian flatbread, saw this vision play out on its grandest scale yet.
“We always want to invest in stories that we think reflect the voices of contemporary Australia and being in Western Sydney, where you’ve got everything from the very wealthy at the edge of the Nepean River to extreme poverty, we’re well-placed to do that."
“Although we work with both professional artists and members of local communities, for Home Country we commissioned writers to write on a specific theme,” says Dennis, who adds that the company is currently working on Black Box, a purpose-built that will house future Indigenous commissions as well as a production called Right Here, Right Now, set in Sydney’s Harris Park.
“We always want to invest in stories that we think reflect the voices of contemporary Australia and being in Western Sydney, where you’ve got everything from the very wealthy at the edge of the Nepean River to extreme poverty, we’re well-placed to do that.
“But we always try to make our productions feel as intimate and personal as possible. We’re always aiming to present a counterpoint to the stereotype. That’s really important because when people come to see a UTP show, they need to know that they’re not seeing something that’s ‘Other.’”
For Dennis, UTP’s drive to make theatre in everyday settings is part of its commitment to battling the exclusivity and hierarchy that still plagues artistic spaces. She also adds that her urge to make art that shifts a larger cultural conversation is part of a vow she made to herself long ago.
“Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with people both in UK and Australia who have had doubt about whether or not they could walk into an artistic institution and what that space would mean for them, but I’ve always thought art should be part of our everyday,” she smiles.
“There been key moments in my life where I’ve decided I’m going to make work that makes a difference and for me, those themes are around identity and mental health which were issues in my childhood. When I first got the idea for Home Country, I wanted the combination of stories sitting alongside each other because I think that’s a lot more powerful than a single perspective — especially if we’re trying to change the conversation about race in Australia.
"We’re always aiming to present a counterpoint to the stereotype."
“I wanted the audience to move through these stories so there’s an opportunity for people to talk to each other. I was high-risk and site-specific, and went for three and a half hours.
“I was really surprised by how people responded! Because of what’s going on in the world, I think that people right now are looking for experiences that are hopeful.”
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.