Every community may have a story to tell - but its not often that we find there are enough listeners. And finding listeners who include mainstream theatre companies isn't always the easiest of achievements. The field of community arts has long been associated with the tag-lines of under-funded, under privileged and more often than not it fails to get anything more than sideways glance from the mainstage arts companies in Australia.
However, every now and then there is a beacon of hope. WA's state theatre company, Black Swan are looking at things a little differently. Having developed a relationship with the community of Carnavron, Black Swan is working closely with the residents to explore stories and support the local artistic scene.
Francis Italiano, a writer with extensive skills in community and cultural development (and experience gained many years before the term came into use) is originally from Melbourne. However, twelve years ago he made the decision to move to the west coast and hasn't looked back. As the writer for this new pilot project WA Stories, Italiano has been spending the past few months learning and listening as he gets to know the community, typically over cups of tea and tim-tams.
"It was fortunate that I had connections to the community before I started this project," explains Italiano, "I had dome some other theatre and youth projects and had a strange connection to the place and it was a real good fit."
But it also helps that the nature of the project doesn't involve what Italiano calls a 'FIFO [Fly In Fly Out] mentality'.
"Black Swan recognizes that this is about longer term relationships and demonstrating investment into the community... and that this can only be done when there is empowerment with the community, in the community, by the community and ultimately, for the community."
However, this isn't about just picking any isolated town in Western Australia. Carnavron, as Italiano eloquently expresses "is not just some remote red dirt place".
"This is an incredibly rich and fertile area; it is part of a delta region on the Gascoyne river, and one of the few places in Australia where the desert reaches the coast," says Italiano, "In addition, there are range of different populations who have settled here including the Yamatji people who have different sub-groups, as well as southern European migrants who formed part of the white settler culture and more recently a growing Asian population."
What is also little known about this region that although it is one of the most fertile areas the Gascoyne river (the longest river in WA) only flows on the surface for about a third of the year. The rest of the year it actually flows under the earth resulting every few years or so in devastating floods.
"Being at the mercy of the elements creates a form of resilience and strength and this is evident in the community of Carnavron,"says Italiano, "Certainly the landscape can be seen as the classic regional Australia's harsh environment - but the incredible fertility here is a testimony to the people who have developed and sustained a thriving horticultural and plantation industry, despite the huge obstacles they face with such extreme climate conditions."
Italiano is working with the local community primarily as a story-gatherer and writer and he emphasizes that WA Stories is not simply a large scale community project.
"This is about making those individual connections with the community, using time and staggered development phases to create and sustain broader community engagement towards what will be a production for the local community," says Italiano, "If it does develop further then that is simply an added bonus."
Ultimately, the efforts of Black Swan are to ensure that the commitment is at all times centred on allowing the stories already present with the community to he heard and shared; as a source of pride for the people, and indeed for all Australians.
Further information: www.bsstc.com.au
Top right: Francis Italiano. Photo: Alena Tompkins