How many of us would be prepared to take to the stage and openly air some of our deepest prejudices. Well two playwrights, Elise Hearst and Andrea James, will be doing just this when they perform in their new work Bright World, opening at Theatre Works on 13 April. Jan Chandler spoke with Elise and Andrea during a break in rehearsal to find out more about this intriguing work.
Bright World is inspired by the life of William Cooper who, at a time when he, as an Aboriginal, had no rights in his own land, organised a march to deliver a petition to the German Embassy in Melbourne protesting the treatment of Jews in Germany. This was 1938 and he was protesting against Kristallnacht, the wave of anti-Jewish violence that took place throughout Germany, annexed Austria and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, on November 9 and 10 1938.
Elise Hearst is Associate Writer at Arthur Productions, an independent theatre company that makes new Australian works. Her most recent work The Mesh was produced at Red Stitch last year. William Cooper is a hero to the Jewish community, especially in Melbourne, and Elise wanted to write a play about that moment in time when he led the protest against Kristallnacht because it was also the moment when her grandparents chose to flee Nazi occupied Vienna. Two stories, two contrasting cultures, both linked by violence, racism and dispossession: Elise knew that she couldn't do it justice on her own and was determined to find an Aboriginal person to collaborate with her.
Andrea James is a Yorta Yora woman, a descendent of William Cooper and a playwright. She co-wrote Corranderk: We Will Show the Country with Giodano Nanni, recently produced by La Mama and Ilbijerri, and is currently the Aboriginal Arts Development Officer at Blacktown City Council in NSW. When she happened to be visit Melbourne, Paige Rattray, Director of Arthur, took the opportunity of meeting with her to discuss the project.
Elise laughs as she explains that the first hurdle in the development of the work was for her and Andrea to meet and 'suss each other out'. They chose 'neutral ground', a Japanese restaurant for this first meeting. Being ten or fifteen years older, Andrea is from a different generation and, with the exception of actor Shari Sebbens, she has not worked with any of the team before. This has made the development process very much a matter of 'getting to know each other' and, as Andrea explains, that's exactly what the play's about. There have certainly been some awkward moments but what has kept her and Elise going through all the doubts and fears has been the knowledge that they both wanted to tell this story.
Initially Andrea wasn't sure where to start and how to pitch her work because she and Elise work and write in very different ways. Playwriting and theatre are each competitive, she explains, so they found themselves 'searching for space and territory within the play', really battling it out. Once Andrea felt comfortable about her writing fitting in with the narrative the battles moved onto the stage.
From the beginning Elise felt that she needed to act as well as write, 'because I couldn't figure out how to tell the story without putting myself in it'. The scope of the narrative is too big to tell in a direct historical way. Andrea was less enthusiastic, 'I'm not an actor for a start and also I do have a pet hate when writers write themselves into their work.' However, as the project progressed they realised that 'the interesting kernel' of the story lay, as Elise explains, in 'the conversations we were having, trying to figure out our legacy and what we owed to our ancestors, and how we continue their memory [and] this had to be live, acted. ... We really wanted to explore trans-generational trauma and how we both live with that, and how it's different for each of us, and how it's the same.'
Given the subject matter the title Bright World struck me as a little curious. Elise laughs as she explains that the name came first; funding applications demanded that there be one and Andrea wasn't on board at that time. Andrea adds that if she'd had a say 'it would have been more like Darkness!' I suggest Black World and Elise laughing quips 'that's part two!'.
So how does the play work? Elise explains that it operates in three different worlds: the present in which Andrea and Elise meet: 'our process, our confrontations, our battles and then a kind of coming together/understanding'; Elise's grandparents world: a journey from childhood in Vienna until their escape from Austria; and William Cooper's experiences: as a child, his politicisation and his activism leading up to his Kristallnacht protest. 'By the end of the play the three worlds collide'.
For Andrea the process ran relatively smoothly, 'once we got a handle on each others style and the way it was going to be, we just sort of ran with things'. She found her scenes with Elise the most enjoyable; there was a lot of improvisation, things coming off the floor. Paige, as director, would separately set each of them a writing task, then they would swap scripts. Elise explains that Paige really pushed them into coming to grips with the issues, making sure they didn't gloss over things or be too polite, in fact she was often encouraging them to be nastier to each other. This meant that they act out those really awkward conversations that we tend to avoid, not holding back from saying what they really think in an effort to avoid the murky territory of possible confrontation. Although Bright World dares to go into this fraught and murky territory, Andrea assures me that it does so 'in a really open and funny way.'
For both Elise and Andrea Bright World is really important. Andrea values the fact that she is 'telling my mob's story', and playing the role of her great-grandfather enables her to put herself in his shoes, 'to imagine what they spoke about'. It is also really special to see people enacting 'what is my blood line.' Elise also steps into the shoes of her grandfather, as well as playing herself as a naive and ignorant white person who wants to do the right thing, to tell this story. For her the end result is 'really potent; it's not us acting something, we are doing it. We're doing it because we feel the importance of it is so great, so real, so relevant to now, and quite urgent'.
'Andrea and I have our own prejudices and we're kind of owning it and part of the awkwardness is us facing up to that. … Practically the only place I meet Aboriginal people is the theatre. We've taken it one step further, not just being polite to each other, working with each other, but we've actually gone there and had these really difficult conversations about my white privilege, about misunderstanding, miscommunications. If we don't talk to each other how are we ever going to understand each other, overcome racism? … That's what's so exciting about the play, we want people to walk away … acknowledging their own prejudices.'
For Andrea what is most important is that the audience recognise that they're on Aboriginal land, the foremost place of understanding, respect and acknowledgement. She also hopes they will be inspired to discover more about Aboriginal history. 'Eventually [our characters] open up our hearts to each other and come to a place of understanding, an awkward understanding in that it's not completely resolved, but we understand each others differences … we are not trying to give the audience a hard time; we're both doing that enough to ourselves [LAUGHTER]; we're doing the fall'.
BRIGHT WORLD by Andrea James and Elise Hearst plays at Theatre Works, St Kilda until 30 April 2016. Further information»