A Conversation With … Jessica Olivieri

Showcasing the talent and creativity of Western Sydney’s many communities has been the raison de entre of multidisciplinary arts company Urban Theatre Projects. Now leading this organisation is curator and artist Jessica Olivieri, who was previously curator, contemporary performance at Campbelltown Arts Centre. Taking the leap from one of Western Sydney’s most highly regard arts organisations to another, we spoke about curating for diversity, context responsive work and multidisciplinary arts practice.

BYO: During the talks program as part of The Hidden Pulse at the Opera House, you brought up the notion of recognising difference as part of curation and performance and I was wondering how you seek to implement this concept as part of your work at Campbelltown Arts Centre and now UTP?

Jessica: My approach acknowledges a multiplicity of voices and particularly in Western Sydney there is a multiplicity of voices. At its heart Urban Theatre Projects holds those voices [close] but doesn't try to homogenise them. One of the ways that that manifests is through different programs. An example of that would be the project I've curated at Campbelltown which is Era Yalovata Na Marama which has been a two year long project that I've facilitated with The Veiquia Project, they're a group of First Nations Fijian women. Another example of that coming up at Urban Theatre Projects would be a project called Bilingual Kids’ Art Lab which is a partnership with the Arab Theatre Studio. That's specifically aimed at kids who speak multiple languages from Arabic backgrounds and celebrating the difference, celebrating their stories and giving them space to tell their stories. There's lots of different ways you can approach how you embrace a multiplicity of voices that exist in our society. It doesn't need to be a specific project [either]. Something like the Real Real program that Akil Ahamat and I curated together or its Right Here Right Now which is a micro festival of work that happens in Blacktown that Urban Theatre Projects does and [both] include a multiplicity of voices in a broader framework.

BYO: What was your relationship with Urban Theatre Projects before the role came about?

Jessica: I first had contact with Urban Theatre Projects when I was a student at Western Sydney University and I was part of an [residency] program which we've now based our In Residence [program] on. It's a program that's aimed at engaging with young people in Western Sydney and giving them a platform to develop work, to develop their creative voice and then to also provide opportunities to show their work. Then I have very much followed what Rosie has done with the company very closely. I know Rosie from a long time ago as an artist and I've enjoyed watching the projects and the way that she's moved the company and shaped the company in various ways through her tenure.

BYO: One of the things that I thought was really interesting about the work that you were doing in Campbelltown was the combining of the live and the documentary. The works of UTP are very grounded in the live and tied to their particular place rather than transcending place through online spaces or via accessing a recording afterwards, is that something that you're interested in continuing to explore?

Jessica: That's something I'm thinking a lot about. In terms of the Real Real project and it being in an online space, I still think of that as being quite a site specific place, and I was interested in that because of the methodologies that companies like Urban Theatre Projects use, where you go to the place where the people are. I was really interested in the fact that people were already gathering in these online spaces and we could take work to that space where there would be potentially less of a barrier to engage with that kind of work which is part of the methodology of placing work in public space. I've always been very interested in work that's context responsive, not necessarily site specific, so if you think about Blak Box, by Urban Theatre Projects and curated by Daniel Browning, I would say that's context responsive rather than site specific. It's a project that is moving from different sites, different lands and tells a different story each time. Even when it's on the same land it will tell a different story because there's a different temporal context.

BYO: In that question around context responsive in contrast with site specific, some of the projects that UTP has created are really sensitive to the multiple geographies of a space like Western Sydney, and I was wondering how do you navigate those many geographies in situating the work that you do?

Jessica: I think through collaboration; that's how you navigate the multiple voices and multiple geographies — whether they be human, physical or environmental — through collaborating with artists, with organisations, with community organisations, with corporate partners, that's how you get a sense of what that space is and also make sure that you're being sensitive to it.

BYO: You come from a visual arts background, and I was interested in that obviously with Urban Theatre Projects, theatre is in the name, but it's very multidisciplinary in practice, how do you draw on your background in the visual arts but also working across many different methodologies in approaching a theatre company in name but something different in practice?

Jessica: In some ways it's a really nice way to ground the company with the word theatre. My background is in visual arts and I went to the University of Western Sydney and that course was incredibly collaborative and we worked across mediums in the visual arts department, but we also worked with the dance and theatre and music students in group subjects so my grounding as a seventeen-year-old, fresh out of high school, was that that's how you make work and that's always been how I've continued. For me it's very natural to produce programs that are very cross disciplinary, that maybe have a visual artist who's dancing or a dancer who's making visual art or maybe they're collaborating to make something online which is what Brooke Stamp and Anna McMahon did in Real Real #2. I'm quite excited to have this word theatre as an anchor point to be able to break the expectations of what people think might come from an organisation that has theatre in its name.

BYO: Where do you hope, in the best possible scenario, that this position will take you and take the company. What's the really broad vision?

Jessica: I'm really excited about continuing the trajectory that the last forty years of this company have laid. In terms of where do I see the company going, I think continuing to hold at its heart that multiplicity of voices, continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible and expected from work that happens in theatre spaces, in cinema, in streets, in art galleries, continuing to work across context, continuing to draw from the incredible talent from Western Sydney and to support the incredible talent in Western Sydney and then also continuing to create sustainable models on an economic and environmental level for the company, which I think is an important thing to keep in mind as well.

One of the main things that I think Urban Theatre does really well is that it generates work that is a catalyst for challenging conversations and connections and also collaborative solutions. I think collaboration goes really hand in hand with the methodology that is Urban Theatre Projects and is part of its ongoing success.

You can find UTP’s full 2019 program here: http://urbantheatre.com.au/2019-2/.