Structured in a horseshoe shape around a central, grassy courtyard, Bankstown Arts Centre provides a hub for performance and the arts in South West Sydney. For Urban Theatre Projects (UTP), which focuses on site specific performance and the development of new work by Australian artists, Bankstown Arts Centre is the perfect home.
Rosie Dennis, Artistic Director of Urban Theatre Projects, sees being part of the everyday lives of locals as essential for the working of the company.
“You're in the mix, right in the centre of the community, with people doing their daily grocery shopping, going to school, which is excellent for the work that we make.”
Being in the heart of communities across Western Sydney has led to projects such as One Day For Peace, a documentary screened outdoors across seven locations on shopping centres and train stations and which became part of daily routines from Mt Druitt to Liverpool.
Often projects such as these have developed from multiple conversations held over a long period of time, with themes that resonated being explored further.
“When you start to hear the same thing over and over again you think what response could art have,” notes Dennis. “What could we say about this that would maybe make people see it in a different perspective or can make something visible that's not currently visible?”
Encouraging audiences to look differently at the communities across Western Sydney often takes an unconventional approach to making art. Emblematic of this is Home Country, a performance staged across a multi-level carpark in Blacktown. Involving a feast and three separate performances, audiences moved through the space with their stools, experiencing the unique acts but also the context within which the work was presented.
As Dennis describes, this opened up new ways of experiencing story telling. “I think people enjoyed the intertwining of the three works stylistically but putting something in a carpark and having to walk through, you feel everything. The environment plays such a huge role because if there's a siren or a dog barks or the sun sets all those things have an impact on how an audience experiences the work.”
Seeing the landscape in a new light also necessitates reviewing any assumptions about Western Sydney. In Right Here. Right Now. nine artists from Australia and overseas will upend our ideas of suburbia in a place-based festival in Blacktown. In partnership with WestWords, Luke Carman will bring the work of six emerging writers to light through perceptive audio works while Rajni Shah collaborates with self-described feminist killjoys from Blacktown to create a series of public events inspired by Sara Ahmed’s blog ‘Feminist Killjoys’.
In combination, these works both recognise the pockets of disadvantage that exist in the communities that they depict but also unsettle these assumptions, for as Dennis describes, “the work I'm interested in making for UTP is stuff that tries to unpack that Western Sydney is much more than all of that.”
These works also respond to the increasing demand from younger people, who made up a third of the audience of Home Country, for the unconventional presentation of work.
“There's a younger audience who want to experience it and don't want to sit in a venue,” Dennis explains as she describes the impetus for Right Here. Right Now. “So let's see what we can do.”
Such an openness to new ways of presenting and staging performances has seen UTP continue to innovate. This year, UTP will be in residence at Barangaroo with Blak Box, which is an immersive audio environment for the telling of First Nations stories and will open on July 2. The partnership between UTP and the Barangaroo Delivery Authority continues until 2020 which, as Dennis highlights, allows for experimentation.
“You get to have a deeper connection with a place; we're not just dropping in for one program. This first year we can scratch the surface with the program and year two see what the response was to that program and program something that butts up and juts up or intersects or layers on top of year one.”
Further down the track is Dennis’s project working with virtual reality technology to tell stories about domestic violence that do not allow for the audience to separate itself from the content. This has its challenges, as Dennis notes, “when you have performers on a floor you're seeing stuff all the time, and if you're in film and you're doing documentary you're seeing it but with VR you're building it.” However, when completed the work now entitled The Quiet Discomfort will provide another way to engage with the process of story-telling.
Paradoxically, what this process has revealed to Dennis, who is the director of The Quiet Discomfort, is the enduring power of theatre and telling story to connect people.
“I think that you don't ever want to lose that, and particularly where we are heading with technology I think more than ever the role of art and coming together to share experiences around story are going to be very powerful, because otherwise you're in isolation.”
You can view UTP’s entire 2018 program here: http://urbantheatre.com.au/2018-2/