Written and directed by Gill Heal, songs by Phil Beggs, Bernard Carney and Andrew Shaw.
Performed by Peter Gilbert, Tanya Jackson, Stanley McGeagh and John Coldebella.
Wonthaggi Anglican Church,
Sunday, November 9, 2.30pm
By Catherine Watson
November 1, 2014
ASYLUM seekers. The phrase is enough to make your heart drop. What can be said that hasn't already been said?
The Government’s stopped the boats, as it promised, and deported the earlier boat arrivals to Manus Island and Nauru. Whether you approve or disapprove, end of story. There’s nothing we can do about it.
South Gippsland director Gill Heal, whose oral history productions have struck a powerful chord in local communities across the region, takes on her toughest assignment yet with a play of ideas about asylum seekers.
Local church leaders are sponsoring the project and it will be performed in five churches across the region on Sundays through November.
Previous Australian plays and films about asylum seekers have focused on personal stories. Gill Heal’s Stormy Waters is quite different. It takes the audience on a journey through 200 years of Australian history, challenging some of our beliefs, both about asylum seekers and about ourselves. Four actors narrate and sing, bringing to life the voices of different players in the asylum seeker drama: the politician, the refugee, the public.
When it comes to this kind of grass roots theatre, Gill pays her dues to German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, the “towering genius on the horizon”, as she calls him. Brecht believed theatre should keep its audience at an emotional distance. The actors shouldn’t pretend to be other than they are; they “must show that they are showing”. They talk to the audience. Action is stylised, not natural. The action is given a historical context, the emphasis is on rational argument. Brecht wants his audience to be more, not less, self critical.
“I love this kind of theatre,” she says. “It turns us into potential agents of social change. And it makes complex and difficult things more accessible; we understand things more clearly than we have before – on stage, a profound idea is held in a stylised attitude. In the audience, it crystallises in a moment of insight into the human condition and lodges in our imagination. Brecht’s plays are a series of such moments.
“In our own way, mindful of the seriousness of our own cause, we have tried to emulate this approach with Stormy Waters.”
Although she no longer calls herself a Christian, the church connection comes naturally to Gill, who grew up in a Methodist household in Swan Hill. "At 13 I served as secretary of the Young Women's Missionary Movement (Swan Hill branch)," she says, mock seriously. Her renunciation of religion at 19 wasn’t a dramatic one: her family had always been less interested in the God aspect of church than in the “good works” and community side.
The seriousness of the young Methodist proselytiser remains. She loves the cut and thrust of debate, arguments, counter-arguments, refutations, voices raised in passion. She leads us on, her arguments becoming ever more subtle, until we find we’re arguing against ourselves.
Which is how Stormy Waters began. In April, not long after an Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Berati, was beaten to death by guards on Manus Island, four of us sat around a table arguing the rights and wrongs of working in a detention centre. After an hour or more, we were no closer to agreeing. The real issue, we did agree, was our government’s policy of sending asylum seekers into cruel and dangerous conditions out of our sight and beyond our protection.
“But what can we do about it?” The familiar refrain. Only this time we decided to do SOMETHING, although we weren’t sure yet what it would be.
Having roped in Jennie Deane, a former South Gippsland mayor with connections, we met Russell Broadbent, our local federal MP, and the only current Liberal or Labor MP to publicly oppose the bipartisan policy on sending asylum seekers to offshore detention centres.
We asked Mr Broadbent what we could do to strengthen his hand at a time when there seems to be no political will to change the policy. He said a day of action or joint statement on asylum seekers by the combined churches of Gippsland would send a very powerful statement to the country’s leaders, who pride themselves on being good Christians.
That didn’t seem very difficult. The Bible is full of stories about strangers in need, from Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem to the Good Samaritan. We just needed to plant the seed and the churches would take it on.
The reality proved more difficult. Asked how many of her congregation were sympathetic to asylum seekers, one local minister told us “About 5 per cent.” Congregations were mostly ageing, she said, and most rural Christians had little to do with refugees, or indeed immigrants, so were even more fearful than city people.
That was when Gill began to talk about using theatre in the churches. It seemed a stretch to me. Why would anyone go to see a play about asylum seekers, especially those who were unsympathetic in the first place? How could you get across information without boring everyone to bits? How could you give it light and dark? How could you not lecture?
Gill was aware of the complications. Over the past months, she’s thrown her script away several times and started again. “It was condescending,” she said one time. “I was lecturing,” another time. The final script is challenging, moving, fast-paced and often funny.
There were other complications. The rise of Islamic State, anti-terrorism raids in Sydney and Melbourne, the police shooting of a local jihadist, all raised the heat on Muslims and. by association, asylum seekers.
Then there was the difficulty of what we wanted the play to achieve. We decided to seek a statement from the churches that Mr Broadbent could take to Canberra. But what should the statement say? Even in our small group, we couldn’t agree. With some 50 million people in the world displaced by wars, violence and famine, there are no easy answers. In the end, we decided the least we should expect is less cruel treatment of asylum seekers.
After each performance, the audience will have the opportunity, if they wish, to sign a letter calling on the Government to affirm its commitment to the humane treatment of asylum seekers.
Once they were sure the play was not a simplistic diatribe, the churches embraced the idea. There are performances planned in Wonthaggi, Korumburra, Leongatha, Foster and Warragul.
As the interest builds, Gill is growing more confident that Stormy Waters can achieve something worthwhile. She says it’s clear that many people want to do something but don’t know how to begin.
“We all want to be better people than we are. The exciting thing is that this is the first time that something like this has been attempted on an electorate-wide basis."
First McMillan, she says, then who knows?
Bass Coast Post: Why use theatre for something like this?
Gill Heal: Because the stage puts the actors right "there", in a special relationship with the audience. If you’re going to look for insights into human behaviour, the theatre will do it best. For me, of all the arts, the theatre has this sense of "thereness" the strongest. We’re Lear’s “poor bare forked animal”, exposed, full of grand aspirations, taking risks, all our limitations on show. And on the other side of the equation, the audience has bought in. It’s a kind of contract.
Post: So Stormy Waters is an “issues’ play. That sounds pretty boring.
GH: Some people are never going to be interested in debating "issues". But I think most of us can’t resist being engaged at some level when we believe we have a stake in the matter. The task of any arts project is to persuade us that we matter and it matters.
Post: Who’s going to go to your play, except the people who agree with you?
GH: It’s quite likely that will be the case. It’s also likely that there will be some people holding a middle ground position, worried about the threat that asylum seekers represent but also looking for arguments that will allow them to be more generous. We all want to be better people than we are. We want to be persuaded. But at times of high anxiety and mistrust, such as now, it’s much more difficult for people to hear opposing arguments. So who knows? Nobody might come.
Post: I know all about asylum seekers and I think the government policy is wrong. I don’t need to hear it all again ...
GH: Theatre offers a unique perspective on different aspects of life. It employs all its resources to create an intense experience that changes us in some way. It means that a tired and fixed idea can be fired with fresh understanding.
Post: I hate books and films and plays that tell me what I should think.
GH: But you read writers who tell you how to think all the time. Obviously you go to didactic theatre knowing you’re going to be hearing a single point of view. But isn’t it more about balance? We can cope with a didactic message if there’s enough revelation. The play has to be able to isolate truth in some way, offer insights into human behaviour. If it can offer me a glimpse of something that I’ve never understood before and strengthen my resolve to help achieve social change, then I don’t mind being told this is a truth.
Postscript: I got a later email from Gill: “I'm terrified that I sounded as if I'd taught Brecht all he knows. You won't let me sound like that, will you?”
November 13, 2014
I loved the play Stormy Waters on Sunday. The actors and John Coldebella were wonderful. It was very emotional. Our government is such a disgrace, I don't feel proud to be an Australian at all. I belong to the Refugee Council of Australia, I have belonged to this group for a number of years, they are having a public forum on 'Asylum Seekers and Protection at Sea'. after their AGM on the 24th November, there are some great speakers advertised.
November 2, 2014
Thank you so much for the in-depth article on the insightful Gill Heal’s latest project ‘Stormy Waters’. This community has been blessed with Gill’s meticulous, intelligent and compassionate eye looking at our own special history and engaging us with issues through the power of theatre. Her commitment, talent and ability to empower others to forge their talents to create pieces which move, inform and challenge our thinking is a gift which will leave an indelible mark in our hearts and minds for years to come.