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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Cathedral Songs of Protest


Jessie in "Cathedral Song" Canberra 2002

The school principal died the day after the opening of "Cathedral Song" presented by DTC at The Street Theatre in Canberra in 2002.


A truly visionary man, Frank Fulton evoked a totally silent procession from nearly 1500 students down Cowper Street in the Canberra suburb of Dickson in a procession leading to his funeral. Nothing like it had been seen at the school. Total silence! Frank Fulton's idiosyncratic style as a Principal somehow took hold on the body of students at a school that had only recently become totally integrated as a co-educational institution. Frank Fulton's hand had opened the doors to a whole universe of academic, cultural and ecumenical paradigms unique to Daramalan College in Canberra. Not the least of these was the opening of radical potentially critical and creative adventures within Arts practices within an Educational context. This was most evident in the production of Daramalan's fledgling Daramalan Theatre Company (DTC) production of "Cathedral Song" at The Street Theatre.


I had seen the school's administration being chastised by the Catholic Arch Bishop for inviting Family Planning speakers to the school. Some teacher had complained to the Bishop. Frank was really upset that someone on his staff took it upon themself to go behind his back and complain to the Arch Bishop. I certainly noted this and when writing "Cathedral Song" I didn't want to be behind anyone's back or seem to betray the good-will of the school. Rarely could one see an institution so totally focused on the concept of love and support of even the lowliest of people. And yes, there would be some who would point to its obvious shortcomings over the decades. But what I found was an ideal that was beginning to take shape. So I asked Frank to have a look at the script I was presenting for DTC to produce on the stage. I also had Father Jim Littleton (a former Principal) to look over the rough drafts and even attend rehearsals and later David Garratt to give feedback. All three men were at various points Principals of Daramalan College.


My dear friend Brother James Maher found the work baffling and even confusing on first reading. Yet we discussed the element of the Cathedral as being a source of emptiness for the soul. He provided the context of the Buddhist ideal of emptiness which I found really powerful. This injected new elements into the script which made it more powerful. James was one of the most beautiful people I had ever known and I was incredibly affected by his death many years later. James wrote the Daramalan song that is still sung and endowed with great energy in its final phrases by the Daramalan students.


I needed to know that the MSCs who owned the school would not be in any way offended or disgraced by us putting on the production. I remember Frank, having read the script, asking what was my problem with it and why was I asking for his support. I itemised four areas: the young people taking drugs, the teenage sex, church politics and then ... (and Frank hesitated in his response) ... the slaughter on the Altar. He suggested no problems but did have to think before responding to the fourth point. Then he suggested there were precedents and that while there would probably be someone who would find offence to something in the work, the MSCs would back me. He suggested anyone who objected would be "a nark" and unaware of what is happening in the real world and even with their own kids. He further suggested "perhaps, they should look into themselves"!


On the opening night of the show, the night before Frank's tragic death, there was a celebration after the performance in the foyer of The Street Theatre. I cherish the memory of Frank's daughter Kate, walking through the crowded space with a glass of red wine which she gave to me and said "this is from dad". I looked up and saw Frank on the other side of the room raise his glass as he looked across to me with a smile. I never saw Frank again. He died the following day.


"Cathedral Song" probably couldn't be presented in a Government school because of it's religious connotations. It was generally very well received by the nearly 1000 people who saw it at The Street Theatre. But there was one reviewer who found the Catholic imagery so painful to watch that he left for the bar on a number of moments during the show. Afterwards he cornered me and reviled me for such bad acting and horrible scenarios. Previously, this person had been a friend of mine.


Some weeks later he came to a performance that I was giving as a one-man show at The Street Theatre.

He apologized for those comments he made late after the show on the opening night. He said "you know my surname"? I said yes. He then suggested I might know of a certain Reverend in Northern Ireland who was totally anti-Catholic! He then stated "I am his cousin".


NORTHERN IRELAND


In 2012, "Cathedral Song" was presented in Northern Ireland. The land of Ian Paisley! It was presented at Moate, County Westmeath in Northern Ireland.

a scene from the Moate Ireland production

The land of Ian Paisley was later to be united with both Catholic and Protestant groups united in forming a government after nearly a century of hated warfare and thousands of deaths. And here was "Cathedral Song" presented with full knowledge of its traditions and imagery that related to a whole population. So much of Australian culture has also been formed by the Irish tradition. My grand parents were born in Ireland well before the partition into North and Sound. How ironic that his play should be produced in the vicinity of where my grand parents were born in what is now Northern Ireland! How ironic that the work also had resonance for a similar number of people that saw it in far away Canberra in Australia!

Mrs Maculachy and Bishop Cole in the Moate production in Northern Irelandd

The play developed out of an acting exercise that intended to clearly show Stanislavski's "objectives" and "actions" very clearly. Each scene had clearly shown wants from each character so that student actors could very easily identify where they were going.


Then for the next twenty years or so after the play's first Canberra season in 2002, students in Year 9 Drama were able to use the text to very simply identify Stanislavski's Given Circumstances. The script is in no way platitudinous or patronising. So over the years, students have used scenes to practice and discover the elements of their character's objectives and strategies to achieve these objectives. Over the years students have shared with past and upcoming students how they played the various characters.


PROTEST

"Cathedral Song" is a protest against the bland passive violence that is enforced on our children by a society that blocks their experience and the innate need to explore and discover for themselves.


The trigger warning syndrome and the fear of all disturbance creates its own violence that becomes manifest in the hands of the least educated who then brutalize those about them so as to enhance their broken egos. The Church itself falls victim to this violence as it succumbs to the inertia of those that would use it to control populations and ensure people's straitjacketing to shield them from the tree of knowledge.


Whilst Daramalan embraced "Cathedral Song" with its abrasive themes underpinned by a strong sense of spirituality, one could not assume everyone would. When Sister Mary Hamilton said she felt the need to call out to the character of Jessie as she ran through the streets and her past history, she was indicating where the strength of the work lay. Mary felt the compulsion to reach out to the young person and assure her of ways out. But the character of Jessie lay on the altar dying when she looked up at the image of Christ above her and uttered the words "Would you fore-sake me too?"


She had no one ...


The play changed nothing in attitudes towards young people's struggle to fight and shape reality. It did nothing to curb the violence of bland passivity enforced upon them. But it did forge a strong basis and substance on which the Daramalan Theatre Company would build and venture. Lyndal Judges, who played Jessie, created a flawed character who nevertheless challenged a whole edifice and social structure in affluent Canberra. Her character was echoed in Moet, Ireland some years later where the Irish / Catholic connection within Australia was made evident in a production light years away from our Street Theatre production. The singing of "Hail Queen of Heaven" badly by the manipulative assistant to the Bishop (played by Richard Bosci) epitomized the loss of fundamental connection by the Church needing to deal with the corporate world in order to survive. And Lucy Zelic's young radical Nun brought to the fore the paradoxical traditional values that needed re-imaging for contemporary relevance.


"Cathedral Song" has been presented in unexpected parts of the world as a workshop production (ie. no royalties paid) and used as a teaching tool at Daramalan College. Its history owes a lot to the Principal at the time, Frank Fulton and also to a previous Principal, Jim Littleton, and to a later Principal, David Garratt. It also owes much to the efforts of Tracey Roberts who worked on the challenging Media aspects and costuming. A thank you to Jennifer Wright who stage managed and kept up people's confidence as they were fainting during the tech runs! I owe a personal debt to Brother James Maher who provided such gentle and yet critical prodding for the work to survive.


"Cathedral Song" is twenty one years old this year.


A number of cast members have requested a copy of the video. I can send a link to anyone interested. I can only express extreme gratitude for those who made this work possible and establish the Daramalan Theatre Company as a unique entity that was later to attract students to Daramalan and then encourage the genuinely critical and creative approach evident in the DTC work over more than two decades.


Joe Woodward


PS: you can read the script by purchasing here:

for a copy of the original video if you were a cast member, contact me at

joe.woodward@daramalan.act.edu.au

















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