Theatre and the Critical Silence
In 1972 I was organising the Orientation Week at Brisbane's Mount Gravatt Teachers' College which later merged into Griffith University. But in 1972 it was a small minion for the Bjelke-Peterson Government in Queensland. I had organised to bring in three special guest speakers: Zelman Cowen (then Vice Chancellor of University of Queensland), Ray Whitrod (Qld Police Commissioner) and Qld Liberal Senator Neville Bonner. Hardly radical speakers who might upset the conservative apple-cart! Yet I, and my student organising colleague, were brought in to meet with the College Principal Mr Nimmo to "explain". His eyes were blazing and the anger was palpable. He raged at us. "How dare you?" he snaked at us. "How dare you". Now I am not sure how many times this phrase was repeated. But then it came: "How dare you put on the same platform as the distinguished Zelma Cowen and Ray Whitrod ... a 'BLACK MAN': Neville Bonner?"
I can assure you I have never forgotten this moment and how it crystalized so much for me as a future educator and artistic activist. Here was a person of power and influence expressing such a reactionary and racist thought. But this wasn't the only incident that helped shape a life-long attitude for me.
Some time later in the year, I wanted to bring out a speaker to address issues of "self-management" as a social and political movement; particularly in relation to Aboriginal rights in light of the newly formed "Tent Embassy" in Canberra. Initially I wanted to do it legitimately with an administration sanctioned event. However, once again, I was brought in to meet Mr Nimmo; only this time, Mr Walker, the Deputy, was also present. The tone was different. I was treated well; even offered a nice small glass of port liquor. I put my case to bring out radical activist, Brian Laver, as a speaker. Mr Nimmo smiled and with a wry expression pointed out to me: "Joe, you and I can discuss these issues but you can't expect seventeen year olds straight out of school to ..."
So there it was. Laid out clearly to me was the need for authority to hide information and to restrain critical thinking and action where it crossed the often hidden agendas of power elites. The semantics of "free speech" and developing "critical and creative thinking" become weapons to disguise and hide the real powers and structures that aim to do just the opposite. Those two moments I experienced as a twenty-year old student at Mt Gravatt Teacher's College did more to clarify and shape my work as a teacher, artist, director than virtually all that followed.
And so now I direct "The Trojan Women" by Euripides and adapted by the cast from DTC. The cluttered visions and the cacophonous noise of twenty-first century narcissism negates the critical silence needed to stop and feel the weight of manufactured realities that deceive and destroy. The Taliban in Afghanistan have banned girls from schools; blatantly consolidating the dehumanising of women and reducing humanity to bargaining objects. Nimmo's rage at a Black Man speaking on a podium with "distinguished" white men distilled that white supremacist rage at being challenged; then to bar students from being able to see the arguments and discuss the social dimensions of such thinking only reinforced the lie of education being for the well-being of all society.
Euripides knew these same things over two thousand years ago. A year 11 student from last year, Amy Goedecke, suggested we put on "The Trojan Women" as a wake-up call. So here it is. With students doing all their own interpreting, research and adapting to today's world and seeking comparisons in the play's content with the situation in Afghanistan, the production exhibits an organic response that theatre creation rarely sees. Seventeen year old students and younger well and truly were able to discuss and process this information and the world views on display. Wynter Grainger took on the role of Dramaturg while supported by Amy, and fellow past student members, Tilly Watson, Lillia Bank, Georgie Wiley and Jack Curry. While my role has been to shape the work and provide artistic direction and facilitation and challenge, I hope that in this instance and in all my work I have never been a Nimmo and hopefully, never will be a Nimmo!
After all our efforts, I know the audience will feel the critical silence of The Old Chapel Studio space that makes room for critical and creative reflection and future thinking ...
My gratitude goes out to all members of the DTC staff, Daramalan staff,
cast and crew. Special thanks also to Michael Castrission, Ayaz Pazhohish and Helen Musa.