Over the course of her time at Outer Urban Projects within her capacity as Artistic Director and Producer, Irine Vela has worked with a number of refugee communities and asylum seekers. She has listened to their stories, their struggles in coming to a new country, and processes they go through in becoming an Australian.
In time Vela noted a correlation between the lived experience of those seeking asylum, and that of performing artists – especially for those who are both, giving way to the conceptualisation of The Audition.
“The Audition was, I thought, a really interesting chance to delve into their stories as immigrants and asylum seekers, but also to look at analogies for their lives as performing artists. Do they get a chance to become a part of our mainstream Australian society? That’s quite difficult because as an asylum seeker you’re always on the outer; you’re never fully integrated,” Vela observes. A reality that extends itself to the work of performing artists who face many challenges in breaking into the Australian arts landscape as people of a culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, along with an exploration of what it means to wait, for what can often seem like, an eternity.
“Actors continually wait to find out if they’ve got a part; a lot of their life is spent waiting for some kind of acceptance. Similarly the asylum seeker plays that game of waiting,” says Vela. “And if you don’t wait and you’re not prepared to wait, then it can send you around the bend.”
While the director acknowledges that the two are entirely separate experiences, the two states of being undoubtedly share similar emotions.
People want to see what reflects them and if you bring that into your stages, you will get the audience; there’s no question about that.
Opening at La Mama Theatre on today, Outer Urban Project’s latest offering is a multi-authored work, featuring seven different writing voices and narratives based on and influenced by different times, realities and landscapes. To unify these voices in a single work has proven to be a welcome challenge for Vela, which is sure to give way to a rich tapestry on the stage.
“They are all completely different. Some for example are set in Woomera Detention Centre in 2001, some are set right now in Melbourne today, some are set in an audition room, some are set in an interview room, the immigration office. They’re all very, very different narratives and stories and characters unrelated to each other, and that’s the challenge of trying to get, I guess, the glue of what it is to work, to be let into the club if you like.”
Among the writing cohort are fellow Greek Australians Christos Tsiolkas and Tess Lysiotis, and cast members Peter Paltos and Cypriot Australian Mary Sitarenos.
Vela recalls being in her 20s when she saw Hotel Bonegilla, “an inspiring and refreshing” play by Lysiotis, who was one of the original trailblazers in Australia to write about the migrant experience in a contemporary way.
It has been a busy year for Vela, who comes off the back of co-writing the highly acclaimed The Anthem with the same team behind Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, which set out to ask ‘Does Australia share a dream and do we really sing with one voice?’
As a child of migrants herself, Vela has found herself naturally drawn to such works, to explore the larger questions about the social fabric of Australian society and the richness that diversity in the arts brings.
It goes hand in hand with her work at Outer Urban Projects, which seeks to uncover and develop the talent of young people who have not necessarily had the opportunity to train in the arts, and to create a space for their creative expression.
“Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of cultural discrimination that goes on in the arts sector – these things are documented,” she says. “Artists of other backgrounds, and when I say ‘other’ I mean of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, let alone ethnicities and races, there are some typecasts, stereotypes,” she says.
While companies like Outer Urban Projects exist to remedy this and to celebrate diverse voices in Australia, Vela is conscious of the notion of diversity becoming ‘a ghetto’ of sorts, boxing people in, which in itself can be problematic.
“I think there’s been amazing leaps and bounds, but still, the stage is overwhelmingly white, and I think in some ways, the way we treat our refugees and immigrants, the way we treat people trying to get into this country, is a kind of metaphor for the way we treat our artists, the artists of other backgrounds by stereotyping them and portraying them and cordoning them off into the multicultural area,” she explains.
But what those in positions of power continue to ignore is that audiences are hungry for diversity, a truth that Vela’s work is proving time again.
“If you want to present only a particular type of class and race, you’ll attract only those people. People want to see what reflects them and if you bring that into your stages, you will get the audience; there’s no question about that. I think there’s a correlation between who’s on stage and who the audience is; I do.”
‘The Audition’ is on from 13-24 November, opening Thursday 14 November at 7.30 pm, at La Mama Courthouse (349 Drummond St, Carlton VIC). Artist Q&A following morning and matinee performances. Tickets $20-$30. To book, call (03) 9347 6948 or visit lamama.com.au