The idea of comparing actors to asylum seekers seems initially rather crass, bordering on offensive. How can you make an analogy between the soul-crushing wait that families on Manus Island face, for example, with the relatively comfortable instability of the actor’s plight? But when Outer Urban Projects’ Irine Vela conceived the idea, she was thinking not so much of the ways that actors are like refugees, but in the ways refugees are forced into the role of actor; subjugated, living in limbo, forced to survive on hope.
“So much of a refugee’s experience is about hoping and waiting. Waiting for acceptance into the show, into the country,” Vela explains over coffee at her house in Coburg. It’s a disempowering experience that completely strips people of agency. “We wanted to look at what it means for a person to be constantly rejected, and having to turn up again and again.”
Vela put the idea to a number of writers, including longterm associates Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsiolkas. All three were integral members of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, and recently reunited for the production of Anthem that has just played in this year’s Melbourne Festival. They were instantly hooked, especially because the show would include works by asylum seekers Wahibe Moussa, Milad Norouzi and Sahra Davoudi.
“I’m interested in the ways asylum seekers have to perform this role of subjugation,” says Cornelius. “They’re certainly not allowed to get angry, or tell someone off”. There is a distinct set of rules and expectations we set up around the process, and then we reject the majority anyway. This idea of “correct ways of being other” haunted all the writers, and bled into further questions of otherness and acceptance in the community.
Tsiolkas remembers an incident with his dad back in the ’70s, who’d injured himself at work and was caught in the convoluted bureaucracy of compensation. “His one love was the garden, but he became very conscious of going outside and pottering around in case someone was watching him.” Vela nods, reaching for an acting metaphor. “Whether you’re the outsider, the immigrant or the refugee, you always have to play the subservient role. You always have to play low status.”
Cornelius took the quintessential Australian audition piece, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and put it in the hands of actor Mary Sitarenos, Greek-Australian, and someone “who would never be cast as Pearl because she doesn’t look a certain way, doesn’t look how an Australian is meant to look. Whatever the fuck that means.” Tsiolkas decided to work with Euripides Women of Troy, because “it’s still one of the most astonishing plays about the refugee experience.”
Sitting around the table with these old mates of the left, it’s plain to see how vivid and rewarding their working process must be. “There is a remarkable ease between us,” Cornelius agrees, “unless we get too pissed.” And if there’s the occasional stoush, she adds with a cheeky grin, “the other person eventually forgets.” Vela shoots back warmly, “Forgives, not forgets.” A shared value system is key, a sense that theatre needs to be political, to tackle the rot in the country’s heart. The Audition is hopefully merely the latest in a unique ongoing collaboration between these remarkable artists.
The Audition is at La Mama Courthouse November 13 to 24.