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The end of the '60s comes to life in this genre-smashing Sydney Festival show

Written by
Cassie Tongue

You’ve probably heard the phrase “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. It’s the opening line from Joan Didion’s The White Album, an essay collection that takes a deep dive into the tail end of the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party started a revolution and the Manson family committed murder. This was a turning point: Didion said the 1960s, all social change and counterculture, truly died when Sharon Tate did. Also in 1968, Didion was an outpatient at a psychiatric facility in Santa Monica. Somehow, marvellously, her essay captures these fragments, from her life and the world outside, and presents them as a whole.

Now, American director Lars Jan is bringing the essay – with its whorls of reportage, cultural references and personal confession – to the stage as part of Sydney Festival. Jan has envisioned The White Album as a partially immersive theatrical experience that rises from the din of a party in a beachfront house: “Out of this morass of people, a woman comes to the sliding glass doors, steps outside onto the veranda, shuts the door behind her… She starts talking, and she’s reading The White Album. And as she's talking, the party starts to morph to syncopate and illustrate her words in indirect and sometimes direct ways.” 

An “inner audience” of around 25 pre-selected people will make up the party, interacting with the performance and the items on stage to bring the touchstones of the piece to life. Regular audience members are off the hook – at least until the end when, built into the running time, The White Album team will facilitate a “public forum” on different audience members’ experience with the essay and its topics, particularly from cross-generational perspectives. 

This is as much of a draw for Jan as the performance of the essay. Its restless ideas about political change and injustice are still relevant now. “I'd say at no point since the late ‘60s has society convulsed like it's convulsing right now.” He points out that while some issues, like violence against black bodies, are now referred to by different names, “the context and the structural inequities are identical.”

Jan expects the conversations we’ll have post-show in Australia to be vastly different to the forums held in past stagings of The White Album overseas – he and his team are going to research local issues to identify resonances with our perspectives. It’ll be about global choices and agitation for change, Jan explains. “But it's also very much about the specific issues that concern the audience that's in that room. So yeah, in that way, hyper local.”

The most important thing is that audiences continue to grapple with these ideas once the show is over. According to Jan, that’s the whole point of bringing The White Album to the stage.

“Whenever we cut the conversation off, it's like multiple balls have just gotten rolling, and there's all this potential energy and inertia that needs to be worked out. And one of the things that's been most inspiring to me has been to see not only people who experienced the ‘60s first-hand connect with the work, but to hear people who are in their teens and twenties processing the work and relating it to the present moment, not getting involved in a nostalgic interpretation of the ‘60s.”

His ultimate goal? That these conversations spill out into the streets and into the bars and restaurants nearby, carrying into the Sydney summer night.

“And then,” he adds, “it hopefully leads to beautiful lovemaking and babies.”

Joan Didion's The White Album is at Roslyn Packer Theatre as part of Sydney Festival from January 8 to 12.

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