The 22nd century may be a little while off, but Western Sydney based arts company CuriousWorks has taken a chance on what future Australia could look like. It’s not exactly pretty: the impacts of climate change are devastating, personal freedoms have been savaged and the line between government and business has eroded almost entirely.
This is the vision presented in CuriousWorks’ epic narrative project Colony: a tapestry of tales that follows a single family over 15 generations from pre-colonial times to an imagined future in the 22nd century.
Artistic director Shakthi Shakthidharan (also one of the artistic directors of the new National Theatre of Parramatta) describes Colony as “a Marvel universe set in Western Sydney but with ordinary heroes instead of super heroes”.
“I’m really interested in how we can create something that audiences will come back to on repeated occasions,” he says.
The Colony project will span a number of years across a series of artistic productions. The first instalment, When the Tide Comes In, kicked off in March at Carriageworks, and continues this month with an event at Riverside Theatres on June 22. Subsequent parts will be released throughout this year, both online and via live performances.
Set in the imagined future, When The Tide ComesIn uses film, prose, music and illustration to explore the story of Sam: a young woman on a mission to untangle the threads of the past and unearth the secrets of her family history.
Each part of Colony can stand individually as its own artwork, but Shakthidharan says “all the stories connect together to form a larger mosaic of what Western Sydney is. It’s a way to properly grapple with the glorious complexity of the region.”
The layering and expansion of stories within the Colony universe manifests a “new mythology” for Western Sydney, reinforcing the idea that diverse works don’t need to be one-off exceptions to what is essentially a mono-cultural canon.
Shakthidharan founded CuriousWorks in 2005, as a vehicle for engaging young storytellers to mould an alternative image of Australia. Specifically, the company focuses on the multicultural landscape of Western Sydney and explores facets of our city that are often left untouched.
“Multiculturalism is something we need to nurture. For a lot of communities here, their experience is that whenever they get talked about [it is] mostly in a negative way – [and] mostly in a way where no one is asking how they feel about it.”
Around a third of the population of NSW calls Western Sydney home. Geographically, the region is huge. The perception that Western Sydney exists on the outer, Shakthidharan says, is not necessarily accurate. The fact that it is often overlooked as an artistic hub is something he believes could be reshaped.
“I think we have great economic potential in unleashing the cultural capital of this region. When you stand on a street in Western Sydney, you can watch the whole world go by – people who have ancestries from all across the globe collected to be in the Western Sydney of today.”
Actress Marie Chanel, who plays the character Sam in When The Tide ComesIn, has family roots in India and Polynesia, and notes, “I’m actually playing someone with the same cultural heritage as myself – which is so rare for me. The more we do work like [When The Tide ComesIn], the more we get opportunities to represent people who look like us, who are like ourselves and who are of the same heritage.”
A step into the theatre or a quick flick through our TV channels never fails to remind us that representation in the arts still has a long way to go. The spectrum of people and cultures we see on our streets is not always mirrored in our creative worlds.
“A lot of people are interested right now in more diversity in our industry,” says Shakthidharan, “but it could potentially end up resulting in more diversity in how the industry looks, without there being more diversity in the decision makers and the leaders.”
CuriousWorks aims to identify and nurture a new generation of storytellers. Shakthidharan notes that a more diverse arts scene will only be achieved when communities are not spoken for, but given the tools create a platform to speak for themselves.
”I think for me, true diversity is about allowing the fact that we have such a diversity of wisdoms and experiences to actually expand our idea of what Australia is, what an Australian story is, what an Australian moment can be.”
Beyond professional works, grassroots and outreach programs are also integral to the fabric of the company. Currently, CuriousWorks is developing Beyond Refuge, a five-year project spearheaded by thirteen emerging Western Sydney artists from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. It also runs ReFill, an educational program that teaches high school students how to use multimedia to tell their own stories.
“We’re fostering independence rather than dependence – we want to be growing leaders as much as growing artists,” Shakthidharan says.
When we talk, Shakthidharan and I are sitting beside Parramatta River, where CuriousWorks presented the multi-sensory storytelling experience The Other Journey as part of the cultural arts festival Parramasala, in 2011. The fragrances of cinnamon and jasmine had drifted through the air. Small flames dotted a path down to the water at sunset. A boat glided across the river, carrying passengers who listened through headsets to stories from three generations of Sri Lankan refugees, as film projections flickered across the pillars underneath the bridge.
“We had these incredible conversations with [the refugees] – kind of like conversations you have with your best friends at 3am,” Shakthidharan recalls. “They wouldn’t have been able to tell the stories on stage without a kind of formalness creeping in, because they weren’t professional actors. So being able to share excerpts of those conversations on headphones was a very good fit for how that community wanted to share its message.”
For Shakthidharan, this bespoke approach is crucial: “What a community wants to say, for us is more important than single-mindedly pursuing a particular art form.”
Accordingly, CuriousWorks’ embraces a multidisciplinary approach that draws on performance, art and technology and capers along the ledge of experimentation and innovation.
“The digital revolution has really created amongst audiences a deep ease with multi-platforms, and almost an expectation that stories are told in that way,” Shakthidharan says. “We’re in a period of disruption in terms of our cultural distribution channels, and with that disruption, comes opportunity.”
As for what else lies ahead in Colony? A Counting and Cracking of Heads, a play about a Sri Lankan family in Australia, is currently in development with Belvoir. The feature film Myth, which picks up the story of the leads ten years later, will be presented as a live audio-visual event in late 2016.
Colony is a long-term initiative, and CuriousWorks are just at the beginning. “It’s not something that I can see myself getting bored of,” Shakthidharan says. “The future Western Sydney at its best, is one in which difference is celebrated. How different someone is to you is really a source of curiosity and excitement.”
You can explore the world of Colony and catch up on When the Tide Comes In here: curiousworks.com.au/project/colony