Emily: How did you get involved with Powerhouse Youth Theatre?
David: PYT came to my school and did a workshop. I had been in Australia for 6 months after moving from South America, from Colombia. And the teachers said ‘you can go to the workshop, you can practise your English’, so I took it, and that’s it – they never got rid of me. We did a project with PYT, and then they came back to school with a new project that was an actual show in 2012. That year the ensemble was formed and I was invited to join it.
Pedro: I found PYT, but I only found them because I was interested. I watched a lot of movies growing up and I just wanted to become a part of it.
Lap: Pedro and I came from a PYT program called the Pilots Program, where David and two other ensemble members would run drop-in classes for 6 months or so. That’s how I came to know PYT, I did those classes for a prolonged time until they invited me to join.
Kate: The Pilots Program only started last year, and we hoped it would bring in new participants who, if they were reliable and talented, could be brought into the ensemble.
Lap: I came to Australia last year from Vietnam and PYT was the first place that I contacted for theatrical arts.
Emily: Did you have an interest in theatre before you moved?
Lap: Yes, I started acting when I was 12. We had two companies over there who would put on works of western-influence. One did script work and one only did devised theatre. It’s a very small community over there with foreigners from overseas, so if someone puts on a show, lots of people from overseas who work in Vietnam would come and watch it – they could only choose from two companies!
Monica: I graduated from Communications, Theatre and Media in Bathurst, and then I came back here and wanted to look for theatre companies where I lived. I got in contact and then I ended up staying forever!
Emily: Can you explain to me what it means to be a ‘suburbist’?
David: ‘Suburbists’ came from the idea of a word that defines the way people think of you. We have a word for stereotypes about race, and a word for when people discriminate according to sex, but we didn’t have a word for people who think about you a certain way because of what area you come from. In Sydney it’s a big deal. As soon as you say what suburb you come from, people already have an image of who you are, based just on the suburb. Being a diverse cast and coming from all different suburbs, we thought it was a good idea to explore how correct, or how incorrect those stereotypes are. Are we really identified by where we live? Does that make us who we are, or are we just individuals who live in a place that really doesn’t have anything to do with who we are in the inside. And we all have those stereotypical thoughts, if someone says ‘I come from Liverpool’ or ‘I come from Sydney city’ you have certain thoughts, we all do it.
Kate: It’s something that I’ve always been interested in, these tensions between suburbs. I grew up in Western Sydney and my cousins grew up in Bondi, and they used to give us so much crap – there’s a line in the play “do you even know what a beach is?” and they would just go at it relentlessly. I thought it was interesting that they had I real issue with where I live, and I had no control of it! Then I went to Macquarie University, again people would always make comments about where I was from and there was a blanket idea that Western Sydney was something not to be proud of, that it was a place to get out of. Deep down I’m curious about what it says about us as a society as well, especially right now with so much fear, mistrust and vilification of certain groups. I think this often comes down to being able to define yourself by what you’re not. Through the development of the show, some people in the ensemble had a lot of conversations with me about suburbism whereas Pedro, it wasn’t really something you had thought about a lot. But you could relate it to schools you wouldn’t want to go to didn’t you.
Pedro: You hear things about schools, and you start to see specific identities for different schools. Like drugs, fighting, violence and disrespect.
Emily: And there definitely are different cultures and subcultures that exist, so you can’t ignore it, but I guess the problem is when you brand a person and don’t give someone the chance to breathe in their own identity.
Pedro: I’m from Green Valley, which is South-West – 10-15 minutes away from Liverpool.
Monica: I live in Green Valley as well.
David: I live in Lidcombe.
Lap: I live in Smithfield, very close to Fairfield.
Kate: I live in Granville, and so everyone lives in South-West or Western Sydney.
Emily: Do you feel like you’ve had personal experiences of suburbism?
Lap: Yeah I think so. When we did our residency last year I had just come to Australia, and so a friend had to explain the concept for me. The more I live here and do things with people from different areas, you start to see subtle things. I go to school in Cabramatta, but I don’t live there. And a cast member of a show I did, she wasn’t trying to be mean, but she went on an excursion to Cabramatta and she said ‘wow! There’s all these other people that look like you Lap!’ But I think she lived so far away that when she visited Cabramatta it was a real eye-opener for her – and it’s all only one city. That’s how big Sydney is.
Kate: There are multiple different worlds within Sydney I think. It is interesting, because if you do grow up in a certain area the danger is that you can still feel that Australia is a very Anglo, English-speaking place, and of course it is to an extent, but in Western Sydney it’s not unusual to hear other languages and know that’s not the complete reality. We’ve also been thinking about how suburbism fits into the process of making theatre. If you are a Western Sydney artist does this mean you can only tell your personal story? What are the boundaries and expectations of that? In the show, we’ve got all these characters who want to make theatre, so there’s sort of a play within a play.
Emily: So meta. (laughs)
David: When I started in theatre, the only place that I knew was PYT. And you have to go deeper to see that there are things happening in the arts in Western Sydney. But the problem with theatre around here is that the marketing is not out there, and a lot of the time you’re expected to create a certain product. I remember a couple of years ago when we put on the first show with Kate, a newspaper wrote an article with the headline “Giving the Westies a Fair Go”. It was so offensive to us. It’s like there is a division between Western Sydney theatre and Sydney theatre. A lot of the time people look at Western Sydney theatre as being ‘community-based’, it’s not really professional work, it’s just a couple of people having a go – ‘good job for doing that’. But in Sydney people are respected for what they do. It’s the biggest thing we want to break – we are on the same level. And in Sydney it’s very Anglo, whereas here we have so many cultures, there are so many stories to be told, and new ways to tell them. In film we’re always looking for what’s next, how can we improve? But in theatre we don’t like change. This is where we can come in as a Western Sydney company – we don’t play by the rules.
Monica: Short answer – no. I don’t think theatre is accessible at all. It’s a few intersections of race and class and location. There is no theatre here at all, but even when there is theatre it’s not marketed to our community, it’s marketed to the city. Like ‘look at us! We’re doing something!’ It’s this inferiority complex. Not only are we perceived as not great, but we believe that ourselves.
Emily: It makes me angry because I think theatre should be for everyone. Most of my friends who aren’t involved in theatre don’t go and see theatre ever. And people from where I live look at me like I’m crazy because I’m in the city all the time to see shows, because that’s where it is. I love theatre, but most people aren’t going to make that sacrifice or wouldn’t think to do it in the first place, and so most people miss out. It’s really disappointing.
Monica: It’s not culturally recognised, it’s expensive, and it’s live so you have to see it on that day-
Lap: And not be late!
Monica: There’s a weird elitist culture around it.
Lap: Is it old fashioned?
David: It’s a little old fashioned because we have the idea that theatre is Shakespeare, and that’s it. Film has evolved so much and new filmmakers are being pushed to try new things. But when it comes to theatre, there is a formula, this is the way we do it. So theatre is being seen as old fashioned.
Emily: I think that’s a misconception in itself though, because I was at A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sydney Theatre Company the other night – and they’re doing mind-blowing work. It wasn’t Midsummer like you’d ever seen it before. So people are pushing boundaries, but people don’t realise that it’s happening, because they’re not going to theatre because that misconception already exists.
Kate: When you do see theatre and it’s live there’s nothing like it. When it takes you somewhere else you don’t think it’s old fashioned.
Monica: People are so used to consuming film, but we’re also more comfortable critiquing film – anyone can go and see something and say ‘that’s shit’ or ‘that’s great. Whereas when you go and see theatre, they have no idea what to think, and I don’t want to be that one person who didn’t get it. In film, everyone’s opinion is valid, but in theatre with its elitist background, if you have an opinion you feel like you shouldn’t say it because it might be wrong. You’re consuming them in almost the same way, but with one of them you get to eat popcorn and the other you get to drink wine.
You can buy tickets to Suburbist here. Playing at ATYP 26-29 October.