Food. And Thought. – Peter Maple talks with Wayne Harrison – TALKING ARTS

Wayne Harrison and I sat down during a lunch break to share some food for thought amidst a day’s rehearsal for the upcoming production of Hakawati

‘Hakawati’ – meaning the Storyteller – may indeed be the role Wayne Harrison himself is assuming in our chat today and also as the director of the National Theatre of Parramatta’s Hakawati for the Sydney Festival at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.

Harrison is passionate about the show, and he enthusiastically guides me through the evolution and intentions behind the show. He details that after a trip to Istanbul, Hakawati was born. It was there that Harrison was first exposed to the “centuries old tradition in the Middle East of telling stories in restaurants”. Harrison is bringing this organic tradition of food and storytelling back to Oz and placing it within a Western Sydney context, where it will be performed out of the El Phoenician restaurant on Parramatta’s famous Eat Street. “Four actors, four stories, and a four course meal. We’re doing food. And food for thought”, says Harrison.

“The stories are based on interviews with people, and stories that have been in the press, or online.” Belonging and Identity – these are the main themes on the menu for Hakawati. “It’s about families and generational conflict, with a legendary and mythical feel” says Harrison. He is keen to emphasise the personal and the human, highlighting their universal qualities.

“New work is the hardest thing we do”, Harrison explains, “Because nobody has been there before. But it’s been fun. The actors are terrific. One of the main reasons I do it is for the enjoyment.” There is an intimate aspect in the stories delivered direct to audience during the service of a meal, yet that is not to say that the experience won’t be theatrical. Harrison states that “the stories evolve as the meals evolve – even how the food arrives, and is presented, is theatrical.” I am led to understand that as any good meal progresses, on levels of portion size; flavour; and texture, so too does each consecutive story on the night. And likewise, each story compliments the other in providing a nourishing and satisfactory whole.

In a show that is breaking bread with its audience, and literally so here – as one character proudly states ”bread is life!” – Harrison insists that he is not only interested in engaging in an enjoyable process of sharing food and thought, he is also hopeful to activate provocation. “Surprise is the greatest weapon we have in the theatre.” Harrison believes a good night at the theatre shouldn’t simply end when the show does. He affirms that one should carry the show with them – discussion should be generated – debate should be activated. “I love it when people come out of the theatre and talk about what they’ve just seen…”

Then, just like that, our lunch break is over. Time flies… My Storyteller must return to his cast and their rehearsals.

My appetite whetted, I am looking forward to the theatrical meal that Hakawati promises to be – intimate, human stories feeding my mind. The accompaniment of good quality Middle Eastern cuisine feeding my belly at the same time won’t go astray either.

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, January 5, 2017.