Baking More Food For Your Thoughts. Peter Maple Talks with Director Suzanne Millar – TALKING ARTS

As is custom in the bAKEHOUSE Theatre kitchen, the Company are continuing to cook up new and fresh, and relevant and diverse meals of entertainment – to tantalise the appetites, for the social, the political, the theatrical. Step inside the workings of this provocative storytelling cookery with director Suzanne Millar as they prepare to serve up their next cathartic feast, Jatinga.

“The inspiration for Jatinga sparked in 2014 when bAKEHOUSE’s artistic director Suzanne Millar spent three months in Kamathipura to establish an arts program in partnership with the Apne Aap Women’s Collective, which works with the daughters of Kamathipura’s sex workers to provide pathways out of the cycle of inter-generational prostitution.

Written by the award-winning playwright Purva Naresh and directed by Suzanne Millar, Jatinga will feature a stellar cast of Sydney’s finest theatre talent as well as award-winning actor Faezeh Jalali and international social activist and performer Sapna Bhavani.”

Why do you direct?

Probably the better question is: why would I not?!

Directing is now kind of like breathing to me. It’s just the thing I do. The thing I have to do. I originally came to directing from acting – having initially trained in New Zealand as an actor – whereby I was invited to direct a show for DRAMAC at Macquarie Uni. And I just simply fell in love with it. The idea that where there were once just words, and now this whole world exists – it’s extraordinary, it’s intoxicating, it’s addictive!

Looking back, I was also inspired by a couple of brilliant older directors and teachers. In NZ, the incredible Prue Edmondson (who originally trained and traveled with the RSC and worked at the Royal Court alongside the likes of Olivier and John Osborn) – she ended up in my surroundings, in a small country town in NZ! And the inspiring Dulcie Lenton, in Sydney, who played a significant role in the development of a world class theatre industry in Sydney.

One of the things I have found that I most appreciate as a director is the opportunity to work with new (and on occasion even first time!) actors. To be there when they fall in love with the craft of acting and storytelling! – it is an enormous privilege.

[Most recently I got to work with the phenomenal Gigi Sawires, playing the role of Zaidi in The Laden Table, her first stage role. In 2016 Elijah Williams played the lead in Black Jesus in his professional debut. And for Jatinga I’m working with Trishala Sharma, an extraordinary young actress I met when we worked on a project with a school in Mt Druitt. Please do come see her at the start of her career!]

Why do you tell stories?

I truly believe that the arts are intrinsic to a community’s wellbeing. It revolves around those big ideas of communication and relationship and support – conversation and connection.

But I also think theatre in particular can uniquely chart the world we live in. It can tell the stories of the world/s we want to live in.

I’m not a politician or a journalist or a lawyer, but, I am a theatre-maker, and I believe I possess the humble, but extraordinary, opportunity to perhaps help shape the world we want to live in, or at least engage in the conversation about that world.

I would like to see us treat everyone with equal respect and dignity. Telling the stories of lives lived is an extremely important part in building some sort of empathy.

Why do you (continue to) invest so heavily in the telling and developing of new stories?

We’re at a pretty exciting place in the arts here in Sydney. I think we were hearing and seeing the same stories being repeated for a long time there. But, it most definitely seems to have dawned on us that audiences want more – they want to see themselves on stage, or the lives of their neighbours, or the people they read about. As we move forward, our world is ever-shrinking – and there is a vast amount of easily accessible online information – we don’t just travel now – news travels just as much, just as fast – faster! And the story of a child soldier in Zimbabwe is now an Australian story – the story of a Muslim and Jewish family wrestling with their histories and their grandparents’ experiences happens in homes across Sydney – and as we build close ties with India we need to know about their world…

What do you feel theatre still has to offer us for today?

Nothing can replace the live experience of meeting a character in a play, for my money. An audience is granted a context of their lives in the immediate – provided the opportunity to understand some element of their thinking, of their world – in the present moment! Time is given to their thoughts, and ideas, and emotions. TV and film can certainly take us to those places, but in the theatre, you are there!, and you meet those people (and in an intimate venue like ours at KXT – you share the room with them!).

One could see theatre as an important tool in assisting in the creation of empathy, at a time when social media and technology saturation means that we are often in an echo chamber of opinion.

Why run your own Space?

There is so much work being made in the indie theatre sector. It’s great!

We had been kicking around curated seasons, and venues for hire, for a long time (ATYP, Riverside, NIDA, TRS, Bondi Pav, Seymour Centre…), and it was becoming clear to us that if we wanted to continue to produce (more than) a couple of plays per year, and invest in development, then we needed our own home. Take The Laden Table, our most recent production prior – it is clear-cut evidence of that need. With Laden Table we began pitching it to multiple venues and companies back at the start of 2014 and unfortunately no one would pick it up…. I am certain that if we weren’t able to program it, like we are now, at our own venue, KXT, then it would be unlikely we could ever have invested in, and staged it…

-Negatives to running your own venue?

It’s like the early years running any small business. The hours are long. There’s more money going out than coming in. And for every couple of steps forward, it can somehow feel like a couple of steps back!

I think the big thing we’ve noticed is just how important it is to play the long game. You have to start thinking; “What will this theatre look like in 5 years, 10 years’, time?”… And likewise then, it’s just as important to think about what the future of the arts scene here might be like.

KXT is so new that we don’t yet have a set, and established, venue audience yet. And we’re relying on the exterior theatre companies that are coming through to share that risk with us, and to know that they’re also investing in something that will benefit artists long after their show – something to be proud of! Independent theatre companies – those without the buffer of funding or sponsorship – most running off zero budgets – are the key to what our sector will look like in the future.

-Positives to running your own venue?

So many!

We get to meet, and work, with a whole band of awesome, new, and emerging artists and companies – and we get to support and experience the work of art, up close and personal! While at the same time, we’re working with and learning lessons from the well-known heroes of indie theatre! Best of both worlds there…!

There’s also the fact that we get to play a small role in the development of some really important works – we’ve now been a part of 5 shows that are having another life somewhere else – that’s inspiring! And at the moment, we’re in the centre of a dynamic changing community here in Kings Cross – right in the heart of Sydney – where one foot is bravely stepping into the future; the other foot carefully holding to the important foundations of the city’s past.

What’s the ‘end game’?

For KXT: to remain a home to some of the most exciting new work – to play a role in the sustainability of some of Sydney’s bravest indie companies – to play a continuing role in the conversation between politics and the arts.

For Me: to be that crazy old lady directing stuff in Kings Cross and telling stories at the bar about the people I knew, and the shows I’ve seen.

For Jatinga: to build lasting creative partnerships between Sydney and Mumbai, to play a role in the greater understanding and awareness of human trafficking, and to recognise that with knowledge comes responsibility.

Tell me about Jatinga. Please!

Why Jatinga? Why now?

Sydney is a migrant city, and the largest migrant population is India. But we don’t see Indian Australians on stage.

India and Australia are building close international ties.

There are more slaves today in the world than in all of history.

One of the recurring themes of the play is to look more closely. That things are not always as they seem. The red light area of Mumbai is colourful and exuberant and exciting. Of the 10,000+ brothel based workers in Kamathipura, 88% are victims of sex trafficking, 75% are HIV+, 44% are homeless, one in four is under 16 and the average age of arrival is 12.

Why talk to me/the media about the/your show?

Less than $100 a month pays for a social worker at AAWC. The social workers identify the most at risk girls: those who are unsupervised in the laneways at night, or are in the rooms while their mums work, or have just arrived from the village. These social workers negotiate with mums and brothel owners and gangs to convince them to allow their daughter to be sent to school. When the girls are engaged with the centre every area of their life is taken care of: health and nutrition; dental; learning Hindi and English; education; homework and tutoring; establishment of a mentoring process; value-adding with music, art and drama; their legal rights; banking; family building (the mother daughter relationship is constantly nurtured and reinforced). Their social worker drives this through. Already the work we’ve been doing in Kamathipura has resulted in:

  •  A donor funding an additional night shelter for 25 of the most at risk girls, aged from as young as 2.5 years.
  • 14 women have been trained as hairdressers, 5 have now left the business and are working in salons out of the area.
  • We have a philanthropic partner and are about to roll out an education program supporting the girls through tertiary and vocation education, and into their first year of employment to provide them with a positive future.
  • We’ll be announcing details of the formalised bAKEHOUSE artists exchange between Sydney and Mumbai.

This is a project that works on multiple levels: building ties between artists in Mumbai and Sydney; raising awareness of one of the greatest social justice issues of our time; bringing the world of India to the heart of Sydney; providing a platform for the work of an incredible team of actors.

Where do you think we are heading artistically in this country…?

Big question.

I hope we are headed to a time when it is recognised that the arts are essential to wellbeing and can be a tool for greater human understanding – that the income generated from the arts sector is significant and sustainable – that the arts plays an essential role in the writing of a nation’s history.

I’m not sure that’s the case though…

Most immediately I think that the independent sector is prominent in leading the way – it seems to me its where writers, directors, designers, actors, producers are taking the most risks – engaging in big plays with big ideas! – really reaching to connect with their work, with the world – listening for the ‘Australian’ voice… I think indie theatre is authentically tapped into the zeitgeist; and I believe we could all only benefit greatly from our flagship and funded companies building partnerships and relationships with these fringe-dwelling risk-takers and change-makers of our time and of our theatre.

If you had ONE LAST SHOW you could write/develop/direct/produce!, what would it be?

And why?

An almost unanswerable question! I think if I could no longer direct or develop a show after this coming June, then, I will be very happy that Jatinga was my last.

Thanks so very much, Suzanne. In all sincerity.

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, June 1, 2017.