Staging Australia: Theatre, Art, and the Opera House

Today we departed our hotel at 6:25am for an early morning backstage tour of the famed Sydney Opera House. Our nearly three hour journey began through the large underground passageway where materials and supplies are brought into the building and allowed us to see storage spaces for lighting equipment, sets, and large instruments, as well as rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, and behind the scenes corridors. We got to see four different performance venues, along with their backstage spaces, stage managers’ booths, and rigging and fly systems. One of the many interesting facts that we learned is that there are no wings in the theatres, since space itself is incredibly limited throughout the entire building (in fact, people catch dancers as they leap from the audience’s view so that they do not crash into the walls). This is the result of the giant, outside “sails” which were designed first, leaving the architects the challenge of figuring out how to fit everything else underneath them (we kept being reminded that the Opera House is horizontally challenged). Of course, the highlight was walking on the stage of the Concert Hall, with its giant organ and over 2000 seats. We finished our tour with a lovely breakfast in the Green Room and got to walk outside to see the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the balcony of the building.

We continued through the Royal Botanic Gardens and onto the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where we witnessed an incredible collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, as well as modern European and Australian art. This piece by Mumu Mike Williams, titled “Ngura (country),” was painted on Australian Post mail bags. It was particularly striking as it plays off of the message painted on the bags: “Theft or misuse of this bag is a criminal offence penalties apply.” It offers a direct commentary on land possession, government, law and punishment, and indigenous expression and reclamation (and is a recent work, created in 2017).

Our day ended with a performance of Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, by Nakkiah Lui (a Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander female playwright), which was staged at the Sydney Theatre Company. The show opened last week and is a mixture of traditional theatre (complete with stunning monologues for the female, Aboriginal lead actress) with intense lighting and sound effects, and  comic book and graphic novel aesthetics and narratives. As the publicity notes describe, “Somewhere in the Australian bush, mild-mannered archaeologist Dr. Jacqueline Black uncovers a mass grave. She picks up a skull and is over-powered by the spirit of her great-great-grandmother… BAM! Blackie Blackie Brown has arrived and she is a cold-blooded vigilante. Her mission: kill all the descendants of the men who massacred her ancestors. White people, watch out. This isn’t about forgiveness. And it’s not about reconciliation.” The performance was a powerful two-person show, filled with moments of extreme comedy and violence (as one would expect of the topic and genre). It was also sprinkled with intensely somber moments, including a monologue about the mass murder of an Aboriginal community and descriptions of modern day mistreatment of First Peoples in Australia. The new show (it just opened last week) was an empowering, lively, and important piece of theatre that critiqued the Australian government and its history, as well as put into perspective the continuing effects of racism and colonialism on the Aboriginal population today.

It was a day full of art and performance in Sydney! And we still have so much more ahead for us all!

Jimmy Noriega

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