Joel Hillman reflects on SUDS’ latest performance.
I think that safe in our comfortable USyd bubble, we often lack the vocabulary to authentically discuss those who seek peace on our shores. But as our government ‘Stops The Boats’, Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) is trying to make the plight of refugees more real.
Seedlings is the story of a garden. Devised and performed with high school students from Blacktown’s Captivate Drama Ensemble, it takes place in and around Westpoint Shopping Centre. It begins with a series of improvisations overseen by Director Gabby Florek, who moves about, Pied Piper-like, using a single harmonica note to release frozen performers into childlike play. Performed both with and for the shoppers, these interactions attract the attention of passers-by. One particular moment that I enjoyed was a morose Finn Davis turning robotically on cardinal points as confused people stepped around him.
The performance then moves to the Village Green, where begins the primary show, performed previously as part of the University’s Verge Festival.
From my vantage point in the shade, out of the scalding Western Sydney sun, I watch the cast trickle into the space.
An acknowledgement of the Darug People and music precede the unveiling of the performance’s central conceit: the exploration of the contents of three travelling bags. Jem Rowe’s string is used to bind and restrict movement in the space; Hal Conyngham’s paper represents identification documents; and Mandy Sugar’s bag is revealed to contain soil.
The music gives way to a series of verbatim recordings of Florek interviewing people of diverse backgrounds on the nature and value of gardens.
I had the pleasure of discussing the piece with Florek when it was first performed on campus and she described its flexibility as its power. The fact that she and I had come to different conclusions about the meanings of parts was the beauty, she said. I must confess that upon first seeing Seedlings back in October I was confused about it’s true subject until the lines ‘They don’t let us have tools in here’, and ‘it’s dangerous, I might hurt someone’, brought it crashing down.
The cast asks the audience to take small origami boats and sign their names. I thought I was being asked to acknowledge my complicity in my country’s treatment of those who arrive here by water, and I don’t think it’s stretching the metaphor too far to highlight the fragileness of paper. Interestingly, Florek felt they had intended a less accusatory message.
The soil is their garden. The cast asks the audience to help make it, as they cannot themselves, to take potted seedlings scattered about the space and plant them, to gift them a garden.
Places of wonderful diversity like Blacktown, Florek suggested, are often left out of discussions about Australian culture and how it might change for the better. There is value, she said, in reaching into and involving ourselves in these communities, least of all for what we can offer students there in terms of experience in stage performance, but much more for what we see when we are there.
I think the value of this piece is its humanisation. It takes these people and places them in a heartbreaking visibility. Florek talks about how she wants the piece to make a political statement without being didactic, which is a difficult aim. Modern heuristic theatre can sometimes be accused of being blunt, but with issues as nuanced as these, being so direct would be clumsy and inauthentic. The power of Seedlings, I think, is that it repositions the arguments around asylum and refuge as arguments about people: actual living, suffering humans who are seeking that asylum and refuge. It is about compassion, and it’s hard to not be compassionate when someone looks you in the eye and asks you personally for your direct help. It’s similar to the simple power of Go Back To Where You Came From, which SUDS and Captivate have bravely tried to reproduce for more people. Perhaps our isolation from the reality of the struggle is our defence against it, and perhaps we would have less trouble if we looked more people in the eye as they beg us for help.
(Of particular note in an otherwise beautiful piece was Conyngham’s unnerving ability to maintain solid and energetic calisthenics and pushups in full, midday summer sun for uncomfortably long while barely breaking a light sweat. She is a witch.)