Back in 2008, before I moved down to the far south coast with my young family, we did a couple of exploration trips over a few months – looking at houses, as well as trying to get a sense of the landscape and most importantly the community. One weekend we were down in late Autumn, and I chanced on a concert happening that night at a place called Tanja. As twilight deepened, and night crept in, my partner and I debated on how far Tanja was, and if it was really worth attempting on a dark, unknown road laden with wildlife. But we took the plunge and ventured out, and out of the blackness appeared the beautiful old Tanja Hall, twinkling on the hill, with cars piled on the grass. We were offered home-brewed chai tea and freshly made brownies, and connected with strangers. There in that tiny hall we were wooed by Kate Fagan, exemplary folk singer-songwriter and poet, and the darkly divine Lucie Thorne .
It was a night we still talk about now, when we explain to people what made us move down. It was a moment that demonstrated the strong sense of community and openness in our region, and the wellspring of talent at our fingertips. It showed how an unforgettable arts experience can be something of great simplicity, it doesn’t need to match the costume budget of the Australian Ballet or be staged at the Sydney Opera House. As Peter Brook said in the opening of his classic theatre text The Empty Space “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”.
And, in this case in Tanja, whilst the veneer looked simple and unplugged, Kate Fagan and Lucie Thorne have honed and worked on their craft over years to be able to deliver that magical performance time after time, gig after gig. It was that night out in Tanja that really sold us, we decided that we wanted to be a part of this, whatever it could be, and moved down to the coast a couple of months later.
Yes, the arts can connect us, it is how we reach out, how we relate to each other, how we self-reflect, how we make sense of the world. As my author Patti Miller writes in her upcoming book Ransacking Paris “After all, we are all strangers wandering around this planet, apparently lost most of the time, looking for something or someone – or some place…”
But what makes an exceptional piece of art? What makes a best-selling book and what ingredients sell a film? How can we create something that resonates with the community, or even just with a stranger? It’s easy to impress your family with your art practice, but much harder to impress someone who doesn’t know you. And, it’s all very subjective – your favourite artist will be different to mine, and my most cherished album is definitely not the same as my partner’s!
Of course the arts is much more than mere talent, it’s a combination of many elements, whether it’s the idea, the inspiration, the manifestation, the news-worthiness, or even the background story which gets your work across the line. It’s the story I want to consider right now, because whatever art-form you choose, the story is essential. The power of story in a theatre can leave an audience shell-shocked in their seats, in a song it can transport you to another place and time, and in a book, story can help you inhabit someone else’s skin, make you laugh and move you to tears. It’s no wonder that everyone is latching onto the idea of story – from advertising gurus, to conference organisers to writers’ festivals.
The power of story is something which came through in this ABC Radio National interview that I set up for the National Folk Festival last year with Irish Australian Storyteller Joe Lynch and acclaimed singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey. Joe Lynch sat in the small Brisbane ABC tardis studio with just his voice, a microphone and headphones on, telling of the old Irish tradition of going to one another’s houses, sitting around a fire and sharing stories. Then before he sang, Damien Dempsey related how in the 1980s in Dublin, during the black-outs his family would sit around the open fire and his parents would tell stories to pass the time. But it’s the very personal poem of Joe Lynch, a life-time pacifist, which unravels his own feelings of injustice and sadness of his son leaving to fight in Iraq, that is the most moving story in this interview.
One voice, a bunch of words, and a man telling his story, telling his life. Two men of different ages sharing their stories, singing their songs, connecting, creating, contemplating, trying to make sense of it all. ‘We sing, we sing all our cares away. We live, to find another day’. (Damien Dempsey).
But what would connecting and creating be without celebrating? Too often here in the South East people focus on the limitations of our region, cut off from the bright lights of the city, the blockbuster shows, the major galleries, the diversity of culture and the plethora of ‘stuff’ to spend on. But there is so much to celebrate here. There’s the beauty and wildness of our country – from the mist over the sheep plains near Dalgety, to the secret lakes, rivers and waterholes of the South Coast, to the pristine majesty of The Snowy Mountains and the wonder of experiencing the first snowfall of the season. There’s so much to learn too, and so much to be taught – from the deep ancient Aboriginal story of the Bundian Way, to the multi-faceted sense of community, cheek-to-cheek with people of all backgrounds, and for those who volunteer – to put-in and receive ten-fold. Here in the South East with the barest of basics, we can observe the world from a distance, with all its joys and it’s follies and respond in a very unique way, and give our ideas wings.
Bettina Richter is the Chair of South East Arts and the director of Miss Bettina Media, which works with authors, artists, filmmakers, bands, publishers, arts companies and festivals.