Poetic License

Amelia Swan

An excellent show, full of sincerity and old fashioned agit-prop energy that would be well worth touring further afield.
Poetic License

Image by Mark Farrelly.

Poetic License is a theatre show that was devised through the collaboration of a number of people under the umbrella of Outer Urban Projects, initiated in March and performed this week for the first time.

Outer Urban Projects is an organisation based in Coburg centred on providing artistic mentorship, opportunity and support to the young creative population in Melbourne's northern urban belt. The production serves as an excellent testimony to that mission. It a fine example of community theatre doing what it does best: sharing stories of diversity, engaging a wide audience and promoting discussion about issues that are affecting society at large.

Political and social questions are raised in this piece. Why do 85 people own as much of the global fiscal power as 50 percent of the world's population? Why is there still disbelief about the existence of global warning? Why do so many people display apathy in a world of so much injustice? Poetic license is a show in the fine tradition of leftist wake-up community theatre. The darker underbelly of right wing complacency and racism pierces the bubble of the shiny image of ‘Australia: the lucky country.’

This is a beautifully staged production which holds twelve performers on a minimal stage with understated clean lighting for the length of the one-and-a-quarter hour performance. Most of the performers remain seated on the stage looking back at the audience for the entire time. At one point the audience is invited to become active; the front row is physically dragged on stage to dance mid-performance to further blur the lines of spectator/audience and passive/active.

The performers each tell a little part of their personal history/herstory in poetic prose or in song or dance and are supported by the other performers either with live musical backing or respectful silent listening.

The show opens with us being invited into the performance with a comfortable chat from the director Irine Vela who explains that she loosely based what we are about to see on the conceit of the ancient story The Frogs. In this story, Dionysus returns to the underworld to retrieve his favourite poet Euripides only to find himself faced by Aeschylus, another poet, who challenges Euripides to a poetry competition to see who will return with Dionysus.

Vela sought out a number of talented artist performers from the age of 13 to 63 that Outer Urban Projects had had contact with through various projects in the past. She then invited them to all go to Philip Island for a weekend to devise a show which explores how poetry functions in our society today. Vela says she wanted to invoke a slam poetry session akin to Dionysus' two thousand years ago. Thus Poetic License was born.

Kevin Nugara opened the creative Pandora’s box with his sizzling rap: an easy flowing river of trilling and spilling words, which immediately raised applause from the audience. He was supported with beatbox sounds from the charming Mahmoud Samoun, aka Babz, who captured the audience with his twinkly-eyed smile and elegance. Babz performs his own profoundly moving monologue which describes his slow journey into intimacy and love, unashamedly outlining his insecurities and fears, backed with the music by the rest of the company.

Poetic License introduces a number of stunning women performers who tell their stories about being  non-Caucasian young women struggling to find freedom to express who they are in Australian society. Alabama, Cyprus, Samoa are some of the places of origin of these women. Grace Vanilau cries out in one of her exquisitely deep voiced, powerful monologues ‘I don't believe in assimilation!’ as she describes herself as having ‘thick brown skin’ and her process in becoming a proud, outspoken woman, educator and mother.

Young Alabama originating performer, Ebony Moncrief, has a dreamy quality in her spoken contributions as she muses about her ancestors’ black rights struggle in the south. Sitting higher than most of the other performers on the stage, and with an ethereal quality, she describes her healing journey of self-acceptance. Koraly Dimitriadis has a fiery presence on stage and describes her ‘escape’ from the hellish rigidity of her upbringing by Cypriot parents; she gives a compelling heartfelt performance. Ileini Kabalan describes being bullied in the playground with the taunt ‘black bird’ with earnest intensity, but it is when she sings that one feels the entire audience melt with adulation for her breathy, heart-breaking voice. In duet, she sings a Portishead song and ‘Blackbird’ with Grace Vanilau; it is at such moments that the performance brings much of its audience to tears.

Another member of the troupe head-hunted by Vela was the political poet called Komninos, an old timer of Melbourne now in his sixties. He is juxtaposed by the thirteen-year- old Dante Sofia, a poet himself who openly shares his journey as a young person trying to figure out ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ Komninos and Dante conclude that whatever insecurity one has, or sense of hopelessness, it is still relevant to keep asking questions.

There is some discussion in the performance about the usefulness of political polemic, such as that of Obama's inaugaration and Kevin Rudd's apology to the stolen generation. But the real heart of the piece is the performers' vulnerability in the telling of their personal stories and that includes Vela's, who reveals her own struggle with getting old and finding inspiration.

As the deviser, Irine Vela reveals flexibility and a light touch as regards her creative directorship; she has created an arena in which each performer has space to shine and to contribute their individual creative contribution unimpeded with too much concern for a cohesive theme.

As the production closes the audience is encouraged to keep hoping for change. Komninos reiterates the importance of poetry to unite people in a moment of belief, despite his more cynical reservations about how language functions in the political arena. As the lights come up, I see an audience wreathed in smiles and I feel bowled over by the sheer brightness of the talent gathered together in this tight little eccentric bundle. It is an excellent show, full of sincerity and old fashioned agit-prop energy that would be well worth touring further afield.


Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Poetic License

Presented by Outer Urban Projects in association with FCAC and Melbourne Writers Festival

Footscray Community Arts Centre
27th August - 29th August

About the author

Melbourne-based art writer and historian.