Critical Stages Vol 4

A Collage of the Country: ‘Come To Where I Am – Australia’ earns virtual applause

How can a touring theatre company stay active and relevant during the travel restrictions and lockdown laws of COVID-19? Critical Stages CEO Chris Bendall said it started with an Internet search.

“In that flurry of everyone looking at what people were doing around the world while in lockdown…we were looking at what we could do as a response—some kind of digital response during a time when we couldn’t tour,” Bendall said.

The director and dramaturg came across a 2010 podcast series called ‘Come to Where I’m From’ by a UK touring company called Paines Plough, made contact with the group and asked what they thought of an international video version.

“They said, ‘Funny you should say that, we’re about to launch a variation of this project… as a video series for the UK’…It was a very easy partnership.”

And so, ‘Come To Where I Am – Australia’ was born. Sixteen writers across the country were commissioned to create 10-minute videos in which they tell the stories of their lives through the places that have shaped them. It’s an opportunity for audiences to virtually travel to urban, suburban, regional and rural communities at a time when physical travel is so limited.

Bendall said with funding from The Australia Council for the Arts and support to spread the word to regional arts partners in each state, the group received over 100 expressions of interest from across the country.

“From there, Critical Stages and the Paines Plough team worked together to select a group that could have a good geographical spread as well as a diverse series of voices to make sure we had good representation…of perspectives, ages, experiences,” he said. “We started by thinking we’d have one from each state, then realised we couldn’t have any kind of real diversity from that.”

Critical Stages - Come to Where I Am
The team behind Critical Stages Touring.

The videos, broken into four parts of three to four performances each, premiered live on the Critical Stages Facebook Page throughout August and September 2020, and are now available in the group’s Screening Room, on the Paines Plough UK website and YouTube account.

Bendall said the groupings of performances were part strategy, part practicality depending on when writers were available to start.

“Initially we thought of grouping state by state, then we thought it would be more interesting…to have geographic diversity in each part,” he said. “It was a theory of – we would like each night for the audience to feel like they were going on a journey around the country, particularly if someone only watched the one volume; they could travel from Cairns to South Australia, for example.”

There was strategy to the finale selection: Ian Michael’s ‘Another Day in the Colony’ performed from his home in Perth. In striving to “tell the truth of my experience of being in this country”, Michael’s anger was palpable as he described how Black families fight to exist.

“Once we knew where Ian’s was going – so bold and punchy; a no holds barred statement… we felt that was a really strong way to end,” Bendall said. “We did feel like with that level of intensity, it would be very difficult for anything to follow. It was a strong way to leave people.”

From January’s bushfires, to the impact of American George Floyd’s death on the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia, to the many implications of coronavirus – how we choose to spend our time; how so many communities rely on tourism; how a reduction in human activity affects the environment – the topics always related back to our sense of identity, belonging and the meaning of ‘home.’

“We were interested in the diversity of people’s responses, so it wasn’t all about COVID or all about fires; it covered a range of events across the year,” Bendall said. “The real brief was to talk about their place and their response to place.”

Critical Stages CEO, Chris Bendall.

Bendall has worked on over 50 productions throughout the past 18 years, but he says this project stands alone.

“To be able to work with so many writers over quite an intense period…supporting so many different stories and perspectives as a kind of collage of the country has felt like a really original opportunity for me; really satisfying,” he said. “For most of them, these were solo endeavours across the writing and performance. And even the editing, which many described as a learning opportunity…they said they were able to investigate new ways to tell a story. That’s a lovely experience.

“And the major difference is I haven’t had a project like this that’s been delivered exclusively online so far. That’s been the year though, hasn’t it?”

Bendall also noted how rewarding it was to connect writers and watch the online engagement unfold in the livestreams.

“A lot of writers of the series have been active contributors to the live experience in those performances, and it’s lovely when a writer can respond back in real-time, which is not an experience you get in a theatre.

“I love the engagement at the end of each story – the flurry of comments, like a virtual applause.”

Bendall says the plan is to turn the ‘Come To Where I Am – Australia’ video series into live performances, which at this stage of the virus, will be a project for next year. With venues in or nearby almost every town represented in the series, Bendall says the idea would be to put on performances as close to the home of the writer as possible.

The conversation remains to be had as to whether it will be the playwright themselves or an actor performing, as it’s a “harder ask for some of the non-performers to get up in front of an audience.”

“Initially the brief was to write a script that could be carried digitally and ultimately performed live as its own thing.”

While creatives and theatre-goers alike anxiously await the wide scale return of live performances, you can check out this series in the group’s Screening Room and on the website of UK partner, Paines Plough. All donations made will go towards employing writers to deliver new writing during COVID-19. Follow Critical Stages on Facebook for their latest projects, including a new web series based on Katherine Lyall-Watson’s hit play ‘ROVERS’ featuring Barbara Lowing and Roxanne McDonald.

For more information about ‘Come To Where I Am – Australia’, read our recent review on their latest show. 

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