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  • Ned Manning

Grand Slam Theatre

The opening of Performing Lines production of Andrea’s James beautifully crafted play about the life of Evonne Goolagong was not only my first night in the theatre since Covid but was also the perfect antidote to the depressing times we find ourselves living in.

The fact that Sunshine Supergirl opened in Griffith, where Evonne was born and a good lob from her hometown in Barellan, was hugely significant. For many years now the “regions”, as Sydneysiders like to refer to anywhere outside the CBD, have been all but ignored when it comes to the Arts. Sure, there have been (pre Covid) touring productions from the “Majors” (major theatre companies) but by and large the impact of the constant devaluing of the Arts in Australia has had a disastrous effect on those living outside the big cities. This is not to deny the incredible work of companies like Performing Lines and the dedicated women and men in country towns who battle away to keep the Arts alive in rural Australia. Nor the funding bodies who have tried to squeeze the juice out of a very dry lemon to fund work outside the cities. Nor the work of politicians, like Don Harwin, who have pushed back against fellow politicians (of all persuasions) who have little interest in the Arts and even less interest in perpetuating them.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when there were theatre companies all over the State. Towns like Wagga Wagga, Armidale, Newcastle, Albury, Wollongong and Orange (amongst others) all boasted their own theatre companies. This not only provided those communities with local, home grown work but it also provided opportunities for a myriad of playwrights, actors, directors and designers to hone their skills and develop their craft. You only have to look at the long list of artists who began their careers outside the big cities, and the lasting impact they have had on our culture, to understand that the current city centric approach to dividing up a fast diminishing Arts pie, is not only short sighted, it is destructive.

Opening a piece of theatre about a cultural icon in the town where she was born, in a brilliantly converted basketball court, gave the performance a relevance that goes way beyond a night at the theatre. To be in that space and to witness the extraordinary tale of Evonne’s life with her First Nation family and friends was very special. Particularly in light of our collective failure to acknowledge First Nations Australians in our Constitution. Let alone our appalling record when it comes to the health and incarceration rates of our First Nations peoples.

Here in Griffith we were able to share Evonne’s story with a cast of First Nations performers, a First Nations writer/director and a creative team that included many First Nations practitioners. Because that is what audiences do. They share stories. They are part of what is unfolding on stage. They aren’t passive observers but active participants.

That is exactly what those who deny the importance of the Arts in our culture don’t seem to understand. Being an active participant in a footy team’s march to the finals is no different to being an active audience member. We cheer, we clap, we cry, we lament.

In a way Evonne’s single minded determination to rise to the pinnacle of the tennis world reflects the single minded determination of artists around the country who refuse to lose sight of their dreams. What is telling, though, is that many of the local white community supported Evonne. Many artists today battle away without any support whatsoever.

What I took out of being part of the Sunshine Supergirl audience was that we are capable of collective greatness. The tragedy is that, in contemporary Australia today, we seem to be comfortable with mediocrity across the board. We don’t aim for Wimbledon. We don’t aim for the stars. We have been reduced to aiming much lower.

And that is a tragedy.

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