Under artistic director Wendy Martin, Australia's longest-running arts festival has become a site of storytelling and exchange where the personal stories of locals are treated with as much reverence as a masterwork by theatre luminary Robert Lepage.
It's Thursday night and I'm sitting in the State Theatre Centre in Perth, watching dancers writhe around on stage to the otherworldly sounds of Indonesian "trance-noise" duo Senyawa — when the young woman sitting beside me starts to shake.
She's shaking a DIY rattle made from a can filled with — from the sounds of it — rice. And she's not the only one. As I start to pinpoint other noisemakers, I notice a man walk down the aisle, up a short flight of stairs and onto the stage. Nineteen other people join him in the next two minutes — including my seat buddy. There are women in their 60s, men in their 20s — all sorts, united by nothing except the fact that they're on stage — despite not being professional dancers.
The festival's marketing copy describes Attractor as "a cross-cultural, shared ritual" that "dissolves the distinction between audience and performer". You could say this more generally of Perth Festival.
Telling our story in our own way
The day after I see Attractor, I'm in a bus with three generations of Noongar locals, including Carol Innes and Aunty May McGuire, as we make our way up St George's Terrace. At the top end, the yorga (women) elders will lead Gnarnk-Ba Karla Waarnginy ('Speaking Fires of our Mother'): a public cleansing and clearing ceremony that opens Perth Festival.
In 2017, when Martin selected her opening night headliner, Byron J Scullin and Supple Fox's 'audio intervention' Siren Song, she invited the Noongar elders to lead an opening ceremony to dovetail with the proceedings. "We could say no," Innes says of these kinds of invitations. "But we use these types of organisations and events to help that storytelling; tell our story in our way."
Later in the evening, the Noongar ceremony merges (almost seamlessly, as it happens) with Siren Song in a profound moment of secular communal ritual, with Perth locals looking upwards in rapt silence as singers on the stage blend into a tumult of voices (Noongar vocalist Karla Hart) projected from speakers attached to skyscrapers, singing in tongue, one word: "woola" — a shout of praise.
Innes describes the whole event as a platform for transmitting Noongar culture in "a very warm and receiving way that no-one would usually get."
A more meaningful engagement with community
For Innes, Perth Festival's ongoing engagement with Noongar elders and community in recent years — in particular, with Indigenous-led opening events Home (2016, Martin's first festival), Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak (2017) and now Gnarnk-Ba Karla Waarnginy — constitutes a more "inclusive and meaningful engagement".
"The continuation allows Aboriginal people the opportunity to be part of the process, rather than just being service providers for the Welcome to Country," she explains. "It shows a strong intent of understanding the country in which we live together, and giving an opportunity for people to appreciate the beauty of our culture."
As the bus traverses the asphalt of St George's Terrace in peak hour traffic, Innes points out that Noongar were previously banned on these streets. As recently as 2016, the Federal Court recognised Noongar native title.
Barely an hour later, as dusk deepens, and with her son Barry and elder Richard Walley (both community leaders themselves) feeding eucalyptus sprigs into a brazier, Aunty May tells the audience gathered on the closed off street: "Many years ago, we had curfews against us — we weren't allowed to be here at this time of evening."
In the final part of the opening ceremony, Bierrnanginje Boorta Kulinge (Dawning, New Day, Going Steady), yorga young and old take the stage to reclaim the space on behalf of their people. "No curfews against us anymore," says Aunty May, beaming.
Democratising the arts
"A festival has to be about more than buying a ticket and seeing a show," says Martin. "The performances are just a window into the world."
To this end, Perth Festival's program includes experience-driven free events: on the opening weekend, locals were invited to take a free early-morning meditation session in Kings Park with the performers of Taiwan's U Theatre (presenting Beyond Time, inspired by a 50-day walking meditation, at Perth Festival), or a free workshop in distilling rosewater with Iranian immigrants Mahin Nowbakht and Farangeez Ahmadi (part of the Museum of Water project).
Martin's passion for what she calls "the democratisation of the arts" started while she was head of performance and dance at London's Southbank Centre. "I was seeing all these artists from all over Europe and the UK who were inviting people to be part of what they were doing. And people don't forget those experiences."
Unsurprisingly, interactive and participatory work has featured prominently in her programs. Nowhere is this more compelling than in the community storytelling projects Museum of Water, for which residents of Western Australia donated water samples and accompanying stories, and the Empathy Museum, for which Perth people were invited to "walk a mile in the shoes of a stranger — literally" via a library of locally-sourced audio stories.
"These simple things that are about sharing — people really love them," says Martin.
Connecting artists with community
Perth Festival's disruption of the audience/artist divide runs much deeper that its main program, however.
For Martin's first Festival, she and Head of Programming Anna Reece established the Festival Connect program: a sort of festival within the festival, comprised of free events, workshops and opportunities for Perth residents to be part of the process of creating new work — both directly (by signing up to be part of participatory shows, such as Attractor and Nat Randall's 24-hour participatory performance The Second Woman) and indirectly.
For example, Perth Works offers free work-in-progress showings of new local works: this year audiences can see Macbeth in Noongar and a opera about Ned Kelly, among other things.
Reece says of her home state: "we're so passionate about Western Australian stories, so to be part of the seeding of these shows, be in the room and respond to a work-in-progress, and then eventually come to the opening night — we're really inviting people to come on the journey, and to understand that creating new work takes time."
Festival Connect's workshop program, meanwhile, connects local and visiting artists with communities — often with long—lasting impact. In 2016, Martin matched up Evie Manning and Rhiannon White (of UK company Common Wealth) with the local branch of Asetts (Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors) for a week-long workshop with female refugees that ran parallel to their show No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, about young Muslim women boxers in the north of England. At the end of the week, they had an intimate showing with other women.
"It was so extraordinary," says Martin. "After that I said to Anna, we can't work with these women and then say goodbye. We have to keep them on the festival journey with us."
The following year, Perth Festival invited the same women to share their stories as part of the Museum of Water. Long-time Asetts volunteer Mahin Nowbakht contributed a flask of rosewater — which, when opened for me by a Museum custodian, unleashes a home scent straight from Iran.
On the opening night of the Museum of Water exhibition, at Fremantle Arts Centre, around 150 'donors' turned up to see their vessels, water and stories on display. Addressing the crowd, founder Amy Sharrocks quoted American essayist Rebecca Solnit: "If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard, is a kind of wealth — that wealth is now being redistributed."
runs Feb 9-Mar 4.