I HAD SEEN the flyers around. 'Come and try theatre, learn writing and performance skills in a supportive environment.'
A waste of money.
A waste of time.
Not for me. Never for me. I am just a statistic.
THEY BECOME FRAGMENTS. Memories. Flashes of who you have been, who you are, who you could be. Bleeding together. Blending out. Too many things to hold inside of yourself. The more you try to make sense of them, the more they slip into your peripheral vision. The more dreamlike they taste on your lips.
Twelve-year-old me being kissed by a sixteen-year-old boy in a shearing shed. With tongue.
Fourteen-year-old me being held down by a man for the first time. Screaming into the pillow over my mouth.
Fifteen-year-old me sitting my parents down at the kitchen table to tell them I'm moving out. My mother crying quietly in her bedroom.
Sixteen-year-old me working fifty hours a week in a factory. My feet hurt. Home to a house that stinks of hopelessness.
Seventeen-year-old me holding a tiny screaming bundle of flesh and bone in my arms. My son, ready or not.
THESE ARE SOME of my memories. The ones that bleed into my story.
I leave school and move out of home when I am fifteen to live with an abusive boyfriend. I believe I have no value, nothing to offer the world and that things will never get better. I am lost.
At seventeen, I become a teenage mother. My son is beautiful. I love him before I know his name. He gives me courage, not hope yet, but courage. Six months later I leave his father and point my feet back towards education. I enrol in the local high school to complete Year 12. I become involved with the local health service, Riverland Regional Health, as a peer mentor, heading into schools to talk about the realities of being a teenage parent and about sexual health education with Year 9 students.
I am still lost.
I am terrified.
I am eighteen when I see the flyers. 'Come and try theatre, learn writing and performance skills in a supportive environment.' I turn my nose up at their possibility. Stupid. Embarrassing. Terrifying. Not for me. Never for me.
Riverland Regional Health becomes a partner on a youth theatre project. Those flyers. That project. It's a collaboration between Riverland Youth Theatre and Vitalstatistix National Women's Theatre in Adelaide. They want to make a show about teenage parents. Riverland Regional Health asks me, 'Can you go to this first workshop as our representative? To make sure we have some insight. And that they're not wasting our money?'
'No. Of course they're wasting your money.'
I go anyway.
Something I'd been looking for my whole life but had never known existed.
A safe space. A space to explore the burning questions. A space to see myself through new eyes. A space to dream, to interrogate, to fly. We spend the day talking, laughing, sharing, crying. In a few short hours the way the world looks has tilted.
The project is a year-long commitment, one day per week, followed by three weeks full-time rehearsal and a two-week tour. I am already committed to one day a week with Riverland Regional Health as a peer mentor, attending school full-time to complete Year 12, working three to five nights a week at the pizza bar to pay my bills and then, of course, being a full-time single parent to my now one-year-old. I am terrified. Still.
I commit to the project. Completely. I miss two sessions, one for my Year 12 English exam, one to attend a week-long drama intensive in NSW with Australian Theatre for Young People. This project has changed me. Shifted what's possible.
WHO AM I?
We've worked with two directors, a choreographer, a designer, a musician, a writer. We've eaten so much food together. Shared so many tears. So much laughter. I've written a monologue. It's a list of all my fears. I sing in a vignette with one of the other girls. I am fierce. I am humble. I am me.
Who am I?
Halfway through the project, we have a work-in-progress showing of the performance we've created so far. We wait behind the curtains for our cue to enter. We can hear the quiet shuffle of our audience settling. We are all so nervous. We've never performed before. I really need to wee.
The cue. The music starts and this voice, this voice soars out of the speakers, filling the room, the space, the moment. I have goosebumps on every inch of my skin. It is not the musician's voice we've been practising with, the voice we hear now is mine. My voice, recorded a week earlier. Soaring out into that room. My voice singing and soaring out to all the people sitting in the audience, experienced in a way I've never heard it before.
Who am I?
We come to the end of the project. Performance time. Crunch time. We tour the show through the Riverland, my regional home, and Adelaide as part of the 2005 Come Out Festival. I am crying backstage after one of the shows. One of our directors confronts me. I tell them the truth. That I am a loser. That my performance tonight wasn't very good. Fingers dig into my shoulders. Face tight. They shake me and words rip out between lips.
'What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you so afraid of how good you are?'
Who am I?
Whoever I choose to be.
I AM EIGHTEEN when I stumble into the rabbit hole that is the arts. Losing my sorrow in possibility. And now here I am at twenty-eight, living the deepest dreams. Random Girls was the name of that project, the one I stumbled into, fell into, was slightly pushed into.
Random Girls was a Community Arts and Cultural Development theatre project originally conceived by then artistic director of Riverland Youth Theatre, Lucien Simon, and his creative and life partner, Marisa Mastrocola, before joining in partnership with Vitalstatistix (a women's theatre company based in Adelaide) to explore the stereotypes surrounding teenage pregnancy and parenting. The early stage of the project included free workshops across the five major Riverland towns (Renmark, Berri, Loxton, Barmera and Waikerie), family fun days and barbecues to find participants and supporters for the project from within the community.
The project then entered a long and intensive creative development stage in the Riverland, with weekly workshops all day on a Thursday from March 2004 through to production in 2005. As part of this process, childcare was provided for all the participants, as was a travel allowance and honorarium for our time – this attention to detail in reducing our access barriers set the tone for the entire project; there was always attention given to the support we needed to engage at the highest level possible. By this stage there were five participants working with Lucien, Maude Davey (Vitalstatistix artistic director) and Marisa through a devising process. As none of the participants had ever performed before and we'd developed such a supportive relationship with Marisa, she stepped into a performance role alongside us, bringing our performer total to six.
During the creative development process we were led through a series of skills-based workshops by professional artists including Finnegan Kruckemeyer (playwriting), Sophie Hyde and Bryan Mason (film and new media) and Heather Frahn (composing/music), as well as being given access to self-defence workshops with a Riverland martial artist. We then built on this process, working with our directing team to devise a series of interwoven vignettes exploring our shared experiences, interspersed by individual 'reveal' moments where each of us took the stage to share the core of our own story. Everyone had their own experience of this process; some presented their reveal moments as shared scenes with the other participants for support. I really took to the idea of writing and presenting something solo and so, with the support of directors, I wrote my reveal as a monologue – a list of my deepest fears as a parent and a person – which in the production I performed in front of beautiful projections of my son in a playground filmed by Sophie and Bryan. The project and the entire process were terrifying, yet addictive and deeply healing in a way I still struggle to articulate ten years later.
In and around all of this was a lot of talking (and eating!). Talking about our lives. Our hopes. Our fears. Our possibilities. We went to some deep, dark and secret places together. There are many hours of interview footage of each of us tucked away in archives, most littered with tears. It was these hours of talking, of sharing, of delving into our vulnerability that built the base of the theatre we created. These hours of talking bonded the participants and the creative team in a shared exploration of how far we could go together. These hours of talking defined and stretched the boundaries of what was safe to share, what was not and what we would be willing to share anyway. These hours of talking grew a practice of self-reflection that is now a foundation in my daily life.
LATE IN THE year-long development of Random Girls, some members of the professional creative team shared their original intention and interest to explore how becoming a mother had, in their words, 'fucked up our lives', but how, through our stories and the joy we took in our parenting roles, the project had not only changed us, but also them and had become instead a story of celebration and affirmation for all of us. This responsiveness and openness from the creative team to changing direction, I think, characterises truly meaningful community arts and cultural development projects and is what made Random Girls such a powerful experience for all of us – continuing with our audience.
The final production of Random Girls was presented in both Adelaide and the Riverland, with a week of shows in each. We offered shows to school audiences during the day and a limited season of general public shows. The final product was a theatre performance incorporating movement, mime, text, soundscape, projection, audience interaction, monologue and stylised scenes. Every show saw members of the audience approach us in tears afterwards, many sharing personal anecdotes of their own difficult life moments. Rod Lewis from Adelaide Theatre Guide came to see the show and said in his review: 'Each are as talented as they are fearless, putting themselves up for judgment before the audience. Forget political correctness. These stories are shared without bitterness and without apology and it is damn good. This is what theatre should be about. How unfortunate that the season is so brief.' By sharing ourselves, we gave permission for others to share themselves, and it was our creative team who gave us permission to share ourselves by creating a space and a process that believed in us.
Random Girls woke in me the desire to give other people their own goosebumps moment, their own coming home moment, their own being shaken awake moment as a participant (and audience member). Everyone's moment will be different, but it's that moment when you see (or hear!) yourself the way others do, when what could be possible becomes larger than what you've ever seen before, when you find a space to lift your voice further than you ever thought you could.
Becoming involved in the arts changed everything for me. Everything. I went on to study acting and youth work at a tertiary level. I've spoken and presented at national arts conferences; had my work as a writer performed in numerous states; I've won local and state awards; worked with thousands of young people and community members using the arts as a tool and a base to explore what's possible, what it means to be human and become the best version of yourself that you can be.
These are amazing things, things to treasure and be proud of, but they are not the greatest gifts Random Girls and the arts since have given me. Random Girls was the catalyst for me to claim myself. To claim myself as valuable in the world. It didn't happen in isolation or purely through that project, but Random Girlsstarted the process, it laid the foundation for everything that's come since. It gave me permission to dream, to love myself, to invest in myself. To understand that I am complex, difficult, beautiful, worthwhile; Random Girls allowed me to open the door to my own life. All of which has made me a better parent, friend, daughter, sister, lover, worker, community member, human being.
Random Girls wasn't easy. It was tiring. It was challenging. It was terrifying. Sometimes I just wanted to run away from the directors and all their questions. But I didn't. Because they made a safe space for me to lean into those discomforts. Because they inspired me to want to overcome them. Because they made a place for me to belong. A place for me to discover that I am not just a statistic, I am not just my mistakes. I am the sum of all the choices I make, then and now.
I NOW WORK for a peak youth arts body as creative producer of a youth arts initiative delivering projects with a very similar ethos. Working in a community arts and cultural development space can be exhausting, demoralising, frustrating and a huge financial drain. It really can be. But mostly I just feel joy. Joy to be here working with people who, just like a younger me, don't see their own value, their own stories, their own possibilities, and then, through this glorious work we do in the arts, creating a space for them to come and discover who they are, who they could be. Seeing the light spill out of them when they have their own goosebumps moment. How could I ever have imagined my life would be like this ten years ago? The arts don't have to be the whole answer, but rather part of the recipe. My work alone doesn't have to unlock every person's story. Nor does it have to make everyone an artist. There were five young mums in Random Girls and I am the only one who has made a career and lifestyle in the arts; yet all five of those women hold it as a treasured experience in their lives. We weren't all changed in the way I was, but we were all changed. For the better.
I came to them later than many, earlier than some. I came to them cautious. Hesitant. Barely breathing in the skin I was in. I came to the arts eventually. They were for me.