International Women’s Day is celebrated each year in Bellingen through the artistic lens of the Bellingen Playback Theatre Company. In fact, this year marks the 27th anniversary of this annual performance- ‘by women for women’. The theatre group’s co-founder and current ‘conductor’ Persia Wildwood (fourth from right above) appreciates the importance of this annual event. “There are so few forums or structured gatherings in which women can share their stories in an atmosphere of trust and safety. At this event women laugh a lot, share frustrations and tears and build strong bonds with each other,” says Persia.
Playback Theatre is an interactive form of improvisational theatre in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot. “Playback Theatre has the ability to strengthen a community by helping all the different voices to be shared. The community gets to know itself. Not everyone tells a story but we recognise our shared human experience in the stories of others,” says Persia. “Playback Theatre is definitely a theatre of storytelling- but it brings stories to life in a unique and magical way. It is inclusive and creates a deep sense of belonging.”
The Bellingen Playback Theatre Company has staged close to 300 performances across the North Coast region since its inception in 1989. Persia was one of the five original co-founders. “I’m still doing it because it keeps me honest. And I get to ‘play’ each week with an amazing bunch of performers. It’s fun,” says Persia.
Persia initially trained at the Drama Action Centre in Sydney in Playback Theatre, Clowning, Circus Skills and Improvisational Theatre and has continued to train in various performance skills ever since. In her current role as ‘Performance Conductor’ Persia links the audience with the performers. “I gather the stories from the audience, extract the themes and essence from their stories, then with the input of the actors, create a structure for the stories to be transformed into artistic expression.”
The current Bellingen Playback Theatre Company members include Olivia Bernardini, Michele Balharry, Deborah Ryan, Lisa Siegel, Tanya Fox, Nicole Moore, Christel Wecker (as the musician) and Persia. The group are in preparation mode for the International Women’s Day performance at the Memorial Hall on Saturday March 9th. This year’s theme is ‘Outraged and the Outrageous’, very apt in the face of events of the past year. “There is so much to be outraged about that sometimes I feel ‘outrage fatigue’. Changes are happening but they are slow and there is clearly deep resistance by vested interests to any real systemic change. Having said that, at the moment it seems that the push for deep structural change from both men and women is growing. And young women, especially are becoming very clear and assertive in their insistence on changes to ensure their future. I am encouraged by them and by the number of very articulate and courageous women in the media who are speaking out and changing both the language and the conversations of our culture. Naming things is powerful,” says Persia.
So has the conversation or stories changed for women over the past 27 years- as reflected at the annual International Women’s Day Performance? “Yes and no. Women have definitely become more empowered in their storytelling. There is a more authentic voice coming from women. It seems from the stories told that women are living more from inside themselves, as who they really are, instead of viewing themselves from the outside, via the male gaze, via the values of the patriarchal culture. Like we’ve found much more of our own lens through which to see the world,” says Persia. “There is much more a sense of freedom and outspokenness especially among the younger women. It is refreshing.”
“The environment is a much bigger concern for women in the past few years- born out in their stories. Women are acutely aware of the need to change how we relate to our planet earth,” says Persia.
“On the other hand, many of the stories told still echo very old themes and concerns. Women still do more of the heavy lifting, have way less independent financial security, are disadvantaged in many professions and of course there is the ongoing issue of violence and harassment against women,” says Persia.
As conductor at this important but understandably, highly emotive evening, Persia’s role is crucial. “My job is to create an atmosphere of respect, sensitivity and fun. At this event we grow the conversation among the women in our local community and beyond. We validate and affirm women’s ways of knowing. There is a sense of solidarity, witnessing, of growing through life together as women of this community year after year. At the performance women shape the world through the telling of new stories. It’s robust, stimulating, terrific,” says Persia.