Review: The Migration Project

by Jane

For the last six months, theatre maker Alirio Zavarce has been an Artist in Residence at William Light R-12 School and Woodville High School. This residency has cumulated in The Migration Project in the 2013 Come Out Festival.

Arriving at the Torrens Parade Ground, we are each passed a migration card. It asks for our name, our date of birth, our method of arrival. Then the questions get stranger: are you blonde? A real blonde? What is better – lamingtons or pavlova? Would you be prepared to eat a whole jar of Vegemite to prove how Australian you are? Are you secretly racist?

We fill these in while waiting in line, and at the end stands Alirio Zavarce, asking each of us “What makes you Australian?” We again line up, this time in five queues, as we wait for the rest of the audience to be processed.

We are directed into the next room, dropping our migration cards on a table on our way in. The room is filled with circles of chairs, and in each circle is a student from one of the two high schools. We small talk: where in the world have you been? What hobbies do you have? They tell us a bit about themselves, where they’re from, and how we’re all a part of this big wide world together.

We move again, this time into an end-on theatre set-up. The high school students take their places on the stage, and the performance truly begins. Introduced and lead by Zavarce, the students tell us their stories of how they came to Australia, or how their families came here. They write words to describe Australia on blackboards, they pull props to tell their stories out of suitcases. Intercut through this are videos of other students talking about the world they live in: what makes them Australian? How does racism make them feel?

The Migration Project feels of the same central philosophy of Zavarce’s lauded Sons & Mothers: Zavarce taking an instance in his life – there his relationship with his mother, here his migration to Australia – and using it to instigate a collaborative community work. Where Zavarce created a space for the men of Sons & Mothers to truly own the work, though, that same space doesn’t feel like it is offered to the young adults at the heart of The Migration Project. Their stories are slotted into the work, but the work is never of their stories. In the end, we are left with just a cursory glance.

The piece is quite nice: we see some students telling their stories, and they do a lovely job of this. But in the subject matter – and in the students – it feels like there is so much more potential.

Of course, the driving force behind this work is all of the work Zavarce did that we as the audience members weren’t privy too. It’s the time in the schools, working with these teenagers, asking them for their perspectives on the world and their personal histories. How this process happened and what workshopping he did with the students isn’t detailed to the audience in performance or in program notes, but stemming from an Artist in Residency program in these schools you feel that The Migration Project is about the creation process for a work of theatre, and not the theatre itself.

From not seeing this process, unanswered questions come up: how was this group of performers chosen out of all of the workshop participants? How was the work constructed? For a show about the diversity of Australians, why were there no Indigenous performers? Why do we hear about where these young people came from, but so little about where they are and where they’re going?

Much of the work gives the impression of coming from Zavarce, and not from collaboration with the students. In particular, a supercut of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard quotes to the tone of “stop the boats” feels awkwardly siphoned in and isn’t given enough political or social context, assuming that the audience is very politically engaged. This strand is then dropped, never to be picked up on again.

The show is slightly marred in other ways too: the image and sound in the projection were not always synced up, making it hard for our brains to process the words and their meaning. The work has very little carry through: the conversations we had in the second room are forgotten, the migration cards are never mentioned again and still sit discarded as we make our way out. Through the loss of themes, the work stagnates.

Ultimately, the work doesn’t take us anywhere. Even in the final moments, meant to be a symbol of coming together and ambition, the cord progression of the piano doesn’t elevate the audience to that same place.

We are introduced to some lovely young adults, and hear a little about them and their stories. They give earnest performances, and you feel the importance of them having the opportunity to publicly perform. The work ends on a note of hope for the leaders of our society and our country as these young people grow up. But the work itself lacks sustenance and we’re left to think about the untold parts of the stories, rather than the stories we were told.

AJZ Productions in association with The Migration Museum, Charles Sturt Council and Come Out Festival presents The Migration Project. Creative team: Alirio Zavarce (director, writer, performer and creator), Bradly Williams (projections, assistant creative), Fazz Farrell (camera operator), Alia Guidance (designer), Dush Kumar (production manager, light and sound technician). With performers from William Light R-12 School and Woodville High School. At the Parade Grounds until May 24, then at Woodville Town Hall from May 29 to June 2. More information and tickets. 

Because of the process that created it, this work was a hard one to write about: how do you write about a work where it feels you couldn’t see the truly important parts of the puzzle? In this, I took reference to Lyn Gardner writing in the Guardian:

In the end, if the project has a theatrical manifestation – if an audience is invited and critics too – then it has to be judged on the basis of the performance. To take any other approach is to patronise all those who have participated in its making, whether they be professional or community participants. Audiences don’t want to leave saying: “Oh that was great – for a community show.” We want to leave filled with delight and enthusiasm, having witnessed a great piece of theatre.

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