It’s a brand new work that aims to explore the vagaries of language – those rendered powerlessness by not having it, nuances lost in translation, and the occasionally hilarious consequences of misunderstanding it.
This Wednesday, Who Speaks For Me? will have its world premiere at Riverside Theatres. It’s a co-production of National Theatre of Parramatta and Performance 4a.
Who Speaks For Me? is an opportunity for theatregoers to hear stories of Western Sydney residents in an intimate multi-lingual, multi-generational storytelling show. Co-directing the show are storyteller and photographer William Yang, and writer and producer Annette Shun Wah. It follows the pair’s critically acclaimed collaborations on Stories Then and Now, Stories East and West and In Between Two.
Shun Wah is on the artistic directorate of the National Theatre of Parramatta and executive producer of Performance 4a. She spoke to Theatre People about the challenges that have presented in preparing Who Speaks For Me? for the stage.
“Having the language variation in this makes it particularly challenging, dealing with people who have never worked in theatre before and some people who don’t speak English,” she says. “It makes you think very carefully about what you do and how you do it, the stuff that you normally take for granted.”
But she says it’s also rewarding to be able to bring this new work to life.
“These are stories that wouldn’t normally get to the stage [and] wouldn’t get to a wide audience because they’re from people who normally would not be given a chance to be on stage to tell their own stories,” Shun Wah says.
“That’s, I think, the most rewarding thing of all – to be able to open a door that normally is closed to people because of the language.”
Shun Wah discusses the origins of the concept for Who Speaks For Me?
“The idea of not being able to speak a language and having to have, often, a child in your family being your voice is a really common experience, I think, for migrant families,” she says.
In fact, it’s an experience Shun Wah herself had as a child.
“I used to have to speak for my mother. But even though it’s so common and so many of us know it firsthand, I hadn’t really seen it explored to any depth on stage. So, it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for quite a few years”, she says.
“The other thing is that we have had multiple storytelling shows before from different communities, but always in English. And people always ask, ‘Will it be in ‘x’ language?’ And I know that there are people who might have come to the show but didn’t because it was in English. So, again, I wanted to reach out to people from different communities and see if they would come and listen to the stories in a theatre.”
Who Speaks To Me?, Shun Wah says, will feature seven storytellers.
“They’re from three different families,” she tells Theatre People. “Each family gets to tell their story, basically – a story about their origins, where they’re from, and the journey that’s brought them here and what their lives are like here… The person who ‘could not speak’ initially tells the story, and it’s translated by the person who speaks for them. But as the story goes on, we switch to more of the story of the translator… And by the end of that story, it is mostly in English.”
Who Speaks For Me? features the stories of a Nepalese couple from Bhutan, three generations of a Vietnamese family, and a mother and son from Cambodia.
“It’s in the style of work that William Yang normally does,” Shun Wah says. “William and I have worked together on a number of shows, but William himself has developed this style of theatrical storytelling, which is very simple: basically, stand up and tell a story, with projected photographs that go with the story.
“He’s made lots of shows over the last 20 years, many of which have toured internationally. So, it’s a format that’s worked really well for him.
“The audience will sit there and they’ll find things that will surprise them, and that they didn’t know before. They’ll get a first-hand insight into lives that are very different to their own. They might also find that there are things that are very similar to their own experiences, in which case I think it’s a very empowering thing to hear stories that are very similar to your own.”
Shun Wah says what’s come out of the process for her is something she’s always known.
“I get very upset when people talk about [how] when you come to Australia, you must learn to speak English, otherwise you’re hopeless, you can’t be a useful citizen. And I’ve always known that not to be true because my mother didn’t learn to speak English for decades, and yet she helped raise a family, she helped run a business. She was a contributing member to society,” Shun Wah says.
“These stories back that up. Here are people who have come to the country without the language and, with their varying degrees of English proficiency, they all are very productive, contributing members to their own communities, their own families and to wider society. They’re all great citizens of Australia, and whether they speak English well or not is irrelevant, really.”
Who Speaks For Me? is the fourth work in this the National Theatre of Parramatta’s inaugural season.
“All of the works have been very different, so I guess everyone’s curious to get an idea about what [the company] is and the scope of what it is, and we’re working that out ourselves because we are so new,” says Shun Wah. “Each step of the way seems very different to the last.”
In April 2017, the company will present Smurf in Wanderland as a co-production with Griffin Theatre Company, billed as an examination of football, tribalism, belonging and identity.
So, what else is on the horizon for the National Theatre of Parramatta?
“It’s very much a case of making work that feels a very strong affinity with Western Sydney,” Shun Wah says. “That was harder to do right at the beginning because there wasn’t time to develop anything or to really examine anything. It was easier just to find something that was already written and produce it.”
She continues: “We still haven’t had a lot of time, but we’re starting to find some opportunities to develop people or to develop ideas. So, in the longer term, those things will eventually end up on the stage. Having the time to do that behind-the-scenes development, if you like, is very important. So, while it may not be apparent immediately in the programme because these things do take time, that’s the sort of work that, I think, excites me the most.”
WHO SPEAKS FOR ME? – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Riverside Theatres – corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
Wednesday 12 October 7:30pm – Preview
Thursday 13 October 7:30pm – Opening night
Friday 14 October 7:30pm
Saturday 15 October 2pm and 7:30pm. At 4pm, an Artist Talk will be held with the cast and co-directors discussing the process of making Who Speaks For Me? Free, bookings essential.
Adults $37, Concession $32, 30 and under $27. From the box office (02) 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au