Importantly, Western Edge Youth Arts is a youth arts company in Melbourne’s West giving young people a voice and shaping communities through the arts.
The company presents the premiere of Iago by the Edge Ensemble which comprises six young emerging artists and in this re-telling of Othello’s antagonist the characters represent their own diverse cultural backgrounds. Their stories and voices are bold and true.
The tale is told inside the confines of a rat–infested boxing gym and is spliced with young people’s stories reflecting the cultural diversity of Australian society.
Members include Piper Huynh (Vietnamese), Achai Deng (Sudanese), Legrand Andersen (Maori), Rex Pelman (Samoan), Natalie Lucic (Croatian) and Oti Wiloughby (Ghanaian).
Just like the characters in Iago, each holds a story, and, explains Western Edge Youth Arts artistic director, Dave Kelman, Iago genuinely belongs to the Edge Ensemble, “Whilst still identifiably Shakespeare, it is the cast’s work and their interpretation of these complex themes – the characters they have created are intersected into their own cultural backgrounds while being loosely driven by Shakespeare’s narrative as the audience is transposed into a contemporary Australian context.”
It is no surprise that according to VicHealth, violence is the biggest cause of injury or death for women between 18 and 45. Iago aims to explore the problematic world of contemporary sexual politics and misogyny incorporating a number of different cultural perspectives.
Piper Huynh, Legrand Andersen, Rex Pelman Oti Wiloughby speak frankly about their life’s journey :
Strength of Character
Part of Legrand Andersen’s world fell away when he stepped out of the church he had grown up in. And an unexpected community sprang up in its place.
‘I could have been really bored and who knows …’ he says, trailing off. ‘I could break it down to probably I wouldn’t be alive, maybe,’ says Legrand, who was 21 at the time and had already been recognised by Maribyrnong City Council as Emerging Community Leader of the Year in 2010.
To fill the space left by the Mormon youth leaders he had looked up to, Legrand turned to his mentors at Western Edge Youth Arts, whom he had known since he started making community theatre at 17.
‘It was nice to have a male figure there,’ says Legrand. ‘I put a lot of time into theatre. I’m able to channel a lot of my energy and focus. It definitely saved me,’ says Legrand, who says he retains the values he gained through the church.
His warmth and compassion show as a mentor for other young artists at Western Edge, and he campaigns for social justice through his performances, raising awareness about racism through the Flemington Theatre Group with performances like Black Face White Mask. He also facilitates workshops on complex issues in schools.
‘Western Edge has always been there,’ says Legrand. He has performed throughout Victoria. On stage, his charisma is contagious and he goes to dark places while exploring his characters, such as the misogynist lead in Iago.
‘I like what Western Edge does. Their aim is to get kids who wouldn’t normally interact to work together. You see them form relationships with each other. Western Edge has a purpose, it gives people purpose. It’s something to live for, you know?’
‘Hopefully I’m still a part of something like that as I get older.’
Interviewing the oldest woman in a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia was scary at first for young performer Rex Semsi Pelman. He was far from home, and she was unsmiling.
‘Because I don’t come from their culture I wanted to tread lightly,’ says Rex, who was in Beagle Bay with other high school students to collect stories for a performance of Chronicles with Western Edge Youth Arts in 2012.
‘I interviewed her about how respect has been lost as generations go on,’ says Rex, who hails from Deer Park.
‘After the performance she was smiling and really happy. I took a picture of her and me, I’ve got it on my wall really blown up.’
Rex joined the three-year Chronicles project in 2010, after his drama teacher suggested he check out an after-school theatre project that involved interviewing older local migrants from the western suburbs about culture and identity.
It’s here that Rex first heard stories of his mum’s early life in Western Samoa.
‘It really helped me to understand where my mum came from. The project captured me because of culture. I’m really distant from my own culture. I’d like to explore where my roots came from,’ says Rex.
Through his next role as a beat boxer in Random in 2011, Rex discovered he had a knack for getting through to rowdy kids. He soon took up work as a facilitator in Western Edge’s primary school community theatre programs.
‘As soon as I hit Western Edge in Year 9, I was non-stop busy. My holidays were packed. Still today [five years on], I’m busy with everything. It’s a good habit. You get a lot done and it’s good to look back and be proud of what you did,’ says Rex.
In his down time, Rex produces his own music, is part of the Massive hip-hop choir, a sound designer and member of the Edge Ensemble, which is preparing for a return season of Iago, a retelling of Othello.
‘The work makes us go deeper. Right now we’re talking about violence against women all the time. It really hits home for me, because of my family history. The conversations are endless and we respect each other in our arguments.’
Under the Stars
The sciences could have won her over at school, but a love of storytelling drew Piper Huynh to community theatre when she was 15 years old. She never looked back.
‘Just hearing people’s experiences, hearing about their lives and how it affects you, it can influence you and your decision making,’ says Piper.
The idea of interviewing elders and young people from migrant backgrounds in western Melbourne captured her imagination, so she joined the three-year Chronicles project through Western Edge Youth Arts in 2010.
Western Edge took the show – and Piper – much further west, touring the Kimberley to collect stories from elders about respect and culture to weave into performances under the stars in Beagle Bay Aboriginal Community and Broome.
‘If I didn’t do Chronicles, who knows – I’d probably be in a ditch somewhere. It’s one of my pivotal moments in life. I’d probably be doing science somewhere or getting in trouble, I really do not know,’ says Piper.
Her many creative skills flowered on tour. She featured in newspaper and radio interviews, took photos and footage, created multimedia, started a blog and spent time with kindred people.
‘The people I worked with on Chronicles are my lifelong friends, people who’ve been there to guide me through as I figure out who I am and what I want to be in life,’ says Piper.
‘Western Edge engages young people who are lost, not really there, or struggling to find who they are. Or they have big ideas and don’t have the resources to do it themselves. For me, it was finding an opportunity to do something I enjoyed.’
A member of the Edge Ensemble and Playback West, Piper also co-founded the AAWE Collective for people who are differently abled or from diverse cultural backgrounds. They debuted at the Big West Festival in 2013.
‘It confirmed my love for theatre and kicked me into wanting to do it as a career,’ says Piper, who studies performing arts at Monash.
When Oti Wiloughby’s drama teacher stopped him in the corridor at high school to invite him to a lunchtime theatre workshop, he was hesitant.
‘I wasn’t the most confident person, and I didn’t want to miss out on my lunchtime,’ says Oti, laughing. He went anyway, and found mentors from Western Edge Youth Arts wrangling 60 kids in the first session.
‘It was hectic. Eventually the group narrowed down and the serious ones stayed. It was the best decision I’ve ever made,’ says Oti.
Together they developed a show with elements of music, performance, urban culture and hip hop. ‘I loved it,’ says Oti, who then took a hip hop workshop at Phoenix Youth Centre so he could learn to write, perform and record music.
‘After that my confidence skyrocketed. I felt I could be myself around people. If I didn’t do that I don’t think I’d be where I am today,’ says Oti, who this year starts a dual diploma of community development and community services work.
And he’s on the cusp of something big in the Melbourne music scene, with local and international releases as Yaw Faso.
‘Western Edge has given me confidence, and it spired off to other opportunities. It’s also helped me to be a leader,’ says Oti, who tackles issues such as gambling, domestic violence and fate in powerful community theatre productions, as a performer with the Edge Ensemble and as a facilitator.
‘All this work has really opened my mind. I don’t see something for what it is – I look into it and understand the way things happen and why. I think it’s stimulated my mind to have a bigger line of sight,’ says Oti.
He thinks the fear of being judged often stands between people in the western suburbs and a rich creative life.
‘If I wasn’t given an opportunity to express, I’d be a very sad person. I want to make people aware that there are places to express themselves, and create more spaces for people to do that.’
May 7 – 9