In June, Sydney’s Treehouse Theatre will present a brand new production, Tree of Life. This production will see several young refugees take to the stage to share their own personal stories.

In association with Miller Technology High School, Treehouse Theatre has worked closely with the performers, who are a selection of newly arrived students from some of the world’s troubled areas, using therapeutic drama and storytelling workshops as a form of healing.

Stories in the production include a young girl from Northern Sudan who reflects on being jailed and tortured because her father was a member of parliament in hiding; the birth of a baby amid hospital staff being shot during the civil unrest in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein; and a young boy and his family escaping from Syria when their bus is held up by ISIS.

Theatre People recently had the fortune of finding out from Treehouse Theatre’s president, George Rosier, about this remarkable endeavour.

Treehouse Theatre was founded in 2007 by Ruth Hartcher-O’Brien, an English as a Second Language teacher at Miller Technology High School, and Catherine Maguire-Donvito, the school counsellor.

“Ruth was using drama to teach English, getting her students to perform their own stories, in English. Most of these students were refugees, having arrived in Australia after often traumatic experiences in their home countries,” Rosier says.

“Catherine noticed how well the students responded; the process enabled them to come to terms with their past. They seemed to both learn English and grow in confidence faster than their peers who were confined to traditional classroom approaches. As a counsellor, Catherine recognised the therapeutic value of the process.

“After some research, Catherine found a documented approach to trauma counselling, based on the metaphor of a tree – the Tree of Life. She combined this with the drama and worked with Ruth to produce several performances in the school. Non-refugee students in the audience suddenly understood the traumatic backgrounds that their refugee peers had come from. They recognised the incredible strength and resilience of the young refugee cast. Other refugee students in the audience felt validated and accepted.”

Rosier says that, following their success within the school, Hartcher-O’Brien and Maguire-Donvito decided to take the idea to the next level, forming the theatre company.

“They formed Treehouse Theatre, an incorporated association, to work with the school to produce a performance in mainstream theatres,” Rosier explains.

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Tree of Life will begin performances at Chatswood on June 9

“The association also allowed them to raise funds for costumes, catering, transport, AV material and all the incidentals that added up quickly to several thousand dollars per show. The larger productions were made available to school groups and the general public, to promote the acceptance of refugees in the community.”

Today, Treehouse Theatre presents two productions a year – Tree of Life at Chatswood and Casula, and Suitcase Stories at Penrith and the Seymour Centre.

In the upcoming production of Tree of Life, 20 young refugees will share their stories with audiences. So, how is it that these young people come to be a part of this experience?

“Refugee students are selected based on referrals and recommendations from teachers and counsellors,” says Rosier.

“They are free to continue or drop out at any time. Some take part in the group counselling sessions but do not want their stories performed. Others are eager to share their stories.

“Their choices are always respected. Another important issue is parental consent. Ruth and Catherine visit the home of each participant, with an interpreter. The entire process is explained and parents have to appreciate the commitment their child is making in agreeing to take part.”

And how does the team involved with Tree of Life go about bringing this truly unique type of performance to the stage?

“With great difficulty and a lot of hard work!” Rosier tells Theatre People.

“The process starts with the students getting to know each other and the Treehouse volunteers. In addition to Ruth and Catherine, we have a stage manager, an assistant director and others involved in the process. The students tell their stories in group counselling sessions, using the metaphor of the tree – the roots are their early life, often with tales of childhood fun and silly pranks, the leaves are the people in their lives (some have fallen), the fruit are the gifts they have received, and so on.

“Those who want to perform their stories then work with Catherine and Ruth to script their performances. Ruth and Catherine then work to make these stories into short performance pieces, complete with AV effects, movement and dialogue. Some are funny, some are tragic and some are stories of triumph.”

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Tree of Life will begin performances at Chatswood on June 9

At that point, Rosier says the pace of work picks up, with the process of organising props, costumes, AV and sound effects beginning.

“Rehearsals are held every Sunday and the pressure mounts,” he says.

“Last minute changes are made as students change their minds and want to include stories previously withheld. Programs are designed and printed. And all the time, the mail-outs to schools and telephoning goes on to build audience numbers.”

Theatre People asked Rosier what he enjoys most about helping to facilitate the opportunity for the sharing of these young people’s stories?

“Watching the students grow,” he says.

“Students who [were] ‘invisible’ in the corner of the room start to speak out. They start to talk about their past trauma without distress. They grow in confidence, their English improves, their self-organisation improves, [and] they start to take the initiative.”

Rosier hopes audience members for Tree of Life will walk away with a gut-level of understanding of the refugee experience.

“The most memorable feedback came from an adult member of one of the early audiences – ‘I laughed so hard at the beginning, cried in the middle and couldn’t stop smiling at the end’.

“This roller coaster of emotions is typical. The stories of childhood fun and misbehaviour are often hilarious; the stories of terror and tragedy are gut-wrenching – often you can hear some of the audience sobbing; the joy, the laughter and the celebration at the end are infectious, with the audience clapping time to the dancing on stage.

“Nobody can be unmoved by these inspiring young people, and that is what we want!”

TREE OF LIFE

When:

– 10am and 12.30pm on 9th and 10th June; 7pm on 10th June; at The Concourse (409 Victoria Ave, Chatswood)

– 10am and 12.30pm on 23rd and 24th June; 7pm on 24 June; at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (1 Powerhouse Rd, Casula)

Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes

Tickets: Adults $30 / 17 and under $20 from www.treehousetheatre.org.au

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