Posted by Karen Hethey
Sitting in Gwen Knox and Chris Hill’s backyard I have a moment to breathe in and out from what has been an incredibly busy but fantastic year of puppetry – one that has taken me from Esperance to Kalgoorlie to Derby to Broome and clocked up some 15 000kms of driving (Hmm! Maybe that’s why I feel a tad tired….) Gwen Knox, Bernadette Trench-Theideman, Lena John-Gomez and myself have just finished the first stage of the “2 Rivers Talking” puppetry project, working with more than 150 young people from Pandanus Park and Derby primary school. Also joining our creative team were two fantastic young emerging artists, Brenti McCale a Nykina woman from Pandanus park and Roechelle Rivers a Nyungar/Gidja woman who I had worked with and got to know on the Mandaboornap giant puppetry project in Esperance at the beginning of this year. With the hot glue guns working overtime and the paint flying we ran workshops with 60 students to create diatoms from plastic bottles, emu’s, crocodiles, turtles, fish, parrots, kangaroos, bats, spiders, snakes and all kinds of river creature puppets from recycled foam and flotsam and jetsum while Lena worked her magic, choreographing 80 students to move in a Bungara style “diatom” dance. (For the uninitiated a diatom is a tiny microscopic organism that lives in water and plays an incredible role in the health of our rivers and the planet – in fact they produce 40% of the world’s oxygen, scientists use them in forensic research and Lena’s dad happens to be one of the leading world scientific experts on them – and I used a highly highly scientific method to collect some using a fishing line and ginger beer bottle off the Willare bridge! If only it was that easy to catch a barra…).
So under black lights and set within an interpretation of a Nykina story of Mudawurra, art, culture, science and education came together in a performance at Derby High School’s Performing Arts Centre with more than 120 students taking to the stage with exploding exuberance to share stories inspired by the mighty Fitzroy River. Fish swam, diatoms danced and kangaroos and emus jumped infront of a bulldozer while other animals took action to stop the destruction of their homes and to protect the health of Mudawurra. Yeehar!!! The animals won!! Kids – super proud!
Now back in Broome before I hit the road again I steal a moment to reflect on the project (without going too far down the path of navel gazing) and it leads me to thinking about cycles, what we bring, what we create when we collaborate, what we leave resonating and what comes of this beyond. An old quote comes to mind a variation of Isaac Newton’s statement “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants”
“If you could stand on the shoulders of giants and look beyond the horizon and see which seeds will grow and which will not speak to me then…” (Anon)
I think about all the little heads that would pop around corners of classrooms and in the playground at Derby School calling to me when we first arrived “Hey Karen” “Remember me” “ I know you – you did the BIG puppets” “You did that big Kangaroo and the Dumbi!” Many of these little faces had been puppeteers and performers in the Wanillire Spectacle Puppet Project I had worked on with fellow artist Sarah Nelson and Mowanjum Arts Centre artists and performed at this years Mowanjum Festival complete with dancing giant brolgas and a 3m Kangaroo. Now some of these budding puppeteers were part of an entirely different kind of puppetry project and I realized for some of these children this was the 5th puppetry project they had been involved in with me and I felt a real sense of being a small part of contributing to a much bigger cultural ecology that people across cultures are making here.
It was really through Theatre Kimberley my creative adventures in the Kimberley began when in 2006 Gwen Knox invited me to be a guest artist for Broome Worn Art “Odyssey” adventure. As luck would have it the show I was performing in with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre ended in Broome. So I jumped off the tour and headed into a 5 week artist in residence working with Broome’s incredible artistic community to bring to life many ideas through large scale puppets and mask. It was such an opportunity to meet artists, share ideas and skills and to connect with such a dynamic and diverse community – from spending afternoons at the Youth Centre making individual bones for a larger than life Skeleton that came alive and danced under black light, to going down to Entrance Point at 6am with 6 women and Circe the 4m Siren Seductress Puppet to film in the early light for the projections, to travelling to Bidgedanga and creating with six young people in 3 hrs a 3m Peace Dove that travelled back to Broome in pieces to be reassembled and hitched to a flying fox apparatus and flown across the BRAC roof thanks to aerial artist Nel Simpson. It was also through this project that I met Maya Haviland and Worrorro artist Leah Umbagai who were running a youth arts course at Derby TAFE. They brought students from Derby and Mowanjum into the workshop space that is now the Goolari Media’s Gimme Bar and in an afternoon we built a 3 m Gyorn Gyorn based on one of Leah’s designs.
From this first point of meeting a much larger project took shape with Mowanjum Arts Centre – and in 2007 I worked alongside Leah and Maya along with Senior Law Women from Nyaranyin, Worrorro and Warnambal countries along the Gibb River Road, making a giant Jillinya puppet. Leah’s daughter Cissy being 9 years old at the time was one of the first to pick up and start operating some of the small scale puppets. It was through this project I also met Rhona Charles, who plays a lead role in looking after and teaching cultural stories, language and dance through the Mowanjum Arts Centre Junba Project and her daughter Mary-Lou Divilli who was learning video making through the TAFE course being run by Leah and Maya. I was also taken to the site where the original events of the Wanilirre Story happened to get a deeper understanding of the story and the country. In 2008 these giant stunning ancestral puppets were brought down to Perth and featured in the Million Puppets Exhibition for the UNIMA International Puppet Festival and Congress.
In 2014 I was invited back by Mowanjum Arts Centre to bring the Wanilirre Story to life through Shadow Puppetry and Children’s artworks for the DADAA WA Marsh Art. A crazy 10 day project with 24 Mowanjum kids and artists that lead to another shadow puppet project in 2015 for the Mowanjum Festival! Sadly in 2015 two weeks before I was due to arrive the Traditional Owner and Custodian of the story was tragically killed in a car accident and we could not tell this story. But still wanting the children to have an opportunity to use puppetry to tell cultural stories we developed two stories from Leah Umbagai’s grandmother’s country. With a montage of children’s artworks forming the projection backdrop, I made wooden shadow puppets with mowanjum kids that they used to tell the story of how the Parrots Got The Fire and the Ugallah and the Bats. This time I worked alongside Mary-Lou Divilli who by now was a very skilled digital artist and photographer in her own right and her husband Tristan who together did an excellent narration of the stories that brought much laughter and delight from the audience. This time in 2017, Leah is now the Art Centre Manager, 2 years of rain has passed and permission was given to tell the Wanilirre story as a tribute, under the guidance of Margaret White. Now 10 years on I worked with Cissy Umbagai who painted the projection imagery and stunning Wanjina headresses worn by the stilt walkers and also played the lead puppeteer operating the giant kangaroo which carried on it’s back one of the young boys who had caused all the “trouble”. Now in the 2 Rivers Talking project Rhona’s grandchildren and Mary-Lou’s children made puppets and became part of another generation of storytellers creating new stories while another family member, Brenti McCale, came on board the artistic team.
It brings home just how important all the small moments are, the value of the connections we make over time and the artistic worlds we create working together with joy, creativity and cultural sensitivity. You never quite know when something new is being seeded and what will grow from it in years to come. The great work the Theatre Kimberley and the Sandfly Circus Outreach program does keeps making new opportunities happening. I for one am very grateful to Theatre Kimberley for that first invitation and to Mowanjum Arts Centre for the incredible opportunities that I have had to work so closely with people and cultures from this part of the country. And a huge thankyou to Derby High School teachers and staff for their support and commitment to the project – look forward to “what happens next”!