This week’s archive feature revisits one of our highlights from last year’s season, UnHOWsed By Tashmadada & Voices of the South Side. UnHOWsed was a multi-disciplinary, musical and experimental performance work. It was also one of my personal favourites from our 2019 season.
In many ways, this production embodied everything that Theatre Works was created to stand for; championing the voices of the unsung local community through rigorous and innovative explorations of live art. UnHOWsed carved out a unique emotional niche; it’s impact lasted with me long after I left the theatre (and as a member of the front of house team, I saw it many times).
“More elderly women are experiencing homelessness than ever before. Recent census data shows that in five years the number of older woman experiencing homelessness has increased by 31 percent.” Older women are rarely the demographic we picture when we think of rough sleepers, but just because we don’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there. It was bringing this representation to light that served as the driving force for contemporary arts company Tashmadada to collaborate with housing organisation Voices of the South Side to explore the quickly evolving crisis.
Through a series of poetic, non-linear, & true narratives, an ensemble of eight women bared the emotional baggage that accompanied their lived experiences of homelessness in a precise, empowering but scorching depiction of the lives typically ignored by the cultural zeitgeist.
Investigated through a series of real time snapshots, Director Deborah Leiser-Moore found the beauty and humanity within each member of casts lived experience. Every performer had a moment in the spotlight that touched on their history of a life lived on the edge. Sometimes funny, sometimes abstract, UnHOWsed found beauty in its simplicity. At one point a woman sits in her car and prepares dinner for herself; another uses a shower and bathes using a solar shower bag.
It took Karen Corbett, an award-winning theatre maker and performer in UnHOWSed, two decades to realise that what she’d experienced as a young woman was homelessness.
“Many people equate the term with living rough on the streets but, the general nature of women’s homelessness is that it’s couch surfing and living in cars – a friend of mine raised her three children from a car… In the past, older women were invisible [on film and TV]. Then they were visible but … they all had houses, they all had enough money and they all had lovely clothes and my friends and I said, where the f— are we in this picture, really? Where are women living on the edge in their 60s? And so we decided to write about it.”
To turn statistics into theatre, the play was written by the cast from the safety of a church kitchen over lunches, laughter and cups of tea. They spent many hours getting to know each other; laughing together; singing together; documenting and then scripting their experiences. The women then received acting coaching to create a dramatic piece of theatre.
“The common thread [I heard from them is] safety or the feeling of being unsafe. Some of the common threads were shame,” said Catherine Samsury (another member of the ensemble). Corbett says for most of the cast members domestic violence was a factor in their stories. Many of the women in the play reveal events going back to childhood that inform how they got to where they are today. UnHOWSed however, celebrated both the sameness of their experience and the differences. For example, cast member Maurya Bourandanis didn’t experience homelessness until she was a grandmother.
In facilitating the shows direction, Leiser-Mooree stressed that the power of the work lay in its empowering representation:
“It’s not depressing, I really want to stress that. Some of the stories are tough but there’s so much humour in it … The whole thrust of this piece is: these are our experiences, and I’m here. Look at me. See me.”
Ms Bourandanis expressed hope that UnHOWsed would push people to “rally around the politicians” for more social housing.
“I’m not here for anybody to feel sad over…This play is for people to realise and maybe make some social change out of it.”
Critical responses echoed the sentiment of Bourandanis’, with many noting the skill with which the work executed its theatrical imagery, poetic humour and tender exploration of hope and trauma.
With exquisite skill and acute perception, profound and telling experiences in these individual women’s lives are highlighted and mixed into a rich absorbing work by Director Deborah Leiser-Moore. It is a little bit like a thickly rendered semi abstract oil painting – part probing reality, part insightful impression. Not a play – a work of refined art…. An inspired and enlightening piece.
With older women being one of the fastest rising group of homeless people in Australia, it’s time that everyone’s eyes opened up to the reality we are facing and UnHOWsed is a captivating way to start.
– My Melbourne Arts
“UnHOWsed is one of the most important work’s you’ll see. It’s under 60 minutes, and totally powerful. These are brave, real women, and they’re sharing a slice of themselves with the world to shed light on an experience far vaster and pervasive than the space of the stage. “
– Theatre Press
To aid in the creation of the work, Bunnings Warehouse assisted by providing the set, while the Christ Church (next to the theatre on Acland Street) donated its interior as a rehearsal space. The entire team involved in the production are listed below.
CARLA MITTERLEHNER, SUSAN V.M. MCDONALD-TIMMS, JAN GREY, DIANN PATTISON, MAURYA BOURANDANIS, CATHERINE SAMSURY, KAREN CORBETT, LIZA DEZFOULI
Stage Manager / Production Assistant
HAYLEY LAWSON SMITH
LOUISE CHEN PHOTOGRAPHY
ELEANOR HOWLETT (SASSY RED PR)
2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year for all but especially those in the live arts and entertainment industry. At Theatre Works our struggle has been fierce and enduring, but it has not worn down our commitment and passion to champion independent artists and their work. Your support, no matter how large or small, can make a huge difference to what we do. As we celebrate our 40th year, please consider donating.