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IN CONVERSATION WITH JACINTA YELLAND

"...the arts play a major role in inducing action and change. Theatre has the unique ability to inject life into the mind numbing glut of information we constantly encounter and transform it onstage into something relatable, tangible and real." In this weeks Backstage Blog, we chat with Australian theatre creator and performer, Jacinta Yelland, about their interactive, sensorial and award winning show, KOAL. A show about the loss of land and home in the face of a catastrophic climate emergency. Playing at Theatre Works 22 MAY-1 June.


Q: What are the main themes explored in KOAL?


A: I remember in 2019, sitting in my living room in Philadelphia, feeling utterly useless while watching my homeland, Australia, known for its wondrous landscape and animals be decimated by wildfires. Overcome with grief for such a great loss of life, I conceived this show about a baby koala recovering in a wildlife sanctuary, trying to return home to its 90-year-old eucalyptus tree before it turns to embers and dust in the flames. At the time I became quite angry at Australia’s coal mining industry—a major contributor to global warming—for putting Australian homes (natural and man made) at risk. I wanted to incorporate that into the story but as I began my research my perspective on coal mining became more complex. I encountered many stories about the shutting down of coal mines and the impacts this has on coal mining communities who are losing their livelihoods and homes. The final piece of KOAL involves a very personal story. Intertwined is the journey of a young Indigenous girl called Minah from the Torres Strait Islands who is taken from her home and forced to forget her culture and roots — a story inspired by my maternal grandmother’s internment in Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in the 1940s. It was very important to me to make visible the natural world that exists alongside us and connect the audience with the language and experience of other living beings. Minah’s deep connection to the land and the journey of the koala returning to its tree aims to give the audience a vivid and sensorial experience of the natural world. At its core the show is about HOME and what we all continue to lose — story, community, history, knowledge, plants, animals and land — when we ignore the actions we must take to protect our environment, our earth, our collective home.


Q: What is it like to play multiple and very different characters (including a koala) in a solo-show?


A: I play four characters in KOAL - a koala, a young Indigenous girl called Minah, Curtis the Wildlife Guardian and Stevo, a career coal miner! It’s challenging to play several different characters because you have to shift energy, rhythm, vocal and movement quality very quickly but it is also really invigorating as a performer because you get to morph every 10-15 minutes into a new world and state of being.


Q: If you could capture the essence of the show with a song or a piece of music, what would it be?


A: If I could capture the essence of KOAL with a piece of music it would be the opening original music composed by my husband Ethan Mentzer. The piece was made by drumming pieces of wood against wood (played by Atomic Tom drummer Tobias Smith). The whole show is centered around a tree and Ethan wanted to bring that sonically into the space. For me that song, which is playful, vibrant and grounding, captures the essence of what I envision is a harmonious relationship with our earth. You’ll have to come and see the show to hear the incredible music, which was all composed by Ethan Mentzer!


Q: How does the audience interaction differ in KOAL compared to other shows you’ve done?


A: In KOAL the audience plays different ‘roles’ and so their relationship and perspective of the story changes throughout the performance. At one point they are visitors at a wildlife sanctuary listening to a wildlife talk, then they become coal miners deep in the earth, and then they are school children. In previous shows I have performed in that involve audience interaction the audience has remained the same character throughout the performance. As a performer in KOAL I have to treat the audience differently in each scene depending on what character the audience is playing and how my character feels about them. The most challenging moment for me is at the school when I become a very strict teacher. I don’t like bossing people around so I had to find the jeu - the play and game - in disciplining the audience. Now this scene is one of my favourites to perform!


Q: What do you hope people talk about on their way home from seeing KOAL?


A: In our overstimulated world we, as a society, are increasingly unphased by pressing global issues such as the climate crisis. Scientists are aware that it is no longer enough to inform the public about the seriousness and urgency of these issues using science alone and that the arts play a major role in inducing action and change. Theatre has the unique ability to inject life into the mind numbing glut of information we constantly encounter and transform it onstage into something relatable, tangible and real. My hope is that the audience leave KOAL feeling reconnected with the natural world and start having discussions about what actions they could take to fight for the environment - our shared home - and make it flourish again.

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