By Melissa Keogh
In six months’ time the rows of the Northern Festival Centre in Port Pirie will be lined with theatregoers awaiting the world premiere of emerging playwright Elena Carapetis’ Gods of Strangers.
Written by Port Pirie-raised Elena, the historical fiction piece is inspired by migrant stories of regional SA.
The show will be seen by regional audiences ahead of their metropolitan counterparts, and be added to an ever-growing list of productions that have spilled onto country stages for close to three decades.
Although commissioned by the State Theatre Company, Gods of Strangers is one of a string of shows brought to the regions by arts organisation, Country Arts SA.
The regionally-focused organisation is celebrating 25 years of performing arts in the country.
Country Arts SA CEO Steve Saffell says accessibility to the arts is crucial for the wellbeing of regional communities.
“I believe it’s always about creating equal accessibility to the arts for people living in regional SA to provide them with the opportunities that people living in metropolitan areas can take for granted,” he says.
“It’s fair to say that the arts play a really important role in community wellbeing, economic development and tourism.
“For many regional communities, sport is freely available and important but there are many who need more or who don’t play sport, and this (the arts) provides an invaluable opportunity for these people.”
Aside from programming thousands of performances across regional SA over the years, Country Arts SA also remains a strong funding source for regional artists and communities.
It manages four major regional theatres, the Northern Festival Centre in Port Pirie, the Chaffey Theatre in Renmark, the Sir Robert Helpmann Theatre in Mt Gambier and the Middleback Arts Centre in Whyalla, in addition to the Hopgood Theatre in Noarlunga.
Steve says it’s hard to pick a favourite among the thousands of shows that have graced the stages.
“There have been so many performances that have come through, from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to the Australian Ballet and the opera,” he says.
“This year Adelaide circus company Gravity and Other Myths came to Whyalla with their major show, Backbone.
“They stayed for a whole week, did workshops and engaged with local schools.”
Steve says interactive performances are becoming more prominent.
Past examples have included multimedia police drama experience, Bingo Unit, where audiences helped film scenes in locations across their communities.
The audience was also invited on a backlot tour of the regional theatres, where they could choose to interrogate suspects, search for evidence, or simply watch the drama unfold.
Steve says many modern day theatre productions aren’t intended to fill hundreds of seats.
“A lot of the shows these days aren’t always intended for big audiences,” he says.
“Some performances just don’t work on a big stage with 500 seats in front of them.
“It’s much more about participation now and getting people involved rather than having a passive audience.”
Mt Gambier theatre director Jamie Harding knows the effectiveness of immersive audience experiences.
His regional production company Gener8 Theatre’s production, In the Pines, involved extensive community consultation and involves the audience donning visual reality (VR) headsets.
Premiering in August, In the Pines examines how the drug ice has an impact on local communities.
Wearing VR headsets for half of the performance, audience members are able to step inside the world of drug addiction and its devastating consequences.
“Nothing like this (use of VR) has ever been attempted in Australia and maybe even the world,” Jamie says.
“In the Pines will have its world premiere in Mt Gambier in August and then a season in Adelaide in 2019 before touring nationally.
Gener8 Theatre is supported by Country Arts SA and Jamie says art, cultural and theatre “should be at the heart of every community”.
“It’s a creative way to get them to talk about their sense of place and issues they feel are important,” he says.
“I think it’s vital to create from the regions and have work that is made in the regions and shown not only in SA and nationally, but on the world stage.”
Header photo is Rosalba Clemente in ‘The Gods of Strangers’.