Tracy Bourne originally trained as a classical singer (Queensland Con, Melbourne Con) and as an actor at the Victorian College of the Arts (Company 93). She worked professionally in new opera and theatre work in the 1990s including The Two Executioners for Chamber Made Opera, the ABC and Melbourne International Festival. She moved to Ballarat in 2000 to take up the position of Lecturer in Singing at the University of Ballarat, now Federation University, training many music theatre performers who have since worked professionally in Australia and overseas. During her time in Ballarat, Tracy wrote and directed new music theatre work in response to social and environmental issues, and established SEAM Inc. (Sustainable Environment Arts Movement), an organization that creates art projects that engage communities with issues of climate change. Since moving to Bungendore in 2015 she has directed The Only Certain Thing for Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art (CADA), co-Directed the Company Ensemble at Canberra Youth Theatre (CYT) for Poem Every Day in August 2017, and acted in a creative development of Blue by Dylan van den Berg (2017) and Sherpas by Tom Davis (2018) as part of First Seen at The Street Theatre. Recently, she played the role of Caroline Connor in David Atfield’s Exclusion.
In 2016, she completed a PhD on the physiology and acoustics of music theatre voice through Sydney University. She currently teaches singing, voice and acting in Canberra and Bungendore.
The Street talks to Tracy about Sheila, her play in development, with its first public showing on the 18th of December.
YOU’VE WRITTEN AND PERFORMED IN MANY OF YOUR OWN WORKS. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE FOR THEATRE?
I began writing for theatre soon after I moved to Ballarat from Melbourne to work full-time at the University of Ballarat. Although I had a very busy teaching schedule, I wanted to keep up my creative practice, but found that moving to the country had made me much less visible as a performer. So, I started making my own work. There was a lot of support at the university for me to do this – I was able to use the facilities there, and students would volunteer to be involved as performers or ushers. I even attracted some research funds to develop the work. The downside was that the audiences were relatively small and the work I made often didn’t travel outside of Ballarat.
TELL US ABOUT SHEILA, YOUR WORK IN DEVELOPMENT.
Sheila is based on the experiences of a British doctor, Sheila Cassidy, in the early 1970s when she travelled to Chile to increase her specialist hours. While she was there, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected Allende, causing enormous social upheaval. Sheila became inadvertently caught up in it when she treated a fugitive revolutionary. She was arrested and tortured and spent some time in the women’s prisons with other political prisoners.
Sheila’s experiences in Chile changed her idea of what it is to be a good person and led her to deepen her Christian practice. Despite a deep yearning to connect to God, she found her habits of independence and self-control kept getting in the way. Ultimately, it was the community of atheist, Marxist women in the prison that transformed her sense of self and how she could live a better life.
Sheila is also a play about the female experience of violence and civil war, told by a female writer and director with a majority female cast.
WHY TELL THE STORY WITH MUSIC?
There are some extraordinarily beautiful Chilean songs, from the nueva canción of the 1960s and 70s, that were deeply connected to the social and political change of the time. These songs, by writer/performers such as Violetta Parra and Victor Jara, were about the lives and experiences of the rural poor, the working people and were written as a rejection of the ‘colonialism’ of foreign culture. They are charged with the energy of social change and the lyricism of compassion for people who are often forgotten.
In this piece, we are using these songs to carry Sheila’s emotional journey and to give a flavour of the Chilean culture as Sheila experienced it.
WHERE IS SHEILA IN ITS CREATIVE TRAJECTORY?
I have been sitting with this project for about 8 years. It started when I bought Sheila Cassidy’s memoir ‘Audacity to Believe’ for $1 in the discarded books shelf of my local library. When I read the book, I was struck by Sheila as a character. She is very honest, tough on herself, and quite eccentric. She is essentially a privileged person thrown into a nasty political situation that is outside her control and it forces her to ask big questions of herself. Then my life got busy and I had to put the project in the drawer for a few years.
Last year the project had a few days of creative development at Gorman House as part of a Flash Residency program, which enabled me to step aside from the research and to start developing real characters. From there I wrote a lot of material and now I have a two act play to refine.
WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU ASKING IN THIS CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?
This play is using Sheila’s story to ask; What is it to be a good person? How should we act in difficult times? How does the experience of privilege get in the way of living a moral life?
Sheila uses Christian practice as her guide to living with integrity, whereas the women she meets in prison practice the humanist values of socialism. I am interested in exploring the contrasting and often opposing views of these two ideologies, as well as the underlying similarities between them both.
HOW WILL YOU WORK WITH DIRECTOR/DRAMATURG KATIE CAWTHORNE?
Katie was the director/dramaturg for our previous creative development, and we worked with two actors – Isha Menon and Aram Geleris. In those four days, we did a lot of talking, and improvising and then I would go away and do some more writing which we would then try out on the floor the next day. We also spent some time choosing songs with musician Jorge Bontes.
In this second development, the aim is to test the writing and the structure of the play. Does the audience connect with and care about the characters? Does the music carry the story forward? What is the energy of each scene and where are the gaps? We will do some exploring and improvising on the floor – and perhaps start to imagine some of the staging. I am expecting to do a lot of rewriting during the week between rehearsals, and after the development.
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC AUDIENCE/OUTCOME IN MIND OR IS IT STILL AN AUDIENCE IN THE MAKING?
I hope that by the end of the week we have a pretty good sense of what the play will be, but I don’t know yet who the audience is. At this stage, we are imagining it will be a ‘black box’ production where the audience can be close to the performance and feel totally immersed in the world of the play.
HAVE THE ACTORS HAD TO DO ANY PREPARATION OR MUSIC LEARNING OR DO THEY COME INTO THE PROCESS COLD?
I will be sending some research material to the actors before we start so that they have an understanding of the historical and cultural background of the play. I’ll send them a copy of the play beforehand too – but they won’t need to do any learning of songs or text beforehand.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.
I have worked with The Street as an actor on two creative developments: Blue by Dylan van den Berg and Sherpas by Tom Davis. I also played Caroline Connor in David Atfield’s recent production of Exclusion. I love working on new material – as an actor, maker, or director: I really like the collaborative problem-solving that comes with being the first people to bring a work to life. The Street is a wonderful resource in Canberra for theatre makers of all types because of the support it provides to local artists and to the making of new work. I am thrilled to be working in Street 3 for these 5 days.
WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?
For me it starts with an idea – a metaphor or an image – that connects with something I care deeply about. For example, I’ve created works that respond to the climate crisis, and they have all been quite different: One was a schools’ play, another a community textile project, another was a national choir performance, another was a solo cabaret work, and another was a large-scale outdoor event that included choirs, fire performances and trams! I have to feel like the work is answering some of these big and urgent questions or I can’t really stay interested.
The challenge then is to make something that works as art. It must be beautiful and well-crafted and lead the audience into a shared imaginative experience. It can’t be preachy, or too earnest. As much as possible I try to make work that speaks to a broad audience.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN MUSICAL THEATRE?
I enjoy working across the genres of music and theatre. Although I teach commercial music theatre singing, I haven’t written or performed in this kind of work. I tend to work in new opera or new music theatre where we are always travelling between the two artforms, and aiming to integrate them into a holistic performance experience.
I like seeing music and theatre interact. I like the way that music allows a theatrical audience to drop deeper into the emotional experience of a moment. It allows for more abstraction, more connection to the subtext and to the unconscious. I think you can take an audience further into the layers of an idea when you move between text, image and music.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I have recently finished reading Michael Pollan’s book How to Change your Mind. It is about the science of psychedelics and the way that these drugs interact with consciousness and our sense of ourselves. It’s a heavy read, but really had me thinking about how I see myself and my place in the great complex system of nature. I have recently watched Bodyguard on Netflix – which was a terrific, heart-stopping thriller. My favourite TV show this year was a short Danish series called Ride upon the Storm about family, God, War, Love – all the big themes!