GETTING TO KNOW: YLARIA ROGERS

Ylaria Rogers is a Canberra based director, actor and producer on the cusp of moving from early to mid-career. Ylaria has collaborated on new writing across Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, while also directing a number of works including Crossroads and  Miss Saigon and as Assistant Director to Tyran Parke, Follies. Ylaria has a successful production company, Freefall, founded in 2016 with Derek Walker, including critically acclaimed productions, Proof and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.  Ylaria’s work includes working as an actor for the Captain Starlight program at the Canberra Hospital and running professional development classes in Musical Theatre for Canberra-based artists. She has worked with The Street on creative developments for Sheila and Camelia, and First Seen and as an actor in productions, The War of the Worlds (2018) and Where I End & You Begin (2014) and was selected for The Street’s Early Phase creative development program in 2020.

THE STREET TALKED TO YLARIA ABOUT ITS EARLY PHASE PROGRAM TAKING IDEA TO CONCEPT ALL WITHIN THE COMPANY CONTEXT OF THE STREET.

TELL US ABOUT THE IDEAS YOU ARE PURSUING WITH THE SUPPORT OF THE STREET.

I am looking to create a Musical Comedy about overcoming and surviving the trauma of child sexual abuse. I am aware comedy, musical and child sexual abuse have never been used in the same sentence before. I have watched people literally cringe at the idea, but we are looking to release stigma by empowering survivors and challenging what has been done before. We are using transcripts of interviews with survivors to express the complex nature of the topic and pay homage to survival as a human concept and instinct. The people I have met have been fascinating, funny, joyous, hurt, angry, lost, found and everything in between. We are talking about a subject that has been pushed aside because people don’t want to know about it. There is shame and guilt associated with the idea that child sexual abuse is in your past and this piece is set to challenge an audience not to see a victim and judge the impact on their lives but to see people, survivors and humans who have overcome and triumphed through adversity. Some of the people I have talked to don’t feel that triumph, they do not feel they have overcome the trauma but everyone I have talked to…their stories are worth telling. More than anything, I want to empower a community of people by helping them realise ‘they are not alone’. I want to see their stories onstage and give a voice; a clever, funny, heartbreaking and triumph voice, to these amazing stories of survival.

WHY NOW?

For years I have been looking to create a piece of theatre around child sexual abuse. All the reflections I have ever seen in media, on television and in pop culture have been of ‘victims’ or that glorify or give space to the view of the perpetrator. I think, for the most part, we have no idea who these survivors are. One in three girls experience abuse and one in five boys. The statistics are so high that we can’t possibly understand what a survivor looks like. There is a societal view on what a victim looks like, but my experience is for the most part the suffering is silent and misunderstood and outwardly survivors are just people. Added to that, they are also a high percentage of the population.  In a time where mental health is at the forefront for so many, it feels like the time to create a piece of theatre that will open the door for a community whose voices, for too long, have been unheard. Around this subject there is so much healing to be done but I believe that starts with acknowledgment. For me the people I have met have had fascinating, funny and challenging stories, all of them completely human. I couldn’t think of a better time for a piece that explores our humanity and survival. 

After writing down my thoughts on ‘why now’, Grace Tames became the Australian of the Year. Her voice is inspirational and drives us forward to make these voices heard. There could not be a better time to advocate for the voices of survivors. “We Are Not Alone”.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THEMES, CONCERNS AND EXPERIENCES YOU ARE DRAWING ON TO DEVELOP YOUR CONCEPT?

One survivor in an interview said to me ‘I wasn’t sure if I should smile or what the expectation was for the mood in this interview’. This young man was one of the most warm, happy and caring people I have met but in talking about his abuse he felt he would somehow discredit the enormity of the event by having survived and by outwardly being ‘okay’. This is his armour. Society puts expectations on how survivors are ‘allowed’ to be.

When I was in university I discovered so many people had gone through the same thing within a very close nit group of people but everyone felt they were alone in their experience until they shared or found someone else who had gone through it. The current name for the project is ‘We Are Not Alone.’ The biggest themes that have appeared through the interviews have been society’s expectations on what survivors look like. I have discovered the most amazing community of people, who don’t know they are a community because we don’t talk about it and people suffer alone. People can feel like outsiders and as if no one understands them. The interviews have been a delve into stories I have never seen expressed onstage, some triumphant and others heartfelt and heartbreaking but all authentic and honest. Every survivor has used small amounts of humour to cover their pain and every story has been worth telling, deciding what to use will be an enormous task. My experience has been that sharing and knowing ‘We Are Not Alone’ is a gift in life. It has helped me and I hope these stories and conversations can help others too. 

WHAT PROCESSES ARE YOU USING AND WHO ARE YOUR COLLABORATORS?

So obviously the start of the process has been to interview survivors. Well I say that, but really this part of the process started with Jason Langley. He is a professional Theatre and Musical theatre director I worked with at VCA (I worked as his Assistant Director) who gave me the space, time and guidance to begin. He gave me a number of ways to collect and create content and interviews was just one of his suggestions but it was the one that affected me the most; the one that felt most important. It stepped outside my own story and into a bigger, broader and more ambitious project but one that would help multiple voices to be heard. Of the twenty interviews I have currently done not one person’s experience was the same. Jason, Martin and I sat in a room for a week as part of the Early Phase development reading through testimonies and delving into peoples’ lives to see what the show might be and what would emerge. To be honest we thought it would be a week of pain, horror and depressing stories. What came out was complex, fascinating, funny and human. Humanity wants to survive, and the stories of these people were so incredible and their sharing so genuine. We loved every one of these characters on a page. Their voices were intelligent, informed and sometimes incredibly simple. Our week at The Street Theatre has been the beginning of an incredible journey of discovery to look at how to tell their stories with respect and love. Jason Langley’s extensive professional experience as a director and collaborator has been the guidance and external eye this project needed and Martins experiences as an actor and writer and his excellent typing skills (as the offical transcriber) make up the most insightful and giving team I could ask for. We now have plans for how to put all of the transcriptions together to create scenes and we are beginning to talk about composers; yes, I did say musical.

WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE DISCOVERIES FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH PEERS ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS, FROM AUDIENCES TO COMMUNITY TO PROGRAMMING, THAT ARE INFORMING YOUR THINKING?

When you mention child sexual abuse in a room the energy feels like it dries up. Being able to talk openly with other Early Phase participants and have discussions around how to change the stigma around opening your mouth to speak about the topic has been invaluable. These other artists have had such insightful and inspiring ideas. I have never experienced artists supporting each other like that in a room.

The conversations with survivors have opened doors for conversations I never dreamed were possible, not positive or negative just real. The discussion with artists, survivors and friends has helped me to connect into each step of the process and, as I suspected, just talking about how with other people has been a huge step towards creation. I can’t say I am clear on how, but I think it is possible and all of the people I have come into contact with have driven me to just explore and see what appears within the discussions and the work. What appeared in our week of workshops by letting the conversations drive the how was magic.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO GET OUT OF THE EARLY PHASE PROCESS?

What I want more than anything is to reflect the triumph through adversity that survivors are going through everyday, whether they realise it or not, and pay homage to their stories. Early Phase has given me the opportunity to bring other people on-board (Jason and Martin) and delve into these stories of survival with artistic support and boundless imagination. There is no ambition too high for me in reflecting these stories as well as we possibly can. Tyran Parke (my mentor at uni) said to me once “If you make a piece of theatre about child sexual abuse, don’t make it cathartic. Want something from your audience!” For those who have suffered through trauma, pain and hurt and never seen their stories reflected, I want them to know ‘We Are Not Alone’. For those who have never experienced abuse themselves, I want to give them understanding. Is there one answer to that? I don’t think so. Early phase has given Jason, Martin and I the chance to look at these stories and listen. It is then up to us to reflect these stories so an audience can hear them.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE WITH THE STREET IN A POST-COVID WORLD?

Post-Covid? Is that a thing?

This subject matter is something we run from because, for the most part, we don’t want to acknowledge that child sexual abuse exists. Covid has made me stop and reflect, for better or worse, on the world and what is important. I saw an amazing piece of theatre called The Line during Covid lockdown. It was a verbatim piece of theatre that gave voice to front line health professionals who were first responders during Covid’s first wave in America. It gave a voice to those who were unheard and that is the kind of theatre I want to see in any world. That…and something funny. Somehow through laughter we can listen harder. 

WHAT HAVE BEEN AND CONTINUE TO BE THE CHALLENGES OF WORKING DURING COVID-19?

Two weeks before the development Jason Langley was in Melbourne (working at VCA) and Martin Searles was in Adelaide (having just flown back from Scotland). Through some miracle they both ended up in Canberra safe and sound through all of the quarantine and deeply thought out and carefully considered ways to keep everyone safe. Currently Zoom is the only way we can all now see each other. Theatre is about connection and finding new ways to develop, create and connect are incredibly important. Theatre is changing as the world struggles to find new ways to cope. I believe we will get there but it is a long journey of survival ahead.

WHAT DO YOU SEE ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF LIVE-DIGITAL SETTINGS FOR THEATRE WORKS?

I think theatre practitioners and artists are having to find very different mediums for their work; exploration is happening and through exploration we grow. Although, to me, there will never be something that replaces people experiencing something together in a room. One thing that has been useful is doing interviews with people across the world via Zoom about a difficult subject. I think pre-Covid the idea of that would have been unheard of, especially on such a subject but, here we are. 

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

People, friends, family, new people I meet and the amazing stories of life, living and survival I am experiencing. I was in London before Covid really took over and I was so inspired by the amazing, ground breaking theatre over there but every show I saw, the shows that got me most were stories of people, survival and humanity. The people I have met through this project, the support of The Street Theatre, the friends I have talked to, the creatives (Jason and Martin) who I spent a week with, and the other Early Phase creatives and their own desires to create, have been incredibly inspiring.

WHAT ARE YOU READING/WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I have been reading Alana Valentines Bowerbird (a book on finding the clues to create theatre through testimonies and interviews). She is a great writer, reflector and fountain of knowledge on creating plays based on human experiences. That, and binge watching Call the Midwife because….British television makes me happy.