How did you become interested, and then involved in the arts?
I’ve always been interested in stories, I think. My mother is Samoan and I received her passion and heritage of oral storytelling, of using the arts to connect, strengthen and pass on knowledge and understanding. In terms of involvement – I really stumbled into acting when I auditioned for the VCA in Year 12 just for fun (so I told myself). I moved to Melbourne when I got in to the VCA, wrestled with being away from home, who I was and what I wanted with the arts for several years – et voilà.
How did you become involved with WEYA?
I was asked to lead Footscray Edge by WEYA’s co-artistic director and heart, Penny Harpham. I had begun teaching and facilitating acting workshops for young people a year earlier with the University of Melbourne, VCA and had instantly fallen in love with how theatre can build confidence, community and create safe spaces. I didn’t know there was somewhere like Western Edge doing what they do and I dead sprinted to be involved.
What’s your favourite theatre/creative experience of your career so far?
That’s a terrifically hard one, I’ll cheat answer and say the first time I got to work with Little Ones tied up alongside Double Water Sign’s Moral Panic. My soul could’ve burst with how much space my – big, not white, complex – body, experience and voice was given in those rooms. The amount of skill and generosity being commanded by those practitioners – God give me strength.
Experience with WEYA:
What impact has WEYA had on you?
That’s an even harder one than the last question. The thing is, I’m an afakasi and I live in a big body. I grew up in white suburbia. And to be frank, white Australia is alive and well. So I’ve always felt very out of place: not white enough to be white, not brown enough to be brown. I’ve never really found a place where I belong and am safe. Then Western Edge found me. It’s my home; it keeps my feet planted on the ground and my heart dreaming. It’s the only place I go to that gives me energy, inspiration and drive.
You have been involved in a number of big productions on the mainstage and independent theatre stage, what is different about the WEYA experience?
Ah. The heart. The commitment. The joy. The humility. The generosity. The skill (don’t come after me, please). I’ve been very, very fortunate with a great many of the practitioners I’ve worked with on the mainstage and in the independent sector. But there is nothing like the young people and leaders at Western Edge – I didn’t exaggerate with the above list. WEYA is not like anything I’ve come across before.
What’s it been like working with your ensemble?
Off the chain. The skill in the ensemble is something you expect but their compassion, generosity and commitment to each other and acting as a craft is remarkable. The great privilege is to watch the growth. In week one, you have young people who have never acted, alongside seasoned performers. We work and train together and lift each other up, learn together. You watch people become friends, support each other’s craft and witness people who don’t speak find their voice within the ensemble. We eat together, dance together, train together and become a family. One of my favourite things to see is the unlikely friendships, connections and lessons that come out of our little space, two hours every week. And I reckon they’ve easily taught me more than I’ve taught them. Just joking, if they sleep on my training they know I shall not be pleased.
What are your interests (theatrical or otherwise) outside of WEYA?
I love video games. Any RPG – top three for everyone who didn’t ask: Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Bio Shock. I love to watch my friends or my brothers playing video games. I love to write. I LOVE to read. Gaiman, Murakami, the Bible. I like listening to uplifting speakers. Les Brown, Inky Johnson, Jim Rohn. I live to argue with John Marc (Lead Artist with me at Footscray Edge) about food. And I love to drive at night.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing (a hugely new endeavour for me) a piece called You May Not Rest Now, There Are Monsters Nearby for She Is Vigilante (dir. Bridget Balodis and Krystalla Pearce) which premiers at Theatre Works in November. I am nervous and in love and highly privileged to be working with such a remarkable team. I’m working on The Watching for our very own WEYA, of which I am again, very nervous and very much in love. Our Footscray bunch is delving into gangsters and crime families and I am wading through black comedy and Godfather references about which I couldn’t be happier. And then some super exciting projects I get to act in for 2020, coming soon, pray for me.
What are your goals for the future?
To continue making a living as an actor and theatre practitioner. To stage Briscola, a show my creative partner and I are working on. To keep my self grateful, creative and generous. To be able to support my parents. And that’s about it. I’m very simple with my goals, but they keep me busy and keep me solid.
What direction would you like to see WEYA head in?
Just about the way it’s going. I’d love to see companies of actors graduate, see WEYA’s young people move into the industry and be paid for what they bring to it. I’d love to see WEYA’s alumni in the mainstream of arts in Australia. And I would love to see us make strong connections with our Indigenous communities in the west and have spaces and rooms that foster and nurture space for young Indigenous artists.
Any advice for future theatre-makers?
Perseverance, attitude and kindness will take you further than skill ever will. Surround yourself with motivation, positivity and inspiration – the people that surround you, the spaces you go into, the music you listen to, everything – to foster your growth into that kind of mentality. So that when you meet adversity – and you will – it doesn’t get the better of you. I’m a person that struggles with mental illness, feelings of displacement and life, as everyone does, so if I’m not intentional with what I do and how I do it, I find it easy to get swallowed and incapacitated. I work on myself, study my craft and work for others as much as myself. Go well, be kind and generous to everyone, most especially yourself.
We are delighted to announce that Tariro Mavondo and Penny Harpham will join Western Edge Youth Arts (WEYA) as co-Artistic Directors. Together they will bring multifaceted artistic experience and incredible passion for working with young emerging artists in Melbourne’s west.
Following a thorough national search and conversations with an exceptional field of candidates, WEYA Chair, Jock Jeffries, shares, “I am thrilled that Harpham and Mavondo will be joining the talented and dedicated team at WEYA. The Board and I are inspired by Tariro and Penny’s shared vision, which will guide the company into a bold future. We are deeply compelled by their ingrained and open approaches to collaborate; their values for new contemporary forms; and their genuine engagement with the communities we work with.”
An award-winning theatre director and performer, Harpham comes to WEYA with a varied portfolio of experience, including as the co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of independent theatre company, She Said Theatre.
Harpham says, “This is a galvanising moment and a great honour to lead Western Edge Youth Arts with Tariro. The company has an outstanding track record of inclusive programming with communities and young people in Melbourne’s west. Currently each week, we engage with 360 young people who have amazing talent and ideas. We have endless possibilities to deepen the impact of our programs – it’s an absolutely exhilarating opportunity.”
Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Frankston, Mavondo has substantial experience as a multi-disciplinary artist, performer and award-winning spoken word poet – she is the founder of Africa’s Got Talent Australia, a co-Founder of Centre of Poetics and Justice and is currently working with Bell Shakespeare on Titus Andronicus.
Tariro says, “Transformation begins with hearing each other’s stories and Western Edge Youth Arts has arguably been the vanguard in championing diverse stories from marginalised young people through theatre, as well as supporting the next generation of culturally diverse arts leaders. Penny and I want to inspire and be strong role models. And I cannot wait to dig deep to collaborate, be socially engaged and create inclusive work.”
With CEO, Sally Farr, Mavondo and Harpham will form the WEYA leadership team to implement an evolved and re-energised vision for the company. They will follow the WEYA legacy of many – most notably Dr Dave Kelman, who was Co-Artistic Director/Artistic Director throughout 2006 – 2018.
Harpham will start immediately as WEYA co-Artistic Director (previously WEYA Associate Director) and Mavondo will commence on Tuesday, 1 October 2019.
“Theatre has changed me”
This month I sat down with Michael Logo, WEYA performer and Support Artist, to reflect on his time with the company and the exciting opportunities he has lined up for the future.
Since joining us in 2016, Michael has performed in six productions, been employed as a Support Artist in Victorian University Secondary College and St Albans Edge, and is now well on his way to the next step in his career as a professional actor.
After completing a year at Verve Studios and starring in several short films; Eli the Invincible (2011), Hiders (2013), Burning of the Mekong (2016), and in a feature film, Is this the Real World (2015), Michael came to WEYA looking to continue acting in an environment that felt comfortable.
“Not many people let you speak or be Samoan. They want you to be what they think Samoan is. To be able to express myself through my art…yeah, that’s what Western Edge can do.” At WEYA we pride ourselves on putting participants’ voices at the forefront of our practice, so to hear it firsthand from Michael is affirming.
Michael’s performances with WEYA are renowned for exploring issues that resonate with him; his community and culture. In 2016, he performed the ghost of Hamlet’s father and translated Shakespeare’s prose to Samoan, speaking his language on stage for the first time while wearing traditional Samoan attire. The performance is still spoken about amongst those who were in the audience and encouraged an influx of young people to join the company to explore their own language and cultures through performance.
When I asked him about how he feels about bringing his personal experiences into shows, he mentioned his recent performance with the Footscray Edge, Lele, Butterfly, which he describes as his favourite performance by far. The themes of the show allowed Michael to explore parts of his Samoan culture with his family that had, until then, been left unspoken in his household.
He starts off by pointing out how unusual it is for him to speak to his father about ‘something other than food’. Laughing at the memory, he continues, “I wasn’t sure about some of the things we were doing in the play, so I said, “Hey Dad, hey Aunty, what do you think about this?” And then they looked at me funny and went back to eating. About five minutes later, out of nowhere Dad said, ‘it depends on the village’”. And from there, the conversation began flowing as his father opened up, sharing with Michael more deeply about his culture.
“The Matai system – there’s definitely a good side but nobody talks about the bad side. The themes in Lele, Butterfly were true to what it’s like in Samoa; punishment by death in some cases still exists,” Michael said. “Australia is a whole other world and there are so many subcultures. Sometimes the good things about this culture is the bad thing about the other culture. You have to figure out what’s right for you and that’s what Lele, Butterfly was about – what is your truth?”
This was a major theme for the Footscray Edge’s production: how do you live in two worlds? How do you discover your truth? The production also holds a special place in Michael’s heart as he was joined on stage by his cousins– something he’s been doing playfully from a young age; picking scenes from Cool Runnings or Power Rangers and recreating them in his backyard. Together they sung, performed choreographed stage combat fight routines and danced to an original new rap – obviously there is no shortage of talent in this family.
At WEYA we aim to help young people make sense of their world through art. What Michael spoke about next is a powerful example of how we are achieving this.
“Growing up, I always liked to fight. If I didn’t use violence, people wouldn’t even listen to me. In school I could get away with it, but now in the real world I can’t do that anymore. I try to talk my way out of things, but I never used to be like this; balanced,” he chuffed.
“In a way, theatre has changed me,” he reflects. He says seeing conflict resolved through conversations has helped him. “I was like ahhh they always solve things through words, rather than physical violence and action. I realised there were other ways, I could use my words to win.”
For Michael, theatre has been a vehicle for him to communicate his frustrations and be heard, and we are so proud to have provided a positive and safe space for him to develop his skills as a young adult and an actor.
In 2018, Michael auditioned for the highly competitive John Bolton Theatre School and received a scholarship to begin full-time training in July 2019. He’ll be juggling working as a WEYA Support Artist for Victorian University Secondary College, performing with WEYA’s Footscray Edge, starring in a new Australian feature film (name embargoed at time of writing) and auditioning for TV and stage across town.
When I ask him how he’s feeling about having such a creatively busy year he answers, “I know it’s going to be intense, but it’s a step in the right direction for sure.”
This month I sat down with Amarachi Okorom, a true grace of God (as her name suggests). We talked about her journey with WEYA, her childhood dreams to be on Disney Channel and her plans for the year.
Amarachi joined WEYA in 2017 as a participant of Wyndham Edge. In 2018, she auditioned for WEYA’s flagship ensemble, the Edge Ensemble, and got the part as Miranda in Caliban which toured regional Victoria in May. Amarachi also worked as a support artist at WEYA helping to facilitate an in- school residency and community youth theatre project throughout the year. It’s pretty clear she’s good at what she does. When asked where her passion for performing stemmed from, she said high school in New Zealand, where she grew up. “I loved making people laugh, I loved being crazy and I just loved being the centre of attention – drama gave me all of that.” In Year 10, a new drama teacher with red spikey hair helped her realise just how much she enjoyed drama and for the year following, she started to take it seriously, learning theories and performing in school plays. “The highlight was playing Lady Macbeth, it was my last performance at school and it was my first big role in front of a huge audience; she was a strong female character and playing her made me feel like such a boss.”
Amarachi moved to Melbourne in Year 11, and like any teenager trying to fit in with a new crowd, she grew increasingly self-conscious. “I just didn’t feel confident and I didn’t feel like I was good at (acting) anymore; so I stopped for three years.”
A big turning point for Amarachi was being seen performing a spoken word piece at her church’s Christmas production by Rahima Hayes, from Wyndham City Council, who then encouraged her to join WEYA’s Wyndham Edge theatre project. Not knowing what to expect from the workshop, she said to herself that she wouldn’t return if she felt left out during the session. “For someone who’s really shy and anxious about everything, I went in there and felt like I belonged straight away. The facilitators, Georgia Symons and Natalie Lucic, made the space really friendly and welcoming, and from then on I’ve been doing acting stuff and I haven’t stopped.”
Since joining WEYA, Amarachi says she’s gained lots of likeminded friends who share her interests and is more confident, “from the first time I started, I was comfortable to share my ideas but I feel like I’ve gone up a level since then and my confidence has been boosted, a lot.”
When asked about her most memorable time at WEYA, Amarachi said, “I’ve always felt like my voice is heard. There was one point in Caliban where I read the script and thought that Miranda was a bit of a lamb; she was Caliban’s best friend, or Ferdinand’s wife or Prospera’s daughter. She wasn’t her own person and they took that on board and we worked together to create her character; that was a really good experience.”
Amarachi has two big goals this year; the first is to draft up a play that explores what happens to ‘culture’ when you have a room of culturally diverse people with different identities. “I’m from New Zealand and I am Nigerian, so I have values from both places, and I’m Christian, and I’m this and that, so I’m all mixed together. Trying to fit someone into one box is where the problem starts and it’s difficult to figure out which box everyone fits in to.”
“I feel like I can’t really talk about culture without knowing mine first, so phase one is going to be research; talking to my family about my own culture and reading lots of books. ‘Things fall apart’ and ‘Lionheart’ on Netflix are on the list.” She’s then hoping to draft up a skeleton of the play to present to friends, then do improvisation sessions with them. “The SIGNAL workshop really inspired me with pulse work, so I’m hoping to do that and start putting things together and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have my first draft written.”
Amarachi’s second goal for the year is to build her portfolio by going to auditions, and eventually applying to drama schools in Melbourne; and she’s already on track. Currently she’s rehearsing for Lear with Skin of Our Teeth Productions in Geelong. “I went there, I did the audition, and I performed my Lady Macbeth monologue from high school and it’s like I’ve gone full circle.”
“I’m finally getting out of my comfort zone and that’s what I wanted – even if they’re not huge roles, I just want to put myself out there and start doing auditions.”
Another young talent to look out for. We can’t wait to see what Amarachi accomplishes this year. In the meantime, you can support Amarachi by checking her out in Lear this March, tickets available here – https://trybooking.com/zumk
Kicking off our first Passionate Pathways feature for 2019 is pocket rocket, Betiel Beyin. At age 19, she’s already written a script performed by WEYA’s Wyndham Edge crew, created and filmed two episodes of her original web series, and received the Young Performers Residency at Phoenix Youth Hub.
Betiel started from a young age, performing in school musicals, and writing her own short stories since Grade 10. Unlike other teenagers who read books, Betiel read screenplays to grasp what scripts looked like for movies and plays. She would visualise scenes and write stories with her friends in mind. “My friends are super funny and when I write things I always write for them and wonder if they’ll laugh and think it’s cool, especially my sister, I bounce off ideas with her.”
After high school, she started a course in Business and quickly realised that she was more interested to explore what the arts had to offer. She joined WEYA’s Wyndham Edge shortly after putting her studies on hold, allowing her to continue working on her passion for writing, and also found a new appreciation for improvisation. “I enjoyed the games during each workshop and being a part of the process of improvisation and curating scenes to create something; the end result was very cool,” she recalls.
Betiel confesses she prefers writing comedies and talks about how she injected her own style into the play TIG, a satirical adaptation of Antigone, where people of colour had privilege. “When I think about theatre, I think dramatic. But it’s not me, so I tried to put comedic aspects to TIG, although the outline of the story was very serious.”
Outside of WEYA, Betiel is currently working on her web series, I Can’t Even (working title), a hilariously relatable story featuring two female friends.
“I feel like a lot of coming of age stories of girls are about romance and love. But when I was in high school that was never a big aspect of my life. You see boys’ stories, they’re never about the girl, they’re about their relationship with their dad or being good at sport; romantic relationships usually come secondary. But with girls’ narratives, relationships always come first, so when I saw that, I decided I don’t want to go down that road.”
I ask her what or who her inspirations are, and she names influential women “who do big things” – Issa Rae who created comedy web series, Awkward Black Girl, Beyoncé and Princess Diana. She also mentions women in her personal life who are involved in multiple projects as big inspirations.
Betiel’s dream is to release her web series on a big platform, like ABC iView, as well as collaborate with other creatives, producers and writers and perhaps work on a TV show. However, she recognises the hard work that is required to achieve her goals, and says she writes every day to keep her creative juices flowing. She also hopes to be a part of film festivals later in the year and to apply to a few more artist residencies.
“The best advice I got was from Sancia Robinson (actress), she came to one of my readings and said that the majority of the people who have made it, 80% was down to hard work and effort; that really put it in perspective for me,” she said.
Betiel wraps up our conversation perfectly by stating how ambitious she feels this year. She looks back at her achievements and says that she’s grown to become more aware of what she wants and doesn’t want to create.
What an inspiration, we can’t wait to see what Betiel has in store for us.
We asked Amarachi Okorom, WEYA emerging artist and participant of our Up Next masterclass series, which her favourite session was and what she learnt from it. Here’s what she had to say –Decolonising theatre. I could just end it right there and it would describe the masterclass perfectly. However, I will say I was blown away by how open and raw we got to be. I’ve been excited for Candy’s workshop from the moment the line-up got announced, and to say it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. At the start of the class, we introduced ourselves and also said the name of the women who helped shape us. I found that amazing. She mentioned that our last names usually only recognise the male figures so it felt good to pay my respects to my mother and grandmother.I loved being able to speak my truth without feeling the need to censor it. Honestly, the process of decolonisation is not an easy one, but we’ve always got to remember to look after ourselves as well.“Decolonise and moisturise”
Karima Madut is a Kenyan-born Sudanese actress, musician and aspiring writer who grew up in New Zealand. She moved to Melbourne three years ago as a young independent woman and spent her first two years building a foundation for herself. She worked full-time in a marketing agency while she developed her artistic skills at Melbourne acting studio, 16th Street. Struggling to juggle the two, she decided to choose between giving her all to a corporate life or pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist. “It was a really hard decision,” she recalls, “I had to choose if I wanted financial stability and unhappiness, or to be happy and deal with the sacrifices that come with that.” She made the call to leave her job, and picked up the phone to join Western Edge Youth Arts.
Having grown up in a village in Kenya, she was inspired by the prominent dance and music culture from age four. “Every Sunday there were performances where they wore traditional attire and face paint, and I loved the catharsis of that. For a second you’re not aware that you’re a physical being, you’re just an energy moving around.” After witnessing the performers’ ability to be free in that moment, she begged her mother to allow her to be a part of the church choir in Kenya.
She continued performing in school productions, professional gigs and short films in New Zealand. However, after moving to Melbourne, she put her dreams on the back burner and felt that she eventually started to lose sight of why she decided to move. “I think my mistake at the time, was thinking that things needed to be perfect in my life before I could pursue the arts, whereas now, I think the imperfections feed into your art.” Although she has regrets of not being more involved in the arts for a couple years, she sees the positives of taking a hiatus from the scene to grow as an individual and develop her skills. “I feel really ready now to work as an artist. I want to be working in big theatres here, in the States, in Broadway and doing movies in L.A.,” she said.
When asked about a significant achievement, she talked about her very first senior school production in New Zealand, Wednesday to Come, where she played the lead role. “I actually felt that a lot of people didn’t think I deserved the role because it was a Caucasian role, but I got it and even got an Excellence for it,” she laughs. “It just proves that there needs to be more colour-blind casting.” It was through this experience she started taking school more seriously and started to think “somebody actually believes in me.” She believes that the encouragement she received from being in Wednesday to Come went a long way and is grateful her teachers gave her that initial nudge.
Karima also talks about being the first female African cast member of Shortland Street, a New Zealand based soap opera, as one of her proudest moments. She mentions that sometimes she forgets the things she’s already achieved, including moving to Melbourne on her own.
When Karima is not acting, she’s passionate about making and sharing music. Having been an integral member of a rock band that toured around New Zealand and Australia, she’s inspired to work on her solo album, and also to showcase other local talents through organising music events; Garden Sounds of Eden and Sycamore Sessions. Karima also finds interest in writing songs and poetry, and is currently working on WEYA’s Antigone, where she helps develop the script as part of the Geelong Edge ensemble. “I love writing, but I never thought I could write a script and I’d like to explore that more. At WEYA, we devise our own plays and it’s beautiful to be inspired by your own stories.”
Karima talks about the significance of discussing themes, such as racism and war, in productions, but also acknowledges its challenges. “(The stories are) so relevant to today and it’s important to bring them to people who might not be aware, and to those who are affected by them, so that they know there are people who are going through the same thing.” She recalls being a part of A Thousand Hills in New Zealand, a play that was about the Rwandan genocide, “it was a tragic and a beautiful story and there were a lot of moments where I imagined the civil war that is still going on in Sudan, and my family ending up in Kenya.” As a young performer, she has grown to understand the importance of distinguishing the difference between acting and real life, and “not to blur the lines.”
Having been in professional productions, I ask her if she has any advice to aspiring actors like her, she says, “you have to take a chance, what I’m discovering is, as much as we get insecure, I think for the most part, people always want you to win and you do see that when someone gets on stage, they don’t discriminate.” She believes that at the end of the day audiences want to be entertained and see great performances. “I used to get really insecure, but then I stopped caring and started to do it for my own enjoyment and to have fun.”
Reflecting she says, “I thought acting was a path to get somewhere, success or whatever it is, but now I see performing as a way of life and choose to do it every day.” Another crucial element that drives her, she says, is having teachers. “They change your life and your perspectives. Having the humility to know that you’re still developing and no matter what stage you’re at or how successful you are, there’s always room to grow and you should always always be learning.”
We look forward to seeing Karima play Antigone along with the rest of the Geelong Edge ensemble this November. Keep your eyes peeled for show updates!
Article written by Gayathri K, Western Edge Youth Arts.
We are delighted that the Sidney Myer Fund will be supporting our flagship ensemble of culturally diverse emerging artists, The Edge Ensemble, to develop a new work and perform over the next three years. The Edge Ensemble project gives WEYA participants, that have graduated from our in-school and community youth theatre projects, the opportunity to be at the centre of creating original Australian works and to perform these in professional theatres to audiences outside their communities.
Thank you to the Sidney Myer Trustees for this amazing support.
Western Edge Youth Arts’s community youth theatre project in St Albans has been chosen for the Be Bold Residency at St Albans Community Centre.
The 2018 Be Bold Performance Residency Program: A creative space to be bold will provide opportunities to undertake process-driven arts practice and risk taking in making new, contemporary performance work for the Bowery Theatre, as well as interdisciplinary collaborations with or for the local community. Western Edge Youth Arts will present a new theatrical performance with a local youth ensemble of 16 young people, St Albans Edge Theatre, at the Bowery Theatre in November 2018. The work will be generated and shaped by the ensemble’s experiences, cultures, histories and hopes over a five-month development process.
Congratulations to Outer Urban Projects and Vaiusu who’s projects were also chosen for the residency.
WEYA welcomes three new board members to the team. Vincent Shin, Vanessa O’Neill and Sherry-Rose Bih. They join our continuing board members Jock Jefferies, Susan Russell, Nikita Gossain, Mary Musolino and Irena Baric who we thank for their ongoing commitment and hard work supporting WEYA’s ongoing development as a leading youth arts organisation creating innovative theatre with young people from diverse backgrounds.