Extraordinary tales about ordinary people

26 October 2020

Created by local performance company Whiskey & Boots, The Bystander Project is a celebration of stories, art and shared humanity, says Xan Ashbury.

The Bystander Project, Whiskey & Boots ·
Cowaramup Hall, 24 October 2020 ·

I love the way the word “extraordinary” comes together. You take the ordinary, add a little extra and, as if by magic, the pedestrian is transformed into magnificent.

The Bystander Project is extraordinary. And, just like the word, it begins with the ordinary – a recorded chat with some locals about how they came to live in the Margaret River area, their memories of the place and what’s special about their community. The extras come by way of photography, original music, headphones and nuanced live performances. Weave them together and the magic happens.

West Australian independent theatre company Whiskey & Boots combines the diverse and considerable talents of Georgia King and Mark Storen. The pair, along with photographer, composer and performer Holly Garvey, first ran The Bystander Project in the Wheatbelt town of Beverley in 2018. The shows in Cowaramup and Augusta last weekend were the culmination of a two-week residency in Margaret River, together with composer and musician Tom Garvey.

Read: “Putting together the puzzle pieces”, an interview with Whiskey & Boots about their 2019 show The Loneliest Number

King and Storen interviewed a range of community members for this iteration of The Bystander Project – among them a pre-teen girl talking about her ponies, a surfer and activist, a school principal, a farmer, a winemaker, and the founder of “The Soupie”, the Margaret River Soup Kitchen.

One of Holly Garvey’s candid shots: interviewee Kenzie Manson.

Their candid, first-hand accounts of life in the region range from quirky anecdotes and illuminating details, to poignant reflections on shared grief and resilience.

Although I’m a frequent visitor to the region (I live an hour’s drive away), I am an outsider and relished these insiders’ perspectives and voices. Invariably, some of what I had assumed was challenged but much of what I admire about the region’s free spirit was reaffirmed.

I was in awe of Naomi’s description of friendship among surfers and their solidarity around respect and love for the ocean. Michael’s affection and gratitude for “God’s own country” were infectious. According to Dave, Margaret River’s identity was forged on the back of its sensitive soul. “You can be whoever you want and be accepted down here,” he said.

I drew inspiration from Merv, who began his viticulture studies at 48 (perhaps I still have time to become an artisanal cheesemaker?) and laughed at Jan’s high-spirited account of meeting Kelly Slater at their cellar door. There were sombre moments, too; especially when residents recalled the tragic Gracetown cliff collapse in 1996, which claimed nine lives.

Holly Garvey’s images are transfixing. Pictured is interviewee Naomi Godden.

Through accent and intonation, how we speak conveys as much information as what we say. King and Storen use the headphone-verbatim technique to present the stories, preserving the interviewees’ delightful honesty and spontaneity. This technique sees the pair wear headphones and speak along to the edited interviews without embellishment. Given the vast range of voices convincingly portrayed, King and Storen’s skill and versatility as performers is remarkable.

READ an interview with Roslyn Oates, an Australian performance maker at the forefront of headphone-verbatim theatre.

Garvey’s beautiful, candid photographs of all the story-sharers perfectly capture the essence of their stories. As part of the performance, the images are projected at the back of the stage. Throughout most of the stories, I found myself transfixed by the images and drawn into the illusion of watching a documentary.

Topping this off is an original soundtrack composed by Holly and Tom Garvey. The pair wrote the songs in direct response to the stories, as well as the “vibe” of the town. Not only did their original songs impress but they won my heart with a stunning version of the Go Betweens’ “Cattle and Cane”.

I left “Cow Town” buzzing with gratitude and optimism. Somehow, The Bystander Project offered not just a reprieve from the gloom of 2020 but a kind of reset. The innovative and skilfully crafted show is a celebration of stories, art and shared humanity. I hope many more communities have the opportunity to work with Whiskey & Boots, to have their stories collected and reflected back to them with such artistry and empathy.

This season of The Bystander Project has finished but you can find out about future productions at the Whiskey & Boots website.

Pictured top is Dave Seegar. Photo: Holly Garvey

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Author —
Xan Ashbury

Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.

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