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A golden opportunity for artists

1 February 2023

Out of the ashes of the pandemic Performing Lines WA developed the Kolyang Program, a ground-breaking initiative providing West Australian independent artists with paid opportunities to create and connect. Victoria Laurie reports.

It looked like a rehearsal for a new play or dance piece. In the Subiaco Arts Centre, a group of artists sat together, but it was their own careers they were rehearsing, shaping and refining.  

Some were paired with an “ally”, a senior art practitioner who lent ideas or led the whole group into new explorations – in dance or voice distortion or even dressing in drag. At other times, they hosted lively round table talks about the state of West Australian audiences, or queer theatre or First Nations plays.

“I was thinking about us as artists doing our projects, working hard,” one participant later observed. “We are all like little cars on the freeway, driving (and) racing along… but what if we had a bus? We need to be together.”

‘We need to be together.’ Artists at the 2021 Kolyang Artist Hub. Photo: Christophe Canato

Independent artists in Western Australia do indeed need that “bus”, that shared opportunity to get together. They live in a state that still grossly undervalues the creative industries; too often, performers, producers and technicians capable of turning out thrilling work are stymied by costly venue hire, or piecemeal arts funding or a sense of isolation.    
Kolyang, meaning golden wattle in Noongar, is a unique program that has provided that “bus” route of connection. Designed by arts producer Performing Lines WA (PLWA) and held in 2020, 2021 and 2022, the Kolyang Program offered artists the time, space and – importantly – payment to participate in a series of Artist Labs and Creative Hubs. Held variously over weeks or days, the sessions did not require that they end in a performance or show.

‘I was thinking about us as artists … We are all like little cars on the freeway, racing along… but what if we had a bus? We need to be together.’

Ironically, it was a pandemic – that ultimate isolator – that inspired the creation of the Kolyang Program. In early 2020, West Australians found themselves locked out from the rest of the nation after a relatively short period of being locked in. Shows were cancelled, tours postponed, careers put on hold. PLWA reached out to the most vulnerable artists – independents and their producers – to ask them what they needed most. The answer was unanimous: artist-led, funded get-togethers to support creativity and keep body and soul together.

For the next three years, PLWA adopted this seemingly simple formula. Yet rich and complex results have emerged from a total of 73 Kolyang sessions attended by 1,256 participants and attendees.

The sessions provided paid work for 163 independent artists and art-workers. In addition, 21 of Perth’s arts bodies – ranging from opera to avantgarde theatre – generously agreed to collaborate, offering personnel, venues or in-kind support. CircuitWest ensured that a cohort of regional artists arrived in Perth.

The Artist Labs connected a cohort of emerging and early-career artists with artform “allies”, or mentors. Then came Creative Hubs, which brought experienced artists and industry heads together to “identify what the sector could look like after the pandemic, and with artists in greater control”.

“It got me out of my comfort zone to just be around other artists without the pressure of having to create something, to just be,” recalls Mararo Wangai, a 2020 Kolyang participant.

“It reminds me to stay open to new artists, art-forms and ideas.”

Marao Wangai sits at a table, gesturing as though making a point.
Mararo Wangai credits Kolyang with helping to refine his ideas for his celebrated show ‘Black Brass. He is pictured here at the 2022 Kolyang Creative Hub. Photo: Wendi Graham

Wangai credits Kolyang for helping to refine ideas for his celebrated show Black Brass, which he performed in the 2021 Perth Festival. It wasn’t the only show that benefitted from the Kolyang workshops; another was Children of the Sea, by Jay Emmanuel, which follows the story of four unaccompanied children who make their way by boat to Australia.

A third was Galup, the story of Perth’s popular park of the same name (Lake Monger Reserve) and its dark history of Noongar deaths at the hands of colonists in 1830. Created by Ian Wilkes and artist/filmmaker Poppy van Oorde-Grainger, with an oral history from Elder Doolann Leisha Eatts (who passed away in March 2022), this intimate, truth-telling show was also picked up by the 2021 Perth Festival.

“I have lived my whole life dreaming that this story would be told,” a proud Eatts declared at the time. “It was my greatest desire, right from when I was 10 years old.”

Kenyan-born Wangai and Noongar man Wilkes are among more than 30 artists with diverse backgrounds and/or abilities who graduated from the Artists Labs or worked on a project with PLWA; prior to Kolyang, there had been only four such artists who had worked with the organisation.

For its 2022 program, Kolyang gathered a cohort of early career disabled artists working in any genre or medium. Ella Peeters says she learned a lot from her week-long Lab residency; “It was my first proper gig and I issued my first invoice!”

‘It was my first proper gig and I issued my first invoice!’

Peeters had performed numerous plays with WA Youth Theatre Company, and was contemplating an acting career. “[At Kolyang] we were matched with artist ‘allies’ who were very kind and made me think about why I want to make art and what I want to leave behind,” she says.

The lead mentor was Caroline Bowditch, a respected dance practitioner and CEO of Arts Access Victoria. During the Lab Bowditch described her own first encounter with dance as a 103cm tall person who habitually uses a wheelchair. “I remember thinking, oh my God just imagine if I could do this every day of my life,” she told the Kolyang group. “Imagine if this could be my job, imagine if I could teach other people to ‘land’ in their skin.’”

Described as “a dance agent for change”, Bowditch has formed several dance companies in the UK, toured Europe as a performer and even combined in a dance work her twin expertise as a genetic counsellor and dancer. “Disability is not a tragedy,” she says, “it’s a part of humanity, it’s part of who we are.”

A group of artists pose outdoors for a group photo at Kolyang Creative Hub. It looks like a class photo.
Connecting early-career artists with mentors and experienced artists with industry heads: participants at the 2021 Kolyang Artist Hub. Photo: Christophe Canato

Grace King, a blind artist and singer who has performed with West Australian Opera, says Kolyang “is a great model for people who have disabilities to become more prominent in the arts, gain confidence. It’s just been so good and I hope that something like this can continue for disabled artists.”

Peeters says she was profoundly moved by Bowditch’s sessions involving “touch” dance, “where you have to keep in contact with a partner while moving.” After several failed bids, Peeters was recently accepted into the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts; “Kolyang gave me such confidence to pursue my dreams.” 

Another strand of Kolyang’s legacy is a series of audio podcasts that are still accessible online. These are rare, provocative debates about the state of creativity in the West. Yirra Yaakin’s former artistic director Eva Grace Mullaley talks about “laugh or cry dark humour” in First Nations theatre. She observes that absurdist drama suits the Aboriginal lived experience, because for many Aboriginal people it is “so absurd it had to be funny.”

‘Kolyang is a great model for people who have disabilities to become more prominent in the arts, gain confidence.’

“I’m not really interested in exploring trauma anymore (or) keep putting our actors and performers and audiences through trauma,” she told one discussion group. “There are other ways we can tackle that now … I do believe absurdism is the way to go because it can take you out of that literal trauma and heighten it.”

Theatre producer and director Joe Paradise Lui describes WA as a place of artistic risk and exploration, and says he enjoys “the alchemy of what happens when you just try something different.” Composer-performer Rachael Dease observes that WA artists feel overlooked by the rest of the nation, and still tend to seek that attention. “But we’ve waited generations doing that … and we should have been looking internationally.”

The inaugural three-year Kolyang Program is over. According to an independent evaluation, it delivered “the right projects that happened at the right time, delivered by the right people and with the right management approach.”

So will it continue? Senior Producer Jeremy Smith says PLWA is “committed to continuing it in some form, balanced with our core role to develop new productions by independent artists.”

Kolyang is “the way of the future” says 2022 Creative Hub associate producer Ella Hetherington. “It dismantles some of the past structures that haven’t served us well. We’ll look back and see just how incredible and magical this has been for us as a sector.” 

This article was commissioned by Performing Lines WA.

Pictured top: Ella Peeters at the 2022 Kolyang Artist Lab. Photo: Edwin Sitt

Head to the Kolyang Program website to learn more or check out the video below.


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Author —
Victoria Laurie

Victoria Laurie is an award-winning Perth-based journalist and feature writer who has written extensively for national publications, including The Australian. Covering cultural matters and interviewing artists of all kinds has been one of her greatest privileges, and their contribution to Australian cultural life deserves far more prominence in the media. As a fan of Seesaw in responding to this challenge, she nominates her playground favourite as... the seesaw.

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