What if you only had memories to guide you? Breaksea artistic director Matt Ward invites us to ponder the power of human connection.
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Have you ever loved? Have you ever missed a loved one? Have you ever been away and wished you were home?
Set in the shadows of World War I, Thunderstorm looks at memory through the lens of an Aboriginal serviceman, but it is not a literal retelling of history.
Rather, co-creator and director Matt Ward says it is an artistic expression exploring the very best in relationships in the worst of situations. And if you answer yes to any of the above questions – and how can you not – Thunderstorm will resonate. “You, too, are part of this story, the greater narrative of human connection, desire and resolve,” he says.
The “immersive play with musical interludes” uses text, music and projections to tell the story of Harry (Jarrad Inman), who has been thrust into a dark world literally and figuratively, and asks us to ponder what we would do if we only had memory to guide us.
It also wraps an impressive fifth season for Breaksea, the multi-arts company Ward founded in the Great Southern, bringing one of its early works full circle.
Thunderstorm is a re-imagining of By Other Eyes, a choral-theatre work the City of Albany commissioned Breaksea to create for the centenary of Armistice in 2018, in partnership with the local Noongar elders and the Great Southern community.
Having grown up in regional Western Australia, Ward knows the importance of connecting community and culture, though even he couldn’t have dreamt of the role he would play in doing so.
Too embarrassed to sing at school, the Breaksea CEO and artistic director vividly remembers envisioning theatre productions that he wrote and designed. He never saw himself directing them.
“I was completely unaware of the role of a director,” he says. Even as he found his voice, first in regional theatre, then onto WAAPA and the West Australian Opera Chorus, Ward was too busy singing to consider directing.
It wasn’t until he graduated from the Royal College of Music in London and started touring as a principal tenor that his interest in the big picture ignited.
“It was also when I witnessed firsthand the power of community engagement,” Ward says. “Drawing together my interests across creating, directing and community engagement, I embarked on some early creative developments which included long distance collaborations with composer Jonathan Brain.”
That passion for creativity and community come together for Thunderstorm, which he co-wrote with Brain and is conducted by Pia Harris, who he met at the Royal College of Music.
We caught up with Ward as he prepared to direct Thunderstorm at the Art Gallery of WA on Saturday 16 September.
Julie Hosking: What made you want to adapt By Other Eyes?
Matt Ward: The product holds a very special place in my heart. I remember being approached by the City of Albany to create a community engaged performance work to mark the anniversary.
My first question was actually posed to local elders and I knew the answer would form the trajectory of the work’s development: “Do you want to say anything to the wider community and, if so, would you like this project to support your message?” The response was a resounding “yes”, please highlight the contribution of Aboriginal servicemen.
The production drew on ideas and stories from elders and community participants from across the Great Southern. While it recognises Aboriginal servicemen, it does so in a very gentle manner. The performance work ended up being about a dad and his child, star gazing, connected, separated, reunited.
The work acts to invite audiences and participants to initiate and engage in important conversations – in no way is it an historical play, or claiming to speak on behalf of a specific group of people.
With this in mind, it’s a legacy work for me and all those who contributed to its creation. Originally performed as a radio play, the 2023 iteration of the work is brought to life as theatre in the round in the gorgeous surrounds of the Art Gallery of WA.
JH: Part of Breaksea’s ethos is to incorporate a mixture of established and emerging talent. How does that work?
MW: At the heart of all Breaksea’s work is youth mentorship, which includes engaging with young people for performance and also professional youth placements. As a regional kid, I remember clearly the isolation I felt when I moved to Perth as a 17 year old. Being able to support emerging youth as they embark on their study and career is a real joy – it’s something I would have loved.
I really enjoy bringing together diverse performers and voices into a cast. We have young youth mentees, emerging professional artists, established opera singers and actors working side by side. For me drawing together a cast from across artforms facilitates a richness of texture, character and expression. It’s a joy to see the collaboration and exchange of ideas between the different styles of performers.
The same goes for our musical language. Crafting original music to support and express the narrative in a filmic manner means we are referencing traditional and contemporary styles. For me this is liberating – I always carry the narrative and audience experience at the forefront.
JH: Thunderstorm also incorporates the talents of the full Aquinas Schola Cantorum – what does a choir add to the overall experience?
MW: Hugh Lydon and the Aquinas Schola Cantorum bring an exceptional quality to the work, providing young soloists and an incredible choral texture. It’s a production about generations, the family we are born into and the families we choose to make.
Incorporating the Aquinas Schola Cantorum speaks to the heart of the narrative, but also to Breaksea’s core values.
It’s been incredible to work with, teach and collaborate alongside such a great bunch of young people. I hope I can play a small role in their development and inspire them to strive for their dreams. Building industry and cross-generation networks are fundamental in developing healthy communities and creative ecosystems. Watch this space.
JH: Thunderstorm marks the end of a big year for Breaksea. How do you reflect on your fifth birthday?
MW: It’s almost been too busy to allow reflection. I hope we get a chance to celebrate the five year journey. The way our work has been embraced by partners, audiences and communities across WA is really special. (Breaksea’s children’s show, The Magical Weedy Seadragon, is part of Awesome Festival later this month, before heading to Mandurah.)
JH: What lies ahead for the company – what excites you the most about the next five?
MW: We have some very exciting touring opportunities coming up. There are new partnerships and collaborations in the pipeline. Our ambitions to reach a wider audience, to continue to develop new performance work that speaks to the identity of the West Australian community. That explores and expresses who we are as a people.
Pictured top: Jarrad Inman plays Harry in ‘Thunderstorm’. Photo: Nic Duncan
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