From a distance, as I approached Refinery Square in Pyrmont, I could see a large copper cock, sporting a magnificent tail flourish and comb, perched above a weather vane. I think it caught my eye because of the intense gusts of anticipation and expectation that were swirling inside me, wondering how I might weather this turn of my fate.
I had been asked to speak to the Pyrmont History Group about my forthcoming play at Belvoir Theatre The Sugar House, a story centred around the Macreadie family who lived and worked on this historic peninsula in the 20th Century. Having been told that this Pyrmont History Group brought together ‘survivors of urban renewal and newcomers to the high-rise apartments that have replaced the cottages and the industrial buildings of CSR’ I had suggested that we might read part of the work-in-progress play. No rehearsal, no direction. I would hand them the marked up scripts and let them take it from there.
My own grandfather, Roy, had worked as a fitter and turner at the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which dominated this peninsula for so long, and he would have stood, queuing up with so many others at the door of the pay office building which I now entered. It had been converted into a community space, and now a version of my Poppa, in dramatic form, would have life breathed into him by strangers whom I was yet to meet. I was conjuring my long dead grandparents and my untapped past, which was too little talked about when they were alive, into this space of authentic connection with their spirit and legacy. If a time machine rolled through the years, I might be standing right next to my patiently waiting, cap-in-hand, Poppa as we took to the amateur stage.
The organisers had installed a small raised platform for the performance, on which five chairs had been placed. I was introduced to a former judge who was intending to take the role of the petty criminal son in the play, Ollie. A former teacher would read the role of Margo, the troubled daughter. One by one the roles were apportioned out to brave souls who, sight unseen, had agreed to perform them publicly to the 70 or more community members who had gathered for an afternoon’s entertainment.
Almost all of the roles had been filled but the part of Sid, the grandfather of the Macreadie clan. But then Jennice Kersh, a long time Pyrmont local, now living in Redfern but still indelibly tied to this ground of her childhood, arrived. Jennice had seen a development reading of The Sugar House at Belvoir several years ago and had, afterwards, generously praised it and encouraged me to keep going. Today she had brought with her a former union organizer called Barry whom, she told me, was highly intelligent but had left school early and not found the means to fulfil the potential of his own big, busy brain.
Nervously I asked if Barry would consider reading the role of Sid. He’d just turned up for a free feed of tea and bikkies and now I was roping him into a performance. He flipped through the small sheaf of white pages, finding his highlighted moments. He looked up at me and asked, ‘Is he a drinker?’ and then, before I could answer he found Sid’s line ‘Nothing a cold beer and a little lie down won’t fix’ and smiled at me. ‘You’re on,’ he said.
Suffice to say Barry was one of the highlights of this precious and remarkable afternoon. Quietly but firmly he embodied the role of the gentle patriarch, giving the work an instant grounding in time. It was his voice with its gravelly truth, and his speech patterns, with their rough and tumble humour, that took the words and gave them the spirit of honest, lived experience. That day Barry showed us the difference between heritage features – a superficial conserving of the flavour of the past – and a real life exchange with the real deal – a fascinating mix of guts and grime and glory. It’s the difference between pretending to know what life was like in the old days and having the breath knocked out of you by seeing the past manifest before your eyes in all its dimensions, complexity and contradictions.
The character of Sid had been born of my imagination, my memories, my research and my art but on that day he almost felt eerily closer to my lived experience of my grandfather than even when he was alive.
Afterwards I was lucky enough to receive some tough love correction and adjustments to the script. There was a line in the play where one of the family complained about the neighbours having called the police. “But no matter how bad it got,” said Jennice, “nobody would ever have ‘copper’d’ on you,” she said, transforming the noun into a verb in the most beautiful way.
Many of the residents spoke frankly to me about the deprivations and even poverty of their own backgrounds and I realised that the themes of the play, about identity having only a passing relationship to economic circumstance, were resonating strongly here. But the biggest thrill was watching the highly-educated, socially-successful audience members crowd around the slightly dazed Barry, who received their attentions and praise with a casual shrug and tucked enthusiastically into the now proffered drinks and nibbles.
The artisan-made weathercock that now crows above the square was once placed on the high point of the CSR Sugar Refinery roof. As I left the building that day, I looked up and thanked the CSR Engineers, the Lend Lease corporation and the Jacksons Landing Community Association who had, in preserving it, affirmed that the past is still vividly alive in the present and is a potent way in which we can transfigure the future.
Alana Valentine’s stage play The Sugar House, directed by Sarah Goodes and starring Kris McQuade, Sheridan Harbridge, Sacha Horler, Josh McConville, Lex Marinos and Nikki Shiels will play at Belvoir Theatre from 5 May to 3 June, 2018. Information and tickets here.