Donna Sue Robson specialises in the communication- and healing-arts. Jamie Natural Health and Healing is her energy-healing consultancy. Her modalities, workshops and boutique natural products can be viewed and purchased from www.jamienatural.com.
A community arts project that heals deep wounds
Colour of Fire is a carefully constructed, dramatic visual narrative that is relevant to all Australians.
The Colour of Fire is one of the most important plays and artistic community projects that you will ever see. I was flawed by own reaction: weeks after seeing this production, I was unable to control my own tears. The universality of the bushfire experience, and Black Saturday in particular, affects all Australians. It is about cycles of healing and the part that we all must play in the rebuilding process.
Directed by John Wood, a proud Yarra Valley local with mega-star charisma, The Colour of Fire tells about the tragedy and hidden traumas caused by the Black Saturday bushfires. Told from the perspective of portrait artist Eva (Sunasini Seelin), the play clashes the inter-personal with the intra-personal, and weaves those layers into a framework of community memories.
Visual artists Wilari T, Raelene Sharp (creator Jack's portrait pictured above), Lynette Orziowsky and Kerrie Warren acted as both crew and cast of this elegant and potent multi-media experience. The art within the play drew the audience into the inner mind of the tortured artist, Eva.
The story begins with Eva, an angry young woman with 'painter's block'. Her own story is 'triggered' as she is forced to deal with other people's coping mechanisms. As she is exposed to the breadth of social grief, her own denial rises to the surface. Personal connections, especially in a country environment, are inextricably linked and the pain is complex: there is so much more to Eva's 'painter's-block' than meets the eye. Just as fire burns and ravages all in its path, Eva must not only face the past she longs to bury, but create bonds with those she somehow holds responsible. Through this raw emotional journey, all characters sow seeds of hope.
Colour of Fire was written by Nadia Fragnito, produced by Exit Theatre and proudly supported by the Shire of Yarra Ranges and the Yarra Valley Arts Council. It has already been performed at Healesville's iconic Memo Hall and the Upper Yarra Arts Centre in Warburton and extended seasons in other areas of Victoria and Melbourne City are planned, for The Colour of Fire is so much more than a single-season, country play. It is about community life and a tool to unite those who are still living with the trauma of bushfire and other forms of catastrophic loss. It is important for people who do not live in bush-fire zones to understand that this is not a past event for those who have lived through it. The Colour of Fire is about human spirit and that to heal, we need to connect and provide tools to serve the long-term healing process.
Nadia Fragnito was the winner of the 2014 Script-writing Competition and as part of that prize, embraced an intensive 2-year script-development process with writers, Exit theatre artists and actors to make the script performance-ready. During that collaboration process, artists Ali Griffin, Michelle Bolmat and Christine Cafarella were called upon to thoroughly authenticate the artist's character (Eva). Their real-life experience bonded The Colour of Fire to the Healesville and Yarra Ranges communities. The entire project is a powerful example and working model of 'art-meets-life'.
The Colour of Fire aims to raise awareness of the trauma associated with events beyond our control. It is accompanied by a series of community-based conversations and a symbolic art exhibition presenting the stories of Jenny Reddin, Amanda Ruck and Ali Griffin.
The process did not end there: from 'day one' of rehearsals, actors were quick to see when the dialogue 'was not working' and continued to mould the script from its original monologue-style to stage art. There is possibly more work to do with the script because at times, the pace suffered with 'over-pause' and jilted conversation responses. However, the script's honesty lies in the tension that it created with awkward silences that revealed knife-edge undercurrents. Stylistically, it is also true-to-life, as many people who have PTSD are silenced and may avoid conversation and direct responses. 'Eva' was an emotionally demanding role for Sunasini Seelin: she is to be commended for her empathetic and believable depiction.
Artist stories, perspectives and their efforts to fundraise for community relief programs inspired Nadia Fragnito to write the story. Artist Lynette Orziowsky contributed the portrait of Heather's fur-babies.
In an attempt to paint a broad community perspective and indigenous connection to the land, there were references to Aboriginality through sound and art. This was included to recognise the original custodians of the Yarra Ranges and to raise the Aboriginal perspective toward land management and its role in the bush fire debate. However, this thread 'didn't really go anywhere' and the indigenous perspective was unclear and disintegrated. The pain of loss, shock, family separation and personal disempowerment were intense themes for all to process. It may have been more effective to acknowledge the Wurundjeri as original custodians of the land at the play's commencement.
Cast members Kristof Kaczmarek (Jack), Suhasini Seelin, Elizabeth O'Callaghan (Heather) and Ben Freeland (Alex) embodied their characters and were well-directed to push and pull them, to further torment the story line. They told their own stories through non-action, intra-character reaction and verbal interaction. That degree of actor skill and story-telling is a tough ask for community theatre, but it was interesting to note how the audience actually helped them through this, as the bravery and power of the story itself plunged us into our own recall. We knew what was going on and how to assist the nominated story-tellers. Audience emotion played a big part in the success of the narrative.
Pic: Spirits of Flight by Michelle Bolmat. The Q & A at the end of the show reinforced need for people to have their stories heard and for long-term healing strategies. This is one project where a community of artists have led the way.
As the four characters relived their own memories, the theme of 'no time to react' and the power of instinct was drummed home. Eva was the mouthpiece for survivor-guilt; and Jack wore a 'mask of coping' strapped on precariously with 'tough-guy denial', devoting himself to community causes and commemorative events. Heather, grief-stricken from the loss of her own fur-babies, became a tireless animal wild-life rescue officer. These are all very real ways of coping and showed another aspect to how the impact of bushfire and catastrophic loss actually shapes communities and the human spirit.
Ben Freeland (Alex) represents the unsung heroes still affected by the Black Saturday fires. Exit Theatre hopes to perform this show in Melbourne and across Victoria. This is one community-based artistic venture that deserves support, attendance, conversation and action.
Ben Freeland, who played Eva's partner, had one of the most powerful, yet understated roles. Seemingly removed from the frontline, Alex was still in the thick of it as he had to deal with Eva's trauma and fight on a day-to-day level to hold their relationship together. His job was to plan a future while the past was hell-bent on pulling it apart. He represented the 'unsung heroes' of Black Saturday, people who play so much more than sundry support roles and who continue to hold families together. Nadia Fragnito's sensitive and well-researched script aired long-term effects of trauma: how it impacts relationships as a person's ability to love is charred and scarred. Colour of Fire reaches way beyond the event and its visible aftermath: it opens windows to release deep, masked anxieties and asks how communities can best rally behind those living in despair.
'But somethin' in me changed, I got over the fear … we know that new life will always come around again. So let's keep movin' forward, despite the pain, despite the scars.' Jack, The Colour of Fire
The Colour of Fire left a lasting visual imprint of bushfire by including art and paintings completed by real-artists of Black Saturday. The visual-art team which comprised of Paul Sonsie, Ali Griffin, Lynette Orzlowski, Raelene Sharp, Amanda Ruck, Jenny Reddin, Michelle Bolmat, Christine Cafarella Pearce, Kerrie Warren & Kate Baker, were both cast and crew, providing canvas back drops and digitalising a powerful visual narrative. Fine art used to document this story set a high creative yardstick for multi-media performance art and served as a bridge between documentary and fiction. The Colour of Fire showcased the entire artistic community of the Yarra Valley and the role of art to lead recovery.
I was fortunate to attend the show on Q & A night, with a Q & A with artists Michelle Bolmat, Ali Griffin and Christine Cafarella Pearce, and Captain Graeme Bates from Healesville CFA. The Colour of Fire was almost 'soft-entry' into their real-life stories that had inspired the play. The co-presentation, alongside original art works quote-captioned on display at Memo Hall, helped people process the enormity of Black Saturday and voiced the need for positive long-term healing strategies.
The Colour of Fire is a complete theatrical and real-life experience that is simply unforgettable. It is about the cycle of life, which includes loss, healing and recovery: a true gift for all Australians and an artistic success story from communities in The Yarra Valley.
The committed cast of The Colour of Fire delivered an intense relationship epic with grace, honesty and sensitivity.