I got to speak with Yana Taylor yesterday afternoon just after she had emerged from a tech session. As one of the performers (with Irving Gregory) Yana is also part of the team of collaborator-creators for version 1.0 (Version One Point Zero’s) production of The Disappearances Project which opens tonight in its Queensland premiere at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. The company’s website acknowledges its ‘innovative political performance’ and (in a footnote) its work as ‘a cultural gift to the nation … .’
The company has been working on various ‘social-issue’ projects since its formation by David Williams in 1998. As to the form of their work Yana describes it as ‘socially-engaged documentary theatre. We create forms to reveal our relationship as artists with the spectators. It’s immersive for everyone involved.’
The Disappearances Project treats the topic of those left behind when someone goes missing. As we chat I learn that 35,000 people are reported as missing every year in Australia and, although the vast majority of these are found within a month or so, up to 2,000 are not located. It’s quite a staggering figure, one larger than the national road-toll. Yana notes, ‘Time is the thing that is at stake for everyone left behind. Lives have been transformed by that time – the moment of vanishing. The million close bonds and attachments to that moment often mean that those left behind have a sense of being frozen, of being in an ambiguous state. There was a perception that they should move on with their lives which, whilst they retain ‘an external social shape … are, nevertheless, transformed. There is a cascade of things that draw them back.’
The project was born out of a commissioned residency by the Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre. Project 1.0 were asked to work with local artists in the creation of a topic that had relevance to the city. There had been high-profile cases of missing persons, and the received wisdom seemed to be that these high-profiles typified Bathurst. The company wanted to find out if that was true.
During the course of their time in the city they spoke with friends who knew those who had disappeared, or had already been through the process of articulating their responses to the event. Yana emphasises the principle of ethical respect for all involved in the project. They did not, for example, feel it appropriate to interview the families of those who had disappeared. ‘We are researching as part of making art and conscious of not doing damage.’
I’m curious to know what they discovered. For example, do missing persons come from a particular demographic cluster? Apparently not. Yana tells me that there are many reasons people go missing and that their research internationally revealed there to be no stereotype. They come from all ages and walks of life. However, as the on the ground research continued in Bathurst, the company started noticing common threads in ‘the echoes and aftermath that traced the experiences of those left behind.’
There were ‘poetic, gentle nuances in the way people spoke of the loss. People were very aware and articulate.’ Yana notes that this ‘most verbatim-esque’ piece from version 1.0 draws upon the dialogue which emerged from those bearing witness as well as from the pages of research. She tells me about the way people and the various agencies involved during a missing person case interact and respond to the event. She notes the way people get creative when trying to trace a missing person, but they are often left stranded and frustrated by various privacy laws, for example.
Having watched a short video of the work, I’m curious about the staging of the piece.
‘We’re unselfconscious about montage and we don’t play characters. The voices travel through us.’ The use of word, image and sound means that the language of this performance is scored like a composition. ‘It’s the way we talk about it,’ she adds, ‘and Irving and (fellow collaborator) Paul Prestipino ‘talk in musical terms.’ So, The Disappearances Project is composed of three movements, a condensation and tracking of three stages for those left behind: from the moment of realisation to mid-term – 6 months or so – and then by the end to years away from the moment.’
Yana’s own artistic practice lies in the field of movement and dance. As for version 1.0, ‘… we make our work on the floor and there’s total engagement in creating a piece.’ The company works without a designer or a director. They acknowledge their agency but these roles are embedded within the group. She adds, ‘sometimes I act as the outside eye and, of course, we work with feedback and via dialogue. We open out the work at some stage to our spectators.’ It’s democratic performance-making that has paid off for the company. ‘We’ve even won a design award,’ Yana adds.
Given the nature of this work and others they’ve created I ask whether version 1.0 considers their work politically activist. ‘We’re not campaigners,’ she replies, ‘but sometimes we find allies along the way.’ When creating a work, ‘we do need to feel that we and the public have enough questions to carry on unfinished conversations about things.’ It is the resonances and the aftermath of an incident that interest them. We chat for a while about other events which have stimulated projects for version 1.0.
Yana speaks about the Cole Commission’s (2009) ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal and the ‘children overboard’ affair to name a couple. ‘We chart the edges of the black holes in official reports,’ she adds. ‘So, we’re not activists although we have provisional expertise.’ Yana admits that the company is aware that a theatre event is not going to change things. However, there’s no doubt that creating an experience that may extend people’s questioning and engagement with the world is no bad thing. There are certainly plenty of unfinished conversations to be had.
The Inner Artist
What has been your background in performance practice?
Movement based. I was a Saturday morning ballerina and went on to study at Flinders University where I had the great good fortune to work with Zora Semberova who is now 93 and living in Adelaide. Zora was a political refugee from Czechoslovakia and was caught here during the revolution. She was hosted by the University and I was educated and trained -intensively – in corporeal mime and dance by Zora. Her background was in European Expressionism. Meryl Tankard, Gale Edwards and Chris Ryan were also taught by her. Zora gave me a taste for and understanding of image and time and the presence of the performer … and an appreciation of rigour! I then worked in theatre and dance in a community setting and spent 15 years training actors at Nepean. I think some of the most innovative work in performance today is coming from choreographers.
What has been the most significant influence on your work?
The robust way of working from Zora but also being in the right place at the right time. I thank my stars! I continue to remain excited by the open-ended, democratic process where people make and take from one another in the live experience … the creative potential of the work.
What are you reading right now?
Things by David Sedaris … he’s a counterpoint to the solemnity of the work I’m doing right now. I’m also reading up on the history of Palm Island.
How do you relax?
Well, I am a yoga practitioner. I walk, go to the theatre and get inspired by peers and associates. I find being inspired is energising. I also freelance as a dramaturg and I find this process inspiring as well. Gardening! (She tells me that she has recently harvested 10kg of sweet potatoes. I am in awe! And it was at this point that the interview took off and finished naturally with a discussion of herbs, vegetables and a good, old-school, compost-making recipes. Gardeners are like that!)
Version 1.0 is an award-winning Sydney-based company on a national tour right now. If you are in the regions here in Queensland, check out your local venue’s performance diary.
You might be interested in Greenroom’s review of Colder by Lachlan Philpott, directed by Michelle Miall for the 2011 La Boite Indie Season. Colder also deals with the aftermath of the loss of a loved one gone missing.