Local theatre identity Michael Sharmon returned to the Northern Rivers over the holidays. Now based in Hong Kong, the news of coal-seam gas mining in the Northern Rivers has moved him to create a piece on the theme.
Echonetdaily contributor Melissa Hargraves caught up with him in Bangalow under the shade of a tree.
How early did you get the desire to perform and can you share your connection with the Northern Rivers?
I grew up in Melbourne. I was quite sick as a child; I had pneumonia and I spent a lot of time in bed. I think because of that I started making tapes of stories and my love for performance began. I furthered my studies after school then came to the Northern Rivers. My mother lives at The Channon so I enrolled at the Conservatorium in Lismore to study acting more intensely. I went on to perform in local productions. I wrote and directed Sleeping Beautyin Bangalow a few years back. It was a stellar cast and we had amazing feedback, especially grateful parents who saw an empowered princess, rather than a victim waiting for Prince Charming to come along. Honestly, it is still one of my proudest and happiest experiences. I then did a few one-man multimedia shows paying tribute to the history of film.
Ultimately, I had to leave to be able to pursue my dream and support it financially.
You’ve spent the last few years in Hong Kong with your production company Golden Voice Entertainment. It was in this setting that the issue of coal-seam gas (CSG) mining in the Northern Rivers came to your attention. What was your reaction?
Quite some time ago Mum had mentioned the term frackingto me, but it wasn’t until a friend emailed me an informative YouTube clip that I realised the direct impact on not only the Northern Rivers, but the Great Artesian Basin. At first I was angry. I was appalled that this could happen in this area, an area that has given me and others so much. I couldn’t bear the thought that this was actually happening. Mum then informed me that wells were going right around where she lived. The wells are actually there now. Work had already been done in Casino and Queensland. We saw what happened in America and it’s allowed to happen here!
The whole anti-CSG movement seems to be concerned with the welfare of the species and the planet. Although your family land is directly affected, you don’t seem focused on that land ownership.
It’s the current and future animals, families and land that are affected. Let’s not forget water. These are all shared resources.
You’re not known for your protest songs and you certainly didn’t write this for a Top 40 hit. I am curious about the process of a Hong Kong-based Australian theatre director who participates in songs for change.
I was so far away and although I was active in petition emails, I still felt helpless. A lot of my Australian friends living abroad were still uninformed. I guess I felt compelled to do something more. Words and images were coming to mind, so I put this piece together. The images are important as they remind us of how beautiful our country is. It’s almost an appeal to decision-makers, a plea. I envisage a children’s choir singing it!
The clip has only just been uploaded to YouTube. What is the response so far?
The first subscriber was [people lobbying for coal-seam gas]. So it is interesting to see how close they are monitoring.
Did you get the sense of a Big Brother?
Yes. I watched the video again and tried seeing it through their eyes. Then I thought great, I was pleased, this was my way of writing a letter.
Hong Kong has its own political system yet is still part of China. China has signed lucrative deals with Australia to purchase CSG. Did you feel any fear when you entered the public domain showing dissent for government decisions?
I’ll generalise here. A lot of the locals in Hong Kong love Australia and were devastated to hear of the impacts of CSG mining. So they were very supportive of my doing this. Hong Kong is very festive and spends a lot of money on decorating the city then afterwards the decorations are dumped. Yet, you will hardly see a plastic bag, you are actually thanked for not using one! There are many contradictions, as with all countries. So although I had support on the ground, yes I still felt some fear. Fear that I couldn’t continue my contribution against this mining process. China has banned Facebook for example and I’ve heard many stories of denied internet access to people/groups who have made comments about the Chinese government. So not only the piece I have put together but the content of emails about CSG were contentious.
Are environmental issues part of the theatre culture in Hong Kong?
In my particular theatre company we do a show about endangered animals and global warming. The panda bear is close to many hearts of the Hong Kong natives. The main issue is the supply of bamboo.
Do you think there is a role for theatre to express these universal concerns? Is there a possibility for issues such as CSG to be translated to theatre and toured as part of the movement?
Yes, most definitely. We all have different ways of contributing to these causes that affect our very existence. The idea of travelling these theatre pieces is interesting as there are still many people in major cities that are unaware and come regularly to the Northern Rivers to enjoy its beauty. I think a theatrical piece that can be taken beyond the shire would be fantastic. If the piece can be active while the issue is happening, then to me it is a very live piece of theatre. Especially when we start seeing a lot of burnout, the arts can help maintain the momentum. What’s happening in our backyard will happen in someone else’s next. News, theatre, music… these are all ways of passing information about activities that affect us all. I think it is all of our responsibility. Anyone who cares about the future of this country and the world needs to care about the impacts of CSG mining.