Story & photos Melissa Hargraves
People concerned about the impacts of coal-seam gas (CSG) mining can now be entertained by a show on the very same subject! Echonetdaily was invited in for a sneak preview during dress rehearsals.
An amateur troupe, led by prominent community theatre director Ollie Heathwood, have created Coal-Seam Gas – The Musical. In response to the threat of CSG mining in the northern rivers, Ollie came out of almost 10 years of retirement to contribute to this campaign in the only way she knew how.
Ollie shows no signs of being overwhelmed by the threats of CSG mining in the northern rivers.
‘No, I don’t think like that. I have a deeply ingrained philosophy that there is no problem we can’t fix. I am concerned but I am glad to say that I have never been overwhelmed by environmental issues and I think that is what empowers me to stay underwhelmed and active.’
‘I want to make change,’ she told Echonetdaily. ‘I’m not a believer in worrying about things. I think as long as you are doing something…
‘I stood here on 7 March at that huge public CSG information meeting in Lismore with a little table and a homemade poster seeking interest… I was still receiving interest up until a few weeks ago!’
CSG – The Musical brings together experienced and inexperienced performers with local community groups such as Ra Ra Youth Theatre, Lismore Ukulele Club, Winsome Gospel Choir and React Circus.
John McPherson plays a policeman who is facing a conflict of conscience.
He told Echonetdaily, ‘like many police in this area they are part of the community and have children too. Some are not exactly happy about this industry but they have a job to do. We understand that and want to sympathetically reflect that in the musical.’
‘But mostly the musical is a lot of fun.’
Roots of theatre are in social activism and political issues.
John commented, ‘It’s an ancient path of theatre, the expression of a community. In ancient Greece they used current political issues, sometimes alongside older themes. Even when theatre was suppressed by royal families under the Christian dominance of Europe, there was at least a court jester who used political satire to bring up these issues.
‘We are taking an extremely serious topic and instead of making it a really serious performance piece, which could end up depressing to a lot of people, the idea is we want people to go in there and enjoy themselves and be happy as part of the community. But still hear the truth.’
Ollie understands polarisation in communities and has tried to create empathy amongst opposing characters in the production.
‘People on both sides feel and care and get hurt. I don’t want to denigrate neighbour against neighbour. We are richer if we show compassion.’
The script came easily to Ollie and didn’t stray too far from her original storyline.
‘It’s pretty formulaic,’ she said. ‘I worked out what people needed to hear or see to be moved. I wanted to move them emotionally to want to take action and understand that it is bigger than the environment. It is about community as well.’
Many forms make up the performances such as ventriloquy, puppetry, acrobatics, comedy, dancing, singing, acting etc. The first half is about sharing information spun by CSG mining companies while the second half explores divisions within the community. The final scene is a blockade, which is symbolically the point the actual CSG Free Northern Rivers movement is at.
Cast of CSG – The Musical visited Metgasco’s holding pond construction site near Casino very early on Tuesday morning to practise the show tune What’s in the Water. Protesters enjoyed the comical interpretation of the original Wade in the Water.
Residents of the northern rivers are commonly typified as being opinionated. I wondered if other directors wouldn’t envy Ollie’s role as director, fielding script challenges from the cast.
‘The cast has often been toey about things not being quite right. I’m often busy and I don’t want to stop and have this long discussion but then it’s amazing how often [they have] been right and have improved the show.’
Ollie has created environmental and human-rights theatre since 1985 and has been involved in many large community productions. She is a former NIDA student who was a self-confessed ‘rebellious little shit’ who has managed to sustain herself in community theatre.
One of her local musical theatre works was Paradiso Fantismo, the story of New Italy, which had more than 100 people in it.
‘A lot of the people in this show are from the Paradiso Fantismo choir. They had such a great time they never want to stop doing theatre and music together.
‘They become a village of people that love the cause, the show and each other, and you don’t want to let go of that.’
CSG – The Musical has received inquiries about touring to neighbouring shires but Ollie adds, ‘the show would need restructuring, because of the large number of people involved’.
‘The show songs will certainly live on at actions and blockades, at the drop of a hat!’
CSG – The Musical will live on through the eyes of local filmmakers Brendan Shoebridge and Susie Forster in the form of a documentary. There have been plenty of field recordings too.
Punters are guaranteed to feel moved, inspired and motivated. Whether it’s seeing your local organic farmer wearing guyliner or your prime minister as you’ve never seen her before, your entertainment budget will contribute to CSG Free Northern Rivers and support creative democracy.
COAL-SEAM GAS – THE MUSICAL
When: 7.30pm, 28–30 June.
Where: Lismore Workers Club
How much: $20 all tickets
Tickets: Caddies, Carrington St, Lismore. Limited tickets at the door.
Phone bookings: 6622 3346
For details about the forthcoming documentary go to http://www.documentaryaustralia.com.au/films/details/1586/coal-seam-gas-the-musical.