First published on 20 May 2008. Updated on 17 Aug 2008.
Long before it became pigeonholed as a ‘trouble spot' - a hotbed of racial conflict, infamous police raids, and disenfranchised indigenous Australians - The Block was both a home and an inspiration to the Gadigal people. These highly creative and imaginative people had a particular talent for expressing themselves through music, dancing, performance and art, and it's a talent that lives on in Redfern today.
In 2006, PACT Youth Theatre joined forces with the Redfern Community Centre to channel that talent into a collaborative celebration in the form of a massive multi-art show, Gathering Ground: History, Ceremony, Protest. It was such a success that it's back as Gathering Ground 2: Blockside Story for which workshops and rehearsals have already begun.
Project Coordinator and artist, Lily Shearer, was a co-director of GG in 2006 and believes the project was long overdue. "We haven't had any black theatre [on The Block] since the 80s," she explains.
And this is a significant omission for a community whose very essence is connected to art and performance. As Shearer puts it: "it's part of our cultural practices to be singers, dancers, visual artists".
Standing outside the Redfern Community Centre, watching the kids running, singing, dancing, and feeling the buzz in the air, it's easy to see how natural and positive this creative environment is for the kids of The Block.
Participation has increased markedly since the original GG in 2006 with more than 50 young people participating in such diverse workshops as puppetry, stilt walking and aerial work - all of it leading up to this year's street performance.
And, in the middle of it all sits Karen Therese, PACT Youth Theatre Community Cultural Development Artist and co-director of GG2. Wearing a black t-shirt that boldly proclaims ‘I love The Block', Therese is one of the few non-indigenous Australians involved with the project.
Not surprisingly, she has found her work on the GG project both challenging and rewarding. Therese faced her own unique struggles growing up in the highly polarised Mt Druitt community, but concedes that Redfern is a different kettle of fish entirely, admitting, "I've learned more about Australian cultural identity in my three years working at The Block... and it takes a lot of patience".
However, she isn't surprised by the excitement and connectedness of the local kids to the GG2 project: "They know it's theirs and that it's all for them."
The PACT Youth Theatre's three-year commitment to the project was designed to be a collaboration with the Redfern Community Centre having them ultimately take over the reigns of future GG events. "The idea is [that] the community itself will run the program when it comes to Gathering Ground 3," shares Therese.
Mentorship is an important part of this creative exercise with young local artists and past GG participants running workshops and guiding the local kids in the run-up to the main event later in May. Katherine Beckett, 24, is part of the PACT Theatres imPACT Ensemble and will this year give back to her community by acting as role model to the younger GG kids.
"I've been really lucky to have [the chances] I've had," she says of her time at Eora TAFE (where she earned a diploma in film), and with the imPACT Ensemble. "It's important to pass down knowledge... and teach the kids commitment."
The beautiful and talented Beckett is coordinating the fashion for the GG2 fashion parade as well as taking part in some of the workshops; but she believes that the true power behind the event comes from other community members. "If it was up to me, I'd get a few elders involved," she declares. "[They] have so much knowledge and wisdom, history and culture to share."
Shearer agrees, citing the work of the late Uncle Kevin Smith (1953-2005) and the Moogahlin Theatre as a driving force behind GG and the arts in Redfern today. "It's his legacy," she explains, "that the people are appreciating the emerging artists of Moogahlin today."
While Shearer realises that many of the kids on The Block probably don't recognise the significance of Smith's work, the benefits to their confidence and self-esteem are sufficient reward for her: "My satisfaction is seeing the smiles on their faces, and seeing them have a go... I want my people to be empowered by it."
Check out Gathering Ground 2: Blockside Story on Thursday 29, Friday 30, or Saturday 31 May. Gather at the top of Eveleigh St, Redfern (opposite Redfern Train Station) at 7.30pm.