Back from Australia: Interact Theater returns with tales from the other side of the world

Editor’s Note: Last December, we printed an article on this theater collaboration and their work in Minnesota. This article reports what happened when they traveled to Australia to continue their co-creations.

“Sometimes big theatre collaborations can be unwieldy giants, but this magnificent co-production is a towering lesson in how to bring the best out of people.” (Matt Byrne, Adelaidenow, April 2007)

That’s what one reviewer said about Northern Lights/Southern Cross: Tales from the Other Side of the World when Interact Center of Minneapolis and Tutti Ensemble of Adelaide, Australia, premiered this epic new work in Australia this past spring. Both of these groundbreaking theater companies are made up of artists with disabilities who have reached across the world to tell their stories.

It all got started a year ago when Tutti Ensemble spent a month in Minnesota learning about winter cold and North Country Native traditions. Then last March, Interact’s artistic director Jeanne Calvit left winter behind and stepped into the blazing Australian summer twenty-four hours later. Her traveling companions and fellow artists were Al Baker, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe drummer and pipe carrier; Larry Yazzie, Meskwaki fancy dancer; Interact actor and visual artist Sindibad O’Dell, part Creek; and Kevin Kling, a nationally-acclaimed playwright and storyteller.

Jeanne Calvit laughs when she recalls thinking, “There’s no way this can work! We’ve got too many ingredients for anybody’s stew.” And more to be added—the entire Tutti ensemble, along with Aboriginal artist Stephen Gadlabarti Goldsmith, yidaki (didger-idoo) player, dancer, storyteller and cultural educator of Narrunga, Kaurna and Ngar-rendjeri descent.

Today, Northern Lights/Southern Cross stands out as one of the most deeply spiritual, personally satisfying, and outlandishly humor-filled works any of these artists have ever done. The jumping-off point was Kling’s uncanny ability to share stories of his own personal healing from a motorcycle accident that resulted in disability, and to understand how those stories resonate on a cultural and global level. This is a work about trauma and healing—cultural trauma as people struggle to re-learn and restore traditional values; global trauma as wars persist and ecosystems disappear; and personal trauma, such as living with a disability in a world that often sees only the deficits and misses the talents and possibilities.

No preachy downer, Kling, with both arms in slings, says, “I was born with a disability, and then I added to it. While I was in the hospital after the accident, 9/11 happened. I thought the whole country was going through the same thing I was. And the idea struck me that while you can’t cure trauma, you can heal from trauma.” He begins the telling, “This is my story. The doctors will tell you a different story, but this is what REALLY happened.”

Our friend Oki (Kling), a regular Minnesota guy, goes boots over helmet on his motorcycle and winds up in a coma, or so the doctors say. Oki himself hooks up with some pretty interesting characters who tell him, “Mate, you’re as close to the stars as you can get without becoming one.” Oki’s spirit had traveled completely to the other side of the world, to see if he could put the pieces of his life back together, a story borrowed from Ojibwe Winne-boujou tales of the Great Spirit who was sent to the other side of the world to heal people and to put things right.

Oki comes to feel at home in the company of the heyokes, trickster spirits, who do everything backwards. These spirits have deep resonance in the world of the disabled, as do their Australian cousins, the larrikins. They are wrong, contrary, annoying. They elicit anger – or laughter – and they reflect our prejudices right back at us. In Native traditions, these trickster clowns are healers, the sacred, honored spirit of “otherness.” And they are darned funny.

Seeing these traditional stories come together, and understanding the parallels in Kling’s mythic perceptions and fantastical memories while in a coma, were the elements that brought this piece to life. Just like in real life, every single artist was critical to the process. And every single artist had an authentic story to tell, including the vivid company of Tutti actors who played the heyokes, the pranksters, the clamoring conscience of anyone who tries to get out of owning up.

Al Baker brought the heartbeat of the Native drum, centering and calming, guiding and soothing. O’Dell’s imposing, quiet presence reflects this visual artist’s genius for creating non-verbal moments of deep impact, since brain damage has affected his ability to memorize lines. Yazzie’s visually stunning fancy dance, emerging both from Native traditions and from the Wild West era in the early 1900s, reminds us that traditions are not stuck in stone, but that solid values can adapt and grow with the times. Goldsmith’s didgeridoo droned the voice of the outback, the voice of ancient times and vast spaces.

And then there is Oki (Kling), our eager wanderer living deeply in the experience. Kling’s personal experiences have taught him that there are two ways to survive trauma – a sense of self, and a sense of humor. For him, Northern Lights/Southern Cross is all about trauma and healing, with a spotlight on the healing. It’s an exploration of how we all fit in the world together, not us and them, but “us with us.” This epic journey of personal discovery is “… just like a good haircut. Something between what you had and what you want.”

“I believe that theater has the power to transform your life,” says Calvit. “For me, Northern Light/Southern Cross was one of the most powerful pieces of theater I have ever experienced. Sometimes you can talk about the script or the music or the acting, but nothing here could have existed without every other element. Every artist, every moment, was something I’ll never forget.”

Northern Light/Southern Cross played to sold-out audiences of 2000 people at the Bundaleer Arts Festival, and repeated its success a week later at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It will be coming to Minneapolis in Fall 2008, and Interact’s company of heyokes – uh, artists – is already getting ready. Because on November 23, 2007, Interact Theater and Tutti Ensemble will stage the Minneapolis premiere of our first collaboration, Between the Worlds, right here at home.

Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts is a theater company, visual arts studio and gallery composed of artists with disabilities. For more information about our programs and performances, visit us in the Minneapolis Warehouse District at 212 Third Avenue North, give us a call at 612-339-5145, or visit our Web site at www.interactcenter.com

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