16 October 2011

MIAF: A reflection on Site Unseen

I saw Site Unseen.

How could I not with such critical critical reviews and the deeply hurt response of some of the creators.

Supported by the City of Port Phillip and local groups that support marginalised residents, the MIAF production of Site Unseen is only one result of a Community Cultural Development (CCD) program that's been running for months.

I was hoping to talk about CCD and the importance of having your voice heard. I was hoping to compare it to the stunning documentary theatre of Aftermath, to the exquisite honesty and confrontation of Ganesh and The Third Reich and to other wonderful CCD shows I've seen developed and supported by the Port Phillip Council. I was hoping to talk about how it spoke to me.

Watching this from the Site Unseen website, I still had hope.

It's possibly best to read the website, support the program, scoff at the reviews and leave the show unseen.

I can't remember feeling so uncomfortable watching a piece of theatre – and my discomfort had nothing to do with the subject matter.

What I liked
  • The beautiful photo exhibition in the soupless kitchen of the Theatre Works foyer. Black and white photos of people with an object of importance.
  • The recorded voices of the people who helped make it.
  • The elephant, until it was explained. Oh, so the elephant in the room is the elephant in the room.
  • The piece of Chocolate Kugelhopf I had in Acland St after the show.
  • Knowing that people who have written about this show and the people who have spoken to me about it are not heartless arseholes for criticising that which deserves praise and large slices of Chocolate Kugelhopf.
I may have also liked Chris B's performance, but he wasn't on.

Whose story is it telling?

Very superficially, CCD uses the arts to enrich lives and communities by letting people share their stories. From intention to process and product, a CCD project always has its community participants at its core. Site Unseen is no exception, with a participant training and employment program as part of the project. All we are seeing is the developed performance.

However, unlike the Site Unseen project (and the above video), the live experience lacks the stories of real people.  A very clean bloke pretending to be a bogan and saying "It's hard on the streets" isn't a story; it's a confirmation of a stereotype.

Of course the presented experiences of homelessness are true, but they are scraped off the surface of the real stories. Without detail, without context and without humanity, there's nothing to share that every person seeing Site Unseen doesn't know and see every day.

For me, the most moving story was the old woman being evicted with her cat, Rosie. This woman had a name (that I've forgotten) and her situation is so real to anyone who doesn't own their house. It really could be me. She was also a cardboard cutout in case our imaginations are so dead that we can't imagine what an old woman looks like.

To the creators and participants who are hurt by the response to this show, please tell us your stories because we want to hear them and they are what is unseen in Site Unseen.

Who is Site Unseen talking to?

Poor Felicity. Felicity is our guide and the chair of fictional WIMS (Walk In My Shoes). She's also living in fear of being stabbed by angry critics. If I were the kind of person who took a rhetorical knife to the theatre, she'd have been safe – because I would have self-harmed to get away.

Who is this woman meant to be? Is she the section of our society that this show wants to reach?

I get that it's meant to be satire, that's she's meant to represent the worst of silly rich middle-class ladies who take on charities to feel good about themselves and have no idea about who or what they are supporting. I've never met anyone like her though.

So Site Unseen isn't talking to us and we can happily sleep knowing that we've done our bit by turning up and politely clapping at the end.

Good satire makes us cringe at our own hypocritical ridiculousness. Felicity isn't any part of me or anyone I know, and I wonder if she's any part of anyone who chooses to see a show about homelessness as part of a respected arts festival. Does anyone really think that the people who want to see and support this show believe that the homeless are having a picnic and slumming it by buying non-vintage Moet with their food vouchers?

The tone of Site Unseen is that the audience are so ignorant and selfish that they need to be told the obvious.

Why doesn't this show confront me? Me, who lives in the Port Phillip (St Kilda) council and avoids walking down certain streets. Me, who has lied to Big Issue vendors saying that I already have a copy. Me, who writes about pretentious theatre and pretends to understand how homeless participants in a CCD project feel.

Homelessness in Rippon Lea

Last year during the storms, I wanted to put my car in my shed. My shed is filthy, falling apart and it leaks; it's not somewhere you'd want to spend more than a few seconds. It was late at night and opening the door I was confronted with a smell that I will never forget. I was terrified of finding a dead animal.

There was a body, but he was alive and in a sleeping bag in the one dry spot. He was also passed out. I shut the door. My car was fine. I had no idea what to do and was horrified at myself for being scared of someone who was so cold that my crappy shed was a good find. I didn't call the police like my neighbours suggested.

With a bit of googling and asking on facey,  I put together a supermarket list and in the morning I filled an old backpack with museli bars, Milo, fruit cups, cheese sticks, Panadol, band aids, wet wipes, tissues and some chocolate. I left it in the shed, but he never came back. I know that I'd be humiliated if I'd been discovered sleeping in a run-down shed.

He left used tissues, rollie papers, some empty wine casks, a pair of boots, a pair of sandals and a rug that I wouldn't let my cats sleep on. He'd even managed a fire. I used thick rubber gloves to clean it all up. The smell took days to go.

(Dude, if your reading this. The food and stuff is still there and your shoes are in another bag in the corner of the shed.)

The homelessness of Site Unseen doesn't smell or confront or question.  It may be based on real stories, but the final product is spotlessly clean and feels as authentic as a performance of "We're a couple of swells".

As such, it insults my intelligence, my empathy, my knowledge and my actions.

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