Award-winning playwright Shakthi’s new work proves he’s here to stay
âThe change that needs to happen is philosophical and existential,â he says. “Much of the world [has been] immersed in a culture that favors the ego, the great, the infinite. How do we begin to appreciate the humble, the small, the finished? “
To stay, he says, is to commit to the places where we live. It tells the story of Anglo-Maltese Thwayya (Falzon), who unearths two skeletons in the bed of a dried up stream on his family farm. The farm, owned by his family for five generations, sits in Tagalaka Country, a secluded stretch of land around the Gilbert River in northwest Queensland.
Enter Violet, a tagalaka woman played by dancer and choreographer Jasmin Sheppard. She is a Tagalaka woman of Irish, Chinese and Hungarian descent and an associate writer on to stay with Falzon and Natalie Alexandra Tse, who co-founded SAtheCollective with Andy Chia.
âThere is a battle in the present and the past,â Shakthi explains. âA battle is between Thwayya and Violet. Thwayya realizes how difficult it is to keep the farm alive financially. Violet has run away and must return. Then they uncover the mystery of how the skeletons got there.
To stay grapples with the tension familiar to migrants and refugees of those displaced when we take root in unceded land.
“Attachment to a place goes hand in hand with the idea of âânot owning it, being its guardian for a while,” he smiles. “Maybe realizing it’s incredibly liberating.”
It also takes into account the migration histories that have shaped this continent. Violet’s great-grandmother Daisy falls in love with An Hoo (Charles Wu), who leaves China for Australia in search of gold. He works on the farm as a cook.
Later, we meet her great-granddaughter, Tseut-Cheng (Tse), a high-flying businesswoman who returns from Sydney to Singapore in time for a Chinese ritual called Tomb Sweeping Day. The immigrant quest for a better life, Shakthi says, is reproduced through generations.
So is the cultural obsession with success.
âTsuet-Cheng is working hard to give it family status,â he said. âBut she has to deal with the resulting losses. One of them is an intimate relationship with his son. The other is a false understanding of his family’s past.
âI feel like the worst thing that can happen to middle-class Asian families is shame. Overall, we build strong communities. But we pretend our families are great – and don’t like it when something happens to fight that.
Chia, who speaks to me from Singapore with her toddler on her lap, has had classical training in dizi, an ancient Chinese flute. Music in to stay, he says, carries parts of the story that exist beyond words.
âWe are looking at the idea of ââthe pressure we put in society on children, the way family bonds are formed and broken,â he says. âWe build on what we’ve been through here in Singapore. “
To stay, he says, was inspired by an array of musical lineages – from Indonesian and North Indian to Chinese and indigenous.
âWe looked at the ancestry, the legacy of how music can [point to] what’s in the stars, âsays Chia. “We wanted to talk about the connections between people and the land, the shared history between Australia and Singapore.”
When Chia and Tse, who are married, were working on to stay, the east coast of Australia was on fire.
âWe built that into the work,â he says. âWe draw parallels with the burning of effigies here in the Chinese tradition. “
Shakthi says that when researching the show, he was supported by the deep relationships that once existed between Chinese and Indigenous people.
âThe solidarity that emerges in to stay between a Singaporean woman, a Maltese-Anglo farmer and a returning aboriginal woman is one that exists in society, on the streets, âhe says. “But it’s not recognized or celebrated enough in our public lives.”
To stay’s artists dance, play and play music. The shapes blend into each other, reflecting how our present lives are shaped by those that came before us.
“To stay is about a feeling of love between people, of those you haven’t met but who in some ways loved you, âsays Chia. “We must remember that we are not alone – that our entire lineage of ancestors is watching us.”
For Shakthi, art, like life, is a lesson in transformation.
âIt’s about the idea of ââpeople coming together to make sense of the world, to be in a sacred space,â he smiles. “In to stay, a drummer becomes a son, a dancer becomes a servant on the farm. When the lights come on and the show begins, anything can happen.
to stay will premiere at the Sydney Festival on January 9 and run until January 16.
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