art and social change
donna jackon

How much of a role can art and the creative process play in not only fostering greater understanding but a broader and deeper connection to an issue that has collectively help shape our national identity? Art and Social Change- Dust: a case study, is a book written by Dr Donna Jackson, who was driven by a desire to  “create a much-needed resource that captured her approach to influence social change” The process saw Jackson engage with over 425 participants as part of a large scale arts project that focused on asbestos, a material that was widely used in Australia until the 1980’s, but one which has left a devastating legacy, still felt and survived by many.

Do you have any personal connection to the subject matter that you led you to researching it through this case study?
I was directing a theatre show about the building industry in 2006 called ‘We Built This City’ and in this process I met a bricklayer named Ron Patton. He told me he had been to 6 funerals in 6 months for other building workers who had died. They had become sick from exposure to asbestos at work. So I did some research and I found out that many other people were getting sick too. Sometimes people in their 30’s who had been exposed when their parents were renovating when they were children. It can be as easy as being around while an old asbestos shed is being knocked down to breath in an asbestos fibre.

Ron invited me to the 2006 Asbestos Memorial Service, which is held once a year in November in the Edge theatre at Federation Square, alongside the Yarra River in the centre of Melbourne. I went to the service with my friend, composer and songwriter Mark Seymour. He had written the music and performed in We Built This City and accompanied me to see if the issue of asbestos was something that could be developed into a project structured along similar lines.

The service, led by Bishop Phillip Huggins, was non-denominational and very moving. As a theatre person I admired the skill with which Bishop Huggins acted as the leader and compère for the service. I appreciated the manner in which he led the audience/congregation to be present in the room by inviting people to introduce themselves and shake hands with others seated nearby, which created a personal connection. He used the hour to lead us into a place of sorrow and contemplation where the deaths from exposure to asbestos were acknowledged. He also led a section where people could light a candle or place a flower in a pool of water to remember a family member who had died. Huggins then brought the audience into the present by asking them to join with him to give thanks to all the people who were working to fight this issue. With this there was a feeling of hope and of working for change as a group on this issue rather than being paralysed by grief. This was a memorial service and also a fine piece of theatre that led the audience through the dark into a place of strength.

How vital do you feel is the role art and theatre plays in pushing agenda and asking questions central to Australian society, in past, present and future contexts?

The most important thing to do as a theatre artists is to entertain people and make high quality experiences for audiences. Great theatre had always been about provocative ideas that move society and ideas forward.. look at ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ that is full of very new ideas about relationships and the roles of men and women. I am interested in ideas so I am happy to work in theatre, film and any medium that is useful to communicate an important idea. To push an idea or agenda we can now use the internet and TV to create change as well as theatre.

When creating political theatre, I focus on the experience of the audience going to the theatre rather than the issue. If you are instinctively a political person, as I am, the pull of the issue you want to make the world understand is seductive. But I have learned that I can communicate this more effectively by making stimulating theatre and events. I’ve had to hone my craft to be able to make something as a writer and director that will give people something they can’t get in a screen or online experience.

What have been some of the more startling revelations found through your research?
I was surprised to find out asbestos at different times in Australia’s history was placed in cigarette filters, mattresses, playdough and even on condoms.

What have been some of the greatest or most positive outcomes of this process so far, conversations, or questions that have arisen in direct response?

I was lucky to meet people who were sick with mesothelioma and they were very inspiring because they knew they were nearing death they would still go and lobby politicians for changes to the laws and for compensation. Being near brave people makes you be a braver person I have found.

I was very happy I heard a woman in the audience say in the foyer that her son had just started work as a plumber and she was going home to talk to him about asbestos and not getting exposed.

Has there been any challenges in bridging between academia and arts?
The challenge is to be able to change languages very quickly and to use language that is appropriate for the context you are working in. In both these areas it is useful to have a sense of humour. They also have in common that both the too serious artist and the too serious academic can be a annoying!

What is your hopes for the future of this project?
I hope this book will become the ‘go to’ book for people who want to make political theatre. I also hope some schools will use the book as a resource for lesson plans in drama classes and to create and put on their own theatre shows on the topic of asbestos.

Art and Social Chage- Dust: a case study will launch on Sunday the 19th of June at the Williamstown Literary Festival Hub at Williamstown Town Hall at 6pm for more information on the event click here