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Speak Easy

Wednesday 1 March 2017

There must have been a bit of a southerly blowing on Sunday afternoon, because the sound of a woman’s voice carried clearly down from Domain Stadium half a mile away to the back yard of the house where I'm staying. The voice was Adele’s. It rolled over the lemon tree, broke in great waves on the back wall, saturated the suburb. West Perth became the Adele Sea. You couldn't help but listen. She could shift the Lancelin Dunes with a ‘Hello’.

But on the spectrum of audible voices, from rabbit to Adele (she's up there with the blue whale), a lot goes unheard or unlistened to, particularly the voices of children, who rarely get a word in on the ‘big’ subjects that occupy the news media. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 states that children have the right to express their views and to have them taken seriously according to their age and maturity. This has been the most challenging provision to implement, according to Save the Children, and the reasons are largely consistent across cultures: children, it is said, lack knowledge and judgement, they can’t bear the burden of participation, it may put them at risk, it leads to bad behaviour and disrespect for their elders and betters.


Article 12 is a fundamental right, and rights cannot be claimed without a voice. ‘The right to be heard applies to every aspect of a child’s life – at home, in school, in healthcare, in play and leisure, in the media, in the courts, in local communities, and in local and national policy-making, as well as at the international level.’

The absence of this right, indeed the absence of the children themselves who were denied it during the Holocaust, is stark and palpable in the first part of Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7. There the performers, with a few strokes of black paint on cardboard, a few pairs of spectacles, and many small pairs of empty shoes, conjure a class of Jewish children. They’re all faceless, silent and still, apart from one cardboard child, which raises a thin paper arm and hesitantly takes the hand of an adult.

Curated by Kids 

But into that silence, and many other contemporary spaces, PIAF has poured a new generation of children’s voices, and they’ve shifted the register of the Festival towards what matters to them. From the claiming of totem species by school children in the Boorna Waanginy ‘Seeds of Change’ project to the public events and probing author interviews led by children at the Curated by Kids events during the Perth Writers Festival, small voices are making big waves, giving us pause, making us laugh and cry and see the world through fresh eyes.

Alex Desebrock’s Small Voices Louder, a participatory installation for children only, has broadcast their observations at the State Theatre Centre, the Writers Festival and online, which means adults can listen in on some fundamental youthful pondering while going about their own obscure business. ‘I think the future will be better because people will realise what they're doing wrong. And change it’. That makes you pause in passing. Will they? When? We seem to forget what we’ve done as soon as we’ve done it. Adults are like the goldfish to which the children offer advice at Desebrock’s invitation, mindful of its chronic short-term memory problems: ‘Fish, please don’t forget what we’re saying to you’.

Small Voices Louder

Fish, like adults, could do with a better world, but they’re unlikely to bring it about by acts of spontaneous and collaborative imagination. To relearn that capacity we need children. ‘Children don’t understand what the real world’s like’, one of them acknowledges, ‘but they want to create it better’. And so they do, with play, immediacy, presence and an undaunted sense of the possible. Their minds and bodies are still fully engaged with the world at hand and with their agency in it. But ‘when you’re an adult’, one of them notes, ‘the brain gets overtaken by information and the imagination is left away, and it’s gone’. And that leads in only one direction, and it’s not a good one: ‘I don’t want to be old and weird like Donald Trump’.

Though they will, they agree, ‘definitely’ be taller in the future, will they have the confidence to speak up and out across communities, cultures, conflicts? When a newborn child’s voice is heard for the first time among the Athabaskan people of Alaska, they simply ask, ‘Who has come?’ What is the potential of this being and how can it be expressed?

The Manganiyar Classroom

The Manganiyar Classroom, an Indian music/theatre work by Roysten Abel, is making its first international appearance in Perth this week, with a company of one adult and 30 excited boys aged nine to 14. All are singers, inheritors of the folk tradition of the Manganiyars of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert. Though the Manganiyars are Muslim, they sing songs in praise of Sufi saints and the Hindu god Krishna. It doesn't cause problems; it’s just what they do.

Inua Ellams’ An Evening with an Immigrant leads audiences through the artist’s childhood in Nigeria before his family’s flight from their homeland following death threats by extremists opposed to his parents’ interfaith marriage. ‘I thought the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and Jesus Christ were friends, and they used to hang out’. Well, they hung out in Syria too, in the old Homs of architect and writer Marwa al-Sabouni’s youth, where mosque and church stood face to face and back to back until sectarianism drove its wedge of violence between them.

Al-Sabouni delivered the closing address at the Perth Writers Festival on Sunday. Her children, nine and 12, have stayed in Homs throughout the war and have seen the devastation of people and places. Their resilience and capacity for play have strengthened her conviction that children, like adults, take on the ethos of their built environment. Give them places to meet and mingle, faith to faith and hand to hand, and they’ll do it, and, hopefully, remember how it’s done.

The Swimmers' Manifesto

Children learn with their whole bodies. The Manganiyar Classroom gives voice to the children not only as professional singers, but also as vocal critics of an education system that neglects their embodied tradition and potential in favour of a frayed cookie-cutter curriculum. Let us learn by singing, they insist. The Manganiyar Classroom is a treatise based on tolerance and celebration made manifest in those who know best how to express it. The Swimmers’ Manifesto, part of Amy Sharrock’s Museum of Water project, comes from the same source. The Museum collection began at PIAF 2017 and will continue in its poignant, playful work of gathering bottles and stories of water across WA throughout the coming years. On a brilliant morning at Cottesloe Beach last week, children stood up among adult speakers to deliver their mini-manifestos on the joy and value of swimming. When you swim with stingrays, one pointed out, ‘they’re always waving to you’. These kids swim because they can, because the water holds them up, offering new movements to mind and body, new worlds in which they really can fly the way they do in their dreams. And giving them the chance to talk about their love of water is also allowing them to rehearse the values that will influence their behaviour towards it forever. If a child tells me he’s never happier than when he’s swimming in a clean sea, am I more or less likely to dump my plastic water bottle in it?

In their direct relationship with water, children are citizen scientists, free from research protocols and institutional censorship. Water is life, just as they say. It is the blood of the earth. It is ‘wobbly and floaty’. Unicorns probably definitely do drink water and lemonade. These thoughts on water were written on origami boats and launched on the Reflection Pond at UWA in a collaboration between Westerly and the Museum of Water.

The Westerly Festival Poem

‘I wish that you could go back home and the wetland would be perfect’, says one girl to the goldfish in Small Voices Louder, remaking the Beeliar Wetlands in her mind as a place of biodiversity and interfish harmony. It’s not a childish dream. It’s a child’s one. And we too were kids. Kids are us. The goldfish does another round of the tank. A child taps on the glass: ‘one, two, three … you forgot me’.

If we listen to what children have to say, we might remember that we once knew these things too. If we remember, we might act. If we act together, who knows, things just might go swimmingly.

Festival Navigator

Written By Ruth Little

Theatre and dance dramaturg, teacher, writer, and PIAF’s unofficial philosopher-in-residence, Ruth Little has spent much of her life curating, developing and writing about art and live performance across the world. Join Ruth in her role as Festival Navigator as she explores our program in all its multi-faceted glory.   

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