I believe that theatre has the ability to touch people, to arouse empathy as well as to effect social and personal change. While legislation and policy change are important civic instruments, perhaps theatre is more powerful, better at engendering and cultivating a living, breathing culture of human rights.
Ros Horin has worked as a professional theatre director for more than 30 years. Always interested in women’s issues and cultural diversity, from 1992 until 2003 she was Artistic Director at Griffin Theatre Company where she was midwife to more than 50 new Australian works and directed more than 30 premiere productions. In 2004 she founded an independent production company, Racing Pulse Productions. She also established Playworks, a women writers’ workshop, to develop more female playwrights in Australia.
Passionate about human rights and contemporary social issues, Ros has married her social engagement with her theatre art and in 2005 this led to a production of Through the Wire, a remarkable play about ordinary Australians and male refugees in detention centres. This was her first play in her own right, and a natural next step was to focus on women’s human rights issues. Research for this project led, bit by bit, to The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe which was performed for the first time in Sydney in 2013.
For her initial research, Ros turned to the NSW Service for Rehabilitation and Treatment of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). There she met with many experts and workers in the field, also many women who had suffered unimaginable violence. The recurring theme in ensuing interviews and discussions with these women was the culture of silence that surrounded the violence and abuse they had suffered, particularly in African Australian communities. ‘Out of the recent arrivals to Australia, we’ve seen very little about Africans on our main stages and in films, let alone anything created by and with African women about their lives,’ said Ros. With this in mind, she developed a script based on workshops she ran with a core group of four African women survivors of violence and trauma. These women together with four African professional artists formed a ‘troupe’ that told the stories of Aminata, Yordy, Yarrie and Rosemary in The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe.
These women had not previously told their stories to anybody, including their own families. For Ros, part of the challenge of working with real survivors of trauma involved building trust and cohesion within the group and supporting the women professionally. Breaking the silence around the shame of sexual violence and telling their stories to Ros and each other required enormous courage. ‘Before I came to Australia, I didn’t know rape was wrong. I thought it was normal,’ said Yordy, formerly a child soldier in Eritrea and now a mother of four. Speaking out publicly and sharing their stories has been a way for them to help other women and girls.
The performance that emerged was life-changing for everyone. It was a journey from trauma to healing and resonated far beyond four individual stories. It is a celebration of women and a triumph of resilience and laughter. Four years on, all four women have been transformed and empowered through the experience. For Ros, it is testament to the healing power of art.
Ros is currently working on a documentary about The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, and she is taking the play to London in 2015 for the WOW Festival (Women of the World), with plans to perform in Africa and New York in the future.
With thanks to Michelle Kotevski and Griffith Review for permission to use information which was previously published in Edition 40: Women & Power.