GUEST WRITER LAUREN CARROLL HARRIS DISCUSSES RELIGION, RITUAL AND A NEW THEATRE WORK WITH THEATRE MAKER DAVID WILLIAMS.
Australian playwright David Williams’ unconventional theatre work, Quiet Faith, gets to the heart of many things – religion, belonging, community, conflicted loyalties and Christian Australia in its endless variety.
The play, now in its third production after debuting in Adelaide in 2014, takes as its starting point the gulf between the Christianity of Australia’s political leaders and everyday Christians. Years ago, Williams realised that in the public realm, Christianity is often linked to intense conservatism, which didn’t match with the values of his own Christian upbringing.
“I was brought up Anglican. I like the ritual elements,” he says. “I’m sceptical about Immaculate Conception and divinity, but the philosophy is quite a nice one. If only religious leaders lived according to those values a bit more consistently than they have done.”
Williams was struck by the disconnect between the rhetoric coming from political figures who very loudly claimed to speak on behalf of Christians – Scott Morrison and Fred Nile and Tony Abbott – and the Christians he knew personally among colleagues, friends and family, some of whom he describes as “faith-based activists who advocate on behalf of asylum seekers because of their Christian faith. I thought there was a really interesting complexity there.”
Williams says the people we hear in public life identifying as Christians frequently exhibit a particular set of conservative values. “They’re generally unwelcoming, paternalistic, often homophobic, they’re mostly but not exclusively men,” he says. “We don’t hear a lot from Christians who have various types of progressive values. And I thought, maybe I should find those people and talk to them. And maybe those conversations could be the basis of a show. And from that seed, Quiet Faith, the show, began.”
A long process followed of interviewing the everyday Christians whose voices Williams felt were missing from the national conversation, and then scripting their words into a new theatrical structure.
“I spoke to about 20 different people, so as you can imagine, their perspectives on things were quite diverse. They ranged from doctors to social workers, in one case an actor, to explicit political activists. The different political values resonate very strongly. There’s quite an interesting diversity of expressions from people I spoke to. I found it really illuminating.”
The process has generated a 65-minute work full of music and ideas, which Williams calls “very contemporary.” He and another performer – this time, Rose Maher – perform the words of the interviewees to the letter, laced with musical interludes. It’s an intimate setting for a maximum of 85 people at any one time.
The material is personal, far removed the sloganeering of Christian politicians. It opens with the words of a priest: “See, we all have a deep spirituality and a deep longing to find home, whatever that might mean. Yeah. To find home. And some people find it in the church.”
Other voices are doubtful, disappointed, searching, stoic. One is a pastor, one is a Methodist, one is council candidate, another a musician.
Williams describes the play “as a fully immersive experience.” Rather than sitting on the outside looking in through a fourth wall, “the audience sits within the set, which is a beautiful installation by designer Jonathon Oxlade, a series of custom-made timber benches in three concentric circles on a large disc of red carpet. The performers work around the audience and we talk to the audience in a conversational way. It’s a short show but there’s a lot of space in it, there’s a lot of quietness. A number of aspects of it are inspired by the structures and rituals of a church service.”
It also features popular hymns such as Amazing Grace but despite the singing and the tranquil atmosphere, Williams is clear that the work is not a church experience: “It’s absolutely still a piece of theatre.”
The Guardian called the first production a “subtly devised” and “reverent” piece whose many “characters blend into Australia.” Indeed, Quiet Faith functions more as an open space for an unfinished, public conversation than a regular stage play.
Williams left traditional stage plays behind long ago, having worked for 10 years in the realm of what he calls documentary theatre. “The theatre that I make is based on the lives of real people and real stories,” he says. “It’s most often made through talking to people and recorded interviews. And of course the stories are real and the people are real and it’s based on real events, but as soon as you put something into a theatre context, you transform it in some way. That’s not to say it’s not truthful. [But] there’s a frame placed around these stories.
“These are absolutely the things I’ve been told by people, and I’ve shaped their words into something that is more than what they were originally, I’ve put them into a context which they themselves wouldn’t necessarily do, and woven together various perspectives to create an experience for an audience.”
William’s previous shows include Smurf in Wanderland, a co-production between Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta and Griffin Theatre Company, and Grace Under Pressure at the Seymour Centre. His respectful shaping of other people’s words and finding new ways to write theatre has led to Helpmann, Green Room and Drovers awards.
The new production of Quiet Faith in the heart of Parramatta – one of Australia’s most culturally and ethnically varied areas – will give the show a new life and new context. It’s also a deeply religious area, and a quarter of its residents are part of non-Christian faiths. As before, audiences will have complex and different responses to the work, depending on their own relationship with religious institutions.
“I was born in Parramatta, I grew up in the area,” Williams says. “I think it’s going to be a really fascinating work to do here. The audiences for Quiet Faith have always been multi-denominational and will continue to be in Parramatta. There’s a real diversity of perspectives in the area. Some of the stories in the show are from people who live in that area and will probably come and see the show.”
“Quiet Faith speaks to a range of faith perspectives,” says Williams. “Agnostics and atheists too. I don’t think you need to be a believer to enjoy this work. While I was brought up as a believer, I was brought up going to church, I’m not personally a believer now.”
“The work I make is about trying to understand in some way the people in my life, my parents, my place in the world, so a part of Quiet Faith is to understand their perspectives. My capacity to listen and contemplate different perspectives shifted making the show.
“It’s a project where some of the stories are not earth-shattering, in some ways, they’re about ordinary things in people’s lives. A lot of the content could be seen as pretty everyday, but there’s a great beauty to the way in which these stories are expressed. It’s not the show that I expected I might make, but it’s a show I’m very proud of.”
Written by Lauren Carroll Harris and originally published on Audrey Journal
Quiet Faith plays at Riverside from April 26-28, 2018