This weekend, Performing Lines and PICA are presenting ‘Trigger Warning’ – a new “part noise concert, part improvised performance” based on the true experiences of a woman who was displaced from her home by the Balkan war. The work deals with issues of trauma, PTSD and the impact of war and violence on women and refugees by asking the question: What’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you? Ruth Thomas speaks to writer/director Sally Richardson ahead of the August 19 premiere.

Trigger Warning is described as a “fearless new sonic study into the mind and body of a woman who survived the horrors of war”. How did you decide on this concept?

I always create works about things that matter to me; things that I care about. It is about creating a space where the voices of women are heard. I also feel that it is important to reflect upon our experiences. When reading the paper or watching TV, I don’t think you can avoid the dreadful things that are happening in our world. There’s an increasing sense of violence – affecting women and particularly vulnerable people, including refugees, people in detention centres, displaced people, or individuals closer to home with the case of Jill Meagher in Melbourne.

As an artist, you ask yourself: how can I respond? How do you speak about the unspeakable? How do you reflect this through your artistic practice and comment on these kinds of horrors? I wanted to take what could be the worst thing that could ever happen to you, and then ask “How do you survive that?” For the character in Trigger Warning, it’s the complete loss of her family.

August-18-Interview-im2Trigger Warning intends to encourage debate about the social issues of trauma, violence, and their impact on vulnerable women. Beyond awareness and dialogue, are you hoping to see other changes?

We can’t become complacent or accepting of behavior that we don’t agree with. We have to keep activating and putting these issues in people’s consciousness, and the Arts has the potential to raise that awareness. I think that in art, we have to continue the conversation that starts in the world. It’s very difficult for artists to say “my work is going to change the world”; but what we’re trying to do is privilege the voice of women, who are the victims of war, as are families and children.

These are highly political issues at the moment that your show engages, particularly with the recent announcement of the closure of the Manus Island detention centre, and the very visible protests that have been taking place all over the country. How does Trigger Warning fit into this political debate?

The character in Trigger Warning talks about losing her home – she says “I just want to go home, I’m waiting to go home”. But she doesn’t have a home anymore, and that’s part of the metaphorical journey that everyone understands. If you go, “Well what would it be like for me to lose my home? What if my family was under threat? What is it like to love someone and lose them?” These are huge questions most people don’t ever have to consider – or maybe don’t want to consider – when thinking about displaced people. But it’s happening. It makes strong contrast to the very specific way displaced people are presented and talked about in the media, where they become “a person from Syria” – which just means they’re foreign. There are now more displaced people in the world than there have ever been – 65 million people who don’t have a home. It’s important to think about them.

A lot of your previous work deals quite explicitly with Australian stories. Is Trigger Warning telling an Australian story too, or is it more universal?

It’s an Australian story, drawn from a friend of mine who is a refugee from the Balkan war. She has been in Australia for 20 years now. Australian stories don’t have to be about bushrangers or explorers or middle class people who live in suburbs. There are lots and lots of Australians who aren’t from here originally who have stories to tell about their lives and their experiences. Our society has shifted and changed and though many of us came here as refugees and displaced people at some point, not that many people like to consider that. But at the moment it’s a global issue, which does make the show’s themes universal.

Do you think that artists have a social responsibility?

Art can actually shift our perspectives, but this isn’t something any artist is able to control, or insist that art is always about the message.

Trigger Warning is not trying to be confrontational or in people’s faces – it’s going: “We care about these things, we feel these things, what can we do?” If we continue to voice opposition to certain policies or attitude, then governments and people with power will listen. If we’rAugust-18-Interview-im3e silent then we’re effectively agreeing. We just have to continue with the various kinds of framing and protest available to us.

But there’s also a raw beauty to what we’re doing. We’re not just relaying verbatim the stories of people who have suffered – we’re trying to also generate a different sensibility around it through experimentation with different forms.

Your team in Trigger Warning is predominantly female (5 out of 6) – was that intentional?  

We are telling the stories of women, and I think it’s important that our perspective be spoken in our own voices – especially given there isn’t yet gender equity in most parts of our society. I do think that women create material differently as artists, and that’s a good thing. It was great to have that opportunity to privilege a female voice in this instance, because that’s the story I want to tell. But I didn’t so much consider whether my team were all women or not; it’s more that they are the artists I want to work with.

Trigger Warning is in part a noise concert. Do you think it’s still accessible for those not into this kind of experimental music genre?

Trigger Warning is a blend of elements, with theatre and solo monologues. It’s not just [composer] Cat Hope on the double bass screaming for an hour. Sometimes there are certain sounds that are absolutely right for expressing an idea. We’re doing a lot of stuff with replay, which is how people experience trauma – people go back again and again to the same moment in time, so we’ve really recreated that using looping effects. I think noise also best expresses the level of rage that the character feels at key points in the work.

This work is being presented at PICA, which is a space for innovation and experimentation in art. I think that our audience is connected with that and interested.

Interview by Ruth Thomas

‘Trigger Warning’ runs this Friday and Saturday (August 19-20) starting 8PM at the PICA Performance Space, Northbridge. Tickets available here.