Since the Big West Festival came into being in 1997, the diverse community of Melbourne’s west that it celebrates has undergone a number of both overt and subtle metamorphoses. The decades have seen the migrant groups come in waves – the post-war Europeans, the Vietnamese, the East Africans – and now we’re seeing slick cafes appear, restaurants become destination points and savvy professionals buying up investment properties.

It’s a distinct culture of acceptance and the willingness to embrace change that informs this year’s overarching theme of “construction”. With an ambitious 10-day program, the biennial festival celebrates nine years of being with 65 mainly free events held across two hubs – the Footscray Community Arts Centre and The Substation in Newport – plus a combination of traditional performance venues and previously under utilised spaces throughout the west.

Beyond the constantly evolving skyline, the premise of the ‘construction’ theme is the building of new relationships and the convergence of disparate perspectives in pursuit of mutual understanding, as achieved through direct engagement with local groups and community members. The resulting projects are as diverse as a 200-strong flash mob dubbed Dance Republic; a literal tapestry of local iconography weaved by artist Jessie Deane; and the illumination of public gardens with hand-painted images by ArtLife, a collective of artists, some with disabilities.

This year Marcia Ferguson joins the festival as artistic director following over a decade as a freelance director and artistic associate with Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre company, of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich fame. Informed by her theatre background, Ferguson sees live performance as central to the festival, stating that, “it was through early conversations with involved performance artists that I came to define the theme and true heart of Big West. The people of the west hold so many stories and without an outlet, where do those stories go?”

She shares her selection of the top five events from the brimming program:

Albinos
Written and performed in the native Ethiopian language of writer and director Tesfaye Gebrehana (with English subtitles), whose work regularly draws crowds of 2000 people a night in his home country, Albinos follows the migration experiences of three families as they adjust to life in the west.
Thursday November 28 and Friday November 29, $20, Flemington Community Centre

PUBLIC
Highpoint Shopping Centre’s food court becomes the unlikely set for a site-specific sound performance in which (thanks to cleverly concealed microphones) actors converge and emerge from audience members, who are at once isolated and enveloped by the piece.
Friday November 22 to Sunday December 1, $15-$25, Highpoint Shopping Centre

Stray
The journey of a dog lost in the west becomes a metaphor for the uncertain lives of many of the area’s inhabitants in writer Rosemary Johns’ affecting work of spoken word and physical theatre. With drug references and frequent coarse language, this one’s for grownup animal lovers.
Wednesday November 27 to Saturday November 30, $20-$25, The Substation

It felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now
One of very few existing public documents about the confronting issue of human sex trafficking, this English play by Gorkem Acaroglu was selected for the festival for it’s cultural resonance with the west’s large Vietnamese and Chinese communities.
Saturday November 23 to Saturday November 30, $15-$20, Big West Festival Space

Fate
An exploration of choice, destiny and gambling, both literal and metaphorical, as told through music, movement and comedy. A collaboration between the Flemington Theatre Group and hip-hop choir Massive, Fate initially came about as a response to the pervasive social issue of gambling in the community of Braybrook, which suffers the highest rates of pokies debt in the country.
Thursday November 28 to Saturday November 30, $10-$15, Footscray Community Arts Centre

Big West Festival runs from November 22 to December 1, across various venues. For more information visit bigwest.com.au