Ruth is different to other girls her age. The teenager might adore her closest friends and dream of owning a kitten, but she’s also fending off a dangerous trifecta: a mother who attracts violent boyfriends, an increasingly volatile living situation and a growing tendency to hear voices in her head. But when Ruth moves into community housing, a startling episode with a pair of scissors means she risks ending up on the streets, her shiny new slate making way for destructive cycle with little hope of relief.
Although Ruth is a character in Full Circle, a recent production by Milk Crate Theatre, her reality is anything but fictional. The inventive Darlinghurst theatre company has a knack for shining a narrative light on dark social experiences, thanks to an artistic ensemble whose real-life history living through such issues imbues every performance with a gripping authenticity.
“I first experienced theatre that addressed social inclusion in the UK, when I stumbled upon a company called Chicken Shed,” says Milk Crate’s artistic director Maree Freeman, a NIDA graduate who previously headed up an educational theatre company in Newcastle. “I joined Milk Crate at the end of 2010. I found that it shared that same sense of realness and social justice.”
Freeman isn’t exaggerating. Milk Crate, which began as an initiative between the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Wesley Mission and South Sydney Council, has spent the last 13 years uncovering the nuances of a spectrum of issues – everything from homelessness, isolation and depression to anger management, addiction and intimacy fears. More importantly, it uses the stage as a tool for social change via community workshops held across the city and innovative performance models that see audience members steer a character’s course.
“I think theatre should be transformative for those who make it as well as those who experience it,” she says. “The people who are making work with Milk Crate bring their lived experiences to the work. The audiences transform the ensemble’s ideas. Being a part of the show helps people engage with those issues on a different scale.”
However, Milk Crate owes its stories to a band of actors and playwrights whose insight shapes its creative process. “In the case of Full Circle, I worked with two playwrights who offered their experiences with mental health and the things that they’ve seen or heard about,” she explains.
“The idea of psychosis landed as a theme. We thought it would be a really great angle for the show if we tried to break down some of that fear and examine exactly what the reasons for that are – how people encounter psychosis and how that relates to their stability, experience in the community and housing.”
For Freeman, complex material and a speedy production process only spark new ways to push aesthetic boundaries.
“The artistic process is one that thrives on challenges,” she says. “We make a new work, starting from nothing and going all the way to performance in the space of about eight weeks. So it’s a really fast process. And I think the challenge in that also represents a really wonderful opportunity.”