Dr Sarah Woodland: 'Social justice is a connective tissue in my applied theatre work'

Dr Sarah Woodland. Image by Giulia McGauran.
Dr Sarah Woodland. Image by Giulia McGauran.

In her role as Dean's Research Fellow in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Dr Sarah Woodland leads a portfolio of research entitled 'Performing Justice: Arts-Led Approaches to Cultural Rights and Wellbeing in Prison.' Here, she discusses her work in applied theatre and participatory art, including a new project with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company.

By Thuy On

A researcher, practitioner and educator in applied theatre and participatory arts, Dr Sarah Woodland is a Dean's Research Fellow in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne. I’m interested in this trajectory and where it started.

“My mum and maternal grandfather were both interested in amateur theatre and the arts in general,” Woodland explains. “I was born in South Africa, where they lived and where I spent time as a small child, and was exposed to the pointy end of social inequality and oppression.

“My family were not exempt in perpetuating Apartheid but they were resistant too. My grandfather did some activist work to address some of the injustice, particularly within the Jewish community. On the other side, my father was a musician and his ancestors came from a tough farming background in Australia. So, I guess I’ve inherited a mix of influences but social consciousness and the arts have always run in my family.”

Woodland has amassed more than 25 years’ experience working in Australia and the UK, with research focusing on communities from diverse social and cultural backgrounds and those within the criminal justice system.

“I did an undergraduate theatre degree many moons ago,’ she says. “It was a broad drama degree that encompassed many different aspects of being a theatre practitioner.”

Woodland is particularly fascinated by the ways in which theatre can make a difference through education, community engagement and connection with social justice issues – although, she herself resisted the desire to act on stage. “I very quickly deviated from the idea of wanting to be under the lights with the jazz hands,” she says, laughing.

“After my degree at QUT, a group of us started a theatre company called Big Toe. We identified a need in the community in the Sunshine Coast to address the high levels of youth suicide.”

It was a bravura turn by a group of idealistic twenty-something artists, full of energy and vim. “You know, we really thought we were going to change the world. We went there from Brisbane and started doing educational and community-based theatre for young people.”

Currently, Woodland is working in partnership with Melbourne-based ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, which has a social impact stream. ILBIJERRI’s social impact performances fall under the banner of THE (Theatre in Health Education), a global collection of practices using theatre to address health issues, with these often focused on sexual health.

The company has a 16-year history of producing THE works in response to challenges facing First Nations communities, which are then presented in prisons, schools, rehabilitation centres and health and community centres. “ILBIJERRI has a series of performances that they’ve done over a number of years—one of these is called Viral,” says Woodland. “They find out the facts about a particular health concern by consulting with an advisory group and other stakeholders. After making theatre, taking it out to communities and presenting it, a yarning circle is set up to unpack the issues with the audience.”

“That’s the current model used for ILBIJERRI’s social impact works anyway. One of ILBIJERRI’s lead artists, writer and producer Kamarra Bell-Wykes, has a new vision to make the process more interactive and dynamic. So instead of fly-in, fly-out theatre performances it’s about the participatory approach, working on the ground with communities to make the performance from scratch. The latest work, commissioned by DHHS, is a work around STIs for young First Nations communities, and the idea is to work with the community to embed their own experiences into the performance.”

Enabling First Nations peoples to take ownership of the stories on show is potentially a far more effective way of approaching this kind of health messaging. “It’s more holistic in the way that it encapsulates experiences taken from the targeted communities,” says Woodland. “There’s an inter-generational factor too; it’s good practice to engage with Elders so they will be involved as well and to facilitate a passing on of knowledge between generations.”

The project is called Stigma Stories because there can be shame dealing with such sensitive topics but Woodland commends her colleague’s approach. “There’s a real reluctance to talk about STIs, but Kamarra is working with people to maintain a sense of resilience in dealing with what could really be difficult stories. They find out the facts about a particular health concern by consulting with an advisory group and other stakeholders. ILBIJERRI’s previous works (such as those dealing with Hepatitis C and domestic violence) have been extremely successful in creating a place where people can talk safely. After the play and during the yarning circle, there’s a sense of relief to talk about these issues.”

There are also plans to establish a “Social Impact Ensemble”, a core group of young First Nations artists with transferable skills, trained and supported to deliver health messages in a dramatic setting. The aim of developing a best practice model for community-engaged transformative health education through theatre is itself widely collaborative, with the research to be delivered in partnership between ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, and other stakeholders such as the DHHS and VACCHO.

Aside from theatre-based works, Dr Woodland is also involved with a project called Listening to Country, employing “acoustic ecology”  to promote cultural connection and wellbeing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison. But what exactly does “acoustic ecology" mean?

“It’s not my discipline but one of my colleague’s, Leah Barclay, who I collaborated with on Listen to Country. It’s about the how the soundscapes we hear in the natural environment tell us about the health of the environment. Soundscapes in a forest for instance, can tell us if the ecology there is functioning well. And likewise, environmental soundscapes, natural or otherwise, can have an impact on the wellbeing of people.

“First Nations peoples’ understanding of Country and the idea of wellbeing are inextricably tied to the wellbeing of Country. This project is about exploring these soundscapes, how that impacts on people for instance, who are in prison or institutions away from Country”, says Dr Woodland.

In early 2019, an interdisciplinary team of researchers worked with women in Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre to produce a one-hour immersive audio work based on field recordings. “It’s was a collaboration with First Nations artists and Elders and my colleagues Bianca Beetson and Vicki Saunders as well as Leah. We did a pilot where we worked in a prison with the women to make soundscapes based on recordings of the natural environment. We worked to identify places that made the women feel a sense of belonging so we can then make recordings in those places and then bring them back in for relaxation and connection.

"It’s certainly for stress relief but for First Nations people there’s also a spiritual connection. That was the pilot program but there’s potential for other institutional places and community settings to explore the interaction between acoustic ecology, Country and creative practice.”

Woodland’s various projects may seem disparate but there’s a coherent narrative in her research interests. “Sometimes I feel as though I jump around different things but when I stand back I can see social justice and consciousness as a connective tissue.

“I want to stress the collaborative nature of all my work; there’s productive tension, sure, and creative differences, but applied theatre, educational theatre and community theatre are dependent on different people bringing knowledge and ideas together.”