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Resilience: conferences and thrift shops

People can be adaptable and imaginative, generating something out of nothing…or not.

Killing time before boarding the bus home from Toowoomba, I was perusing the contents of the ADRA* thrift shop. One of the volunteers was an older man sharing his philosophies with the room. ‘And what about the soldiers who serve overseas, giving everything for their country - when they come home what do they have? Nothing!’. He was making a point about migration. As I understand and observe the world he was completely wrong, but the love of country he expressed and the sourness of his ruminations were entirely real.

The night before I had given my very first academic paper to a small group of theatre academics at the ADSA* Conference at the University of Southern Queensland. The conference theme of resilience was a very neat fit for my paper about writing my family memoir, ‘The Pleasure of Sad Songs’. The speech went well, tightly packed with the fruits of my reading and I had the joy of closing with ‘Small Blessings’ accompanied by USQ students and staff on piano and BVs, because Helen Russell teaches there now. They call their a’capella group ‘Harmony Wednesdays’ and it’s a sweet blend on Helen’s arrangements: a great example of making something wonderful out of imagination, skill and clear air.

I also got to attend a few of the conference sessions on the day. In one there was a cracking discussion of the events that ultimately led to the closing of an arts faculty in a university. How management had threatened and cajoled the teaching staff adding insult to injury by re-naming compliance as ‘resilience’. The university ultimately increased management positions by 100 even as they shed the same number of teachers. The speaker called on the people in the room to let go of any preciousness about their arts practice. She pointed out that theatre was actually dispensable, not sacred, and that people for whom it is a vocation and a joy will have to think and act strategically in the face of the utilitarian policies that drive decisions in the brave new world of education. This mature woman, eschewing illusion, embracing creativity, arguing for her vision – I found her impressive.

What struck me as I sat in the bus coming down the range was this: the man in the shop was full of anger and dissatisfaction, and his story was a way for him to understand that, with heroes and villains and forces larger than himself to explain his circumstances; but the woman who spoke so well at the conference could reveal her vulnerabilities, her awareness had grown through opportunities to test her beliefs, to fight for her values. Maybe self-awareness won’t save me from big historical movements, but through reflection I can be my own best friend, interpreting my circumstances, holding on to my personal power, critically approaching what I give and take in the world.

I have mixed feelings about the benefits of strong belief, but ADRA is run by the Seventh Day Adventists to deliver good works and that was a great shop – a real community hub. Meanwhile despite the strong beliefs that artists have, arts faculties are increasingly under siege. Maybe artists can reach out and find new roles to play, new ways to provide new benefits to the community? Maybe we can become more resilient, as I understand the meaning of the word.

*ADRA: The Adventist Development and Relief Agency International

*ADSA: The Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies

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