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Homelessness on the stage: Milk Crate Theatre

Milkcrate_CraigMilk Crate Theatre gets professional actors and homeless people working closely, telling stories of street life and giving those less fortunate a creative space they can truly call home, writes M.E Bell.

10 October 2010

“That doth sustain my house.. you take my life.. When you do take the means whereby I live.” said old Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It’s a fitting statement for anyone living on the street, for those with no job, no money and no home. And even 400 years since this line was penned by Shakespeare, the devastating plight of the homeless continues.

On any given night, about 100,000 men, women and children are sleeping rough in Australia’s major capital cities, along with an increasing number of homeless youth and elderly, arguably our most vulnerable and most weak – which continue to be ignored.

One group, however, is giving Sydney’s homeless population fresh hope. Milk Crate Theatre, the only Australian theatre company to work with the homeless and disadvantaged, sees professional actors and participants work closely – telling stories of street life and giving those less fortunate a creative space they can truly call home.

Maurie Barlin, Milk Crate’s MC and a drama teacher with Darlinghurst Theatre Company, says the idea for Milk Crate originated several years ago when the local council wanted to do something with theatre and the homeless community. As one of Milk Crate’s founding members, Barlin has been part of the project from the beginning, some 11 years ago.

Milkcrate_Beck“My role in the Milk Crate Forum Shows is to play the Joker, to narrate, move the story along, make key points and comment on what may be unfair,” he says.

“I facilitate between the audience and the participants on what should happen.”

And, he adds, the Forum Shows and the theatre workshops create the perfect scene for amateur actors to develop the skills they need to build confidence and perform.

“The shows often have a lot of yelling, arguing, and conflict, which in many ways mirrors real life for the participants – whether or they are being kicked out of a service or having some other traumatic experience. Here they can tell their experiences and they can do it with anonymity.”

Many of Milk Crate’s participants, Barlin says, are found to dwell in and around Sydney’s urban fringes and like many of the homeless, they have experienced a lot of social problems. Some suffer mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction. Others are fleeing sexual abuse or family violence or have endured a relationship or marriage breakdown.

But he is keen to point out that while acting can be a cathartic experience, the purpose of Milk Crate has always been – theatre – not therapy. But theatre also can have a therapeutic flow-on effect for homeless people in healing personal wounds.

“We don’t do therapy, we do theatre,” he explains. “There’s a therapeutic byproduct – the catharsis of creativity. Sometimes it’s their story or a moment that matches their angst, their oppression. Sometimes it’s a case of merely seeing their story expressed up on stage and not on Neighbours or Home and Away – where it’s not their issue.”

Despite the obvious deep commitment of professional actors involved in the Milk Crate project, they can still face challenges when, over long periods of rehearsal, illness rears its head.Barlin explains that sometimes, as art imitates life, the overwhelming confrontation of theatre can sometimes be too much to bear.

“Acting can bring up some of the issues we’re dealing with and we work with them as best as possible,” he says. “We are dealing with some people who have had fucking terrible lives.

“We are not psychologists or skilled in these areas. We just address these challenges as they come up.”

Milkcrate_AllstarsThe idea of using theatre to explore homelessness is not entirely new, but a concept Milk Crate inherited from a British cousin. Established in 1991, Cardboard Citizens became England’s first professional theatre company to work with people who are or once were, homeless.

And the enormity of the project’s success speaks for itself – even the likes of Titanic superstar Kate Winslet signing on as Cardboard Citizen ambassador.

Clearly, Milk Crate Theatre and Cardboard Citizens are onto something, even if it’s only to find a creative way to address a huge problem and help participants take steps towards breaking the cycle of homelessness.

For good or ill participants are benefiting from the project.

As Barlin explains, Milk Crate is proving to be more than a creative collaboration of actors, artists and participants. It’s a community that promotes inclusivity and interaction, signaling a sharp break with the alienation and misery that characterises life on the street.

“It has created a community we didn’t think about or set out to create but it’s a natural byproduct of what Milk Crate is,” he says. “And we want people from outside the community to come in and see it for themselves, to demystify it.”

Visit Milk Crate Theatre’s website for more information and for details on upcoming performances.

M.E. Bell is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia.

Images from top: Actor Craig Meneaud and Maurie Barlin - photo by Brad and Elyse Patten; Milkcreate Theatre Director Beck Ronkson with the Milk Crate Theatre Allstars - photo by Heidrun Lohr; Out West Allstars - photo by Jean Pierre Bratanoff-Firgoff.




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