How it got to this…

Boil the kettle & make a cuppa – here’s a yarn about journeying, change, place – and finding a life’s work in culture making. I’ve lived in Armidale for almost 30 years. It’s a university town set in the high country of New England in Northern New South Wales. The population of the town and district is around 24,000. I have worked for most of that time as a freelance arts practitioner, community artist and arts educator, across disciplines and sectors in the larger north and northwest region. This is the country marked out by Tibooburra, Lismore, Port Macquarie and Coonabarabran.

I was raised in Sydney, the eldest of 4 children to Hungarian, migrant-refugee parents in the housing projects of the Western Suburbs. I was the first in my family to attend university, where I studied theatre and film before moving into the field of the performing arts.

The western suburban Housing Commission estates were pretty much a cultural desert in my youth and my exposure to the arts didn’t come until my late teens. It had been Top 40 pop radio, heavy metal music, garage bands and the occasional trip to the cinema or drive-in. It was mostly cars, the smell of petrol, tinkering with motors and speed and the local pool hall that were my “cultural” life. I harboured a secret passion to become a drag racing driver. The one small exception to this was being dragged in to the annual school variety concert by a wonderful English teacher, Kevin Cork, to fill out the number of boys in the shows. Alongside Mr Cork a number of other inspiring and dedicated teachers worked hard to bring some kind of extra curricular cultural activity into that school environment. As a shy, book reading outsider, this was hugely important to my growth and development.

I was 17 when I saw my first professional theatre production and I was one of the first kids out west in the mid 70’s that joined up with the Q-Theatre’s pilot of outreach drama workshops. Professional city actors trekking out west, passing on their knowledge & experience – at 19 I’d started to think the theatre might be something to do with my life. This was pioneering work in the field of what was to become known as CACD ( Community Arts and Cultural Development). The wonderful Doreen Warburton with Arthur Dicks and Richard Brooks eventually brought the Q out to the west, basing themselves in Penrith and continuing their outreach projects – to give us “Westies” and “Housos” access to and inclusion in the world of theatre arts

That’s how I got my start.

After almost 3 years of Theatre & Film at the University of NSW I then moved into a career in Fringe & Alternative Theatre in Sydney & Melbourne. During my second year I began to perform solo and with others on the streets of Sydney’s CBD. I and my peers were part of the first wave of street performers to regularly work George Street, Circular Quay and Kings Cross – clowning, juggling and fire eating were the basis of my act. Busking, inner city community festivals and the Sydney Festival were to prove a significant training ground and so I never got to finish my tertiary studies – family issues and the imperative to work and gain practical experience took me on a huge journey for the next 10 years. But that education still serves me in good stead to this day.
Producer, director, actor, playwright, technician, puppeteer, teacher of performance & production skills and mentor are a few hats I’ve worn in my first career. As an actor and as crew, I ventured occasionally into film & TV, when I had the opportunity between theatre projects.
I’ve worked, in one capacity or another, on well over 200 live performance events/productions – exploring the gamut of possibilities that the making of theatre in Australia presented in the decade of my apprenticeship.
From busking in the streets of Sydney, stage lighting for club music acts & cabaret shows, outdoor shows & entertainment, freelancing for independent production, directing Shakespeare, teaching in university drama & theatre courses, tutoring in acting schools and generating community theatre, touring NSW & Victoria with theatre productions….
Woven through this, my formative years as an arts practitioner, I was artistic director, co-admistrstor and co-producer for an non-subsidised, self funded theatre company I co-founded in 1982 – Fata Morgana, Melb. These days it would be called an Independent theatre – a rich and exciting enterprise, where I honed my craft. A 24/7 life that let me learn about every aspect of theatre making & production.
In it’s 7 years of operation we produced over 20 shows. I directed 17 of these which included a number of new, ensemble created works.

And from the mid 80’s began my journey towards cultural activism and the work I do today.

I started to ask myself why I was doing this?
And then I was bounced by South African protest theatre of the 1980’s – productions that toured to Australia, born in the Townships of Johannesburg and Capetown, and out of the Anti-Apartheid cause. Taking their message to the world. Using the tools of cultural production to communicate the need for action – expressing the needs of community.

What followed was a long process of inquiry into what the rest of the world was doing with the theatre, what did they want with it? did they need it? how would they use it? I began to get very interested in how the world outside “Showbiz” and professional mainstream arts practice engaged in cultural activity & cultural production.
And this lead me to ask what is it we want/need from the Arts on a societal level.
And so, as soon I started to look at what the rest of the world around me was doing with theatre, performance, the Arts & culture making and the media, my professional life took a 360 degree turn and I began to work as an artist in community.

I soon discovered how much an artist needs to know and be able to do in service to their community, especially in the regions. I soon discovered that I had to be equipped with much more than my theatre experience.
Can you do this? How can we do this? Show me how? Can you teach us how to do this? We were thinking of doing this…….could we do that here?
So my brief is set by what my community, other communities need – I do what they call out of me.
I pursue the skills and methodologies they need, and those I need to be of use – I do my best to share them.
Add to the mix the new media and new technologies, community TV, arts intervention programs with disadvantaged youth & young offenders, commercial & community radio, youth arts projects, collaborations with Aboriginal artists and communities, workshops in High Schools, role play activity at conferences, mentoring young artists, digital story gathering……

And that brings me to Armidale in 2020 and since 2007 operating a solo enterprise  – Social Ventures Media – a 40 year journey…….

To the community-

the tools to make culture,
the means of expression
and access to the media of communication.

With the community –

record and share their stories,
celebrate ordinary lives through culture making.

Cheers,
Laszlo Szabo
Time to boil the kettle again

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