Homeless actors aim to get people talking

Milk Crate Theatre director Mirra Todd.

Milk Crate Theatre
Carriageworks, Sydney
September 13-22
$35, $25

Milk Crate Theatre director Mirra Todd says his main goal is to get people thinking and talking about homelessness.

“All theatre is about starting a conversation,” the wiry, animated Todd tells Green Left at Milk Crate’s rehearsal rooms in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

“That's all we do, we set up the enquiry, 'What are we as a society going to do about this issue?' The aim is that we start the conversation and that the audience finish it on their way home or over the weekend with their friends.”

Todd is talking up Milk Crate’s latest show, Fearless, which aims to get people talking about the effects of loneliness. The theatre company helps homeless people conquer such alienating emotions by teaching them acting skills to help build their confidence and self-esteem.

Since its inception in June 2000, Milk Crate has walked the talk, growing from a shoestring outfit to a strapping success. The company cuts public spending by reducing the use of courts, police and hospitals. Money talks, so it is little surprise that Milk Crate now attracts annual funding of almost half a million dollars.

The organisation has clearly shown it’s not all talk, but conversation is what remains at its core. So what makes theatre a better talking point than, say, film?

“Intimacy," says Todd. “In that room, in that dark space where people can whisper secrets, or scream secrets, you can't pretend you weren't there, a witness to the moment. You can pretend you weren't there at a film, because that's not a conversation, you are passive. So theatre demands your presence and asks, 'What are you now going to do with the information we're sharing with you?'”

The published playwright, who has worked with Actors For Refugees in Melbourne, is a firm believer that Australia needs to develop a culture of conversation.

“Whether it's mental issues, homelessness, asylum seekers, the stolen generation, I think we've got to stop wanting to have quick fix, easy solutions and start having the hard, tough conversations we need to have as a society around critical but complex issues,” he says.

“Because stopping the boats, for example, so as to not have an extra 25 people come onto our shores, is no solution to anything, that's a knee-jerk reaction. Let's talk about such issues, but let's be prepared to have big, long, complicated, complex conversations that will actually move us into an action that's useful. Not a stopgap, just keeping this group over here happy or that group over there happy. 

“It feels like quite often people have an agenda that they want reached, like I want you to agree with my point of view. That's a very different thing than having the real conversation.”

There are more than 100,000 people homeless on any given night in Australia, and Todd feels mental health is being left out of the conversation.

“As a community in Australia I think we need to acknowledge that primarily, the people who end up homeless are people with mental health issues. In Britain it tends to be people who are unemployed and in America it tends to be around ethnicity and the class system. But in Australia if we don't look after people with mental health issues they tend to fall through the cracks and end up on the streets.”

Homelessness Australia, the national peak body working to prevent and respond to homelessness in Australia, says four in 10 homeless Australians are women. Domestic violence is the most often cited reason given by women seeking help from homelessness services. Todd sees it as another mental health issue.

“They're traumatised,” he says. “They're often physically threatened and sexually abused, so of course they've got a lot of mental health issues going on.

“One of the interesting things that I've learned is that the homeless men that I've met quite often are more comfortable in blaming the system that let them down, because men, I think, are good at externalising. But the women will blame themselves: 'I let myself down, I let my children down.' So it's a much more shame-driven experience for women and I think, because of that, much more brutal.

“In fact, we don't have as many women as men involved with Milk Crate because women don't want to be identified with a company that's about homelessness. It’s a very different landscape for women than men.”

Yet some men can be tortured by a failure to talk, such as the play’s character Dogtag, a soldier who has ended up on the streets.

“Someone like a returned soldier who does have post-traumatic stress disorder is often the sort of person that ends up jettisoned or on the streets because they've got quite a healthy response to something horrific they had to do as a job, you know, ‘I had to kill people, so I'm tormented by that’,” says Todd.

“We don't look after them. We expect them to kill for their country, then they come back and we go, ‘Thanks for that’, and they're off the grid. As a society, we create illness as well as what we inherit from our genes.

“I remember my father talking about his father after the war, saying that he just never spoke about it, never, ever spoke about it. Well, why would you not speak about it? Because it's unspeakable.”

That hurt all the more in a rural, conversational community like Todd’s, which he credits with giving him his sense of comradeship. He is of Irish farming stock and grew up near the Grampians in Victoria, yet his first name, Mirra, was taken from the local Aboriginal language.

“Mirra is the word for spear,” he says. “As in woomera, the spear-thrower.” Then he turns to show his rake-like profile. “People say that’s why I grew up so skinny. My brothers are called Buster and Shane. Go figure.”

Such personal details are often what most resonates and Todd sees the personal as powerful in getting a message across. But Milk Crate steers well clear of using people’s individual stories and Todd steers well clear of the traditional narrative.

“I'm not interested in putting out a ‘Isn't it a hard life that they've had’ story and ‘Isn't it nice that they're now doing well’ story,” he says. “That's not part of my palette.

“This play is funny, it's provocative, there's a bit of blue language in there because it's quite authentic in the way that it articulates itself, but there's no apology for any of the characters' behaviour. There are certainly no sentimental happy endings coming anywhere soon, it's just a slice of life.

“It's just like, ‘Here are 10 characters, they're all quite flawed. They're struggling to get through, some more successfully than others. Whadda ya reckon? Let's start the conversation.’”

Meet Owen. Owen is a Milk Crate Theatre Ensemble member who is playing the role of Gizmo in Fearless.

Meet Bridget. Bridget is a Milk Crate Theatre Ensemble member who is playing the role of Pepper in Fearless.

Meet Wayne. Wayne is a Milk Crate Theatre Ensemble member who is playing the role of Chika in Fearless.

Meet Michael. Michael is a Milk Crate Theatre Ensemble member who is playing the role of Dogtag in Fearless.

The ABC's 7.30 Report on Milk Crate Theatre.