by Emma Buzo

Opening Night: new worlds to be fathomed

It's the morning after the opening night performance of Norm and Ahmed and the premiere if its contemporary companion Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah by Alana Valentine. This production is the culmination of nearly two years of....well, a whole lot of hustling really. My vision for The Alex Buzo Company is to pioneer new ideas and do things that haven't been done before, which as I have discovered, is both freeing and confoundingly restricting. You see, the idea of commissioning a companion play for one of my father's works had no template. So I created my own. Since the idea came to me in 2007, I've been doing the same hot shoe shuffle over and over again, explaining what exactly this project is all about, its value in an ethnically diverse society and of course securing the funding and publicity crucial to making it happen. I sincerely hope that I will be able to tone down Operation Explanation now that the production has opened and people can see the real thing.

While it's always a joy to see Laurence Coy (Norm) and Craig Meneaud (Ahmed) weave their magic as I've had the privilege to do on countless occasions, it was the premiere of the new work that was most exciting for me. Sheridan Harbridge (pictured above) and Camilla Ah Kin's illuminating performance was for an audience including many of the Muslim women interviewed by Alana Valentine for
Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. I know by now that when people come out of the theatre talking excitedly and starting sentences with "I never thought of it like that..." or "I had no idea..." that the vision is a success. As Shafana so profoundly utters:

"there are yet, new worlds to be fathomed and new impossibilities to be revealed."

August 6th-29th 2009, Seymour Centre
Beautiful new images from the production


Article: Triumph of censor's target

I did a phone interview about Norm and Ahmed plus Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah with Graeme Blundell last week crouched in a corner of the foyer of the Governor Macquarie Tower in Sydney's CBD during rush hour for this article in The Australian. I'd just finished a meeting about The Alex Buzo Company's 2010 production Macquarie when he rang. Luckily I carry all my different 'hats' in my handbag and quickly switched back into 2009 mode.

Read Triumph of censor's target in The Australian

Ahmed interviewed for Pakistani TV

Pakistani TV producer/presenter Zahid Minhas from Dosti TV visited rehearsals today to interview myself and actors Laurence Coy and Craig Meneaud about the upcoming season of Norm and Ahmed. I'm fairly sure this is the first time in the work's 40 year history that the Pakistani media have been involved in a production of the play and it felt like everything old was new again. Another layer of the play had been unlocked. After Zahid interviewed us, the tables were turned as we listened to Life According to Zahid. Captivating and highly entertaining!


Makiz Ansari visits rehearsals despite her bad hijab day

Today we were privileged to have Makiz Ansari from Affinity Intercultural Foundation and her cousin Tamkin Ansari visit the rehearsals of Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. Afghani/Australian Makiz was a major source of inspiration for playwright Alana Valentine and her character of 'Shafana' takes much from Makiz's eloquently told story. The entire creative team were able to ask Makiz questions about her faith, her cultural heritage and her experience of life in Australia as a Muslim woman. Makiz joked she was having a 'bad hijab day' but she was able to give actor Sheridan Harbridge a valuable tutorial in wearing the headscarf.

(Above: Sheridan Harbridge and Alana Valentine speak with Makiz and Tamkin Ansari, observed by University of Sydney students)

First day of rehearsals

I visited the first rehearsal of Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah yesterday which is in excellent, spine-tingling shape. Alana Valentine has steadily and masterfully filtered feedback received over the last 6 months and crafted the play into something markedly different to the draft I first read in January.

Clockwise from the checked shirt: Daniel Hunter (SM), Aarne Neeme (Director), Deirdre Burges (Designer), Sheridan Harbridge (Shafana), Camilla Ah Kin (Aunt Sarrinah), Alana Valentine (Playwright), Tony Youlden (Lighting) and May-Brit Akerholt (Dramaturg). In the background: one of the numerous University of Sydney Department of Performance Studies' students studying the rehearsal process.


That old "f" word: still a producer's nightmare

This week, a Sydney high school whose English department had booked out an entire performance of Norm and Ahmed + Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah, were forced by their principal to cancel the booking. The reason? That pesky old "f" word uttered by Norm. It appears the more things change, the more they stay the same. 40 years ago, that one word put the play at the centre of a censorship battle which saw it banned in three states, but also gave Australian theatre its front page debut. Buzo was bemused and perhaps a little annoyed. While the publicity achieved instant fame for the play and its author, he felt its important themes were somewhat overshadowed by the brouhaha over one word.

The most distressing part about this school principal's fearful, archaic attitude is that it shows a complete lack of understanding about the purpose of dramatic art, which is to ask questions, encourage self reflection and open minds. Does banning students from seeing a production about the tension between cultures and generations in Australia help them become good citizens and critical thinkers? I think not.

Here's a very short bite from an ABC TV 'Talking Heads' episode on Graeme Blundell who produced Norm and Ahmed in 1970 with some great footage of the play being done for a magistrate and his court.


Welcome to The Alex Buzo Company Blog

Welcome! Emma Buzo, founder and director of The Alex Buzo Company here. After two years I've decided to spill the beans. On running an independent arts organisation, that is. First up, I'll be documenting the process of theatre making. Rehearsals are about to begin for the company's upcoming production of Norm and Ahmed + Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah at the Seymour Centre 5-29 August. Those studying and teaching theatre as well as those interested in the arts and how an idea gets up will be given a ringside seat via this blog. Posts will feature a top-shelf team of theatre practitioners at various stages of their careers through images, interviews and clips.

I first had the idea to commission a contemporary playwright to respond to Buzo's iconic
Norm and Ahmed in 2007 and it's taken me two years of hard yakka to see it come to fruition. I wanted to bring new audiences to my father's work and plant it firmly in the present with a view to the future. I'm also aiming to create a bit of a "through line" for Australian theatrical heritage, now that we've got some history behind us. Cultural amnesia is a common affliction in Australia, I've discovered. Perhaps this is the antidote? We'll see.

Norm and Ahmed is an encounter between a white Aussie "bloke" and an articulate Pakistani uni student, inspired by an incident Alex witnessed in the uni bar at UNSW in 1968. It's about racism and generational tension, with the premise "never underestimate the power of difference." I decided to commission Alana Valentine to write the companion play as she told me a captivating story about the opposition a young Afghani Australian Muslim woman faced when she told her own family she wanted to wear the headscarf. We don't often hear of diversity within an ethnic community.

Since 2007,
Norm and Ahmed has become a NSW HSC Drama text, and together with reports of racial bashings perpetrated against international students at Australian universities plus the ongoing dialogue about the wearing of the headscarf...that's one prophetic idea!

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