Sequins to satire: life at The Totem

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By RACHEL McFADDEN

 

Community spirit is alive and well in Alice Springs, with close to two-dozen volunteers attending a working bee at the Totem Theatre last Saturday.

 

It was many a young girl’s (and boy’s) fantasy: piles of tutus, flamboyant gowns, stage props scattered across the lawn. The volunteers, lending hand and muscle, got in the mood, draping themselves in sequins and tulle.

 

Eva Rainow, the theatre’s costume and archive officer, says the turnout showed people’s love of the theatre and of performance generally.

 

p2142-Totem-3The Totem is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Local historian Megg Kelham says theatre in Alice Springs has faced turbulent times, experiencing moments of glory and near demise.

 

“There were periods when shows would be box-office hits with close to 40 per cent of the population attending. Alice Springs, however, has a transient population, there were times when half the cast moved on after a performance.”

 

Her fifty-page history of the Totem Theatre and Alice Springs Theatre Group includes past community notices showing the group desperately calling for new recruits.

 

Still, the show went on, a testament to what Ms Kelham calls Alice Springs’ “unique and vibrant” arts culture.

 

With an impressive lifelong membership list dating back to 1968, the Totem has been a place to nourish and nurture creativity in Alice Springs and some members have gone on to professional training at NIDA and Victorian College of Arts.

 

Former member and star, Meredith Campbell, affectionately recalls her time at the Totem back in 1984-5 and her involvement in two political satires.

 

A locally written play, “Go get funded”, raised money for the commercial arm of the Land Council and was a critique of ineffective government expenditure in Aboriginal Affairs. A chorus line went like this:

Consult, consult, consult,

Make a packet and then you’ll bolt.

Consult, consult, consult

lots of money for no result.

 

p2142-Totem-7“That kind of political satire hasn’t since seen the light of day,” Ms Campbell says.

 

But Ms Rainow thinks theatre is still being used to explore society’s most pressing, and at times, controversial issues. For instance, Alice Springs Theatre Group – based at Totem Theatre – is about to audition for this year’s first performance, “Urine Town”, a musical comedy about the scarcity of water.

 

“Sometimes, the arts have a way of opening up dialogue around issues that people that are too afraid to talk about or feel overwhelmed by,” she says.

 

“Comedy, on the other hand, has a way of getting through the backdoor, past rationality and self interest. It hits people’s heart and gut.”

 

Ms Kelham agrees: “Theatre nurtures strong relations … This town can be divided by political lines, the arts have a way of softening these lines.”

 

Totem Theatre, located between Anzac oval and Todd River, offers a community space for hire, school holiday cabaret programs and a monthly poetry night, “The Dirty Word”.

 

Saturday’s working bee identified costumes and props no longer required. They’ll be among the offerings at an upcoming Totem Theatre garage sale and open day. For dates, or more information check their Facebook page.

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