Spotlight on Western Sydney artist Karen Therese
“Australia is a culturally diverse nation and Western Sydney is its beating heart,” said Karen Therese, an artist of Hungarian-Australian background and Artistic Director of Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) in Fairfield.
Karen also works independently as an artist developing artworks which explore the complexity of relationships to place and Australian identity. As part of International Women’s Day, we chatted to Karen about her life in the arts and what keeps her inspired as an artist.
How did you start your career in the arts?
I wanted to be an actor and knew it from the age of 8! I had a teacher who spent more time teaching us singing, dancing and drama than teaching us Maths and I loved it and adored her. At 19, I took it further and took acting classes. For a few years, some actor friends and I ran a small company called Tallulah Presents and produced a few plays. Eventually, I quit acting and began studying performance. I met teacher Tanya Gristle at the Actor Centre who taught me PULSE and other theatre devising and improvisation techniques. I then went to PACT Theatre and on to the Victorian College of the Arts to study Animateuring, and I’ve been working professionally ever since.
How has living and working in Western Sydney informed and inspired your work?
It’s completely shaped all the work I make as an artist and who I am as a person. My work is essentially about Western Sydney cultures, which I see as a true reflection of Australian culture. I explore relationships between place and cultural identity and in essence I create autobiographical artworks. I don’t live in Western Sydney any more but it’s my creative home.
Since I started working in Western Sydney as an artist and artistic director, I feel as though everything in my practice has aligned. I feel stronger as a person and as an artist. In Western Sydney, I am surrounded by people and culture that aligns with how I was raised as an Australian. I am also surrounded by peers who share my experiences, beliefs and passions.
You’re the Artistic Director of Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT), how do you find balance between your own practice and leading PYT?
It’s my job to stay inspired as an artist and to be broadly connected to culture, so my personal discourse and practice needs to keep evolving. I recently travelled to Israel which was inspiring and the experience will feed both my own practice and my work at PYT. A lot of my independent works like FUNPARK, The Riot Act and Waterloo Girls have been about cultural diversity, young people and place so it makes a lot of sense that I am at PYT. My independent practice and work at PYT are complementary.
What have been the most influential moments of your career (to date)?
There are quite a few! But I would say my most recent significant moments include receiving a cultural leadership grant from the Australia Council Theatre Board to travel to New York in 2011 and be mentored by Fiona Winning and Vallejo Gantner.
At the same time I was also studying my Masters in Creative Arts with Sarah Miller at University of Wollongong. This research time helped me so much, mainly to continue on my creative path but revise what I was doing into a more sustainable model, and to embed this new knowledge and strategy into Western Sydney. Meeting artist Lois Weaver in New York had a huge influence on my practice over the last five years. Creating FUNPARK for the Sydney Festival in 2014 was special for so many reasons.
What are your observations of current arts practice in Western Sydney?
I believe arts leaders and practitioners in Western Sydney are the most significant artists in Australia right now. They are shifting culture and creating work that genuinely respond to Australian culture. Western Sydney institutions are consistently making new Australian works, developing careers of emerging artists and creating works that connect with a wide range of Australians.
What advice do you have for other artists, particularly those in Western Sydney?
Connect with all the theatre companies in the region and get involved, do internships, get to know the people who run those companies and have meetings with them. Practice your art form, put on a show. Find some friends who like to do that too. Go and see work across East and Western Sydney. Make work that resonates with you and believe in yourself.
Do you have a role model, if so, who?
Patti Smith is a role model. In my immediate world, Fiona Winning, Sarah Miller and Angharad Wynn Jones are women I admire greatly and have taught me a lot throughout my career. Elizabeth Ann McGregor is an incredibly inspiring role model for all women and a wonderful advocate for Western Sydney; I admire her and her genuine advocacy and love for the region.
Fiona actually taught me you are only as good as your team and the people around you so my peers are my role models and inspirational women like: Victoria Spence, Bec Dean, Bec Allen, Brianna Munting, Donna Abela, Linda Luke, Sarah Waterson, Kate Blackmore, Layla Naji, Zanny Begg, Anne Loxley, Laura Pike, Al Dadek, Caitlin Gibson… the list goes on, no one does it alone. We are very lucky in Australia to have so many wonderful women working in the arts. They all should be in the Senate but hey that’s another dream!
What do you think of International Women’s Day?
It’s critical to focus on and celebrate the lives and experiences of women.
Last year, through the creation of the project LITTLE BAGHDAD, I was lucky to work with and collaborate with a number of Iraqi-Australian female artists and community leaders. Learning about feminist perspectives from Middle Eastern women and the history of Iraqi women (as a Western woman) just blew my mind. There is a lot to learn; we could all benefit from dialogue and cultural exchange with women from Iraq and Middle East.
In 2016, what are you most excited by – as a practitioner, director or as an audience member?
I’m super excited about PYT’s 2016 program. We have some wonderful works going up and for me it’s the culmination of three years of working in Fairfield. This year I’ll see our young artists from Western Sydney perform at the Sydney Opera House, Griffin Theatre, Australian Theatre for Young People and the Museum of Contemporary Art, telling their unique stories and showing their incredible talent and skills. I can’t wait for the opening nights!
During these performances I get to be practitioner, director and audience member in one moment, and these moments give me a lot of hope for the future, for the potential of our young Western Sydney artists to shape culture. That’s the gold and I live for those moments.
Karen Therese is an interdisciplinary artist, creative producer and cultural leader. Her practice is grounded in performance, political activism and community building with a particular focus on underground youth cultures.
Arts NSW is providing multi-year program funding ($380,000 over the next three years) to Powerhouse Youth Theatre. If you would like to find out more about the Arts and Cultural Development Program, please click here.