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Where faith, politics and art converge


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Documentary theatre-maker David Williams has clear childhood memories of his father sitting in the garden at home, reading to himself from his large, leather-bound Bible.

Afterwards, he would remain in the same place for some time, quietly contemplating the passages he had just studied.

The image is the antithesis of the loud and often intolerant voice of the Christian Right in Australian politics.

It also helps explain the motivation for Williams’ new work, Quiet Faith, which will have its Australian premiere in Adelaide this month.

“I was very struck by what I saw as a disjunction between the political values of politicians and leaders within our community who would stand up and talk about their Christian faith – people like Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd – the disjunction between these public loud Christians and the Christians I had in my life [his family and friends], who I saw as very loving, compassionate people,” Williams tells InDaily.

To Williams, Australia’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers seem lacking in compassion and “terribly unChristian”. So what is it about the Christian values of someone like Morrison, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, that enables him to pursue these strategies?

“It seemed like a misfit … so I thought I would ask some of these other Christians what they thought the place of religion in politics could be or should be.”

Following on from what he describes as his “capital P political works” – including shows about the inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board scandal, sexual violence and local government corruption – Sydney-based Williams was keen to do a more intimate work about ordinary Australians.

He secured a co-commission from SA theatre company Vitalstatistix and NSW-based HotHouse Theatre, and set about interviewing Christians from a range of backgrounds aged from their late teens to early 70s, including church leaders, students, health workers and educators.

The issue of Australia’s treatment of refugees proved an emotive one, and Williams realised he was tapping into the zeitgeist when his work coincided with the launch of the Love Makes a Way faith-based movement challenging current asylum-seeker policies and events such as prayer vigils at the offices of Christian politicians.

Other topics canvassed in his interviews included homelessness, the “thorny territory” of abortion, and same-sex marriage.

“Some Christians I have spoken to are quite uncomfortable with the idea; for others, it is a question of love … and surely if it’s an issue of love, it can’t be a primary concern,” he says of marriage equality.

“Perspectives on that are quite diverse.”

One of the ideas at play in Quiet Faith is that it may not be the atheist Left that will make the difference in some of these debates, but rather the progressive Christians who argue and campaign for change.

“I hope Quiet Faith allows us space to contemplate the relationship between religious faith and democracy”

The text of the production is derived from the edited transcripts of interviews with about 20 Christians, which have been woven together. Two performers – Williams and Adelaide actor Ashton Malcolm – represent the different voices, with each performance being presented to an audience of only about 75 people at Waterside, the heritage-listed Workers’ Hall at Port Adelaide which is Vitalstatistix’s home.

“It literally is a quiet piece, with a lot of conversational tone,” Williams says.

“And the whole thing takes place between an eight-channel surround-sound installation, so it will feel very intimate and very close. The audience will be taken on a kind of sound journey as well as an ideas journey.”

Each of the people interviewed was asked to select a song that was significant to them, and a number of these are included in Quiet Faith, including “Amazing Grace” and “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”. There is also a recording by the Vox ensemble of the Sydney Philharmonia Choir.

Ultimately, Williams hopes his work will broaden people’s understanding and views of faith.

He says one of the challenges for secular audiences is that unlike a lot of theatre productions, Quiet Faith takes religion seriously. Yet he is optimistic that it may encourage non-religious theatre-goers to rethink the value of faith, pointing out that secular progressives and religious progressives often share similar political ideals.

“If nothing else, I hope Quiet Faith allows us space to contemplate the relationship between religious faith and democracy, and I think that would be a good thing.”

Vitalstatistix creative producer Emma Webb says the work has deepened and changed some of her own personal opinions.

“The relationship between politics and religion is increasing and concerning in Australia, and something very worthy of exploration by performance makers,” she says. “However, so often it is easy to stray into a kind of agit-prop, eye-rolling tone.”

Webb describes Quiet Faith as complex exploration of faith and politics that is “challenging in the best possible way”.

For Williams, whose own father was among the Christians he interviewed, creating the work has also been a personal journey.

“I was raised an Anglican, so my family is quite serious about faith, but it’s something that in my adult life I had drifted away from.

“This was very much a process of reconnecting with the faith-based social values that my parents brought me up with, and trying to make sense of them for myself.”

Quiet Faith will be presented by Vitalstatistix at Waterside, 11 Nile Street, Port Adelaide from October 8-19.

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