Review: The Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire

Andrea Simpson

A night of rapid-fire storytelling from 10 incredible writers and thinkers, presented by The Wheeler Centre at Melbourne's Athenaeum Theatre.
Review: The Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire

Image: Moira Finucane at the Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire. Photo by Jon Tjhia.

Aunty Carolyn Briggs warmly welcomed the large crowd at Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne last week. She was the first to speak at The Wheeler Centre’s annual gala event and talked of language and its ability to change, and be changed. She spoke of our ability to use words as weapons. And so we entered this celebration of language, Words on Fire, ready to engage with the thought-provoking ideas of a panel of handpicked writers and thinkers.

Introduced by Michael Williams, the Director of The Wheeler Centre, this year’s Gala focused on the power of 'the written word and the loaded tenets of speech.'  

‘A lot of words have already been spoken this year … and let’s be honest most of those words have been utter nonsense,’ Williams said to the crowd.

He mentioned Peter Dutton's words on the so-called ‘African-gang violence’ engulfing Melbourne and thanked the crowd for venturing out. We all laughed. Williams then spoke of the importance of our words, and the importance of coming together ‘to get people we love to come together and share ideas, share imaginative moments, and basically set the world ablaze with their words.’

Image: Leah Purcell at the Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire. Photo by Jon Tjhia.

Leah Purcell set the stage alight with the powerful story of her mother. She shared this memory with the audience: ‘There was a song every time that would make her cry, I would find her singing her sorrows away, no lover, no companion, raised seven children on her own, looked after her own crippled mother … I understood her pain that’s why I never judged.’ Purcell's story was powerful. She is Words on Fire personified.

Then Sally Warhaft interrogated the idea of powerful words from powerful people, and the impacts such words have on the extent of a life.

The next speaker, Omar Musa, delivered his poem with ferocity. ‘The father’s eyes were crimson with God. His prayer mat was a boat, he pushed the prow through clock-less hours until the sun rose.’  

Patricia Corneliusexpletive-laden speech filled the space with the wondrous word ‘fuck’ far too many times to count. She read out parts taken from her play SHIT and  the audience erupted in unison; revelling in the cleansing energy that ‘swear words’ evoke when yelled out (loudly).

Rosie Waterland told a tale from her childhood with humour and pathos. She said ‘words saved me,’ and I’m sure everyone in the audience silently agreed.

'We have seen the end of the world and we have decided not to accept it,’ Tony Birch began and the crowd was electrified.

‘Those words of courage were spoken by a remarkable woman named Murrawah Johnson.’ Birch recounts the on-going fight that has been waged against Adani and the Carmichael coalmine. I sat in awe of Johnson and of Birch’s words.

Nevo Zisin at the Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire.  Photo by Jon Tjhia.

Next was Nevo Zisin, who spoke of their experience as a young non-binary person living in today’s society. ‘We write ourselves into existence,’ they said.

Rachel Maza was writing her own history right there on the stage, and we were lucky enough to bear witness. She spoke of her grandparents and the heart wrenching story of colonised peoples. ‘How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectically – has a lot to do with whether we cut short, or advance our evolution as human beings,’ she said.

Carly Findlay was profound from the first moment; before she gave her speech she forewarned the audience of the ableist language she would be using as examples that occur in everyday life. She highlighted how disability is forgotten in the mainstream discourse and how it is pushed to the margins. ‘I am a proud disabled woman and I will speak about it,’ she said.

Image: Carly Findlay at the Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire. Photo by Jon Tjhia.

Striking as a Mother Earth-like figure, burlesque performer and writer Moira Finucane dazzled as the last act. Her words echoed: ‘We are growing weaker each day with no song spirit, losing sight of what is true.' 

Words on Fire gave a platform for a myriad of ideas to converge and be consumed. Every speaker was powerful in their own right, though looking down at my watch it was far later than I had thought.

Williams had earlier congratulated Helen Withycombe as the new Head of Programming, and I too congratulate her on the stellar lineup. If The Wheeler Centre has started 2018 as it means to proceed, then it’s clearly setting fire to the old ideas and ushering in the new. 

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

The Wheeler Centre Gala 2018: Words on Fire

Presented by the Wheeler Centre

Monday 26 February 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Andrea Simpson is an ArtsHub staff writer.

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