Wayne Harrison talks about staging an Arabian night in Western Sydney

Hakawati is a Sydney Festival show that allows you to be swept away to an Arabian night in Western Sydney. The show is a celebration of food and stories and is inspired by an Arabic tradition where storytelling is combined with breaking bread. This event will have its world premiere at the El- Phoenician restaurant in Parramatta. We at the AU Review talked to the show’s director and organiser, Wayne Harrison AM to learn more about Hakawati, the National Theatre of Parramatta and an event where a meal can offer much food for thought.

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Can you briefly describe what your role is and how long you’ve been working in the theatre?

I had my first job in the theatre when I was seven, performing in a J C Williamson’s musical. I led a double life as a student and a thespian until I ran away from Melbourne University to join a circus. I thereafter became a journalist, a dramaturg, and a theatre director – I’m combining all three to create Hakawati, although the circus may be in there somewhere.

Can you briefly describe the premise behind the show Hakawati?

It’s ‘food and food for thought’.

Why do you think people should come and see the show Hakawati?

I hope it will be entertaining, maybe enlightening – and the El-Phoenician (Restaurant) food is exceptional. The format is: first course / followed by story / second course / story / third course / story / fourth course / story.

Hakawati is inspired by the tradition of story-telling and breaking bread as well as celebrating food, music and the telling of tales. What sorts of stories can people come to expect at this show? Will participants be encouraged to share some stories of their very own?

The stories will be contemporary with a ‘1001 nights twist’ – a bit of magic realism and generational conflict, with a cameo from the odd celebrity (appearing in words only). I’m sure the concept will generate a lot of audience stories, but at this stage the format only allows for the four official story-tellers to tell their tales.

Hakawati is all about food and stories. If you could invite any three guests to dinner (living or dead) who would they be and why?

Rogan Poulier, who was my best friend at school – he was of Sri Lankan descent, taught me a lot about telling stories in a different way, and never had a problem with my double life; Jacki Weaver, who’s always good value at a dinner party; and my mother, who never really forgave me for swapping uni for the circus – this might make up for it, a bit.

Is the Hakawati Sydney Festival live event related to the novel of the same name by Rabih Alameddine? Or do the two just use similar approaches to their art?
No, the Sydney Festival event is not related to the excellent novel. It has a crossover, in that it also concerns itself with parents and children – but we are grounded firmly in Granville south with a quick visit to Kellyville (where there’s a magic lamp).

You directed the Hakawati show at Sydney Festival. What is involved in directing a show like this one? Does this show actually have a script or is it improvised? There are four scripts – one for each Hakawati, though the fourth story is a bit of a group effort. The direction for this sort of show is all in the casting, i.e. finding four actors who can sustain complex story-telling, create all the characters, set the various moods, find the humour and the other emotional moments, take us all on the journey, invite the audience to help tell the story. I can help in this, too, but it’s mainly the actors.

Can you briefly tell us about the National Theatre of Parramatta (NTofP)? Is there anything else relating to this theatre company that you’d like to plug?

NTofP is “putting the nation on stage”, helping tell a few stories that might not necessarily get a guernsey (or look-in) elsewhere. It’s also like a door, one that new talent, or individuals new to the theatre, can knock on and enter.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers of The AU Review about Hakawati or any other upcoming events?

Well, the stage version of Felicity Castagna’s award-winning The Incredible Here and Now is coming – life and death on the streets of Parramatta and beyond – and David Williams’ Smurf in Wanderland – a take on what happens when a Sydney FC supporter frequents Western Sydney Wanderers’ footy matches. Both are NTofP productions.

Photo credit: Luke Stambouliah

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Hakawati has its world premiere at the El-Phoenician Restaurant in Parramatta from January 11 – 21 as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival. For more information and tickets please visit: http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/2017/hakawati