The Art of Creating with Family Performance maker, writer and dramaturg Paschal Daantos Berry in conversation with his sister, actor Valerie Berry
Paschal Daantos Berry (PDB) is a shining star reluctant to step into his light. Instead, he prefers doing the work without needing to be seen. It’s why he abandoned the pursuit of being a performer and sought pen, paper and visual imagery to tell stories.
If one does some digging, one will find that PDB has had three major funded projects: The Folding Wife, Within and Without, and This Here. Land. These were collaborations with a multidisciplinary group of artists from Manila, the Philippines, called Anino Shadowplay Collective (Anino), director Deborah Pollard, myself (Valerie Berry) and in recent projects, Kenneth Moraleda.
The Folding Wife (TFW) was critically acclaimed. RealTime magazine wrote, “Sweet, sour, bitter—all the tastes of memory are present in this powerful work.” The Sydney Morning Herald described it as a “lovingly realised and beautifully performed work…escaping its own cultural limitations of place.” RealTime described Anino’s imagery as: “Painters playing with liquid light, colour and form, they create the visual sensuality and texture of memory so powerfully evoked in the text.”
In 2010, TFW toured Australia’s northern and eastern states through the Australia Council’s Mobile States tour, an initiative for contemporary artists and small companies that takes cutting-edge arts to audiences around Australia. Casula Powerhouse and Blacktown Arts Centre published TFW’s full script as part of Salu-Salo: In Conversation with Filipino-Australian Writers, the first anthology of Filipino-Australian writing on the positive contributions of Philippine communities in Australia. In addition to TFW’s coverage on ABC Radio National, University of Wollongong pupils also studied it in a course called History of Australian Theatre. During the TFW tour, I remember migrants of different nationalities—most not theatre-goers—approaching us after the show, speaking of how they connected and related to the story.
PDB’s other work This Here. Land (a part of Performance Space’s award-winning 2017 Liveworks Festival and Paschal’s ongoing collaboration with Anino and Filipino-Australian artists) is currently a subject of one Filipino-American artists’ PhD (Performance Studies, Berkeley University). Paschal has also been a guest speaker at forums about diversity and collaborative theatre, featured on decision-making panels and mentored emerging artists. In short, PDB’s work has been making its way to the ears of artists, makers and institutions, in Australia and overseas, especially to those whose values align with his.
Paschal has modestly worked since the mid-1990s as a playwright, theatre-maker, poet, dramaturg, and curator and head of programming in recent years. Currently, he’s the Head of Learning and Participation at the Art Gallery of NSW—a role he doesn’t take lightly, as he’s aware such a position doesn’t come our way very often. By ‘our’, I mean artists of colour from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Paschal saw himself as an artist at a young age. He had a talent for visual arts but took the hard road to theatre-making. Was it a coincidence three out of our four siblings pursued the arts and went into institutions to train at the same time in the early 90s? I think not. Having two creative educator parents sealed that deal. Our parents, especially our mother, encouraged us to dance and sing and declaim poetry at a young age. So, it perplexed us when she ‘grieved’ over three of us pursuing a career in the arts.
Fast forward to today, and we’re on Gadigal land. In a small but spacious apartment, I sit down with my collaborator, peer, some-time mentor, and sibling, Paschal, for a conversation (over coffee and leftover birthday cake) about his practice, collaborations and what it takes to survive in the Australian artistic landscape.
Valerie Berry (VB): How would you describe your practice?
Paschal Daantos Berry (PDB): “I don’t have a notion of traditional practice as such. I probably wear many hats. The older I get, the more resolved I am in understanding that. My preference is not to be one thing, but to be a number of things. One of the things that propelled me to be an artist was an interest in anything visual, anything that was performative. And so, I’ve always sat more comfortably within the space of being multi-art form. I think all forms are all in one.”
VB: Is one of the driving forces for your work to provide a platform for ‘Other’ voices?
PDB: “I don’t know if I thought that much about it, to be honest. One simultaneous thing happening was I was just kind of living life, and I was enjoying my life here in Sydney. And so, I felt like I had enough of a sense of value for myself to exist in the world. So, to a certain degree, I carried that with me to create those earlier works that I did. It wasn’t so bureaucratised then. I was lucky enough to have had the ears of people who liked having those conversations with me. In those early days, established artists like Barry Gamba (Information and Cultural Exchange) and Bruce Keller were amazing at providing space to listen and encourage me to do the things I wanted to do.
But in terms of writing, there was probably a very short period where I felt like—and part of the reason I never enjoyed acting—I could never see myself in anything. I could never see myself on the stage; I could never see myself on the television. I think you were one of the few people on stage from an Asian background who was working. It wasn’t the most encouraging kind of statistics. So I just thought to redirect my focus onto something I felt like I was quite good at, writing. It was a much more useful service to representation.
Working outside the industry or the sector was always important for me to have that level of perspective. But what was more important was not to get torn up by the lack of opportunities but to find my own.”
In 2000, while Paschal was finding his feet as an emerging playwright in Sydney, an opportunity presented itself via Griffin Theatre to undertake an International Playwrights’ Residency at the Royal Court Theatre in London. This opening led to learning about contemporary writers like Sarah Kane and Patrick Marber and being mentored by established playwright Harold Pinter. The experience, however, “put him off” writing once he came back from the Residency. It made him realise he didn’t want to be a playwright obsessed with a singular vision and sense of authorship. Instead, he saw himself as inherently ‘collaborative’ and connected that to his personality’s ‘cultural part’.
It wasn’t until after our mother died in 2001 that Paschal started writing again. In response to his grief, he produced a long prose work, a ‘death rite’ of sorts. He titled the prose Post Mortem, which then became The Folding Wife.
Then came an Asialink Residency in the Philippines in 2005, meeting and working with Anino and myself in Manila and developing the work with Deborah Pollard, who was at Urban Theatre Projects (UTP) at the time. Finally, in 2007, The Folding Wife was produced by UTP and presented at the Blacktown Arts Centre.
The collaborative journey of this work shifted Paschal’s process. During the development, he would write quickly in response to what was on offer on the floor, listen for rhythms, and sacrifice pages of poetic text that became provocations and inspiration for Anino’s visual imagery in the play.
This 15-year ongoing collaboration with Anino and Deborah Pollard, myself and now Kenneth Moraleda has given Paschal the space and platform to constantly adapt the role of the writer and collaborator within a process. What he deems essential in collaboration is the “inherent generosity to the process and the sense of playfulness with forms.”
For example, the Aninos are artists with diverse practices: educators, painters, video artists, performers and musicians. But in our collaboration, Paschal explains no one is “attached to their respective forms; there’s a sense of just going for it and allowing a level of experimentation not often allowed in the process of working collaboratively with people from two different countries.”
He adds, “Keeping core to the values of our collective relationships is functioning as a family with a philosophy to leave your ego at the door.”
VB: What are the common themes that thread all of your work?
PDB: “A real consciousness around the failures of the colonial project. Being part of one of the most colonised diasporas, I’ve had to do a lot of work to ensure that I wasn’t yielding to problematic ways of behaving inherent in a highly colonised culture because that sits within you as an individual. One of the things I’ve been conscious of is the violence of erasure. As Filipinos, we are incredibly good at hiding our personal or national pain. And we do it through the use of humour and the use of campiness or queering space, but it’s a pain nonetheless that lingers in all works where I’m involved.”
I’ve worked very closely with First Nations communities. You know that sense of connection to the feeling you get when you’ve been part of a system that has intentionally tried to erase you requires you to be very conscious in a process that doesn’t replicate those kinds of colonial structures or constructs. That’s the common throughline for me in every single project I’ve done.
I feel I’m more useful being in service of a process, as opposed to being the dictator of a process to create a space that somehow builds into it the safety of everybody. So one of the reasons I move into this kind of space so often seen as difficult for people like ‘us’ is because we’re not necessarily built for institutions. But, for me, to find a place in those highly difficult and complex environments so I can create a safe place [and] where we establish a safe place for all of us to exist where, [too] often, it’s one of the most violent encounters.”
As we come to the end of our conversation, I ask the big question: what would Pachal’s legacy be? Many mid to late-career artists find this challenging to answer. My brother says he finds the word ‘problematic’. However, something he is willing to impart is that his work is about the now. He questions, “what you’re doing right now to enact radical shifts….what you’re doing to ensure that this ecology: art, artists, organisations, communities, is well-supported….to ensure artists have a better future or trajectory through the sector.”
During my conversation with Paschal, I entertained the idea I may discover things I didn’t already know about him as a colleague and sibling. But, as I suspected, nothing in the exchange surprised me. Still, I aspire to and admire the way he works and his resilience in this industry, plus his ability to give value to himself and others and keep integrity at the forefront of everything he does. Finally, his sense of bravery to ‘service the greater process’, his determination to ‘create the conditions for better care of artists’, and embracing people you work with as a family.
First published in The Philippine Times on 19 October, 2021. Article commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia for the Pacesetters Creative Archives project, which was funded through Create NSW.