Denni Scott Davis makes a strong impression. Dressed in a deep purple suit and hat, she met up with me over Skype at a time we figured we would both be, well…awake. It was two in the afternoon, Monday, for me, but a full seventeen hours later for her. At eight a.m. Tuesday morning, Denni had a full day ahead of her; but when we switched on our cameras, she looked more than ready to take it all on.
I wanted to understand more about her work as Artistic Director of Slippery Sirkus, a not-for-profit arts outreach organization that brought theatrical and creative expression opportunities to the most severely disadvantaged indigenous populations in Australia. Amazing work, certainly, but how exactly does one–an outsider, no less–pull off such ambitious projects?
I had many questions; luckily, Denni Scott Davis had lots to share…
“This is a new way of working. Rather than treating the ‘target population’ like patients to be served, you can engage young people, old people, help them to express the challenges in their lives. When we work in disadvantaged communities, we talk about how everyone has their own stories to tell. We help them to write their own stories rather than letting those stories define them.”
“It’s not about rescuing. It’s not about saving people. I’m not that naive. The cycles of disadvantage and high risk in these communities are vast and deeply entrenched: alcoholism; drugs; early pregnancy; jail time; unemployment… We’re very aware that we’re not going to go in and just fix everything through participation in one project. But if we find a way to impact a small group, create new pathways, a new trajectory, and most importantly, helping these individuals find a new way to define themselves, well then I consider our efforts a success.”
“We bring in painters, acrobats, musicians, graffiti artists, writers, mosaic artists, all whenever possible from within the communities themselves; and work alongside local agencies with families experiencing family abuse or drug addiction, teen pregnancy. We teach the social workers just as we teach the at-risk individuals. So that the agencies created to help these individuals can actually build relationships with them, with these people who have over the generations developed a lot of suspicion and distrust of authority.”
“It’s all about meeting a person where they are. I’ve never met a young person who said straight out to me, ‘I want to learn to read and write;’ but all young people are keen to want to learn more words so ‘I can write a better song.’”
“Art is a powerful tool. It’s difficult to prove the full extent of the benefits. The government agencies want you to analyze your results by KPI–key performance indicators–so that they can get funding; but we work on the edge of all that and so we tend to just go off and do what needs to be done. What I can give you, though, are stories. I can tell you, for instance, about a project that has been run with old people and dance. What happened when they gave seniors an opportunity to grab partners and move their bodies to music? I can’t quantify it; but the fact is that these people just felt better. Simply being touched, for starters. And how much better they felt in all regards.”
“Everyone understands the language of art. It’s a universal language.”
“We do a lot of digital media because it’s become such a powerful medium. I’ve walked into truly disadvantaged homes where there’s very little furniture and tons of rubbish, and yet still, 98% of the time there is a television, video player, and some sort of gaming system. Everybody’s switched on, so it’s a really important tool to use. Young mothers are interested in coming to a workshop if there’s a chance to learn digital storytelling. So we work with them and help them to tell stories about their expectations about being a parent; and at the same time a health worker will be there who will just sit and talk with them. It’s about being safe and healthy, and giving them some tools to explore who they are.”
“There was an artist who drew figuratives, so we made a digital book aimed at aboriginal kids. She painted emus and native animals, and we made a slide show: we used one image in the aboriginal word and the second image in English. Then we took it to the school and recorded the kids reading it out loud, and then gave it to the young mothers.”
“At the end of every project, there’s always a theatrical production, so that whatever we’ve done, whether it’s recording stories, or dancing, or making music, we put it all together and invite the media, the mayor of the town, the young people, the old people, and make it an event. It’s always a performance-based outcome. And we protect them so they won’t get up and be laughed at. It’s about changing perspective–the view the community has of them, and changing their attitudes about themselves. So by the end, that young person who was considered the car thief is suddenly seen as the young muralist, and wow, that young man might have some potential! It’s about seeing people not just as they are right now, but also who they can become.”
“We take in project artists who understand that were not just trying to create art; we work with local artists and community youth workers and care workers to transfer skills. To bring them along and have them work alongside the participants in the project. Everyone is so motivated by self-interest, including community agencies and services who are in competition with each other for that same ‘target population.’ Even though they are all supposedly working together in this same social stream to make these people’s lives better. All these internal politics get in the way; but we come from the outside and so can go in and bring these factions together. Of course at first they are suspicious and don’t want to work with us, but by the end, the people feel real ownership of the project. They present it to their community and say, ‘Look what we have done.’”
* * *
About Denni Scott Davis:
Denni Scott Davis is the founder of Slippry Sirkus, which introduces artistically and socially innovative projects to at-risk communities, currently focusing on indigenous populations in Australia. Davis was the 2012 recipient of the Australia Council of the Arts Community Partnerships Creative Producer. Over the past sixteen years, Davis has worked with over a thousand participants and formed an associate team of skilled artists and community workers to deliver arts strategies to over fifty communities, among them Jawoyn, Anangu, Pitjantjara, Nyoongar, Gamilaroi, Biripi, Dunghutti, Thunghutti, Gumbayngirr, Yaegel, Bunjulung, Waradjeri, Warrumunga, Wongi and Kalkadoon. To learn more, visit the Slippery Sirkus website.