Q&A With Kym Vercoe – ‘The Table of Knowledge’

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We speak to producer and actor Kym Vercoe about the latest theatre production The Table of Knowledge. Kym talks about corruptions in local planning and development, her views on the functionality of local governments and whether they should be recognised in the Constitution and unveils how sometimes the truth can be stranger than fiction.

INTERVIEW Nathan Li

The Table of Knowledge is a play about the political and social nature of the local development. It’s not really a typical theme for a theatre production. So what is it that really interests you?

I work for Version 1.0, [and] our manifesto and mandate is around working with social and political issues. We like to engage our audience in the idea of participatory democracy. So you’re engaging with democratic issues. We hope that our audiences are coming out [of the theatre] and talking about the issues afterwards, talking with us, talking with each other.

We’ve been doing this now for about ten years. It’s a sub-genre; I guess we think of it as a sub-genre verbatim theatre which we call ‘enquiry theatre’. So we are using public documents, enquiries to form the basis for our scripts.

We’ve done a number of shows in this way, and so for us when the whole Wollongong Council scandal broke it was right up our alley. You know, it’s right up our alley to use something like an ICAC enquiry for a script.

We looked at ideas of corruption in Federal Government before. We looked at the Australian Wheat Board scandal, the rationale behind going in to the war in Iraq, children overboard scandal. So for this it was interesting because it was local government, it was much more on our own doorstep and we thought it was really relevant for all of us living here.

What does the title The Table of Knowledge mean? What is the ‘table’ and what is the ‘knowledge’?

The Table of Knowledge’ is a reference to the people at the heart of the show; it’s a show about power and the corruption of power.

So these sort of developers, councillors, planning officers in Wollongong at the time who were wheeling and dealing believed that they were in some way changing the future and the landscape of Wollongong. They used to meet every morning at a plastic table outside the North Beach kebab shop and they would have coffee there every morning, pretty early in the morning before they went off to their various jobs. And they would talk about what they were doing, what their sort of interests there were etc. So they referred to that as “the table of knowledge”.

So “the table of knowledge” is a Greek term from a Greek myth about travellers going to the Table of Knowledge consulting with an oracle to be given advice. So the traveller, as we talk about it in the show, throws dice onto the Table of Knowledge for Hercules and then they get given an oracle or wisdom.

So I imagine someone at that Table of Knowledge in Wollongong knew about that Greek myth so they coined the term “the table of knowledge” so that’s become our title.

The knowledge is, I guess, that they think that they are the guys and girls that are changing Wollongong – that they’re the real powerful people in Wollongong. So they’re talking about what they’re doing next, talking about development deals how they’re going to make those deals happen, all of those sorts of things.

So the ‘knowledge’, I suppose, was the idea of power and the idea of progress, and the idea of being the people at the forefront of that.

The term “forensic theatrical visions” is used to describe the production. What does that mean?

We used the term forensic because we [conduct] long periods of research for our works. So we will usually – in three or four stages – [carry out] research and development, creative development and rehearsal and performance.

And all of those research stages are necessary because we’re always dealing with these issues which are real, issues which have a lot of media coverage and what we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of it, and give our audience a clear understanding of what happened, why it happened and also an insight into things they may not have otherwise known about.

In a forensic sort of way we read a lot, delve a lot, do a lot of research and we pick it apart. So we pull it apart and figure out what happened and then figure out how we’re going to put it back together for the audience.

Talking about research, what is the process like? Do you have any first hand investigation, do you actually go into the council?

No, we don’t tend to interview the main players. We don’t engage in one-on-one consultation. We did do in the early stages for this script in Wollongong. So we were able to get very familiar with the landscape because it’s a show about planning, we were able to see a number of  those developments, able to see number of sites where the developments have been stopped and we were able to get a lot of local knowledge just through talking to people working at the theatre and people who were visiting us.

But mainly [for] the research, the first stage would be just reading. It would be reading the ICAC enquiry, reading all of the media, looking on the Internet, trying to get as much information as possible. Constructing the timeline of events, the main characters of the story all of those sorts of things, so trying to get as much knowledge as possible.

And the next stage of the process would be to start thinking about staging that – how would we stage that, what sort of devices will we use, what universe are we going to live in in the performance? And then from there, we would hopefully be going in to rehearsal with a reasonably developed script and staging ideas.

What kind of experiences are you hoping to bring to the audience with the play?

What’s really good for this one is, if you don’t know anything about the show, it’s still about the actual scandal. It’s still highly accessible so we’re bringing the audience a more informative and entertaining way to view something like this than, perhaps, the newspaper.

And I think we would be bringing a really great way to start thinking about local government or government in general: Start to think about those sorts of ideas and how truly we’re represented in the public sphere.

And also I believe we would be making people think about the more human elements of the story, the more universal themes around corruption and how we are as people open to the idea of being corrupted, if we’re mixing with the wrong people, falling in love with the wrong people, all of those sorts of things.

So I think for this particular show we bring a much more holistic version of events than perhaps was given to us in the media. So for character Beth Morgan who’s at the centre of the work, who was having a number of affairs with the developers, she was quite universally crucified in the media. But her story is quite an interesting one and quite a tragic one in many ways and so that’s been interesting for audience members to discover a more sort of grounded version of her story.

This is a story that may happen in real life in every single local council. Do you think local planning and development with local government is a system that is effective at the moment?

I think it’s been easily corruptible in the past. I mean we discovered, and we play off, on it at the top of the show is in no way unique to Wollongong. The sexual element is very unique to this particular scandal which is why we heard more about it more in the media.

But the idea of local government being corrupted, being corrupted through planning is really common. There are many, many councils that have been sacked over the years in the way that Wollongong Council was sacked. And that is often due to planning corruption.

So is it functioning? I don’t know and now you know there’s been a lot of accountability laws and transparency laws. And you know that was one of the great things about the Wollongong scandal was that it sort of overhauled that system a little bit and set up some new ideas of how to keep people accountable and I’m sure some of the people would argue, you know, it’s almost impossibly accountable.

It’s quite stringent, so yeah it’s an interesting grey area and it seems quite right to be corrupted if you’re in that frame of mind.

Do you think local government should be recognised in the Constitution?

We’ve been asked that a number of times. I’m not sure if I’ve had enough time to think about it. I do think that with the three-tiered system here in Australia, it does feel like sometimes it’s one tier too many.

Maybe I should say it depends on which local government? I know, we don’t have that option. If a local government is working really well for its local neighbourhood than I think it’s a great thing. If it’s not working for its local neighbourhood and it’s working to sort of empower financially and you know a few individuals than I start to think it’s bullshit, really.