Catherine Simmonds, the artistic director of Three sides of the coin, was awarded the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to the performing arts in the January 2020 honours list.
Three sides of the coin is a theatre project that uses performance to help people who have experienced harm from gambling to heal and recover. Stories were gathered in workshops run by Link Health and Community and conducted by Melbourne writer Arnold Zable in 2012.
Enter Catherine who dramatised those stories the following year, drawing on her expertise as a community arts and cultural development practitioner.
‘My community development work began in 1991 when the textile factories in Brunswick were closing and migrant women were losing their jobs,’ says Catherine. ‘From there, my work has grown to include many communities including asylum seekers, women who’ve been trafficked, people with special needs, Indigenous Australians and so many others.’
In each project, the storytellers become the performers of their own stories. In Three sides of the coin, the core performers including Paul Fung, Anna Bardsley, Ken Wolfe, Sunenna Bella Sharma and Chandana Rao are having a profound effect on audiences which have been drawn from drug, alcohol and community health services, self-help groups, police officers, seniors’ groups and in prisons, significantly raising awareness of the complexities of gambling harm.
‘Seven years later, it’s still going and growing,’ continues Catherine. ‘It’s a real privilege to be involved in such a sustained work.
‘The participants started out uncertain – uncertain of sharing their stories in public; uncertain whether their voices would carry. Over the years they’ve discovered purpose. They’ve discovered advocacy. They started with a willingness to try and they’ve discovered mutual respect and support.
‘It’s about wholeness and confidence in that shared world, but it’s also fun.
‘My role is to keep the creativity and the energy up; keep the discipline and rhythm but also the raw truth.’
Catherine graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts and worked as a travelling actor for many years before founding the Brunswick Women's Theatre in 1992. Her career as a community arts and cultural development practitioner has taken her to Indonesia, Italy, Brazil and Eastern Europe. Catherine also developed a project with communities in East Timor teaching them how to harness their creativity as a tool for peace building.
She has primarily dedicated herself to working in Victoria, however, helping marginalised people ‘discover the need to speak and to speak the unspoken.
‘Theatre is my language,’ she says, ‘and all the communities I work with are my boss because people are the experts of their own stories.’
In Act of translation, Catherine worked with international students to help them form relationships with each other but also to connect to the broader community.
Listening to voices empowered people with lived experience to tackle the stigma of struggling with mental health issues.
The process of creating the theatre pieces empowers the performers, builds relationships and inspires hope.
‘Theatre builds the tribe and there’s a great power in being witnessed,’ continues Catherine.
‘Each performance ends with an audience-wide reflection and conversation that begin with questions about what the audience felt and learnt. Thoughts, feelings and ideas are drawn out and every audience is different.’
As for the OAM, Catherine admits to being thrilled but also mystified about just who nominated her.
Many people have said, “You so deserve it,” which is so kind and so heartening.’
Three sides of the coin is one of the many community-led initiatives the Foundation funds to prevent and reduce gambling harm.
Many thanks to Irene Metter for the photos.