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Getting used to us being around

Sidetrack's approach to the Loco project, as with all its productions, was to make the process just as important as the product. So from the very beginning, when Sidetrack's writer-in-residence Patrick Cranney started his two months of research, alone at Chullora, it was as much for what he could learn from the people working there, as they could gain something from the product he would be involved in eventually producing.

One of the main instigators of the whole project, Brian Dunnett, from the Combined Shop Stewards Committee, said Pat's presence around the huge workshop area played a vital part in getting everyone used to the idea that someone was actually taking the time to find out about the workers' experiences and feelings, with a view to creating a work of art from and for them. That realisation was as important as the quality of the final product.
After Pat's period investigating all sorts of attitudes towards and experiences of Chullora, the Sidetrack team of five actors and director Don Mamouney joined him in September 1983 for a five week 'Job' at the workshops.
Each morning at seven thirty the Sidetrack group would arrive along with everyone else, and start the job of creating a play from the raw material of thousands of lives and a long tradition in the railway game.

Sidetrack's workforce experienced many of the same problems as Chullora's - they couldn't always get the supplies (of ideas, feelings, understanding) they needed; they couldn't always get the cooperation between themselves necessary to get the job done easily; there were hassles in the production process, and the constant pressure to meet deadlines nearly wrecked the whole operation.

Erecting workshop at Chullora  

"It's not their will to be at work..."

Producing a play about work proved to be a challenging and contradictory and cantankerous task. As Christian Manon, who played Joe in the play, summed it up: ". . . I found myself dreaming about my father's experience of work. All of us came under the same influence. It wasn't from the 'words' of the workers, but from their attitudes. It's not their will to be at work, and we felt the same thing. Will is very important to actors, so our creativity was much less than usual. For the workers all the desire is at home."
Patrick Cranney had the most difficult job in many regards, having to go into the workshops alone and try to "suss out" the major issues. It was a daunting task to be confronted with a myriad of forces at work on the lives there. Any number of topicsc ould have been picked to represent the workers' preoccupations.
Eventually Don and Patrick decided it would be best to approach the script from the same workshop angle Sidetrack had developed in its other productions. That way everyone could contribute impressions and help iron out the main threads in the story at Chullora. This lesson was a major one learned at Chullora: the writer should be a member of the whole production team, not someone expected to bring forward a finished product on which the actors and director then proceed to work.

Work as an institution

While the object of the production was to give a 'voice' to the views of those working at Chullora, nevertheless all sides were represented fairly and anonymously, and the overriding power of the institution of work itself was presented in a light that clearly showed up its dual nature. As Don commented: It's institutional behaviour largely. What came out in the play was the sense of the wasted creativity and wasted humanity, while at the same time most workers do get some satisfaction from their jobs, and it's not all alienating."

Dallas Lewis, Sidetrack's administrator, said Chullora's management personnel were accommodating and cooperative throughout the whole venture. They took a pragmatic view towards what was obviously a totally new experience, which helped make the production a success. That degree of openness from management would be vital for any similar project.
The final product didn't preach patronising messages about workers. Because its form and content came directly from the experiences of people in the workplace, the play was able to show up the beauty, the ugliness, the pride and the disillusionment arising from the experience of industrial work. By focusing on the reality of change due to technology, the play drew an important comparison between the disappearance of dull, repetitive, mindless jobs and the loss of a major access to a sense of self-esteem and purpose, whether you have a job or not.