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Political issues

The play had to tackle some difficult political issues to be worth its salt. The matter of the State Rail Authority contracting outside companies to do work which could have been done by its own workers a good example. "The men wonder why work gets sent out to private enterprise," said Tony Helou. "They see their work decreasing, yet work is still being sent out They also have to stay in their jobs, but
they hate it. Their lives are owned 95 percent by the railway. The Lebanese workers feel this particularly, because they are used to being able to go home at lunchtime, see their kids, whereas here they are trapped from 7.30 am to 4.00 pm and they hardly see their families." A fine balance was demanded as the whole project walked a tortuous path between the company's vision of things, the union organisers' opinions and management's concern that the final production didn't overstep the mark. Workers themselves were not entirely clear about how the politics surrounding their jobs should be worked out. As Anne-Marie Wiles found out, many didn't really know how it felt to represent the union until circumstance forced them into it. She said: I asked one organiser how he got to be shop steward and he told me 'Because no one else would take on the job.' It's a thankless task. Yet middle management there is promoted by seniority, not by skill."
Christian Manon said the migrant workers committee described themselves as the modern slaves." "They said they had 'invisible chains'," Christian said, "Our chains are at home - our houses, cars and so on .
The interesting comparison between the workers from Sidetrack and Chullora was that they all shared the need to establish some foothold for themselves in that environment. Tony Helou observed: "Everyone has brought something in from home, trying to create some sort of familiar feeling. There was one guy who was making a copper beaten mermaid to put on his locker - and he damn well did it all right." Christian Manon saw the workers' arrangement of a nude photograph display as a distraction from the ugly workplace. And in the private locker space were the most virginal of all the photographs.
Michelle Millner commented that one of the young female apprentices was offended by such photographic displays, but she didn't really let it worry her because she was determined to make a career as an engineer. The same went for the dirty environment and clothes.

When it came to the issue of the arrival of new technology, the workers had mixed responses. Most did not have immediate fears about new technology taking their jobs, but they did worry about their children and the prospect of them facing unemployment.
Although there was a pride in the work that the place had turned out over the years, there was no real romance about the "Good old days of steam", one of the themes used for a song in the play. "They said it was no fun shovelling seven tons of coal on the old train from Sydney to Newcastle:' Dallas Lewis said.

Assessing the project

If Sidetrack made a miscalculation with this project, it was most likely underestimating how many of their traditional ideas about performance could have been left at home. Then, when the difficulties of adjusting overnight to an alien workplace had been experienced, the end result could have been reviewed once more from the outside perspective, to see if the product offered the workers an honest and effective reflection of the culture of their workplace, or classified issues affecting the future of workers in that environment.
Other approaches, such as using workers themselves to take part in the performance, or to produce the script and to participate more in the direction or production of the play, could be tried.
However the production is mounted, one aspect of Sidetrack's work at Chullora underlines an essential aspect of art and working life projects. They must not be presented in a vacuum - the history of the work and the workplace involved plays a vital part in its contemporary "feel" and affect on the workers.
Chullora is a particularly strong example of the workplace having a history of its own, going back to 1920s when union militants were sent there to keep them away from trouble spots, through the 1930s and the war years when a whole community sprang up around the site and the Cooks River behind it. These facts help provide a perspective that highlights how people will always make a cultural impression wherever they gather, for whatever reason.
Sidetrack's director and actors are very critical of their own work, as has been indicated here. But alongside all of the self criticism and lessons learned, it must be acknowledged that the project was extremely successful!
It has provided a model of co-operation between theatre workers and workshop workers, and has produced a work which, in performance, was received with recognition and acclamation. It should be seen as a springboard from which many more innovative Art and Working Life projects will be seen to be possible.