Over the course of the pandemic, how often have you felt impossibly alone? Even if you were staying with others, are the people you live with your ideal family, or given more options, would you rather be with a chosen family instead? And for the queer readers among you – what exactly is your definition of family?
Written, performed and produced by Australian artist Noémie Huttner-Koros (they/them), Mother of Compost arrives in Singapore next week to disrupt and upturn your idea of family, positing that over the course of the one hour performance, you too might find yourself in the hands of a new family with the audience members around you. All this against the back drop of the anthropocene, as we rapidly move towards a world that is fast ending, with little future in sight. How then can we keep calm and stay hopeful?
“I was doing research into the queer history of Perth and Western Australia, and the queer experience of family and the HIV/AIDs crisis, alongside myself wrestling with the desire to have children and to be a parent, and what that might mean as a young person inheriting this world,” says Noémie, on the project’s origins. “Previously, I also created this other project called The Trouble Makers, where I ended up cooking dinner for audiences using plants I collected from local environments and also wrestled with the idea of climate change and environmental movements I’d been involved with over the last 10 years.”
“And then there were the bushfires that were rampaging across Australia from 2019 to 2020, decimating over a billion animals and burning down all these places I’d grown up,” they continue. “So I connected with Andrew (Sutherland, director), and we wanted to find a new mode of storytelling together, and we ended up taking things further by interviewing scientists who were talking about serious things while also bringing a playful, irreverent style to the show that questioned and made fun of the tropes about family. I kept thinking about how we could move into the future, to come to care for one another in a tangible way to understand family and pairing. when things are falling apart, and bring people together into this space, strangers at first but a little more connected by the end.”
On the performance’s title, Noémie explains how it combines both the ideas of environmental movements and family; in reading about compost, she thought about the idea of discarded things, messy, disgusting and unappealing, yet able to combine them to produce fertile soil to create new life. “In that sense, we want to get comfortable with the process of dealing with the mess that we’ve created over the years, and now that the next generation is inhabiting and inheriting the mess, how then can we fruitfully come to terms with it?” they say. “And then I was also thinking about how I really want to have children, yet there are so many conflicts with my identity and beliefs, including how being queer already feels in opposition to family making, yet I’ve never felt more cared for and loved than with the queer community and queer families.”
“Surrounded by smoke in Melbourne, or seeing the flooding in New South Wales, I decided to create this ‘mother’ of compost, the idea that I was creating a persona for myself that was out of this world, that was coming out of the muck of the anthropocene and this muck we’re all in, and finding a way to go forward,” they continue. “It’s in a way adorning myself with a title the way drag performers do, it’s grand but silly and honours the figure of the mother, who are so often derided in pop culture. So we’re honouring that idea and acknowledging the work that goes into motherhood, and also to remind people that yes, compost is icky, but with a mother overseeing it, you learn to care and nurture and get your hands dirty to deal with it.”
Noémie’s own family gave them an interesting backstory, and could be attributed to their openness and willingness to explore new definitions and facets of their identity. “I come from a tight-knot family who were migrants to Australia, and that already imbued in me this idea that family and home are defined and made in different ways,” says Noémie. “Of course, my own biological family would ask plenty of questions, but more out of curiosity than criticism, and these helped me shape my way of thinking, but I was able to live as an openly queer person and grew up and met people I could actually identify with.”
“Seeing older queer people living their lives and looked after by my community. There was no shame, and the idea that the nuclear family was the be all and end all was never the case for me, and I was open to the idea of extended kinship and more fluid family structures, and I thought a lot about queer ancestors and how they in a way, set up these possibilities for us, even if we are not direct blood descendants,” they add. “I hope then that the show starts to speak of this idea that we might be related to strangers and people and places and beings we might think we’re not connected to and there are these threads tying us all together, that everything we do as a species matters and affects each other, and we come together to see that we’re a much larger interconnected family.”
In that sense, Mother of Compost is an invitation to audience members, and a reminder that we are all ecological beings sharing the same planet. We have the potential to be connected, and the performance then is bringing that realisation to our conscious mind, that we are caught in history, but have the potential to change things for the better as well. For Noémie, this extends to even her rehearsal process, where togetherness and care for each other is the key to getting things done well. “Surprisingly, no one was freaking out, even with a tight budget and time constraints. And a lot of that comes from the things we do together outside of the show itself, like how we ended up walking around a local wetland, or how I invited everyone to my house and cooked them dinner. As the creator, all this is my way of thanking people to trust me with their time, and to thank them for their expertise,” they say.
“We feel more willingly to put all of ourselves into the project, and not section ourselves from the work we’re doing. Of course, there were moments of stress, but communication is key and we started the process with ground rules which framed it all well, like a code of conduct of how we wanted to work. In the end, the final product is an act of collectively authoring something and taking shared ownership, a world we build where everyone has a voice. It seems like a small step, but by manifesting this version of how we wish the world was, we go on chipping away at cracks in the system, and make the world a better place.”
Described as “a queer and unruly family gathering and a communal grieving for what is being lost and everything left to fight for”, what audiences can expect from the show is a bit of a mystery, and Noémie is more than happy to elucidate. “It’s a warm and playful experience, and even though it’s a little interactive and participatory, I want to reassure people that it’s gentle and you will never be asked to do anything you don’t want to,” they say. “Sometimes you just end up sitting back and enjoying it, sometimes it feels like a warm embrace, at other times, a deep loss, and we try to hold those things simultaneously while also incorporating silly dance sequences, serious conversation, some stuff about slugs, and a remix featuring David Attenborough.”
“And the reactions to the show have been wonderful too – my favourite parts are the conversations it’s started with people, where I hear about their own experiences of family and how they come to term with ecological grief and thinking about the future,” they conclude. “I think almost every work I make will wrestle with these ideas, because I feel so much joy at being alive but also terror and fear of what is to come. To have hope, it comes from action, which in turn comes from being connected to others and working together to do something that’s larger than yourself. We want to stand up to things like how Australia remains one of the biggest exporters of coal and gas, and by connecting to others and finding like-mindedness, you are no longer paralysed at being alone, you realise masses of people come together and make plans and do extraordinary things together to get us through crises.”
Mother of Compost runs from 4th to 6th January 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here