Reflections on The Power Within by David Burton
Flying into Moranbah, Central Queensland, the open-cut coal mines don’t so much dot the landscape as colonise it. A dozen big black holes yawn out of the earth, their inner-contents shoveled out and piled up around their borders in biblical proportions. It resembles a child-god’s sand pit. The sun is about to set as we touch down, but it’s still forty degrees outside. The hot air slams into my solar plexus the second I leave the plane. I am one of dozens of young men walking across the tarmac to the large shed where our baggage is waiting. I’m the only one not wearing neon orange.
I’m here to write and direct a musical for Queensland Music Festival.
I spend months embedded in the region with a creative team. We collaborate with the community to create a show about the Isaac people that they will also perform. We spend hours in the car traversing the flat bushland, covering a council region that is bigger than the size of Tasmania. Even in the dusty outskirts, in small mining towns like Glenden, Middlemount and Dysart, we meet people eager to participate. The cast list soon bubbles to over two hundred.
Isaac locals stand at the edge of an existential precipice. Without mining, which is declining, many of the towns will shrink and possibly die. It’s a depressing thought for residents, who already feel as though they are at the bottom of a low tide. Just six years ago, Moranbah was the most expensive place to live in Queensland. As the price of coal plummeted, so did house values. Land and house packages can now be purchased for under fifty thousand dollars in Dysart. The cheap price draws a diverse population.
I go in search of local legends that might provide interesting fodder for the show. UFOs? Ghost stories? Larrikins and heroes from generations past? There are none. These places are too young and too transient to have a sustainable mythology. Instead, all chatter comes back to mining.
The locals that have been here for more than a handful of years have seen the boom come and go. Their complaints about the mining companies are so unified they could almost join in chorus. As the companies push more towards a completely FIFO workforce, the value of local businesses and real estate plummets. On the ground, it’s as though the companies simply don’t care about local communities. They’re here to pillage the landscape as efficiently as possible. They don’t particularly care what they leave behind.
We stage the musical, The Power Within, a fantastical re-imagining of the issues at the heart of the Isaac region, and a celebration of its abundant human resources. 250 locals are featured. There are horses, belly-dancers, and singers galore. The finale features all cast members singing in a mass choir, a singular united voice. The show centres on a fictional town that’s built to mine a precious resource: song. But young people in the town end up searching for something greater. The town floods, characterised in our production by an accomplished classical pianist unleashing Chopin. In the aftermath of the disaster, the residents come together to support each other, re-build, and find hope. The mining continues, profit keeps coming in, but the emphasis is placed on the people, not the resource.
It’s an optimistic message that the community rallies around. In the closing night after party, many are weeping. For so many of the young people in the region, the production is the first sign that their town is worthy of celebration. That’s it’s more than just a ‘mining town’. It’s home.
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