In Gippsland, a community arts competition has opened new doors for people with disabilities.
Thursday afternoons are a big deal at Mawarra, a support service for people with disabilities in Warragul. It's at this time that members of the Mawarra Community Choir gather for their weekly practice session. The choir is made up of clients from Mawarra as well as members of the general community, and in the nearly two years that they have been singing together they've built up quite a profile. They've sung in nursing homes and at funerals, busked on the streets of Warragul at Christmas, and won a prize in the Sing for Good competition. Right now, though, they're getting ready to perform at the Gippsland Parasteddfod – and everyone in the group is learning to play the ukulele.
"Everyone is very excited about practicing every week," says choir coordinator Sharon Axford. "Everyone comes away with a huge smile on their face. It's really good fun and we've certainly improved, to the point where we can now do a part song where there's two different groups singing different songs at the same time. We've certainly come a long way."
The Gippsland Parasteddfod is part of the West Gippsland Music and Drama Eisteddfod which is held in July and August each year. The Parasteddfod was introduced in 2012 as a way of giving people with disabilities the opportunity to showcase their talents.
Unlike the mainstream eisteddfod, the Parasteddfod is not competitive. An adjudicator provides feedback and encouragement to each of the performers, and everyone who participates receives a memento of the event. As the only event of its kind in the area, it attracts performers from all over the region. There were 30 or 40 entrants in the first year; in 2016 there were close to 100.
"It had a really positive response in the first year and it's grown from there as word has spread in the community," says Jayne McGoldrick, who convened the Parasteddfod from 2013 to 2016. (She stepped aside this year following the birth of her third child, but is staying on as adjudicator on the day.)
While traditional eisteddfods maintain very strict rules about who can enter and what they can perform, the Parasteddfod adapts each year according to the interests of its entrants. Singing and playing musical instruments, either solo or in groups, are popular categories, but the drama category is open to anything from comedy skits to poetry readings. A dance category was introduced in 2012, allowing one local group to show off their new circus skills. Rock band the Cosmic Chickens, from Vista Day Services in Morwell, are a crowd favourite.
"We are happy to encourage anyone and everyone to have a go," says Jayne. "The aim is to provide an opportunity for people to get up and perform and share whatever it is that they love to do."
Organising the Parasteddfod is not without its challenges. With the West Gippsland Arts Centre currently closed for refurbishment, there was some difficulty in finding a suitable venue that is wheelchair accessible. And while the event largely runs on passion and volunteer labour, venue hire is costly. The Parasteddfod relies on grants and sponsorship from local organisations and businesses to cover expenses.
It may be a small event, but it has a big impact on the local community. "A lot of people come and watch and are really moved by the things that they see on the day," says Jayne. "It's a chance to come along and see the skills and confidence that the performers have, and it's really inspiring."
For the performers, the lead up to the Parasteddfod is an exciting time. "The feedback that we get is that they love having something they can work towards and practice for," says Jayne. "It's a very social day – everyone gets together and encourages each other. It's a really positive vibe."
This is certainly the case over at Mawarra. "The guys go on and on about how they can't wait for Thursday afternoon," says Sharon. "And everyone gets a buzz out of playing the ukuleles for the first twenty minutes. It's all good fun."
That's what the Parasteddfod is all about at its heart – having fun, sharing, and trying new things.
Creative Victoria works with eisteddfod organisation Royal South Street to support eisteddfods across Victoria through an annual grants program. Local eisteddfods across Victoria can apply via Royal South Street for a grant to support the cost of engaging professional adjudicators for their competitions.
Find out more about the Eisteddfod Grants program by visiting the Royal South Street website