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Paschal Berry

Performance maker and Dramaturge Paschal Berry

BY FELINO DELOSO – Paschal Daantos Berry is performance maker, writer, dramaturge and curator whose practice is focused on interdisciplinary, cross cultural and collaborative processes. He has worked for Urban Theatre Projects (UTP), Radio National (ABC), Griffin Theatre, the Australian Choreographic Centre and Quantum Leap Youth Choreographic Ensemble, Belvoir Asian Theatre Festival, Performance Space, Blacktown Arts Centre, ATYP, Canberra Youth Theatre and NORPA.  Between 2013 -18 he worked for Blacktown Arts as a curator and led the curatorial team as Program Coordinator. 

 He was the Curator of Programs and Learning for the Biennale of Sydney 2020 and has recently joined Art Gallery NSW as Head of Learning and Participation.  He is also one of four Australian curators selected for the 23rd Biennale of Sydney (2022), led by Colombian artistic director Jose Roca. 

From what age did you know of your great interest in Acting/Performing Arts/Visual Arts?  What was your first project?

My first creative memory is drawing endlessly and making up stories, when I was four or five.  Because I’m the youngest, my earliest memories of my childhood in Cebu are scribbling and studying people and environments, mostly drawing superheroes and structures like San Juanico Bridge which was obviously the manifestation of my links to my father and mother’s ancestral lands in Samar and Leyte respectively! 

 My family was really creative.  My Tatay was a skilled artist and Nanay was a big fan of American literature, particularly 19th Century poetry.  We were encouraged to perform, draw and paint.  All of us siblings are inherently creative.  My eldest sister Rosel writes beautifully and we always thought she’d be the actor.  My brother Roman danced professionally all his life and started a dance group when we migrated to Ceduna, South Australia. We also went to the same acting school and now he is a theater maker.

 My sister Valerie is a bit of an acting pioneer – she’d kill me for saying that – as an Asian performer she was one of the few who was generating her own work and projects in the 90’s and is still going strong.  I really admire her tenacity and being both in performance we’ve been collaborators for a very long time.

My first “real” acting job was in a self-devised project called Learning to Waltz with Tigers and Dragons at Downstairs Belvoir around 1996-97.  It was such a blast working with really great Asian-Australian performers like Eliane Morel, Paul Cordeiro, Joy Hopwood, Yuji Sone and Georgina Naidu.  It was such an important time as it strengthened my resolve to write and it also politicized me.  I really enjoyed creating these hilarious skits about race with Eliane and grew to understand through the process that I was less interested in acting – nerves always got the better of me!  That crew also introduced me to the wider world of performance, namely the gorgeous things happening at Performance Space on Cleveland Street!

Whilst all of that was happening, I received the Belvoir Asian-Australian Young Playwright’s award which was attached to Cheryl Yin Lo’s Belvoir Asian Theatre Festival.  It really felt like I had the best beginnings in the way that I always felt like people were looking out for me and giving me these wonderful opportunities I got to work with some great dramaturges.

What are some of the projects that you have been involved in here and overseas?

There were really great people who were around in the late 90’s that encouraged me to write.  Producers and Dramaturgs like Barry Gamba (ICE) and Bruce Keller (Papermoon Theatre) were so instrumental in my development as a young writer.  I wrote a play called Conversations through the Wall for a project called 10×6 which was a season of short plays.  I ended up writing a full length version of that work for ABC Radio National which was produced as a radio play. 

That play along with its follow up, Ancestry of my Eyes, took me to the Royal Court International Residency in London in 2000 which was supported by Australia Council and the British Council.  It was a surreal experience meeting my heroes like Harold Pinter and Martin Crimp at a time when British playwrights were churning out important works like Patrick Marber’s Closer and writers like Crimp were experimenting with the form.  I arrived in London several months after Sarah Kane’s death and they had just bumped out her last show and you could still feel the sadness.  But I think I adored most the talents of the other international playwrights who were there.

Around the same time I accidentally stumbled upon dance and worked on a project with Brett Daffy who was one of the founding members of Chunky Move at the time.  I wrote a series of poems which ended up being the schematic for his all-men work The Thousand Mile Stare for the Australian Choreographic Centre.  Then I ended up in dance dramaturgy – which I didn’t even know was a job!  I moved to Canberra to work at the Choreographic Centre for 3 years as a resident dramaturge.

I had a bit of an existential crisis after Canberra and I was still mourning our mother who died in 2001.  I received Asialink funding to go to Manila to finish a poem called Post Mortem, what came out of that was a play called The Folding Wife and a lifelong friendship/family life with Anino Shadowplay Collective from Manila and Sydney based performance maker Deborah Pollard.  I also collaborated with my sister Val on that work.  We did two other works after that – Within and Without (2010) and This Here. Land (2018) – this time our family of central divisors included the phenomenal actor/director Kenneth Moraleda.

Recently I’ve slowly transitioned back into my first love – visual arts – and I have worked as performance curator and led programs at Blacktown Arts.  In 2019 I moved over to the Biennale of Sydney and was the curator of programs and learning for the internationally acclaimed 22nd edition, NIRIN.  I’m now the head of learning and participation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and will be co-curating the next Biennale of Sydney with Jose Roca ( 23rd Biennale artistic director), Hannah Donnely (I.C.E.), Talia Linz (Artspace) and Ana Davis (MCA).

Of the work you listed above, which one would you consider your favorite or the best one you have undertaken so far?

I’ve had a pretty accidental career and the work has been so diverse that it’s hard to pick a favorite!  Going home to the Philippines was seminal for me, so anything with Anino will always be the most important for me.  Being part of a collective is often difficult with so many personalities to negotiate but working with the gang has been nothing but life affirming.  We’ve been through the birth of children and the death of an important collaborator, Don Salubayba.  We love making work together.  We’ve been lucky enough to travel together with our projects.

Within the context of working with communities, serving the Dharug people through the Blacktown Native Institution still remains one of my favourite experiences – and I remain in service.

As a milestone, NIRIN felt Herculean.  To produce an international exhibition program in service of Brook Andrew’s vision – which was artist and Indigenous led – and during Covid, took all we could give (sanity included) but it has also built my resilience and directed me to a new role that I’m loving.  It feels good to be part of a groundswell of reimagining our cultural landscape.  Being in the Art Gallery of New South Wales right this moment feels like the precipice of great things to come.  I’ve been so lucky to have worked with some phenomenal people and future leaders.

Who would you accredit as having the greatest influence on you and in what you do?  Who would you select as the most enjoyable person/s you have worked with and why?

My mother Grace remains the most influential.  Her humanity and her dedication to Aboriginal early childhood education opened my eyes to what’s important.  There are things I do now that I can trace back peering through the AECEP office in Ceduna observing her manner with people, or waking up in the middle of the night and seeing her going through student’s essays. 

My love for collaboration and people can all be traced to her.  

My siblings, close friends and my Anino collaborators  have also been my greatest influences.  I like to live in a playful world where you can take risks and be rewarded for it.  There’s nothing worse than inertia and I like to surround myself with people who can push me past the doldrums.  

What project are you currently working on?  What are planned in the next five years?

I’m currently leading a team that is planning and curating a suite of programs for the opening of the Gallery’s new Sydney Modern building which opens at the end of 2022.  As stated earlier I’m also in the curatorium of the next Biennale (2022).  Visioning public programs and learning opportunities at the Gallery is a very full time endeavor!  

Life at the moment gives very little room for theatre making.  But I can do that when I’m 70 – not really in a hurry for a full return to performance!

Paschal Daantos Berry is currently the Head of Learning and Participation for the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Steady, steady, steady as he goes…

Felino Deloso