ICE LAND: A HIP H’OPERA The Optamus Interview

Yirrra Yaakin’s latest production Ice Land: A Hip h’Opera offers a uniquely Western Australian perspective on the meth epidemic in our society, with its source material taken from three years of interviews with people dealing with methamphetamine addiction in some way. The lived experiences of addicts, some recovered, their families and health workers have been amalgamated into WA’s first hip hop opera by the Downsyde crew, also featuring local stars Layla and Moana Mayatrix. NATALIE GILES had a chat with Downsyde’s Optamus about the super exciting WA-grown production, playing at Subiaco Arts Centre from October 15 to 26.

So how’s it all going?

It’s probably one of the most intense things I’ve ever done, hey. It’s such a massive amount of work, way more than writing an album and touring it. It’s such a huge amount of creative energy.

But it’s pretty cool you’re doing it with your mates, right?

Oh yeah, for sure! I don’t think it would be possible if everyone was recruited to this show.

What are you finding so intense? Is it just the theatre experience in general?

I think, for me, the whole idea of incorporating a hip hop based music form into an opera based format in itself is hugely challenging, in making sure that we’re following the plot and script arcs right, writing these characters right and inhabiting them correctly. We need to be reflecting these characters’ lives and showing their struggles with meth addiction through their truths. There’s all these factors that I don’t need to think about when writing a song with Downsyde – then it’s about one concept and the three of us get together and we just write it. With this, you need to be mindful of where you are in the story arc. Are you reflecting the character or talking too much from yourself? Are you being true to the struggles that these characters face? Because it’s based on verbatim, real life true stories from West Australians who have struggled with a drug that’s now a massive epidemic in our state. So all those factors are swimming around when you’re writing this. But it’s a really positive challenge, to be able to reflect other people’s lives on a stage.

It’s a lot of responsibility really, to oversee telling others’ stories, isn’t it?

Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, this is taken from three years of audio and transcript interviews with real West Australians and very early on we realised the gravity of what we were doing and how huge a project this was. We were adamant that it had to be true to life. It’s really easy to make up fictional stories, but without the real voices behind it, it can come across as really contrived. I think the important thing for us was to listen to these stories, and some of them were harrowing. Internalising those truths was really tough sometimes.

But aren’t the hard stories what hip hop is all about?

Oh hell yeah – it’s about rebellion, it’s about struggle. It’s always been about marginalised people from the moment of its birth. It came out of ghettos and it kinds of steeps itself in struggle. So there is hope in Ice Land. It’s just getting the fuck out of Ice Land that’s the hard part.

Is this your first time acting on stage?

Well, other than amateur theatre out of high school and stuff, yeah. But I think hip hop has a lot of kinship with acting, in that you’re not necessarily singing a story, you’re telling it. That link to poetry, it’s pretty much a form of spoken word, and I think that’s the closest thing to acting. It’s storytelling, just done really fast. The rate at which you can tell your story is like six or seven times as fast, so you can fit a lot more into a verse than a normal song or an acted script.

Hip hop is definitely performative, so it makes sense that it translates across…

Yeah and speaking on behalf of all of us who are involved in this, it makes you feel more exposed, in that there’s an element of our own rapping which we’re not hiding behind, but more comfortable with. In this production, the acting part of it is pretty evident. So it is more challenging for us. We’ve got to consider our movement on stage and so on.

But in saying that, people can just come along to Ice Land and enjoy the experience. They might want to enjoy seeing Layla perform for the first time in 10 years or whatever. They might just want to see Downsyde do something different and interesting. They might have experience with addiction or meth in particular, whether it’s themselves or someone in their family, or it might be health workers who are looking for something that reflects the challenges they face day to day. Or opera fans. Or hip hop fans! You know, it’s offering a mixed bag for everyone to enjoy. But also for people to be able to enjoy it as a musical piece of theatre as well.

The challenge is that when you’re doing something new in WA, you don’t know how it’s going to go. I think for us, it’s about showing something that’s extremely powerful and doing it in the best way we can. I mean, it gives me chills when I’m watching it, and that’s when you know you’re onto something.

It ticks so many boxes, whether you have lived experience or not. We all know we’re at shocking levels of meth use here, and we need politicians to come see this and to hear that we need more resources to help battle this, right?

Definitely. We want people to have the conversation that’s presented in a way that’s true to the experience, but not banging people around the head about not doing drugs at all when they’re indulging in a bit of the old after dinner mint, so to speak. The whole point of this is not to demonise drug use, but this is a very real situation we’re facing right now. We’ve got one of the highest rates of meth use in the western world here. But we want people to walk away from this with some kind of hope. It’s just sad that right now in WA, most people don’t walk away from this life. It’s about capturing a real problem we have in WA and having the conversation. I mean, from my point of view, this production is top notch and the songs are amazing and the stories need to be heard. The more support we get, the bigger the conversation. Just come see this show.