Katie Noonan: “A lot of the themes are of sisterhood, solidarity and looking after each other”

katie noonan

WHAT DO YOU GET when you cross a renowned Brisbane singer-songwriter, a contemporary circus group and a slice of lesser-known Australian history?

The answer is ‘Love-Song-Circus’; a show featuring the voice and music of Katie Noonan, the acrobatics of Brisbane’s Circa and a new way of looking at sometimes uncomfortable aspects of our past.

“I was inspired by an exhibition called ‘Love Tokens’ at the National Museum,” Noonan says. “It’s a collection of coins which have beautiful messages on them; inscriptions that convicts would write for the family they were forced to leave behind. The romanticism of that imagery really captured my imagination and I decided I wanted to find out more about these people. As a woman and a mother, I wanted to find out about the stories of the women; stories which have been explored by precious few people. I started a long journey of research into these women’s lives and came up with a song cycle of sixteen pieces that formed the basis of this body of work called Fierce Hearts, which became ‘Love-Song-Circus’ in collaboration with Circa as an ode to these incredible women. It was very different and challenging, but also very rewarding.”

Originally, I wanted to try to find the love letters of the women; to explore their love, lust and longings, and put their words to music. Unfortunately literacy was a gift bestowed generally upon the wealthy and generally men, so many women – particularly convicts – were illiterate. That made me rethink everything. I read lots of books, PHD reports and prison records, then wrote a series of poems which became lyrics to the songs, from the point of view of the women. In doing that, I wanted to make sure everything was factually correct, and I went on trips to get a sense of the physical world they would have seen; places like Tasmania where the bulk of the women went, and around Sydney. A lot of these stories are quite sad, but many of the women overcame adversity and became very strong. They were the original boat people, but they were forced to come here. England and Ireland at the time had incredible poverty and desperation which led to women stealing the loaf of bread, which is the quintessential convict tale. Rather than getting a helping hand they were sent to a place that was so alien to them.”

Joining forces with circus group Circa brought a new aspect to the telling of the stories.

“When I think of modern examples of strong women, I often think of physical theatre and the circus,” Noonan says. “Obviously, contemporary dance and ballet portray the strength of women in a really different way, whereas in circus you have these incredibly strong women in a physical sense. I really admire Circa’s work; I think they take circus work to a different place than most; it’s certainly not from a cabaret or burlesque point of view in any way. The directors come at it from a theatre background and there’s a sense of narrative and drama, and they add a really interesting element to these stories. A lot of the themes are of sisterhood, solidarity and looking after each other, and they are reflected beautifully by the bodies of the women in Circa. It feels like a really lovely combination and has been a successful relationship.”

Performing ‘Love-Song-Circus’ at a series of hometown gigs is just the start of a busy year for Noonan.

“I’m doing lots of writing and working with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra,” she says. “I’m also writing my next record with my band The Captains, but these songs are my main focus as the album is coming out. We’re opening in Brisbane, then a week at Adelaide Fringe, then Sydney. I’d like to get it to Perth, but my big dream is to bring it to Tasmania, where most of these women were based. In fact, I’d love to do it at the Cascades Female Factory on the earth on which they worked.”

‘LOVE-SONG-CIRCUS’ PLAYS AT CREMORNE THEATRE, QPAC MAR 4-8. FIERCE HEARTS IS OUT FEB 28.

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