There is a widely held belief that the Arts can transform lives in a way that nothing else can. Think Jessica Mauboy, Guy Sebastian or the young Adelaide writer Hannah Kent whose wildly successful first book Burial Rites led to a lucrative book and movie deal. Young lives transformed in extremis. There’s no denying that public success and cold hard cash can make lives richer, easier, better. But, for so many artists practising their craft in a less visible sphere – whether that be performing, painting or writing – there is a different kind of transformation taking place. It’s internal and addictive; and its power is in changing the way you experience the world and yourself. However, unless you have experienced it, you might take some convincing.

Twelve years ago 18-year-old Alysha Herrmann was invited to a theatre workshop for teenage mums living in the Riverland. Up to that point, she says, her experience of drama as a bullied school student had been “humiliating”, just another place she didn’t fit. So she wasn’t convinced. But when a friend offered to go with her, she relented. After all, turning up once didn’t mean she had to commit to the year-long project.

Riverland Regional Health was a partner on the project and Herrmann was working for them one day a week as a peer mentor. She’d returned to school to finish year 12 and worked in the evenings at a pizza bar to pay the bills; all of this, while also being a single parent to a one year old. At that first workshop Herrmann met four other young women with similar experiences: single parenting, sexual violence and a low sense of self worth. Who on earth would be interested in listening to their sorry tales?

Statistics show that teenage pregnancies have been steadily decreasing but that doesn’t stop everyone from having an opinion about teenage mothers.  “Babies having babies” is a common quip and, more darkly, “Does she even know who the father is?” Herrmann has heard it all. “There’s definitely a perception that you’re just a slutty teenage mum,” she says. Even the artists involved in the project later admitted they were expecting to hear how having a baby had screwed up the lives of these five young women. Nothing could be further from the truth. For Herrmann, having her baby made her step up. And so did the theatre project.

“We made connections with each other immediately in that first session. It was a good feeling. It was fun. And addictive.” Despite her already heavy load, she signed up.

Random Girls was a collaboration between Riverland Youth Theatre and Vitalstatistix National Women’s Theatre in Adelaide. It culminated in a theatrical performance by the young participants, based on their stories. The show toured for two weeks, receiving rave reviews. But like so many community arts projects, the performance (or product) was the tip of the iceberg. It was the process that was far more important.

“To be in a room with artists and be told that you are valuable,
that your story is valuable,
that was huge. You can’t not be affected by that.”

Her voice still rings with the excitement of finding something precious and life changing.

The experience she had in Random Girls directly informs the creative work Herrmann does now as Creative Producer at Carclew’s Express Way Arts in Port Noarlunga. She uses an artistic framework to “ask the hard questions” and to build connections between young people and their community. Last year she produced a show Run, Zombie, Run, which began with the question: If zombies came, how would you survive? It too culminated in a theatrical experience that belied the importance of its process. Herrmann explains:

“Run, Zombie, Run was about young people building their ability to talk to each other, become familiar with the physical spaces in their community and manage how to get from one place to another. That was all a part of the process.”

It’s through projects like Random Girls and Run, Zombie, Run that artists build social capital and, in doing so, strive to make the world a better place.

However, when she was fifteen, Alysha Herrmann believed that she wouldn’t see her thirtieth birthday; that there was something wrong with her, she was “fundamentally flawed and if I could just fix myself, everything would be okay.” Now, after a lot of self-reflection, she knows that to be a false self-judgement; but she’s had to travel a long and sometimes difficult road to make that discovery.

At fifteen, profoundly unhappy in the Riverland, she left home to move in with her teenage boyfriend in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. Embraced by a group of friends who loved and protected her, she felt like she belonged for the first time in her life. “But they weren’t healthy, productive relationships,” she says. “There was always emotional upheaval and no sense of safety.”

Constant money worries meant she left school to work in a factory and the relationship with her parents broke down. She felt isolated and had no safe adult to turn to. Then the on-going fights with her boyfriend “became really toxic on both sides” and turned violent.

Herrmann has a lot to say about domestic violence. She regularly delivers public talks to break down the myths, silence and stigma:

“What’s missed in the conversation is it’s usually just two people trying to do the best that they can with no bloody skills. Domestic Violence campaigns become about the poor innocent woman and the horrible evil man and you can’t recognise yourself in those campaigns. You think: well, he actually loves me, and I was being nasty and provocative too.”

Herrmann suggests that domestic violence begins before the pushing and shoving.

“It starts with being fearful. A lot of his behaviour came from a fear that I was better than him and therefore I was going to leave him and he was going to be alone.”

words by Caroline Reed | photo Alysha’s own | oct 27, 2016 |  inspirited

Despite
the cycles
of violence,
she was loyal
and committed
to making the rela-
tionship work. “Noth-
ing anyone could have
said would have made
me leave him earlier than
I did. I had to be ready,” she
says. It was the overwhelming
responsibility to her son that was
the clincher. “I wanted him to have
something better.” Then Random Girls
came along and in claiming – through
art – the story she told about herself, Her-
rmann slowly began to recognise her own
agency.

Now, at thirty, with so much power and so many options, Herrmann’s biggest fear is that she won’t fit in all that she wants to do. However, she’s already squeezed in a lot,  her biography reading like a classic slashie,  that contemporary breed of  multi-tasking, multi-passioned folk who get a buzz from employing various skills. She’s a proud parent/regional artist/producer/advocate/writer/theatre maker working across disciplines in the arts/education/community development/social justice/social enterprise. She’s won awards for her work including most recently the2015 Kirk Robson Award, 2014 Channel 9 Young Achiever Arts Award and was named by SA Life as one of South Australia’s fastest  rising stars under 30 in 2014. You can’t help but think there’s something of The Ugly Duckling story in her narrative: disempowered, worthless youth transforms into powerful, passionate woman. And beneath it all lays her love of language and story.

In a short story titled A Better Way to Live, Deborah Levy writes: “Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking … because language can make your world a better place.” Language tumbles rapidly out of Herrmann. She is an exuberant woman who laughs a lot and by her own admission “over shares”.

“I love writing. I love words,”

she says. She sees possibilities and value in hearing others’ stories, often investing her own funds so that non-mainstream voices can be heard. In 2015, for example, she produced and toured Sprout, a play created and performed by young people. She is also the driving force behind Manifold Portrait, a project that sees her visit a so-called trouble spot in the Riverland once a month, a place where stories are often told about the people who live there, not by them; and the stories are rarely positive. Finding creative ways to give people agency to tell their own stories is a driving force for Alysha Herrmann. It’s not about fixing things. It’s about coming back to the questions: How can we use an artistic framework to have the hard conversations? What is our responsibility to each other? How we are being in the world together?

In Random Girls, Herrmann did what the American composer Pauline Oliveros suggests women do: to offer their experience as their truth. She did it again in this year’s Adelaide Fringe when she presented an art experience in people’s lounge rooms. Another Elusive Maybe was about love, loneliness, community and how we don’t ask for help. Herrmann offered her story so that others might recognise their experience, and recognise the value of their truth.

Art, language, storytelling: the tools gifted to a young Alysha Herrmann by a group of professional artists so that she experienced first hand the power of transformation. Her world became a better place and, luckily for our world, she’s paying it forward.