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Bush gem: meet the woman from Kojonup unearthing country Australian talent

Alumni News

Curtin alumna Bec Bignell is empowering regional Australians to tell their stories and break down stereotypes about living in the bush.

Bec Bignell
Bec Bignell has forged a successful career as a professional storyteller. Photo credit: Alex Vaughan

Bec Bignell has always loved stories. Growing up on a sheep-wheat farm in Kojonup, she would make up poems and stories to bide the time while she carried out farm chores. When work was done for the day, Bignell would head round to her grandmother’s place, where they would watch old musicals and Hollywood films together.

“My grandma was a historian, so she really encouraged us to write and do all sorts of creative things,” Bignell says.

“When I was about eight, she took me to Perth to see the production Annie at His Majesty’s Theatre. My mum had made me this beautiful dress and it was a massive deal for me to come from Koji and be in the audience. I remember wanting so badly to be in that show.”

The thrill of the stage and storytelling remained with Bignell throughout her childhood, and she went on to study a double major in performance studies (now theatre arts) and journalism at Curtin.

“I had wanted to study straight acting, but my dad said no. He didn’t want me to be an ‘unemployed actor and starving’ – which actually is not true for actors – but in hindsight it was the best advice he could have ever given me because it meant I was able to do multiple things.

“I think that’s really important for the environment we’re in now. Traditionally you had one role and you stuck to it, whereas now people are skilled in multiple areas but can also have specialisations.”

After graduating from Curtin in 2008, Bignell moved to the East Coast and built a successful career as a producer, journalist, actor, marketer and writer. But she never forgot her country roots, and in 2017 she co-founded media company, Cockatoo Co. Lab, to help share the stories of underrepresented communities, particularly those from regional Australia.

“My business partner, Dr Marius Foley, and I came together over a shared interest in human-centred design and audience-led content creation. We wanted to genuinely showcase untapped talent and different voices authentically from the ground up,” Bignell explains.

“We found regional people were an audience that had a lot of opportunity to be ‘elevated’ in terms of creative talent and having their voices heard.

“A lot of the time, city organisations go into the country to speak on behalf of country people, whereas we’re really interested in country people telling their own stories, to help break down misconceptions and stereotypes about country Australia.”

Bignell and five other people sit on wool bales together in a large shed.

Bec Bignell works directly with people from all around country Australia to help them create and share their own stories. Photo credit: Helen Bignell.

Cockatoo Co. Lab is achieving these aims through a number of projects, such as Rural Room. Described as a ‘virtual porch’, Rural Room is a co-creative online space where people meet and share their stories about living in the country, and connect with like-minded creatives. Since it launched in January 2018, its Facebook community has grown to nearly 60,000 strong.

“It showed there was a real appetite from people to see more authentic stories from regional Australia,” Bignell says.

“We get so many incredible stories from all over, from people who live 18 hours north of Brisbane, to people who live on sheep stations in the middle of Australia. They bring a different energy to what people expect from characters living in those spaces.

“It’s also enabled people to understand that everyone, regardless of whether they’re from the city or the bush, has a sense of humanity that is shared. For example, loneliness is experienced in places that are isolated, but it’s also experienced in the concrete jungle as well, so we’re trying to bridge that gap between city and country by bringing people together over shared issues.

“We also wanted to show that it is really contemporary in the country – people are using the internet out here, not carrier pigeons!”

Bec Bignell with co-star Celeste Clabburn during a scene from Rain Dance.

Bec Bignell with co-star Celeste Clabburn during a scene from Rain Dance. Photo credit: Ange Coote

In fact, Bignell says it’s thanks to the internet and new media that more diverse stories are being heard and shared around the world.

“Digital is an area we’re very interested in [at Cockatoo Co. Lab] because we can see how it has democratised audiences. So, people who wouldn’t usually have had the chance to express their views now have direct access to speak out.

“We see digital as an opportunity to listen to the audience and provide new content and stories for emerging audiences that haven’t been serviced before.”

The thoughts, themes and perspectives explored by Rural Room’s digital community feed into Cockatoo Co. Lab’s current project, Rain Dance, a hybrid story about two female shearers, which Bignell originally wrote in a scriptwriting unit at Curtin.

Rain Dance is a novel example of a multi-media film project that is developed collaboratively with a digital audience. The Rural Room community brings a critical eye to its development and they do not tolerate regional stereotypes – they insist on genuine situations and an authentic representation of the diversity of people that populate the regions.”

For instance, local people from Kojonup play characters in the film and bring their own personality and perspective to each role.

“We’re filming Rain Dance back in Kojonup because I really wanted to show that talent exists in these parts of the world. I am also bit like a dog with a bone – even as a child I did always think I wanted to come back to Kojonup and do something incredible with my community.”

Rain Dance is currently in pre-production and follows on the heels of Cockatoo Co. Lab’s first project, a multi-platform series called 600 Bottles of Wine. The series is based on the popular blog of Bignell’s friend and fellow actor, Grace Rouvray, and documents the misadventures of a newly single woman in Sydney. Bignell co-created 600 Bottles of Wine with Rouvray and Director Ainslie Clouston, with all three women taking on multiple roles to transform the show from concept to end-product.

Ainslie Clouston, Grace Rouvray and Bec Bignell pose against a black backdrop.

Ainslie Clouston, Grace Rouvray and Bec Bignell took on multiple creative roles to produce their series, 600 Bottles of Wine. Photo credit: Alex Vaughan

As with Rain Dance, Bignell approached the blog’s community for their ideas on what kind of story they wanted to see.

“We gleaned a lot of information from followers of the blog and infused that into every aspect of the show, from production elements like lighting to what the actors were wearing,” Bignell explains.

“Everything was informed by what we learned from people’s responses.”

Bignell produced both a web and television version of the series to make it accessible to anyone, anywhere. The TV version was snapped up by the BBC and aired in May last year. Channel 10, Virgin Australia and TV NZ quickly followed suit.

“It was amazing, not in our wildest dreams did we expect that! But it just shows that you can create a production by yourself and take it to an international audience at a broadcast level. It’s a really great example of creatives empowering themselves.”

Bignell’s commitment to the independent arts community was formally recognised in 2018 when she was selected in the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence.

Ever the rural woman, Bignell is reluctant to vocalise her achievements, but says she’s proud to show aspiring creatives that anything is possible, especially if you’re from the country.

“It doesn’t matter where you live, you can absolutely achieve anything you aspire to, even in film and TV and other creative sectors.

“Sometimes you may have to drive a little bit further and push a little bit harder, but it’s completely achievable.”

Do you know a Curtin graduate doing great things in their community?

Nominate them for the 2020 Alumni Achievement Awards.

Alumni Innovator series

This story is part of our Alumni Innovator series, which recognises Curtin and WAIT alumni who’ve thought outside the box and excelled in their field.

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