Part of the National Sustainable Living Festival Melbourne 2020
18 February 2020
By Lucy Schmidt.
“Once upon a time a theatre company and a group of people known for trying to open space for conversation decided to get together to encourage a different type of conversation. A conversation which is possibly the most important one we could be having in this moment in time. Our great experiment.” – Alex Sangster, MPTC.
It’s been almost four months and a worldwide pandemic since we gathered together at The Common Room, Trades Hall in Victoria Street. Built in 1856 after a winning campaign to secure the world’s first eight-hour working day, it felt like a fitting venue. The imposing classical columns at its entrance seemed to symbolise success through solidarity. And that’s exactly what we were hoping for on this hot yet rainy Tuesday evening.
A convivial audience milled in, umbrellas in hand, steam rising off wet wool. Some stopped to chat and get drinks at the bar. Yet more followed until The Common Room was at capacity. The small room, packed with 70 warm humans began to rise in temperature. Which was also fitting as the topic de jour was one close to the heart of Melbourne Playback Theatre Company – climate crisis.
The event was a co-production between Playback and Climate for Change. It promised to offer a unique way to become educated about our climate crisis. To provide space to reflect and share concerns. To engage in meaningful conversation about positive and effective actions that are already being made in our communities and provide an opportunity to become part of that change. No mean feat.
We began with an acknowledgement of country; country, we are reminded, that was never ceded. A familiar sense of shame fuelled my awareness that before this country was stolen, the original inhabitants nurtured and safeguarded it for tens of thousands of years. Yet, in the relatively short time in other hands it has suffered such acute disrepair.
This uncomfortable feeling was somewhat alleviated by our fantastic co-stars for the evening, Carly Robertson and Jeremy Dore from Climate for Change, who promised it’s not all doom and gloom. They chose to let their signature 20-minute documentary speak to the crisis. Images of storms, drought, mistreated animals, melting glaciers and other dire happenings were tempered by the hopeful message that there are also innovative ideas and solutions circling the globe from concerned change makers.
I really connected with the company’s simple philosophy for social change. Their research shows that people process information, shift attitudes and develop deep commitments to ideas through conversation with people they trust.
Simply put, if we spread the word to enough friends and family, we will create a groundswell of concern for the planet that will eventually form a ‘tipping point’ whereby most of the population will prioritise addressing the climate crisis and vote accordingly.
We are urged to become part of the upswing on the bell curve instead of climate change denying laggards that are lost to the cause. This sent a positive ripple through the theatre.There was hope. And hope, I realised, had been the thing that was nearest extinction in my own mind.
In closing Jeremy and Carly welcomed us to stay after the performance to chat to either Climate for Change, Melbourne Playback Theatre Company or one of three other grassroots local climate groups (Friends of the Earth, Extinction Rebellion Victoria and Australian Parents for Climate Action) who would be staying behind to run a “marketplace” where we could shop for information or perhaps sign up to become members – thus, giving the audience an opportunity to actively participate in raising the collective consciousness about Climate Crisis instead of just worrying about it.
“I switch off the microphone and walk down the stairs, a man walks up to me: “What a great event, wasn’t it?”
I say: “Definitely, it was awesome. It was so different than anything else I have attended this week.”
He said: “It was not only different, it was much better. So much better than all the lectures and places where you just sit and listen. This one goes straight to the heart.” – Fien Van Den Steer, Climactic Podcast.
After a short break, the cast, Danny Diesendorf, Phoebe Mason, Diana Nguyen and Josiah Lulham took to their crates for the Playback performance. The microphone was entrusted to the inimitable Alex Sangster. No stranger to conducting on the Melbourne Playback stage, Alex brought warmth and power to her introduction. We were in her safe hands.
Ernie Gruner and Karen Berger set the tone with an improvised melodic piece. Ernie’s searing violin accompanied perfectly by the steady beat of Karen’s drum. Alex invited us to share how we felt right then in that moment. There was a rapid-fire response from the audience – “worried, grief, motivated, angry, exhausted, frustrated” … the evocative music had done its job. This was an audience eager to share their feelings.
We also heard the word ‘excited’ – excitement that so many people were here that night ready to be part of making a change. This inspired a song from the ensemble, lyrics ranging from the funny: ‘You decided to come even though it was raining’ to the uplifting: ‘we can do this together … for change’.
Moments came thick and fast. Hands were thrust up in the crowd. Prompted by the devastation of the recent bushfires, the cast created a scene where animals tried to outrun the blaze. A heroic wombat invited them into her burrow, providing refuge underground from the flames.
When it was time to take a deeper dive into stories from moments, our first ‘teller’ spoke of her anger for those in power stopping positive change. She described them as big wolves with teeth – politicians, climate change deniers and mining magnates.
With this delightful metaphor already provided by our generous teller, the cast stuck to the fairy tale theme with a take on the Snow White story, complete with corrupt kings and afamiliar figure with catch-phrases like – ‘how good’s Hawaii? ‘How good’s coal? The king demanded that Snow White be ‘strangled in the woods by the electoral process’. It felt good to laugh at the buffoonery of the top brass as they fiddled while Rome burned.
Alex and the cast created such an atmosphere of safety that even our most retiring audience members felt secure to share. Much to the surprise of her daughter, we heard from a single mum who didn’t have much money, but enjoyed the richness of nature. As a child herself, she had been taught the beauty of nature and passed on the knowledge to her own kids – climbing trees with them. Now she was so proud of the next generation leading the cause with the school strike rally.
The cast responded with a forest soundscape. Before our eyes, trees grew and birds arrived. Our lover of nature was portrayed in contrast to the zombies of the city on their cell phones all day, played by the rest of the cast. The scene culminated in a proud grandmother marching with the new generation for a better future. It was a heart-warming image.
Our final story came from a woman who had stories of her wild two-year-old son, concerned by the rest of his family’s frustration with the prime minister. When he announced, ‘I’ll be friends with Sco-Mo’, his mum wondered whether perhaps her wild child’s humanity could be the right way forward. The ensuing scene explored this theme, to reveal life’s not as simple as just discarding the things you don’t like. The show ended with Phoebe saying ‘we need to make friends’. And, for me in the audience, it felt like we had.
“As a journalist, I have been travelling the last few years all over the world, listening to and reporting on stories about climate change. Some of them fill me with excitement and hope. While others fill me with desperation and fear. Yet there never was a place to share these emotions, since they were so unique to the particular situation. Often, I felt alone and lost with them. Yet tonight, I have seen all these emotions coming back, understanding that we are not alone in our fear and despair, nor in our hope and excitement.” – Fien Van Den Steer, Climactic Podcast.
Fien Van Den Steer’s podcast, including snippets from the event, can be found here.
Since 2013, Melbourne Playback Theatre Company has been facilitating the youth theatre program SeaACT program in the South Eastern Suburbs. In 2016 Melbourne Playback was re-funded by Creative Victoria to facilitating a new exciting program with young people living in the City of Greater Dandenong to provide a space of storytelling and performance in the area.
The program was facilitated in four components:
We had over 45 young people participate in the program in the 9 months at the Walker Street Gallery and Drum Theatre. They came from diverse backgrounds from the South Eastern Suburbs, different schools and 50% of the participants have been part of the SeaACT program since 2013.
The impact of the program for the young people in SeaACT was astounding and life changing. The opportunity to make work with professional artists and be heard, was the essence of the program.
The program started with a series of 5 writing workshops with Didem Caia, an emerging writer from the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Over 5 weeks with the facilitation with Melbourne Playback drama exercises, their stories flowed in the rehearsal room. Finally intimate stories the young people wanted to share with each other, were documented and written into a script by Didem.
The rehearsal process was a game changer for the participants who were used to improvising and performing the playback form. The rehearsal period was intense, with extra rehearsals held, and focusing on learning lines and not letting down the team. Through this process the young people became great friends and supported each other, and became comrades in this creative piece. They articulated their unique voice by collaborating and presenting a show, the participants’ skills were grounded and developed. They had ownership of their performance, and the audience were in awe of the work.
The process of MPTC was intense with collaboration of 4 artists working together with the young people for 3 months weekly. It was a wonderful working process for the young people to watch how professional artists worked with each other, but also with them, how the collaborative the process was. The young people saw the playback process improvised and then transferred to the rehearsal process.
We had over 150 people attend the performances at Walker Street Gallery in Dandenong, and was highly promoted by Emerging Writer’s Festival Festival and supported by City of Greater Dandenong.
The impact of the program could be seen by the commitment of the young people, and the hardwork of Melbourne Playback artists who committed to the project. Our Artistic Director Emily Taylor, said it was the most rewarding work she has done with the company and hopes we continue to nurture young people living in City of Greater Dandenong and in Victoria.
The program was in partnership with Emerging Writers’ Festival, City of Great Dandenong, Drum Theatre and Copyright Cultural Fund.
For our fifth and final panel and playback event of 2016, we partnered with Mental Health Week to present
Voyager; Young People’s pathways to Mental Health
Mental Health is a voyage that all of us embark on and navigating the sometimes choppy waters takes time, awareness and support. For our young people, this journey can be particularly acute at a time when they are still finding themselves and their place in the world.
Joining us on our panel were three inspiring young people who have all held advocacy roles in the community. Philly, a hip hop artist and Indigenous Youth worker, Steph Darling of the REACH Foundation and Aref Ramazani, a media artist and refugee advocate for young people settling in Australia.
As our panel shared their experiences of journeys towards mental health, the themes that arose were needing a sense of belonging, of having a way to be able to share their stories and of having people who would listen when they were brave enough to ask for help.
After the panel, our facilitator Danny Diesendorf led an exploration into the stories held by the audience, who shared some of their own personal journeys and those close to them.
Through moments and stories, we worked our way through the shared and unique experiences in the room. The intimate theatre at La Mama Carlton Courthouse, which was used by us in traverse for the first time created an intimate environment for both the audience and the performers.
The culmination of openness shared by our panel and our audience created an incredibly unique and unforgettable afternoon. As reviewed by one of our audience:
“It was real, it was authentic, it was so full of courage. It was intimate and I felt my heart beating the whole time. It was human beings speaking from the heart to other human beings. The skills of your performers is beyond words; they are SO present to what they see and hear, this blows me away. I want to convey my deep appreciation for his event – I will never forget it. Thank you.” Rosie Cuff.
Thank you to all who came to take part in Voyager. We feel honoured and inspired to hear and share these stories of courage, pain, hope and love. Stay tuned for next year when we will host our next panel and playback shows.
This public playback panel performance drew over two-hundred and seventy people to Northcote Town Hall; one of Melbourne Playback’s largest ever public theatre performances.
The event created the space to hear stories from the community about the many ways people react and want to act on this enormous issue. This event was rich because it crossed between both intellectual, practical territory and the justifiably strong emotions that many people have around this issue which brings with it such threat.
The performance was often at its most moving when people spoke of many things they love deeply, such as their children and the places they have connections with, in context of the threat of runaway climate change.
The discussion through Q&A with the panellists and then through the medium of Playback theatre was wide-ranging. Topics and stories opened up over the evening included:
Audience members witnessing or being part of positive changes, whether acting politically on the issue or making changes in their own lifestyles;
The impacts audience members have already seen in their environment, on their lives and sense of purpose.
Anger and confusion seeing some leaders in government and business blocking or undoing effective action on climate;
People’s journeys through fear, despair, motivation, involvement and reflection.
The Playback performance was preceded by three speakers; Lucy Best, Professor Rob Adams and Stephen Bygrave who brought their diverse experience to talk about how their work has contributed to implementing solutions and the path they’ve been on to become involved in the work they do.
In the words of Vivian Langford (of 3CR radio) reviewing the event:
“It is fascinating to hear both the hard headed solutions to climate change, from the panel and Q&A in the first half, and then the subjective side from the audience. The “Oh Shit” moment when they realise we have to do something about it. Followed by the musicians and actors creating a new narrative for our times…Melbourne’s Playback Theatre had a lot to offer as objective action on climate is so often undermined by fearful emotions and apathy.”
Our third special Q&A event after our beautiful and poignant show “SticksnStones’ at Federation Square, Melbourne Playback Theatre Company celebrated
“ON OUR SHORES”
Every year, the world celebrates World Refugee Day, and our multicultural and diverse communities living here in Australia. What makes our country proud is the contributions each Australian has brought and given back. On Thursday 23rd of June, Melbourne Playback Theatre Company brought Melbourne together to “Celebrate the Fighting Spirit in Our Community.”
With the recent #LetThemStay, #BringThemHere and the crisis of Australian asylum seeker policies detaining humans on offshore detention centres, Melbourne Playback allowed a space for human stories to be heard to remind us what was at cost.
For hundreds of years, many have set sail to call Australia home. With refugees risking their lives at sea, the Australian government is still shipping children and women into offshore detention centres. Melbourne Playback Theatre Company puts a spotlight on why we continue the plea for all people to be treated humanely,
Alex Sangster, MPTC Company member welcomed the audience from Footscray and afar and introduced our four wonderful panelists who shared their stories
Mariam Issa – Refugee, Author and Human Rights Advocate
Mohammad Ali Baqiri – Refugee and Human Rights Advocate
The evening Q&A flowed into a performance from Melbourne playback where audience members shared their own stories of their own refugee experience, or their connections and relationships with refugees and migrants who have impacted their lives.
Love between a young couple from two different lands, onions and being grateful.
A mother’s separation from her son for one second, while hearing the story of Mohammad Ali who has been separated from his mother for years.
A woman’s despair of fleeing, and sadness by the Australian Government off-shore detentions, but hope for the future.
“We left the theatre that night having examined and gained insight into some human parts of ourselves and our fellow audience members that are not so often brought into the public or the conscious eye.”
There are moments in life where you are powerfully reminded why you do what you do. For me as Creative Director of The F Word, Thursday 10th March was one of those moments.
It began with the atmosphere in the room. Despite a freak rainstorm and lots of traffic congestion, Howler theatre was packed and buzzing. Already I knew a singularly special audience had converged to experience and participate in the evening’s events.
We had gathered on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We began. We opened the space for our stories.
Photo credit: Ruby Gaile
Were you at The F Word? What do you remember most from the night? Go in the draw to win tickets to our next show by sharing your story in the comments below.
Our first panellist, Jane Gilmore challenged us first on the notion of equality (the first thing I usually say is that feminism is about equality) but equal to what? There are some things that women don’t need to be equal to men with. Equality is a subjective term. We need to be more vigilant with our language, more precise. What exactly do we want? Equal pay and opportunity? Yes. Equal violence and suicide rates? No.
Melba Marginson gave us a detailed history of her work with migrant and refugee women, showing how important it is to educate women on their rights when they come to Australia, to enable them to find their feet in the culture here. Melba also focussed on accented English and how
“many of us need to be reminded that accented English is still English, and as Marginson eloquently explained, we will only be enriched by enhancing our understanding of other cultures through actively listening to people with these accents.” – Caitlin McGrane, Aphramag
Video credit: BatchEdit
Tammy Anderson then took the stage with power and vibrancy, sharing with us her experience as a playwright, actor, ambassador, speaker, director and board member. She spoke of inter-generational trauma, of the battles she has faced and how she has faced them through her art. She shied away from nothing. Her generosity with us was astounding.
Clementine Ford closed the panel by sharing a great story about an all women’s pool in Coogee (highly recommended by her) as well her experience with trolls and online abuse. She shared with us how making jokes about people who are misogynistic online is the way she has found to get through to them, and to show other women that they don’t have to hide away and stop speaking out when they encounter such attacks.
And then…we had a playback performance.
Photo credit: Ruby Gaile
Our all female team took the stage, led by the vibrant Alex Sangster. Now it was time to open up the floor. We heard stories of identity, of struggle, of power and joy. What was missing from the panel was brought to the stage in the stories. A story of the word ‘lesbian’, from not knowing what it meant to it being a favourite word. A story of being in transition between gender, of mother and son, of family and independence. Stories of grief, of solidarity, ultimately of support.
“Spontaneously women and men came forward with extraordinary stories of love, loss, grief and transformation.” – Caitlin McGrane, Aphramag
Our actors, musicians and facilitator met each story with guts, heart and energy. I cried and laughed and gasped and cheered.
Every speaker, every storyteller, every moment was met by rapturous, supportive applause. Every diversity in the room was cheered and celebrated and loved. There was no question of ‘should we be feminists?’, or ‘what is feminism?’ There was no question. We were all in it together. There was power in that room. It was radiating off the walls.
“Be it trans rights, refugee and migrant rights, indigenous rights, or disability rights, they are all human rights and the people affected by these issues all deserve a platform to be heard. Playback Theatre and the wonderful panellists definitively demonstrated the compassion, courage and strength required to achieve equality in all these areas.” – Caitlin McGrane, Aphramag
I didn’t stop buzzing for days. It was an incredible evening.
Thank you to everyone who came, and those who wanted to. We hope to see you at the next event.
If you were at The F Word we’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. We’ve even got tickets up for grabs to our next show if you do!
The SeaACT (SEAAC Theatre) program is partnership with Melbourne Playback Theatre Company and SEAAC Youth Services that engages young people living in the City of Casey and Greater Dandenong Council in an innovative Theatre Engagement Program. The program involves MPTC workshops within the two areas, including young people, community development workers from Council and service providers and CALD community groups.
“I have learned to have more confidence and energy when acting on stage and other things like studies exam and tests. I want the program to continue because I want it for other people too so they can have more confidence of what they do and not be shy. This program has supported my brothers, sisters and others. I have no complaints about this program. It is too good. KEEP IT UP!!”
Mustafa, Hampton Park Secondary, 13 years old.
The program was first envisioned in 2012, through consultation with SEAAC Youth Services who we have performed regular Refugee Week Celebration performances. In 2013 we received a pilot Arts Victoria grant (now Creative Victoria) to work with the City of Casey community, and create a theatre hub at the Hampton Park Uniting Church Community Centre.
The program was a great success with other 120 young people registered, and we engaged with the Hampton Park community through the term workshops and performances. We had young people from Greater Dandenong travel 45 minutes to attend the program in Hampton Park. This showed us this program was a need for the young people living in the South Eastern Suburbs. SeaACT young people performed in front of 500 people during the SEAAC Refugee Week Celebration in 2014. This included a performance in Greater Dandenong and council saw the value of the program and supported our Vic Arts application for 2015.
During the 6 months of no funding by Creative Victoria, City of Casey had seen the impact of the program, and in Term 4 2014 funded for a small SeaACT program to continue. SEAAC engaged with students at a local school, and the participants performed in front of their peers.
In November 2014, SeaACT program was re-funded by Creative Victoria to operate in the City of Casey, and pilot program in Greater Dandenong. The program has been a gem for the young people living in these isolated areas, as their stories are heard, shared and valued. Some of the young people attended a MPTC rehearsal on Mondays, and one young person recently performed at the Malthouse, through a referral from the SeaACT program. We endeavour to continue this program, and create a performing arts hub in the south eastern suburbs.
Evaluation of the program:
The SeaACT Drama Program provided young people with an opportunity to learn essential skills acting such as group acting, confidence building and improvising. 22 young people completed the evaluation form at the end of the program and provided extremely positive feedback about the program.
82% of the young people learnt something new from the program that they did not know previously
78% made new friends at the workshop which meant that they could share and discuss the new information that they had learnt
90% enjoyed learning drama skills with Melbourne Playback Danny and Mike
90% would like to continue the SeaACT program
Case Study of the Program:
“We all love to say that SeaACT has been a great supporting program to everyone. They helped me to build my confidence and they gave me the opportunity to be a youth leader and build my speaking and improve my public speaking. Now I have the confidence speaking to anyone I want, and got some skills to improve things I need in the future. Thank you SEAAC for all your help and your support. SeaACT is a great program to anyone.”
Recently we wrote about overcoming nerves, but what about warming up? As performers, speakers, teachers, facilitators, we all have our own rituals to prepare us before we face our audience.
Creating your own personalised ritual can take years of trial and error. When to eat? How much sleep do you need? Do you stretch? Sing? Do a crossword? We all have our own traditions and sequences to get us in the zone.
But once you refine it, your ritual can become a reliable friend. It can be the trusted sequence that prepares you to perform at your best.
We surveyed our company to find out what kinds of warm up rituals they do. The answers are as varied and individual as our ensemble members!
We are creating a resource page of warm up rituals. What’s yours? Let us know in the comments section below.
Our company says:
1. Connect with the breath.
Lie in semi supine, flat on your back with knees bent up, head resting on a largish book (either 20 mins at home earlier in the day or briefly during the warm up). Take a moment to be still and notice the breath.
2. Stretch (and shake out nerves).
We all have our personal favourites from yoga poses to Grotowski-inspired specific sequences. The repetition of a routine that reminds us of past performances can be as important as the stretches themselves.
3. Warm up the voice
Humming, trilling, yawning, brrrrrr (vibrating lips), rrrrrrr (trilling tongue) sounds, singing. And of course, tongue twisters!
4. Connect with fellow performers.
Group warm-up exercises force us to make eye contact and be ‘in response’ to our fellow performers. Zap is a great one for this reason. Nerves often send us retreating into our own heads, so anything that can encourage presence with other performers and playfulness is good. Being gentle & positive with co-performers before a gig is important.
What are your top three warm up rituals? Let us know in the comments below.
Two Australian theatre practitioners, a Japanese teacher and a Chinese Human Resources Manager walk into a bar. No joke.
A few hours later I walk out with a Chinese name. My new name translates roughly as ‘Unique Visitor’. I’m a guest speaker at TEFO’s Drama Theatre and Education Conference in Hong Kong and it’s the second night of the conference. Tonight, we four merry travellers have participated in a workshop led by Sean Shun-pui Kwan.
In it he shared one of the many ways he incorporates theatre exercises into his corporate workshops. The conference has been full of great keynotes, panels and workshops like this one and we’re inspired to continue the conversation over a beer.
On the first day I joined Mr Kwan, Jonathan Neelands and Yong-wen Peng to speak in a plenary session on corporate learning and development. In my presentation I spoke about Melbourne Playback Theatre’s work supporting organisational culture programs with our performances and training.
I made grand statements like; ‘Theatre is a change agent and community builder’, ‘Storytelling helps people understand and shape organisational culture’ and ‘Playback theatre is transformative’.
Like most of the applied theatre practitioners, teachers, social workers and corporate facilitators at the conference, I’m interested in the pro-social benefits of theatre. This is our shared interest and despite the diversity of practical application, diverse cultures and varied experience, it connects us. Just as theatre helps connect the people we work with.
Jokes that start with three characters of different nationalities walking into bars strike me as culturally insensitive and inappropriate. Sometimes they are downright racist. They are a form of storytelling that people use to make sense of cultural differences. But because they use stereotype and make fun of those differences I think they often serve to divide us. At the bar tonight, we spend a lot of time sharing stories and learning about our cultural differences.
We grew up with different families in different countries at different times. But each of us has a personal story that make us unique. And through hearing each other’s stories we also discover similarities.
Qian’s English name is Michelle. In her first English lesson the teacher offered her a choice of two names, Michelle or Stephanie, after characters from an American TV show. ‘Was that Full House?!’ ‘Yes!’ A bad 80’s sitcom we both loved as kids isn’t the only similarity we find tonight, but it’s a funny one!
In my presentation at the conference I cited this Harvard Business Review article and its list of mechanisms that business leaders can use to shape organisational culture.
Our playback theatre performances and the theatre-infused experiential workshops that we deliver contribute to most of the informal mechanisms listed. These techniques build connections between people, just as the workshops at the TEFO conference bridged massive language and cultural barriers to build relationships.
But there’s also a lot to be said for ad hoc social gatherings like this drink at the pub.