EPISODE FOUR – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THE GANG #2
By Lucy Schmidt
In pursuit of learning more about the fabulous folk that currently roam your playback stages, role play your employees/managers for corporate training events and facilitate with finesse, I have a new victim!
Karen Berger is one of two current musicians that lend the soundscape to Playback performances. Whether she is adding flourish with a Spanish guitar riff, singing as sweetly as a bird, creating a thunderous atmosphere with a drum or, believe it or not, playing a haunting, melodic teapot (yes! An actual teapot – that you drink tea from), Karen’s musical support is imperative to our shows – it is also completely improvised! If music be the food of love, play on – said some guy called William Shakespeare.
And I think Karen may have heard him, because she plays so intuitively, with such love, an occasional audience member will be moved to tears.
She also has natural leadership qualities, a very, very sharp brain (she is currently working on completing her doctorate) and the most impressive memory for detail I have ever met. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with Karen on MPTC’s musical improv workshops. She is an excellent teacher. So! If you are interested in attending one of these workshops, keep an eye on our website or better still, sign up for our Playback newsletters to keep yourself in the loop!
1 – Was there a defining moment that spurred your interest in performing?
I remember a moment when I realised that I liked being in the limelight. At one Melbourne Festival Maddie Flynn & Tim Humphries (ex-Playback musos) organised a 12-hour overnight performance at Deakin Edge with 100s of performers (based on a John Cage idea). I was there to perform with the Teapot Ensemble of Australia. We’d arranged to be seated in the audience for our performance and at the designated time a spotlight would be trained on us. When that spotlight arrived, I felt the glow!!!!!
2 – How are you using your creative juices during the COVID19 restrictions?
Besides writing way too many grant applications & doing a bit of PhD work. Also, classical singing exercises whenever my partner leaves the house.
3 – What was your most memorable moment on stage?
Singing ‘Watermelon Man’ in harmony at the Myer Music Bowl. Competing for the best Celtic Band at the Dan O’Connell Hotel (& winning). Dancing and drumming for the Beltane Festival May 1st eve, Edinburgh.
4– If you could play any historical character, who would it be and why?
Lady Macbeth – she’s such a baddy.
5 – What is the surprising upside of the pandemic for you?
Lots more calmness.
6 – In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Beginning, middle, end. Tension, release. Variation. Rhythmic play. Important theme.
7 – Do you have any pre-performance must do’s or superstitions?
Brrrrrrrr siren. Spinal roll. Jumping. Tune the guitar.
8 – If you could thank someone who helped you in your early career – who would it be and why?
Workshop with Complicité when I was 18 – amazing sense of play.
9 – What do you miss the most about not performing during the COVID19 restrictions?
Playing with other performers.
10 – Who would you want to play you in the story of your life?
I would have said Elizabeth Moss but having watched her in the new ‘Top of the Lake’ series recently, I’m a bit bored with her.
EPISODE THREE – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THE GANG #1
By Lucy Schmidt
Melbourne Playback Theatre Company (MPTC to close friends), has a long, rich history that spans almost 40 years of storytelling, entertaining, facilitating and bringing audiences closer together with its unique brand of improvised theatre. The list of esteemed alumni is impressive. Some of Melbourne’s top performers and theatre makers got their start on a Playback crate. They have contributed to the growth and culture of our company and all have left a creative mark or two.
In 2017, the company re-shuffled once again to bring in four new members, myself included, to usher in yet another new dawn. Who exactly are MPTC these days?
I thought now would be as good a time as any to get up close and personal with this team of incredibly diverse and highly skilled performers. So, I developed a little questionnaire to find out a little more about my fellow players.
Our first featured player is Scott Jackson, AKA Scotty J. The first time I met this dapper young man was at the auditions. I was immediately impressed with his generosity as a performer, his infectious laugh and twinkling eyes – suggesting he might be a fellow impish soul (he is).
An accomplished stage fighter, Scott has instructed the company in a series of workshops on stage combat. His patience is commendable – especially considering my lack of talent at this skill! Getting to know Scott has been a joy.
And, attending his wedding as a company was a privilege for us all. He and his dashing husband Kyle looked so handsome, not even their gorgeous fur-child, greyhound ‘Elaine Bennis’ (who is literally a beautiful grey hound) could upstage them. Here are his answers to some curly questions and a couple of photos of some of his memorable roles in theatre. Enjoy.
1 – Was there a defining moment that spurred your interest in performing?
In year 10 I performed in the school musical Back to the 80s. It was a great hit and the family that we created while rehearsing was amazing. At the end of one show I saw my homeroom teacher clapping so hard and wanting to stand up, but got shy as no one else around him was going to stand.
That look of pride from him as he looked at me when I bowed will always stay with me.
Also at the end of one of the show, we were all getting into people’s cars and the “cool” people (whom I looked up to so much) that were in the cast wanted me in their car. I felt so accepted and loved that I distinctly remember thinking to myself with a big smile – “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” And so, I am. 🙂
2 – How does improv help you in your day to day life?
Being able to look at a situation, pull it apart in a second and respond accordingly. Especially in hard conversations or recognising that someone who is angry isn’t necessarily angry at what is going on. It’s a deeper sense. Being able to listen more and notice when I am not listening!
3 – How are you using your creative juices during the COVID19 restrictions?
I haven’t really. I have had a very hard time. I have pushed myself away from anything artistic and creative. It’s the exact opposite to what I need right now, but for some reason, I can’t bring myself back into the world I want to live in.
4 – What was your most terrifying moment on stage?
Physically, when I was performing a touring Musical of King Arthur we had a sword fight with broadswords. My opponent had friends in the audience one show and went hell for leather. Using so much strength. I was fighting for my life, as, if I didn’t parry, or do the choreography, I may have been really injured.
In terms of something mucking up: Performing in a show that I didn’t care about and finding out last minute that my mentor is coming to watch just minutes before going on. I was terrified, upset, and mostly embarrassed. I wanted to leave and not do the show. But of course, the show must go on.
5 – What was your most memorable moment on stage?
Performing Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio for the Australian Shakespeare Company to an audience of over 800 with my beautiful Nanna at the back. I put so much more energy into the character that night and the audience and the cast had a great night!
My most proud moment was during the bows, and seeing my Nanna up the back waving her white hanky crying.
She was never a theatre goer, so to get her there was a big struggle and to see her proud and bursting with love just made my night. The ability to affect and audience is so powerful.
6 – If you could play any historical character, who would it be and why?
Would love to play Oscar Wilde in a play about his life. Would be epic. His plays are just so full of goodness and British subtext – genius. I would also LOVE to play Macbeth on the main stage. A juicy character that goes through so much on stage, and off and before the play even happens!
7 – What is the surprising upside of the pandemic for you?
Getting to spend so much time with Kyle and the darling Elaine. Also, being able to organise the house and do the jobs we have been meaning to do for ages.
8 – In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Heart, truth, conflict to some degree. Vulnerability and energy.
9 – Do you have any pre-performance ‘must do’s or superstitions?
Usually before a play I will do a 20-min vocal warm up. Go through all my lines while I stretch for another 20 minutes, and walk around the space before time is called to go hide in the dressing rooms. I also MUST say hello to all crew and staff. A happy Stage Manager and crew makes for a better show ;).
NO superstitions, however I will not say “Macbeth” in a theatre.
10 – If you could thank someone who helped you in your early career – who would it be and why?
Andy Hamilton. She pushed me into doing drama and the school production because she saw something in me that I didn’t. I thought it was silly, but once I got the bug, I was hooked. Ross Hall, my uni acting teacher. Taught me so much and had faith in me. He pushed me hard and then harder still but, fuck, he was good. I owe him so much.
11 – What do you miss the most about not performing during the COVID-19 restrictions?
EVERYTHING. The lights, the sounds, the feel, the black curtains, the smells, the words, the life, the lives, my family of actors, the text, the words, the emotion, the outlet, the trust, the love, the passion. THE PASSION, the purpose, the connection, the makeup, the silliness, not being me for a time. I miss everything which is why I think it’s so hard for me to watch something or do anything artistic. It’s too painful right now. It’s like I have lost a lifelong companion.
12 – Who would you want to play you in the story of your life.
Me. Haha! Tom Hiddleston. Great actor, physical, lovely, and has a great range. Or, of course, Meryl Streep.
According to my first hit on google: Stories are universal, conveying meaning and purpose that help us understand ourselves better and find commonality with others. Thanks, TCK Publishing. I must say I agree. But I want to dig a little deeper. I want to try and define, for myself, what I believe is so important about our job as story collectors, performers and tellers.
An animals’ knowledge is written in their DNA. Birds just know they fly, and fish, they swim. But when humankind graduated from these limbic brains to our thinking brains, our purpose was no longer merely reproduction. We used these new, improved, memory-storing brains to justify our very existence. Creation stories differ the world over and what you believe, generally stems from where you were born. From an entity called God creating the earth in six days and resting on the seventh. To Rangi and Papa being separated by their children and creating earthmother and skyfather.
Or, my personal favourite – the powerful Odin and his brothers constructing the earth from the corpse of Ymir. The oceans from his blood, the soil from his skin and muscles, vegetation from his hair, clouds from his brains and sky from his skull.
These stories were not the thoughts of one person. Now we could communicate, collaborate – and elaborate. Imagine the following scene. A – ‘Wow, that round thing rolls.’ B – ‘Yeah, so does this one.’ C – ‘Maybe if we cut a hole in them and put a stick through, we could eventually turn it into some form of transport?’ D – ‘Great idea, Axle!’
In my career as an actor I have played a monkey, a shearer, a dominatrix, a rugby player, an angel, a man, a check-out chick, a scientist, a spider, a sheep (animals feature heavily) a fairy, a duchess (twice), a king’s fool. To name but a few. Of course, I researched these characters – well, enough to make them believable within the play (I hope). Sometimes it was easy enough – visit a zoo or a brothel. But sometimes I had to resort to historical text. Stories written before I arrived on earth. Like, factual accounts of the role of the jester in the medieval English court. So, it occurs to me ‘the importance of stories’, is that they allow human beings to store and build on knowledge. Like a living breathing history that grows through the contributions of successive generations. We are the only animals on earth that have this ability.
Of course, stories have only recently developed in written form. Cultures with oral traditions still pass on important information from generation to generation though story and song. This information can be lifesaving. Where food and water appear in an unforgiving desert. What type of vegetation is edible and what is poisonous – or even which have healing properties. When to plant certain crops and how to harvest them. But there are also stories with hidden meanings. In medieval Europe, warnings for children were wrapped up in cautionary stories called folk lore. 18th century romanticism revived an interest in traditional folktales.
The German born, Grimm brothers capitalised on this by touring the countryside, collecting local fairy tales and recording them in volumes of stories for children. Unfortunately, it is widely speculated that they also had a habit of changing the evil male characters of these stories to female villains.
Thus, encouraging children to become more suspicious of women, than the original target – the evil step-father. Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Hansel and Gretel are still popular in western society hundreds of years later – all of them starring females not to be trusted.
Old wives’ tales are passed down from generation to generation also generally down the female line. My half Irish grandmother taught us how to predict the gender of my pregnant sister’s baby by plucking a hair from my sister’s head, threading it through a gold ring and holding it over the pulse in her wrist. If it turns around in a circle it will be a girl. A diagonal swing signifies a male child. Sure enough, as the circle predicted, my niece, Kate, was born a couple of months later.
Stories collate our histories. Reassure our identities. Give us the ability to grow our knowledge. Remember that time that a world-wide pandemic called COVID-19 swept our globe, killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing unforeseen stress on the economy from which it could take decades to recover? Chances are, since it’s taking place right now, you do. But do you remember another nasty little virus nicknamed the Spanish Flu, that killed an estimated 50 – 100 million people over the course of two years? Chances are, you also know this. Because even though it happened 100 years ago it was widely reported at the time.
These stories about previous experiences with a killer virus, meant we were much more prepared in 2020. We knew to close schools, shops and places where people convene because of one community in Bristol Bay, Alaska, that shut off access to their village and banned public gatherings in 1918.
It became the only place in the world to escape the Spanish Flu, unscathed. But stories are not always true. ‘The Spanish Flu’ is rumoured to have begun in New York. It was attributed to Spain because they were neutral in WW1 and could report their deaths without any ‘other side’ thinking they were weakened by the plague.
Stories make us individuals, and even though we take comfort in shared experiences, no story is the same. When we ask our audiences for their stories during Playback shows, we handle these with the care and respect they are due.
Without your stories, there would be no show. SO please, when we are finally safe to perform again, share a story with us.
It was only 64 days ago that the Australian Government announced an enforced societal lockdown unseen ever before. Our freedoms were to be slashed for our own good. This was serious. The culprits picture was plastered across TV screens worldwide. A very contagious, and deadly, virus was hitchhiking from body to body across the globe, leaving a path of human destruction and despair in its wake. Strict protocols of hand washing and social distancing were to follow. COVID19 bought with it new customs and lingo – panic buying, curve flattening, iso, Zooming, hand sani… to but name a few.
But what about the rules that we, Melbourne Playback Theatre Company, were already committed to? Turns out that they were just as helpful as always in my household. Allow me to share.
1. COMMIT YOURSELF
As my partner (hereafter referred to as ‘The Doc’) and I recovered from the shock announcement of a worldwide pandemic, we decided we were going to ‘jump in’ boots n’ all to keep ourselves (and therefore others in our community) as safe as we could. Hand sanitiser that I had bought for The Doc’s 50th birthday party was luckily never used. We found it and squirted it liberally on leaving and entering the apartment. Hands were washed according to YouTube clip tutorial standards. Happy Birthday sung twice for good measure – sometimes a little Nina Simone thrown in for a soul change.
Fortunately, our beautiful niece had bought us a 48 roll ‘Who Gives A Crap’ box of toilet paper for Christmas as a ‘joke’ present. Which, in this ‘present’ was no joke! People were being knocked out for a four pack at Aldi.
The Doc made a clandestine trip into the office, grabbing anything that may be needed for the foreseeable future, then set up a home office in the lounge. Washable masks, bought online for the bushfire smoke, were donned as we took our daily walk. If people were not committing to the 1.5 metre social distancing requirements, we committed to walking around them. Once our minds were made up and our house rules were agreed upon, committing was easy. Yes, occasionally there were blips, like when a friend arrived downstairs to drop off a jig-saw puzzle and I had a brain fade and went to hug her. Luckily, she too was committed, and backed off like I had a knife in my hand. Well done, team!
2. MAKE YOUR PARTNER LOOK GOOD
I did this literally! The Doc had to attend an online happy hour Zoom that was designated 70s dress-up. “Sweet!” I said. “I’m happy to help. Why don’t we really commit” (see Rule Number 1 above), I’ll do your make-up and everything”. I looked up online pics of the real deal. I even attached long purple lashes, liquid eyeliner (notoriously difficult to apply) and the obligatory garish matching eyeshadow.
A long black wig was donned and a jaunty scarf tied around it, to “make it look even more like real hair”. I was chuffed with the results.
A transformation back forty years in forty minutes! I was so excited that I forgot that I wasn’t attending the party. I had to make do with drinkies for one on the balcony, until I was joined by this amazing looking 70s apparition (ooh great, a new person to chat to). When The Doc said sadly that nobody else dressed up, my little heart broke. I reassured that everyone was probably really cheered that the brief had been taken up so faithfully – even if only by one person. And she did look good! We had a little party of our own.
3. ACCEPT OFFERS
Without the third rule, this blog would not exist. I have taken up every offer, unilaterally. Do we want some feijoas? Yes please. And a lovely apple and feijoa crumble was cooked by The Doc. Yum. Do I want to write a monologue in twelve hours to be filmed by an actor for Centrepoint Theatre’s online archive? You betcha. And for a mere $20 you can view ‘EScaPe – A Kitchen Sink Monologue’ (and nine other New Zealand writers’ work – not to mention ten brilliant performances) here on their website. I have swapped an easy 500-piece jigsaw for a 1000-piece one that features snowy pines and blue skies. It is infuriatingly difficult and we can only do it on the weekend because during the week a tablecloth goes over it and The Doc uses said table to do her Important Job.
But. We are determined to finish! Because accepting the offer means we ‘say yes’. I have said ‘yes’ to many a drink on the balcony. Sometimes I even say ‘yes, and’ – yes, I’ll have a drink and another drink after that, thank you.
I have said ‘yes’ to making socks for all the people on the third floor of our apartment that have birthdays during the restrictions.
To every Zoom offer (except ones that conflict with The Doc’s online yoga classes – sacrosanct). I even say ‘yes’ to self-issued challenges, like walking 70 kilometres in a week. Accepting offers is like signing for packages, exciting, and sometimes a true surprise awaits – if only you say YES!
4. LET GO
This rule is arguably the most important rule to apply during these times of change. We must let go of the freedoms we enjoyed before COVID-19 for the good of everyone we share the world with. We have let go and let our hair grow. Everyone being in the same boat, without a hairdresser, makes letting newly grey hair distinguish my temples an easy decision.
We have let go the usual social get-togethers, movie dates, dinners out. Tickets for Patti Smith expire and postpone to a new date. We let go. It’s easier without a choice.
My dear mother passed away last year on the 5 of August. My seven siblings and I made an oath we would make it back to ‘her little beach’ on the east coast of New Zealand on the same date this year and take an ocean plunge. Upon her request, her ashes had been delivered into these same choppy, white-tipped waters after she died. We would ‘take a swim with our mother again’ on this first anniversary. Alas, we all inherited her love of travel and are dotted about this globe from Ireland to Melbourne. Due to grounded planes, we will not be able to keep this promise. Letting go is part of life. Letting go of this plan is much easier than letting her go last year. But at least we were all there for that. Standing around her bedside in the little ramshackle bach she adored. If it had been this year, she would have been alone in hospital. Many poor people have had to make their last moments alone – the cruellest restriction of these times. Realising that it is the ability to ‘let go’ that gives us purchase to accept the epic ups and downs of life is an important lesson. One we must remind ourselves of, often.
5. BE PRESENT
Breathe. Notice the sunlight through the trees. Hear the Merri Creek rushing past, swollen with the recent rains. In a way, the COVID-19 restrictions have given us all an opportunity to reset. Patterns that were so ingrained have been re-evaluated. As a regular walker, I observed that gyms closing and restrictions on other leisure options made for crowded paths. It was like the clock had turned back to simpler times, where the ‘outing’ of the day was a family stroll through the park. I liked to see this. I also got up earlier to avoid this. As society ground to an almost halt, the sting was taken from the usual speed of the city. We were all concerned about catching or passing on this disease. We took time to wash our hands thoroughly. Took time to look through cupboards and soak chickpeas overnight. To cook from scratch.
The Doc and I made plans of what we would do with this extra time gifted by this awful virus. We scanned the jigsaw pieces for a ‘particular’ blue piece of sky (note: hours can be lost this way) I cleaned the fridge and pantry – instead of the usual rushed wipe. I paid attention to the detail. It was a joy.
I meditated daily as the afternoon sun streamed through the slats of the blinds. The whole world was joined in anticipation of what would happen. We were unified by a common enemy instead of each other. We huddled around TVs to get new instalments from countries facing the worst of the pandemic. Heard beautiful arias sung from balconies in Lombardy. Uncertainty placed us all in the moment, together. I try to stay as present now as we were in the early days of the pandemic but admittedly as we get used to living with this uninvited guest we revert to the status quo. But reminders like the smell of garlic and onion sizzling in a pan, the sound of rain on a roof, the warmth of a hot water bottle as the nights get colder can bring us right back to where we thrive. The present.
6. PUT DOWN YOUR CLEVER (PICK UP YOUR ORDINARY)
I take this final rule as an encouragement of simplicity. When we are not trying to be super-impressive and original, we can drop our ego and operate from our true selves. Vanity and obsession with how we are perceived can inhibit our thought processes.
But instead, let us concentrate on letting our needles point to our own true north. There have been a lot of limits put on our day to day freedoms. And now they are being lifted slowly. Let us act collectively to avoid further spread of COVID-19, instead of finding imaginative ways to beat the system and avoid a fine.
When masses of people have the clever idea to flock to a beach party, when people decide to ignore sore throats and coughs and go to work instead of isolating, when we decide we are different from the many, then we put the many at risk – as well as ourselves. There is no clever way to outwit a virus, other than the very simple rules of washing, social distancing and isolating. But if you are clever enough to come up with a vaccine – ignore this rule and please carry on!
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.
It seems a cliché that travel broadens the mind, but studies have shown that a journey really can make us wiser. In an article for The Guardian, Jonah Lehrer, stated that ‘seasoned travellers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world’.
The sense of perspective given by travelling can lead to better problem solving.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to run a two day Playback Masterclass (particularly its applications to corporate training) with Andrew Gray as part of the Hong Kong TEFO Conference on Drama Education. Being at this conference not only gave me new perspectives, but also opened my mind to subjects I’d never even thought of before. The following are brief notes on some of the things that stood out for me over the 5 days I was in Hong Kong.
In our Masterclass we played a ‘get to know you game’ where the participants stand in a circle, and one person steps forward and states something that is true about themselves. Others for whom that is true will also step forward.
Attempting to liven things up a bit, I stepped forward saying, ‘I vote left wing.’ Andrew immediately stepped forward and there was rather confused discussion among the participants.
I was surprised to realise ‘vote’ and ‘left wing’ were being explained. No one else stepped forward. At the end of the second day of the workshop, a lively participant from Ghangzhou in mainland China told a ‘moment’ about her experience of my revelation. Once she understood what I meant, she initially struggled with deep regret that she had never experienced voting, but then she thought, ‘Whatever! I should just get on with my life.’ I have never been made so aware of a right that I don’t properly value, so much do I take it for granted…
Carmel O’Sullivan, Director of the Arts Education Research Group at Trinity College, Dublin, spoke about how it’s her problem if colleagues have trouble describing what it is she does, and her responsibility to explain it to them. Her ten year research project running weekly drama groups with autistic children has been assessed by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Unit to gauge its impact. It’s the kind of qualitative and quantative research our own Melbourne Playback’s Artistic Director, Mike McEvoy would love to demonstrate the value of our work with various corporate organisations.
At the end of Mike’s plenary session on ‘Corporate Learning and Development’, an audience member asked the speakers if they had any qualms using their theatre expertise in the aid of business.
Mike related that at his interview to join Melbourne Playback he was asked his attitude to doing gigs for big business. Seated in the audience, Andrew Gray smirked – he’d been the one to ask the question. I listened with interest, having not heard that question asked of any Playbacker. Mike had responded by saying that he felt that as an artist, his role as an agent for positive change in any setting was a privileged one. Also on the panel was Jonothan Neelands, Professor of Creative Education at the Warwick Business School. In response to the question, he asserted that we need to broaden our definition of business: a freelance artist or a person selling food on the street are actually business people. Both business and art can be good or bad. There should be no value judgement on ‘business’ as such.
In his keynote address, Neelands spoke with great passion about the recent Warwick Commission Report on the Future of Cultural Value of which he was a Director of Study.
This study used irrefutable statistics to argue for the strong relationship between creativity and economic growth
and the need to change England’s poor arts education standards for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
A powerful image of the relationship between the arts and economy for him was a scene from the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony where the UK health care system was proudly displayed – the sports stadium filled with performers playing doctors and nurses surrounding a beautiful giant baby. Having started watching the opening ceremony with his fingers over his eyes (the cringe factor could be high!) he ended up feeling proud – the ceremony seemed to him a defining moment of national identity.
Neelands finished his speech by talking about what he felt might be a defining moment for Hong Kong’s identity – the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. He highlighted the neat areas for students to study with post it notes from demonstrating teachers offering tutoring and their phone numbers; the wishes for Hong Kong’s future printed prettily and decorated with yellow ribbons; the overall politeness and care symbolised by busy thoroughfares taken over by people carrying delicate umbrellas.
I had had a visceral taste of what it might have been like to be part of the Occupy Central Protest two days before during a conference workshop run by four young people from a Hong Kong NGO, entitled ‘The Process of Empowerment between Calm and Passion: Exploring Our Position in Civil Disobedience Movement through Process Drama’. In a shortened form, participants were taken through a workshop they had run to help potential protestors clarify their intentions and the possible ramifications of their participation, including on their family and friends. I found the opportunity to play a member of the rally (with other workshop participants playing the roles of police, media, etc) and to play a relative of someone about to join the march, a surprisingly powerful and direct way of experiencing many dimensions of this experience that was so important to many Hong Kong residents.
The impact of politics on people’s daily lives was also brought movingly to the fore during the conference’s final session: a Playback performance from the local Encounter Playback Theatre. The final story told and enacted by the team was from a man from mainland China who had been very moved by a performance on the first night of the conference, PsychoSEE, which skillfully staged a theatrical intersection between the Occupy Central Movement, Antigone, and a personal story about powerlessness in the face of rape. This performance had brought up very strong memories for the storyteller of Tiananmen Square and the interdiction on commemorating that event in China now. Witnessing his tears while telling his story and the moving playing back by Encounter Theatre provided me with a deeply personal perspective on an important world event from someone who was sharing his story in a public forum. That’s something Playback can do wherever it is seen – like travel it can allow us to gain the kind of wide perspective so important for creativity and problem solving. We can go on a journey from the comfort of our theatre seat.
Originally I trained as actor at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba (just west of Brisbane) and have always had an interest in physical theatre, circus and acro-balance in my work. I love how these skills support my acting craft and also provide me with a great way to train my body. I only came to acting when I was about 30 years old. Prior to that I’d worked as a carer for people with disabilities and also taught job-skills to folks who’d been long-term unemployed.
I moved down to Melbourne in 2010 and joined Melbourne Playback the following year. I was interested in the chance to hear real stories from people and to use theatre as a way to perform these stories back to the audiences who told them.This month I’m running some introductory acro-balance workshops with our Company as part of our weekly warm ups and training. It’s been great to share some of my circus, acro-balance and physical theatre skills with everyone and we’re currently having fun (and overcoming some fears…) whilst we play with what it takes to ‘base’ someone, find out how to become a ‘flyer’, learn who has the responsibility in a lift, discover how to support and really trust one another and identify what sort of strength (physical and mental!) that we need to do the balances.
Not only are these important ideas for actors, but also they are great metaphors for any group or team to think about in daily work. It’s exciting to see how circus and acro-balance can mix with the Playback form to give us a broader physical language to work with. Now, we’re integrating these skills into our performances to create images and poetry in our story-telling and we’ve already had some beautiful results.
Welcome to our first E-news for 2013! It’s already March and the year is well and truly into full swing!
Melbourne Playback is engaged again this year in working with Qantas Ground Operations in delivering specifically designed Service Culture & Leadership Experiences. This exciting project has us travelling to Sydney every week to engage with the people of Qantas and the culture of their workplace. This week our crew have been on the ground with the Ramp and Baggage Staff at Melbourne Airport. We’re gaining a real understanding and appreciation for the co-ordinated work that’s required to ensure aircraft are cleaned, bags loaded, seats allocated and passengers on board, so that an On Time Departure (OTD) is assured!
2013 has seen us working with several long term clients again: VISY, Melbourne Health, Mt Eliza Business School, City of Darebin, Brentwood Secondary College and Methodist Ladies College. We’ve recently begun a project with Australian Sudanese Youth in Footscray looking at their experiences with the justice system (co-sponsored by Juvenile Justice and Storyscape) that will culminate in the participant’s performing their stories and producing videos of the challenges they face and the hopes they have for how justice might be applied and communicated.
At Playback we deal in story. The stories of diverse organisations, communities and people. Often we’re working in environments where change is underway. Sometimes the changes are being embraced and celebrated, sometimes there is uncertainty and fear, sometimes people want others to initiate the change, and at times strong resistance to change is present. Our role is to create a space for the diversity of opinions, experiences, thoughts and feelings to be expressed, and at times to be a catalyst for change. It’s a privelege to be part of people’s engaging, striving and wrestling with change. It’s exhilirating at times and it can also bring it’s moments of challenge. Recently I’ve been finding inspiration, guidance and comfort, in the following quotes: “There is nothing permanent except change” (Heraclitus) and “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.” (Barack Obama)