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!
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.
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!
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.
Posted by Melbourne Playback in News on 17 Jun 2015
We’re writing to ask for your voice of support.
What is happening?
Senator Brandis recently announced a plan to shift $104 million dollars from the arms-length Australia Council for the Arts to a ministerial controlled ‘National Programme for Excellence’ which will administer the funds directly from the minister’s office.
Below are some links with more information about the changes and the uncertainty it has created in the arts community.
What is concerning about the change?
The principal of arms-length funding and the rigorous peer-review process for arts funding is an important feature of Australian Arts Funding because it ensures excellence, innovation and diversity in the sector and it removes the possibility for political interference in deciding what artwork is created and supported
The move to bring funds under ministerial control is akin to allowing the sports minister to pick the Australian cricket team, rather than the expert selection panel best placed to make that difficult decision.
It is also evident that some of the worst hit by the change will be the thriving independent and small-to-medium sector which is the breeding ground of new talent and innovative new Australian work, in the same way that the VFL and grassroots football clubs feed the AFL.
What is Melbourne Playback’s position?
Melbourne Playback is a not-for-profit organisation which operates as a social enterprise so we do not directly rely on Federal Government funding to survive. However, some of our community projects are made possible through state and local government grants that will feel a knock-on effect from the changes.
And critically, our company’s success relies on the independent artists who form the ensemble. The health of our company is directly related to the health of the arts sector in Australia.
Like any ecosystem, all the different organisations, individuals and artworks are connected and dependent on each other to ensure a thriving arts sector. The artists who work for Melbourne Playback also work on independent projects and on projects with major performing arts organisations. Our work on those projects influences the quality and style of our work with Melbourne Playback and make it possible for us to have sustainable careers.
A number of our partner organisations, cultural festivals and the venues we rehearse and perform in are under direct threat because of the proposed funding changes; La Mama, St Martin’s Youth Arts, Dancehouse, Multicultural Arts Victoria, Footscray Community Arts Centre and many more.