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.
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.”
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.
Did you see the article in The Age recently titled “The rise of soft skills: Why top marks no longer get the best jobs”? The journalist John Elder described how leading companies from Australia and the UK are valuing more than ever ‘soft skills’ in their workforce.
So what exactly are soft skills?
They are skills that build personal connection. Have you noticed how things are more likely to go our way when we are able to make a genuine connection with someone? Soft skills help us do that. They are skills in emotional intelligence, communication, conflict resolution and using collaboration (rather than compromise) to solve problems. Its something we can all relate to.
Soft skills really can be a game changer.
Associate Professor Jennifer George is director of a new masters program at Melbourne Business School that is offering business training that includes a soft skills program complete with actors from Melbourne Playback.
We join the participants for sessions in voice projection, posture and presentation skills. Later on we do ‘real-play’ sessions where our actors play scenarios with such as the boss who the participants have to break bad news to.
For skills that are inter-personal, there is no substitute for trying it out in a safe place, with an actor who isn’t actually your boss.
The ability to have a go, get feedback and have another go is invaluable as a way to learn these skills. They can’t be mastered by theory alone.
What soft skills do you want to master? You elevator pitch? Listening? Collaboration? Share them in the comments below.
And try this: ask a friend to have a go with you. Make up a scenario based on your target soft-skill, play it out together, talk about how it went and try again. Give yourself permission to do it really badly. Make it fun. You’ll be amazed how easy it becomes.
Posted by Sheridan Green in Workshops on 17 Sep 2012
Learning and Development staff forum on in July 2012
Donna Conroy Projects Officer, People, Learning and Culture provided feedback from the participants. Here are some of the comments made:
I would like more of the Playback type work around values congruent responses to common difficult work situations.
I think this session was especially meaningful way to present and learn about such situations.
Melbourne playback Theatre Company – they were excellent!! Having the opportunity of meeting other workers in Connection.
Lots of interesting things discussed. Staff participation, not just sitting there and listening.
The atmosphere was very relaxed and enjoyable.
The Playback performances were spot on and just amazing to watch and also to have a laugh to make you feel really good about yourself and further to learn and see from a different perspective on how things are seen. They were awesome in my book… should be more them at our forums, please.
Melbourne Playback Theatre is pleased to be back at Gasworks again this weekend with performances at 8pm on Friday & Saturday nights and two professional development workshops designed for teachers and group facilitators.
If you were part of the audience or a participant at the workshops, we welcome you to continue the conversation with us here…