Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Off With Youth Arts and Down Among the Bellbirds…

Last month Young People and the Arts Australia (YPAA) ran an engrossing symposium called Speaking in Tongues at the Casula Powerhouse in south western Sydney. This lovely venue, with its wonderfully graffiti covered towers that have scandalised some local councillors, came complete with a river, a terrifying railway crossing, Polyglot Theatre’s Paper Planet filling up the foyer for the Way Out West children’s festival and bellbirds Henry Kendalling on the river banks.
Leverage and language were the theme, with youth arts practitioners and administrators from all over Australia and beyond concentrating on questions of communicating what the arts are about for the young. And communicating not just in a vague ‘arts are good for you’sense but in ways that would have potential audiences, funders, governments, schools, parents and the young understanding how vital this area is and how it changes perspectives and lives. There’s a search on for the right language that positively communicates the worth of the arts for the young. As Jim Lawson, Director and CEO for YPAA (Vic) said when he quoted Cathy Hunt of Positive Solutions (www.positive-solutions.com.au) in the Symposium’s programme, ‘…the question arises for the arts sector: How do we articulate the value of what we do?’
Suzanne Lebeau, playwright and artistic director of Le Carrousel Theatre (www.lecarrousel.net) in Quebec, Canada discussed the need for toughness in youth arts, raising questions of censorship and self-censorship for a playwright yet placing against this evidence of the great capacity of children to understand difficult ethical questions. One of her recent plays (Le bruit des os qui craquent/The Sound of Cracking Bones 2006) concerns the matter of child soldiers, not the first time for Lebeau to tackle challenging subject matter.

Melbourne’s Platform Youth Theatre challenged by presenting a dark double bill called Tenderness (Ugly by Christos Tsolkias/Slut by Patricia Cornelius) drawn from the grimmer sides of life for young people in the northern suburbs of that city: self image, sexuality, love and friendship and the power of labelling.

Out in the centre of the Powerhouse dozens of younger kids were absorbed in building their Paper Planets, in a smaller space Maysa Abouhzheid performed Nest, a piece about her perceptions of the world, with her guide dog nestled quietly at her feet and in an even tinier space The Plastic Bag Ladies of the Sea introduced miniscule audiences to the knitted underwater world of Spinning a Yarn.

Outside the performances there was a sea of talk with much in the way of positive suggestions for broadening the youth arts sector’s communication of what it does coming from people like Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education’s Arnold Aprill.
(Time and time again he would drop an eminently sensible viewpoint or tactic into the discussions.)
There was also a very healthy approach to the use of media in youth arts going on. ATYP’s Fresh Ink – Writers Online Tel It Like It Isn’t showcased on film a couple of tough monologues by writers under 26, all revolving around a dire teenage driving scenario. (http://www.freshink.com.au/the-voices-project/) There was even a rather exciting live cross to Manchester and Baba Israel, artistic director of Manchester’s CONTACT where the Contacting the World Festival involved youth companies from the UK, Trinidad/Tobago, Thailand and Nigeria. (http://contactmcr.com/) It’s clear from their web site that they have a strong on line presence full of powerful up to the moment work.
With national curriculum for the arts thundering down on the country’s education systems none of this is any bad thing. But there still seems to be a bit of a chasm between all this gorgeous stuff and education systems. YPAA is aware of this and ran an educators’ seminar at the Opera House on the Monday following the Symposium which might have opened a few doors. Putting arts squarely to the fore in busy and complex education systems remains, however, a challenge. Deep training for specialist performing arts teachers and a hard look at the reality of facilities in schools might be achieved if decision makers were as versed in the language of the arts as YPAA would like them to be.
Meanwhile, back in Canberra, the July break contained some good examples of theatre by children and for children. Child Players’ ACT ‘s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S.Lewis’ Narnia stories was a sensibly unfussy and unsentimental version with good brisk playing and excellently clear voices, well directed by B.J.Anyos. Child Players have an intriguing set up in which the participants rotate through backstage and onstage roles, giving them a chance at a broad and realistic theatrical experience that resists the temptation to only nourish ‘stars’.
Although William Walton’s Funeral March for Olivier’s Hamlet was an odd aural choice to introduce the White Witch (who would seem to be more of an Oriental despot than a Danish royal) the rest of the show mostly hit a very satisfactory mixture of clear approaches to characters and straightforward imagery. The set changes used the ubiquitous Rock Eisteddfod rotating triangle flats that is occasionally a slow way of doing things but no bad idea if approached with style. It certainly solves the problem of a wardrobe that has to contain a whole world.

CYT, who were ably represented at the YPAA Symposium by artistic director Karla Conway, put on Insomniac Attack, a lovely dark piece about the terrors of the night complete with Genty style illusions supported by neatly selective lighting by Michael Foley and lots of IPods floating around in the dark with little films of eyes running on them in a delicious visual pun. Director Cathy Petocz had the CYT Junior Ensemble deeply immersed in a world of bedclothes that come to life and the faint lights of the IPads and IPods that shine underneath them just as years ago the late night readers would use their torches. Only now it might be technology that’s evoking the nightmares. Which the young insomniacs in this piece overcome in a brusquely practical manner.
Does the draft National Arts Curriculum (high on rhetoric but low as yet on vital matters like teacher training and school facilities) have the capacity to ensure that students in schools can be actively part of similar good performing arts experiences?