Saturday, May 21, 2016

Happy Birthday Play School

Happy Birthday Play SchoolCelebrating 50 Years.  Exhibition at National Museum of Australia, Canberra, May 7-July 24, 2016.

Tickets on site or online at

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 21

The only faces not always smiling in the Play School exhibition were the sometimes worried parents having to stop their very young children from taking the invitation to “Come Inside” literally, as they clambered over the transparent plastic barricades – space invaders of a very excited kind.

The see-through nature of the displays symbolises the central concept of Play School, which still has as much impact today as 50 years ago.  Long before ‘digital’ and ‘interactive’ became our established way of life, Play School played with the deep theatre issue – how to create a believable illusion of reality in a live performance.

This is also why Play School wins hands down over the USA’s Sesame Street.  I can claim to write about this since my first child, born in 1967, is only one year younger than ABC TV’s Play School.  I saw the differences between American culture and ours; and note too that even the BBC 1964 original Play School, which ABC borrowed and adapted, came to the end of its life in 1988.

My thinking at this adult level of apparently abstruse philosophy was stirred by observing, and then talking with, mother Katherine – who arrived here from Malaysia in the late 1970s – and her Australian born adult daughter, Jessica.  Their joy at recognising and remembering favourite episodes and presenters was palpable – a link in their family relationship forged by Play School in the 1980s.

Speaking later to the mother of a three-and-a-half year-old about the comparison with Sesame Street, I found she was adamant that her daughter prefers Play School.  And, watching a boy the same age using a touch-screen in the exhibition (where he realised that by moving the image of the moon he could change the time shown by the hands on the clock), his mother commented on the focussed attention he maintained and his learning in the digital interactive environment.

So the Happy Birthday Play School exhibition’s already a winner even before I analyse its importance.  What it shows is how original our theatrical artists were all that time ago.  Taking what was still a new performance medium (for example, television had only just had its first demonstration in 1965 in Broken Hill, for which I directed a short dance item), they discovered how to educate the imagination of the very young better even than through live performance on stage.

What happened?  And how?  Two major changes were underway in Australia, in theatre and in education. 

La Mama and the New Wave in Melbourne, and Jane Street, with the establishment of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney were in the process of happening.  NIDA produced the new young modern trained actors who became Play School presenters.  For me the great turning point was the 1966 production at Jane Street of Rodney Milgate’s A Refined Look at Existence, directed by Robin Lovejoy.  It began with the arrest of a member of the audience by policemen, including the inimitable Michael Boddy, co-writer with Bob Ellis of The Legend of King O’Malley.  Only when Boddy’s very recognisable rather large body appeared in the curtain call was I sure that the policemen had not been real.  In passing, let me remember the recent deaths of these indefatigable stirrers whose legacy we should never forget.

In education, as my career began in 1963, New South Wales at last began to break out of the strictures of teacher-down instruction, via the new Wyndham Scheme.  Teachers were now to take into account the particular needs of the actual students they were teaching, and devise programs to help them learn, instead of teaching nothing but the content of a predetermined syllabus, according to which every student in every classroom in the same year level at the same date would be being taught the same material.

This new freedom of thinking about how to do theatre and how to teach came together in Australia’s version of Play School

But there’s more.  To make television no longer a picture of a performance on a screen, being pumped out to absorbent viewers (that is, parallel to the old syllabus teaching), the Play School team engaged the viewers’ imagination in a brand new way.  Here’s a house.  It’s got windows and a door.  Come inside, through the door.  The presenters do things with toys and expect you to do things with them.  The children are not absorbent dishcloths, but are doing things – doing drama in their own house with the presenters in their house.

But then there’s even more.  From inside the house on television, we look through the windows and see what’s happening outside, and we find all sorts of new wonders.  In one episode I watched, the presenter had the children guess what the other presenter could see through the window, by describing and acting out what it looked like and what it was doing.  It was large – very large – and had something which it swung from side to side in front of it.  It was an elephant, which we then saw the other presenter patting and even feeding, and talking to the zoo-keeper.

This use of television was absolutely original at that time.  In comparison, even though Sesame Street today is modern in style, and highly entertaining, with the messages to be learnt built into the dialogue and songs, it’s still a ‘teacher-down’ process and the learning is largely by rote.  In watching Play School, the viewer’s imagination keeps them in their own reality in their own house while at the same time shifts them into the television house where they do things in that reality, including going out through the windows into exploring another reality ‘outside’.  This is the brilliant device which makes Play School maintain its place after 50 years, even as technology has changed to become digital, interactive and worldwide. 

What Play School has done is to create its own world wide web in the imaginations of all those children, and as they have grown through the generations, in the imaginations of all those parents – in the past, present and future.  The proof is there to be seen as you watch people from my age to two-year-olds thoroughly engrossed in this exhibition.

50 years!  I’m sure there will be Happy Birthday Play School – Celebrating 100 Years!  Because the theatrical device is brilliant, yet simple, and the educational principle is perfect.

So, this National Museum of Australia exhibition is a very important event.  It engages adults and children at all levels, including when talking to me in the cafe over lunch. 

But will the NMA and the ABC still be here in 50 years’ time, entertaining and educating us in the present and through our history?  There are conservative politicians who would dearly love to take us back to the 1950s – at least to the 1950s of their imaginations, where education was cut and dried and theatre was all about nothing but J C Williamson entertainment; where debutantes had balls, men were the breadwinners and women knew their place (and certain other sexes didn’t exist at all).

Funding cuts, to all the national institutions, in the recent May Federal Budget, are a serious worry, so take the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Australia now, before the July 2 election, just in case the world ends before July 24 when the exhibition closes.

National Museum of Australia, Canberra