Thursday, 20 November 2014

an uplifting education programme

Recently I was privileged to spend a day at Melbourne's wonderful Malthouse Theatre to watch students from years 9 and 10 perform exerpts from a play written by Angus Cerini - normal.suburban.planetary.meltdown. It had been specifically commissioned this year for their schools education programme - The Suitcase Series. I support the Malthouse and specifically The Suitcase Series after being introduced to it a few years ago. The Suitcase Series is an award-winning education program for Years 9 and 10 students to collaborate and devise short works around the themes of sustainability and climate change.
The marvellously converted Carlton & United Brewery Malthouse
As the Malthouse website states: "normal.suburban.planetary.meltdown is a play about Earth Hour, in a normal suburban suburb somewhere, an average man is suddenly having difficulty breathing. His impending doom induces an existential crisis which is only aggravated by lackadaisical conversations with his smart-arse dog, his #hashtag obsessed daughter, his fed-up wife and a voiceover which (annoyingly) he can hear. normal.suburban.planetary.meltdown is a wickedly ticklish take on Armageddon … and the importance of composting."

On the first occasion I was fascinated to watch students perform their chosen piece (often with just 4 students and occasionally with more than 6). The abilities of the participants covered a wide range, but I was amazed by the courage of those students to perform in front of their peers, teachers and the facilitator of the programme in a real theatre - right out of their comfort zone. At that age I couldn't have done it but perhaps students are different these days! I watched them 'network' and 'hang out' at the breaks. I watched them ask questions at the conclusion of each of their peer performances. I was 'bowled over' by the positives that the facilitator was able to come up with for each performance - even those that had little going for them! You could see the students blossom as the day progressed.

But the piece de resistance was when real live actors took to the stage and performed the play in its entirety. What those actors brought to the play with their performances had the students sitting on the edge of their seats with their eyes wide open! Suddenly they could see the possibilities that can be incorporated into a piece of writing and I'm sure they would have re-considered their interpretations on the piece in the future. You could feel the electricity in the air. It was fabulous. And at the conclusion of the play the actors sat at took questions from their special audience. 

I was hooked. The Suitcase Series was for me! It was where I wanted to donate using my small philanthropic fund (I have written about it here) Well time progressed until finally this year it all came together. I chose to 'underwrite' a country school - Boort District School. This year they had rehearsed with 6 students - and an enthusiastic and encouraging teacher - and then on the day the teacher plus 4 of the students left their Mallee town at 5.30 am to travel to Melbourne. That in itself was worth a 'gold star'! None of them had been to the wonderful Malthouse before nor had they ever performed on a stage before! So this was pretty exciting, overwhelming and just a little bit scary. They were the first school to perform on the day (the series saw over 900 students from 46 schools go through the programme this year) and they did a pretty good job when compared to the other school groups. Interestingly it was the 2 schools from outside Melbourne who I had the most admiration for. The opportunity for school students to perform and to see theatre when they live in Melbourne is far more accessible. This was a real adventure - and a positive one at that!
The teacher, the Boort District School students (including a happy 'dog') and the Malthouse facilitator
I watched as each school performed and then listened to the facilitator Vanessa O'Neill, the Malthouse Youth and Education Manager, discuss with them their reasons for choosing to play the piece as they had. One of the Malthouse actors (who played 3+ parts when performing the entire play that afternoon) also sat through the performances giving wise counsel and encouragement to each group. There were no 'put downs'. It was such a positive experience.
Terrible photo but... the actors and the facilitator (L) answering questions
normal.suburban.planetary.meltdown was about Climate Change and one of the characters was a dog. Each student playing the dog had worn a dog outfit. What a difference it made when the professionals performed in the afternoon. The dog wasn't dressed as a dog - but from the minute she strutted onto the stage (with one black eye) and rubbed herself against the pole (after sniffing one of the students!) there was no doubt in our minds that she was an overconfident terrier with 'attitude'. The students were enthralled by the actors and their performance. 
'The dog' with attitude!

At the conclusion the actors returned to the stage and questions were fired at them. They were so generous with their time and knowledge. I'm sure it was invaluable to each and every student (and teacher!).
"How did the dog get into character?"
"How did the actor play three different parts?"
"Why did the man walk and talk like he did?"
"How did the lid of the rubbish bin light up when it was opened once and not the other times?"

The questions went on and on - and if the facilitator hadn't stopped it they would still be asking! The actors were so generous with their time regarding how they get into their character, how they got into acting, how they prepare just before coming on stage. I could go on but I hope you've got the picture!. 

Afterwards I asked the Boort District School performers what had been some of the highlights of their day. 
"Coming to Melbourne". 
"Coming to this place" (waving arms around at the extraordinary building) 
"Seeing those actors and THAT DOG"
"Meeting all these people"

At the conclusion of the day I drove home uplifted by the experience. It confirmed to me that my money had been well spent! It also confirmed to me that from little things big things grow. 

If you like the sound of The Suitcase Series then I encourage you to assist a financially challenged school to attend and perhaps change just one students life! We're not talking mega money here - maybe just registration fees, travel expenses etc. The rewards for those who participate will only be judged in the years to come. 

If you would like more information then contact please feel free to contact me by email or go straight to the Malthouse Theatre and speak to Rachel Petchsky about The Suitcase Series - email

You won't regret it! I hope to see you there next year!

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