Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Promoting Agency or 'Stepping-Stones R Us'? Recent Melbourne Youth Theatre

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Promoting Agency or 'Stepping-Stones R Us'? Recent Melbourne Youth Theatre

Article excerpt

The face of young people's theatre (YPT) in Australia underwent profound change through the 1980s and 1990s.1 In short, theatre-in-education, (theatre performed by professional companies for the entertainment and education of young people, mostly in schools), had been the dominant form of funded theatre for young people for two decades, but by about 1995 the number of funded companies had fallen away to barely one major company in each capital city.2 TIE has all but died as a form; the few former TIE companies that still exist mainly perform plays and high-tech multimedia works with high production values for youth audiences in theatres. From about the middle of the 1980s, TIE companies gave ground to a rapidly growing number of funded youth theatres: theatre performed and often created by young people up to about twenty-six years of age within professional company structures. In 2003/04, the Australia Council provided grants of various kinds to at least twenty youth theatres and only eight professional YPT companies.3

This paper examines a range of youth theatre practice in Melbourne since the last years of the 1990s, focusing on the long-established and state-funded St Martins Youth Arts Centre4 and two newer organisations: the orthodox Platform Youth Theatre, which has been in operation since 1998, and Wcstsidc Circus, whose origins date back to 1995. It examines a mixture of extant works, or plays specially commissioned for youth companies, and others that are devised by members of the companies with assistance from professional writers and dramaturgs. Some of the playwrights and dramaturge arc emerging artists themselves while others are well-experienced in writing tailor-made plays for different kinds of companies. I am interested in the 'youth-specificity' of the material performed, the kinds of working relationships different writers and/or dramaturgs have with the young people, as well as the efficacy of the works as theatre and as youth theatre. I am especially interested in the ways in which contemporary youth theatre in Melbourne enables or promotes agency in the young people themselves.

St Martins Youth Arts Centre

St Martins Youth Arts Centre was established in 1978 on the South Yarra site of the old semi-professional adult repertory theatre St Martin's, which in 1973 lost a long battle for financial and artistic survival to its rival the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). The site was put up for auction in 1977 (after the MTC relinquished a brief tenancy) and the Liberal state government of Sir Rupert Hamer bought it at the end of 19775, along with what was to become the company's administrative and rehearsal headquarters further up St Martin's Lane, with a view to establishing a fully-equipped, professionally-managed, two-venue complex for a permanent 'children's theatre' along the lines of the Australian Theatre for Young People in Sydney.6 But the inaugural artistic director, Helmut Bakaitis, insisted on a participatory youth theatre model, which is what it became and so it has remained ever since.

Bakaitis (an actor trained at the National Institute of Dramatic Art) came to this new venture from a wide range of youth-specific work in Adelaide, where - between 1972 and 1976 - he had been director of YPT activities with the State Theatre Company of SA, director of the young people's theatre programme for the Adelaide Festival (which transformed into the autonomous Come Out Festival in 1975) and was involved with the early work of Carclew Youth Arts Centre.7 While waiting for the theatre rebuilding to be completed,8 Bakaitis and his associate director Michael Mitchener quickly attracted enough young people to stage several substantial productions in 1978 and 1979 as St Martin's Youth Theatre. They performed in various venues, including the Playbox Theatre in Melbourne, and toured to Come Out. In 1980, the new company took possession of its administrative office and was formally incorporated as St Martins Youth Arts Centre, with a board of directors, a skeleton production and administrative staff and its broad objectives. …

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