Melbourne to Manchester: Arena Theatre's Artform Evolution

By Myers, Rosemary | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Melbourne to Manchester: Arena Theatre's Artform Evolution


Myers, Rosemary, Australasian Drama Studies


In 2006, Arena Theatre Company will celebrate its fortieth year of creating performances for young people. Thank you very much for having me here today to present to you on the company's international collaboration - SKID 180. SKID 180 is, I hope, an interesting case study for demonstrating Arena's current mission or priority concern - which is the very intertwined notion of young people's entitlement and engagement with the arts. SKID 180 is a good vehicle for exploring both: how we arrived at our current focus and also the practical way that the mission plays out in the art we create and our broader programming strategies.

From the artist's perspective, and from the perspective of a theatre company that creates works for young audiences, our research takes place predominantly through our creative work, through our own activity. For Arena our very work is founded in the idea that art making is about asking questions and inspiring a dialogue with our audience. The debate that is generated through our work has a direct implication on the work itself and perhaps in that way our company's life and creative journey over the past 40 years can be seen as a thesis in motion.

SKID 180 is an international collaboration that came about when Tanya Farman, the Artistic Director of the 2002 Manchester Cultural Festival, Culture Shock, saw Arena's production Eat Your Young at the Adelaide Festival in 2000. She was very interested in the company's use of digital media as a performance language and she invited Tamsin Drury from Digital Summer, a digital arts company, to see the show at its return season the next year. Tamsin introduced us to another organisation in Manchester - Contact Theatre - and we began an email dialogue with their Artistic Director, John McGrath.

Around this time Arena were developing a new work called Play Dirty for the Melbourne Festival 2002. The work was based in the world of Freestyle Moto Cross, which is the very extreme sport of motorcycles jumping through the air. We ran a development process that included work-in-progress showings to over five hundred Victorian school students at the Myer Music Bowl and a website component which got lots of feedback (over two thousand log ons) during the creative process and also post-show. This audience dialogue was extended even further when Helen Cahill and Graeme Smith at the Australian Youth Research Centre, at Melbourne University, conducted further research for Arena. We used a range of methods to contact the audiences who saw the show, including post-show surveys and phone interviews, and we collected a diversity of information. Of course, lots of people interviewed attended the work because they were theatregoers. However, we also had the opportunity to interview representatives of our audience that would be considered as non-theatregoers. These were two groups of students in a large rural secondary college with a low socioeconomic profile. Class members represented the lower end of the literacy spectrum and had very low anticipation of entering tertiary study. Most of the students had not seen theatre before. Two or three girls in each class had been to see shows such as Disney on Ice, Cats or Grease.

When interviewing these students the researchers asked them to line up along a line that placed theatre at one end of the spectrum and sport at the other, placing themselves along the line according to where their interests lay. Every student except for a few lined up at the sport end. When we eagerly asked the others why they lined up towards the theatre end, the answer was unanimously that they hated sport.

The students were then asked to imagine that in five years they heard Arena had a great show on that was really relevant to them, would they imagine they would go and see it? They all voted a low interest in attending, and when asked why, their responses included: 'it might be boring', 'cos of what your friends might think', 'probably too costly', 'it could be OK to see if your friends come', 'movies are more comfortable' and 'sport is more exciting'. …

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