Stage is set for shake-up of school drama program

One of Australia’s most successful contemporary theatre companies is shaking up the way it operates in order to continue to keep a vital component of its business alive.

Mar 23, 2020, updated Mar 24, 2020
Maddison Burridge, Nick James, Eli Bunyoung from Shake & Stir's school touring program.

Maddison Burridge, Nick James, Eli Bunyoung from Shake & Stir's school touring program.

Brisbane-based shake & stir theatre co is arguably best known for its mainstage productions, which have included Matilda Award-winning work such as Fantastic Mr Fox Animal Farm, Dracula, American Idiot and 1984 but its schools touring program remains one of the most integral parts of its business, and the program has been adapted to bring theatre to students’ fingertips the event of school closures.

Artistic director Nick Skubij said the company’s education program links in with various elements of the curriculum for primary and secondary institutions across New South Wales and Queensland and conducted up to 800 performances in schools every year.

“There’s an audience of about 150,000 or so young people that engage with the company throughout the year and many of those are engaging through our in-schools programs,” Skubij told InQueensland.

“The biggest part of our company has been and always is and will be out in-schools program, it’s just that because we’re delivering directly into schools and we’re marketing directly to schools and we’re targeting schools market not many of the general public know about it.  It has been the lifeblood of the company since 2006.

“We have three groups that are running concurrently and each group has three professionally trained actors and they’re delivering up to eight separate performances.”

Skubij said the company’s shake & stir VIRTUAL program would engage with students and teachers via an online portal, and included professional recordings of all of the company’s in-school performances, including Shakespeare productions such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet, an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and issues-based works such as Blocked, which deals with social media.

“It involves multi-camera setups in a venue specially equipped and it was recorded over a few weeks, so it’s not like it’s just an iPhone on a tripod capturing and show these are really high quality with multi-angle shots, and students have the ability to stream limitless times within their licence period,” Skubij said.

“The result of it is actually better than we expected,” he said. “It’s hard to anticipate what a live filming of a performance will turn out like but we set this up in a way where we could get nice and close and we can see the actors expressions and we can kind of feel very much like what it is to be in the room.”

He said the company had been planning on launching digital adaptations of its school-based performances for some time to help connect with geographically isolated students and the program was ready to be rolled out as soon as it is needed.

“We tour with a big set and with a big screen so there’s heaps of projection and digital stuff already in our shows and there are all sorts of things that tie-in with the curriculum and these are being delivered in a really modern, engaging way that I think already acknowledges the fact that there is this line blurring between theatre and film and TV.

“New and different ways of delivering live content has been an interest of ours and we never thought we’d be rolling out this shake & stir VIRTUAL under these circumstances but they were always plans to keep evolving and acknowledge the fact that there probably will be a shift in some way to more online delivery of live theatre content in the future.”

Skubij was quick to point out that the virtual program was never intended as a permanent replacement for face-to-face touring, but said he was grateful shake & stir was in a position to provide it.

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“There is no real substitute for seeing performances in the space live, with an actual audience live in a venue, but in the circumstances that you can’t do that or access that for geographical reasons – or for whatever reason that is, it’s good to have this alternative.  It’s virtually the same thing.

“There is this potential for nationwide school closures and there’s going to be those 150,000 young people [in Queensland and NSW] who see a live performance each year sitting at their homes by themselves with their family and I think it’s really important that there is continuity and there is routine.

“Whatever can be maintained to whatever degree, I think that’s the challenge for teachers and educators now, with having to potentially move to this online delivery with their lesson planning and we hope we can make that shift with them and be there to support them, and implement ways where they can continue to deliver what they were planning on doing with our performances online as easily as possible.”

Skubij said he was hopeful schools would embrace the program, which would also include special features and real-time online question-and-answer sessions to complement the productions, and said shake & stir was doing its best to maintain continuity of employment for some of its creative staff.

“We really hope that the schools – as we think they will – get on board with this idea and do support this because it’s wholeheartedly so we can continue to support our people, and the industry, and make sure that there’s something to come back to, you know, on the other end.

“That’s hugely important and I think every company is looking at ways that they can adapt and evolve their practices to do this as best as they can.

“All we can do is just prepare and plan and hope that we’re able to respond accordingly.”


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