The Tourists

I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.

Douglas Adams

2017 is UNESCO’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. It’s a provocative theme. It’s a bit of a mouthful. And it’s going to be enormous fun to explore in our Gecko Ensembles!

Australians are some of the world’s most prolific tourists, embracing the thrill and wonder of traipsing all over this big blue ball. In the words of one of our defacto anthems, I Still Call Australia Home, we are “always travelling” and “love being free”. So UNESCO’s theme raises a lot of big questions for children growing up here.

What is a country, a national identity, a home?

Which humans are allowed to travel beyond their own national borders and why?

How do you balance competing values of economics, culture and the environment to create sustainable tourism?

This term one of our inspirations for these questions will be an exquisite children’s book by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen and Akin Duzakin. The equally inspiring Michelle Hall brought this book to our attention and we’re so glad she did. It’s called Why Am I Here?

The book goes beyond simple questions about tourism and travel to explore deeper ideas about the nature of the self. A child in a canoe travels through imagined countries, asking seemingly simple questions, inviting empathy and self reflection:

What if I lived where there was only desert?

What if there were a war where I lived?

Why am I me and not someone else? Why am I here?

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The quality of questions in this book, coupled with its exquisite artwork, make it a powerful inspiration for drama. Our Honorary Scholar Robyn Ewing has spent a lifetime articulating the power of high quality literature in the lives of children, and this philosophy is exemplified here on every page in word and image.

High quality literature is always full of great questions. Curly questions that drape themselves around your brain and won’t be shooed away, pointy questions that prickle and provoke and revealing questions that look at you with big unblinking eyes asking for honesty and self reflection.

What if I had to make my way with thousands of others to an unfamiliar place?

We are so excited to get Term 1 of the Gecko Ensembles underway with the theme of The Tourists. We are a little theatre company in Perth but we are also connected to the wider world. And we are committed to giving children the most meaningful experience of art that we possibly can.

Young people aged 5 – 17 are invited to join a Gecko Ensemble and come with us on a tour through our planet in all its mystery, complexity and wonder.

Want to enrol your child in a Gecko Ensemble? There’s a group for everyone aged 5 – 17, enrolment is easy just START HERE

Welcome to 2017!

My favourite moment during last year’s Barking Gecko shows was when a six year old girl sitting in front of me turned to her friend and said, with a massive grin, “I am so scared right now!” That heady mixture of delight and terror, distilled for me in an instant, why I love my job. It’s often said that the theatre is a safe place to explore dangerous ideas. But what is sometimes forgotten in that neat equation, is just how much fun this can be. To enter a theatre and be taken by the hand by those most wonderful and mischievous of creatures – actors – and be led somewhere new, scary, inspiring and altogether unfamiliar! That is an adventure that can be had nowhere else.

So this next year we are going on adventures to many new and exciting places, but perhaps the most exciting place is where all these journeys begin. We are already stretching our toes at the State Theatre Centre of WA as a resident company and we are incredibly excited to have you visit us in our beautiful new home.

We begin the year with Saltbush, an exhilarating, immersive digital journey for children who are led through stunning indigenous artworks and introduced to traditional dance and music from one of the world’s oldest living cultures. A very special work that will ignite conversations with those you love, both large and small.

And our newest work My Robot takes us on a technological trip into the future, with a real, functioning onstage robot! We gathered data for this show from a sparky group of 5-7 year olds whose creative input blew our circuits. Anything can happen, and anything will!

And our journeys are not just imaginary. From our home at the State Theatre Centre of WA, Barking Gecko is touring the world. Bambert, the tiny man with the huge imagination will set sail again. Our Helpmann Award winning production of Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories is packing its bags for its European and Australian tours.

Want to get involved? Our Gecko Ensembles are year-round drama classes for all ages! Last year our Gecko Ensembles grew to five locations around the state, including our first regional Ensemble in Broome. We are ranging further afield in the coming year, with Ensembles popping up across Perth and the state. Full of thrilling learning experiences, this year the Gecko Ensembles are mucking about with robots, ripping into Shakespeare and learning how to devise plays of their own. It’s going to be brilliant.

So come with us on our adventure this year. This is your state children’s theatre company and we want you along for the ride. Whether it’s seeing our shows, learning something new at our Living Lectures or getting creative in our Gecko Ensembles. We can’t wait to see you at the theatre.

Rehearsal Reflections Part Two – Francesca Savige

When we began rehearsals in late August, we had the gift of Caleb’s presence again. He and Matt had continued liaising and Caleb’s script was onto its fourth or fifth draft. It was thrilling to see what had been included, inspired by the development. But the process was far from over! Caleb stayed with us for the whole first week of rehearsals and continued to make changes – some minor tweaks, others large re-writes or edits. On the first full script read-through with all the creatives in attendance, Caleb asked us all to be very frank about what we thought worked and what didn’t. It was a beautifully open and fruitful discussion, with Caleb always pressing us to be more critical and more challenging in our dissection of the play! His lack of preciousness about his work, his open-mindedness and his ability to listen and filter through thoughts and suggestions was extraordinary. And I think this open-mindedness and awareness is what makes his work so brilliant and so very accessible.  Over that first week of rehearsal, Caleb continued to tweak and edit and absorb new ideas that emerged from explorations on the rehearsal room floor.

On a personal level I learnt that this interaction with the writer in the room made me feel a very powerful sense of ownership in the work. Of course, the writing is more than 99 percent Caleb’s words, but because we were so integral to the process, I felt like we embodied the character’s dialogue truthfully. This is what we aspire to as actors – to feel as though the words are our own as the character speaks them. It was profoundly rewarding to feel this as a result of this collaborative process.

Probably one of the most ridiculous, and yet undoubtedly invaluable, things to come out of the development, as Scott and I happily and freely improvised around Caleb’s wonderful script was; a fart joke. Essential for every good youth theatre show, surely? When rehearsals officially began in August, Scott and I were thrilled to discover the fart had made it into the rehearsal script. This of course, gave us true ownership of this moment in the play, and confidence in our own creativity of high-class comedy. Then by the second week of rehearsals, Scott had managed to include two more fart jokes in the show! Victory! I think he throws them in as gentle reminders for me to not take myself too seriously. It works. Double victory! By week three, our fiercely intelligent and considered director Matt had culled us back down to just the one fart joke in the show. Boo!

We pipped him at the post by squeezing out one more irresistible fart joke during production week! And I conclude, with confidence, that the creative contribution of actors should never be underestimated.

– Francesca Savige

 

This is part two of a special two part rehearsal diary. Part one is available here.

Rehearsal Reflections Part One – Francesca Savige

I have been working a lot with Shakespeare in recent years , so it was an exciting and unfamiliar challenge to work on two new Australian works this year. The first of these was a wonderful new play by WA’s Reg Cribb and the second, the delightful In A Dark Dark Wood by Caleb Lewis. On both these projects, the writer was in the room for the first week of rehearsals, but as a special bonus for the latter, we also had the fantastic experience of a creative development months before rehearsals even began. These experiences have been both insightful and revelatory for me, and hugely beneficial to my acting craft.

The creative development for In a Dark Dark Wood took place in April of this year and it was the first time I have ever been involved in a project at such an early stage. Our director Matt and writer Caleb had been developing the concept for months already, but the script was still in draft phase and Caleb was extremely open to suggestions and changes. As we explored forms of storytelling and improvised throughout the week, it was amazing to see Caleb absorb, guide and rework ideas. Not only was he spending the days with us bouncing these ideas around,, but he would write long into the night and come into the development the next day with new chunks of script for us to bite into. It was very impressive! Alongside admiring Caleb’s brilliance, I was also slowly growing in confidence in my own ability to contribute at this stage of creativity.

I had gone into the development feeling a deep fear of improvisation, but this process made me question why I was so nervous about it. It quickly became apparent that the fear was more specific. I’m comfortable improvising without language, using my body to physically tell the story, and so I realised that the impro-phobia (there’s probably a more scientific term for it) was about words, my use of language and an expectation with improvising to say funny things. Going into this development, my impro-phobia was exacerbated by working with my extremely funny fellow actor, Scott Sheridan. This guy is seriously hilarious. I know this all too well because he is also my life partner and he makes me laugh every day! But no matter how many times he told me confidence-boosting lovely things, I was still terrified of improvising.

It dawned on me that my fear of improvising with words probably comes largely from a lack of practice. I’ve done lots of actor-training over the years (I believe actors always should keep training), however it has always been language-based. Always Shakespeare. It sounds ridiculous as I write it, to be afraid of improvising with words, as we obviously improvise with words on a daily basis in life. Yet on stage, or in front of an audience, it was traumatic for me!

Shakespeare’s scripts are 400 years old and there is a certainty and confidence that comes with that, for me. When I am working on Shakespeare, I know what I have to say. People have been saying these lines for centuries!  I can learn my lines perfectly -often before rehearsals even begin- and be able to play and respond in the rehearsal room. My job is to make the words my own as best as possible, and that is the challenge that I love. With a new work in development, not all the words are there yet, and nothing is set in stone. And of course, as an artist and creator, the desire is to contribute, to give, to be a part of the development – that’s what it’s all about. Yet a feeling of inadequacy to do just that, pervaded me in April.

So the development was scary at first. I could feel myself resisting. I wanted to speak only the words Caleb had written in the draft. Meanwhile, Scott was being his usual hilarious self, riffing on ideas, throwing jokes around willy-nilly and cracking everyone up. On the very first day Matt, with his usual brilliant intuitiveness, dis-obligated me from any of the horrid insecurities and pressures I was conjuring up for myself. He encouraged creativity without any need for the material to be perfect, or even any good at all.

Matt directed our focus to the form in which we were working. We were exploring a story-telling mode of playing multiple characters with just two actors. The focus-shift was the perfect distraction for me. And the perfect appeal using the actor’s craft. As actors we are always seeking our motivation, asking why are we doing and saying what we are doing and saying. We ask the question on behalf of our characters: “What do I want?” Matt guided us to want to investigate the form in every way, and the motivation was to conquer the challenge of multi-character story-telling. Alongside Matt, Caleb regularly reminded us not to worry about the words on the page, genuinely encouraging us to try out anything, feeding us with inspiration and laughter.

So throughout the development week, I stopped thinking about myself, being in my head with my own self-doubts, and focused on getting what we wanted. And we got it. We found a mode of storytelling that we would fine-tune later in rehearsals, but it was the foundation for Caleb to keep building on with this exciting new style of multi-character two-hander narrative story-telling. Ultimately the creative development was very productive not only for Caleb and Matt, but also for me facing my fears, and getting back into practice of improvising. And Scott had a blast, of course!

– Francesca Savige

This is part one of a two part rehearsal diary. Part two will be published Thursday 3 November.  

 

 

On Wondering

We’ve just opened our latest show In A Dark Dark Wood, a production which broke new ground across a range of areas for me as a director. So I wanted to write a post about what makes for a creative rehearsal room, and give a little insight into how choices are made.

Of course there’s preparation. Larry Moss’ advice “the director’s job is to know the literature” has been one of the most significant starting points for me over the years. As a director, you have no excuse not to know the play better than anyone in the room, writer included. The basics of great text analysis is covered thoroughly by people like Katie Mitchell, Mike Alfreds and others in their insightful books on directing, so I won’t try to summarise here. Two things I will say: you can never read the play too often and you should always read with a pencil in hand so you can write questions!

I have gradually become aware that the phrase I am most fond of as a director is not “I think…” but “I wonder…”.

Questions are vital when it comes the process of making creative decision with other people. First with designers and writers and then with actors. I have gradually become aware that the phrase I am most fond of as a director is not “I think…” but “I wonder…”. I have a feeling that I owe the fondness for this phrase to the work of the educator Dorothy Heathcote, a thinker whose work I adore. Heathcote was a uniquely gifted teaching artist in her ability to activate wonder and curiosity in children. She was a devotee of “wondering aloud” around young people, treating them as brilliant young co-creators, not empty vessels to be filled. And I’ve found that wondering aloud around actors and creatives is just as useful. In fact it’s possibly the best way to enlist everyone to putting their powers to work towards a shared vision.

A director wondering opens up creative space for others to fill. A question’s lack of completion creates a vacuum. And that creates movement and possibility. So for a creative person, a question is always better than an answer. A director telling you exactly what they want creates, at best, obedience. It might lead to an effective moment onstage or a dynamic scene, but it’s a dead interaction. Whereas a shared wondering will lead you to somewhere neither of you expected.

In the eleven months since we started work on the show, with a blank page, I’ve had some extraordinary artists who have helped me answer some of the big questions I’ve scribbled down. As with any piece of art, the end results will not be to everyone’s liking. But what is clear to me is that making room for each person to fill space with their own unique contributions, has made for a much richer show than any tightly controlled initial vision could have done. The work that is touring WA at the moment is the sum of their individual expertise.

'In A Dark, Dark Wood' - Dress Rehearsal / Dolphin Theatre UWA - Barking Gecko theatre Company 21st September 2016 / Photography © Jon Green 2016 - All Rights Reserved

Lets take a few aspects of the show:

The dramatic form of the script has come about through many iterations and lots of wondering. Writer Caleb Lewis and I began with Russian, German, Italian and Japanese folk tales, exploring what made them work and how they had been variously realized in film, literature and video games. As we workshopped the script, and explored its central themes, we both became curious about how the ideas of imagination and play could be embedded in a dramatic form. This eventually led to Caleb creating scenes with multiple coexistent characters played by two actors. Sounds complex? It is! In terms of form, this has probably been the most challenging element in the show. In a one-person show, a performer’s characters can move anywhere in time and space as the actor slips in and out of roles. But as soon as you have two performers onstage, each becomes an anchor point for the other. So staging scenes with multiple doubled characters, as we discovered, is exponentially more complex, as the actors leave ghosts of characters’ bodies in the spaces they have occupied.

My next “wonder” as a director was how to make these character changes clear for six year olds while not holding up the dramatic momentum of the show. In solving that complexity with two highly skilled and curious actors, we created an immensely satisfying dance between Frankie Savige and Scott Sheridan involving “single-gesture” transformations of character, with weeks of tweaking the costume design with designer Lawrie Cullen-Tait until everything was working together. The young children in our first preview could tell us exactly what was happening, which was brilliant. A new form (at least for us) born out of curiosity and wondering…

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The set was an entirely different piece of hard-won invention from our designer Lawrie. Questions included: I wonder how an old caravan could turn into an ice cream van in front of us without anyone noticing? I wonder how we could tell a story simultaneously set in fantastical locations but also in a backyard? I wonder what it would be like to have a rule that everything onstage has to be used for at least two things? These kinds of thought experiments fed Lawrie’s design and the beautiful solutions she has found, seen in some of the images here. Reviews have rightly singled out the inventive set as one of the real delights of the show.

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Exploring Shadow Puppetry was a whole different adventure. I have never used shadow puppets before. But I became curious about using them early in the process – for a work that is in some ways a thriller based on darkness and light, they seemed like they might be a good fit. So I’ve spent a year absorbing as much as I could about this form (really just the tip of the silhouette-iceberg) mainly through the expert tutelage of Chloe Flockart, our brilliant Puppetry Mentor. Chloe has given us many hours of theoretical and practical sessions which have led to many more hours of experimentation with the designer Lawrie and the actors Frankie and Scott. I should also acknowledge Tim Watts (who started the ball rolling by generously donating two sessions in our first creative development) and Amy Mathews, who finessed the design for many of our puppets and discovered that a the gaps in our wooden cable-spool slots were the perfect width for shadow puppets to stand up in! Through a process of “structured wondering”, we’ve built puppets together (including celery trees – see image above), choreographed scenes together and ultimately found our own form and style of working that fitted the piece.

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The sound design has had a similar question-based evolution. Ben Collins and I started thinking about these questions: I wonder what scares a six year old? And in balance to this question – I wonder how blood-curdling we can get before we cross over from spooky-fun to genuine terror? And in a play that is incredibly lyrical in style, how can we let the sound and language feed one another rather than compete? The subtle and sophisticated sound design has been honed over many runs of the show and I couldn’t imagine the show without its many moments that heighten, clarify and shock. As the sound swelled during our first spooky sequence in our first preview, a six year old girl in the row in front of me turned to her friend with a big grin on her face and said “I am so scared right now!” This was the best response we could have wished for. The sound design also includes live harmonica, which we asked the actor Scott only weeks before rehearsals began, to give us a backwoods feel (a harmonica veteran on opening night thought he had been playing for years. Tidy work, Scott).

'In A Dark, Dark Wood' - Dress Rehearsal / Dolphin Theatre UWA - Barking Gecko theatre Company 21st September 2016 / Photography © Jon Green 2016 - All Rights Reserved

For Chris Donnelly’s lighting design, the big “I wonder” was how to create a show that relies on the complex interplay of darkness and light when we are touring to many venues with little lighting equipment. Barking Gecko is a touring company and we are simply not interested in having an amazing city show and then a b-grade country version. How do we give the kids in Geraldton and metro Perth the same experience? In the end we’re touring a set with inbuilt lamps, an ice cream van lavished with LED stripping that can light up like a sugary palace (or the fires of hell) and a forest of branches covered in UV-paint so they glow in the dark! Beautiful and inventive solves from a curious creative mind.

The creative contribution of our Stage Manager/Production Manager Rhianne Perrie has been huge, including a habit of wondering whether various things will actually work! This is actually an incredibly useful perspective in the room. Sometimes, when grappling with an artistic problem you need someone with the temperament of William of Ockham to cut through the impractical solutions and find the simplest and most effective choice. Thankfully, Rhianne’s been that person on many occasions in this process.

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Finally, the actors. On the first day of rehearsal I encouraged everyone to think of themselves as “makers” rather than just fulfilling their role. Both actors embraced this and have offered so much to every moment of the show. Whole sequences and staging choices have come from their brilliant invention and improvisation, including finding the best song to convey the utopian abandon of an ice cream feast for hungry little ones (see image above: spoiler – it’s Unchained Melody).

In the theatre, too much certainty shrinks our creativity. When we think we know something for sure, we get cocky. With certainty, our work becomes boring to ourselves and then inevitably to others. We explore pre-digested ideas and deliver them in familiar forms. And the results are likely to be trite and comfortable rather than provocative and inspiring.

A final caveat is that habitual wondering doesn’t absolve the director of the responsibility of meticulous selection of what is ultimately seen and heard onstage. Instead it allows space for others to fill, which ultimately allows a far greater range of choices available to the director in her selection process. This is where rigour and artistic judgement become crucial. There is still a need for precision, for being demanding, even pedantic with details. But for me the wondering comes first.

THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL

I haven’t had a really decent beard since last appearing in The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in 2010, but I nonetheless maintain a great admiration for pogontrophy and those who practice it.

So it was with great pleasure that I unwrapped THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL, a parting gift from my brother who was visiting from Sydney last week. Theatre makers are great scavengers and ideas can come from many sources. A great graphic novel can be richly rewarding, having a huge amount in common with a great play. Both forms are a delicate blend of word and image and when the balance is right, the whole becomes so much more than its elements. For a theatre director, its worth noting how a graphic novel achieves its effects: how it combines imagery and poetry to make something both moving and memorable.

Beneath the skin
of everything
is something nobody can know
The job of the skin
is to keep it all in
and never let anything show

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So begins Stephen Collins’ delightfully original tale, set on the island of Here, an impossibly neat, clipped, trim and ordered place surrounded by a terrifying and chaotic sea, beyond which is There, a place that no one dares to visit.  The protagonist Dave, an all-but-hairless man, loves tidiness, sketching things he sees out of his window and listening to Eternal Flame by The Bangles on endless repeat. His life is ordered, regular and unspectacular. But one day the single hair that grows on Dave’s face transforms into a swiftly sprouting, chaotic and uncontrollable beard.

As if
something
had escaped
from the depths of his dreams
to crawl up into the day

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Collins’ elegant pencil drawings, beautifully-textured and constantly shifting in scale and perspective, plunge us into a surreal world that we nonetheless immediately recognise as a shadow of our own. This is a world is of order, conventionality and conformity – a Here in desperate need of a There. The unruly beard becomes a playful metaphor for the eternal tussle between order and chaos.

Like many great artists, Collins takes a simple idea and explores it in rich imaginative detail, filling every page with new variations on the theme. The book maintains its strong dramatic action, surprising visuals and and finely calibrated ambiguity until the end. It is a masterclass in visual storytelling. The work is a darkly comic fable, a beautifully observed social satire, a celebration of all things hairy and a bloody good read.

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If you’re lucky enough to be in Perth at the moment, you can see more of Stephen Collins’ original artwork, including sketches from this book, as part of Comic Tragics. The exhibition showcases nine leading international comic artists and is showing at The Art Gallery of WA until July 25. The book is published by Picador and is available at the gallery’s bookshop or online.

The post is dedicated to the memory of Rashas Moustaches.

Gwen’s mouse

The children caper
Round a sprung moustrap where a mouse lies dead
When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid

I found a collection of Gwen Harwood’s poems in a bookshop in Fremantle yesterday and was struck again by her wonderful ability to pay attention to tiny details. Harwood’s Suburban Sonnet is a masterclass in everyday tragedy, depicting children confronting death, perhaps for the first time, and a woman whose veins ache as musical longings and family obligations collide inside her. It is heartbreaking. Each small detail in the poem builds an image of flawed humans, big and small, struggling against time and the awareness of their own mortality.

So I was fascinated to find a poem buried in the volume dedicated to another great poet, titled I.M. Philip Larkin. Harwood, one of the finest anatomisers of humanity, writes in her brief and heartfelt euology to Larkin: Sorrow will keep its hour/Surpassing all belief. Her poem betrays a deep pain at the loss of this fellow poet. Like all great artists, Harwood is conscious of death and its inevitability, and yet its ability to blindside us with its vastness and obscenity, surpassing all belief.

Of course, Larkin himself wrote one of the most unique and striking depictions of our awareness of death, refracting our fears through the prism of ambulances. Larkin’s ambulances menace us as they thread loud noons of cities/Giving back none of the glances they absorb. Their presence makes us:

…sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.

The poem takes an ordinary moment in any of our lives, the passing of an ambulance, and through it lets us glimpse the extraordinary: the solving emptiness of death.

And so we come to Shakespeare: the great poet of life, death and everything in between (and sometimes after). And in a post about death and poetry, how could we not? Last week was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and birth (both on the 23 April). Shakespeare’s birthday is the day after mine, so I often find myself reflecting on the great writer’s words as another year passes – his life and death ever present as my own years slip by.

Time is Shakespeare’s great, recurring theme. The inevitability of decay, death and rebirth is a thread shot through every play and poem he wrote. The most iconic image in his work, indeed in all of dramatic literature, needs no words to be immediately understood: a healthy young man in a graveyard, holding a human skull. Even the most passionate lives in Shakespeare are ultimately brought to heel by Hamlet’s seargant death who is strict in his arrest. In one of the most beloved passages, Jaques tells us all the world’s a stage, an image of life brimming with energetic performances, passion and possibility. Yet in the exact same speech he reminds us that by definition each performance, each life, has an entrance and an exit. Death is always with us.

But it is Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand in The Tempest, viewed by many as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theatre, that speaks most powerfully of the fleeting nature of life. The illusion of our own permanence is just that:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 

In his response to the play, The Sea and the Mirror, WH Auden describes the all-consuming ocean in The Tempest as one which misuses nothing because it values nothing. In one sense, the play confronts us with a bleak universe that will swallow everything. All that we think of as permanent, including our own consciousness, will ultimately dissolve.

And yet, the wonderful paradox of life is that an awareness of its briefness can make us more fully, vibrantly alive. All great art is in some way a response to a consciousness of mortality: the artist attempts to observe and to make sense of this world before it passes them by. The result may be tragic, whimsical, confronting, meditative or hilarious, but it is all an act of curiosity, of paying attention, of presence. We are all the children poking the dead mouse in Gwen Harwood’s poem, or Hamlet staring at the skull. And this need not be depressing or macabre. Contrary to popular misconception, Hamlet is one of the funniest characters in all dramatic literature. An awareness of life’s briefness is also an awareness of its specialness, which can be liberating, animating, even joyful. It is only by paying attention that we become fully alive. For an artist the awareness of death makes the expression of life in all its wonderful complexity all the more precious.

And, despite the inevitable death of its creators, great art need not die. The words of Harwood, Larkin and Shakespeare have the ability to go on – to outlive each artist. And with the death of David Bowie, Prince and many other extraordinary artists this year we see vivid examples of how the work of great artists can continue to have a life of its own. Each artist may be only paying attention to their small corner of the world, but by expressing what they see and sharing it with others, their work has the power to endure.

Ben Jonson’s eulogy for Shakespeare contains one of the finest expressions of this idea. Four hundred years later, Jonson’s words are testament to the extraordinary ability of art to transcend death.

Thou art a monument without a tomb, 
And art alive still while thy book doth live 
And we have wits to read and praise to give.

Growing creative humans

Most of us who become artists, have a similar story. Someone at some point saw us and said ‘I think you could be good at this’.

The myth of the solo artistic genius is just that – a myth. We all develop in a social context, theatre artists more than anyone. At some point every successful director, actor, playwright or designer has someone recognise their potential and encourage them to keep going, to work hard and to dream. Whether this happens in a classroom, a rehearsal room or a Gecko Ensemble; these inspirational figures loom large in any artist’s “origin story”.

To namecheck: Graham Lewarne, my eccentric bow-tie-wearing school science teacher, was the first person who did this for me. He was an accomplished amateur dramatist with a love of Shakespeare and a fierce and exacting sense of what worked on stage. He was brutally honest when he didn’t think what you were doing was any good, and he taught me to aim high and strive for excellence. And 25 years later I’m here in large part because he expected more of me than I knew how to give. In recent years Graham’s come to a number of my shows. He still gives me notes. Most of us working in the arts have stories like this one.

I’m writing this, on the eve of our 2016 season, in the certain knowledge that many artists will look back on our current Barking Gecko teaching artists as their inspirational figures in the decades to come. OK, I’m going to come out and say it: we have a pretty awesome teaching team working with our young Gecko Ensembles this year. On Friday we finished our teacher training sessions – very much a two way process – and we are ready to unleash this extraordinary, eclectic, passionate bunch of human beings on Western Australia’s young actors, in our weekly Gecko Ensembles.

Of course our Ensembles aren’t just for those who will become professional artists, they’re for everyone. Just as the lessons you learn on the sporting field serve you in life even if you never play for Perth Glory or the Dockers; so theatre education is full of rich intrinsic rewards including self-confidence, empathy and a capacity for playful creativity, even if you never give your Lady Macbeth on the Heath Ledger stage.

I’m incredibly proud of what we have planned for our young Ensemble members this year. Having spent more than two decades around theatre companies nationally and internationally, I can honestly say that I know of no other company that is paying this much attention to the quality of what they are teaching to young people in their classes week-by-week. That’s not marketing spin or an arbitrary boast. It’s based on our decision to invest hundreds of focused hours in developing rich content, linked to quality literature and overseen by Professor Robyn Ewing, AM, one of the world’s leading authorities on drama education. So you can be certain that every class will be brimming with creativity and fun.

But great content is useless without great people to teach it. And when you combine the two? Then extraordinary things are possible. I can’t wait to see what will happen this year in our Gecko Ensembles. If you haven’t booked in, then what are you waiting for?