In Australian youth performing arts, the 9th ASSITEJ World Congress & General Assembly in Adelaide marks the beginning of a new era and the end of an old one. In previous generations, inspiration and new ideas tended to be sought in Europe and, particularly, the UK. After the Congress, Australian youth arts practitioners looked more to Asia and the Pacific. Where before there was a tendency to accord respect according to the reputation of a practitioner or company, afterwards there was a more postmodern outlook, whereby art was judged more on its merit and context – no matter how famous the artist. After the Congress there was a far greater confidence too in the practice that occurred in Australia, and a sense that Australian cultural product had to continue to be innovative to reflect a constantly changing world.
The Congress, of course, did not make all of these things occur – these developments occurred over time and, as with any changing of eras, there were exceptions and alternate narratives. But it was a powerful catalysing event. It must be remembered that most of the influential youth performing arts practitioners of Australia attended the Congress and Festival, participated in the same discussions, took part in the same arguments and had the same experiences. If they didn’t all come to the same conclusions, they did show a solidarity and pride when dealing with some very opinionated visitors from ASSITEJ centres around the world.
The international program of the Come Out 87 festival included Wandering Stars by Korea’s Dong Rang Theatre for Young People, directed by Kim Woo Ok, and Honolulu Theatre for Youth with Song for the Navigator, a celebration of Micronesian culture. In the Australian program, Angela Chaplin’s acclaimed Arena Theatre production of The Women There looked at the neglected role of women in shaping early Australian history. Magpie Theatre reprised two classic David Holman plays, Small Poppies and No Worries. Patch Theatre, with My Place, tackled a story of homelessness for a young audience, Victoria’s Four’s Company presented the relationships of three young school friends in JG, Specs and Angie and Handspan Theatre’s A Change of Face explored multicultural friction amongst young Australians. Dance was featured in a combined program of Dance North, Rhythm Theatre, Dance Works, Feats Unlimited and Tasmanian Dance Company, and Leigh Warren and Carclew’s John Salisbury created a youth dance production, Taking Flight, with four high schools.
For international ASSITEJ delegates the strong youth program was to prove controversial. Opening with the youth opera Frankie, there were a range of performances by youth, including Riverland Youth Theatre, Multicultural Youth Theatre, Urrbrae High School, Unley Youth Theatre and Marion High School. Some well-known children’s writers – such as Margaret Mahy, Elizabeth Mansutti and Mem Fox – took part in the Allwrite! program, there was a design conference, James Morrison and Peter Combe were just part of the music program and Community Come Out ensured the festival pushed into even remote areas of South Australia.
To visitors, it seemed inconceivable that a youth arts festival could have such a prominent place in the life of not only a city like Adelaide, but a State that was one and a half times the size of Texas. As Ian Chance pointed out, ‘in the lower depths of the Festival Centre, serious huddles of experts engrossed in the theory of youth culture were all but swamped in the vital reality of youthful practice’. Much to the surprise of many Australian delegates there were strong protests from delegates from the Eastern Bloc, France and the US about the involvement of young people as anything but passive audience members. Maurice Yendt, from France, asserted forcefully that the statutes of ASSITEJ ‘clearly state’ that it was concerned with theatre by professional adult performers and sought to limit all discussion to only these productions. There was a mass walkout in Riverland Youth Theatre’s Flood Play by ASSITEJ delegates (though by all accounts the rest of the audience may have wanted to do the same). Australians were bemused by a statement by one European delegate rejecting consultation with young people with the analogy, ‘When discussing aircraft design we do not need to talk with the passengers’, and amused by one American’s statement, ‘Australia! The place where the actors are in the classrooms and the kids are on stage’.
To some international delegates, the involvement of young people in performance threatened the very professionalism they had fought so hard to achieve. These views were felt so strongly that even when Pacific Island representatives explained that performance by young people was a part of their culture and other cultures around the world (such as in Africa) that ASSITEJ wanted to expand to, they were met with replies such as ‘We do not want to change European customs to suit others’. Soon discussions amongst Australian delegates started to revolve about what would later be recognised as postmodern and postcolonial ideas, such as youth arts within the context of different cultures and the impossibility of imposing universal ideas of excellence or aesthetics across the board.
The culture shock went both ways. For ASSITEJ delegates coming from more hierarchical societies it was disconcerting to encounter even non-theatre people, such as Australian drama teachers, ‘willing to debate the theory and practice of young people’s theatre on equal terms with anyone – oblivious or unconcerned by their companies’ status as major directors, producers and writers in Europe or America’.
In a special edition of Theatre, Childhood and Youth published for the Congress, Richard Tulloch put forward Australia’s lack of tradition and isolation as a strength in Australian youth performing arts practice and, perhaps, a reason for the confidence and optimism in Australia at the time:
‘David Williamson, Australia’s most successful playwright and screenwriter, once told me that his greatest advantage as a writer was that he didn’t understand much about writing. Not being inhibited by agonising whether he was getting it right or not, he was able to get on with the job, finding his own ways of doing things as he went along. Australia’s young people’s theatre has developed in much the same way.’
Tulloch goes on to explain the practical nature of youth arts in Australia, and how it accepted influences like TIE, only to adapt these influences for the Australian context. Not having the resources of Japanese, American and European companies to mount large-scale productions in large theatres, he places the touring model of theatre in schools in its economic context. He also points to changes since 1985 in the standard touring model and experimentations in new areas of work, but feels that companies are producing too many shows to service their market, and looks to a future when more time and resources can be spent on developing productions that can be kept in repertoire.
John Emery picked up the postcolonial undercurrent and stretched a comparison to its limit in ‘The Yin and Yang of Gunboat Diplomacy: The politics of the ASSITEJ vote in Adelaide’. With a map of military bases in the Asia/Pacific region, his Lowdown article linked the vote for the Executive Committee in the General Assembly to a history of military interference and colonialism in the Pacific. He was responding to events in the ASSITEJ General Assembly where, with the help of a raft of proxy votes, European ASSITEJ centres voted down Vietnam and the hardworking Japan centre, and barely gave Australia enough votes to retain its seat. Emery did sum up the feeling of many Australian delegates though, with:
‘…the defeat of Asia and the Pacific at the ASSITEJ Congress vote is the best thing that could have happened to us. Because that defeat has defined for us who we are and what we are doing.’
At the end of the Congress, designer Trina Parker, from Victoria, echoed the feelings of many Australian delegates. ‘I’ve worked in this area for 12 years and for the first time in my life I feel as though Australia was much more aligned with the Pacific Rim rather than Europe. I feel the growth of a movement that’s really got something to say.’
The Director of the Congress, Michael FitzGerald, gained wide respect in Australia and internationally for his strong advocacy of Australian and Pacific youth arts practice during the Congress and Festival, as well as his support for the inclusion of performance by young people as part of the ASSITEJ Australia brief. More than holding his own in the robust debates, he was noted as a future leader by ASSITEJ centres disillusioned with the ‘organisation being treated as a private European club’, as UK participant Paul Harman put it. As proceedings ended, he announced future plans for engagement with Canada, China, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand and, hopefully, India.
Australia’s position was clear – it was looking away from Europe and towards Asia and the Pacific.
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