The Moon's A Balloon

Linda Wyrill reports on the international success of South Australia's youth-performing-arts companies.

There is mutual support and a shared zest for the work they do among Adelaide youth-performing-arts companies Slingsby, Windmill Theatre and Patch Theatre Company. "South Australia is special and different in that we have three internationally renowned companies performing for children," says Patch artistic director Dave Brown. "We are very much together in wanting to make Adelaideans proud that we are unique in that way."

The companies performed at the invitation-only International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) showcase in the USA in January, where all three secured touring dates. Windmill Theatre has a season next year on New York's Broadway with its musical Pinocchio, co-produced with the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Slingsby's Man Covets Bird will tour the UK next year, with a North American season likely for 2015. Patch won the Victor Award for Best Showcase Production with Me and My Shadow, and has a six-week season in the USA late this year, starting in New York city and including Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other major centres. "It's pretty exciting," says Brown. "Patch will perform for two weeks on 42nd Street in New York city at the start of the tour, and will probably secure another season in the USA with the show next May," he says.

Patch has had a lot of success with Me and My Shadow. The company was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Production for Children for its 2011 season of the show at the Sydney Opera House, and it also took out the Helpmann Award for Best Presentation for Children. "It's one of those shows with broad appeal because it doesn't have any dialogue and is visually beguiling," says Brown. "A three year old and a 93 year old can gain the same level of enjoyment from it."

Windmill's performance of Plop! at 2010's IPAY resulted in an international tour, and its 2011 production, Grug, for ages one to five, secured a six-month USA tour that started in January. Windmill also won an Arts SA grant of $275,000 toward its final piece in a trilogy aimed at teenage audiences, the first two of which were School Dance and Fugitive. Girl Asleep will premiere next year at the Adelaide Festival. Slingsby has performed at IPAY since 2009, when it secured an international tour for The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy.

Brown says international success is important, a validation of the importance of theatre for children to those who need convincing, such as venues, governments and other funding sources, and parents. Windmill general manager and executive producer Teena Munn says international touring provides an enormous amount of work and opportunities for SA artists. Recognition and grants also allow for larger-scale productions.

Patch makes theatre for four to eight year olds because, says Brown, at this age they are ripe for engagement in the arts, more so than at any other time. "Children of this age make beautiful creative leaps that often have us laughing because they are so imaginative and clever, and don't have the sort of self-awareness where they stop themselves from doing things because of what other people think," he says. "We have a role with our shows to inspire wonderment, whimsical thinking, and provide a model for play. The exploration, discovery and invention that happens in play is at the core of all learning."

Slingsby artistic director Andy Packer started the company with executive producer Jodi Glass five-and-a-half years ago with the aim of making emotionally complex work for audiences aged 10 and older. "That is when kids start to really see themselves as individuals," says Packer. "They're an audience who are mostly forgotten about because they're tricky to engage." Packer says Slingsby presents heartfelt stories to its audience. "We don't shy away from the sadness of human experience," says Packer. "We honour children's real experience of art and life by giving them theatre that is sometimes dark, but ultimately uplifting. Children identify with a character who goes through some trial, yet is triumphant in the end. Hopefully our audience will go back to that character and remember there's always hope and light at the end of any darkness."

Slingsby and the State Opera of South Australia's family opera Ode to Nonsense played at Her Majesty's Theatre last month, and is on again this month. "It's an idea that's been in my head for 12 years," says Packer, who started writing Ode four years ago. Slingsby has recently been invited to Norway to perform The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy, which won the company a Ruby Award for Leadership in Arts Enterprise in 2009.

Dave Brown is particularly excited about the upcoming season of Patch's The Moon's A Balloon during this year's Come Out Festival at the Odeon Theatre, Norwood, from 25 May. Me and My Shadow also will play at the Odeon from 5 to 23 August before touring regional SA.

Windmill's Grug returns home to play at the Space Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre from 3 to 14 December. Teena Munn says the company is passionate about presenting this work at the centre. "We thought it would be lovely to have the under-fives experience the space of that work," she says.

"It is a measure of a community how well they look after the development of their children, and South Australia fares well in that context," says Brown. "We have a youth-arts sector that is seen internationally as something pretty special."

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PHOTO: The Moon's A Balloon.

This article was first published in the May 2013 edition of Adelaide's Child.

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