RIC CAIRNS is the parent of a student at John Curtin College of the Arts. Recently the school performed the controversial play The Laramie Project, which explores real-life reactions to the murder of a gay man in the United States. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED Mr Cairns says the students’ response to the deep issues the play explores shows Gen-Y isn’t the phone-tapping, self-absorbed generation it’s often portrayed as.
A POWERFUL theatre experience always leaves us feeling emotional, but last Saturday’s final performance of The Laramie Project at John Curtin College of the Arts was doubly moving.
The show was the culmination of two epic endeavours: The first was in the late 1990s, when The Tectonic Theater Project in the US conducted interviews with the people of Laramie, Wyoming, in the aftermath of the brutal killing of young gay man Matthew Shepard. The TTP used the verbatim material to create this much-acclaimed play.
The second huge effort took place over the past four months, as the specialist drama students at John Curtin, with Tectonic’s blessing, devoted their days, nights and weekends to getting inside this work, and exploring some of the more unsettling aspects of humanity.
That they succeeded was evident in their four performances, receiving four rapturous standing ovations, but I think there is more to the story than that.
In grappling with this shocking event and the prejudice and hatred it laid bare, these teenagers showed themselves not only to be fine actors, but also compassionate and courageous human beings. Those of us who are parents of cast members were moved, I think, not just by the play but by what it revealed of our children’s character.
These students, drawn from Years 10 to 12, are representatives of a generation sometimes misinterpreted as self-absorbed, thumbing their smartphones rather than engaging with the world.
In reality, they are both better informed of social justice issues than we were, and more willing and able to speak out about them.
When I was a teenager in the ’70s, racism, sexism, bullying and homophobia were an intrinsic part of the social fabric. While times have changed somewhat, the Laramie event in 1998—not to mention the murders of gay men in New York on the same weekend our children presented this show—make it clear that there is much work yet to be done.
The very fact this extraordinary Fremantle public school took the bold choice of producing The Laramie Project speaks volumes about the college’s values regarding equality, compassion and community.
The complexity of the piece and its challenging subject matter speaks further volumes about the school’s faith in its gifted-and-talented drama students to both cope with the material and do the hard work of bringing it to life on stage.
And bring it to life they did. Under the direction of teachers Fiona Tholet and Tenielle Clarke, the play was beautifully staged and vividly performed, a credit to every one of its many artistic contributors. It set a very high bar for secondary school productions.
These young players conjured many standout moments, some that brought laughter or horror, others that had tears streaming down cheeks both on and off the stage. This was mature theatre from rapidly maturing young talents.
But as valuable and transformative as theatre can be, what was on show at the Curtin Theatre on the weekend was more than meaningful entertainment. It was a glimpse of the future.
In one of the memorable moments of the play, a character speaks to the importance of “H-O-P-E”, and of all the emotions in the air when the ovation finally ended, I think hope was the strongest.
We had seen a group of young people poised to become not just high school graduates, but our next generation of citizens, the shapers of our society.
Yes, some may well become great artists, and inspire audiences on stage and screen. Some will go on to other academic pursuits. But all will play a role in what Australia becomes.
It lifts my spirits to imagine the society these young people, brimming with empathy, compassion and intelligence, could create.