My personal highlight of the Melbourne Fringe Festival this year was queer physical theatre ensemble, Po Po Mo Co’s Recreation and Leisure. The show was made up of a series of sketches, and the one that had me giggling for three days straight was a sketch featuring WEYA teaching artist Lily Fish.
I wasn’t alone in thinking this show was the cream of what Melbourne performance artists are creating in 2017. Recreation and Leisure was nominated for best comedy in the Melbourne Fringe and received the Circus Oz industry award. Po Po Mo Co are gearing up to present shows at Mid Summer Festival, Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
Lily joined the WEYA teaching team earlier this year and worked on programs at North Geelong Secondary College, Whittington Primary School and our after school program in Werribee. We are extremely fortunate to have Lily working with some of the states most disadvantaged young people in these WEYA programs. I had the pleaser of interviewing her last week about her experience of this challenging and rewarding work.
Like many independent artists, Lily has done her share of teaching. She has taught adults, with recent teaching gigs at Women’s Circus and Trash Puppets, and has taught young people in fancy private schools. But working with the kind of cohort that are in WEYA’s programs was a new experience for her. She reflected:
‘It’s been great. It’s really hard work. It consumes a lot of energy. But you also see these instant results in terms of performance ability and use of spoken language. Their confidence, their desire to be involved in the project seems to grow throughout, so it’s quite rewarding even though it’s exhausting.’
I asked her about the North Geelong Secondary College program in particular. This residency was a twenty-week program that involved participants in the school’s EAL VCAL program. Many of these students are recently arrived migrants and refugees. And it was clearly an experience that Lily valued. Her comment was:
‘The challenge and the joy of teaching the North Geelong group is that there’s this language barrier, and it’s so important not to treat that as anything to do with intellect and understanding. It was exciting to give them time to articulate what they thought should happen in the show, and it was so satisfying for all of us when they managed to do that.’
She gave an example:
‘One student had an idea for what the end of the show should be. He had really thought about it outside of class. He struggled to articulate his idea, but others helped him, and when he managed to articulate it we were all like yeah “that’s fantastic!”.’
Over the twenty weeks of the program the students were led through an intensive development process, out of which they created a show, Macbeth of Norlane, which they performed last month as the culmination of the program. The basic concept of the show was that Macbeth was a recent migrant to Geelong, Duncan a restaurant owner he’d known from the old country. Lily explains:
‘We proposed this idea to them, with the idea that their might be some themes that were familiar, at least in the migrant experience. I don’t have that experience, so it was genuinely about asking them what would happen.’
She went on to talk about the ‘important exchange of stories’ that take place in and around the class, that is much more than what ends up in the show. ‘It’s important for me to learn about that stuff,’ she reflects, ‘and for them to have the opportunity to articulate it.’ And she recalled a story one young woman had told her that had made an impression, about a mother and daughter who were separated, and their bitter sweet reunion after twelve years, with the mother having had a new family in the meanwhile, and initially not recognising the daughter who she hadn’t seen since she was three.
We chatted about what was unique about creating theatre in this context. And she said this:
‘There’s just this vast wild energy, that is such a wonderful thing to have in a performance space. And it’s very hard to shape it, but it’s much harder to generate that with board adults than it is to shape it with kids.’
‘They were just so keen to do the show that it was not as difficult as it could have been. The effort they put into learning their lines, and helping each other to learn their lines. The North Geelong kids were really professional. And the quality of acting…some of the speeches were really moving. I was tearing up even in rehearsals.’
‘It was really amazing for language acquisition. We pushed them to do a lot of actual Shakespeare which I think was what made some of the speeches that actually really popped.’
‘What have you learned?’, I asked. She said:
‘I’ve learned classroom management skills. You’ve got to be very switched on and present the whole time, and very positive, which I think is a good thing to take into any work place, to focus on positives.’
I asked her to talk specifically about the other programs. Of Whittington Primary school she said:
‘I guess I was really struck by the very fast and profound change in the prep classes, in terms of their spoken communication. At the start I couldn’t understand any of them, but by the end of the first term, even the ones with a speech impediment could make themselves understood.’
And she adds as an aside:
‘There’s this beautiful thing with primary school aged kids, where they can behave really badly, and then at the end of the class be like ‘I love you. Will I see you next week?’ It’s like, it’s not personal. They’re just having a bad day, which is really refreshing.’
And of the Wyndham Edge after school program that Lily worked on for seven weeks, she said:
‘Wild energy! It was a case of getting them excited about a narrative, and endowing them with the responsibility of creating it and the promise of choreographed fight scenes. Finding a way to integrate physical theatre with narrative. They’re not there to talk, they’re there to do stuff, which is great cos that’s what I’m into as well.’
We chatted a bit about what other stuff Lily is doing at the moment. The list is long.
There’s #romeoandjuliet, a duo queer clown version of Romeo and Juliet, to be presented at La Mama as part of Mid Summer Festival, that is currently in creative development, and that Italian physical theatre master Giovanni Fusetti is coming from Italy to direct. There’s teaching at Women’s Circus, as well as a residency coming up there. There’s ongoing independent teaching gigs, there’s a ‘Chinese-pole’ development that was in residency at Circus Oz, funded by the British Arts Council. There’s Born In A Taxi, a highly acclaimed physical theatre company, for which Lily is both a performer and a dramaturge. There’s Trash Puppets, with whom Lily also teaches, and of course Po Po Mo Co, that Lily was a founding member of and which has it’s regular monthly gigs as well as shows like Recreation and Leisure.
Lily also mentions casually that she has a three-year-old child, like that’s just one more piece of theatre to fit into the juggling act that is the life of a successful independent artist.
I asked her what she thought about the notion of pathways. It’s something we bang on about at Western Edge Youth Arts and I was interested in her perspective, as someone with broad experience in the live performance industry. She mused:
‘It’s an interesting thing cos it’s a career that I love, but it’s very hard. This is the first year that I’ve worked full time in the industry and I graduated theatre school seven years ago. There were a couple of kids who were asking how do I become an actor? One who expressed it quite strongly, I gave a list of drama schools. The kids who I saw as particularly talented, I acknowledged that to them, but I didn’t say, “you should go and become an actor”, cos it’s very unlikely…
We talked about the industry and I wanted to know what her perception was of a shift toward diversity or otherwise. Her thoughts were that:
‘Certainly there’s a movement towards diversity. And I think a good thing that WEYA does, is it gives that opportunity to kids who might become actors. To choose a career in the arts is very middle class. WEYA is offering a level of training that would otherwise be inaccessible. Programming on sbs is trying to be more diverse, and there are a few agencies that put forward actors from diverse backgrounds, even if it’s not in the brief, and it’s great that there is a new generation of diverse actors to be put forward for these roles.’
And she comments that participants in the programs she’s worked on with WEYA this year, have included some ‘talented, interesting artist; young performers who I think I’d like to work with again, professionally.’
And I hope that she gets to, and that I get to see it. Keep your eyes peeled for that, and for #romeoandjuliet and Po Po Mo Co’s show at Mid Summer Festival which will be called Po Po Mo Co’s Second Birthday Show.
Article by Kendra Keller, Western Edge Youth Arts.