Each year, the Honours students of the Flinders Drama Centre put together a graduate production. For their 2022 show, the graduating actors have worked with a crew of first-year students as well as renowned Australian director Wayne Harrison AM and created Coming of Age in Australia, an anthology of coming-of-age stories in Australian theatre.
Selecting from landmark coming-of-age stories that have shaped Australia’s cultural identity such as Summer of The Seventeenth Doll or The Chapel Perilous, the Drama Centre’s graduating actors added their own unique experiences to these plays to showcase modern Australia.
Covering everything from comedy to tragedy, Coming of Age in Australia embraces the political, the personal, our migrant and multicultural experience, and the struggle for gender equality and freedom of self-expression.
How the graduate production came together
Drama lecturer Dr Christopher Hurrell has been pondering the recurrence of coming-of-age stories in national drama, and what they say about Australians as a society and culture his entire career. “The idea for this graduate production began when I shared this observation with the students and invited them to investigate through their own research and practice, why this might be, and how that phenomenon has developed as Australian society has become rapidly more diverse since World War II. What makes this graduate production special, is that it draws on the insights these young people have made independently, and shared with each other.
“What’s thrilling about the performance is that it is informed by the fact that these students have something authentic and unique to say about these plays and the themes they embody. These plays speak to us on a deeply embedded, intuitive level as Australians. The students are working with material that’s often 50, 60, 70 years old and bring it to vivid life with their natural dynamic energy, skill and a fresh point of view. They transform throughout the performance 4 or 5 times each to create a huge range of characters and do so with honesty and authenticity. It’s thrilling to watch.”
During the semester each of the honours students individually read through a variety of Australian plays before having sessions to read the material together. Student Jack Calver explains the process, “We underwent further read-throughs and numerous discussions to finalize our material and pick what would best suit the graduate production, our exegetical research, and showcase our skills as performers.”
Student Ella Le Fournour elaborates on what drove her to select certain plays, “When being cast as the young daughter in The Skin of our Teeth, my first performance as an honour student, I enjoyed playing a role that I hadn’t tackled at all yet in my time at Drama Centre. I was really interested in the dichotomy of a young female archetype who may be understood as passive, well-behaved, polite, etc. and the behaviours of confidence, rebellion and perversity that the character possessed beneath the surface and in playing with both personas within a performance.
“I loved the challenge of tackling this character and wanted to find more representation within an Australian theatre context, which then led me to discover the role of Sally Banner from Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous for our graduate production. In finding this story, I knew what other plays allowed me to explore this theme, and in asking for recommendations from peers, I was able to find a range of characters that I now have the pleasure of performing on stage.”
Working with a leading industry professional
For Coming of Age in Australia, the students worked with one of Australia’s leading theatre directors and creative producers, Wayne Harrison. Having worked as the Director/CEO of Sydney Theatre Company, Creative Director of the New Year’s Eve Celebrations on Sydney Harbour and the Director of the Closing Ceremony of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Wayne brings a wealth of knowledge with him.
Chris is thrilled to be able to provide this experience to the Drama Centre graduates, “Wayne is one of the country’s leading experts in the history of Australian drama. His knowledge of the repertoire, the history of how theatre in Australia has been made, and the development of Australian popular culture are second to none. He brings all this expertise into the rehearsal room but then directs with great humanity and humour. It’s a rare and invaluable combination, that leads to work both insightful and hugely entertaining.”
Jack confirms, “[Working with Wayne] has given me a deep appreciation for the focus, collaboration, and inventiveness that is vital to producing professional work. Wayne is extremely creative, and it has been wonderful to see him piece this graduate production together in such an intelligent way. His choices are informed by years of experience and knowledge and being an observer of his process has been an immense privilege.”
After a lot of initial nerves about the comparison of the students’ performances to those that Wayne directed in the past, Ella learned there was no reason to worry, “Wayne has been so accommodating to everyone’s offers, choices and opinions regarding the stories and characters, and has opened my eyes to the exciting possibilities that any rehearsal process for a show I am ever a part of in the future will be as fulfilling, challenging, exciting and respected as this one. It is also so valuable to work with a director of such knowledge, talent, and respect within the industry and reminds me of how lucky we are to be mentored by such incredible role models during our time at the Drama Centre.”
The takeaways from the graduate production
Wayne’s aim when teaching was to pass on to his students that “it isn’t the devil in the detail, it’s good acting.” And Wayne very much learnt that the Flinders Drama Centre students are qualified in exactly that: good acting. “That kind of talent still exists, in bold numbers, feeding off the old, embracing the new, fashioning the future. It’s exhausting, but great to observe and be part of. Their camaraderie was my favourite part – they actually care about each other personally, collectively and creatively. That’s very unusual in showbiz.”
Ella loved working with an experienced, external director for the first time, “I felt a real sense of professionalism within the rehearsal room, where I was expected to bring in offers, research and personal opinions that would be validated, and I trusted my character choices far more. Wayne also offered so many incredible stories of his experience in the industry, helpful tips and tricks, and treated each of us with respect as individual artists.”
Jack points out the graduate production’s influence on him, “The process of reading both classical and contemporary Australian works has exposed me to the history of our nation’s drama and how it has evolved through the years. I’ve gained a deeper insight into the impacts these works have had on actors and playwrights alike.”
The inspiration behind the anthology’s artwork
As part of the graduate production, the team also developed the artwork collaboratively with Ella taking the creative lead, “My approach in creating a poster is always to consolidate with the rest of the ensemble, as it’s important to me when brainstorming that it contains the ideas and voices of all who are a part of the production. Being an anthology performance, I knew that I wanted the artwork to feature aspects of either the plays, themes or characters of each story to exist in unison if you will, that’s when I took this idea to the rest of the cast and asked for their ideas.
“We brainstormed things like Where’s Wally artworks, and designs that were abstract of nature, and figured a hand-drawn element was necessary for making this idea feel unique to us. As this play almost concludes our time at Drama Centre, I took inspiration from our previous posters that feature hand-drawn/cartoon/abstract elements and made this poster an amalgamation of past designs, and thus was born, my abstract, hand-drawn poster. The details were really fun to add, as I thought of iconic images of each play we are performing and incorporated it all on a beach – a common theme present within each of our scenes.”
Don’t miss out
Watch the Flinders Drama Centre graduating actors Chrissy Miller, Dion Lopresto, Ella Le Fournour, Elvy-Lee Quici, Jack Cummins, James Starbuck, Mili Damjanovic, Rhys Griffin and Zoe Mills perform Coming of Age in Australia at the Matthew Flinders Theatre from 26 – 29 July at 7 pm.