31 August 2014

Studio Underground - Canberra Youth Theatre (Review)

| John Lombard
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Appropriately enough for a night of secret theatre when I got my ticket I was also given a password that would grant me entrance to the performance: “poke, email, tweet.” So of course when I showed up and the clipboard-touting woman guarding the entrance asked me for my password, I replied: “Dangermouse.”

While Dangermouse is an excellent password, it was not the right one. The potential bouncer was reluctant to deny me entrance however and tried to find my name on the guest list, at which point I confided that I knew the password was in fact “poke, email, tweet.” I was keen to test how ruthlessly they were going to enforce the demand for passwords. I doubt anyone would have been denied entrance – it was all just a bit of fun.

Besides being issued a password, I was given a set of instructions: to bring my mobile phone and to wear something red (my one red shirt was rescued from my laundry pile to fulfil this requirement). I was also given a task: to write something on the blackboard in the foyer. I offered the contribution, “My goldfish wonders where I am right now.” Other messages included the Zen-like “Don’t try to peel a potato with a potato”, the mysterious phrase “pure sunlight”, and a drawing of a walrus called Douglas.

Unfortunately none of this had any bearing on the shows that were performed (three distinctive pieces separated by two intervals). Nobody tried to call my mobile phone, the blackboard messages were never used as prompts for improv (poor Douglas), and the audience was never divided by clothes colour into warring tribes.

All of the rules and secrecy were just a fun way of packaging – and marketing – a gala night of performances by students of Canberra Youth Theatre. While the presentation was interesting (the program informs me that secret theatre is all the rage in the UK), I would have liked to see some connection between the theme and the shows on offer. This was a night of performances by the senior and teen ensembles that grew out of their own interests and training rather than something pitched at a particular audience. I feel sorry for that one mad David Ives fan who missed out on some great performances of his short plays because the content of the show was a closely guarded secret.

Fortunately the performances were of a very high standard. While these are students they are not amateurs and a lot of work and discipline had gone into the shows. I was particularly impressed with the level of polish and the clockwork coordination of the direction (provided by Karen Vickery, Alison Plevey and Nicola Tyndale-Biscoe as instructors slash auteurs).

The opening performance by the senior ensemble was a collection of four short plays by David Ives. The plays were linked by a theme of relationships and forming connections. In “English Made Simple” a mundane conversation at a cocktail party repeats itself in new and surprising iterations, in “Sure Thing” two people meeting at a coffee shop keep a conversation from derailing by ringing a bell to rewind time, while in “Universal Language” a woman with a stutter tries to convince an eccentric language teacher to help her connect with others. The last play of the quartet is the charming monologue “Singular Kind of Gal” about a woman who discovers that deep-down she’s in fact a typewriter. A typewriter in search of just the right sheet of paper. These language-driven scripts were performed with crispness and good timing by the senior ensemble.

The senior ensemble later showed off their full range in their original movement piece “Inferno” based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Movement pieces are where theatre veers into dance and are not to my taste, however this piece was imaginative and well-performed. Particularly after seeing the same performers excel at the wordy David Ives it was inspiring to see them communicate with their bodies. In all honesty, I got a bit unstuck during this piece because I confused the levels of the inferno with the seven deadly sins but that’s more due to me the performers. As a movement piece there was scope for audience members to form their own interpretation. I had a vague idea that someone was in a coma and trying to fight their way back to consciousness and life. (I have since been informed that although there are no wrong answers my interpretation wasn’t necessarily “right”, either).

The final piece was by all-female teen ensemble and while not as seasoned as the senior ensemble they did not disappoint. Their piece was a one act play by Evan Placey about bullying by girls at a private school. While the subject matter was topical (a nude photo of a classmate bounces between mobile phones) the play was not preachy and there was some genuine wit in the script and the performance. The teen ensemble moved as one well-choreographed organism and music and lighting were used very effectively to tell the story. The script and performance gave this play a very authentic feel, it was completely believable as a posh girl’s school with a nasty side.

Overall it was an excellent (but long) night. The “studio underground” hook disguised a standard variety night of student performances, but at least the plays were entertaining and well-performed. Kudos to Canberra Youth Theatre for its work developing a new generation of actors.

I have an eerie feeling that “secret theatre” will become an annual feature by Canberra Youth Theatre and I would like to see them do a better job of connecting the theme of the show to the content being performed. This isn’t a quibble. It’s not enough to put on a good show, you need to connect with an audience that is interested in what you have to offer. These performances were all developed out of the needs and interests of the students but were so engaging that they have the potential to entertain a wider audience than just friends and family. Secret theatre is an interesting idea but future productions will need to find a way of delivering on the potential of that premise.

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