Learning with Heart – Stories from the Stage
13 May 2022

Dramaturgy is the practice of understanding a theatrical work from a literary or performance standpoint, by investigating its social, political, cultural, and historical contexts. A dramaturgical perspective is one that unpacks how characters might behave in specific situations and it is the role of a dramaturg to question: Why here? Why now? Why us?

After considerable time living and learning remotely over the last two years, 2022 is a time for our school community to reconnect and share in the live presentation of theatrical stories that foster the empathetic connection between the audience and the characters on stage. To celebrate, we have curated a theatre season that will not only enable our audiences to escape, relax and experience the joy of live performance once more, but a program that will inspire our young learners.

Theatre is like virtual reality. We know the situation isn’t real, but we are present in the moment and commit to the emotional journey together, in a safe space. Just as athletes train to improve performance, young people can strengthen empathetic muscles by watching theatre, and practise caring about characters and their stories. As Bill English, co-founder of the San Francisco Playhouse so insightfully puts it: ‘Not only are our mirror neurons activating when we watch a theatre performance, we are also practicing how to understand others. Theatre is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.’

For this year’s VCE Theatre Project, Tennessee Williams’ classic masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, has been the perfect conduit for experiencing the lives of characters in an emotional ‘lockdown’; a story relevant to us all, in the here and now. In its third year, this event has become a highly anticipated staple in our performing arts calendar and represents our commitment to providing exceptional learning opportunities for our students studying creative arts subjects. The Glass Menagerie takes place after the great depression of the 1930s in a tenement apartment in St. Louis, Missouri and is about fragile characters rediscovering their identity. Despite the world having changed substantially since this time, this beautiful piece reminds us that people and relationships are still the unchanging foundation of who we are.

Furthermore, theatre is a powerful vehicle for learning about our society as we see it in the here and now and can allow us to closely inspect the way communities of characters navigate today’s world. Rather than being a dramatisation of events, this year’s senior play is performed in a Verbatim style, having been scripted from the actual words recorded at the time of a crisis within small town Laramie, Wyoming. These interviews, journal entries and media reports, were crafted into The Laramie Project, one of the most highly successful and frequently produced plays since it was written in 2000. This play helps facilitate the conversation around what it means to be tolerant in our relationships with others and the importance of striving for social justice in our world. Our students will discover change is not a tangible destination, but a continuous journey.

Music theatre is a dynamic theatrical form fusing the splendour of drama, dance and music. Whilst Mamma Mia is a celebration of Abba’s catalogue, it is also a glittering showcase of song and dance working in concert to tell a story. Mamma Mia transports us to the Greek islands and follows mother and daughter, Donna and Sophie Sheridan, as they discover that family and friendships are the cornerstone to shaping identity.

In the junior school, Shrek: The Musical was the perfect selection for re-inducting our young performers back into the theatre and reigniting their passion for live storytelling. Shrek: The Musical focuses on the importance of companionship: everybody needs friends and family to offer some form of comfort and support. Familiar fairy-tale characters teach us to embrace our authentic selves and to accept and appreciate what makes us unique. The finale of Shrek: The Musical will have our young people singing the lyrics ‘what makes us special makes us strong’, which echoes the experience of being involved in the school’s performing arts program. Theatre is a place of inclusion and belonging. It encourages social and emotional development and fosters positive relationships, both horizontally and vertically, between students and their teachers.

‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,’ said Benjamin Franklin. Whilst theatre requires our students to learn about the creation of fictitious worlds, the deep learning is grounded in the reality of collaborating with one another in a ‘hands on’ experience. There is a bi-directional relationship between the co-curricular space and the arts classroom, which provides many passionate students with the opportunity to advance their learning in a project-based environment. Being involved in theatre can also have a transformational effect on the development of one’s sense of self and the development of their personal character, but also teaches the skills of collaboration, communication and critical thinking which are trans-disciplinary.

Well written work can address both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature while still managing to entertain. Our 2022 season will certainly provide students with the material to foster our philosophy of learning and will have everyone leaving the theatre smiling, reflecting and proud of the exceptional achievements of Westbourne’s performers. Future programs will intentionally feature a celebrated Australian work and as we begin to encourage our creative students to pen their own original pieces, we will provide the platform for this work to be taken from page to stage. Further opportunity to design, learn the digital and technical ropes of live production and experiment in a greater range of theatrical styles, will also be on offer. Preparing our students for the world of innovation, whilst future proofing them with the courage, confidence, and risk-taking skills underpins the growth to our dynamic and innovative performing arts program.

We look forward to welcoming you back into the theatre this year!

Tyler Hess | Director of Theatre, Drama and Dance