Waiting in the wings

For many, the performing arts are a form of healing, providing solace during times of stress.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the live performance sector, it had a devastating impact on the artistic community. Aside from the substantial loss of income for thousands of performers, the indefinite hiatus created a gap for people who rely on artistic pursuits as a means of self-expression and social engagement.

Actor and student of St Francis Xavier’s College, Hamilton, Emma McNamara, said the past two years had been an isolating period for herself and many of her fellow performers.

Emma has been involved in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s ASPIRE program for several years and said that for creative types like herself, the restrictions on live performance during lockdowns made coping with the pandemic even more challenging.

“We didn’t have the outlet at a time when we needed it most,” Emma said. “For many performers, being on stage provides a release that has flow-on benefits to other areas of their life.”

For two consecutive years, the ASPIRE cast and crew worked tirelessly to create original annual productions, only for both to be cancelled at the eleventh hour due to surges in local COVID-19 cases. The cancellations affected hundreds of student performers across.

ASPIRE’s artistic director, Anna Kerrigan said she could feel how challenging this setback was for students.  

“They live for that live theatre experience,” Ms Kerrigan said.  “So much of what you are able to give as a performer depends on the energy you receive from an audience.”

Emma agreed, explaining that while she was grateful the 2020 production, ‘The Pecking Order’, was able to be delivered as a filmed production, the experience didn’t compare to previous years.

“In the past, ‘show week’ had been so much fun being around everyone and seeing the audience’s reactions as we performed onstage,” Emma said. “We knew filming the production wasn’t going to be the same, but we still had a lot of fun.”

 Despite the disappointment, Emma said the experience brought with it some unexpected benefits.

“I think it created a greater sense of comradery and by filming the production there was relief that we were at least finally able to do what we loved.”

Ms Kerrigan was inspired by the sense of optimism from students like Emma, and said she was heartened to witness it in many students throughout the pandemic.

The student’s enthusiasm prompted Ms Kerrigan to work with them to develop a new production related to the challenges of the pandemic.  

 “We actually took what was happening with the pandemic and created a play called ‘I hope…’, which we ended up live-streaming from The Playhouse,” she said.

A huge success, the play went on to win a CONDA (City of Newcastle Drama Award).

“It was really nice to be able to take something so problematic and turn it into a piece of art,” Ms Kerrigan said.

The need for adaptation in performing arts extended beyond the stage and into the classroom, leading educators including Callam Howard and Asha Lunarzewski, to modify their teaching approach to ensure students remained engaged during home learning.

Mr Howard, a drama teacher at St Clare’s High School, Taree said the shift to online platforms presented new opportunities.

“Some activities that I found effective included ‘character meetings’, in which students would develop a character, raid their wardrobe for some semblance of a costume, and arrive in our online meetings in character, ready to improvise their way through a series of questions and interact with other characters,” he said.

The students enjoyed the creative exercise so much that similar improvisation tasks have become increasingly common in class, even with the resumption of face-to-face learning.  

Mrs Lunarzewski teaches music at St Pius X High School, Adamstown and faced some different challenges to the drama department.

 “Programs like Microsoft Teams and ZOOM weren’t as conducive to teaching the practical components of music as they were for other subjects,” she said.

“I tried to run rehearsals online, but because of the delay it was impossible to do well.”

In response, she temporarily shifted students’ focus from performance to composition and recording.

As restrictions continue to ease, Ms Lunarzewski believes many students are hungrier than ever for the opportunity to get back on stage and is buoyed by the support St Pius X High School has provided to accommodate additional rehearsal and performance opportunities.

ASPIRE’s Ms Kerrigan agrees and is confident the performing arts sector will now enter a period of massive growth.

“All students benefit from feeling like they’re a valued part of a community and now that restrictions have eased, it’s our job to ensure we do everything we can to get the performing arts sector back up and running,” she said.


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Alexander Foster

Alexander Foster is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

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