Musings on Life’s Stages

There's something very apt about the fact that drama teacher Andrew Coates and his wife, theatre director Ann Croger, have quite a romantic story to tell of their first meeting.

As university students, each had an abiding interest in the world of the stage. Andrew had seen Ann perform in a production of The Crucible and thought, "That’s not a bad style of a woman! " They met through a production of Annie and some time later, when Andrew was cast as the lead in a production of Guys and Dolls and was asked to suggest who might play opposite him, he named Ann.

The strategy succeeded and they worked well together – although Andrew insists that in the scene where Ann's character had to slap his character across the face, "Ann used to slap me deliberately hard, every night!”

There was a shadow side to these heady days, however. Ann's father had not long passed away and her mother was devastated. It wasn't an easy time to introduce a new 'significant other' to the clan and before too long, to plan a wedding. Andrew's father also died early in their relationship, after a diagnosis of cancer.

Andrew feels that the couple came to know each other particularly well in hard times. "It really bonded us together and to this day we have a great relationship because of that.”

After marrying, they bought a home in Mayfield and taught for some time. Both are teachers of drama and Andrew also has a passion for history, particularly local history. He’s currently teaching at St Mary's Campus, All Saints College, Maitland, and finds the stories of the first Dominican school in Australia (1867) fascinating.

The lure of the wider world intervened and the couple sold their home and spent a year visiting such places as Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. Ann remembers another romantic episode. “It was the end of the holiday and we were feeling a little flat. We went to a café in Greece and decided we would each draw a mind map of where we wanted to be and what we wanted to do when we got home. Andrew wanted an old house to restore, ideally with a hall next door so we could start a family and I could teach drama.”

The two 'maps' were remarkably similar and on returning to Australia, they made some changes that aligned with the plans drawn on that Greek island. Andrew took a teaching position in Singleton, while Ann's work was in Newcastle. Maitland was the halfway point and sure enough, they found a home in need of some loving care and there was a vacant hall next door!

The passion that continues to bind them most closely – after their three children, of course – Sybylla, 12, Hamish, 10 and Harriet, 5 – is the stage. Andrew’s teaching drama to senior students, balancing theory and performance requirements, and is Ann's biggest fan where her UpStage Youth Theatre (the name was dreamed up in the Greek café) productions are concerned. Ann founded UpStage after taking the leap from fulltime work to part-time directing which left room for some of that much vaunted work-life balance – at least in theory.

"It works best when we keep our family life and the plays separate, although sometimes they overlap, inevitably," said Ann. "Andrew is a great support with staging, imagining the space and adapting to suit the needs of the play. And we're blessed to have great support from our families, especially when a production's imminent.

"In the early days, I would be directing a rehearsal in the hall and Andrew would be handing the baby over the fence to be fed." The Coates children have had some onstage experience but it's not an expectation. Family life has its own drama!

UpStage Theatre doesn't have its own performance space, so each production has to be adapted to the space available. Ann has utilised a variety of locations with flair and imagination. A winery provided a romantic location for Romeo and Juliet; Tocal House hosted Peter Pan, complete with characters taking to flight and a rambling garden at Bolwarra made a wonderful setting for A Midsummer Night's Dream. On that occasion Andrew had to step up and play Oberon after the actor cast had to withdraw just two weeks before opening night.

Generally though, he's happier backstage, or working out how best to match the performance space and Ann's vision for the chosen text. Once they decided that a vintage caravan would be the perfect 'prop'. They found one, drove to Victoria to purchase and towed it home, only to find that the space they had chosen was no longer available. The new space was ideal – but inaccessible for a caravan. Sybylla may be the only girl in her class whose friends can enjoy sleepovers in a vintage caravan!

One of the blessings of the first home the couple bought in Maitland was that almost instantly they became part of a very close-knit community. “Our first students for the drama classes were from the farms and homes nearby and it was all word of mouth,” said Andrew.

Ann recalled, “Our first production was a one-act play, Dags, and people were walking their dogs, asking, ‘What’s going on?’ and coming in.”

Unsurprisingly, Ann and Andrew almost speak in unison on the value of drama in encouraging students to work as members of a team, take risks and be creative and spontaneous. Ann is particularly keen for students to learn improvisation and she would love to see Drama in each year of the secondary curriculum. Reflecting on a recent return to the stage in a production of The Book of Everything, she compares acting with playing. “How liberating for adults and kids, who have so many expectations, just to go to a drama class and play, and there’s no judgement?”

By the way, the Coates still have the mind maps drawn in that faraway café, just in case they should need a reminder of the dream.

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Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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