It’s April 2017, and the State Theatre is crowded with theatre goers – a typical scene within the plush red walls that are home to the likes of The Australian Ballet, Opera Australia and other world-leading performers.
But this evening, the anticipatory buzz is of a different sort. Behind the curtain waits an Australian premiere like no other; tonight, 23 boys and young men from across Victoria, some of whom have had little or no direct association with live performance before, make their State Theatre debut in New Adventures’ critically acclaimed production of Lord of the Flies.
18 months on, and the ripple effects of this unique program continue.
Lachie Edis, who was 14 at the time of the production
“I’m now proud to say that I’m dancing 14 hours a week in styles that I never thought I would be able to do. I now know that I want to pursue a career in the performing arts because, from the moment I marched onto that stage on opening night, I just knew it was where I was meant to be.”
The production, which first debuted in the UK in 2011 before being brought to Australia by Arts Centre Melbourne, is an adaptation of William Golding’s classic novel transformed into a chilling, beautiful and entertaining work by New Adventures. It was restaged by Etta Murfitt (Associate Artistic Director) and Alan Vincent (Resident Director).
Its approach is unique: a cast of professional dancers from the UK and Australia dancing alongside remarkable young amateur talent from across Victoria, sourced through a large-scale and state-wide grassroots community outreach program.
“One of the great strengths of Arts Centre Melbourne’s collaboration with New Adventures on Lord of the Flies was the strong alignment of the values of both organisations and Arts Centre Melbourne’s past work in community engagement and public participation,” says David McDonald, an Arts Centre Melbourne Producer who helped lead the project. “What took place on the State Theatre stage was the culmination of over eight months of direct community liaison, development and workshop programs led by Arts Centre Melbourne based on the Lord of the Flies UK outreach model, but drawing on our own significant and local experience in this area.”
Dance workshops targeted to boys and young men were delivered in partnership with community groups, social service providers, schools and arts and cultural centres in inner and outer metropolitan Melbourne and extending into regional Victoria. Through 26 community partners, Arts Centre Melbourne delivered 50 dance workshops to over 450 participants across Victoria – as far and wide as Geelong, Mildura, Swan Hill, Robinvale, Shepparton and the Latrobe Valley.
The outreach program culminated in 107 boys and young men auditioning to be part of the production, with 23 selected – including five from regional Victoria – to form the Young Ensemble for the five-show season in the State Theatre.
“The workshop model served as a unifying opportunity from day one; the boys and their families became an integral part of the team and the experience has had a significant impact on the skills, confidence and potential future opportunities for many of them,” says David.
“Lord of the Flies really helped me understand what it felt like to really enjoy something and to give every opportunity a shot,” says Alex Tognarini, aged 12 during the show. “Also, in a sense Lord of the Flies has made me a mentally stronger person. I did go through some serious bullying as a result of other boys from my school considering what I did as ‘gay’, ‘pathetic’ and a ‘girl’s’ sport. This made me very uncomfortable at school because I was getting physically and verbally bullied. All of this just strengthened my resolve to dance. I’m now at a different school and I love it.”
“I loved rehearsing and dancing with many other boys and getting to go backstage at Arts Centre Melbourne,” says Jack Moeller, 12 at the time. “It’s made me realise that I absolutely love performing.”
“Lord of the Flies helped with acting professional onstage and side stage and learning choreography,” says Alessio Mammone, 13 at the time, who was inspired by seeing Matthew Bourne’s earlier work Swan Lake when it toured Melbourne in 2014 and is now studying performing arts. “One big impact was a confidence boost in front of audiences.”
Brothers George (then 13) and Alexander (then 11) Missailidis both had prior dance experience entering the auditions. However the production was unlike anything they expected and reaffirmed their love for the performing arts.
“I liked the idea of the workshops and the fact that any boy with little or no experience in dance could audition and potentially be cast. That seemed fair to me,” says George. “I always encourage my friends to audition for our school musical every year so they can step outside their comfort zones.”
“Lord of the Flies taught me so much about how to develop a character through movement. It also made me see a different side to contemporary dance that I loved,” adds Alexander, who will attend a performing arts school this year. “I can’t wait to enhance my performing arts skills further and become the best triple threat I can be!”
Philanthropic support from more than 20 individuals, trusts and foundations was essential to the production going ahead. It’s also helped establish ongoing community programs to enable more boys and young men to experience dance, thanks to the Lord of the Flies Legacy Fund, which provides funding to participating community organisations for continued dance workshops, training, equipment and activities in their locality.
“There are rarely dance opportunities like that tailored specifically to boys, especially in their youth,” says Robert Baxter, 17 at the time, who has since been teaching dance classes and choreographed four musical productions this year. “Lord of the Flies has impacted me majorly. It has helped me to understand the level I have to be at to work in the performing arts industry. It has inspired me greatly in the dance field and I am pursuing it even harder than before.”
“The performing arts should be for everyone, but for numerous reasons, barriers to access and negative perceptions do exist, both for audiences and participants,” agrees David. “That Arts Centre Melbourne’s outreach programs like Lord of the Flies are delivering truly life-changing opportunities and breaking down some of these walls is so heartening.”
“I believe that there shouldn’t be activities that ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be done because through experience, those things that are considered as ‘shouldn’t be done’ are sometimes the best thing that you have ever done,” says Alex Tognarini. “I strongly encourage anyone that is thinking about trying anything new to give it their best shot.”
In a period of life when personal identity, interests and self-confidence are so easily influenced and shaped, what’s clear is that programs such as Lord of the Flies have the ability to positively inform the development of boys and young men.
“You’re not going to get anywhere by doing the same thing as everyone else, and in the end the people who love you will support you no matter what you choose to do,” says Robert. “If you love something and don’t try it you’re going to regret it...I’m proud to be different and do different things.”
This article was originally printed in Encore, Art Centre Melbourne's Supporter Magazine (Issue 10: December 2018)