By Lisa Lanzi
I feel privileged to have sat in a small CBD performance space with a group of Year 2 and 3 children, their teachers and the artists of ActNow Theatre at a performance of Like Me, Like You for DreamBIG Festival 2019, the company’s first work for primary school students.
For those playing along at home and NOT resident in Adelaide, ActNow Theatre has been around since 2007. Founded by Edwin Kemp Atrill, the company holds a unique and important place within the South Australian theatre landscape. Much of their work is interactive, always socially relevant and culturally aware. In their own words the company “has committed to targeting specific need by collaborating with non-arts organisations to create artistically engaging work which illuminates current issues, outside the confines of conventional theatre forms and modes of presentation”.
The artists welcome us into the space in a casual and friendly manner and assist in seating the students comfortably on the floor. As we settle, introductions are made, we are told that we are an important part of the performance and we get to ‘warm-up’ with the cast. Part of the genius of this work is that the children are able to stand and move at several points during the hour in addition to answering questions and offering solutions while guided skilfully and sensitively by Director Yasmin Gurreeboo. The focus of the young audience was intense for the entire time because they were integral to the narrative and their solutions to the questions and problems posed were valued.
We are introduced to three characters : Arthur aged 6¾, Millie aged 7½ and Johnno aged 8. Each is from a different cultural background, Aboriginal, Filipino and Scottish/Norwegian. There are stories to tell about how they relate to being in Australia, how long they’ve been here and how they got here. The narrative is illustrated with colourful maps, paper boats and paper planes, animal antics and more.
First we are privy to the way Johnno then Arthur are treated at the beach when they interact with a frisky dog (the first of a number of puppets designed by Stephanie Fisher). Johnno’s experience as a young Caucasian is very different from Arthur’s as an Aboriginal youth. The audience are then invited by Ms Gurreeboo to find words to describe how Arthur feels after his negative experience of being told to ‘go back to where you came from’ and ‘are you trying to steal my dog?’. Some young people are also chosen to go on stage and interact with Arthur and there is further discussion about why the two boys might have been treated differently. Another question asked of the audience is “What are some things you DON’T get to choose?” (Birthplace, skin colour, eye colour, etc.) All answers are managed beautifully by Ms Gurreeboo and we are led finally to describe the incident as racism. It is then revealed that the scene is based on a true story - that of a 7 year old girl at the beach. The audience’s next task is to come up with phrases that might be said to Arthur to help him feel less sad and angry about the experience.
This was quite an involved conversation for 6 - 9 year olds to take part in but with the alert leadership and empathy provided by Ms Gurreeboo, the young people were totally focussed on the issues and answers. It was quite emotional hearing the students furnish articulate and caring solutions about the issue of racism and I was reminded that a racist attitude is a learned viewpoint rather than an inherent characteristic. To counter this concentrated discussion, the next ‘challenge’ was to join in on a song about Australian animals complete with action and energy as we jumped like a kangaroo, dug like a wombat, pecked like an emu and squawked like a cockatoo.
Other scenarios followed with more questions posed to the student audience. They were able to practice some phrases that might challenge racist behaviour with the ‘Meanies’ sock puppets in a calm and safe manner. The children were encouraged to always tell someone about witnessing racist or bullying behaviour as it is ‘everyone’s responsibility’. Another short energetic moment was next with the ‘shake out song’ as we shook out our bodies, sang out loud and shook off the bad feelings to be ready for the next scenes.
There is beauty in simplicity and this work has that quality as well as an unselfconscious honesty. With a superb adult cast and intelligent direction Like Me, Like You is a joyous, interactive and educative adventure into our world, our wondrous differences and our shared humanity.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.