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Something's stirring in our schools, from Cairns to Coolangatta

Culture

Last November and December, shake & stir theatre co performed to a combined audience of more than 15,000 during a sold-out season of A Christmas Carol at QPAC’s Playhouse. Over the coming five weeks, members of the Brisbane-based theatre group will play to almost double that number of people around Queensland.

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The group, which took out the top gong at the Matilda Awards in February, resumed its in-school touring program earlier this month and co-founder and co-artistic director Ross Balbuziente told InQueensland the company had been thrilled by the reception so far.

“The response has been really great,” he said. “We’ve got a team of three actors doing a southeast Queensland tour and another doing a far north Queensland tour.

“Over a five-week window, they will be touring all the way to Cairns, and then turning around and then doing the coast again on the way back down, while the other team services the southeast Queensland corner, including Toowoomba, Ipswich and Sunshine Coast Gold Coast and Brisbane and the surrounds.

“Our theatres still may be closed, but at least theatre is still being staged by professional actors and being seen in school environments.”

Balbuziente said everyone at shake & stir was “chomping at the bit to get back into a theatre to do one of our mainstage productions” but he remained grateful the company was in the position to “still be spreading the magic of live theatre”.

When restrictions arising from COVID-19 changed the cultural landscape in March, the company launched its shake & stir VIRTUAL program.

That virtual program allowed shake & stir to continue to engage with students and teachers via an online portal, and included professional, multi-camera recordings of all of the company’s in-school performances, including Shakespeare productions such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet and an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.

Shake & stir actor Eli Bunyoung in the lead role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (Photo: Dylan Evans)

“Term two was not fun for us, it was a big challenge but it was a challenge for everyone,” he said. “We obviously had shake & stir VIRTUAL and went online and thankfully, the support of our teachers during that period was really strong, so the second that the school environment became safe enough to present our outside performances, we’ve been back in schools.”

Balbuziente said returning to in-school performances had presented its own set of challenges that the company had quickly had to adapt to.

“There is a lot of admin that needs to happen even under normal circumstances when touring in schools,” he said. “But now with COVID-safe plans being something that we have to deal with every single day, we have a team of people constantly checking that our COVID-safe measures are being met and that COVID-safe measures are also being met at every school we visit.

“We want to ensure that we can deliver theatre safely and happily but there is a lot of extra paperwork that’s required to deliver theatre into school.

“That being said, some of the schools have huge performing arts venues or centres, or even, you know indoor basketball courts so yeah safely distancing those students is really possible in those schools.”

Balbuziente founded shake & stir almost 15 years ago with fellow artistic directors Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij and although the company is arguably best known by the general public for mainstage productions – including award-winning works such as Fantastic Mr Fox, Animal Farm, Dracula, American Idiot and 1984 – its schools touring program remains the most integral part of its business.

“When we started in 2006, we started purely as an in-school touring company, with a model of three actors driving the van into a school, doing the performance, and then packing down and driving to the next one.

“Nick, Nelle and myself did that, we were the first touring trio, and since then we’ve done so many different jobs and roles within so many facets of our company and this industry but still, every day is always so varied with our administrative work and our creative work.

“We just constantly keep touching wood and hope that we don’t have similar lockdowns to earlier in the year and we can continue to deliver live theatre in schools. But while that’s happening, we are starting to build out 2021 schedules and chatting to teachers that are looking to healthier, happier brighter times.”

Balbuziente said the rest of the year was now “completely chockers with in-school performances” and the company was now looking ahead to next year, with bookings now open for school for the 2021 season, which will include eight productions, including Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and 1984.

Shake & stir company actor Maddison Burridge as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Dylan Evans)

“Nineteen Eighty-Four is a senior English-prescribed text, so being able to give students an opportunity to see it live on stage is rewarding … but yeah, it is pretty bleak,” Balbuziente laughed.

“Sadly, it’s is a story that just keeps getting more and more relevant – we’re now living in a year where we can’t be within 1.5 metres of each other, which is just so Orwellian it’s unbelievable.”

When it comes to the prospects of treading the boards again for the general public, Balbuziente has his fingers crossed and is hoping shake & stir might be able to pull off a Christmas miracle.

“We love A Christmas Carol and we love the festive cheer that it brings on a normal year but this year I feel like we need our spirits lifted more than ever,” he said.

“So, it could very much be a returning work but I mean, at this point, you know, even though it’s a couple of months out, it’s just way too early to call but we’re in constant communication with our friends at QPAC to best evaluate situation, day by day.

“We’ve got so many different versions of plans that we’re sitting on for 2021 and 22. We definitely will be back in theatres as soon as we can with a few of our past productions and also some brand new ones that we’re spending this extra time in the office developing and then, and producing so it’s ready to go as soon as we’re allowed to.”

Bookings for shake & stir’s 2021 in-school season are now open at shakeandstir.com.au

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