Fairfax Festival Blog One: In-Community Workshops

by Jane

Last Tuesday, I spent my day travelling to Swan Hill on the Victorian/NSW border. I took a plane to Melbourne, bus to Bendigo, then train to Swan Hill. It’s a bit of a trek. But it was all worth it to spend two and a half days with young people preparing for September’s Fairfax Festival.

The Fairfax Festival draws students aged 12 to 17 from around regional and rural Victoria and southern New South Wales for four days of art and performance workshops. In the lead-up to this week all the groups will take part in in-community workshops with professional artists to create works to present at Young Entertainers in the Street, or YES Fest, on the final day of Fairfax.

I’ve been invited by Fairfax to be the official blogger for this year’s festival. While in Swan Hill I participated in workshops run by Angela Frost from the Outback Theatre for Young People, and Snuff Puppets – coincidentally, both saw me help craft puppets – and in September I’ll be back again to write about the week itself.

Ianna Nelson is sixteen and lives in Balranald, NSW, a town with a population of 1159 according to the 2011 census. Each day last week, Ivana took the one-hour trip to Swan Hill for workshops with Snuff Puppets with a teacher and fellow student Ciana Field, 13. This will be her second Fairfax Festival, and I asked Ivana how she would describe the festival.

“Usually I try to explain it as a bunch of actors get together, we perform, we do a few workshops and stuff,” Ianna tells me. “Fairfax is important, it gives everyone a chance to go out there, do something, just experience what it’s like to act. Being in a small town – a very small town – you’re not getting as much experience.”

“A lot of people think about it as a week away from school,” she says. “But really you’re still learning and everything. It’s like school, but it’s something you enjoy. It’s enjoyable school – hard to understand, I know!”

For her, performance is “just a way of expressing yourself. And sometimes it’s just a way of getting away for the day, not having to be yourself for the day, and experiencing being in someone else’s shoes.”

Snuff Puppets worked with the students from Balranald and members of the Swan Hill Youth Theatre Ensemble, or SHYTE. I came into this workshop on the Wednesday afternoon, and they had already been working hard since Sunday building giant puppets of a fisherwoman and a pelican. The kids brainstormed puppet ideas, drew pictures, and then built the puppets up from bamboo, foam, material, and a healthy dose of industrial strength glue. At YES Fest, the girls will take these puppets to the street.

Chelsea King, 13, lives in Swan Hill and this will be her second Fairfax Festival. Last year’s, she says, “was amazing! All of the workshops and the staff that have been working there are really nice and it’s a really good experience.”

This will be the first Fairfax for Ciana. She recently moved to Balranald, and she says she “decided I wanted to do it because I like acting and performing” which, like Ivana, isn’t something she has much of a chance to participate in at school. “At my school we have art and an art club, but nothing else really.”

When I wasn’t with Snuff Puppets, I was with Angela working on The Marruk Project. The Marruk Project has been running from 2009, and is usually a large performance with members of the local Aboriginal community and other cultural groups. In YES Fest they will be performing a scaled down version of the work, only working with the participants aged 12 – 17.

For Latiesha Chaplan, 15, there is a freedom in creating work with Marruk. “When it’s at school it’s really structured and stuff, but when you come here it’s not so structured. It’s more of a calm environment, it’s easier to get loose.”

At YES Fest, the kids will present three takes on a story taken from the Dreamtime. Latiesha brought the story to the group, of the kookaburra that laughed and brought the sun up for the first time. All the other animals then wanted to imitate the kookaburra so they could bring up the sun. In the end, says Latiesha, they learn “we’re all different in our own way, and that you are unique in your own way, and that’s why we’re here on this earth. So they all decided to be themselves.”

This story will be told through shadow puppetry, projection with acetate slides, and through a retelling of what the story means today to Imparja Pettit, 15, through a rap he wrote himself that he’ll pair with playing the didgeridoo. Imparja gave the first performance of his rap in the workshops, and “Ka-Ka-Ka goes the kookaburra” is still earworming it’s way into my brain. It only took Imparja two days to write the rap, but he seems quite casual about the process. “Sometimes I’ll write just heaps of random rhymes and that. I’ll cross this rhyme out here and put it here, make it sound better.”

Back with Snuff Puppets, I learnt that while these workshops were taking place in the school holidays, the Festival itself will take place in the last week of the school term. I jokingly asked if it was better than school. “Way better!” said Chelsea. “I’d trade Fairfax for school any day.”

“I would too,” enthusiastically agreed Ciana.

I’m very much looking forward to trading a week of my life for Fairfax. I’ll see you in September.