A shining jewel in this State’s Arts sector is, without a doubt, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. It is one of the leading academies in the world and there was much excitement recently when perhaps its most famous alum, Hugh Jackman, announced the Jackman-Furness Foundation to provide much needed financial support.
I joined the Friends of the Academy this year and have already seen five productions with another four booked. The talent on display has been nothing less than exceptional. Not only the performances on stage but the quality of the sets, props, costumes, lighting, sound, musicianship, the whole experience.
In this regard WAAPA’s reputation is truly deserved. As a screenwriter I know quite a few actors and, for many, getting in to WAAPA is an all-consuming goal. To say it is competitive is an understatement. I’ve known talented performers forced to look elsewhere after the heartbreak of getting so close but not close enough to gain one of those prized offers, whether it be in acting, musical theatre, dance, or any of the other disciplines available.
So when WAAPA opens its doors to the public it’s a big thing. Hopefuls with big dreams and wide eyes come to glean information on how to make their goals come true. Their parents, knowing how much a placement here means, are just as eager. For me, it’s a chance to glimpse behind the curtain and see how the magic is made…
I arrived early and what a glorious morning it was – sunny and crisp with people setting up stalls and refreshments stands. Inside, I check in at the main foyer and ask a few questions about locations having already worked out what I’d like to see. There is no shortage of students, staff and volunteers on hand to answer questions and they are all friendly and willing to help. While I wait for a tour to start I am drawn to the Geoff Gibbs Theatre where a sound check is in progress. A band is onstage, initially in darkness – bass, keyboards, drums, lead guitar and three singers. They are doing Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On and it sounds amazing with a tasty guitar solo and great vocals. Up next a quirky Sting song, the name of which escapes me at the moment, followed by a single vocalist accompanied on piano. A beautiful rendition of a song I wasn’t familiar with. I am impressed with how casual and relaxed they all are and the genuine sense of fun and play. This is a feeling that permeates the day.
Next is the tour of the props and scenery workshop, lighting and sound studios, costume and design studios, and workshops. Again, students and staff are on hand to introduce their sections and what they do with plenty of displays and actual props and costumes and the like. It’s a fascinating insight into all the work done behind the scenes for the some 40 productions put on each year. Down in the workshop I talk to a student and (I’m guessing) staff member about the amazing set for West Side Story and how the ‘trucks’ were built and how little time the performers had to rehearse with them. A feature of the tour is a custom made Indiana Jones set where I get to talking to three students who are delightful and rightfully proud of their work – all for Open Day only, all to be pulled down afterwards. So engrossed in this I… okay, well, I lost the rest of the tour!
As I wander the corridors I bump into my mate Michael McCall who directed the second year musical theatre students in Beach. We have a chat with a lovely lady about post graduate degrees then I’m off to… rehearsals!
First off it’s the third year acting students in The Roundhouse rehearsing Great Expectations. The director Andrew Lewis is initially conducting proceedings before, I assume, the assistant director takes over. I’m sitting behind the deputy stage manager. There are lots of familiar faces on stage from Festen and Realism. Once more there is a real sense of discovery and play, the mood light but professional. It’s interesting watching scenes being played then redirects then suggestions from the actors, including blocking. Also, for me as a writer, emphasis on line interpretations with questioning and clarification about what a line means or who or what it’s directed to. It’s something that will be revisited in the third year musical theatre students’ rehearsal. Very enjoyable and whets the appetite for the show in about a fortnight’s time.
Next is a session with the first year acting students conducted by Angela Punch-McGregor. We discover the first years have been spending time at day care centres to observe how 5 year olds behave and speak but also at hostels to do likewise with the elderly. After a warm-up exercise as 5 year olds a really interesting session on scene work takes place. The scene is a dramatic one from the Irish play The Good Father – a couple dealing with the loss of an unborn child and the impact on their relationship. It’s played several times with various pairings but also this – after a straight run through it’s redone as 5 year olds and in one version as an elderly couple. There’s even a version played as a 5 year old up against an elderly person. It was a very interesting way to explore the scene and draw out different performances. It was funny at times but very well done. A nice glimpse into this acting group’s potential.
Then there was the rehearsal for the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along. The third year musical theatre students are having a stellar year (Hair and West Side Story) and it was great to see this talented group up close. The mood is relaxed as they work through a scene and this one has a lot of redirection mainly as the blocking was being discovered but also with emphasis on line interpretations and character interactions. An unintentional highlight of the day involves a moment where a glass is yanked out of a character’s hand. Well, on one ‘take’ that glass sailed into the spectators on the other side of the studio like it had been shot out of a cannon. Thankfully nobody was hurt but it was one of those laugh-out-loud moments that had everyone in stitches. Unfortunately there was no singing but again, I’m really looking forward to the third years capping off 2014 in style.
After a sausage sizzle provided by dedicated helpers from the Friends of the Academy it was time to head home. It was heartening to see so many people there and it really was an interesting few hours taking a look at a wonderful place that provides world class training. What stays with me is not only the sheer talent but how supportive the environment is to explore and play.
Speed on the next round of WAAPA productions taking place later this month!