Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Tour of WAAPA - Friends of the Academy (5 May 2015)

The Friends of the Academy have been supporting WAAPA students for more than 30 years now, not only with fundraising activities but many other invaluable tasks such as assistance for interstate students getting acclimatised to their new surroundings. Financial grants are provided to supplement the travel and accommodation of final year students for work experience secondments. The Friends also contribute funds to the end of year Showcase tours for the graduating Musical Theatre and Acting students, so vital in securing agents in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s always a pleasure to read the letters received from grateful students thanking the Friends for helping them achieve their goals. They are posted on the Friends Facebook page as are details of upcoming fundraising events. One of those events is regular tours of the WAAPA facilities. Having seen a little of the behind the scenes at the Mount Lawley campus during last year’s Open Day I arranged a day off work to tag along and see more…

What a fascinating day it turned out to be! We were greeted by the Secretary of the Friends, Tanya Tsirigotis who introduced us to our ‘tour guide’ for the first part of the day, Peter Cowan. Peter has a wealth of knowledge having worked at WAAPA for some three decades. He was full of wonderful stories about personalities and events as we made our way through areas the general public normally wouldn’t see.

First stop was the Geoff Gibbs Theatre where we heard about its history and development from the early days to its current configuration. This is probably the only time I will ever be on the main stage though thankfully no singing, acting or dancing was required on my part! Peeking behind the curtain to see the fly tower and other technical aspects was intriguing. 

Then it was off to the workshop where the set for Legally Blonde is being built for the Regal Theatre; followed by the props rooms full of all kinds of funky items; lighting with old analogue desks; costuming where again we saw a sneak peek of the designs for Legally Blonde; and other departments like sound. It’s a warren of corridors and rooms where students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and create.

We sat in The Roundhouse Theatre which is perhaps my favourite venue to which Peter explained why it is so notoriously difficult to light and get the sound right for. It was kind of eerie seeing the set for the current production, All My Sons, devoid of actors, almost as if slumbering. Next was the Enright Studio which is currently configured for Much Ado About Nothing. We had seen the miniature mock-up of the set upstairs and what strikes you is how much work, skill and effort occurs in so many different departments well before an audience enjoys the production.

One of the actors, Lachlan Ruffy, poked his head in to say hello and talk briefly about the pleasure of working with the director Sean O’Shea, himself a WAAPA graduate. It’s one of the themes of the day – that sense of family and how the graduates give back to the Academy, most notably Hugh Jackman with his Foundation but many others as guest directors or in other capacities in the industry.

After a break for morning tea it was off to the Music Auditorium where a combination of 2nd and 3rd year musical theatre students, nine in total, were doing a “mock audition” for a production of Cats. There was a panel comprising the Head of Musical Theatre, David King; and the director and choreographer of Legally Blonde, Jason Langley and Lisa O’Dea respectively. Another choreographer impressively took the nine through their paces as dancing ability is a key component for a musical like Cats

Watching her build a sequence from scratch in blocks and explain in detail the body movements and positioning was fascinating. The students asked for clarification where necessary and it all felt very supportive while, I might add, not only the tour but a host of other students watched. Then it was time for the singing component of which we heard five students before we had to unfortunately move on. The idea was to simulate as closely as possible a real audition situation and notes and feedback were given afterwards but only for the students.

Next up was a movement class for the Aboriginal theatre students who were being taught by an effusive teacher again in a very supportive environment. This time the exercise was to undergo a birth as a creature of some description. Afterwards the students took questions and answered with passion and enthusiasm about acting and how such exercises help them enhance their craft as they develop characters and workshop scenes. I’m looking forward to seeing their showpiece production towards the end of the year.

The Director of WAAPA, Professor Julie Warn, then spoke to us in the courtyard and took questions and I was unaware that the Academy has as many as 1200 students. Clearly proud of WAAPA’s achievements, students past and present, and the upcoming international musical theatre conference and other events, it was nice to chat for a while. 

After lunch in the student cafeteria the day wrapped up with a Classical Tuesdays concert by the Symphonic Wind Ensemble back in the Music Auditorium. Conducted by Musical Director Dale Pointon it was an eclectic mix of 5 pieces, one inspired by the US Marine band; another - Sergei Prokofiev’s March Op. 99 - by May Day. A musically balanced view of US-Soviet relations back in the day!

It was a very enjoyable day and I would encourage firstly anyone interested in theatre and supporting WAAPA to join the Friends of the Academy and secondly, on doing so, to sign up for a tour. The creativity and energy in the hallways and in these workshops is inspiring and it is always a pleasure to talk to the students. 

Thank you to Tanya, Peter, and all the other Friends who provided the morning tea and also to the students and staff who allowed us a moment to share in your wonderfully creative and artistic world. The hard work, talent, and dedication are truly a delight to witness. 

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