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Sydney

May 23, 2013

Life beyond Walsh Bay: STC's road to community engagement

Sydney Theatre Company is going to regional NSW and ACT schools to teach kids about road safety -- and theatre. Its new production is pitched in just the right way.

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One could be cynical Road Train has been developed in consultation with NRMA policy and education staff. With the NRMA as a sponsor.

One could be. Were it not for the fact this is by no means Sydney Theatre Company’s first foray into “community” theatre. In fact, STC has a whole community department, headed by Paul O’Byrne. Stefo Nantsou is retained specifically as a director of community theatre. Not only has Nantsou directed Road Train, he’s written it. In both departments, there are some flaws. Mind you, it’s no easy thing to pen something that’s steadfastly educative, while remaining thoroughly engaging throughout.

And, in the main, “this is the message we want to get across” doesn’t divulge itself too overtly. Still, the script tends to wax and wane, with an uneven momentum. This is mirrored directorially, with swells and lapses of energy on the part of the actors. To be brutally honest, if it weren’t branded STC, you might think you were watching amateur theatre. But that’s OK, actually. Not because touring it regionally excuses the highest, slickest standards. But because its flaws tend, if anything, to humanise the work; to make it more accessible. And no one could doubt Nantsou’s sincerity or heart. And his good-natured enthusiasm is utterly contagious.

The cast includes (boasts might be a better word) Ellen Bailey, John Shrimpton and Aaron Tsindos. With precious few props which they themselves manipulate, they create many and various scenes, in many and various locations. They also double and triple-up (I lost count) on characters, with gender no barrier. This often involves swinging (literally) from one to another. Is there any tougher acting challenge? In all cases, they do a remarkable job (even if Shrimpton seemed to get slightly lost at times). To give an idea of the versatility required of the actors, consider that Bailey, for example, is charged with playing key protagonist Karla Ford, a year 11 student just on her Ls, as well as Carol, Karla’s mum, a magistrate, her boyfriend Ryan’s mum and one of Ryan’s best mates. Like her cohorts, she manages to clearly distinguish eat and every one, with barely a costume change an, often, with feet rooted to precisely the same spot.

The intention is straightforward enough and is summed up by Eddie (Tsindos), Karla’s father, in the very first scene. “It’ll always keep coming back in your life. Girlfriend, boyfriend, car; doing really well at school, popular; everything going for ya. And one hit, one mistake, it’s all gone.” Only the young audiences at which the work is directed can really review this work. Will it hit the spot? Speak their language? Or be dismissed as patronising and paternalistic?

Whatever the judgment handed down, STC is to be lauded and applauded for its commitment to community theatre and outreach. Major theatre companies can all too easily creep into elitism, sometimes without even realising the narrowness of their appeal. Instead, STC is saving its soul, with a dramatic demonstration of democracy that acknowledges life beyond Miller’s Point.

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