“Can we go to the beach?” one of the students asks as she taps her feet against the stage in the almost empty hall at The Portsea Camp.
The sounds of country blues drift from the kitchen up the far end as we hear the cook singing along, twangin’ and drawlin’.
Eight students sit or stand casually by the stage, waiting for the workshop to begin.
Angela Louis looks over the class from over her laptop calmly and tells them we’ll be starting our work in a minute.
As the music dies down, we organise the eight students into a circle and start the chant:
“Big Booty, big booty, HA HA, big booty!”
The warm-up game gains momentum quickly as students rotate around the circle, changing numbers and keeping up with the rhythm of the game.
More students filter in as the game continues, adding confusion to the exercise as numbers eleven, twelve and thirteen are added to the chaos of ‘Big Booty’.
The focus improves as students take on the rhythm of the clapping, stamping and tapping.
As one focus game winds up, another one starts. I watch as the thirteen drama students pass a key and a phone around a circle repeatedly asking: “is it a key?” and “is it a phone?”
Sounds simple enough, but watching the students maintain the rhythm and focus of repeating a question several times causes my brain to redefine both the words ‘key’ and ‘phone’ and wonder to myself: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Next, a soundscape is introduced. One by one, students enter the middle of the circle with an action and a sound.
I watch as the group of 16-17 year olds create a ridiculous soundscape without once questioning the authority of their VCE teacher.
Ah, Drama students.
This is the fourth VCE Arts camp I’ve attended since my student teacher days in 2006 and each time I attend I am reminded how faithful Drama students are to their teachers. Where once stood self-conscious teens, in their place are now focused, dedicated young actors.
Where once one would pull a face at the suggestion of having to crawl across a room uninhibited, a student drags themselves across the room on all fours, their face stony and eyes sharp.
Angela Louis watches, taking in each student and stopping the entire class to recommend improvements and encourage the class to ‘get into the moment’.
She picks out seven students and seats the others as observers. Explaining that the floor is a blank canvas, students begin to use their bodies to ‘paint a picture’. Whether they walk, run, crawl, twist, roll or lie on the floor is up to them. The exercise is a test in observing whether these students are able to block out those around them and focus on their own physicality and character.
It’s bizarre to watch these students as they create a painting in their head through the use of their bodies. Anyone who was not familiar with how Drama students develop their work would enter the hall and think they’d taken a concoction of caffeine tablets and valium and chased it with three cans of Red Bull. Upon seeing the teacher, Angela Louis, watching seriously from the sidelines, an outside party would assume it was she who provided the pills and energy drinks. Louis then joins in on the exercise, walking with purpose to the middle of the room, stopping and leaning in to whisper to an imaginary friend or foe.
I sit in the corner watching and typing. Across the camp are other workshops. Rachel Main runs a studio session for the photography students whilst Jamie Lyons observes the Art students and gets them ready for the life-drawing class they’ll be taking later that afternoon. Up the far end of the camp, Amy Cumming supervises the music students as they work on their band performance, occasionally joining in by way of rocking out the on the drums.
One of the most inspiring elements of this camp, is that each of the teachers does not adhere to the ‘those that can’t do’ myth. Within the staff we have musicians, artists, photographers, and film and television educators. We have people who really know their shit. They’re passionate, dedicated and completely engulfed in what they teach.
All over the camp, Arts students develop their craft. Though the drama students may be the biggest extroverts of the group, each of the 48 students here demands attention for their creativity. It’s utterly exhausting work, but by 11pm each night the staff always sit in the lounge area, commenting on the day. We laugh about the comments various Arts students make over the course of the three day camp, such as a young man requesting a 6B pencil to write with as he enjoys the ‘tone’ more so than a 2b; but mostly we talk about how proud we always are of our students.
Occasionally the exhaustion gets the better of us, and four grown women in bunk beds argue for an hour over who will turn out the light. Eventually one always breaks and leaves the warm comfort of their sleeping bags to tread across the freezing floor and flick the switch while the rest of us cheer sleepily.
We’re coming up to the end of the first hour. The students are in character, running through a ‘morning routine’. They’ve each forgotten about the other twelve students around them and are indeed, ‘in the moment’. Nobody giggles when another student’s character does something silly, nobody swears when they stuff up their routine.
I look on, constantly being reminded what I was like ten years ago. I feel jealous at the opportunities these students are given; of the hopes and dreams and expectations they have for when they graduate.
It’s so easy for us, as adults to tell them to dream high but expect that their lives will turn out considerably differently. They ignore us of course, as they should. The crushing disappointment of the lows and intoxicating adrenalin of the highs will teach them more than we can ever preach at them.
I also cringe. I look at these drama students, who embody every stereotype a ‘drama student’ can embody and remember what I was like: a total and utter contradiction. Confident and obnoxious, self-conscious and unsure. Entitled and demanding, accommodating and unworthy. I watch as these students attempt to ‘find themselves’ in what they wear, what they listen to, how they behave around their peers and their desire for validation from their mentor. Asymmetrical haircuts, large hair accessories and hats and bright red hair dye adorn their heads almost like a sign that reads: I Don’t Know Who I Am Yet, but I’m Working It Out.
I smile as I observe them and how ‘original’ they all think they’re being. That sentence sounds as though I’m laughing at them. I’m not. Sometimes I shake my head at the cliché but they need to be all these stereotypes before they can work out who they are. After all, that is a big part of what high school is all about.
Last night at the annual Arts Camp Disco I watched as the students in cliques (mostly the Drama students) danced on the stage in their hero and villains costumes. Other cliques, those in Slipnot shirts and long trench coats sat for the duration and watched on, judging and rolling their eyes. I was one of those once too. The ‘inbetweeners’ stood on the dance floor within their own circle, giggling at the ‘upstagers’ but occasionally throwing an arm in the air, telling us more about themselves than they’d care for us to know.
People who are unfamiliar with drama and scoff at the idea that it’s a hard class would laugh at the ‘games’ that the students are undertaking. It’s hour two and the students, in their ‘ensemble performance character’ are redistributed into unfamiliar groups and asked to create a scene using only action and sound.
One student, sullen-faced and slouched on a chair, shoves another, in the midst of giving birth. A third student watches on in disgust, periodically making angry noises while the fourth student watches, silent, in shock. It is clear to see the transformation from high school student into flustered new mother (for clarification, the high school student is male).
The expression workshop begins. Students transfer facial expressions to one another whilst walking about the room. One girl momentarily breaks focus to check her hair in the reflection of the window.
Louis still watches, eyes of a hawk, and picks up on those not following their ‘leader’ and those losing focus. She treats the class not as students, but as actors; expecting nothing short of absolute professionalism and focus at all times. It is this treatment that keeps the students on task.
Are they the best actors that the world, or even the school, will ever see? No. Probably not. Will they make it in an industry of networking, politics and natural talent? Doubtful. But right now it doesn’t matter. Right now they’re the most important people in the room and they know it.
People who are unfamiliar with drama and scoff at the idea that it’s a hard class don’t see what we see by the end of hour three of the character and physicality workshop. They don’t see thirteen students who are confident amongst their peers and clearly enjoying the challenges set before them. They don’t see these thirteen teenagers engaged, comfortable and at ease. They don’t see the whole purpose of Arts Camp. They don’t see what students see.