Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Starchaser (children's theatre)

If your space-crazy child is going to see Starchaser, you’d better be quick. There are only two public shows this weekend in the intimate setting of the Fairfax Studio, after eight shows for school groups this week.

Starchaser At the World Premiere performance this morning, writer Lally Katz told the school children gathered that she had wanted ‘to write something about longing’.

‘I just really like outer space,’ she shrugged, ‘and it’s my dream to go to space in my bed.’ Continue reading

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Annie at The Regent, Melbourne

Playing to an audience, with all the generations covered, highlights were aplenty at Melbourne’s Annie opening at The Regent tonight (29th May).

Everything a musical theatre lover demands was in evidence including super tight singing, creative choreography, well-executed dance, eye-catching costuming and effective set design.

The cast were exuberant - there was clearly no place they’d rather be.

Musical highlights included Hard-Knock Life by eight supremely talented orphans and Easy Street with three stars at the top of their game: Nancye Hayes (Miss Hannigan) Todd McKenney (Rooster) and the most amazingly leggy Chloe Dallimore (Lily St Regis). Continue reading

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kate Grenville: The Secret River

2012 Book Challenge
Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best known authors with eight novels and four books about writing to her name. Having greatly enjoyed The Idea of Perfection (2000) a winner of the Orange Prize, I decided to read The Secret River (2005) as my second review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge. 

The Secret River was awarded the Commonwealth Prize for Literature and the Christina Stead Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award, and has now been translated into many languages. 

There are obvious difficulties in approaching an award winning novel. The press of preconceived notions hang in one's head. What can be said that hasn't already been spouted elsewhere? So I approached with a head as clear as was practical. 

The journey of William and Sal Thornhill from London to a convict's life in Sydneytown, and then as settlers along the Hawkesbury River, is a compelling one. Anyone familiar with  Australian history knows there is unlikely to be a happy ending, and the tragedy at the climax dispels all hope of one, least of all the capacity of the characters for self-reflection. 

About a year ago I was responsible for teaching a Grade 3 unit 'European Settlement' in a local primary school. The children were asked to find out about how their family came to Australia. One young lad piped up saying, My family didn't come from anywhere else, just Australia. I explained that unless his family were of aboriginal descent his family had in fact come from another land. He looked at me dubiously. Nah, not mine. My family came from Mildura. The next morning he burst throughout the door saying, Guess what Ms Graham, my family came to Australia by boat!

Well, that's a story about a child's discovery, you say. True enough. But I heard recently of a well educated woman in her 60s who could scarcely believe aboriginal people had ever lived on the Bellarine Peninsula (Victoria, Australia), despite what she had learnt about William Buckley, an escaped convict who lived for decades with aboriginal people. History lessons do not always translate into living-breathing knowledge.

The story of Australian settlement is one, I believe, the adult community is yet to come to terms with. It is confronting to recognise that if your ancestors were landholders, farmers or squatters, chances are they had direct conflict with aborigines. Far easier to lump those attitudes in history books than imagine your own flesh-and-blood slaughtering, poisoning, driving away, or stealing children. The Secret River dives headlong into this reality, and it is disturbing.

The writing is deliciously pictorial. This from the opening pages describes William's first night in Sydney Cove:

The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze shivered through the leaves, then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest. 

He was nothing more than a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature. 

Down the hill the settlement was hidden by the darkness. A dog barked in a tired way and stopped. From the bay where the Alexander was anchored there was a sense of restless water shifting in its bed of land and swelling up against the shore.
Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone. He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return. It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss. He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.

The narrative immediately drew me into its story as Will's thoughts, through whom we view events, are related via colloquial grammar:

He had frightened her talking about the land too sudden, not working out how it might all be done. He had to go slower, that was all.
Kate Grenville
Some months have passed since I completed the reading. I avoided public reflection until I'd had time to analyse my reactions to The Secret River. This is because I found its ending unsatisfactory. Even now, I find it difficult to articulate why. Perhaps I expected remorse, rather than resignation from the characters I'd grown to know. I certainly wanted justice, but that would have flown in the face of history. The Secret River felt unsatisfying, not because of the writing, but because I wished history had been altogether different.

For this reason I am keen to read Grenville's new novel Sarah Thornhill (2011), a sequel to The Secret River. According to Grenville's website 'it's a story about what happens when you uncover dark secrets from the past, and is told through the voice of the youngest daughter of William Thornhill of The Secret River'.  
Further, now that The Idea of Perfection and The Secret River are in pre-production ahead of film release, it is clear the journey of these two stories are far from complete. I only hope my mind's images born from reading both novels will be at least equalled on the big screen. 

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Wisteria Awakening

Our wisteria plant is a bully. It winds along the guttering, lifting tiles from our roof, and strangling anything within reach. My desire for blooms is strong, but each year we’re lucky if a single flower limps into life. All attempts to encourage fertility have failed. Plant-whisperers prescribe a severe prune, but after the events of last summer it is advice I cannot follow.

Late last spring, when the wisteria was at its most outrageous, a blackbird built her nest in its entanglements: a place few cats would dare to venture. I fancied she was the same blackbird who had perched by our kitchen window to sing the sun down over the previous summer. Perhaps she’d been watching us, and we’d passed some kind of test.  Admittedly the Common Blackbird finds few friends among environmentalists or farmers, but it was impossible to refuse hospitality to one with such a winning song.

Over many days we marvelled as she crafted her home under our eave. She rummaged the garden beds as if at a stock-take sale, showing scant respect for newly swept paths. Other times she would fly in gently, clasping a new accessory in her beak. Slipping deftly between the twisted limbs, the remnant was nestled into her cup-shaped masterpiece. Excitement built as we watched her work from inside the window. And we kept her secret.

One day she did not leave the nest, and we guessed she had laid eggs. Standing tiptoe on the window ledge we could just see her head, and I began checking on her several times each day. We almost kept her secret, except when visitors came to call, and we took to whispering and pointing in her general direction. We were superior to think she had chosen our wisteria under our eave to nest.

Occasionally I would take my afternoon cup-of-tea by her window to keep vigil. Once or twice I gave fright to a snooping cat for the sake of Operation Bird’s Egg, and one afternoon the wind raged so hard that rain rapped the front window. I feared for her and her babies, as for two weeks she warmed her eggs with hope and patience.

I am ashamed to confess that during the following busy mid-December weeks I stopped believing in the babies. Most days I could not see her, giving me to believe motherhood had ended in disappointment or tragedy. Cats sunned themselves, unfettered, on our driveway and I rarely stopped to listen for life in the nest. The front room was hot in the afternoons now, so the drapes were often closed against it. On these days I preferred to sit in an air-conditioned café, or by a swimming pool with my children.

Nobody mentioned our blackbird. She was all but forgotten.

It happened late one morning, a week before Christmas as I sat at my desk. A flickering at the corner of my eye caused me to turn.  And there they were, hopping about the brittle twigs, their bustle so exuberant as to prevent me counting the tiny fledglings. Perhaps there were five or six. They did not linger long, but those few minutes were both gift and lesson.

As guests came and went over the summer I told the story of our blackbird, and the gift I might so easily have missed.

But now wisteria leaves are dropping revealing the vacant nest. I long for flowers: they are the reason we planted this monster in the first place. This plant, however unruly, has now been consecrated for a sacred purpose. I can do without flowers, if only my blackbird will grant me a second chance. Should she choose to return next summer, my promise is that I will be more attentive.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later

The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later
In 1998 international media attention swamped the town of Laramie, Wyoming, when young gay university student, Mathew Shepard, was brutally bashed, tied to a fence on the town’s perimeter and left to die. 
One month later members of the Tectonic Theater Project conducted interviews of the town’s residents and presented a collage of their responses in The Laramie Project
Ten years later, the Tectonic Theater Project members return to Laramie and find memory being transformed by folklore and rumour, despite the documented facts. Continue reading

More previews, reviews and features

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Getting More than our Fingers Burnt: Choosing a Secondary School with Your Child's Health at Heart

Across Victoria during Autumn children entering secondary school in 2013 will tour prospective schools with their parents, yet there will be few enquires about school ‘sun smart’ policy. After years of diligence in kindergartens and primary school, such questions slip off the parental radar, despite the fact around 80% of all Victorian secondary schools do not have a comprehensive policy.

Few parents would fail to be outraged if schools allowed students to smoke because of known health risks, yet the odds of Australian children developing skin cancer are considerably higher. Australia is the skin-cancer capital of the world. Half the population are expected to develop skin cancer in their lifetime, with around 1 000 people treated for the disease each day, and 1 600 dying each year. But research suggests as many as 75% of all skin cancers could be prevented by practicing sun protection in childhood and adolescence.

Parents Australia wants the issue taken far more seriously, and advocates parental involvement.  Vice-President, Margaret Pledger, says some schools appear more concerned about developing a “private school image”, than facing up to their duty-of-care to students. Mrs Pledger, who recently had moles removed from her hands, believes it is highly likely her own secondary-aged children will develop skin cancer, but they refuse to wear hats at school because no-one else does. “It is completely frustrating, but there is nothing I can do about it,” she says.

SunSmart’s Secondary School Sun Protection Program assists secondary schools to implement an effective sun protection policy, offering a graduated approach with consideration of the particular challenges of adolescent sun protection behaviours. State-wide only 56 secondary schools have joined the program to date, with the majority located in rural and regional Victoria.  

Parents cannot assume because a hat appears on the uniform list it will actually be used. While many schools profess baseball caps mandatory for physical education classes in terms one and four, they seem unwilling or unable to enforce their use. Every year at Dobsons, uniform supplier to more than 50 Victorian schools, hats are sold to Year 7 students. “We give all the Year 7s a hat, and when they come back the next year their parents say it sat in the bottom of a wardrobe all year,” says Dobsons floor manager Sally.

Teachers frequently become agitated by the sunhat question because they are keen to minimise confrontational situations, nurturing positive relationships, rather than pulling students up for wearing trousers in the wrong shade of grey. In an attempt to by-pass the hat battle, many schools are opting to erect shade structures with some success. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that where shade is provided, students will not avoid it.

Research suggests that improved sun-protection practices are more effective where whole communities work consistently together to find a solution. In 2007 an American Academy of Paediatrics study on adolescent sun-protection practices demonstrated the power of role modelling. After observing the sun protection level of 1 927 people in Year 6 to 8 at school, staff, sports coaches, lifeguards and adolescent peers were enlisted as advocates for better sun protection behaviours. After two years, the group was more likely to cover-up a greater percentage of their skin, when compared with a control group, and were more likely to use sunscreen, and to apply it more effectively.

At Kyabram Secondary College in Victoria’s north, the risk of skin cancer is also taken seriously, with expectations about wide-brimmed sunhats uppermost in the uniform policy guidelines. Physical Education coordinator Marcus Cummins says while the school’s record with sunscreen needs work, it is serious about hats. But it takes a great deal of energy to maintain the standard.

At Kyabram, the emphasis is on re-education, not punishment. Students who consistently fail to wear a hat are enlisted in an education campaign over 3-4 days watching DVDs about skin cancer, completing worksheets on the identification of different forms of skin cancer, and working out how they are going to get a wide-brimmed hat for school.

Aquinas College in Melbourne’s east tried unsuccessfully for a decade to get students to wear hats, before adopting a less punitive approach. Students were told hats would be mandatory, but were actively involved in the decision about style and colour. These days students wear a SunSmart approved Billabong hat in sage green, which bears no school logo, making it more acceptable to students. Aquinas students can sit in the shade without wearing the hat, but they must have it with them at all times.

After four years students and staff have mostly accepted the changes, but it would have been virtually impossible without support from the principal and staff. “It’s a really tough thing to do, but we have made huge headway,” says Health and Welfare Coordinator Cheryl Kane who has sun protection included in her job description. But “unless you have someone who is prepared to continually bang their head against the wall, it’s just too hard,” she says.

Aquinas students are philosophical about their school hat. “Wearing hats is ok, we don’t love it but it’s not a huge deal anymore,” said a Year 11 girl. “It’s really just for our own good,” said a Year 9 boy, and there is “no point teaching it in class if you don’t make us actually do it,” pointed out a Year 8 boy. “I don’t really care too much so am pretty happy to wear a hat. It’s pretty much for our own good – you don’t have to let the teachers know you like it – LOL.”

When asked why they thought Aquinas had introduced a sunhat policy, students said: “Because we live in Australia, and there is so much skin cancer...It’s a huge problem.”  Another student wrote, “I think the school wants us to know how to look after ourselves.” And another thought the school had hats “because it’s the right thing for the school to do.”

Because schools are influenced by the values of their local communities, perhaps it should come as no surprise Victoria’s sun protection record is the worst in the country. After 28 years of skin cancer campaigns, the sight of hundreds of hatless students dawdling home from school in 35 degree heat might well have elicited complaints from a concerned local community. But according to a Cancer Council report, of all Australians, Victorians are the least likely to wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen, with 25% of adolescents and 14% of adults getting sunburnt on a typical summer weekend.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation is summed up in the words of one parent who said, “When people start to sue schools because they’ve got skin cancer, we’ll probably wish we’d made hats compulsory, instead of teaching them how to tie a Windsor knot!”

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