The Doneman Influence
With Artistic Director Jim Vilé‘s background in tertiary Drama education it was not surprising that he was strongly motivated to create an innovative and challenging Youth Theatre and Theatre-in-Education program at La Boite and it was very much in his interests to do so, as Youth Theatre funding “was the only thing we could get out of the Australia Council” at the time.[i] By the beginning of 1987 specialist Youth Theatre workers Ludmila and Michael Doneman had joined the La Boite staff.
The Donemans brought to La Boite their own philosophical position on TYP and a professional approach to this kind of work. Based on the concept of an extended workshop process as an effective training model, the participants developed skills and explored ideas and concepts over a long period. The ideas for the text emerged from the interests of the young people involved and were then crafted into a performance script by Michael Doneman: “This extended workshop process culminates in a work that manifests not only social and artistic value but a high level of technical proficiency”.[ii] Production values were as high as possible with each production listing the full range of production personnel that one would expect to see in a La Boite mainhouse show. Under the Donemans’ joint direction, Vilé claimed that La Boite Youth Theatre “was put on a professional basis” and “became one of the largest and most innovative youth organisations in Australia for about three years. That was a really exciting time in that area. It kept a connection with the Australia Council which paid off when the theatre went professional, I think”.[iii]
The Donemans developed two major projects in 1987 – The Great Circle and Debutantes from Outer Space – both culminating in full scale Youth Theatre productions and both exhibiting a distinct performance quality that embraced a highly physical acting style, music theatre and the concept of risk taking.[iv] The more successful of the two, The Great Circle directed by Michael Doneman, Michael Whelan and Steven Champion on the theme of human evolution, featured “twenty performers, spectacular circus sequences and an amazing array of percussion instruments”.[v] This kind of work was a strategic response to the Australia Council’s Youth Theatre policy “to provide young people with the opportunity to find a ‘voice’” and express it in theatrical terms.[vi]
By the end of 1988, the Donemans had left to pursue new projects. There is ample evidence to confirm Vilé‘s gratitude to them for the professionalising of the Youth Theatre and the growth in La Boite’s reputation with the Australia Council for quality youth theatre, but it is also clear he was concerned that there were “hardly, if any, young people who make the transition from Youth Theatre to other La Boite activities”.[vii] Troubled that young people were not exposed to “the more traditional stagecraft” or “established texts” necessary for their graduation to ‘adult’ theatre, his appointment of Anthony Auckland as the new Youth Theatre Director shifted Youth Theatre into yet another direction. That ‘direction’ was given full realisation in La Boite’s first mainhouse play for 1989, a Youth Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Auckland. In his Director’s Notes, he justified this youth theatre text-based production, as opposed to a devised piece. He said that “Over the last two years, the members of our youth theatre have presented three major performance projects to the public all of which were specially written/devised for the group”, but that “It is also important that our youth explore how to express their voice through an established text. A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides an ideal text for this with its cast of young characters, comedy and theme of young love”. [viii]
By 1987, Vilé had also established day-time, in-house, theatre-in-education shows, re-introducing quality schools’ shows that harked back to ECDP days and that now capitalised on La Boite’s renewed popularity with schools through their enthusiastic responses to his youth-targeted mainhouse productions.
[ii] Disbelief Program, 1988.
[iii] Vilé Interview June 2, 2003.
[iv] Debutantes from Outer Space Program, 1987.
[v] La Boite Newsletter, May/June 1987, Rod Lumer Private Collection.
[vi] 1988 Position Paper p.4.
[vii] Ibid. p.5.
[viii] A Midsummer Night’s Dream Program, 1989.
Writer: Dr Christine Comans
Source: La Boite - The Story of an Australian Theatre Company by Christine Comans, published 2009 by Playlab Press