for queer kids in the bush, theatre is a lifeline at risk of disappearing
As cuts to arts funding continue to threaten youth theatre programs across regional Australia, we look at how these organisations serve as a resource and outlet for marginalised and isolated teens.
Performers at Riverland Youth Theatre in South Australia. Photography Jonno Revanche.
Those who never passed through the halls of their high school drama class, or even their district youth theatre, are often quick to dismiss performing as a naff enterprise. There's no doubt theatre brats are easy targets — the precociousness of aspiring performers inspires familiar stereotypes. Everyone knows, or is, an "annoying ex-theatre kid;" someone who is a bit too loud, too earnest, too self-invested, who takes up too much space. But falling back on this archetype is a misjudgement towards the kids who embrace and champion corniness. It's ice-cool to sneer at people who sincerely and fearlessly engage with the things they love. Maybe that's because their openness reveals something uncomfortable about ourselves, particularly our attitude towards vulnerability.
Despite the jokes flung their way, young people around Australia still turn to the riskiness of performance to gain confidence and trust in themselves. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that for many marginalised teens, especially those who may be queer or LGBTI+ identifying, these spaces can provide a lifeline. But for those living away from capital cities, it's a support network that can be increasingly hard to find.
In 2015 $52.5 million was cut from the national arts portfolio, landing a significant blow to regional youth arts and cultural organisations. Two years on, the industry is still reeling and the ripple effects of defunding adolescent theatre programs can be seen and felt.
Riverland Youth Theatre in South Australia are still struggling to fill the funding gap. Speaking to i-D the organisation's general manager Danyon explained that groups like Riverland "don't have big companies working out of this region who are keen to support us through donations or sponsorship unlike our city colleagues." Without government funding, their existence isn't guaranteed.
These institutions have existed in remote areas for decades, and their loss holds serious consequences. Earlier this year the ABC reported on the experiences of teenagers who had found solace in the youth theatre. Writer Laura Hartnell reflected: "I have seen young women disclose their experiences of sexual assault for the first time, and be held by people around them who have also helped them go to counselling, or to the police…..I have seen young men sob with relief because they have just said the words, 'I'm gay' for the first time out loud. These are not rare occurrences — they happen at just about every rehearsal and performance."
The importance of an outlet like this is made even more striking when paired with the reality that feelings of isolation mean young people in remote areas are, staggeringly, 66 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those in cities. These groups are about more than performance; they're often rare chances for connection.
Across state lines Sarah Parsons of Outback Theatre for Young People in Deniliquin, a small town on the border of Victoria and New South Wales, is observing similar changes and consequences. In conversation with i-D she stressed that for many fringe-dwellers — kids in geographically isolated spaces who haven't "found their tribe" — theatre is their original safe space. For them, it offers an environment where they can channel their hopes and fears into action without the fear of judgement and derision. While their city counterparts have a plethora of of sub-cultures and physical communities to find support and explore and experiment identity, programs like Outback Theatre are rare homes to foster young creative talent in the bush. It's an observation Danyon mirrors, emphasising that the presence of arts outlets in remote places "increases confidence, leadership, teamwork, and alleviates anti-social behaviour."
As groups like this are defunded and shut down, city based fly-in-fly-out groups have stepped in to take their place as one of the only respites for isolated teens to engage with theatre. But despite their best, and very well intentioned, efforts it's still a flawed solution. Sarah even goes as far as argue that these models can do more harm than good: despite being "exciting and inspiring" they're temporary solutions that leave no opportunity to develop skills longer term. They offer a taste of something they can't sustain. In comparison, actually being situated in regional sites means there is more connection to the local culture and community. Sarah points to Outback Theatre for Young as a testament to how far these groups can reach, offering "mentorship, guidance, ongoing support, as wells opportunities for siblings to be involved in future projects too." The relationships they've developed with the towns and communities are very real. Riverland Youth Theatre's annual report logs report they engage with more than 5000 teens per year. Duplicate that over their 27 year run and their impact is staggering.
Folded into all this is also the value of allowing young people tell their own stories, and narrate their own worlds. Reflecting on the value of presenting rural stories Sarah remembers; "In 2013 the adults of the Wakool Shire were basically moved to tears by seeing a professionally developed play about their lives told by their young people in their towns."
But despite this very demonstrable success Riverland Youth Theatre, Outback Theatre and many other efforts still face additional funding cuts that could see them join the many other similar groups already forced to close permanently.
Musing on the impact this uncertain future has on the lives of queer, LGBTI+ and other marginalised teens Sarah notes, "I am not sure if these cuts were a purposeful attempt to widen inequality and deny opportunities to certain people, I would hope that there wasn't that much evil in this world." And through it all, she remains faithful that small arts collectives in the bush will continue to survive and persist. For her, the demand for these stories outweighs any possible obstacles: "I would argue in hope that this is a time of flourishing for the arts in regional places, that we are coming into a period of celebration and acknowledgement…..where regional Australia is seen as the holder of such special stories that you can't help but turn your face to look at them, one where our young people are applauded and made proud of their resilience and spirit."
Text and Photography Jonno Revanche