Young people in our current social climate are dealing with a range of issues, the volume and complexity of which schools and parents are often struggling to find solutions for.

A South Australian arts company have stepped up to the challenge and are visiting schools with an effective way of offering solutions for young people.

Founded in 2007, ActNow Theatre was started by a group of friends who wanted to create theatre for social change.

One of the founding members is Edwin Kemp Attrill, the inaugural Artistic Director and current Company Producer who has seen the company evolve and mature in its short lifetime.

ActNow's recent project with Gay Men's Health.
ActNow’s recent project with Gay Men’s Health.

“It was a group of high school friends, myself included, who wanted to create a performance about David Hicks, the Guantanamo Bay detainee at the time. So we got a group of young actors and activists to create a street theatre performance. From there we kept creating street theatre performances. Around 2010, we did a project called Expect Respect which was a really big project for the company and changed the way we work in a couple of ways,” Attrill says.

“The performance was about rape and assault. It was commissioned by the Legal Services Commission and it was the first time we used interactive forum theatre techniques. It was also the first time that we had worked in a partnership model with a non-arts organisation and that’s the way we create all of our projects now. We work with non-arts organisations using interactive forum theatre techniques to explore particular social justice issues.”

Working with organisations such as Legal Services Commission, SHINE SA, Men’s Health SA and Reconciliation SA, ActNow create theatre to tour to schools.

Recently, ActNow have developed a show about racism and reconciliation which gives youths real insight into effects and solutions for dealing with such issues.

“A couple of the big issues we’ve dealt with are racism and reconciliation, which is performed as part of a schools congress that goes across the state. We work with young people over the course of a day and we help to facilitate the conference. We also do an interactive performance where the young people are able to see firsthand different types of racism, but because it’s interactive, they can explore ways to deal with ways of presenting and responding to racism,” Attrill says.

The most recent show they are touring about this issue is called Responding to Racism and it uses forum techniques, which Attrill says are interactive and engaging.

Interactive theatre with secondary students in South Australia.
Interactive theatre with secondary students in South Australia.

“It is through a type of theatre called forum theatre. The way that works is you create a short play that has a number of social problems in it and you present it to the audience so they can see these problems. Then you go back to the beginning and perform the play a second time and during this performance, audience members can yell out, ‘Stop!’ and come up on stage and replace the character on stage to try to deal with the situation better,” he says.

“For example in the forum on racism, we have a scene on the bus where there’s a woman and she’s wearing a hijab. She gets abused when she gets on the bus, and when we present it the second time, an audience member might come up and become the bus driver who says something to the culprit, or they might become a friend of the woman or the guy who’s being abusive. They start to create their own solutions to the problems so it’s things they can implement into their own lives.”

Dealing with serious issues means being informed and sensitive, which is why the company often develop their productions in collaboration with community members who have experience with the topics.

“Sometimes we commission writers, but often the actors we get in the development of the project have had experience with the issue themselves so sometimes we devise it amongst the actors or through workshops with community members who can provide their own experiences. So it’s a mix of stuff that’s commissioned by a writer but also stuff that’s devised or improvised,” Attrill says.

As a founding member, ActNow Theatre has been a passion for Edwin Kemp Attrill who has watched the company grow over the years.

Run by a board of managers now, the company are constantly moving forward in their plight to change the lives of SA’s youths.

“The company is managed by a board of managers who are quite hands on, which is great,” Attrill says. “We’ve also got an emerging producer who started working with us through Carclew last year. His name is Ben Roberts. We’ve also got a couple of people that manage social media, but project by project we bring different people on. It’s always changing, which is nice, but we’re starting to grow.”

From working with young LGBTIQ people in youth training centres to touring a show about aging in rural areas, ActNow are able to develop quality theatre based on a range of topics.

“We are continuing Responding to Racism within schools and we are also doing a few workshops at the Flexi Centre with young people who have been in juvenile justice. We’re doing a series of zombie apocalypse survival workshops in Onkaparinga, working with young people to work out where they would go in their neighbourhood if there was a zombie apocalypse!” Attrill laughs.

'Zero Feet Away', an interactive show with a mobile app to help open up conversation.
‘Zero Feet Away’, an interactive show with a mobile app to help open up conversation.

“We’ve also got a project called ‘Zero Feet Away’ which is a performance where we’ve developed a mobile phone application so audience members can have conversations during the show about sexuality and intimacy; so we’ll be putting that on during Feast Festival this year in November.”

With innovative ideas and an understanding of community needs, ActNow are able to reach out to young people and help guide them towards more positive outcomes.

“We did a project called Speak Out which is a show about homophobia. We toured it to about 50 different schools to about 4000 audience members to work out ways of responding to and preventing homophobia,” Attrill says.

“That’s the one project where the most people have come up to us afterwards and said this is really life-changing stuff. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve had a conversation about sexuality, maybe it’s the first time they’ve been in an environment where everyone is supportive. It’s been a really significant project for a lot of the audiences, and also myself, to be able to do that in regional areas, disadvantaged schools, private schools and a lot of different settings. That’s been the most moving project.”

But it’s how the company relate to and engage with the young people that makes the work so effective, which is why ActNow are such a valuable part of SA’s arts and education.

"We don’t tell them there’s a right or wrong way to do things. It’s all fun," Attrill says.
“We don’t tell them there’s a right or wrong way to do things. It’s all fun,” Attrill says.

“I think because we don’t tell them there’s a right or wrong way to do things. It’s all fun, it’s all engaging. It’s a way for them to see things first hand and get involved. Human beings are storytelling creatures. That’s the way we understand and interpret the world so it makes sense that through telling stories we can start to change people’s perceptions of each other and the world and start to give them options to change things through storytelling as opposed to text book learning or other ways to get a message across.”

To enquire about a show for your school or youth organisation, or to get in touch with the company, contact Ben Roberts.

By Libby Parker

Photos courtesy of Edwin Kemp Attrill