Getting match fit: VCA Acting students bring the drama of sport on stage

Mary Fowler. Getty Images.
Mary Fowler of United during the round eight W-League match between Adelaide United and the Perth Glory at Marden Sports Complex on January 03, 2020 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Kelly Barnes/Getty Images)

In October this year, graduating Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) students will take to the stage in two exhilarating and physically demanding plays: Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, which explores the experiences of a high school’s all-girl soccer team, and 37, a never-before-performed play by Trawlwoolway, Pakana/Palawa playwright Nathan Maynard, centring on a local footy team’s season and the Adam Goodes saga. Georgina Naidu, Lead in Acting, and Chris Mead, Head of Drama, are excited about the upcoming season – and we spoke to them to find out why.

Georgina Naidu (GN), Lead in Acting, and Chris Mead (CJM), Head of Theatre.

How did you choose the plays for this season?

GN: We’d already earmarked The Wolves as an amazing play—an all-women’s soccer team play, not a lot of them in the world—but what would we program for the male-identifying actors . . . ?

CJM: And having just arrived at VCA from Melbourne Theatre Company, we’d commissioned a play there that was for all men, about an AFL team . . .

GN: And together they work beautifully in concert.

What do you look for/what’s important in a play?

GN: Great characters, strong themes, work that demands skills and technique, with stories that give the actors enough to sink their teeth into, and that audiences will enjoy.

CJM: It is a delicate balance finding plays that are big enough for our students; that is, big enough thematically, urgent and relevant enough for our consistently critical thinking students, but also with enough complication in the roles to demand that they bring their A-Game to rehearsals, and the performance season.

What ties them together (if anything)?

GN: They’re both built around sport, same sex sports teams, and the consequences of that: community, camaraderie and competitiveness.

CJM: For me it is also about exhilaration. These teams, and their gatherings—some may call them, training sessions—are the best parties you’ve never been to, yet. Excellence is attractive and these plays are about people with particular sets of skills, that we get to see, to revel in, to be amazed by. They are of course human, all-too-human, but each play allows us to go behind the scenes and see how effective teams tick, how they win, and what happens when they lose, or lose people along the way.

What excites you about this season?

GN: That these amazing students get to perform a play in front of audiences! For much of their training they’ve been constrained by COVID. They’ve gone above and beyond our wildest expectations, so to see them finishing their degrees on such a high note is incredibly exciting.

CJM: I am also thrilled that it launches a new relationship that we’ve established in VCA Drama with the Vizard Foundation. Because of their support we can now bring First Nations artists from anywhere in Australia to Melbourne once a year, and as a result director Isaac Drandic, a Noongar man, is joining us from Cairns and Nathan Maynard, a Trawlwoolway, Pakana/Palawa man, is joining from Lutruwita/Tasmania. To be able to bring two such industry heavy-hitters—together they have made, recently, The Season (Sydney Festival, national tour) and At What Cost?(Belvoir)—in to VCA to work on a new play is a dream.

What does the rehearsal process look like? Where are you at now?

CJM: We are at week three at present, and for anyone in the theatre industry they would know that week three is often the week of doldrums. The first week is excitement and possibility, second week is good, solid hard work and then week three, well, week three is often the week when gaps open up, where one starts to think of opening and just how far away it seems, but also how terrifying close it is. Of course by week four there’s euphoria, then the fear and the confidence of technical and dress rehearsals, and finally the delight of opening and the season!

What are the themes the plays explore, and why are they relevant/timely?

GN: Lots of themes! One of the big ones is racism and misogyny, toxic masculinity, class and privilege; friendship, mental health, coming of age, all the things that going into being a young person –

CJM: Especially as those young people are on their journey towards becomes an older person, with responsibilities beyond the self, to one’s community, to those close to you, and those you might inspire.

GN: There’s something rich here about being a teenager today, living with your body, as it’s changing and so with those around you, the secrets, the anxiety, the speed with which conversation zips from global politics to gossip, to being cool, social status, better footy tactics . . .

What have been the main challenges in putting these shows together?

GN: Sport. Getting the students match fit. Indeed, this was one of the things that drew us to the plays – teamwork, choreography, and that in these plays you can’t hide behind anything.

CJM: There is a US high-school movie prejudice or hang-over at least that the drama kids and the sport kids don’t mix. Actually, a lot of people doing drama are excellent sports-people and vice-versa (and I think these days we reject such simplistic binaries!). And even if they’ve never been in a locker room or on a footy pitch, the scale and scope of the

actors’ imaginations, their ability to think on their feet, their agility, puts them there, and each play demands hard, physical exertion. It’s a lot.

What do you think the students are enjoying/finding difficult about the works?

GN: Each play is fun and smart and you can see the wonderful work of the cast, creatives and production teams coming together into a seamless whole. Everyone is throwing themselves into it, making the most of this last cherished moment at drama school.

CJM: The Wolves is a multi-award-winning play—an Obie, a finalist in the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and finalist for a Pulitzer Prize—but it was also written by a 26-year-old first-year playwriting student. So, it’s fresh and raw and gutsy, and good.

Nathan is writing a new play and that is always a white-knuckle ride because no one has ever done it before, no one has told this story before, and certainly not in this way. It is also deeply provocative since it takes the Adam Goodes story and refracts it through the lens of a regional, amateur footy club. Nathan has been in the room, on the rehearsal room floor, with the actors and director and choreographer, Jacob Boehme. It’s a First Nations’ Australian led room. Nathan has even written two new roles just for our students. He’s passionate about the story and is loving responding to offers from the actors; just as the actors are learning how to take an AFL mark on a stage, get into fights on the field and learn about the process of developing new play. It’s a joy.

What can audiences expect when they come to see the shows?

GN: This is an exceptional group. Not just because of what they’ve overcome due to the lockdowns, but they have incredible range. There will be great laughs, but some of the pieces will also be hard-hitting. And it won’t be just itsy-bitsy pieces but one whole coherent production.

The Wolves will be showing from 18 – 22 October. Book tickets.

37 will be showing from 18 – 22 October. Book tickets.