Why student theatre must survive the pandemic


A scene from Catch-86 (the 2019 La Trobe University Revue). Photo: Kat Carrington

ANALYSIS: Why do we devalue the next generation of artists? Fergus Black and Lakshmi Ganapathy argue that we need to reconsider our stance on student productions.

In September 2007, Charles, Craig, Chas, Julian, Dom, Chris and Andrew drove a fake motorcade into the APEC security zone, making headlines across the country.

But just ten years earlier, these disruptors were cutting their teeth on the University of Sydney Arts Revue and the USYD student paper, Honi Soit.

It’s easy to skip straight to the part where groups like The Chaser ‘made it’ – but even the greats had to start somewhere. All stories of our best and brightest feature the chapter where they test ideas and experiment with their form – their student days.

Take for instance, perhaps the furthest thing from the arts – college sports, seen in the US as the proving ground for the next generation of athletes.

Each year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) distributes around $3.5 billion in athletic scholarships; College teams even have significant brand sponsorship and compete with professional league games for prime-time viewership.

A scene from Catch-86 (the 2019 La Trobe University Revue). Photo: Kat Carrington

Although we’re quick to declare the arts as a more refined cultural form than sports, we can’t celebrate our own sandboxes to nearly the same degree. Over 2018-2019,

The Australian Council for the Arts gave $14.1 million in grants to aspiring theatre-makers, a fraction of the $131.3 million the Australian Institute of Sport invested in National Sporting Organisations in the same period.

Why do we recoil whenever we see the words ‘Student Theatre’, associating it with work that’s amateurish, second-rate, and not worth our time?

Why do we relegate student artists to ‘a subset of theatre’ when all creatives struggle to make compelling content themselves?

Developing your style, workshopping ideas and collaborating with like-minded peers are all valuable processes, not only for emerging artists, but for young workers in most professions.

Tellingly, in a 2018 World Economic Forum survey, Australian companies ranked creativity, originality and initiative as the most sought after workplace skills, traits that are at the core of student theatre institutions.

When organisations demand fully formed, ‘career-ready’ graduates, accessing the arts at the professional level becomes a paradox.

How can a screenwriter find their feet without a platform to make mistakes and modify their approach?

Without student theatre encouraging experimentation early on, groups such as The Chaser might never have made it on to our screens.

But Student Theatre isn’t just a launch pad for artists or a place to foster skills for the workforce. It’s a platform for young people to confront society’s important issues.

This brings us back to the revue, that age-old university tradition of sending up the big events of the year.

Satire is a powerful tool of expression – it sneaks into our conscience and draws attention to society’s shortcomings, often more effectively than any sermon.

Student theatre and revue shows let young people sift through a world seemingly going to pot around them.

A scene from Catch-86 (the 2019 La Trobe University Revue). Photo: Kat Carrington

Free from the motivation of profit or a corporate agenda, university revues are often more accessible to diverse perspectives typically overlooked by mainstream comedy – the University of Sydney have a women’s revue, a queer revue and a people of colour revue, just to list a few.

It enables a frustrated generation to challenge the powers that be and express their views, rather than shut down under the weight of their apprehension.

We’ve already seen the desire today’s youth have to be heard, be it the student-driven climate action or the recent student movements towards democracy across Asia.

To dismiss Student Theatre would be to dismiss the voices of a generation with something to say, to discourage the next great disrupters from daring to challenge the status quo.

Yes, the arts are in a difficult spot right now – but as universities across the board reassess their own financial priorities, it’s looking increasingly likely that student theatre establishments won’t make the cut.

The worst part is, we may not notice until they’re gone.

Student theatre is a vital component of the arts ecosystem – when it comes to rebuilding an inclusive and vibrant industry post-pandemic, we need to reassess how we view our emerging theatre-makers.

The next Chaser could depend on it.

This article was originally published on ArtsHub