The 18 Hour Play Project 2014

For the last couple of days I've spent some time with the Empire Theatre Youth Arts crew in Toowoomba, facilitating their annual 18 hour play project. It's a three day program for kids aged between 9 and 17, where we build a play in three days. This year, as in past years, I'm lucky to be running the project with my wife, Emily Burton.

If you're in the arts, creating a self-devised work in three days is a fairly common-place exercise, especially for youth arts. A lot of people who haven't encountered the process before are surprised. There are a few important shortcuts that take the pressure off. The play, while completely written, devised and performed by the ensemble's young members, is never too much longer than forty-five minutes. Any design elements like set, costume and sound are all 'found' items by the cast. Further, the final work is performed for friends and family on the afternoon of the third day. The works that are produced are fun, comic, imaginative fare that show off the chaotically colourful musings of the young ensemble. But this is hardly the point. Friendships are made. Confidence is boosted. Introductions to the performative arts are made and celebrated. 

Such processes aren't unusual, and the one I've just described is fairly easy-going. The relative 'Olympic' version of these short self-devised works are performative arts summer camps in the States, where groups of young people will mount a different, fully-realised musical once a week for eight weeks. There are a happy few for which this is bliss, but many would regard this as some kind of theatrical nightmare.

Of course, while most young minds react to the challenge well, there are some who struggle. I've never found a young person who's been incapable of impressive  feats of imagination, but the necessary social skills that come with such a task can be a real sticking point. Over the three days with some careful guidance, these participants can show impressive improvements, but they require a lot of attention to prevent conflict. It's also surprising how many participants have minimal interest in the performing arts. It's the last week of school holidays after all, and I'd love to say that it's a wonderfully fulfilling artistic process, but of course, at times, it feels a lot like baby-sitting.

Nevertheless, it's a lot of fun, and it's a complete joy to work with the majority of young minds who quickly take to the task with such unbridled enthusiasm that they are hesitant to stop for lunch (seriously). The most rewarding journeys to witness are the shy or frightful children who appeared to be dangerously reclusive on the first day. By now, through necessity and encouragement, they quickly come out of their shell and rush in to every morning vowing this is the most fun they've ever had. 

I had my first extra-curricula drama workshop when I was a young teenager. It was run by the university I would end up studying at, in the very same theatre where I'm now teaching today. Youth arts have powerful links in a community that often transcend adolescence and plant firm roots in adulthood. Frighteningly, I've now been around the youth arts long enough to see children I taught when they were nine return to workshops and eventually apply for the same university I studied in. They, like me, aren't conscious of the generational process that they're taking part in, that they are feeding an ecology they will eventually end up running. It's a process that is easier to sustain, arguably, in regional locations. 

This afternoon, I'll be lucky enough to continue to contribute to the cycle. The bizarre journey of the Elves on Middle-Jupiter may not seem like much to some, but for the performers it will be a hi-light of their youth, and plant a seed that will benefit the community for many years to come.