By Sean Mee
It is the one of the most challenging of contemporary issues for the tertiary sector; finding ways to connect with talented young people from culturally diverse communities. For creative arts courses, the presence of a diverse cohort is critical because we are, at heart, storytellers. If the aspiration is to connect with contemporary artistic practice, then creative arts courses must engage authentically with cultural groups and communities that dwell outside the anglo-centric, middle-class bubble. Arguably, the sector has struggled to attract young artists, locked as they are inside their own bubble, defined by circumstance, family and culture.
Since 2011, QUT Creative Industries has partnered with the Queensland Music Festival in the creation of large scale, community-driven performance works in regional areas across the state. These projects start with the community; their story, their voices, their creativity. Whilst very successful in its own right, the last iteration in Logan, south of Brisbane, suggested a fresh take on engagement that could have positive outcomes for universities, communities and the art-form.
UNDER THIS SKY was produced in 2015 with over 700 participants to audiences of 15,000. Through the previous two years, a core of professional creatives structured the piece and facilitated the participation of the community. As creative director, I had responsibility (with the producer, Tara Hobbs) for the engagement strategies, the creative development and direction of the event. As part of the University’s contribution, the project was part of my academic workload, essential for such a long-term commitment. In its latter stages, it also became a coursework site for undergraduate students and post graduate research in contemporary community engagement practice; a powerful example of how the tertiary sector can have real impact and at the same time, provide authentic, outward-facing learning outcomes.
Logan is a young city of 300,000 with the most culturally diverse demographics in the nation. Perhaps as a consequence of this, we found a prodigious creative dynamism across the city. For some years, Logan schools had recognised the performing arts as a fundamental point of engagement (the reason to come to school, the reason to stay at school) and consequently created facilities and programs across the city to take advantage of this point of engagement. Three years ago, The Queensland Theatre Company established an off-shoot of their youth ensemble in Logan called Traction. With their tutor Claire Christian, this group of culturally diverse performers have created a safe place where performance could be explored, no matter their family or cultural circumstances.
Naturally, Traction became a major part of UNDER THIS SKY. Through the rehearsals, bubble worlds met as Traction engaged with QUT students, breaking down prejudice on both sides. As a senior lecturer, I was able to talk to them about their talent (this wasn’t a difficult…). Ultimately such a positive relationship was formed with these talented young people that four of them presented to auditions for the QUT Acting course in the recent round, something unprecedented in my time here.
This experience created a bubble of my own, albeit just a thought one. Present programs largely consist of top-down strategies that take little account of existing pedagogical programs in schools nor develop a longstanding presence. But if the tertiary sector engaged with schools and youth companies, either by funding these organisations in communities (wouldn’t that be a boon for those little companies?) and/or creating performance projects within the schools and communities using staff and students as a creative resource, then perhaps those much sort-after highways to tertiary education for culturally diverse young people might become more visible.
This strategy would not be prohibitively expensive as many of these programs are already funded. However, the extra resources, the presence of the brand and the opportunity to access creative resources would be a godsend for many schools and organisations. If the Logan experience is any indicator, artists are highly visible leaders in their communities. Their artistic journey would go a long way to normalise the idea of tertiary education, just as it provides a way into secondary education. So the key ideas here are: connect with existing pedagogical strategies, provide resources that create long-term relationships with community arts that embrace diversity and provide creative opportunities for authentic student collaborations.
Sean Mee is a senior lecturer in Drama at QUT Creative Industries in Brisbane. In recent years, Sean has worked extensively with the Queensland Music Festival in its regional events: Bob Cat Dancing (2003) and Red Cap (2007) in Mount Isa, The Road We’re On (2009) in Charleville, Behind the Cane (2011) in Bowen, Boomtown (2013) in Gladstone and most recently in Logan as creative director of Under This Sky: Logan’s Musical Celebration (2015).