Gavin ~ Barking up the right tree
Grahame Gavin, the smiling Papa Bear of the Barking
Gecko clan, reveals his secret plans to change the
world in an interview with Kayt Davies
Age 25, Grahame Gavin was dragged kicking and
screaming to the theatre. He’d never ventured
into one before. In the midst of a divorce, troubled
by the question of custody, he expected the experience
to involve overstuffed red velvet chairs, tedium,
slight embarrassment at the silliness of it all
and a polite clap at the end.
The play, The Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht
was about a custody battle between a birth mother
and a foster mother, after hearing their arguments
the judge in the play finally placed the baby
in a chalk circle and instructed the two women
to take an arm each and pull. The foster mother
refused, because it could hurt the child, and
the judge gave her custody.
The play changed his attitudes, not only about
theatre, but also about how to proceed with his
He said: “That experience has always been
a good symbol for me about the role of theatre.”
At the time, he was managing a health food store.
After his meaningful meeting with theatre he enrolled
in an acting degree course that he left in his
third year to work as an actor and director with
the Woolly Jumpers Theatre Company in Geelong.
From there he became artistic director of the
Unley Youth Theatre in Adelaide, where he stayed
until he moved to WA in 1989 to be artistic director
of Acting Out, the in-schools theatre branch of
the WA Theatre Company.
In the reshuffle two years later, that saw the
WA Theatre Company become The State Theatre Company
(which later went bankrupt), Acting Out was cast
Then, with Gavin still at the helm, it started
to change. Healthway came to its rescue, becoming
its first major sponsor and the company moved
into the Subiaco Theatre Centre. It also branched
out of working only in schools, taking plays to
Prague, Canada, Sumatra and Thailand. In the following
few years it also launched the Awesome Festival
and established Yirra Yaakin, an independent Noongar
theatre company, that Gavin nurtured for its first
few years before it became a fully-funded body
in its own right.
In 1994 Acting Out changed its name to the Barking
Gecko Theatre Company. The new name was an inspiration
of Gavin’s partner, Lou Westbury, who is
now Barking Gecko’s creative designer, as
well as being Australia’s representative
on the committee of the International Association
of Theatre for Children and Young People.
The naming was also inspired by a small reptile
native to the south-western parts of Australia
and by the company’s love of something called
“reptile logic”. They love the way
that geckos can climb onto the ceiling to look
at things from a new perspective and the way that
chameleons can change their spots.
Gavin said: “We find reptile logic very
useful because kids use it naturally all the time,
we need it to keep up with them.”
Through all of this Gavin’s own child was
growing up. He’s now 21 and studying psychology.
Asked if he thinks his theatrical lifestyle impacted
on his parenting, Gavin said: “Well, he’s
a great kid and he was treated to a lot of terrific
theatre…. his worst problem in childhood
was probably worrying about what sort of hats
we’d be wearing when we turned up to pick
him up from school.”
School is something that worries Gavin.
From what he’s seen as a parent and through
working with children and in schools he’s
concluded that the education system is actively
involved in promoting knowledge at the expense
of imagination. This, if Einstein was right in
saying that “imagination is more important
than knowledge”, is the point of concern.
Gavin said: “With the school system, TV
and the Internet having the effect of limiting
imagination, it is the important, the crucial,
role of the Arts to nurture the imaginative world
~ if the Arts aren’t doing that then what
is the point of having them?”.
The topic lies close to his heart, and his face
lit up and darkened in turns as he continued to
explain: “Theatre involves a process of
active imagination, of making things up, this
is the natural gift of children, but it is also
something that is being eroded by trends in our
“It’s so exciting in our workshops
and our programmes to see children confidently
being creative and generating new ideas. It is
what it’s all about. It’s by supporting
the development of creativity in children that
we are changing the world.”
Asked for more details on the differences between
Barking Gecko’s work and children’s
television, Gavin said: “TV performs at
you, not with you, that’s why it’s
a big limiter of the imagination. It’s not
the enemy, but it is something that we need to
overcome. TV is aimed at the lowest common denominator,
whereas we always try to stretch an audience,
to think more and to talk about the concepts afterwards,
rather than just forgetting and watching the next
show and the next.
“Theatre is the closest possible experience
to a real life, other than real life. It is closer
than film, TV or the visual arts. Barking Gecko
has the desire to provoke audiences and to give
them experiences through the theatre that they
might otherwise never have”.
Still bearing the memory of his own preconceptions
about theatre, Gavin works hard to dispel the
fears and phobias of audience members new to the
theatre experience. At the same time he says:
“We are not only trying to stretch our audiences,
we are also always stretching the boundaries of
what theatre is, and what can be done with it.
“For a while we were pigeon-holed as being
the company that did plays about animals but that’s
not it at all. What we want to do is to profile
imagination as a key component of being a human
“Most children these days don’t need
to be told to be conservationists, they’re
It’s better to provoke them into thinking
The recent production Starlight Starbright ~
a performance mostly in mime about the cosmic
battle between the forces of generosity and selfishness,
with music, dance, cosmic symbology, fireworks
and the canopy of the open night sky all playing
lead roles ~ is an example of the way Gavin achieves
this not only through the choice of stories, but
through the way that they are told on stage.
Gavin’s senses are finely tuned to the
perceptions of his young audiences.
He said: “We work on creating a whole theatre
experience, not just a play. It’s important
to do that because the little child who comes
to the theatre clutching his ticket might take
as much notice of the person who tears the ticket
as he does to the rest of the show.”
Therefore the ‘person’ that tears
the ticket at a Barking Gecko show is quite likely
to be a frog, or an angel or at least someone
wearing a silly hat.
Actors in full costume and character mingling
with the audience are also something that often
happens, as well as the incorporation of other
art events into productions. It’s a process
that Gavin calls “adding magic” or
“building on the otherworldliness of the
event”, that adds to the potency of the
The way that he stays in touch with the world
of childlike imagination is by constantly asking
young people what they think of the productions.
Kids from the local school in Subiaco and from
Barking Gecko theatre workshops are often asked
for feedback on works in progress ~ about which
bits might be too long or short, too scary or
not scary enough. The result is that the plays
tend to hit their marks.
Gavin said; “The checking process is important
because in always trying to stretch an audience
the danger is that sometimes you’ll go too
far, get too obscure and lose or confuse them.
We also have to check that our lingo is up to
date because the ‘in’ words change
so frequently and date so rapidly.”
It isn’t only road testing plays and looking
for the right lingo though. Gavin also watches
his audiences, looking for signs of what is important
Amy’s Monster, the company’s latest
production, is about a little girl who experiences
and confronts fear.
With gentle intensity Gavin said: “Some
people might not think that helping children to
work through fears about ordinary things, like
taking a train ride to visit cousins, is important
stuff, but it is. It’s very important. We
should never underestimate the impact that things
like this have on children.”
As well as producing plays for young people to
watch and experience life through, Barking Gecko
also runs Gecko Bytes ~ an after school drama
and performance programme, that has more than
100 children involved each week in groups meeting
in Subiaco and Joondalup.
Gavin wants (and plans) to see the Gecko Bytes
movement mature until the young people involved
are able to do are strong regular performances
of their work on their own.
Scriptwriting is another aspect of theatre that
Gavin wants to put into the hands of young people.
Weblife, another new Barking Gecko initiative
is an internet-based script development process.
Young playwright Emma Green will soon be starting
to write a script and week-by-week kids on the
web will be invited to comment on plot developments
and to decide what should happen next, so that
the result will be a collaboratively written script
that can be performed.
Collaboration is a key component of the Barking
Gecko philosophy. Rehearsals are really creative
development workshops, where actors actively participate
in the process of turning the script into a unique
production. As a director, Gavin said: “It’s
not about saying ‘this is what you should
do with your hands’. Our actors, designers
and musicians are more like primary creators.
This allows each play to profile more of their
unique quirks and strengths.”
Gavin says that a key difference between Barking
Gecko and commercial theatre is that a special
effort is made to make it a whole family event.
The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, by
facing the challenge of making the shows interesting
for the adults in the audience (and challenging
for the actors) the pitfall of being patronizing
to the children is neatly avoided.
Secondly, it encourages conversation after the
show, which Gavin believes can be of as much benefit
as the show itself.
The result is the development of a unique style.
Barking Gecko is a far cry from the old English
pantomime. Gavin says that apart from there being
something silly about doing a classically English
thing with Aussie accents, the spirit of Barking
Gecko is about creating something new.
Gavin said that the way that WA audiences took,
with picnic baskets and rugs, to outdoor performances
in summer added something special to the company’s
style. “Being able to work outdoors allows
for innovation in design, it allows the boundaries
of ‘what is theatre’ to be stretched
to include the stars and the trees. It means that
our style of theatre is influenced strongly by
the physical geography of its place of origin.”
It means that when plays travel internationally,
a little bit of WA goes with them. Both Gavin
and Westbury are excited about the potential of
youth theatre to bridge cultural divides. Because
of this enthusiasm Barking Gecko exports more
productions than any other WA theatre company.
Already this year they’ve taken a production
to Singapore and tours to the US and Canada are
coming up in the next few months.
The international focus makes language an issue
to be mindful of. Gavin said: “I’m
not interested in just showcasing strange Australians
in funny clothes ~ the point is to tell stories
that make sense to everybody.”
To this end plays like Starlight Starbright, with
its non-verbal qualities, are emerging, and so
are plays that can have “translator”
characters built-in, like narrators, to give them
Waving his arms and smiling, Gavin, the artistic
director, said conclusively: “If we’re
not changing the world, why do it?”