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Grahame 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 life.

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 out.

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 culture.

“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 being.

“Most children these days don’t need to be told to be conservationists, they’re already green.
It’s better to provoke them into thinking creatively”.

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 theatre experience.

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 to them.

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 multi-lingual potential.

Waving his arms and smiling, Gavin, the artistic director, said conclusively: “If we’re not changing the world, why do it?”

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