Behind the scenes with Poetry in Action

March 18, 2021

Poetry in Action (PIA) is a dynamic theatre company delivering professionally produced, thoughtful and valuable performances for young people that are inspiring and entertaining. These performances are linked to curriculum and encourage a greater appreciation of literature and poetry within a global and often historical context, benefiting young people and communities across Australia. In 2020 PIA was one of the first theatre companies to receive the Copyright Agency’s Emergency Action Funding to keep creating and presenting productions for students.

PIA is currently rolling out its program for 2021 and includes four shows carefully created to engage students across all years:

  • Year 7 – 8: ‘Unlocking the Poetry Code’
  • Year 8 – 9: ‘Power of Poetry’
  • Year 9 – 10: ‘Words of War’
  • Year 10 – 12: ‘Fact vs Fiction’

The Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund visited PIA during their rehearsals of ‘Unlocking the Poetry Code’ written by PIA’s Artistic Director, Bryce Youngman, and playwright, Sam O’Sullivan. We could see first-hand the experience of Director Erica Lovell as she guided the actors from Team Nightingale, James Thomasson, Chrissy Mae Valentine and Tom Matthews, through different stages of the performance.

James Thomasson, Chrissy Mae Valentine and Tom Matthews rehearsing ‘Unlocking the Poetry Code’

Taking a look behind the scenes, the Cultural Fund asked Bryce Youngman and Erica Lovell these key questions: 

Why do you feel it is important to bring poetry into schools and why have you chosen to present it as a performance? 

A lot of young people think that poetry is a boring, or worse, an irrelevant form of artistic expression. They believe it sits in a book. The reality is that poetry is an exciting and sophisticated form and it demands to be spoken in order to be fully appreciated. Studying poetry has incredible benefits in the long term for kids but in order to even get their attention you need to be able to engage with them and their existing experiences of poetry through pop culture such as rap, hip-hop and popular music. Once we’ve opened the door, it’s much easier to keep them in the room.

How do you choose the content, topics, themes to write about? Is it a particular poet, poem, current event or based on the curriculum?

We aim to include diverse forms of poetry from writers of diverse backgrounds. We also increase the quota of challenging material and the scope of what we consider poetry for older students to take in things like rhetoric, speech making and critical thinking. Our shows are geared firstly towards being entertaining theatre productions but we also include the NSW Dept of Education in our development process to make sure that we don’t sacrifice learning opportunities or syllabus outcomes in the name of theatricality.

Tom Matthews, James Thomasson and Chrissy Mae Valentine rehearsing ‘Unlocking the Poetry Code’

How do the schools respond to PIA? What are the reactions from the teachers and the students?

We have a schools’ rebooking rate of 92% and have maintained that for over a decade now – so the chances are once people have seen us that we will almost certainly invited back. We offer a unique, vital and accessible way for English teachers to attack what is arguably one of the hardest demands of the syllabus. The accompanying teachers’ packs with every show make PIA one of the most valuable resources to English teachers in Australia, NZ and, as we continue to expand overseas, in worldwide classrooms as well.

How did PIA adapt during the pandemic in 2020?

We had to move very quickly obviously as things escalated last year at an incredibly scary pace both for the education sectors and the arts. We were fortunate in that, by the time the restrictions started to bite, we had one team already fully rehearsed with all our shows. We booked a theatre venue, recorded all the shows in one day, edited them in less than a week and by the time things went into lockdown we had fully digitised our shows and were ready to deliver them online.

What is the impact of the Copyright Agency’s funding, especially coming out of COVID-19?

Copyright Agency was one of the first organisations to respond to the crisis with emergency funding, showing true leadership in the sector. Had we not received Copyright Agency funding our capacity to pivot as quickly as we did would have been hugely impacted, as would our ability to continue to distribute our shows, employ our staff and, eventually, emerge from the crisis with the capacity to continue as a vital member of the arts and education sectors.

Chrissy Mae Valentine, Tom Matthews and James Thomasson rehearsing ‘Unlocking the Poetry Code’

The Copyright Agency has provided regular support to PIA since 2013 to create programs to benefit young people and communities across Australia, including Emergency Action funding in 2020. PIA has a solid track record in delivering these programs and works closely with stakeholders, education departments, writers and others in their programming and presentation.

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