School Dance – Social Issues and Awkwardness with Matthew Whittet

Writer/performer Matthew Whittet recently took time out to chat with Bethany Simons about the creation of his award winning production School Dance, currently grooving at the Sydney Festival.

School Dance. STC Lisa Tomasetti
Matthew Whittet in School Dance at STC Lisa Tomasetti

Inspired by personal experiences and the “totally awesome” 1980’s, the dreaded school social is brought to life in Windmill Theatre Company’s latest production, School Dance – the awkward yet heart-warming story of three teenage boys who band together to overcome some of life’s great problems amid a world of leg warmers, BMX bikes and acid wash denim.

Following previous collaborative successes for Windmill Theatre, Matthew Whittet has joined forces once again with artistic director, Rosemary Myers and designers Jonathon Oxlade and Luke Smiles – though, this time, things were a little different. In addition to acting their little hearts out on stage each night, the male cast members are also the brains behind the design, sound design and writing of the production.

Whittet says, “At the first workshop, we all came together in a room and we mucked around. We usually start with a really simple core idea that gets both of us excited. Nothing too fancy. For this one, I came to Rose with, ‘something about a school dance’, and she came to me with the idea of, ‘you and the two other creatives being teenage boys onstage’.”

“It was just us three guys and Rose workshopping the idea of high school and cultural references that we liked and knew from the period. We also chatted about some of our own high school experiences from the 1980’s and what we were like as teenagers. After that we had a sense of what the show could be.”

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti
Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti

“It’s a tricky process because when you’ve got all the creative team on stage, you’ve got a lot of opinions! Rose is amazing at accepting and listening to everyone’s opinion, and harnessing things. In the end, she is the only one out of all of us who can sit outside the work and look at it. She is the director of the show, and artistic director of Windmill. She’s the glue”, he said.

It’s one thing to respect your creative team, but another thing entirely to create dialogue for them to boldly bring to life on stage. So, how did Whittet’s approach change, writing for non-actors?

“If I were writing for an actor, I’d be writing with a character that I’ve got in my head. But, this was completely different because I knew that the other two guys weren’t actors. I kind of walked in going, ‘I’m going to have to write for these people’. So, I tried to write a heightened version of their natural voices”, Whittet explained.

“I know how Jonathon works as a designer, and I know really well how Luke works as a sound designer. So, I wrote with the knowledge of what these guys would bring to the table. I would write, say, 10 or 15 pages and then we’d all get together and we’d read it and go, “Oh, that’s fun”. In a way it had to be a really fast track model because we had one year from the very first meeting in January 2011 to actually being on stage.”

Actor, Amber McMahon also stars in the production, playing a wide range of characters from unpopular schoolgirl, to narrator, to unitard-clad unicorn.

“After the first workshop, I turned to Rose and said, ‘I really think we need a female energy on stage’. It wasn’t long after this that we got Amber involved. The beauty of that was the fact that I could then write as many female roles as I wanted because here was an actor – someone who you could keep piling things onto and they would go, ‘Yep, OK, can do, yep, next’. The others already had enormous jobs ahead of them, performing and designing. It really was a herculean effort for those guys to get the show up.”

From the moment the house lights dim, audiences of all ages are in for a wild ride. The night I saw School Dance, I was interested to note that the audience seemed to be made up of seasoned theatregoers, good-natured elderly folk, young adults and children. Next to me was a gentleman with his 7-year old daughter who laughed as regularly and heartily as the rest of us.

School Dance appeals to a lot of people, and a school audience is absolutely part of the equation”, Whittet told me, but noted that the different age groups tended to have very different responses.

“They’ve all been really positive. How often do teenagers get to watch something that is kind of insane and fun but might mean something to them? What we’re interested in is inclusion. It’s about acknowledging the idiosyncrasies of a bunch of people on stage who are going through a very normal set of problems, but to these characters they are enormous.”

Though he trained as an actor, Whittet admits to loving every aspect of theatre making. So, what is he working on when he’s not on stage in School Dance wearing a black, sparkly ‘invisibility’ unitard?

“I’m in the middle of writing a third show for Windmill Theatre. We are doing Big Bad Wolf for 5-8 year olds, which will open in Adelaide this July. It’s pretty busy, but I just like making work, whichever side it’s on, to be honest.”

Graduated from NIDA in 1997, Whittet has been an actor for “a while now”, but is increasingly interested in taking more responsibility for work.

“For me, anyway, I’ve felt the urge to create some stuff as well, not just to perform in other people’s work. It’s really fulfilling to be able to write…but then it’s also really fulfilling to just be able to do a show without carrying the burden of whether people like it or not!”

Judging from the standing ovation during the curtain call of School Dance, I’d say Matthew must be sleeping pretty well at night knowing that his work is incredibly popular.

If you have an active imagination, or have ever found yourself in an awkward situation (i.e. can remember what it was like to be a teenager), chances are you too will enjoy and relate to School Dance. Using fantasy, bold physicality and heightened performance, Windmill Theatre Company have created an engaging and wacky look at fitting in, standing out, and stepping up. Losers, unite!

School Dance is showing at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival until Sunday 3 February.

For further 2013 tour dates click here

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