Spectacular Talent, but where can they go?

 After watching the myriad of talented young performers in the NSW State School’s Spectacular last month, Suzanne Mackay praises the work of our secondary education and questions the lack of tertiary support for artists in Australia…

11 year old Harmony Lovegrove in the 2011 School's SpectacularAfter watching the myriad of talented young performers in the NSW State School’s Spectacular last month, Suzanne Mackay praises the work of our secondary education and questions the lack of tertiary support for artists in Australia… This may become a manifesto of sorts – an article decrying, not our ability to develop talent in Australia, but the seeming inability to build an industry that can support working performers. 
I was in the audience watching this years 2011 Schools Spectacular NSW recently, and couldn’t help but acknowledge the professional level of talent displayed by some of the students involved in this state-wide showcase of public school education. True, they have at their disposal the sound capabilities of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, some of the best sound designers in the business, props, fancy costumes, spectacular production values and even pyrotechnics along the way. But even so, the raw talent is remarkably apparent and from reading the program I see the talent development trajectory many of these students have been on, through the Talent Development Project and the Arts Unit NSW, is rigorous and in depth. With many excellent Performing Arts Schools now available to public high school children (Newtown High School for the Performing Arts, The Hunter School of the Performing Arts, Wolongong High School for the Performing Arts) along with training schools like Brent St, ATYP and the literally hundreds of local talent academies – you can’t swing a copy of Cats without hitting the ‘stars of tomorrow’.  Natasha HoeberigsListening to Natasha Hoeberigs (left) sing Defying Gravity, or 11 year old Harmony Lovegrove (pictured above) perform Journey to the Past at this year’s School’s Spectacular, it is clear there is a generation of tweens and teenagers who have not only the ability but the confidence to perform at a professional standard.
I am a great believer in education and not just because I work as a teacher and lecturer, but because it is the best way to ensure a society progresses forward, ensuring not only that we tell our stories with great confidence but that we have stories to tell.  So herein lies the problem. These students receive a great amount of talent guidance, development and mentoring while they are at school and some may go on to work in the industry, getting parts in musicals or recording an album or maybe as a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance; but where to from there? Aside from the big companies or the occasional touring show, what is there as far as a local industry goes?  The issue is our tendency to view the arts as a sprint not a marathon, and a sprint that needs to be run before the performer turns 20. We develop the talent of these young performers and then send them into an industry that doesn’t exist.
When I began my training as a performer there were a myriad of choice as to where to go. NIDA was the obvious choice for actors and directors, WAPPA for actors, dancers and musical theatre performers, Nepean for dancers and actors as well as theatre directors and musicians, UNSW for dancers and dance educators, the Sydney Conservatorium for musicians, (particularly classical) and VCA in Melbourne to mention only a few.  Neither my undergraduate nor Masters degree exists anymore and the choices when it comes to studying performing arts at a tertiary level have dissipated at the rate with which the opportunities for development of secondary students has grown. At the risk of being hit with the list of these institutions and how they still exist, I understand that many of these Universities do have performing arts courses listed, my argument is that, other than a few institutions, these courses are theory based or generalists degrees that give no rigorous study into the practical techniques involved in performance. In the US almost every University has a theatre department that provides practical training in the performing arts. Yes, yes ‘they are bigger and have more people to support them’, sure, but for a country the size of Australia to have so few universities offering degrees in practical arts training similar to US theatre programs, is worrying. I believe that further and more specific study in performing arts generates the industry.  I remember a time where there actually was a dance scene in this country. By this, I mean there were options for dancers that went beyond a few chosen ones making it to the Australian Ballet or being a back up dancer in a video clip. There were contemporary dance companies abounding and dance was an art not the sport it has become. Musicians could always get a job working with these companies and this spread to filmmakers, singers and theatre companies. People generated their own work and went on to work in film, television ad theatre when they had the experience and technique to do the job. Without this rigor and training the industry itself begins to crumble. Not to mention the academic skills associated with University study like the ability to critically analyse your own work ad the work of others, to understand the history that underpins your craft and know and use others that have gone before as inspiration. 
At the risk of becoming radically unpopular with the latest generation of performers, I believe that a trajectory that takes a performer from high school straight to a stage is problematic and creates many brilliant and talented kids that have neither the technique nor the maturity to be able to sustain a career in the industry. That key middle-step of specialised training in the techniques and history that underpins the art is missing. The groundswell of people who take what they’ve learned and experiment with it, create and inspire and fail and get back up again, are missing. All we are left with are some lovely voices and talented performers waiting for the phone to ring. Bring the rigor and discipline back and we might see our industry return.   

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