From Little Things Big Things Grow – Arts Education at Riverside Theatres

Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres has grown over the years to become the largest venue-based provider of arts education opportunities in NSW. Ten years ago, they only offered a handful of opportunities;  they have grown significantly since, now reaching over 32,000 students.

Their programs are wide reaching, drawing in students from all over NSW including schools in Coffs Harbour, the Hunter Valley, Dubbo and Wellington. According to Amy Matthews, program coordinator for Education, Family and Youth, teachers understand the value of what is being offered at Riverside, and acknowledge that some of the best learning happens outside the classroom.

RiversideTheatre. Image supplied

In 2016, Riverside Theatres will continue to increase their programming for Kindergarten to year 12 students, by presenting more than 40 quality arts experiences across theatre, music, dance and film. A plethora of creative companies are involved in their program, including Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Monkey Baa Theatre Company, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, National Theatre of Parramatta, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Writers’ Festival and Queensland Theatre Company.

This year’s educational opportunities also includes a series of youth competitions to allow students to develop their creative skills, receive mentoring from industry professionals, and perform in a professional theatre venue.

Another key focus for 2016 is to make the theatre an accessible place for everyone, with Auslan Interpeted, Audio Described and Relaxed Performances. The aim is to make all children welcome to participate in the theatre experience.

We had a chat with the current Program Manager Michelle Kotevski about the exciting growth of Riverside’s educational opportunities, the benefits they’ve seen and what they hope for the future.

How has the education program grown over the past 10 years?

 It’s grown in the number of shows we’re offering, and it’s grown in terms of audience numbers. People have been responding really well to what we’re offering, and teachers and students have been asking for more. So we’ve responded in kind by bringing in more of the work people want to see.

What sort of programs do you offer and what makes your programs unique?

Our main offering in education is theatre. Although we do offer some music and we’re slowly growing that aspect, and we’re also starting to offer a little bit more in the documentary/screen space.

We focus very much on the quality of the work for the children, whether they be in kindergarten or year 11 or 12. We’re focusing on making sure what we present is really going to help the teachers in the classroom, explore with the students and help them learn.

I think a lot of people have cut back on their education programming, whilst we’ve grown. We’ve built up the relationship and the trust with teachers over the year so that they know if we’ve programmed it, they can expect a good level of quality and good engagement with our staff. We ensure quality, whilst making it easy to bring students to the theatre.

How have you tailored the opportunities offered to your location and how have you tried to reach out to Western Sydney specifically?

We have lots of students and schools from Western Sydney, but we also have students from all over Sydney. Sometimes we do program works that will really resonate with the diversity of Western Sydney. Last year we programmed a work by Powerhouse Youth Theatre, which was a reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet, and it particularly resonated with local schools because the kids on stage were as diverse as the kids in the audience. So they saw themselves reflected on stage. We do look for works like that when we can access them.

Why do you believe it’s important to offer arts education programs to children and youth?

We know that the creative arts are really essential for learning and the holistic development of children. There’s so much research out there that proves that a well-rounded young person participates in and has access to theatre. What theatre does for everybody is take you to another place and ignites your imagination and these are all the things that are essential to the development of young people.

What benefits have you seen thus far from the programs you’ve offered for the community?

The feedback we’ve received from teachers is that their students were inspired, became curious and asked lots of questions. Lots of times, the theatre experience brings this out in ways other elements of school don’t. For many students that come it’s their first time in the theatre so they find this new thing in life that they hadn’t experienced before. When I sit in the audience, I spend more time watching the children than the show sometimes, and seeing how engaged they are is amazing.

Why are the new accessibility programs an essential part of your educational programming?

Riverside’s been doing that for a long time, but now that we have a full programming team we’ve been able to prioritise it. We really believe and are committed to the idea that the theatre is for everybody and we’re trying to respond and make it as easy to come to the theatre as possible. And for a lot of people with different needs or disabilities, the theatre has never seemed like an easy place to go or accessible, so we’re just trying to remove as many barriers as possible.

What do you hope for the future of Riverside Theatres?

I don’t hope for bigger, I don’t hope for better, I hope we continue to offer a program and an experience that is really meaningful and inspiring and beneficial to teachers and students. Maintaining the quality and the relationships and the good experience is absolutely priority. If anything, removing more and more barriers whatever they may be so students can come to the theatre.

Bec Caton

Bec has a diploma in musical theatre and is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She is a freelance theatre writer in Sydney.

Bec Caton

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