For everyone No strings attached

Teacher Chris Hewitt rediscovering his puppetry skills. Photo supplied.

The marriage of creative industry workers with schools has produced incredible creativity and more than a few unexpected bonuses, finds STEPHEN A RUSSELL.

It was like looking in a mirror, says Christopher Hewitt, director of performing arts and senior school manager at St Helena Secondary College, of partnering with puppeteer Pete Davidson. Chris was an actor, singer and dancer before joining the teaching profession eight years ago, establishing the Northern Youth Performing Arts academy at St Helena. Pete is an ex-educator who moved into performance. “Because of that connection, it’s worked beautifully,” Chris says. “We met at the perfect time.”

Pete was placed at St Helena as part of the Creative Workers in Schools (CWS) program, which funds 150 six-month residencies across the state, matching schools with all sorts of creative industry experts, from the arts sphere and beyond. It’s delivered by Regional Arts Victoria (RAV) in partnership with DET and Creative Victoria.

Chris was already in the early stages of planning a show in which St Helena students would grapple with everyday high-school anxieties. The idea was that it could tour primary schools to get young kids thinking about their emotional wellbeing during that transition.

He jumped on the opportunity through CWS, and RAV linked him up with Pete and the potential of puppetry. “Everyone knows Sesame Street,” Chris says. “Everyone connects with puppets at some point in their life. It’s a perfect amalgamation of art forms.”

Colleagues at St Helena SC have joined in puppet-making workshops across all year levels, including the tech and textile teachers on costume and set-building. Their work will lead up to a double bill of performances at the school in June before the show hits the road. “It’s a really accessible and digestible format for primary school students,” Chris says.

“Suddenly kids come out of the woodwork who have this offbeat humour or abstract understanding of a concept, and for some reason, it just really works.”

It speaks to high schoolers too, he adds. “The ego is left behind when an artist puts a puppet on their hand, because the focus is no longer on them, but the living puppet. And that’s allowed students to speak freely about their anxieties, because it’s not them in the limelight.”

The candid sharing has been a welcome therapeutic outcome in the school, encouraging students and teachers to open up. They have gained new perspectives, and formed real emotional bonds with the puppets they’ve designed.

“Pete’s very passionate about the fact the puppeteer must also create their puppet. They have to come up with their heads, the eyes, how they’re shaped, how much hair a puppet has, and all of those unique features that give that puppet a soul. One boy even put armpit hair on his muppet.”

Alex Walker is the founder of House of Muchness, a creative company that runs programs for kids in school and after hours. She was paired with Coburg Primary School in an earlier iteration of the program.

Teamed with colleague Sarah Austin, they ran a project called ‘Inside Out’, engaging with around 150 students from Prep to Year 4. “It was an exploration of the internal features of their character and the human condition, turning that experience, whether it be dreams or the way the body or mind works, into art pieces and site-specific performances in school.”

St Helena SC students engaging in the puppetry program. Photos supplied.

 

One of the most rewarding aspects of the work was seeing students who weren’t necessarily expected to, “positively shine”, Alex says. “Suddenly kids come out of the woodwork who have this offbeat humour or abstract understanding of a concept, and for some reason, it just really works.”

Creative workers have a different relationship with the school cohort than arts and performance educators on staff. “We share many of the same values, in terms of respect and collaboration, but we really champion the child’s voice and young people’s agency in their creative process. I think that’s a really special time for them to be seen and heard in a different kind of way.”

Passionate about the program, she has stepped up into a mentor role for the current wave of creative workers. Her mentees include a sculptor who’s helping students create a comic book about local legends, and high-profile rapper Mantra.

“He’s embedding himself across the music department, from Year 7 to 12,” says Alex. “I suppose the curriculum has a more conservative approach to music. So, what does that mean, particularly in areas where kids have been growing up on rap and hip-hop but in a YouTube or backyard way, to suddenly have those elements brought into their formal education?”

A new way of looking at things, the Creative Workers in Schools program has been a breath of fresh air after lockdown. “It has been a strange and destabilising time for so many,” she says. “I really celebrate teachers’ capacity to pivot, but that’s a highly non-human way of receiving an education for their children.

Shadow puppetry with Alex Walker at Coburg Primary School. Photo: Carla Gottgens

“And for independent artists who aren’t salaried or employed with safety nets, cobbling together careers gig-to-gig, they had their world turned upside down completely. So this initiative has recognised that marrying creative workers with schools is a brilliant idea. People are hungry for it.”

Alex is in awe of the schools that signed up after last year’s drama. “Hats off, because in some ways they’re playing catch up in a way they’ve never had to before. And so for schools to go, ‘What about this huge extra thing?’ – I just really celebrate the people who have the vision to say yes to that.”

Saying yes and working with Pete has also energised Chris. “I’ve been so busy developing programs and growing my professional teaching practice, that I’ve forgotten my creative passions,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to sit with an artist and revisit that, because we go off on tangents and start dreaming big.”

The students are dreaming big too. Chris believes we need to put more emphasis on nurturing those creative pathways. “In this country, we’re already faced with an uphill battle with the arts. In times like these, unfortunately, it’s the first thing to be hit hardest.

“To keep our culture alive, we’ve got to educate young people to either be artists themselves with pride and passion, or encourage them to be engaged audience members and support the artists that either exist now, or will in the future.”

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