The show must go on: rehearsing a musical in cyberland
Challenge or opportunity? With all Wesley students learning online from home in virtual classrooms earlier in Term 2, the question for David Dunn was this: was it feasible to run virtual rehearsals? We spoke to the Glen Waverley Director of Student Theatre to find some answers.
When Director of Student Theatre at the Glen Waverley Campus David Dunn presciently wrote Alice in Cyberland, this year’s Glen Waverley Years 5 to 7 musical, in 2019 he had no idea that the current pandemic would change so many aspects of our lives – including government containment measures that meant, well, teaching and learning in cyberland.
We spoke – remotely – to the writer-director about rehearsing a musical about cyberland in cyberland, and what he’s learned about the resilience of Wesley students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to global infections in the millions and deaths in the hundreds of thousands, and containment measures that have included everything from travel bans to telehealth visits to the doctor, even the cancellation of many festivals and shows. What led to your decision not to cancel Alice in Cyberland?
Firstly, as we thespians say, ‘The show must go on.’ We all need continuity in our lives and we also need to be resilient and adaptable; to accept most things not as difficulties but as challenges, and turn those challenge into opportunities. For me and my colleagues as educators, it’s especially important that we provide that continuity for our students. Our responsibility, and privilege, is to ensure that we invest everything we possibly can for our future: the education of our children and young people. Cancelling rehearsals would have been like simply cancelling school: it just wasn’t an option for us.
The intention was always to say to all involved that learning doesn’t just come to a halt because of this virus. Life goes on, and in our case, so does the show! It just seemed logical that it should be possible that a show about cyberland could be rehearsed in cyberland, and our cast has certainly proven that. The cast, our choreographer Kate Lefel, our singing coach Lydia Saroto, all of us have shown we’re more than capable of thriving in virtual rehearsals. We also wanted to be ready for performance. And as it turns out, we are very much on track for live performances, currently scheduled for October in Cato Hall.
Thinking back to 2019 BC (before COVID-19), what prompted you to write Alice in Cyberland?
In a word, cyberbullying. According to Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, about one in five young Australians are cyberbullied – socially excluded, threatened or abused online – every year. Worryingly, one in five also behave in a negative way to a peer online, and more than 90 per cent of these have had a negative online experience themselves.
The eSafety Commissioner also notes that schools and teachers play a vital role not only in protecting students from cyberbullying but also giving them the positive skills and attitudes so they can deal with bullying experiences, including by being ‘upstanders’ who have the skills and confidence to safely speak up when they become aware of cyberbullying. If, in the words of Johnny Mercer, we want to e-lim-i-nate the negative we have to ac-cent-tu-ate the positive.
As I set to work on the concept, it struck me that what I was exploring was a bit like Alice’s experiences in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice comes to understand herself and take control in the bewildering world in which she suddenly finds herself. Falling down the rabbit hole is very like finding yourself in cyberland: it can be confusing, your own identity and the identities of others can shift and things of an ‘Off with its head!' variety can quickly become threatening. Like the original Alice, our Alice is quite innocent, but also committed to understanding the confusing world in which she finds herself and, also like the original Alice, being responsible.
As the script began to take shape, I was lucky enough to be able to collaborate with Russell Welsh from the St Kilda Road Campus to write songs that not only explore cyberbullying but also celebrate resilience. The key message is to be yourself and we wanted the songs to be joyous. As the ensemble sings in the finale, ‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ Cyberbullying is a grim reality, but we wanted the show to energise and equip audiences to tackle it. Our focus as writers was really on educating young people about resilience through a show with an up-tempo music score, lavish sets and outrageous costumes.
What have been the pros and cons of rehearsing a musical in cyberland?
It’s been a very positive experience. I discussed the idea of virtual rehearsals with the theatre team: not if rehearsals could continue but when and how. We didn’t simply let ourselves ‘fall down the rabbit hole’ though. I’d already trialled virtual rehearsals with Nuworks Theatre, my theatre company, with great success – so we knew we could do it.
With the unequivocal support from everyone and a huge endorsement from Wesley’s Deputy Principal and Head of Campus at Glen Waverley, Richard Brenker, we sallied forth into Cyberland where the cast of 70-plus students was waiting full of enthusiasm and energy.
Thankfully, we also had the benefit of technical expertise from Owen James and Peter Noble to help set up the format so that rehearsals could take place at the usual times: Friday after school until 6.00pm and Saturday afternoons from 1.00pm until 5.00pm. Everything just as usual!
We divided rehearsals up into blocking/acting, choreography and solo singing. We very quickly established a method and a rhythm for our blocking/acting rehearsals, moving from small scene to small scene involving up to six characters (all doubled). In three weeks we had up to 20 characters in the ‘room’ at the same time, it was quite magnificent. The kids were truly awesome with lines learned to perfection and delightful roles developed to colour the world of Alice, the Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the myriad other exotic characters.
Kate Lefel’s approach to choreography was to begin with the chorus in five groups working through their moves that create a kaleidoscope of diverse shapes and patterns now that we’ve returned to on-campus rehearsals. I had thought that this might prove a real challenge but the kids have been wonderful and are making terrific progress, testament to their dedication and Kate’s tremendous skill and infectious positivity. And singing coach Lydia Sarotohas been working with all of the solo singers (in pairs). Rehearing in a live video environment through MS Teams has worked really well. The work of the Music School at Glen Waverley showcased in things like the Wilkie Orchestra performance of ‘Wesley now and always’ and performances by the Soul Band, Resonance Choir and Senior Vocal Choir all show that in virtual rehearsals and performance, online has been no barrier, and rehearsals of Alice in Cyberland have been no exception.
Remote learning is a different way of going about things. I’ve discovered, and my colleagues would agree, it’s not our preferred method of teaching. We’re simply not meant to be ‘remote’ and were it not for the attitude and incredible work ethic and passion of all involved, I might feel differently about the whole process. That said, as a team we will look at the online approaches we can build permanently into our approach. The way we’ve developed the use of our learning management system, WiSE, for communications about rehearsal schedules, choreography videos and other rehearsal materials, and live video sharing so solo principals can work together – these are all things that we can continue to do in the rehearsal phase.
So many pros. Have there really been no cons?
(Laughs) Honestly? Probably when, after each online rehearsal session, I’d go out to my wife and grown family and rave about the three or four hours I’ve just spent with the cast. But I’ve always done that after live rehearsal too; I think they’re used to it.
Live performances of Alice in Cyberland are currently scheduled for October in Cato Hall, dates yet to be confirmed. Watch the Glen Waverley newsletter for more details.