By Beth Keehn
When independent performance company Assembly of Elephants approached Flipside Circus to develop a children’s theatre show about the difficult subject of ‘exclusion’, the result was Dogs in the Schoolyard. This is a very physical piece of theatre with minimal text and maximum energy, directed by Elaine Acworth, Robert Kronk and Amy Stuart, who are passionate about supporting the next generation of performers. Here the performers are a troupe of 16 young people with superb physical skills in climbing, balancing, tumbling and falling safely from the heights into the arms of their supportive mates: Mia Hughes, Izzy Lawton, Abbey Factor, Aurora Bennett-Godde, Eden Vann, Emily Shearer, Indra Garvey, Jedda Bell, Lucy Hunterland, Luke Whitefield, Meg Barber, Oscar Morris, Samantha Giles, Teleah Richardson, Tula Holmes and Zebedee Davies.
Flipside Circus is Queensland’s largest youth arts company, and also teaches circus skills to people across all age groups in their mission to grow Queensland’s circus sector. Dogs in the Schoolyard was developed with children for children and co-created by Flipside’s CEO, Robert Kronk with Elaine Acworth, some of the performers and eight trainers. As a showcase of a range of acrobatic skills at different levels, the piece is superb. It also offers the cast the chance to build their confidence in front of a live audience on their road to performing in the future with some of our larger circus and physical theatre groups.
The story is simple and can be enjoyed by all age groups – even the extremely young, who responded enthusiastically to the action in the performance I attended. There is no dialogue and only a bare, minimal voice over to set the scene – a school yard in summer, populated by a tree full of storm birds and a playground full of dogs. The robust stage set design and utilitarian costumes by Josh McIntosh will have adults dreaming about their childhood and perhaps encouraging their kids to build that long-promised treehouse. A quirky synthesised soundtrack was provided by sound designer/composer Guy Webster, with brilliantly incorporated bird song and just the right undercurrent of menace. And a spectacular storm of thunder and lightning was courtesy of lighting designer Jason Glenwright. The central storm is audio-visual but also metaphorical – the rift between the old dogs and a newcomer who starts with the new school year. The old dogs want to hunt and catch the storm birds; the new dog wants to be a friend to the birds who teach him the new trick of how to climb the tree. After the inevitable conflict, the players work together to achieve their goals and form a friendship.
For such a young group, there is an enormous range of circus skills on show, building in difficulty as the play progresses. From the very youngest to the oldest member of the troupe, the performances are faultless and professional, working together as a true ensemble. Some of the human stunts were astounding, from contortion and feats of flexibility to a trio of balancing bodies, tumbling safely to the ground. This is a fun and energetic show, but thankfully free of the fast-paced chaos that sometimes permeates children’s shows. Dogs in the Schoolyard is more thoughtful, and I suspect it will inspire some children to get into acrobatics, balancing and dance.
Photographer: Darren Thomas