Dear Vice Chancellor Professor Ed Byrne,
I am writing to express my deep shock and sadness at the news that Monash may begin phasing out the Bachelor of Performing Arts as early as next year. I write to you as a graduate of the course. I wish to tell you about my experience of completing this degree, what I have done with my skills since graduating and what I have observed of the department’s growth in the last few years.
Back in 2005 I knew that I wanted to be a director and playwright, and I knew that Monash was the degree for me. I auditioned for no other programs and went into the BPA with complete confidence. I loved the way it was both academic and practical, and the way in which these components were not separated but intrinsically linked. As a nineteen-year-old aspiring theatre maker, I knew that I needed to ground myself in the heritage of my medium and look to where it was headed. This course provided me with all this and more. It introduced me to stage management, and being a theatre tech. By the end of my second year I had stage managed a professional production and was working at The Alexander Theatre, teching shows and maintaining gear (with much support and guidance from the wonderful staff on campus). These skills also enabled me to assist other directors and be in the room throughout their unique creative processes. In third year I assistant directed for Suzanne Chaundy, and it was based on the recommendations of Suzanne and the staff of the BPA that I was accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts Post-Graduate directing program straight from my degree along with another of my peers from the course, Cheyney Caddy.
I want to tell you about the last eighteen-months of my career. In this time I have worked with Bell Shakespeare and Red Stitch as an assistant director. In these roles I found my ability to switch between the practical and the academic invaluable. For Bell Shakespeare in particular I was regularly called upon to read mountains of critical essays and distill them into something immediately applicable to the rehearsal room. I did this with ease thanks to Monash. I wrote essays for their program and for their subscribers about the historical context of the work and our process. I am currently directing a beautiful new work to be staged at Forty-Five Downstairs in November and December. I secured this job because of connections made through my under-graduate degree and the production has employed BPA students as stage managers. My career as a playwright has also leaped forward in the last eighteen-months. This year I was short-listed for the Edward Albee Scholarship and I am currently in the process of completing my Masters in Performance Writing at the Victorian College of the Arts. One of my plays, Insomnia Cat Came To Stay, directed by another Monash Graduate Danny Delahunty, has toured five cities, including being a part of the prestigious Brisbane International Arts Festival 2013. The literary manager of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Chris Mead, is also mentoring me in dramaturgy and script assessment. I write about and for theatre constantly.
I am artistic director of Quiet Little Fox and have also written for Attic Erratic, a company made up almost entirely of graduates from this degree including Danny Delahunty, Celeste Cody, Sarah Collins, Tom Pitts and Giuliano Ferla. None of these artists were in my year but I keep gravitating towards Graduates of the BPA because they throw themselves into all facets of theatre with such willingness. They move seamlessly between back stage and onstage. They work without ego and with total commitment to their art. They are truly inspiring artists and Melbourne is all the more vibrant for the work they do.
But I do not say all this in order to claim that the graduates who are actively creating theatre are the only ones worth celebrating. One of the joys of this degree is the multitude of ways in which its alumni use their skills. I have met alumni who now teach theatre to intellectually disabled men and women, empowering them as individuals and as a collective voice. I have met outstanding drama teachers who use their degree every day to inspire and educated their students, and I have had the pleasure to work with equally outstanding stage managers and techs that have come through this course. The degree has turned out many impressive academics that are adding to the intellectual landscape of our industry and pushing practitioners to continue to strive for new ways to make sense of the world around us through art. These academics exemplify what is so unique about this course and why it is so worthy of preserving: they bring to academia an acute awareness of theatre as a live art form, not merely as a sub-species of literature (which is where so many other universities have placed such academics). Theatre is not just a place in which we preserve and marvel at beautiful old words on a page; it is always about the world around us and the audience in front of us, and that is a lesson I learnt from this wonderful degree.
Since graduating, I’ve been able to watch the course evolve and change. For example, this year I was in the audience for an outstanding display of Butoh created by second year students under the guidance of renowned practitioners Helen Smith and Peter Fraser. It was a stunning display of everything this course is about: introducing students to a rich and vibrant global history of performance by intrinsically linking the theoretical and the practical. I have also been able to watch the course change from the inside as I have been brought in as a contractor twice to direct first year students. Most recently I directed twenty-two first years in a production of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and it is no exaggeration when I say that it was one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences I’ve had this year. Aside from the creation of the play itself, it was a chance to talk with a group of passionate, vibrant, and intelligent eighteen and nineteen-year-olds about theatre as protest over the course of the Twentieth Century, the events leading to the Holocaust, and why such protest plays are as crucial today as they were in 1938. We talked about the ease of referring to The Final Solution and World War II as ‘inevitable’; something that was always going to happen but how artists like Brecht never accepted this. Brecht tells us today what he told his countrymen in 1938: that this wasn’t a ‘disaster’, for that would speak of something tragic beyond human control, the Aryan Earthquake. It was a disgrace: human, shameful, ugly and stoppable. It was so exhilarating to talk through such things with these students, most of whom were fresh from high school, and to hear them make the links between that time and ours. At their final assessments, one after the other they told us why such work was still so crucial and how it changed not only their understanding of history, but also their understanding of their own voices in the current political system.
I never stopped being grateful for what this course gave me. Every day I use the skills and the theory that it instilled in me. It is deeply embedded in my artistic practice. I understand that this decision is being made on the basis of the university’s budget but I want to tell you that the closure of this course would leave a massive hole in both the academic and performance landscape of Australia’s theatre community. It would be the university’s loss. It would be Melbourne’s loss. It would be theatre’s loss, academia’s loss and Australia’s loss.
Thank you for your time and please re-consider your decision.
Regards, Fleur Kilpatrick
My blog is currently not letting me add captions to these stunning photos but they are all from past Monash productions. Photography is by Sarah Walker, David Sheehey and myself.