Down to Erth approach pays off

Dinosaurs, a rhinoceros, the mask for an ogre, various sets of wings, more dinosaurs – the workshop at Erth is a treasure trove of inspiration.

Long an admirer of the puppetry-based theatre company’s work, when ASPIRE realised the need to have puppets in our upcoming production The Pecking Order, set in an Aussie bush camp and featuring a host of bird characters, we knew we had to make contact.

ASPIRE is the Catholic Schools Office creative and performing arts program and offers all students a range of workshops and opportunities to develop skills and engage in artistic mediums. The large-scale annual production is always an original script co-written with the students and performed at the Civic Theatre. We have ensembles in dance, design, drama, instrumental, production and vocal, all working together to realise the production.

It is vital to open students’ eyes to a range of practices and experiences in their arts education. There are so many ways of working and so many different approaches to creating work that in providing them with a range of experiences they’re empowered to be the artists they want to be.

Steve Howarth, head designer at Erth’s amazing workshop, provided puppet options for The Pecking Order. I was keen for our design crew to be involved in the creation of the puppets and learn from Erth’s artists. We arranged a two-day trip to Sydney in April to work in the studio at Erth to create flying bird puppets, but COVID hit and our plans had to adapt.

It was agreed to go online to continue the project and Mr Howarth created a user-friendly video to walk our team through making their own puppets at home. He sent us a list of things to purchase, and provided each student with a kit of more specific pieces. We then gathered online to start creating.  The content was easy to follow, and the results are nothing short of amazing.

Mr Howarth has also built a more state-of-the-art puppet for The Pecking Order and this character will interact onstage with the junior actors.  We are excited that in October, all being well, our design crew will finally attend Erth’s studio for a day to learn how to use the magpie puppet.  

“Erth has engaged with education for the whole of our 30-year history,” says Mr Howarth. “This includes primary, secondary and tertiary institutions and individuals. The opportunity to share our practice among those who are primed to learn makes the experience hugely positive from both sides.

“The birds project has been very rewarding. Initially devised as a dedicated workshop with participants in our studio in Sydney, it required a rapid turnaround due to COVID-19. Students previously poised to work together on-site were suddenly isolated and stuck at home.

“This led to the creation of simpler designs that incorporated different elements, some of which could be easily found around the house. It highlighted the potential of regular, everyday items that might otherwise be disregarded as waste. They can be put to creative use, or upcycled, which is an important part of Erth’s design philosophy.

“I hope the experience has allowed the students to feel greater ownership over an item they had to make themselves from scratch. Providing quality arts experiences is essential at any stage. During times of uncertainty it is even more so. The birds helped bring people together at a time when they had to keep apart.”

ASPIRE’s design director Gillian Rutherford says it was a great way to connect with the design crew. “Even though we weren't all together, there was still a feeling of togetherness as we followed the tutorial,” she says. “We created stunning, workable puppets from everyday materials. Who knew you could do so much with masking tape and cable ties?”

The ability to think creatively is vital to human endeavour, and partnering with industry can only lead to greater cross-pollination of skills and concepts. Erth is the latest in a long line of ASPIRE’s industry partnerships that provide students with unique experiences.

We have a strong connection with Australian Theatre for Young People, with whom we regularly collaborate on script-writing projects. We have also worked with Bell Shakespeare, engaged composer Tim Hansen to write a piece for our 2018 production Dark Matter, and every year we collaborate with Newcastle’s own Catapult Dance, where students experience working as a professional company.  

Encouraging new experiences, investigating fresh methods, and trialling alternative materials all contribute to the growth of productive beings. These concepts are not exclusive to the arts, however the arts provide a platform for learning that is creative by definition. 

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Anna Kerrigan Image
Anna Kerrigan

Anna is the Artistic Director of ASPIRE, an audition-based drama, dance, music and creative and performing arts program produced by the Catholic Schools Office of Maitland-Newcastle.

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