Our amazing Artistic Associate Helen Stephens has just returned from six weeks in Outback Queensland working with School of the Air out of Mt Isa. We asked her to put down some thoughts on the adventure...
I’m always filled with a thrilling sense of the unknown when I step on a plane and head off with nothing but a suitcase of puppets and my dreamy ideas about shows and stories in tow. I know only to expect that there will be new and wonderful experiences to be had, challenges to be overcome and knowing what I do about bush kids, that there will be a whole lot of fun waiting for me.
(The wide open space of Deavoncourt near Cloncurry.)
My destination: Mt Isa School of the Air.
The Project: Minischool. A six week residency program where one Artist (me), drives with a group of dedicated and amazing School of the Air teachers to six different locations around outback Queensland from as Far North as Normanton in the Gulf to as far South as Birdsville on the border of South Australia.
The Plan: To introduce our Dead Puppet Society brand of Bunraku Puppetry to students from Prep to year six and then to build a show with them to be performed for their parents and friends on concert night (Thursday night), every week.
On the flight over from Brisbane, I notice how drastically the land changes. The ground seems to morph from its familiar rolling green with accent of rainforest to a taught, pockmarked skin with veins of purple and red pushing through. You get off the plane and you can feel the emptiness of space drifting by in the air that is sunburnt and dry. The industry is busy. Huge four carriage road trains make their way through the town day and night, and the ground shakes with the blasts of mining explosives, deep under ground. On schedule every day, like a rumbling grandfather clock, reminding you of the reason the town itself exists. Established in 1923, Mt Isa city was set up right beside the mine itself, with only a highway in between. The iconic smoke stacks towering above all else, like giant light houses, calling out and keeping watch over all who fly in and fly out.
Mt Isa School of the Air or MISOTA as it is often termed, may be based in town, but the students they service are anything but close by. Approximately 130 Prep to year six students span an extraordinary distance from places such as Windorah in the far South of QLD, to as far West as the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. To travel that distance would be to take a trip measuring almost 3,000km.
Life on these stations is so utterly different to anything a costal dweller or city kid grows up knowing to be normal. To name a few, mail is delivered once a week by plane. Food and vegetables may be delivered once a fortnight by truck to the end of your 20km driveway. Mobile reception is unheard of in most places and internet is precious and saved purely for school work. Perhaps the greatest and most noted difference however is that these students, who predominantly live on huge properties or “Stations” as they are known, may go six to nine months without ever seeing another child of similar age. If you happen to have a sibling or there is a Head Stockman who has a family then you are lucky to have automatic playmates, but for some the majority of the time is spent in a classroom, one on one with a Home Tutor or “Govie” (short for Governess) as they are lovingly called. This reason alone is partly why the Minischool Program is so important.
(Resident camels along the way.)
MISOTA chooses six locations across QLD, (Normanton, Bedourie, Cloncurry, Camooweal, Gregory and Julia Creek) and as the name suggests, they set up a mini-school beside a racetrack (due to the facilities they offer such as bathrooms, sheds and a kitchen) and run as close to a normal school week as possible for the students in the surrounding area. Each family is able to nominate which location they will choose to travel to and will drive between 2 and 9 hours in either a semi-truck with a camping trailer or a 4WD loaded with tents and swags ready to spend a week camped together for quality time with teachers and friends alike. Established in 1982, an integral part of Minischool is also to bring an Artist of some variety to add excitement and inject other forms of learning and communication into the schedule. The students are able to learn everything from the recorder to the cello “on air” but the isolation often puts a stop to the variety of other extra curricular activities so readily available to students in major cities.
(The Birdsville Bakery.)
When I arrive in Normanton, after the customary lunch stop at the Burke and Wills (the only fuel and food stop between Mt Isa and anywhere), I am met with a running mob of delighted young people. I have the advantage this year, for I’ve been here before and the students left such a strong impression on my heart I can only imagine the feeling is mutual in the way I am welcomed back by not only the students but parents as well. The tents are pitched and the school trailer is unloaded and before you can say “What’s for dinner?”, the Country Women’s Association Hall, is now a fully functional school shed complete with red carpet, thanks to the theme this year, which is “Lights, Camera, Action!”
Across the week the students run between activities such as “paint your own Logi Award”, “make your own movie” and me, Puppetry in the Outback 101. At DPS we have a beautifully well-oiled workshop program where we introduce our three basic principals of manipulation (the focus, breath and gravity) and then the students begin to play with how you build a “scene”. For most of them it’s the first time they’ve heard this word used but their natural love of stories soon helps them out and we build more language bridges to cross together. After brainstorming and deliberating about character and plot and the student’s favourite dramatic elements and movies, we come up with a storyboard and a list of props and puppets to build. I have taken with me this trip a suite of our new laser cut puppets in human form who are neutral in look but very customizable. By the end of the week we have created a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque story combining King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon and a whole lot of Ghosts with the year 4, 5 and 6 students and a “how to make a superman” story with the preps, year 1s and 2s.
(Helen and Beau.)
Come the end of the concert night I am mentally exhausted but thrilled and proud beyond belief at the way the students have worked together to present drama and melodrama, comedy and tragedy all while managing bunraku puppets, which require the absolute focus of three dedicated operators to control one individual puppet. All this with only two hours of rehearsal time.
Perhaps what I am most proud of however is of the connection I was witness to throughout this puppet driven process where students as young as five can talk with and help one another in a mini creative power house. They can make decisions about character and support and laugh with one another. They can feel the success or the frustration that comes through a rehearsal process and the joy of completing, making and presenting something. Through my daily workshops with the students I hear stories of beloved animals (particularly horses), of the thrill of mustering thousands of head of cattle, the anticipation of boarding school. And from the Mum’s I am gifted with their wicked sense of fun and the stories of good times and bad. The freedom and the land they love but to me there is often a twinge of sadness at the distance and the space that exists between all things out here. Having friends, family or a good coffee close by belong to other younger versions of themselves and there is no such thing as an easy walk to the shop for milk and bread.
(Team Gregory with their version of Robin Hood.)
Everyone feels it and perhaps more so when we are all together for this brief time, knowing it will come to an end on Friday and we will pack up and move on to another place, just like a drover herding his cattle on to better country. Each week I prepare to meet and love a new group of bubbling young minds and each week I leave not knowing if I will ever see these brilliant young sparks and their families again. The one thing that does remain, is that with each new place new connections are made, new stories are exchanged and the richness that follows I know will help to make that space feel a little bit less empty, and another person, a little less far away. The space between has the chance to thicken with so much more.
(Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn en route from Bedourie to Mt Isa.)
So as I drop my suitcase on the floor of my little pre-war cottage in Paddington and I look around at Elizabeth Taylor hanging on the wall with the cars roaring past outside, I take each single MISOTA Minischool moment and file it away in my mind. Stories to be kept and told another day and people to be remembered and loved from afar. There is a saying that goes “once a School of the Air kid, always a School of the Air kid” and I think that saying now extends to “Once a School of the Air Artist, always a school of the Air Artist” too.
I hang my cowboy hat up beside Liz.
(Sunset in Bedourie.)