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A Circus ‘Tail’ for the Whole Pack

Helping children navigate schoolyard relationships through live performance

4 min read

The month of May will see two shows featuring dogs on our stages; the return season of Bluey’s Big Play The Stage Show and a brand-new work, Dogs in the Schoolyard exploring the dynamics within children’s friendship groups through a delightful tale about dogs.

Opening as a world premiere, Dogs in the Schoolyard will tumble onto the Cremorne Theatre stage from 5 to 15 May in association with Flipside Circus and Assembly of Elephants. 

Combining circus, story-telling and original music, Dogs in the Schoolyard is performed by children for children. Suitable for all ages, but recommended for children aged 3 to 8 years, it explores themes of inclusion and exclusion, friendship, play and resilience.

We caught up with Out of the Box Festival Director Brett Howe, charged with spearheading QPAC’s programming for children and young people, to give us the low down on how the latest new children’s work came to fruition and what audiences can expect.

“Dogs in the Schoolyard is the brain-child of playwright Elaine Acworth, who we connected with Robert Kronk at Flipside Circus as we thought the idea needed a physical language behind it. You could say we kind of played the role of a dating agency in bringing the two parties together,” laughs Brett.

“One of the exciting things about Dogs in the Schoolyard is that its young people delivering it so there is a sense of aspiration for children watching the show that they too could be on stage,” explains Brett.

“This show talks about the communities that emerge in a playground, in a schoolyard, about difference and how to reconcile it. It talks about those conversations beautifully, in a context that school kids can immediately relate to because it is set in their space.”

So why should parents take their little ones to see this?  

“Every child struggles or stumbles at some point in the playground, this will not only help them but will also help parents have an important conversation with them. It gives them a safe space to ground that conversation in love,” says Brett.

We asked Dogs in the Schoolyard writer Elaine Acworth about how she came up with the idea for the story. It’s a story that has been brewing for several years.

“We live in a multicultural society and a part of that is the need to be a skilled listener, especially when other people are different to us or seem different to us, such as in dress, spoken language or faith.”

“With the rise of social media over the last decade we’ve seen the creation of echo chambers. We hear only our own opinions directed back to us, increasing dissension and unease and a kind of tribalism where we expect everyone to agree with us. This is completely understandable because we live in a time of enormous change and challenge, and its a very human response to fear what we dont understand. But its not a helpful response and what it does is discourage us from using those fabulous listening skills that we have, because we humans have survived through millennia by listening, comprehending and coming to negotiated agreements with other people.”

“It occurred to me that the best people to have this conversation with are those who are not already in the habit of making up their minds about things, and the largest cohort of those people are people under ten.”

Flipside rehearsals. Image credit: Geoff Lawrence

Elaine had been thinking about dogs as characters to tell her story and through collaboration found that circus was the perfect language for these characters to explore things such as what it is like to be the new kid in a school? How do you make friends? How does a group dynamic work and what happens when someone is excluded from the group and how do we practice listening skills that allow groups to work with each other?

“Dogs In The Schoolyard is a combination of circus skills, physical theatre, sound, music, slapstick, all blending to tell a story in a way that is very immediate and touching as circus is a joyous means of communication,” says Elaine.

“I think that our young audience will recognize themselves on the stage and think that could be me, that story is mine. Its really opening up different ways of understanding the world for anyone whos sitting in the audience forming that story with us.”

Elaine spent time with children in West End Primary School’s Year Two Elevate drama course to inform her work and test out the concept of using dogs as characters.

This research helped her understand how children related to dogs as a metaphor for how hierarchy in a friendship group works.   

In addition to being a playwright and creative producer, Elaine also works part time as a Front of House Assistant Duty Manager at QPAC.

We asked her how this experience added to her role as a playwright/story creator.

“Apart from understanding far more about the complexities of mounting a work, I have learnt that an audience needs to be touched by a piece of work; whether they come out in tears or whether they come out having laughed themselves silly.”

“It is those experiences that relate to us on a human-to-human level that are the strongest for an audience. It needs to work on a heart level more than anything else.”

So, what does Elaine hope that audiences will take from Dogs in the Schoolyard.

“I think that all of us have been on the receiving end of group hierarchies where we have been excluded or included and we understand how both of those things work. I think they are universal experiences and I dont think any kid gets away with not having one or both of those experiences and you have to know how to handle them.”

“Thats what I hope theyll take from this performance. That theyre not alone.”

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