Theatre group lets children in on the secret: storytelling has never been more fun
“Every child should have access to quality theatre,” Monkey Baa Creative Director Eva Di Cesare tells Clare Kennedy.
Monkey Baa, the Australian theatre company for young people, has put on over 2000 performances, 5000 workshops and 14 shows. The seeds for this dramatic output were sown by three ‘monkeys’ who met 17 years ago.
“We were out-of-work actors who knew each other in circles around Sydney. We met at a café once a week, went through auditions and formed a ‘sacred circle’. After a while we thought we needed to do something. Things weren’t just going to fall into our lap,” says Eva Di Cesare, talking down the line from Sydney.
Di Cesare joined with Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry to form Monkey Baa, the theatre company that’s brought some of Australia’s best-loved picture books and novels to the stage since 1997.
The impetus for establishing the company was a desire to give more children access to good quality theatre, she explains.
On the road
The wheels started moving when permission was granted for the three to adapt Bugalugs the Bum Thief by Tim Winton. “In 1998, we did a five-month school tour with just the three of us in a Balmain rentals van, and that’s how we started,” Di Cesare laughs.
“We still sometimes have to pinch ourselves. We never expected to be where we are today.”
A woolly tale
Given their moniker, it’s quite apt, really, that the company’s largest tour to date is Pete the Sheep, a production adapted from a picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley. The 50-minute production, directed by Jonathan Biggins and with music and lyrics by Phil Scott, will be touring 54 venues and closes in Gunnedah on November 20.
It is a story about a shearer who turns up to the shearing shed with a sheep. “When the other shearers ask the whereabouts of his sheep dog, he says. ‘Here. It’s a sheep-sheep.’ The message of the tale is that it’s OK to be different,” explains Di Cesare.
Before adapting the show, Di Cesare, Eldridge and McGarry visited French on her farm near Canberra to find out what inspired the quirky tale. Over a picnic with the author under a big tree, they discovered the book’s characters were based on colourful local figures. And Dunmore, a real sheep, inspired the ‘baa-star’ of the show. “Dunmore used to round up the other sheep in the paddock. Apparently he thought he was more of a dog than a sheep,” Di Cesare laughs.
Four cast members play all the characters in the show: the shearers, the dogs and all the sheep. “They switch hats very quickly because it goes like the clappers,” she says.
Click go the shears
“Shearers are an iconic part of Australian culture and perhaps that and the show’s cheeky sense of humour are why the show engages children as well as their parents and grandparents,” she says.
Another factor, of course, is the sharp script. Like other theatre companies writing for 3-to-8-year-olds, it is written to engage different age groups.
“Young people will engage on the level they need to engage on, but we always write up for an older group,” she says.
Raised in Lilydale in an Italian family, Di Cesare says: “I always felt like a bit of an outsider when I was a kid.” However, discovering a talent for acting helped her find her feet. “It wasn’t till midway through high school that I realised I could act. I had a Year 10 drama teacher who really encouraged me, Miss Howard,” she says.
Di Cesare enrolled in an Arts degree at La Trobe University in 1985 but spent all her time hanging out with the student theatre crowd. So, after first year, she followed her star, applied to the Victorian College of the Arts and embarked on an acting degree. Her path was set.
A passion to make theatre accessible to young people still drives the company. “Our big thing was to tour high quality theatre to young people in remote and regional areas. That was a big reason why the company exists, and we remind ourselves of that quite often.”
Alongside productions, the company runs workshop programs in regional Australia in places like Mt Isa, Ayr, Menindee and Broken Hill.
The workshops cover skills such as increasing self-confidence and team-building. “We don’t expect a big performance at the end, there’s no pressure on the students,” she explains.
“In some instances we’ve been told that some of the young people began going to school more regularly afterwards, so we had some really positive outcomes from those workshop series, which began in 2005.“
Down the track
On the drawing board is an adaptation of The Peasant Prince, the picture book version of Li Cunxin’s best-selling memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer. That story, of a poor Chinese boy who realised the impossible dream of becoming a world-class ballet dancer, has already touched many, and Di Cesare is brimming with excitement at the thought of staging the story for a wider audience.
“We think that starting with young children is the way to go, so that theatre becomes integrated with their soul and part of who they are,” she says.
As a founding member of the company, Di Cesare was happy to establish Media Super as their default fund.
“I’ve been with Media Super for over 10 years and couldn’t be happier.”
Follow Monkey Baa on Twitter @monkey_baa
Pete the Sheep tour details are available at monkeybaa.com.au
Photos supplied by Monkey Baa.