Black Saturday Bushfires Drama Ensemble Structure

Black Saturday bushfires. Image by pfctdayelise.

This year I have given my Year 12 Drama class the Black Saturday bush fires as a topic to research and dramatise for their upcoming ensemble performance in their final year of drama studies at high school.

For those unfamiliar with this task, it is a self-devised piece, student-written and directed on any topic given by the teacher, with set criteria and at least one non-naturalistic (anti-realistic) performance style that must be presented.

On 7th February 2009, Australia’s worst natural disaster occurred when hundreds of separate bush fires burned out of control in the state of Victoria. Entire country towns were burned to the ground. 173 people died and over 400 people were injured.

I have waited until three years after the event to give this topic to my Year 12 Drama students, as this blog originates from the home state of these fires and people in our own school community were affected both directly and indirectly by this event.

Students have been prescribed Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre performance style. The performance will by its very nature be documentary drama and I have also prescribed the students to include at least one primary source and have aspects of their performance as verbatim theatre, with deliberate exact quotes from people connected to the event as dialogue in scenes.

I have two groups of four students and one group of three students who will each present performances in the 25-35 minute range in early June. I put together the following task structure for the students:

2012 Ensemble Performance Structure


 Setting: Victoria, Australia.

Performance Style: non-naturalism, with aspects of epic theatre, documentary drama and verbatim theatre.

Theatrical Conventions: transformation of character, place and obeject. Disjointed time sequences.

Stagecraft Elements: props, costume.

Dramatic Elements: tension, language, contrast.

Background: On 7th February 2009, as many as 400 bushfires raged across the state of Victoria during some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. 173 people died and 414 people were injured in fires that burned out of control for days and weeks ahead. It was to become Australia’s greatest peacetime disaster.

Victoria, like much of Australia, had been suffering from severe drought for a decade and January 2009 was particularly dry, with very higher temperatures and rainfall well below the long-term average. The start of February was much the same, with three consecutive days recorded in Melbourne over 45 degrees Celsius.

While 7th February was widely publicised as a Total Fire Ban day for Victoria, questions remain as to whether the public in metropolitan and rural areas were adequately informed about the potential for fires so severe, they may be unable to be fought by fire fighters? Once the fires began, were people in affected areas informed of their progress? How did the emergency services respond to the disaster? What decisions were made and when did these occur? Could lives and property have been saved?

Plot: One or more scenes must be performed out of chronological order to address the theatrical convention of disjointed time sequences. Each ensemble group must show evidence in the performance of least one primary source used for research. The following information must be represented in the performance. Additional information may be performed, as appropriate.

  • Fire prevention in Victoria leading up to the disaster
  • Warnings relating to fire potential for the summer of 2008/9
  • Country Fire Authority’s Stay or Go policy
  • Emergency services’ response to the disaster, operational decisions etc
  • Management of the fires on 7th February
  • Communication of information between agencies and to the people of Victoria
  • People and property affected by the fires on 7th February
  • Displacement of people resulting from the fires
  • The findings of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission
  • Rebuilding and lessons for the future

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