Top Acts Review 19/05/06


What an awesome display of human talent! Top Acts, the final stage of presenting the very best performance examinations in Drama, Theatre Studies, Music Performance (group and solo) and Dance from 2005 Year 12 students, was simply breathtaking. Indeed, so breathtaking, that many of my party (staff and students alike) were getting a bit emotional at the sheer quality of performances before us. Seeing Top Acts at Hamer Hall last Friday evening was for me, the equivalent of watching the best live show I had seen in five years.

The first thing that became crystal clear as the program progressed was the very high standard. Hats off to the VCAA and Chief Assessors from the various studies for selecting an outstanding program of a consistently high standard from start to finish. You really had to be nitpicking to spot minor flaws in a couple of performances, so I’m not even going to bother, as it would only seem unfair.

Focusing on what I know best, I’ll start with the Drama solo performances. Luckily, my students and I had seen all of these at Top Class a few weeks before, so we enjoyed the pleasure of watching them one more time (click here for a more detailed review of these performances at Top Class on 22/04/06).

Once again Ashleigh Gardner from Kilbreda College enthralled the audience with her interpretation of The Shakespearean Character. Aided by a huge screen above and to the rear of the stage, spectators got close-ups of Ashleigh’s wonderful Shakespearean model set stage with all her cut-out figures and red curtain. I’ve always said to students, if you can’t get the diction right, forget choosing anything to do with Shakespeare in a Drama solo. Ashleigh had beautiful diction, as her clarity of voice was a highlight of her performance. This was a well written student script and a stunning performance.

Next on the program was my ex-student Georgie Pardalis from Avila College performing The Beauty Queen, Helena Rubenstein. Tricky trying to review this objectively, considering I saw it in development and rehearsal about 50 times! Georgie did a fantastic job and most impressive was her stage presence. It’s relatively easy to engage an audience of family and friends in your Drama rooms at school, but it’s another story altogether trying to engage 2,600 people in a packed house at Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre! Successfully engaging the audience, even in a non-naturalistic way, is crucial to the success of any Drama solo (what each student must strive to achieve for their three assessors on exam day).

I simply loved Georgie’s use of accent. A bit of research had gone into this one when you consider your character was born in Poland of a middle class Jewish family, moved to Australia in the 1890s and then emigrated to New York in 1915. You’re dealing with a few possible accents, here! But, as mentioned at Top Class, the assessors obviously loved her accent and the audience at Top Acts was impressed, also. There was an excellent use of conflict and symbolism in this performance. It is well documented in the history books that Rubenstein had a 50-year feud with arch-rival Elizabeth Arden and Georgie beautifully demonstrated this through her one line back and forth dialogue between the two toward the end (and elsewhere) and then the clever use of make up on her cheeks in parallel lines, symbolic of the war between the ‘beauty queens’ and ultimately the war inside herself.

Although Georgie’s performance may not have ended with a ‘bang’, nevertheless, it did end nicely. Students often forget or underestimate the importance of finishing your solo performance with impact. It is the last thing the assessors see and remember before you leave the exam room and they begin completing your assessment sheet, so, like Georgie did (finishing in her case with a repetition of a line altered with “I’m” instead of “You’re” in ‘because darling, I’m worth it’) you have to finish strongly. On that note, for those who saw Top Acts, didn’t you love what they did combining the next performance by Nicholas Dinopoulos from St. Kevin’s College singing a number from the musical Kismet, with Georgie’s The Beauty Queen, and using her in the chair as his subject matter for the song? Nice touch!

James Simpson from Yarra Valley Grammar performing The Enemy Alien had the unfortunate luck of performing last on his Top Class session a few weeks ago, when some of the audience were getting a little restless. I’ve got to admit I was getting a bit tired at this stage in Top Class and perhaps didn’t fully appreciate James’ performance for what it really was. Thankfully, at Top Acts I saw the amazing talent of this young man for what it was worth.

Such a tricky thing to time your entire solo performance to a tape/CD running in the background from start to finish, complete with instrumental backing the performer sung along to and sound effects etc. This alone placed James in a league above the average Year 12 Drama student. James’ accent was really tight throughout his performance and didn’t waver at all. His characterisation was very strong and the audience loved the fact that a lot of his important dialogue in the solo was sung, not spoken. For me, the greatest strength in this solo was mood. It simply oozed with atmosphere dripping from the stage and spilling into all corners of the auditorium. A fantastic solo!

A favourite with the audience at Top Class in April was also a favourite last Friday night at Top Acts. Liam O’Kane from Beaconhills College with his interpretation of The Security Guard at the airport was truly a masterpiece! Think I’m sounding a little too generous? Well, I doubt the assessors had seen a comic performance of this calibre for some years. When 2,600 people are laughing hysterically, many crying tears of laughter down their face, you know you’ve got a winner on the stage. I always remind my students at Avila that comedy is all in the timing and boy, did Liam prove this theory correct. His comic timing was simply superb, knowing exactly how long to wait in a moment of silence, or when to come in quickly with the next line or gesture etc. To top it off, he was one of only a handful of performers on the night who appeared to actually ‘milk’ the audience to his advantage (without being cocky). What confidence! I hope the VCAA sells this program on video this year, because I believe every senior Drama student should see this solo. But just in case you thought comedy is easy, the old saying ‘it is easier to die in a Greek tragedy than pull off comedy successfully’ is definitely true. Comedy is hard. No doubt about it.

Speaking of hard, it has been a few years since I have taught Year 12 Theatre Studies, but I know all too well how students at first think a four or five minute monologue from a play must be pretty easy, right? Wrong! Pretty damn hard, in fact. Three monologue performances from Theatre Studies students were on the program and they were all a delight to watch.

Nicole Shostak from Brighton Grammar/Firbank Grammar performed Flora from A Slight Ache by Harold Pinter. Boy, this was a good monologue! Like James Simpson’s solo, Nicole created such a depth of atmosphere talking to an empty chair. One had little trouble picturing the character she was talking to. This is no simple task, as highly polished expressive skills are needed to create the complexity required for the audience to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and begin to truly believe and accept what is happening on stage. There were beautiful moments of stillness and silence in this performance. In fact, I can’t recall moments of silence being a highlight in a performance for me before, but this one was. Nicole’s variation in vocal tone was superb and her diction, f
irst class. A great monologue. I’d happily pay money to see this actress perform the character of Flora in a full rendition of this play, any day.

Thomas McAdam performed the character of The Author from The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife by Frederico Garcia Lorca. Didn’t you love the sock puppets??!! Thomas began his performance on a chair facing the rear of the stage, took off his socks and shoes and proceeded to use the two socks as talking puppets to great comic effect. From memory, this was a relatively short monologue and certainly seemed to fly. Like other Drama and Theatre Studies students on the program, Thomas proved all you need sometimes is a single prop to successfully create a location in your performance. With only a chair and a couple of socks, he swiflty established character and setting with ease and performed a humourous monologue that grabbed the audience’s attention throughout.

The final monologue performance was Robyn Nethercote from Lilydale High School with her interpretation of Margaret from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. I just loved Nicole’s use of accent, where she reminded my of the voice of Kim Basinger in the film L.A. Confidential. Robyn’s accent was accurate, strong throughout and well sustained in the performance. I could be wrong, but the performer did look a touch nervous (God knows I would be if it were me!), but this didn’t really affect her characterisation. A simple yet highly effective costume in a dress and apron were used and the few props, such as the mixing bowl, were good also.

I really enjoyed Robyn’s facial expressions. Aided by the screen above the stage with close-ups, the audience could really see how integral facial expressions were to the success of this performance. There is a lesson here for all students of drama/theatre. While your teacher may well remind you at times to stop acting with your head and use your entire body right down to your toes, never forget, that said, the face is still by far the most expressive part of an actor’s body, so be sure to use it to your advantage in performance. This was a solid monologue that really engaged the audience.

Not being anywhere near an expert in music or dance, I did however take with me a fellow Dance/Drama teacher and two Music teachers. So, I will simply list my other highlights from Top Acts.

For many of my students, Kieran Murphy’s own composition Chicken Feed and Dan Musil’s slide guitar performance were simply stunning. If either of these guys cuts a CD, someone, please let me know! Other musical highlights included Nicholas Dinopoulos and his number from Kismet, Steve Murray on the clarinet and the two ensemble groups in Act 2 performing Red Light District Blues and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. In terms of technical skill, Nina Ding on the paino was simply outstanding (somehow I don’t think this will be the last time Nina performs at Hamer Hall!).

In the dance department, highlights for me included David Amar with his composition Escape From Slavery, where the performer reminded me of Graeme Murphy from Sydney Dance Company fame, and Tobias Madden at the very start of Act 2.

All up, I’ll finish where I began, Top Acts was awesome! Having attended with my Year 11 and 12 Drama classes and the Year 12 Music class at Avila, I now know two things, in that the Year 11 Music teacher wished her class was there also and that this gig will sell an extra 50 tickets each year, because we will now become regulars.

If you want to inspire your students to reach greater heights and achieve their goals and dreams in the performing arts, then nothing, I mean nothing, beats attending Top Acts! What makes it so special for senior students is that everyone on stage is also a teenager. Taking students to see a Melbourne Theatre Company play, for example, may well be a positive experience that will inspire them, but it is one step removed from what they will see at Top Acts, because usually everyone on stage is an adult and a seasoned performer.

By the way, fellow teachers, I wouldn’t’ wait until students are in Year 12 to take them to see Top Acts. If you’re anything like me, you’ll take the Year 11 and 12 class every single year, so the Year 11’s will be inspired for the near future (and you’ll probably score a few extra students in the next Year 12 class as a result), the Year 12’s will be inspired for the immediate future (Top Acts may well be scheduled near Ensemble Performance or Play Production time and yep, it was a hassle for us as we rocked up with bags under our eyes having only performed our Year 12 ensembles the night before, but it is also nicely timed a few weeks before students begin their Year 12 solo and monologue work) and it is also great if by the time students are in Year 12, they have seen Top Acts two years running.

Of course, whether teacher, student or otherwise, everyone would love to read other people’s comments on what they thought of Top Acts (or even this review that took me 90 minutes and three cups of coffee to write!).

So please add your comments about Top Acts, below.

5 Responses

  1. Justin Cash says:

    I only censor the exciting stuff, folks! Someone wrote ‘hello’. It was just too deep for this blog, so I had to delete it. Sorry.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What did u delete cashy? u always do this to us! we wanna kno what peeple thought!

  3. Justin Cash says:

    Interesting point.

    I only attended two of the three Top Class sessions on the 7th and 22nd April. Speaking from this perspective and ignoring both my student in Top Acts and others of mine in Top Class, yes, I agree, there may have been other choices they could have made for the Drama Solos in the Top Acts program.

    From everyone I have spoken to, there was only one dead ringer for Top Acts, and that was Liam O’Kane with The Security Guard. It would have been hard for the selection panel to ignore this one!

    An unlucky candidate who in my opinion may have got into Top Acts on any other year was another Shakespearean Character by Gemma Kelly from Kilbreda College (the performance with the oversized roses). Another would have been Daniel Heron from Haileybury College with his interpretation of Pride, which as previously blogged, probably demonstrated the best use of exaggerated movement by a student I have seen (he was the performer with the whiteface make-up and darkened eyes in a very ‘scary’ solo).

    Other than that, perhaps at Top Acts, Ashleigh Gardner from Kilbreda College performed her Shakespearean Character to a standard a little under what she demonstrated at Top Class (it just hit me, both the ‘model’set’ and ‘oversized roses’ Shakespearean Characters were from the same class, hence the similarities in style).

    I believe all four studies had stronger and slightly weaker performances at Top Acts. I don’t think the three Theatre Studies monolologues were any stronger than the four Drama solos and im my opinion, it was probably Music that shone above the rest (although Music also was not 100% consistent in standard amongst all performers).

    I’d love to know the selection criteria for Top Acts, as it must be more than just talent alone. Gotta say I was certainly impressed with the standard at Top Class this year.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What a great post Justin. I was definitely enthralled by the talent on stage on Friday night. But after taking my class to all 3 Top Class Drama concerts I couldn’t help but think there may have been better solos to show current VCE students and the general public. I was still amazed by all performers and I give them full credit for their fantastic work but it felt like all the other subjects had that little bit extra on us. I’d be interested to see what you think.

  5. genelle says:

    Cashy… it was love. I loved it all… i sat there surrounded by my fellow yr 12 drama class, yr 11 drama students and even yr 12 music students loving every minute of it.
    I loved the fact that i got to see the BRILLIANT drama solo’s again
    I loved watching the dance solo’s and learning about what is required of them
    and i loved the music… Cashy once you’ve found out if those two make a CD… LET ME KNOW STRAIGHT AWAY!!… during “Chicken Feed” i turned to the girl next to me and said “oh please let him release an album”
    I was truelly inspired. Loved loved loved it all. ellie and i walked out and said that we wanted to get into top acts just so we could MEET people like that.
    As for Liam O’Kane… at musical rehearsals a whole group of us were quoting him all day… THATS WHEN YOU KNOW YOU’VE GOT A GREAT SOLO…
    Best be off
    peace out!

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