The cast of the hit UK play Barber Shop Chronicles took a break from thrilling audiences at the Festival in 2018 to conduct a workshop for the Youth Leadership Program at the Edmund Rice community education centre.

On stage at the Octagon Theatre, their performances transported audiences into the lives and banter of African men in six barbershops from London to Jo’burg, Harare and beyond as a soccer match played out on the TV. For these locals and migrants alike, a humble haircut also was an outing to a space of refuge and solidarity.

The workshop was part of our Festival Connect program gave some insight into the working world of actors, how performances come into being and highlighted the cultural impact a show can create. 

It all began when Fremantle photographer Duncan Wright reached out to us to connect them with Bella Ndayikeze, the Youth Program Coordinator for the Edmund Rice Centre WA. The program caters for eight to 18-year-olds who attend Bella’s weekly Saturday program to be a part of their local community.

On the day, 30 kids ranging from 8-16 were in the building, unaware of what they were about to experience.

“I didn’t know any of the actors and to be honest, didn’t even know that Perth Festival existed,” said Bella.

All of a sudden the bus arrived, with the cast bounding into the building and engaging the group in an interactive session introducing them to Perth Festival, what we do and how Barber Shop Chronicles fit in the picture.

Most of the program participants were of African descent, with Bella saying they related instantly to the Barber Shop Chronicles cast because they had an easy familiarity for them. It also helped that visiting cast member, Londoner Tuwaine Barrett, had acted in Marvel film Spider-Man: Far From Home.

The group of 30 was split into two, one group learning about Africa and its cultural heritage, while the other did hands-on learning of improvisation and performance. They imitated barbershop clients and barbers to mimic the performance, before swapping to ensure a completely shared experience.

“They were able to experience the theatre and education components… how you bring together a play before you perform it,” Bella said. “All the kids were catered for.”

The group then came together as one to perform roles from Barber Shop Chronicles. “We had no idea we were actually performing parts from the play, as we’d never seen it before,” Bella said.

Actor Patrice Naiambana lingered after the main session and taught a rhythmic workshop, tutoring the kids on their drumming skills.

“It was so overwhelming at the time... I didn’t want it to end,” Bella said. “The amount of energy that was in the room, they (the kids) were like, when are they coming back?”

Perth Festival provided the group with tickets to attend the show and visit the cast and crew backstage. Participants who attended had a strong desire to thrive in the theatre space but didn't believe they would ever receive the opportunities to do so.

“They raved about it for weeks and weeks”, Bella said.

For this group, Bella said it was the interactivity that captivated them, as the workshop involved teaching elements that the students wouldn't necessarily gain from traditional schooling, as the opportunities did not exist.

She said for the particular age-group, they were questioning life and their sense of identity at that time, so when the Barber Shop Chronicles crew visited, they were curious and wanted to explore more of the ideas presented to them.

“They still talk about it to this day,” she said. “When they were in the room talking about parts of Africa, some of the kids were triggered as they have an identity crisis here, being of African heritage but born in Australia, where a cultural disconnect is felt.”

She said there was an awareness at that time of elements of cultural identity that the group may not get to address in their daily life, with Bella receiving ongoing questions from students seeking insight into their cultural identity.

Bella said the beauty of these workshops and the key goal of the Edmund Rice Centre was to provide these young individuals with a safe space to explore these concepts.

“Most of the kids in the program want to be artistic, but cultural and financial barriers prevent them from doing so,” Bella said. “When they step into our space, those limitations aren’t there. We want them to be able to explore these areas in everyday life.”

Learning from the artists as professionals gave the group hope that there were people out there like them who had become successful in the arts, she said.

Bella keeps in touch with Perth Festival to explore future opportunities to connect the Youth Program with visiting international artists. Such opportunities change young lives by altering possible paths and changing perspectives, she said.

“More engaging activities make a subconscious difference in their lives. I think that’s what Perth Festival does, it brings something out of the norm and brings it to the people, making it accessible.

“It’s really effective when it’s driven by people who are experienced in that field.”

To find out more about the kind of work Perth Festival does in collaboration with the Perth community, keep an eye out for our upcoming 2020 Connect and Creative Learning program!