Cunnamulla is a little town, with big dreams. A new documentary that premieres on NITV April 16 explores the making of a play the local school has put on. One that brought out the best in the whole community, not least of all in the young people involved.
By
Karina Marlow

4 Apr 2016 - 2:04 PM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2016 - 11:22 AM
In the old picture theatre in Cunnamulla, a crowd of locals wait eagerly for school students to take to the stage. In the following 90 minutes, stereotypes are challenged and young people are left empowered.
 
When it's all over, the community applauds the performers who have worked all year to showcase their talents on stage tonight. This is the story of their town and their dreaming. Of Cunnamulla Dreaming.
 

The Town

The town of Cunnamulla was immortalised in Slim Dusty's take on the Stan Coster song 'Cunnamulla Fella'.

"Now I'm a scrubber runner and a breaker too
I live on damper and wallaby stew
I've got a big cattle dog with a staghound cross
Never saw a scrubber we couldn't toss
'Cause I'm the fella from Cunnamulla
Yes I'm the Cunnamulla fella."

The song's larrikin stockman is even captured in a statue that sits at the centre of town, but its history runs much deeper then a country song reference. The word Cunnamulla means 'long stretch of water' in the language of the Kunja people of South-West Queensland. Prior to European arrival, there were a number of Aboriginal language groups in the area now occupied by the Paroo Shire and many of the current residents are their descendants.

A town of fewer than 2000 people, Cunnamulla lies 750 kms west of Brisbane on the muddy-brown Warrego River. As a reliable water source it has driven the town's successful agricultural industry from the 1880s. But its the new generation of young people in the town that are keeping its spirit alive.

The Project

The first stirrings of the theatrical production that was to become Cunnamulla Dreaming began in 2009 when Peter Cook and Amy Humphries, two actors with the Queensland Theatre Company, took up an artist in residency program in the town.

“Cunnamulla, was a life-changing experience for me, coming here… I fell in love with the kids and the place.” - Peter Cook 

Peter remained engaged with the community, returning over the subsequent years to run workshops with the students at Cunnamulla State School, students who otherwise would not have access to a performing arts education.

In 2013, his passion project was born. After four terms of story writing, rehearsals and dance workshops 28 students from Grades 4-10 performed a play that they themselves had written for their town.

With support from the school, the community and a local youth empowerment program, the production was a resounding success.

“The result was a show that blended comedy, dance and drama that came from the hearts of the students, not only shining a light on the real issues in the community the kids wanted to address, but also the pride the kids felt about living in their hometown,” says Cook.

The performance was captured by filmmaker Lucas Thyer who commented that "once I got out to Cunnamulla and saw the scale of the work it became apparent that the story unfolding with the kids and the community needed to be told to a much wider audience. The huge positive impact that the theatre project had across the whole town was amazing."

The School

Cunnamulla State School is classed as very remote, with only 126 students from Kindergarten through to Year 12. It also has one of the highest percentages of Indigenous students in the state with 86% of students identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

However, the school has not been without its struggles. In 2010 it was ranked as the 13th worst school in the state for student truancy, a problem amplified when students move out of town to be with family and do not return to school until months later.

Despite these challenges the school and staff have been active in their attempts to change the school’s culture and improve its reputation.

Literacy has been a particular focus and the theatre project brought an opportunity for the students to practice their writing, reading and speaking skills, with students memorising their scripts night after night.

The dedication of the students to the year-long rehearsals meant they not only surprised themselves and their parents, but also on occasion their teachers.

"It just goes to show that when kids are engaged in what they are doing that behaviour and attitude is never an issue. We’ve just got to find what the kids excel in and I think that’s really important for the school.” - Teacher and school transition officer, Rachel Biggs

School Principal Karen Campbell was keen to see her students have an opportunity to try their hand at drama and both traditional and hip hop dance.

“The whole idea of it was to provide a platform for some of our kids to get up onstage and show the talents that they have and it’s just amazing, it makes you cry.”

“I’m proud of myself and everyone else because we’ve come this far and we’ve achieved the goal that we’ve set.” - Lartisha, Grade 8

The Show

With the suggested themes of ‘unity in the community’ and ‘dreams for our future’ to guide them, the students set to work in March to write the play. The script brought community issues to the fore, with scenes featuring a family fight starting over Cornflakes and another featuring a student speaking on what they would do if they were Mayor.

“It makes us feel bigger and better… the community will feel like they want to change the things that have been happening.” – Lartisha, Grade 8

The title Cunnamulla Dreaming drew on the kid’s hopes for their future as well as on the spirituality of the Dreaming.

With the majority of participating students being Indigenous, for many it was a chance to connect with culture and to speak to Elders about their early memories of Cunnamulla.

“If they are feeling good about themselves then they are going to feel proud about their culture as well and turn their lives around.” – Community Elder, Wendy McKellar

Dance instructor Nikki Ashby, who has formerly worked with Bangarra, ran dance workshops and choreographed traditional dance scenes with the students, teaching them how to hone their storytelling through their bodies.

For many of the kids, the biggest challenge was to get past the concept of ‘shame’ stemming from a lack of confidence and a concern over standing out from their peers. The word was quickly blacklisted from rehearsals, a move which empowered the students to gain confidence in themselves and in their skills as performers.

With support from artistic grants and philanthropic efforts, the team was able to bring in a professional design and lighting company - transforming the PCYC into a theatre building reminiscent of its former glory as the town’s cinema.

When questioned as to the expense, Peter responds, Why should these kids not have what other kids in other schools experience?"

“I didn’t think I’d get up on stage and do that in front of all them people, but I did and that’s the best that I’ve ever done.”  - Codey, Grade 9 

Over the course of the three performances more than five hundred students, parents and members of the community (almost a third of the town!) viewed the show for a gold coin donation. As Principal Karen Campbell says “Not one person who attended the Cunnamulla Dreaming performance had a bad thing to say about it.”

The project has continued on. A group of students visited the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in Queensland and in June 2015 they toured Sydney to explore the possibility of turning their new-found experience into a career.

“This is the ultimate reward obviously, I’ve seen the response from the community but with the kids, the reward just comes as you are going.” – Choreographer Nikki Ashby

See Cunnamulla Dreaming - the making-of documentary on NITV. Premiering at 7.30pm on Saturday 16th of April.