Helen Strube headshot

Helen Strube and Children of the Black Skirt

Children of the Black Skirt by Angela Betzien is an iconic piece of Australian theatre that has been studied through the education system for twenty years. It sheds light on some of Australia’s darkest history and gives a voice to the forgotten.

The Curators Theatre is performing this cherished work from 13th – 23rd July at the Christ Church in Milton, and Theatre Haus spoke with Director Helen Strube who emphasises “the healing power of story.”

Children of the Black Skirt is set in a run-down orphanage that has been stumbled upon by three children in contemporary Australia. As the children enter this world, time changes and they become the inhabitants of the orphanage. They start interacting with objects and putting on costumes and telling stories of children past.

“It’s a snapshot of how children have come to Australia or have been raised in Australia through the institutions or state care and what has occurred to them,” Strube said.

“We hear the story of one of the first convict boys brought to Australia who was the youngest child in Hyde Park prison, and we go all the way to the Stolen Generation, so it has this enormous reach of stories.”

Despite the play sharing multiple stories, Strube explained that the show is not a docudrama, rather Australian gothic mixed with magical realism.

“What Betzien has managed to create with multiple forms is phenomenal. If you’re a theatre geek you’ll love this, the play works theatrically rather than didactically.

“She’s created a really theatrical aesthetic experience that serves as a provocation for how we treat our children in Australia and also to our lack and loss of cultural memory. It encourages us to question our dissociation from our own history and how that may impact on us in the present day.

“In Australian gothic, we are dealing with Australia’s dislocation of country and fear of its own landscape. What we’re doing in this play is highlighting those elements of the Australian landscape and time.

“We’re putting the play in Milton’s Christ Church, a building that was born around about 1897. Our set designer Bill Haycock and I wanted to use this church and its original architecture as the set for this show, so the play is treated as an installation within this amazing church,” she said.

Bringing a fresh aspect to this production, the creative team reached out to survivors of institutional care to share their real stories and are weaving those voices into the play through the soundscape.

“The survivors have taught us so much,” Strube said. “The key message is that they are survivors, they are more than their story and they are not defined by their story and have been able to create lives beyond their stories and turned them into new stories.”

“It’s a political play but theatre aestheticizes. It serves as a provocation for anyone who wants to look further into Australian history – they can – rather than beating the audience around the head with it. It’s a reminder that Anglo Australians need to find out about their history and not become a culture of forgetfulness.

“There is a time for truth telling, story, acceptance and moving forward without fear in whatever we need to move forward into and take our full authentic history with us.”

Strube has a rich history with this play after working at the Queensland Arts Council twenty years ago, starting her career there just as her colleagues at the council had commissioned a new play for schools, Children of the Black Skirt.

“I’ve been aware of development of the play as its grown and I’ve been inspired by the young artists who developed it and the way they’ve worked in the world.

“It was originally commissioned for schools and was so effective as it touched upon many elements of education, but the magic is that its written and staged in such a way that it’s there for anybody who wants to be touched by this area of conversation.

“We did a work in progress last year without any set or lighting which received really incredible feedback and was described as an immersive and evocative experience.”

The Curator’s production of Children of the Black Skirt has been in the works since 2021, but due to the early waves of Omicron and lockdowns, it had to be postponed.

“I may have been feeling a bit disheartened in the interim after we postponed but a really respected colleague of in the theatre industry said to me, “don’t worry Helen, every play has its time” and I thought this, right now, was the perfect time.”

Together with a cast of emerging and established artists, Lisa Hickey, Malika Savory, Shahnee Hunter, Mikeal Bobart, Vivien Whittle and stage manager Dan Hallen, Strube said that the experience of this show has been encouraging, inspiring and collaborative.

“I couldn’t have done it without one single person,” she said. “It’s been nothing short of one of the best experiences of my life.

“In terms of the working dynamic of the people behind the scenes, I don’t think I’ll get that again. This group of people working together has just been phenomenal.”

Children of the Black Skirt runs from July 13th – 23rd July. Tickets are available on The Curators website.

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