Helping young people share their voice is all in a day’s work for this theatre-lover

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Queensland Theatre is expanding its mission to grow the arts, with three new appointments of Artistic Directors – each with a unique approach to a specific area of arts education.

Esteemed creative producer, theatre maker and community arts practitioner Fiona MacDonald steps into Queensland Theatre as Associate Artistic Director (Education and Youth) – bringing extensive expertise in creating and delivering unique, socially engaged creative experiences with and for children and young people, and their communities.

Taking “baby steps” toward big goals

In leading Queensland Theatre’s Education and Youth Programs, Ms MacDonald will enhance the programs Queensland Theatre delivers with young people and guide the introduction of bespoke programming for children.

She told EducationDaily that her wish list is long – and that she has lofty aspirations.

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“I’d love our schools to have better access to quality theatre – and I’d love to see theatre practitioners in every single school in the country,” Ms MacDonald says.

She acknowledges they are long-term goals and when EducationDaily spoke with her just seven days into her new role, Ms MacDonald admitted that getting there will initially be a journey of “baby steps”.

“At first it’s building trust in myself and the brand of Queensland Theatre – building trust in the quality and integrity of the work we do for young people,” she says.

“And doing that by making really exquisite, unique and incredible theatre.”

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Lifelong passion for performance

Ms MacDonald is a Brisbane-based arts worker who specialises in festivals, collaborative theatre-making and contemporary arts experiences for, by and with babies, children, young people and their communities. Fiona is one of the co-founders of Imaginary Theatre, Brisbane’s premiere dedicated Children’s Theatre Company, where she has produced and toured works for children to over 30 Australian theatres, and festivals in South Korea and India.

For Imaginary Theatre, Ms MacDonald also collaborated on multiple schools’ residencies and co-developed and delivered Powerkids: Little Artists at Play at Brisbane Powerhouse, making play spaces with artists and over 100,000 babies and children, as well as managing international collaboration with Punchdrunk Enrichment for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2020 Brisbane Festival.

She has most recently worked as Creative Producer for Brisbane Festival, programming and producing for the 2019-2023 festivals, where she was instrumental in building the education connection program, and the development of the first Disability Inclusion Action Plan, and has also worked for the State Library of QLD, Brisbane City Council, QLD Music Festival, QUT, LATT Theatre (South Korea), Out of the Box Festival (QPAC) and Contact Inc.

“It’s a great thing for a state theatre company to commit to an artistic leadership role dedicated to art for, by and with children and young people,” Ms MacDonald says about her latest role.

“It ensures the culture of children; childhood and youth are a core part of the company’s operations. I am very proud and privileged to be able to represent our youngest citizens in Queensland Theatre’s planning and programming going forward.”

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Recognising young people – and celebrating diversity

To help nurture that vision of representation and collaboration, Ms MacDonald says that “valuing our young people as remarkable contributors in their own right to our society – and elevating them” – is a pivotal part of her approach, “as well as giving props and respect to the adults and carers in their lives and ensuring that the story doesn’t stop with the young people”.

“It literally takes a village,” Ms MacDonald told EducationDaily.

Her direction, she says, will be informed by an understanding of “the diversity of our culture – and our cultures”.

“It’s not just about serving one flavour – it’s about serving a variety and serving it far and wide.”

Schools, she says, play an important role.

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“I am aware of how time-poor teachers are and I know that the pressure is on,” she told EducationDaily.

“The things Queensland Theatre wants to do cannot be a burden to them. I want to make sure it’s a working collaboration with our incredible educators and that our work sits beautifully in alignment with the curriculum, to be rigorous in its artistic excellence and to provide an amazing creative opportunity – for everyone involved.”

Welcoming new ideas

The professionals taking up the other two Artistic Director appointments are equally impressive in their own ways.

Renowned director, dramaturg, actor and playwright, and proud Noongar man from southwest of Western Australia, Isaac Drandic will move into the role of Associate Artistic Director (First Nations) to lead Queensland Theatre’s engagement with First Nations arts and elevate cultural storytelling across the state.

In this role, Mr Drandic will connect a broad range of First Nations community stakeholders and work closely with Queensland Theatre’s Indigenous Reference Group on the artistic direction and programming of all current and future First Nations stories, along with the creation of important pathways and opportunities for First Nations artists and creatives.

Award-winning writer, director and producer, Daniel Evans will step into the role of Associate Artistic Director (Programming) where he will develop artistic programs and initiatives that expand the opportunities for Queensland artists to develop and present work and tell new stories of and from Queensland.

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Mr Evans will bring first-hand experience to the role, having most recently worked to bring some of the state’s most impressive, daring creative works to the stage, such as Drizzle Boy, The Almighty Sometimes and I Want To Know What Love Is.

Executive Director, Criena Gehrke says the three new appointments have been a long time coming and part of the organisation’s plans to truly expand their impact on the arts right across Queensland.

“Queensland Theatre has a responsibility to grow the state’s theatre ecology in a meaningful way and put artists at the heart of the company,” she says.

“The idea of having an ‘artistic hive’ of great artists leading different streams of our programming is exciting. Isaac will be crucial in the self-determination of First Nations theatre and artists, while Daniel and Fiona will play a critical role in delivering our artistic vision through deep engagement with artists, audiences, our young people, and their families.”

Putting live performances on the map for all Australian school students

“Live performance gives you an irreplaceable feeling,” Ms Macdonald told EducationDaily – and it’s a feeling she looks forward to helping students in regional, rural and remote schools share.

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“Drama is the physical embodiment of learning – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, listening – whether it’s drama games of play script playing. It’s about team work, building confidence and finding joy in play.”

For older young people, she believes another benefit is exploring the art of finding time and space for reflection.

“There are so many reasons having access to live theatre is incredible,” she told EducationDaily.

But for today’s teenagers – raised on multiple forms of digital media – thinking about whether she needs to work harder to help them appreciate the art of live performance is, she says, “a tricky question on so many levels”.

With so many distracting and inhibiting factors having the potential to block a young person’s pathway to a live theatre experience, Ms MacDonald says finding solutions takes some strategic thinking.

Educators and adults in the young person’s life think about ‘am I going to take this young person out of the house or classroom and take them to a live event – and deal with the administrative paperwork, and the money needed to buy a ticket or hire a bus’ when they could simply whack a DVD on,” she says – even when they know live theatre is the most ‘nourishing’ and enriching choice.

“There is a challenge there. You can have this jellybean – ie: the tablet, the smart phone – or you can come here for the broccoli (live theatre). There needs to be more conversation and education about the choices and how those choices are made.”

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To help address those challenges, Ms MacDonald says she wishes she could present some “hard data” to educators and families so they can say ‘I can see this is really great for my students and young people”.

Connection to culture

Part of making that shift, she says, is cultural.

“We need to build the arts as part of our day-to-day culture,” she told EducationDaily.

“We need people to say ‘yeah, of course I want to see live theatre’, and ‘yeah, of course I want to go to that art gallery – I get it’.”

The tyranny of distance in a country with such vast spaces between major cities, regional centres and towns adds to the problem – and so do our historical perceptions of accessing entertainment in other forms.

“Sport is a dominant cultural choice for Australians,” Ms MacDonald told EducationDaily.

“I look forward to the day when the arts can be as well.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]