“All of my work is very much about centering women’s voices and stories,” says Yasmin Gurreeboo, the CEO and artistic director of ActNow Theatre.

“I think most women have a history of people that they know that have experienced violence of some kind, if not themselves. So, I’ve been wanting to do this work for a long time.”

When Gurreeboo became a leader of ActNow in 2021, she quickly began looking into ways the company – which has a focus on social impact – could address domestic violence.

A conversation with Cirkidz artistic director Josh Hoare about parenting young boys became the first step in the journey toward spotlighting the issue on stage.

“We found common ground wanting to look at, well, what are things that are important for particularly young boys to know about healthy relationships and how to have greater emotional literacy?,” says Gurreeboo.

“We were just having big conversations around thinking about your child growing up to be a man and what sort of man that you hope they’ll become.”

In 2022, ActNow and Cirkidz agreed to work together on a piece of theatre that explores harmful gender norms. The collaborators undertook an extensive research process, including consulting with organisations like Relationships Australia SA, White Ribbon and the Zahra Foundation, as well as a domestic violence survivor, an educator, a gender specialist and an access specialist.

As Gurreeboo and the team sifted through research and lived experience, a target audience demographic of seven- to 11-year-olds revealed itself.

“There’s really clear points when children stop playing together and they become really clear about society’s expectations and rules around gender. And about the gender of oneself,” she says.

“By about six [years old], it’s kind of there. So, the juicy spot really is around 10 to be able to have the conversations and look at this complex issue.”

Of course, addressing a work about gendered violence to this age group only adds complexity.

With the support of Arts SA, ActNow and Cirkidz have now done two rounds of development on a play tentatively titled Josh and Sophia Don’t Play Together Anymore.

Participants in a recent development workshop for the new play. Photo: Jamois

Through a process of transforming their research into improvisational prompts and inviting open discussions with the creatives in the room, a story about friendships layered with themes of consent, respecting boundaries and emotional literacy has formed.

“We’ve got to keep everyone safe who’s involved, and keep the young people safe,” says Gurreeboo. “And it’s very likely when we go into a school and perform the work that there will be people in the audience who are experiencing domestic violence.

“And so, our aim is thinking more about – what tools can we give people to kind of break the cycles of violence? And in the long term, it’s about healthy relationships. We are focusing on friendships… looking at emotional regulation and trying to see what tools we can actually give the young people.”

While the play’s development is ongoing, its current form sees lessons embedded in the plot underscored by a narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to reflect on actions and decisions made by characters. Colourful and sometimes abstract projected animations by Sam Wannan also provide extra direction by externalising the characters’ inner worlds.

A series of illustrations by Sam Wannan.

With plans to eventually present Josh and Sophia Don’t Play Together Anymore in schools, Gurreeboo says it will be important for children to be supported around the performance.

“Because it might bring up some stuff for young people, ensuring that the school’s got materials in place is really important. We want to make sure that they’re thinking about that, and also we’ll give them resources and other activities to do with the young people as well post the performance.”

The play’s development has also involved working directly with young people, including showing some scenes to schoolchildren and then refining the piece in line with their responses.

Over the next six months, ActNow and Cirkidz will continue working with children to hone the script and the show, with the aim of being performance-ready in 2025. The collaborators are seeking funding support, including through a public donations campaign, to take this important work to audiences – something Gurreeboo sees as a small contribution towards the overwhelmingly large problem of gendered violence.

“There’s so many things that are contributing to this issue and it is an issue that is getting worse,” she says. “There’s so much more than just this work that needs to be done.”

ActNow and Cirkidz are working with children to hone the script. Photo: Jamois

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