The urgency is palpable throughout Jopuka’s new Black Summer-inspired production, and we should be listening.
Summer 2019: as bushfires rage, a young girl becomes the accidental face of a movement and is faced with the ugly reality of climate denialism, even as fires threaten her hometown.
Told through the eyes of five young people caught in events outside their control, Very Happy Children with Bright and Wonderful Futures is the new production from youth arts organisation Jopuka, in association with South Australia Youth Arts, and opens for a limited season at The Launch Pad, Tuggerah, between 19 March and 3 April.
Jopuka Productions is the Central Coast’s leading Youth Arts body. It was established specifically to provide performing arts training and development to a wide array of emerging artists, aged 12-26. They have staged over 25 acclaimed productions, including a range of new and established works. They have commissioned seven new Australian works from emerging writers and theatre-makers across Australia.
Written during lockdown in 2020, in the aftermath of Black Summer, by Joshua Maxwell (Bogan, High Society) and performed by 25 cast members aged 12-18, this production was inspired in large part by the climate protests of 2019-20 and the subsequent demonisation by right-wing media and some politicians of its largely young participants.
Maxwell is a 28-year-old theatre-maker, artistic director and equality activist from the Central Coast, NSW. He is increasingly engaged in political activism and worked extensively on the Marriage Equality Campaign in 2018. In 2019, he helmed two national arts sector statements of support for the Climate Strike Movement, and was invited to speak and facilitate at Carclew’s National Youth Arts Summit in Adelaide and Theatre Network Australia’s CONVERGE Summit in Melbourne.
Even the name of this production speaks to this generational divide: a searing reference to Trump’s 2019 UN speech where he dismissively referred to Greta Thunburg as a ‘very happy child with a bright and wonderful future’.
The ideals of Greta Thunburg loom large in this production, as well as those of an activist closer to home. Izzy Raj Seppings, the then 13-year-old who was threatened with arrest while protesting in Kirribilli in 2019 (and was later vilified by right-wing media figures), was a key inspiration for the production and was part of the development of the project, including script and casting consulting. Other characters are also based on real youth activists.
The production is part of a new generation of Australian theatre blending art with activism. Jopuka’s 28-year-old artistic director and playwright, Joshua Maxwell, is Central Coast Council’s Arts, Cultural and Entertainment Citizen of The Year (2020) and Central Coast Volunteer of The Year for his work with Jopuka. He was heavily involved with the climate movement, as well as the marriage equality referendum campaign in 2018.
Writing the play proved more difficult than Joshua anticipated, with the majority of the show developed while he was in lockdown.
This was the most challenging project I’ve worked on. It was lots of Zooms, lots of research, lots of edits, and when I was finally able to get back in a room with young people it was just here.
The teen protagonists in the play are in turns hopeful, angry, disappointed and terrified as their world crumbles around them, but the production resounds with hope in the next generation and their passion to change the world for the better.
I want the audience to be inspired to not just listen to these young people, but join them, Maxwell says. Jopuka has always been about giving young people agency and their own voice in theatre. It’s never been more important than in this show.
Very Happy Children with Bright and Wonderful Futures runs from Friday March 19 – Saturday April 3 at The Launch Pad, Tuggerah.