Teen critic Gully Thompson takes a look at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Stories in the Wall, an ongoing project that harnesses the creative imagination of primary school children
I have more than once found myself flicking through my schoolwork – essays, paintings (mostly crude stick-figure portraits) – but what draws my attention the most are narratives, the stories I wrote in primary school.
There is something entrancing in the quality of these stories; I may not have written them well, but the concepts are so strange and far-fetched. There’s a magical quality in the limitless imagination of primary school children. When I saw Stories in the Wall: What Lies Beneath? I was greeted with this sense again: the strange childhood joy of storytelling.
Stories in the Wall is an Arts Centre Melbourne project that invites primary school students to take inspiration from artworks the Australian Performing Arts Collection, found in the underground levels of the Arts Centre, using the theme “What Lies Beneath?” The artworks act as the stimuli for children to write stories about these hidden worlds.
The project begins as a workshop, run by playwrights Dan Giovannoni, Amelia Evans, Jessica Bellamy, Rachel Perks and Morgan Rose. The stories are then narrated by the writers themselves, with professional sound design by students from the University of Melbourne’s Bachelor of Interactive Composition. These mini-podcasts are loaded onto the internet and put on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza. They’re set in a very curious-looking, magical display, an array of boxes and cabinets with trinkets and artefacts placed inside. Two pairs of headphones and two iPads are used to listen to the stories.
The stories themselves are enchanting in more ways than one – the foremost being the previously said style of limitless imagination. I’m a fan of far-fetched fantasies, and this project strongly reminds us that children see the world in a different light. Their imaginations are vastly more open than that of an adult’s, perhaps because they have yet to conform to the idea that every tale must follow the same basic plot outline. Even as a teenager, I find that I’m directed towards a particular outline of structure and storytelling. Or maybe it’s because they live in their own world of imagination, a world that doesn’t need a strict definition of what is possible and what is not.
One of the stories I listened to, The Next Stop, is a good example of how this sense of limitless imagination is incorporated into the stories. It begins as a story about a train accident, becomes about a missing pet and concludes with a death-defying battle with the keeper of the Underworld. The jumps to-and-from different worlds make these tales unique and interesting; it is the spirit of childhood imagination.
There’s also the element of inspiration, how the stories connect to the Arts Centre’s stimuli. I think that these fantasies are deeply true expressions of these artworks. The real spirit of this Arts Centre project is creative expression and limitless interpretation. There is, after all, no “right” way to interpret these pieces. The Next Stop is inspired by a painting of a cargo train, Jeffery Smart’s Container Train in Landscape. The stories themselves do not stay limited to the stimulus; the artworks act as stepping-stones into new worlds of imagiantion.
Another element that stands out to me is the fact that the stories are told through voice. This is possibly the cleverest element in this project: listening to the voices of the authors is much more effective than just reading the stories. Humanity’s greatest skill might be storytelling – passing down tales through word of mouth is an ancient yet still relevant practise.
The heart of the project is the chance it gives students to learn about interpretation and writing. The Arts Centre makes this project open both to suburban and rural schools, which I think is a brilliant idea: it offers the heights of artistic freedom to a range students who are passionate and willing to put in the effort. It’s a great step towards making opportunities in the arts open to everyone.
Stories in the Wall is an inviting window into the world of a child’s imagination, opening these possibilities to adult contemplation; but it also opens the world of art to children. They stay true to their inspirations, while throwing you into uncanny worlds. These are truly stories you should hear.
Stories in the Wall is an ongoing project of Arts Centre Melbourne. You can find out more at this link.
Gully Thompson is a 13-year old writer and musician. He has reviewed film, music and theatre, and was the official critic for XS at Melbourne Fringe. You can find his website here.