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SUDS’ Off-Offstage: “This is stagecraft. Goodbye” 

Off-Offstage embodies amateur attitude with affection, but also a biting accuracy that alludes to a dark past with school theatre.

Upon entering the Cellar Theatre to find the quietly haunting soundtrack of High School Musical, I realised that Off-Offstage was going to have a very specific voice. As the lobby filled with the night’s audience, two ‘stagehands’ tested lights —turned them on and off at random intervals— and periodically played around with the music’s volume in a way that felt eerily reminiscent of high school theatre. 

As we took our seats, it became apparent that the set embodied this same sentiment: pencil marks were still visible on some sets, a lone, crumpled sheet took centre stage, and it was announced that 149 programs were printed incorrectly. As the cast entered and exited, the music was repeatedly mistimed, as were the lights, leaving them with no option but to shuffle noisily offstage in plain view.

Off-Offstage embodies amateur attitude with affection, but also a biting accuracy that alludes to a dark past with school theatre. Amidst the faux intellectualism of ‘who am I?’, performances that show their ‘performers’ truly missed the point of the entire unit — much to what I can only assume is the great disappointment of their hypothetical English teacher — and teary-eyed contemporary ‘movement pieces’ that explore the globally inconsequential, the narration ironically reminds us that “This is stagecraft” before decisively signing off, leaving no further room for argument: “Goodbye”.

Part of Off-Offstage’s charm is that you never quite know what’s coming next, so I shall describe my favourite parts with as much ambiguity as possible. These included the miserable consumption of an orange, a comedic duo declaring they had no monologues yet managing to work one in anyway, choral critique of the stereotypical private school boy, an ensemble of schoolboys and their fear of the bare minimum, one guy bouncing on a trampoline in a solo act that lasted minutes, the perfect portrayal of unbearable writer energy, and the student performance that included every theme in a mad pastiche of heavy-handed genres: eco-anxiety, drugs, classism, existentialism — and yet, not a single, actual point was made.

As someone cornered into writing heavy-handedly thematic pieces for the HSC in a mad attempt to ensure the marker didn’t ‘miss anything’, these skits resonated with me. Despite having enormous fondness for the freedom afforded to me in my major work, I will take any opportunity to shit on the HSC. The rubric, with its too-big-for-two-thousand-words concepts and its preoccupation with suffering of any kind, corners teenagers into making works that simply don’t work for them. Off-Offstage acknowledges this with its characters’ confessions in the dark that they are out of their depth, that they will never amount to anything, that they didn’t even write their own work.

It says a lot about the charisma of the cast that despite deliberately playing their characters as obnoxiously as possible, you still find yourself rooting for them. You feel bad for the kid who embarrassed himself, the writer who obviously needs to take a break and touch some grass, the contemporary dancer pushed by her teacher into attending a nightmare festival for research. They are caricatures, but it makes them all the more real, because  the HSC makes caricatures of us all.

The show wraps up with what the snarky narrator describes derisively as, a full circle plot. I found this uniquely hysterical, as during my time as a secondary English tutor, I always encouraged my students to write these kinds of endings as they are the easiest. In this way, the love/hate relationship between the writers, cast and the backstage team of school theatre is tangible from start to finish. The hatred is there in all those times a ‘stagehand’ gleefully tested the lights, plunging the audience into pitch black before we even entered the room. And yet, the love is there too, because how else would everyone have had so much fun?

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