For the past 15 years, a theatre company in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs has helped young people navigate the challenges of adolescence.
Fresh Theatre for Social Change is the brainchild of Sharyn Mullens Taylor, whose husband Rev Lucas Taylor is the minister at Manningham Uniting Church.
She started the program in 2002 as a response to the limited support services for youth in the Manningham and Whitehorse region.
Ms Taylor, who was 19 at the time, decided to set up a youth theatre group in Blackburn to empower young people in the community.
Through the use of applied theatre techniques, participants strengthen their resilience and learn how to develop healthy relationships.
Fresh Theatre now operates at Manningham and Elsternwick Uniting Church, as well as the TLC (Truth and Liberation Concern) Church in Bayswater.
A new group opened in Ringwood Uniting Church this year to cater for young adults over 18 years of age.
Manningham Fresh Theatre manager Ruth Hodges said Fresh is different from other theatre companies because it prioritises personal development over performance.
“Every session we have a portion of pastoral care where the theme of each play and how it affects their daily lives is talked about,” she said.
“A lot of our kids are perfectly normal high school students, but there are so many pressures today that it helps with developing their self-esteem.”
The Fresh Youth Theatre program is open to young people aged 10 to 18. It operates for two seasons a year; each season comprises an original play developed by the Fresh creative team in consultation with the young performers.
During the workshop phase the young actors identify social issues important to them. Some of the topics covered in past productions include consumerism and materialism, body image, relationships and digital technology.
In November, the Manningham Fresh Youth Theatre group performed their first musical – The New Wild West.
Set in a futuristic dystopian world where people have become addicted to television, The New Wild West looks at what happens when people stop communicating with each other.
Some of the young actors also took turns working backstage as stage managers, light operators and sound technicians.
The Manningham group is led by 26-year-old theatre director Zac Alaimo, 23-year-old pastoral care coordinator Imogen Kalisch and 20-year-old theatre assistant Josh Fielding.
Every week, they rehearse at Manningham Uniting Church for two and a half hours.
“They have about an hour of games and pastoral care and an hour of rehearsal before a meal together,” Ms Hodges said.
“The church community forms back-up support. We handle the finances and a lot of the ladies help with meals.”
Manningham’s Family@10 service provides an afternoon tea every week and a number of congregation members volunteer as front-of-house staff during production week.
The Manningham Uniting Church band also provided musical support during the performance of The New Wild West.
Ms Hodges said the congregation supports Fresh because resilient and healthy young people are an integral asset to the community.
“It’s all designed to help young people feel connected,” she said.
“We don’t do any evangelising. We’re not expecting them to all of a sudden come to church.
“It’s about providing a service in the community and helping young people handle the stresses of being a young person.”