Amelia Burke’s (2012) desire to empower and provide space for young people to express themselves, along with her love of the arts, make for ground-breaking theatre. Working in collaboration with youth from diverse backgrounds in Melbourne, Amelia has recently directed a play that unpacks themes and ideas close to their hearts. With a vision to one day have her own theatre company, Amelia’s passion for her craft and approach to leadership sets a scene of growth and collaboration in her chosen career.
You mention that your love of theatre was nurtured at Ascham. Can you share with us some of those special or key moments that shaped you?
My love of theatre started in Fiona when I was cast in what I considered a very important role, ‘Merchant Woman’, in our production of Aladdin 2005. I got to come running on stage with my best friend and wear a costume with sequins on it, so you could say I was having a ball.
I had three Drama teachers during my time in Senior School—Rosemary Ricketts, Julia Homfray and Emily Weare—all of whom nurtured my passion for drama through their own enthusiasm for the craft. Most notably, it was the group-devised performances that ignited my desire to pursue theatre. In these tasks, we were given a theme or style to construct a performance around and it made me feel like I could do or be anything and tell stories about the world around me. This might explain why one day I got a call from Mr Onstein who kindly told me that I had to stop spending so many of my Study periods at Drama.
Your most recent theatre productions are around themes of grandparent relationships and youth anxiety. What are some of the key insights you have gained from collaborating with young people from diverse backgrounds? Also, what are their hopes for the future?
In Meet My Grandies [at Carlton’s famous theatre La Mama, October 2022], our cast of teenagers were tasked with interviewing their grandparents, and the transcripts became the basis of our script. The interview questions included provocations like: What is your favourite childhood memory? and What do you think the future will be like? It brought up lots of different conversations in the rehearsal room that ranged from the shared experience of being cooked way too much food by their grandparents, to the way our teens feel like it is up to them protect the planet we all live on. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on a teenager! Their positive hopes were about how they feel there is much more openness in society today to express themselves in a myriad of different ways.
What would be an example of how you see theatre playing a role in supporting social justice causes and instigating change?
Over the last five years, I have worked with young people in a theatrical context and seen enormous personal growth and change in them. A young person can enter the rehearsal room or drama class very shy, and over the course of the project or class they can blossom in terms of their self-confidence and belief in their own voice as they collaborate with others and perform. It’s a powerful change to witness and I know that those young people will go on to whatever they do next with a similar confidence. It’s this self-belief and ability to collaborate that leads me to believe that participating in theatre instigates massive personal change and, by extension, the ability to make broader societal change as well.
There’s been more of a spotlight on gender politics in theatre since the #metoo movement, so what does a more ‘feminist approach in leadership’ (as you have mentioned) look like in relation to your theatre work?
My understanding of what feminist leadership looks like borrows from [US playwright] Joan Schenkar’s description of a feminist director’s process— she says that it should look like ‘a series of odd intercepting spheres, with each person who contributes to the production responsible for their special circularity’.
I love this image because it shows that leadership should be about empowering the people around you to excel in their role, rather than trying to control the growth or contributions that can come from your team. Further, it shows that success comes from the whole of the team working together, rather than one person’s particular efforts.