It takes a lot to get a house full of Toowoomba people on their feet for a standing ovation, but it happened last week at the opening night of The Boy From Oz directed by Lewis Jones. This is the latest big musical production from Empire Theatre Projects Company (EPC) based at the gorgeous hard-top Empire Theatre which just happens to be celebrating its centenary this year. I hear that audiences stood again at subsequent performances.The EPC's productions of plays and musicals - a couple a year - are hugely popular and, more often than not, draw full houses. By the way The Boy From Oz concludes today with an additionally-scheduled Sunday performance, and I have no doubt that delighted audiences will rise as one yet again. Why wouldn't they? By any standards it's a terrific production led by Tye Shepherd as Peter Allen and Bernadette Pryde as Judy Garland. Besides, Toowoomba needs a good shot in the arm, and this joyous, sensitive production is just the tonic. The Boy From Oz is a community production and proudly so, but it defies any kind of pigeon-holing in terms of its definition as either amateur or professional. As far as the scope of its work goes, labels just don't stick on the EPC - unless it's the 'extraordinary' label. The EPC has been working non-stop for the past few years under the Artistic Direction of Lewis Jones. It runs regular drama workshops for children and young people in Toowoomba and other centres in its regional catchment area; mentors and provides production experience for local artists and small independent groups as well as higher education students and trainees, and provides professional development seminars for teachers. It also provides employment for artists, creatives and technicians. Last year's fully-professional production of April's Fool by David Burton will, in all probability, be seen Australia-wide in a national tour from 2012. The EPC also engages from time to time on creative development projects with other companies based in metropolitan areas. A tour of the work is usually the outcome of these collaborations and partnerships. It's a way to stretch the subsidy dollar and, like the co-production model utilised by many other Australian theatre companies, extends opportunities for local artists and audiences as well as for their colleagues in the city. When it comes to engagement with local amateur artists and creatives, there is also the EPC apprentices scheme. People apply to assist and to be mentored by production unit heads during a major production like The Boy From Oz. For those with aspirations to work as directors, musical directors and choreographers this is similar to the experience that local actors get by working on a show with professional directors and beside professional actors. Many Empire production 'alumni' go on to full-time training and professional careers as theatre makers and musicians. As the sound of 1600 pairs of clapping hands continued under the iconic 'bomber light' last Thursday night, it occurred to me that the people all around were also, maybe unthinkingly, celebrating much more than the undeniable excellence of the night's work. I think it was pride in community. 2011 has been a rough year so far for Toowoomba what with the floods and devastation. There are physical signs of it everywhere - from closed shop-fronts where the water swept through on that awful afternoon on 10th January to the debris lingering in the lower branches of trees along the East Creek bike paths. The cleanup continues, but the emotional litter is still being disposed of. The Boy From Oz is part of the healing work by the community on its own behalf. It's what engagement in the arts can do so well. Something that can be forgotten all too often and especially in the ongoing debate about arts funding - largely because it seems to be too hard to assign value - is the link between the arts and the health and well-being of a community. Regions like this one, and particularly at times like this, are terribly vulnerable. This is why the work that is emerging from the EPC is so valuable and important and necessary. This is why the community must cherish the arts, and why investment in regional arts by government and the private sector is money so well spent. You can follow the Australian peak body Arts and Health Australia on Twitter as well as the Empire Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. ... and, if you're a regional Australian, let your local arts centre and your members of parliament know how much you value the arts. It matters. If you are in Toowoomba today get along to The Boy From Oz and let them know in the most tangible way - buy a ticket and celebrate.
Disclaimer: I serve on the Board of the Empire Theatres as a Director. I am also a Trustee of the Empire Theatres Foundation. These opinions are entirely my own. Biased? You decide. Proud to be part of it all? Definitely.