An arts initiative which began with the modest aim of giving around 30 Clunes teenagers a chance to explore theatre and circus performance has succeeded well beyond its initial hopes, and is now a finalist in a VicHealth awards program.
The program, which uses circus and theatre to help address mental wellbeing and social cohesion, was nominated in the Future Healthy category, recognising a health promotion organisation or program working with Victoria's young people to improve health and wellbeing.
Luke O'Connor and Christy Flaws are the principals of Asking for Trouble. Mr O'Connor says the pair originally collaborated with Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans (Russell:Evans) to create a circus for primary school children at Clunes swimming pool.
"When we were doing that program, there were a bunch of teenagers who popped up and said, 'Oh, we'd love to do something like that,'" Mr O'Connor says.
"So Christy applied for funding, I think the amount was about $250,000, and she got that to run the circus for two years. It was called Art Attack. So we ran circus for two years: we ran two classes for teenagers, we ran classes for primary school students and a women's class as well.
"On top of that we also brought a bunch of artists to town to do different activities. They did costume-making, stage makeup, tie dyeing, contraption building, bamboo construction, stilt-making, and they wrote magazines.
"So they worked with a whole bunch of different artists; one-off things, while we had the ongoing circus happening the whole way through. The other thing we did was film, which incorporated some of the makeup and the costume and the circus. We worked with a filmmaker to make films."
Mr O'Connor said he had hoped to attract perhaps 30 children to the program. what actually happened was quite a bit different. Art Attack drew over 70 children and teenagers, over a third of Clunes's youth population.
Because there is no high school in Clunes, the students leaving Clunes primary in grade six get scattered around eight different high schools in other areas, Mr O'Connor says, and don't have as much contact with each other.
"They all kind of disappear; we were surprised to see so many people we didn't know who live here," he says.
"They came out of the woodwork. For some people there isn't much to do in Clunes. There is football and netball, which is great, and they've got good amount of people doing that. But if people aren't particularly interested in football or netball, there's really nothing else.
"There had been a couple of programs at the Neighborhood House that have run on-and-off. They had a music program at one point and a couple other things, but they weren't ongoing. So it was definitely something that felt like it was needed at the time."
While the Art Attack program was free, an option to make payment gave parents the opportunity to contribute which many did, prolonging its lifespan.
"Some families chose to pay me because it meant we could extend the program," Mr O'Connor says.
"We've just applied for more funding to run a similar thing again, but towards the end of Art Attack, we started looking at youth leadership a little bit, starting to give the young people more chances to be facilitators, lead things and take on more responsibility. Unfortunately, a lot of that got cut off with COVID.
"The whole program was co-designed. Christie did most of the planning, she sat down with young people, with teenagers, and asked what they wanted to do, and gave them lots of options of things that she knew existed.
"From that she built the program, which is part of why we think we got such great numbers, because she'd asked them what they wanted first, and delivered things within their interest. People trusted her, and came along because of the building of that trust."
For some people there isn't much to do in Clunes. There is football and netball, which is great, and they've got good amount of people doing that. But if people aren't particularly interested in (that), there's really nothing else- Luke O'Connor
Mr O'Connor says the group is now applying for further funding to deliver new activities next year.
There are 41 finalists in this year's Victorian Health Promotion Awards, selected from over 150 nominations.
Victorian Minister for Health Martin Foley said the awards acknowledge extraordinary people, groups and projects making a difference to communities across Victoria in the past two years.
"The 2021 Victorian Health Promotion Awards recognise some of our state's remarkable people and organisations. The 41 finalists unveiled today have gone above and beyond to support their community's health and wellbeing during what has been an incredibly challenging time," Minister Foley said.
"This year's awards recognise a wide range of initiatives, many of which have supported communities to reconnect and rebuild following the impacts of the global pandemic and the 2020 bushfires."
VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio said more than 150 outstanding organisations and individuals were nominated for awards this year.
"These awards are a chance to recognise and celebrate the inspiring individuals and dedicated organisations working tirelessly to make our communities happier and healthier," Dr Demaio said.
"The 41 finalists include a vast range of people and projects, including those working to empower young people, deliver healthy food to communities doing it tough, and support people to take care of their mental wellbeing or get active."
Luke O'Connor says the choice of Clunes as a base to launch Asking for Trouble's programs was a matter of pragmatism more than a planned move to the country.
"We bought a property here in 2013 or 14," he says.
"We're both circus performers, so we were touring a lot. We mostly bought the place because we had lots of equipment and sets from our shows, and it was cheaper to buy a block of land out here to store the equipment than it was to have storage in Melbourne.
"So we bought the block up here, thought we'd come up and visit, and for the first few years we were here for 10 weeks of the year. Then we fell in love with the place and decided to build a house and live here. As well as touring performances we'd always done work in community through different organisations and our NSOs all over Victoria. We wanted to do that sort of work here."
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