The Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) will feature in the Sydney Festival program for the first time in their 60 years as a company. They will premiere a new work, Saplings, written by Hannah Belanszky, a Yuwaalaraay woman, and informed by stories collected through youth workshops.
“This production is unique in its intention and process, formed entirely from community-led workshops in regional NSW and Western Sydney, and brought to life with a predominantly Blak team,” says Abbie-lee Lewis, director and Kalkadoon woman.
The play addresses issues around youth and the criminal justice system, especially around the subject of criminal responsibility. It takes its cues from the Raise The Age campaign in 2022, which called for the age of criminal responsibility to be revised up from an unbelievable 10-years-old. Currently, children as young as 10 can be charged and incarcerated. This inordinately tends to affect children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and especially indigenous children.
The Raise The Age campaign brought awareness to the general public and made submissions to parliament, but the conversations it started didn’t include the voices of the people who mattered most – young people.
Saplings aims to redress this by sharing the real stories of young people who have had adverse interactions with the youth justice system. Playwright, Belanszky, and workshop facilitator, George Kemp visited youth service centres such as Midjuburi Youth Resource Centre (Marrickville) and Miyay Birray Youth Services (Moree).
“Often when we arrived, it was just about playing basketball or table tennis with them for a few hours, just to get to know them and hear their stories with the law.” explains Kemp.
Belanszky then compiled the stories into a collection of vignettes that give an overall picture of social failure – simple desires frustrated by bureaucracy and inappropriate response. The stories themselves are heartwarming, heartbreaking, hilarious, poignant:
Yani wants to go to the Easter Show, Kai wants a sense of home, Shanika wants her Mum back, and Lachlan…well, he just wants his bowl of noodles. But when the justice system is all that stands between these young people and what they want, it raises an important question – how do young people grow when the system keeps cutting them down?
As well as being a premiere for Saplings and a first for ATYP at Sydney Festival, the play will also feature three young actors making their debut: Ioane Saula, Wesley Patten, and Maliyan Blair. They will join ATYP actor, Nyasha Ogden in what promises to be a very visceral, eye-opening, entertaining show.