Taste of the big Times for Hunter actor Shane Bransdon

BIG TIME: Shane Bransdon, right, with choreographer Steven Kennedy, iTheatrics CEO Tim McDonald, composer Matthew Lee-Robinson and winning students.
BIG TIME: Shane Bransdon, right, with choreographer Steven Kennedy, iTheatrics CEO Tim McDonald, composer Matthew Lee-Robinson and winning students.

NEWCASTLE actor, director and drama teacher Shane Bransdon was surprised and delighted when the New York Times had published a photo of him training young performers in a story about the rapid growth of musical productions at high schools.

The photo, taken at the Junior Theatre Festival in Atlanta in January, had the caption “Theatre students from the University School of Nashville discuss their performance of Shrek the Musical JR with Shane Bransdon, an Australian actor, producer and educator”. The photo and feature-length story, published in the paper’s business section last month, has been applauded by Australians in theatre for highlighting the strength of the industry in this country.

Bransdon was one of five Hunter theatre people involved in developing the skills of young actors who trained junior performers at the Atlanta festival and in New York in January. The others were Daniel Stoddart, Andrew Holmes, Alison Hodge and Chelsea Willis.

The five had attended the Junior Theatre Festival as tutors with Hunter Drama, a company which focuses on young performers, in the three years from 2015 to 2017, giving Australia its first representation at the festival. The students won several awards, including best ensemble in 2017 when a 14-member team, aged 13 to 18, beat 113 other teams with a 10-minute performance from Shrek: The Musical Jr.

The tutors accompanied New Zealand youth performers to the 2018 festival and to work alongside US teachers. Bransdon taught eight advanced acting classes, some with more than 60 students, and worked alongside Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked.

The festival had almost 6000 young performers this year, with the Times noting that shortened versions had helped musicals that had lost money in their Broadway seasons to be profitable.

The attendance of tutors and students at the Junior Theatre Festival led the Hunter Drama heads to establish an offshoot organisation of their company, OzTheatrics, which has held Junior Theatre Celebrations in Newcastle since 2016, with youth groups from around Australia sending teams.

Daniel Stoddart and Shane Bransdon head the team, with the celebration backed by companies which control the rights for musical theatre shows: iTheatrics and Music Theatre International.

This year’s Junior Theatre Celebration will be held in Newcastle on October 26 and 27, with American iTheatrics officials among those attending and adjudicating, and young participants given the chance to work on a new adaptation of a musical for junior performers.