JOANNE WATT AND XAVIER LEE – the power of family values

Since appearing as a couple on the Melbourne community scene almost 30 years ago, Jo and Xavier have supported one another on and off stage and achieved spectacular results for the Victorian Drama League.

Following extensive involvement with Hartwell Players, Jo responded to a request from the VDL Committee for someone to provide a youth theatre program which she ran ‘in house’ at her dance studio combined with ‘homestay’ with her family. Sensing the interest of young people in regional areas, Jo subsequently developed Theatrecraft Youth Unlimited (TYU) which became a twice yearly camp holiday program. 

Jo serves as a VDL Committee member while continuing to organize the growth of the camp program. In her ‘spare time’ she is the mother of three, and with the wholehearted support of husband Xavier they are involved in the local theatre and community activities after the relocation of the family to West Gippsland in 2013.   

She and Xavier spoke with long-time admirer and VDL President, Bruce Cochrane.

BRUCE: To those of us on the VDL Committee, and I’m sure others who have worked with you, we wonder Jo, how you remain so focused when you are putting programs together?

JO: I actually often find it hard to focus, and often struggle with the juggling required to maintain any level of quality in the things that I love to do – because I love variety and don’t like saying no to interesting projects with people I like working with.  BUT I find having a deadline is an incredible motivator so, as much as I can, I hide (sometimes literally) lower priority “folios” so I can get the satisfaction of completing a particular task and to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

BRUCE: You could not have known what you were getting into when you took on the challenge of TYU programs. Just the task of obtaining funding and all of the documentation involved with reporting, would stop most people in their tracks.  

JO: Initially it was experimental, and of course, voluntary in every respect, including the in-kind use of the dance studio, and I didn’t imagine it would take root in our hearts and lives as a family!  It took me from mid 2013 – end of 2015 to have the confidence in West Gippsland to take TYU to be based closer to our new home with a view to Summer 2016 at West Gippsland Arts Centre Warragul and living in at Allambee Camp. That was my first experience with grant writing. We got a smaller than requested grant of Federal money through the Regional Arts Fund managed by each state by the NGO Regional Arts organisation (our case Regional Arts Victoria). It was the year of George Brandis, so instead of knowing in July about it, when we wanted to announce our plans, we had to wait and wait – and then once announced it was embargoed, so we weren’t allowed to advertise or open for registrations!  (So stressful!)

I’ve become less scared of asking for funding since then, and since have had support of Baw Baw Shire, Regional Arts Fund (Federal money), Trafalgar and District Community Bank (Bendigo Bank), and many smaller bursaries sponsored by small organisations. The amount of time in the applications for significant funding is terrifying, but with the aim of reducing the costs to the participants, and/or paying the creative leadership team some acknowledgment for their time and skill it is vital to ask.  AND the process also gives clarity on the project – regardless of funding success. 

BRUCE: Is it fair to say that you both see yourself as ‘parents’ to all the young people you are responsible for at TYU?

XAVIER: When we had the young people staying with us it was interesting at times dealing with the different personalities. What struck me lots of times at the beginning of the camps was the lack of confidence some of the young people had and the time we spent bolstering them.  Then, as the time went on, it was fantastic watching their confidence grow so by the time of the performance it was like watching a completely different person. This is the great thing about these camps. 

Jo Watt with Juandre Swanepoel, January 2016 Allambee Camp rehearsing ‘One, Two, Three, Home’ by Riley and Todman. Photo: Kellie Tweeddale.

JO: Remembering that often we have young people who are needing challenges or are big fish in their little local pond, I think what we see are moments of overwhelmed behaviour and perhaps they realise they’re not the only people who love theatre and performing  in an intense, passionate way.  I had a moment with one young woman where she needed reminding that she only needed to find one or two people she particularly related well to and as far as everyone else went it was okay to just work on developing a working relationship.

Just like adult community theatre we make lifelong friends and also meet and work with many more people for an intense time. Certainly we try to be accommodating of all comers to the camps – and yes, they have such a wide range of social, intellectual and theatrical needs and experiences, so it can be challenging. There’s a lot of love for the young people who come to the programs and some of them, by coming to us multiple years, become very dear to us.

BRUCE: Xavier, I guess your nursing training makes you an invaluable part of the support team, but how strong is the need to be acting yourself? I’ve seen you acting, and you really throw yourself into it. How hard is it being ‘support’ for TYU camps?  

Bob Tuttleby as Prospero and Xavier Lee (right) as Caliban in the 2012 Hartwell Players production of ‘The Tempest’ directed by Phoebe Taylor. Costumes by Joanne Watt. Photo taken at Stratford’s Shakespeare on the River Avon Festival by Nathan Jones.

XAVIER: It is funny you mention my nursing training because on some of the camps I have been the official “medical officer”. However, the most first aid I have done was putting a bandage on some skin scrapes (thank God). As mentioned above it has been my psychiatric/psychology training that was used the most.

In the early days of the Summer School I was more hands on with guys from an acting point of view. We had a great time doing a Shakespeare session using the witches’ scene from that Scottish play (oh, alright, Macbeth). I have also helped one on one with some of the participants with learning lines, stagecraft and delivery. However, as time has gone on, I have been happy to support Jo by keeping the home fires burning. It has not been hard because I get a great thrill seeing the show at the end knowing how much hard work Jo has put into it.

BRUCE: In the meantime, as parents of three boys you need to maintain their interests in footy or whatever, so if they aren’t as keen on theatre are there family ‘meetings’ to deal with this?

JO: In the early years – Nicholas was not quite 2 the first year – it just became something the boys expected and accepted. Dominic (now 24) had strong interests in performing arts from a young age, and participated in many of the programs and Oliver (now 21) also did a few Hartwell Players shows and one summer school, but really is the cricket player in the house. With shift work and a busy dance studio to run it was chaotic over the years.  I don’t think there have been family meetings but certainly there have been some truly nutty scheduling dilemmas.

XAVIER: Crumbs, at times it has not been easy. During some of the camps I have been on night shift which has made it hard for the family. I remember on the same day watching Oliver play cricket and umpiring, then seeing the show in the evening, dragging a reluctant 4-year-old Nicholas along.

BRUCE: I’m thinking that you built a successful dance studio, Jo, and walked away from that to move to Gippsland. With Hartwell Players you were into everything including choreography, costumes to say nothing of Committee. You’ve had a wide range of theatre experience and throughout change you’ve retained your involvement with the VDL in a highly responsible voluntary position. What drives you on?

JO: I think that developing skills and confidence in equal measure during the intensive learning years is great for creativity, self-expression and personal development. Seeing young people over a number of years has kept me motivated to challenge them. Ultimately younger people need to step up and be running this program, and with mentored leaders stepping into directing roles, and a number of our TYU people studying performing arts at Uni (I think there are 6 who are in tertiary, or have completed certificates/other specialist studies) there is more interest from them to learn how to get a project going.

BRUCE: And, Xavier, with the responsibility of being a nurse in a highly stressful position, how do you find the time for theatre activities?

XAVIER: At times it has been very difficult. Over time I have used a lot of annual leave and been late to rehearsals after an evening or day shift and used the wonderful self-rostering. It has taken lots of planning. I have often taken small roles because of the difficulty getting the time off to do the play or the rehearsals. However, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a small role and as you have mentioned I throw myself into any role I do. It is being involved that I love.

BRUCE: Have you both always been ‘in sync’ about the radical changes you’ve gone through? 

XAVIER: Yes, as I do as I am told! Jo and I, like most couples, are not in perfect sync all the time. That would be impossible. However, we certainly are in sync most of the time. For instance, we certainly both had a strong urge at the same time to move out of the city as the neighbourhood was changing. That has been about the most radical change we have made.

JO: It was through Hartwell Players that we met, and love of performing arts and community have been a through line for us.

BRUCE: Well, you both present as cheerful and obliging so congratulations, and a big thank you from all of us in community theatre for your selflessness and your generosity. And thanks for sharing your thoughts.

JO/XAVIER: Thanks, Bruce, and thanks for the support and encouragement that the VDL committee gives to the TYU camps.