Creating the Magic - The 2022 Schools Spectacular

Creating the Magic - The 2022 Schools Spectacular

On the 25th and 26th November, four thousand and seven hundred (4,700!) talented arts students from over 200 state schools right across NSW hit the stage to create the magic of  that was the 2022 Schools Spectacular at QDOS Arena. It was an “Extraordinary Magic” that took the audience on a music, dance, acrobatics, puppetry and musical theatre journey that was, in the words of the incredible Mary Poppins Tribute, that concluded the first act, simply … Supercalifragilisticexpialidoious!

That magic, with all its colour, movement and harmony, will shine again on Saturday 17th December at 7pm on Channel 7 and Prime. Don’t miss it!

Little did anyone think back in 2019 when the audience rose to applaud the exciting finale of the 38th Schools Spectacular, that it would be two long years before our state school students would tread the Spectacular boards again. Little did many of us understand just how hard it would be to re-start the many engines needed to propel such an enormous juggernaut event. But … never underestimate the persuasive power of artistic people – or the determination and drive of the indomitable School Spec team!

Bringing the Spec back after two years was never going to be easy. The arts and arts venues were gravely affected by the pandemic – and schools’ arts courses and programs suffered just as badly. But, overcoming apprehension and economics is common in the arts … and education … and with support from ‘on high’ and some wonderful partners and sponsors – like Telstra, NSW Teachers Federation, School Bytes, Rode Microphones, Teachers Health, Smart Salary – the School Spec organisation team was off and running – and singing and dancing!

Conceiving a theme, choosing the music, devising the choreography, planning multiple rehearsals, finding venues for those rehearsals, getting those details out to schools … It’s a major feat of organisation and planning and a very expensive one. Not just for the Department of Education and the Arts Unit, but for all the schools, students and families who commit themselves to days of rehearsing … and travelling to Sydney for final rehearsals and performances.

Some of their students sang in the 2000 strong choir and the 32-strong core choir; some played in the 85-piece orchestra. Others danced in the 8 specialist dance ensembles, or the hundreds of dance groups from schools all around the state. Leading them were nearly 400 teachers, choreographers and conductors. Behind the scenes were sound, light and camera technicians assisted by a 58-strong student production team. Not to mention the back-stage crew who manned the dressing rooms and crowded stage entrances.

And the School Spec is inclusive. Students in the D’Arts Ensemble come from specialist classes in 28 schools, some as far away as Forbes and Finley. There are so many that they completely fill the arena stage. Some are in wheelchairs. This year their item introduced the segment called “The Crowd Go Crazy”. They knew every movement of this fast, toe-tapping segment, and loved every minute.

Another special feature of the School Spec program for many years has been the Signing Choirs. This year the signing choir was led by the very elegant and talented Josephine Woods, who has made signing into a very beautiful art form. Josey is an inspiration to many hearing-impaired students. It was amazing to watch her sign so gracefully beside many of the other featured artists – and see the whole 4,700 performers signing in the finale.

The dancers from the Aboriginal Dance Company come from twenty-two high schools, some as far away as Trangie, Armidale and Dubbo. Choreographers form Bangara Dance Company created a special indigenous magic to Miminga, with the ensemble and groups from nineteen other high schools.

It’s obvious that being part of the School Spec is special for everyone involved – but for some, like Josey and the other featured artists, who spend days auditioning and weeks rehearsing in Sydney, it’s more than just special. It’s the realisation of a dream …

I saw that dream being realised this year through the eyes of my 16-year-old my grandson. I watched the process from initial video audition through multiple live auditions until the scream that followed the arrival of the magical email that told him he had ‘made it’ as one of 40 featured artists in the 2022 School Spectacular!

For him, the dream began as a primary student, singing, as his younger brother did this year, in the massed choir, high behind the arena watching the action and excitement below. He began auditioning in Year 7 – and then Covid hit! But the dream didn’t die … and this year it came true! As it did for 39 other students from 35 schools across the state!  All their hard work – singing and dancing lessons, school and studio performances, vocal camps – had paid off! And the realisation of their dream was announced to the world on Friday 9th September.

What a day that was! Lights! Cameras! Exuberant students! Proud parents and principals! It was a special moment – but it was just the beginning of long days of rehearsal and learning, because, believe me, the teaching and learning that took place in the next 8 weeks was intensive and extensive.

The School Spec teachers are specialists in their field – but they also have to be special people. Their role goes beyond teaching and training.  They nurture and care for these students, encouraging them to reach their best, preparing them for the strain of constant performance, emphasising the importance of being part of an ensemble and the etiquette of the stage. It’s the most extensive work experience creative arts students could possibly envisage.

It’s a big responsibility for the School Spec team, and one they and the Department of Education take very seriously.

Part of that responsibility is keeping the parents and schools informed and involved. Rehearsal schedules and ongoing information about where and when students will be working are essential. Schools need to know when students will be absent. Parents need to work out how to get students to various venues.

That’s hard enough if you’re travelling across the city, but from Coffs Harbour or Wagga Wagga or Yass or Lismore or Bungendore, travel – and accommodation – can be expensive. Schools help where they can – but it’s the School Spec families who provide most of the support. And their joy and excitement are just as infectious as that of their talented kids.

Sharing that joy and excitement this year and getting to know some of the performers and their families made reporting on this year’s Schools Spec especially poignant. What a lovely, happy, generous and proud group of people! Especially the “Schools Spec Mums”! Some met waiting patiently outside audition venues. Some at the publicity announcement. Others picking up students after rehearsals at the Arts Unit or other facilities, their excitement building along with the energy and anticipation of the performers.

They came together again on 25th November, meeting outside the arena, or in the foyer, or at restaurants around Olympic Park. Their pride shone, one Mum wearing it visibly!

Whatever other dreams their talented kids achieve, to these kids and their parents, School Spec will always be a highlight, just as it has been to John Foreman, who returns each year to compere this special event. His words in the program echo those that have been made by so many School Spec alumni:

“Way back in 1986 when I was in Year 10 at Newcastle’s Kotara High School, I auditioned for what was then a relatively new show. My band played in the foyer of the Sydney Entertainment Centre that year. Things got even more exciting the following year when I got to perform inside the venue on centre stage. I couldn’t believe that I’d been given the chance to perform in front of 10,000 people on the biggest stage I’d ever seen. It was life changing … and it’s something I’ll never forget”.

As a Drama teacher, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, my students auditioned every year for that same opportunity – the chance to perform in the foyer of the School Spec. I know just how Mr Foreman felt! My students loved every minute of being just a small part of School Spec – and we got to sit in to watch the show in between performances. That excitement still lingers every year when I sneak in as soon as the doors open to hear the beautiful young voices of the massed choir warming up for the opening.

The Schools Spectacular is special – magic indeed – in so many ways. It brings kids and teachers from all over the state together. It gives them a chance to display their talents in a professionally organised ‘big event’ on a huge, arena stage. It’s inclusive from a whole host of perspectives … and it promotes the status and importance of the arts in education in a way that is remarkable – in fact, Spectacular!

Remember Saturday 17th December at 7pm on Channel 7 and Prime. Don’t miss it! Record it so your children or grandchildren can watch it again and again. They’ll notice something different every time – and they’ll sing and dance along to that “magic”!

NB. My grandson is Alexander Billett from Riverstone High School! Watch for him in the Hip Hop item "Tick Tick Boom”!

Photographer: Anna Warr