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Jane McKenzie - Performing Arts Tour Coordinator, Arts on Tour New South Wales

Jane McKenzie
'Performing arts is such wonderful way to pass on messages because many developing countries have a strong oral tradition and it can be used to empower people to pass on knowledge.'







What does your job as a performing arts tour coordinator involve?

I currently work at a place called Arts on Tour New South Wales. We help write grants for performing arts and organise the logistics of tours to regional Australia.

What qualifications do you have?

I've got a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre, Film and English, as well as a Diploma of Education in Drama and English and I've had lots of experience in amateur theatre.

Do you have a good work-life balance?

It's actually quite a good job because I work nine to five. Sometimes it requires me to stay back to do more work and other times I'll have an easy week so it all balances out.

Why did you join Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD)?

I wanted to travel and live overseas but I didn't want to do the things that most of my friends were doing, which was visiting places that weren't very different to home. I wanted a different cultural experience and to contribute to the place where I was living.

What job did you have as an AYAD?

I was a community arts development officer and was stationed in Papua New Guinea. My job involved forming a drama group for villagers in a coastal town called Alotau, which is the capital of Milne Bay province. The idea was to educate through drama.

In Australia, we live in a society where everyone can read and we're all educated, and even if we are quite sheltered in some ways we can still access information. In a lot of developing countries, like Papua New Guinea, the literacy rate is pretty low and people don't understand modern medicine, or about diseases like HIV. Performing arts is such a wonderful way to pass on messages because many developing countries have a strong oral tradition and it can be used to empower people to pass on knowledge.

While I was in Papua New Guinea we ended up getting funding from a local media group to prepare a radio play. The drama group I formed developed six radio plays based around HIV, domestic violence and corruption.

Had people in Alotau had experience with drama before you arrived?

There were some people who had been in drama groups before, but one of the problems in developing countries such as PNG is keeping groups together and setting up equitable systems so that everyone in the group is happy. Although there had been groups in the past, they had never stayed together because they'd never had anyone managing or organising the groups.

How did the local people respond to you?

Quite well. I was a bit worried at first because I was a young white female, but I think I was accepted pretty well and I made quite a lot of friendships. I think there was a bit of reservation from some of the older men at first, but once they got used to me they became more open.

What was the best thing about the job?

Being able to see 'light bulb' moments where people would realise that they could do something or maybe see their own community in a different light and realise how they could affect their community.

Did you choose the country or the job?

I chose the job. I don't think my parents were terribly happy about me going to PNG but it's an amazing country.

PNG is the land of the unexpected so I was surprised by a lot of things! I think it would have to be the resilience of the people, though and the way they don't have a lot but they make do. They live so successfully with what they've got.

What did you do in your time off in PNG?

I did go to some tourist spots but I was really lucky that I made friends with the local people who took me out of the main town where I was living and into the traditional villages. I was living in a coastal area so got to visit some of the islands to see real village life, where there was no electricity and no running water but I was really well looked after.

I found the attitudes of the expatriates towards the locals really challenging to deal with. I was friends with both expatriates and locals and it was hard to see the expats, who had a lot of money, being very generous to us as the volunteers, but then our local friends who were employed by those same expats were treated quite poorly. So I guess the biggest challenge was the great disparity in the way people live.

Were you able to do anything to overcome that?

I think such attitudes are quite deep-set. One of my well-educated local friends and I tried to show some initiative by setting up projects like a sustainable book drive so that people could engage with the community, rather than just give to charity, which is not always sustainable.

Do you have any cross-cultural disaster stories?

I'm sure I put my foot in it a few times, but for me, I had a problem with the locals' 'servant' attitude towards white people. I was always trying to convince the local staff that they didn't have to clean up after me. The other cross-cultural shock I experienced had to do with people telling me I was putting on weight. In New Guinea, because people don't have a lot to eat, they like to tell you that you're looking like you've put on weight as a compliment!

I was staying in a largely English-speaking part of PNG and though I did learn some pidgin there's also a weird hybrid of pidgin and English that I picked up. I came back speaking terrible English because, when speaking pidgin, you tend to cut off words so that people can understand you better.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm currently applying for graduate positions at AusAID. I'm really enjoying my job at the moment – I can concentrate on development on a national scale and education though performing arts. I think I'd like to move wholly into development soon and explore community education through performing arts in a development sector.

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