putting the business into ‘show business’
You might think that COVID-19 would rattle a business that delivers educational theatre into schools. But the “show must go on” mentality runs deep for Brainstorm Productions’ founder and artistic director Jenny Johnson, who has been running this performance business out of Alstonville for more than 30 years.
“We are planners,” says Jenny, who has a ten-year plan for Brainstorm’s plays and national performance locations, “but we’re also great pivoters,” she says, describing three unexpected incidents she’d dealt with between 7 and 8 that morning among her teams of touring actors.
Cars, humans and large schools are unpredictable, she laughs. “We have fantastic systems in place.”
But no systems could have prepared for the interruption that COVID would bring to a business centred on live performance. At the start of 2020, soon after completing the intensive rehearsals for the seven teams of touring actors, Brainstorm was geared up to repeat the pace of its 2019 schedule, which delivered performances to more than 360,000 school students in five states across Australia.
Then everything shut down in March.
“I told our team, we are not giving up, even if we have to close the office down for a year, I’ll find money for some kind of retainer. Kids will need this more than ever, they need fun, theatre and music, they need this for their mental health when we come out the other side, and for their online safety, and so they’re not spending too much time on screens.”
Jenny promised the team full pay through that first uncertain month, which was then followed by JobKeeper and every state and federal grant the business was eligible for. In 2021, Brainstorm was set to bounce straight back to those 2019 numbers, and all was well through terms one and two, before they had to shut down their two biggest markets in Sydney and Melbourne from term three. But Jenny sees the positive side.
“Brisbane didn’t miss a beat,” she says, “we still had 12 shows a week.”
The high quality of Brainstorm’s shows are the cornerstone of its success, Jenny says. And while education is at the heart of its productions, the team doesn’t let that get in the way of good theatre.
“Humans learn by watching other people. When somebody is performing an action in front of us, neurons fire in our brains as though we are going through it in some way ourselves. There’s empathy and compassion, and that’s why it’s got to be a story where the audience invests in the characters,” Jenny says.
“It’s about being human, it’s about kindness, building people’s resilience, mental health, and finding a way to change behaviours that are not serving them or the community,” Jenny says.
Shows over Brainstorm’s three decades have interwoven themes from domestic violence to bullying and scripts are updated every year to reflect the politics, language and reality of kids’ lives, with recent themes including image-based abuse and cyber bullying.
Scripts were updated in 2020 to acknowledge the impact of lockdown on the mental health of students, and Jenny says live theatre offers a unique flexibility to remain topical. “What we’re doing changes monthly, sometimes weekly, and when we’re talking about technology and young people, the music, the language, it has to land, it has to be right.”
The scripts are also written to support curriculum and stimulate further discussion and learning in the classroom, and include input from educators as well as clinical psychologist, Dr Ameika Johnson – Jenny’s daughter who has been a permanent member of the Brainstorm team for the past five years.
While Brainstorm is fuelled by artistic talent, it is carried by a dedicated long-serving team, including bookings manager Kas Curtis and music director and composer, Sean Peter, who have been with the business for more than 20 years.
It’s also about business acumen.
Jenny says they call it “show business” but sometimes people forget the business side of things. Brainstorm is a completely independent business that does not receive any arts funding. That is vital to autonomy, artistic independence, and the ability to make 10-year plans, Jenny says.
It’s also about resilience, which Jenny defines as taking stock of where you’re at and looking at practical things you can do to move forward. “And that resilience is what we want to share with the kids who watch our plays – practical skills and creative ways to cope in any situation.”