UOW performance student Bernice Mumbulla found new experiences, new friends and a whole new way of acting when she travelled to Singapore.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Bernice says as she describes her trip to the Asian Pacific Bureau Theatre Schools Festival at LaSalle College in Singapore. “Performing in front of an international audience made me realise there’s more to what I’m doing. I am now inspired to be more international in my work,” she said.  

The Asian Pacific Bureau Theatre Schools Festival is where universities and performing arts colleges come together for a week of student performances and workshops. It aims to promote professional development among theatre schools and practitioners in the region, giving opportunities to perform for and learn from other students and teachers.

This year was the first time UOW was invited to attend, and our performing arts students took two short plays by internationally renowned Australian playwright Daniel Keene to the event. The two productions were Duet and Bogey Man, both directed by student director Mark Churchill. Bernice performed in Bogey Man.

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“This was the first time that I got to learn about different cultures’ approaches to theatre,” Bernice said. “It was beautiful and brilliant.”

Students came from all over the region and beyond—Singapore, South Korea, India, Iran, New Zealand—and Bernice says connecting with them around their art was one of the most valuable elements of the trip.

“In theatre, I realised, everyone goes through the exact same bullshit.”

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Between performances, Bernice attended workshops run by international performance teachers. The classes covered everything from voice work to hip-hop dance, but the one that stuck with Bernice was something she’d never worked with before: masks.

Across Asia masks remain a core part of theatre making, from Japanese Noh and Chinese Jingju to Indonesian Topeng and Thai Khon—but in Australia, they are rarely used.

“The teacher was absolutely brilliant. We started with a series of exercises, a lot of them, and when we finished we were exhausted. But then he said, ‘now put on this mask’.”

“Coming from that place, from being exhausted,” Bernice explains, “you stop thinking about what a dramatic reaction to something would be and you respond naturally. Imagine having spiders on you. A dramatic response would be to scream ‘get it off me’, and to carry on like that. When you respond naturally, you’re just sitting there swatting at yourself.”

Bernice’s approach to her own performance work has significantly changed because of the workshop.

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“Masks hide the actor’s true feelings and intentions,” she says. “From an audience point of view, if the actor does something contrary to the mask’s emotion, it’s very confronting. You have to be true to the mask—so now I try to be truer to what I do as an actor.”

The experience of travelling a show to Singapore and meeting fellow performance students has brought new awareness and reflection, as well as inspiration for Bernice.

“We were all the same age, we mingled, we partied and we watched each other’s shows. It opened my eyes—it’s not just what I’m trying to do that’s hard: what they’re doing is hard, too.”

Coming back to UOW hasn’t dimmed Bernice’s enthusiasm at all. She has also recognised that as an Indigenous person she has cultural knowledge to draw from in her theatre work.

“A lot of who those students are appears in their art. I’m Indigenous but I’ve only ever once taken part in an Indigenous performance. This trip made me realise this is something I need to connect with.”

The next step for Bernice might simply be her final year project but she is now more ambitious than she ever thought possible for her theatre practice and performance work.

“Every country, every region and culture has its own methods and techniques. I want to live somewhere else. I want to go to different countries and learn from them.”

First though, Bernice has to finish her Bachelor of Arts degree in Performance Studies at UOW. But she is confident the world is waiting.

Thinking of studying performance? Check out what the University of Wollongong has to offer.

WATCH: UOW student director Mark Churchill discusses Duet and Bogey Man...