Future looks bright for WAAPA after safely weathering COVID storms

Having remained open throughout the pandemic while simultaneously adjusting to new online teaching practices, WAAPA at Edith Cowan University is preparing itself for an exciting new future in the heart of Perth’s CBD.

Unlike other leading conservatoires around the world, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) at Edith Cowan University (ECU) – thanks to the low rates of COVID-19 infections in the west – managed to keep its doors open throughout the pandemic.

‘Students could come in and practise their dance or play their musical instrument; they could maintain a sense of community with the school and stay involved,’ explained Professor David Shirley, WAAPA’s Executive Dean.

Staying open played a valuable role in maintaining emotional and mental wellbeing amongst the student cohort, especially for the many students who were unable to return home due to the state borders closing.

‘That feeling of isolation in a pandemic is potentially very threatening to any artist. So by us creating a sense of community here, for students to be able to come in and do some work and maintain contact with each other, was very important,’ Shirley explained.

With constant internal communications keeping students and staff informed about the latest developments, morale was maintained and students supported.

‘ECU also put a hardship fund together so that any student who was feeling vulnerable financially or economically had really good support in place,’ the Executive Dean said.

While there were absolutely challenges to adapting teaching methodologies to ensure COVID-safe practices could be maintained, WAAPA’s teaching staff rose to the challenge with poise and professionalism, Shirley said proudly.

‘Thanks to all of the staff and their dedication, their willingness to innovate in the digital space and to shift the calendar around, WAAPA has done extremely well. We’ve found new and innovative ways of delivering training – though there was a moment when I thought, “How are we going to be able to do that?” – and as a result of the pandemic, the innovations that we brought to bear on the work will be lasting as we go into the future,’ he told ArtsHub.

ECU City Campus, Public Square, artist’s impression. Image supplied. 

That future looks especially bright given that a state-of-the-art new WAAPA campus in the Perth CBD is due to open its doors in 2025.

Describing the move from the current ECU campus at Mount Lawley to Yagan Square as ‘putting ECU/WAAPA centre stage,’ Shirley said the new city campus would position the Academy as an innovative digital adaptor globally.  

‘It’s going to be a university for the 21st century, with all of the digital technologies that that entails,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘For example, I can foresee in the new campus that we will be able to have classes delivered by world-class practitioners in New York or in Germany or in the UK, and also that WAAPA will be able to work collaboratively with students across the world, in digital spaces.

‘I see that as an immense opportunity to prepare performers for 21st century practice,’ Shirley explained.

WAAPA’s relocation also opens up new opportunities at the current Mount Lawley campus, allowing students from the adjoining Mount Lawley Senior High School to expand their performing arts programs into the existing facilities.

‘I just think there is extraordinary creativity and synergy here, and now also a new opportunity for our students [and their students] and their training collectively across all the various performing arts disciplines.’

WA Premier Mark McGowan, Simon Millman MLA, and Executive Dean, WAAPA, Prof. David Shirley meet students from Mount Lawley Senior High School who will inherit WAAPA’s facilities after the 2025 city campus move. Photo by Kathy Wheatley

WAAPA’s move into the Perth CBD, abutting the Perth Cultural Precinct (home to the State Theatre Centre of WA, the Arts Gallery of WA, The Blue Room Theatre and WA Museum Boola Bardip) means that new collaborations and opportunities will be possible, with opportunities extending well beyond the performing arts.

‘What this move will enable us to do is not just about working in partnership with the Western Australian Orchestra or the State Theatre – which of course we currently do anyway, though it will make such collaborations a bit easier – but for me, it also begins to enable ECU through WAAPA to begin to set new agendas for the way that we engage and utilise the performing arts going into the future.

‘It means that the business community, for example, or lawyers, can come in and seek some consultancy around voice training, for example. It means that we can look at how can we utilise the skills associated with the performing arts in the interests of the wider community.

‘And don’t forget, WAAPA is part of a much bigger university, a university that has, for example, medical expertise, scientific expertise, nursing expertise, all those things. So the combined efforts of us all working together will bring the performing arts and an understanding of the performing arts to different spaces, which I think is just tremendously exciting.’ 

Learn more about studying at WAAPA and its new city campus.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts