TURN IT UP: ALL THE WAY TO ELEVEN

13/07/2010 at 11:41 am 4 comments

GAME CHANGER
Some commentary on recent developments at Belvoir St Theatre

As reported, the big news this week is the shifting fortunes of the downstairs theatre, which has such a place in our hearts that scarcely an artist in Sydney hasn’t been involved in a show there at some point in the last ten years or so. So it’s no surprise that it sort of feels like ‘our’ space. Well news flash: it ain’t no more, and never was. The good folks at Belvoir have been kind enough to let independent companies operate through their B Sharp season over the years – and it’s been a win-win scenario in many ways; diversifying the audience for Company B and allowing the sector to flourish. But like all plants raised in fertile ground, in twelve years it’s grown bigger than anyone could have imagined. So the powers that be have taken what they see as a necessary pruning measure. And haven’t the howls rung out as what was never really ours to begin with gets taken away. I’ve only got one thing to say about that for now. Get over yourselves.

but first; a history lesson
To put things in perspective: twelve or so years ago the Sydney theatre scene was vastly different. B-Sharp Season Zero for those of us who were there was an experiment, riding on the recent highs of Belvoir alumni such as Roxburgh, Rush and Blanchett. 1998 was the year of Cloudstreet and Elizabeth. We could do anything – go anywhere with theatre… The sky was the limit. Of course, back then we had a viable film and television industry as well, so producers, directors and actors could support their theatre work with actual paid employment. In case you’re too young to remember what that was like – it meant that local TV content was something other than ‘reality’ shows. So there was a constant turnaround of acting work (rather than the unpaid contestant-driven-drama) which enabled co-op theatre to be sustainable; it was a golden age, we had Fox Studios making Star Wars and The Matrices and Babe: Pig in The City. As the song goes; fish were jumping and the cotton was high.

Then along came Big Brother and the bottom dropped out and suddenly hardly anyone was working anymore. It’s tragic, but most of the companies that formed the inaugural season of B-Sharp have gone their separate ways. Because co-op theatre is a financial drain, it’s extremely difficult to keep it up without income. While there is always someone ready to take their place, and some terrific success stories have emerged via the B-Sharp model (particularly recently); many of these co-ops will eventually quit to the monetary pressures. And you can see the resulting shift, especially in recent years; as B-Sharp became less about emerging groups and more an off-season for artists who were already gainfully employed in theatre somehow.

It was pointed out last night by Comrade Myers that audiences would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the quality of work between the downstairs or upstairs theatres, I think this is testament to the temperament of creators coming through the system. After all, when you look at some of the pedigree, we have established actors and directors from professional theatre, film and television taking part. We have award winning writers being selected, not debutantes… it’s been a few years now since the downstairs Belvoir space was dedicated to relative unknowns. There have been hugely successful shows coming through (admittedly this is a part of the complaint about the changes) – but let’s look at the anatomy of this. Exhibit A: Ruben Guthrie– a downstairs success from an established writer and associate of the STC, with an excellent cast – moves upstairs – and lo! Major Cast Overhaul. If I remember correctly, many in the independent sector were (rightly) outraged at such a thing. But could that have happened like that if the downstairs cast were already being paid? Do we start to sense a pattern here? The downstairs kids were being royally shafted – and lining up, even begging for the chance to bend over. Some privileged few made a bit of coin off it but that was all – certainly not award wages. But these are for the most part, professionals at work, a far cry from the gifted amateur companies in the class of ’98. Clearly, when we have a situation where the large part of the theatre community are up in arms about a pay rort, something had to give, both philosophically and structurally. So for better or worse; this is what we get. But you can’t please everyone, as the dissidents have shown.

so what exactly went down here?
It’s fair to say there was a pretty diverse mood in the room last night, for the most part relaxed, with twinges of anxiety, even moments of mild hostility during the question and answer session. Others were supportive, or like myself; skeptical at first but came along to listen, open to be convinced, or curious about the details. It was certainly thorough, with Chairman Ralph outlining the broad stroke prospectus and opening the floor up for comments that came thick and fast from all corners. A wide range of concerns were brought up of varying degrees of significance. The main issue to my mind is to do with the selection process: a question which manifested itself in all manner of comments from the sublime unpacking of ‘what is an independent production in this context’ to the frankly ridiculous accusatory sense of entitlement to a space which the folks at Belvoir have been kind enough to lend to some talented independent producers over the years. And having grown used to the teat, baby grows fat and says waah when it’s taken away.

The response was pretty clear that the artistic team from here on in are interested in letting Australian theatre artists get on with it. So if you’re an independent producer, writer, director or company with a project in mind; Belvoir are open to suggestion. The other big news coming through is that there will be an emphasis on new Australian product. Now that, my pretties, qualifies strictly speaking as “music to my fucking ears”. Let that sink in for a moment. For every complaint about the ‘doors closing’ I will see that and raise you four new Australian plays. And remember, the upstairs and downstairs seasons are being curated as one. So it’s likely (from the way Comrade Myers was talking) we’ll see more than a few new works coming up. And. Every. Writer. Gets. Paid. Read that last part again and then tell me doors are closing.

The big questions were answered in reasonable detail; effectively we’ll all still be able to put forward proposals, and if we can raise the money to pay our actors and crew then the space will be available when not in use by Company B. Meanwhile the organisation will endeavour to use the downstairs theatre during the dark time (sounds so sinister) for what was amusingly described as “stuff” – it is worth noting Chairman Ralph was particularly cagey about the impending season or any other details about the internal structuring of the company. And why shouldn’t he be? It’s an unsettling sense of entitlement that begins to emanate when we start making demands of people who really don’t owe us anything at all. Like the other particularly vocal question on the issue of consultation, particularly how the season for 2011 has already been selected. Apparently some people are miffed that they weren’t able to submit. Well, boo-hoo. There are other opportunities around, other theatres. Besides, even if every person with a project in that room were guaranteed a spot in the old B Sharp model; it would still take ten years to complete. And still, nobody would be getting paid. So get over it.

the big picture
This is a watershed moment, and it’s appropriate that it should come from the offices of the former sauce factory which has offered us so much over the years. What’s happening is a precedent is being set, one that was probably impossible even ten years ago; and by rights is impossible now – but like any true heretic knows – change can only come by making the impossible real. The impact is going to be far and wide. First of all: the proven B Sharp model has created a niche for independent theatre makers to get their work up and running. That niche is now wide open for any established company to take on, and believe it, somebody will. So you can all stop panicking anytime you like.

Secondly, and this is much more important: the game has changed. Belvoir have thrown down the gauntlet in terms of recognising Australian content as standing equal to any other. This will have wide implications for funding bodies, for the National Cultural Policy, and for the overall self esteem of Australian Playwrights. Remember that fiasco with the Premier’s Lit Awards from which nothing much happened apart from the mutual shaking of fists? This change is a step to ensure that never happens again. The ripples will travel far, when other major companies start following suit by programming more Australian work in years to come, new Australian works start premiering overseas, when we stop being so shamefully cynical about our own culture and start owning it creatively the way we should. So before you start your whinge; think about the bigger picture. I see doors opening.

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Entry filed under: Funding, Marketing, New Work, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO FRIGHT New Australian Theatre Voices Reaching Out

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Waites  |  13/07/2010 at 6:04 pm

    A significant contribution to the debate. Personally I have no opinion – it’s for you young folk to work out. But I follow with interest. Get your hands dirty, run up your flag readers – 5th Wall and A Supple have responded with scary velocity and insight today already.

    Oh and whoever stuck naughty stickers on Belvoir’s door – I love that – militant activism. I don’t care what side you’re on. Just don’t wreck anything…eg – don’t burn down my neighbourhood!

    Reply
    • 2. anvildrops  |  13/07/2010 at 7:41 pm

      thanks! yes, there was a lot to take in…

      Yes I have read Ms Supple’s report, and I think the concerns are reasonable… although I don’t agree with all of it. that’s to be expected. I can hardly even agree on what flavour I want for a packet of noodles. but I digress

      it’s worth mentioning that Chairman Ralph (he was standing on a chair, see) actually gave fairly constructive and lucid responses to the various questions on the list where he could… her post reads like most of the questions were left hanging! and on their own they can also appear quite loaded.

      anyway… I would say as much in the commentary there but for some reason my comments are blocked or deleted or something. it may be unintentional, or maybe she has it in for me! who knows đŸ™‚

      and who is the mystery poster artist? i think it’s a safe bet that it was somebody in the room last night. I have my suspicions. but suspicions they shall remain!

      Reply
  • 3. David  |  16/07/2010 at 9:08 pm

    hi dude – it’s a really interesting situation for us now. Appreciate your views on bsharp. What sort of people or theatres do you think could take care of this hole in the independent arts? Looking ahead I’m not sure who has the means to do it.

    Reply
    • 4. anvildrops  |  17/07/2010 at 4:49 pm

      Hi David, it’s certainly a turning point. No-one can ever truly replace B# as a totally unique program, but there are all kinds of opportunities to artists out there already, through theatres like the Seymour Centre, organisations like Performance Space & Carriageworks, and probably others I can’t think of right now.

      There’s no reason why a company couldn’t expand on the current options, or develop a similar program to fill one of the many theatres between Bondi & Penrith. I’m sure some funding could be worked out if the right people were running it.

      Then maybe in fifteen years or so when that program has established itself, we can build on that so those artists get paid too! it’s all a part of a long term evolution. We are witnesses to history in action!

      Reply

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