Adelaide’s Lament: Pent-up Frustrations

by Jane

However much I talk about youth issues in Adelaide, it is in many ways a city where it is great to be a young maker of things – because the generation above us is missing.  They’re living in Sydney or Melbourne.  It’s much easier to find yourself noticed or to raise your voice above the din when there isn’t much of a crowd which needs to be broken through.  But how is this impacting on the younger and emerging generations of artists?  Is the cultural drain, coupled with a lack of venues where independent artists can present – and where audiences interested in independent work can attend – and Adelaide’s insularity having a negative impact on the quality of art produced?

In both Brisbane and Sydney this year, I saw work by people who were once based in Adelaide, but now these writers, directors, actors, and stage managers, live and create work in other cities for other audiences.  This work ran the gauntlet from among the best (The Seagull) to among the worst (Woyzeck) I saw this year, but the point is I couldn’t have seen it at home.  I don’t blame them – I’m not planning on sticking around forever – but this has a two-fold effect on the cultural ecology of Adelaide.  Not only are we losing these artists and these voices, we’re also losing the effect these artists can have on the generation who follows them: the knowledge base and the talent which can be shared is lost.

It is, of course, a self-perpetuating cycle.  The “brain-drain” creates its own pull, the more creative people that leave, the more others feel they need to leave, too, to find new opportunities,  be them creative, employment, or creative employment orientated.   Then, particularly in the case of arts administrators, as people start to return to Adelaide to raise their families, having worked interstate almost becomes a prerequisite for many higher level jobs.  There is, it seems, even the perception that you must leave in order to advance in a career in Adelaide.

It is not only the artists who leave, it is the other people interested in punctuating their lives with arts and culture outside of the festival context.  The more these people leave, the harder it is for artists to find audiences, and the more artists leave to move interstate.

The pull of the Adelaide artists in Sydney or Melbourne grows ever stronger, the pull of Adelaide grows ever weaker.

But it’s not just the people which contribute to this drain.  “The venues” issue is one which pops up a lot and it is one which has severe ramifications on Adelaide as a presenter of work, and is directly contributing to the drain.  The only venue in Adelaide which currently programs a season of work year round is the Adelaide Festival Centre, where the smallest venue, the black box Space Theatre can seat 168 to 352 depending on configuration.  This venue is notoriously expensive, to the point where some Adelaide-based companies who need a 300 – 400 seat venue are choosing to not present work in Adelaide at all, going to the regions and then other state capitals.  Two local theatre productions which were originally programmed in the Space in 2011 that I know of were cancelled.  When Adelaide companies can’t take the risk on that venue, what luck does anyone travelling from interstate have?  We are not only losing the presentation of SA work, but of touring work, too.

Most of the non-festival based programming in the Space came from the inSPACE program, which in 2011 showed the Children’s Cheering Carpet’s Saltbush (immersive children’s theatre, Italy/Vic)My Darling Patricia’s Africa (theatre/puppetry, Vic), independent dance work Side To One (SA)and a “Mini Festival of New Performances”, incorporating The Harry Harlow Project (theatre, Vic) and I Left My Shoes on Warm Concrete and Stood in the Rain (dance, SA/Vic).  Of these five productions, three were presented with Mobile States, meaning there was significant investment in presenting these shows in a national tour.  inSPACE in this version seems to have been struck from the Adelaide Festival Centre for 2012.  While the number of inSPACE development works – work in progress presented in a rehearsal room for a donation payment – has doubled, the platform for presentation of independent professional theatre and dance has been lost, with nary a whimper.

Outside of the festivals, programmed into the Space Theatre in 2012 the AFC has placed music with their new January Sessions program, and the Various People ensemble in June; a series of work for children – The List Operators For Kids! (Vic), Catherine Wheels Theatre Company’s White (co-presented with Windmill) (UK), and Patch Theatre Company’s Me And My Shadow (SA); and Katrina Lazaroff’s dance piece Involuntary (co-presented with One Point 618; an inSPACE 2011 development work) (SA).

It seems through inSPACE development, the AFC are developing theatrical work from South Australian artists, but primarily presenting work from interstate and international artists.  Of the theatre works being presented in the AFC program across the Space, Dunstan Playhouse, and Her Majesty’s Theatre next year, three hail from the UK, three from NSW, and just one from South Australia – the extant Me And My Shadow, which premiered at Marryatville High School’s Forge Theatre in 2010.

State Theatre Company of South Australia is using the Space Theatre to present Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Simon Stephen’s Pornography, alongside their main season in the Dunstan Playhouse, but the AFC has programmed no theatre work for adults in the Space Theatre in 2012 in their season.  The one venue in Adelaide which can take mid-sized tours of independent work will now be but a too-expensive-hall-for-hire, and these works will continue to pass us by.  Independent artists in Adelaide will continue to look elsewhere – hopefully within this city, but it seems the tides are turning against Adelaide’s audiences – either to relocate, or to present: creating here, but not showing here.

The Space Theatre occupies the gap between the 230 seat end-on Odeon Theatre (outside of the festivals, rarely used by professional companies other than venue operator and childrens theatre company Patch) and the 600 seat proscenium Dunstan Playhouse in the AFC, and is the only extant venue in Adelaide which has a truly flexible configuration.  The barriers towards using this venue affects not only the artists who are making or touring work with an intended audience of 250 – 400 per performance, but it affects audiences who lose the cultural vocabulary which comes from being exposed to this level of work, and it affects young and emerging artists who lose sight of the spectrum between their own practice and major productions.

The more Adelaide sits outside of the national touring circuit, and the longer we continue to have evacuations of a generation, the wider the gap between Adelaide and our interstate counterparts will become.   “You can’t be what you can’t see”, goes the mantra.  How can we expect Adelaide artists to reach their true potential when they can’t see work which can inform them just how high their potential can be?  When Adelaide is creating young artists who can’t look at the work of the generation who went through the same steps as them as they graduated, who can’t directly look at the best independent work coming out of Melbourne or Sydney, what sort of artists are we creating?

And this gap isn’t just present comparing Adelaide to Melbourne and Sydney, the gap grows ever wider between Adelaide and Brisbane.  Significant programming of work happens at QPAC, Brisbane City Council owned Brisbane Powerhouse, and Arts Queensland owned and managed  Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts: with a theatre, art gallery, screening room, artist studios and a slate of resident cultural organisations.  Brisbane’s La Boite is the second company creating work for adults in Brisbane which programs an annual season, alongside the Queensland Theatre Company.  In 2012, QTC will be running GreenHouse, “a visceral hothouse of art, ideas and exploration.” La Boite also provides support, a venue, and a season, for independent artists in their La Boite Indie season, with their third season just announced.  Metro Arts is an independent arts venue in the centre of Brisbane city, programming a season of independent work, has a slate of residencies and allied companies, and runs MAPS for Artists – a managing and producing service for artists, which provides “support structure for creators of new performance work  and coordinates regional, national and international touring activities.”  Are we ever going to see a Judith Wright Centre, a GreenHouse, a La Boite, a La Boite Indie, a MAPS for Artists?

But La Boite Indie and QTC’s upcoming GreenHouse, coming off the back of their 2011 Studio with independent arts organisations, aren’t the only organisations bridging gaps between mainstage and independent artists. Malthouse Melbourne recently closed applications for their new Helium initiative for “Australia’s  independent artists and ensembles.”  Griffin Independent started running in 2009, to “bridge the independent and main stage sectors and to provide our top independent theatre makers with the best opportunities and support”; in the same year Belvoir hosted the final season of B Sharp, bucking against the national trend.  Sydney Theatre Company works with independent artist through Next Stage seasons (“They should be by emerging artists. They should be formally intentive. And they should feel new. They should be cheap, cheerful and rough.”) and Rough Draft developments and showings.  While these aren’t all of the first- and second- tier companies, where is the STCSA on this list?  I believe they are a company which should be contributing to the development and presentation of work by emerging and independent artists; I believe they need to become a part of this conversation.

Outside of the AFC, Vitalstatistix is the only other organisation which curates a body of theatre-based work for a single venue across the year.  Based at the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide, there can be significant perceptional barriers as to seeing this as a part of Adelaide, despite being just a twenty minute drive away.  The program, incorporating full productions to development residencies working with many independent artists, shows a big output for  such a small organisation, but doesn’t begin to make up for the gaps in other parts of the local sector.  The remainder of Adelaide’s venues are simply halls-for-hire, with consistency sketchy at best.  Many, due to highly cost prohibitive venue hire, particularly those for whom security must also be paid for, are rarely used outside of the festival season.

What sort of venues can our young and independent artists be working towards presenting in when so few come with consistency?  Where can our audiences find work when everything is programmed independently?  While I started this talking about the 300 seat venues, this really is an issue which impacts on everything from underground work to the larger independent companies.

South Australia is “the Festival State”; and we do festivals well.  We fund festivals well.  In the 2010 State budget, the Adelaide Festival of Arts received an extra $9.9 million over three years; the AFC’s Cabaret Festival and OzAsia Festival received an extra $3 million between them. Industry Development funding, which supports mid-sized organisations across artforms lost more than $1 million, a quarter of their total budget. (Much more detail on this over at confidential without the parenthesis.)  We are “the Festival State”: it’s much flashier to bring in a crew of off-Broadway singers for two weeks then invest in local work.

Since the open-access Adelaide Fringe went annual in 2007, many people have noted a fluctuation in quality of work in the theatre program in relation to the Australian Performing Arts Market, a biannual event run alongside the Festival of Arts.  It was recently announced that South Australia has lost the rights for this market, which has been produced by Adelaide based Arts Projects Australia since 1998.  From 2014, the market will be presented by the Brisbane Powerhouse coinciding with their World Theatre Festival, the Brisbane organisation beating Adelaide at tender in a move which came as a shock to no-one.

Now with over 900 events, unless you are a big-name comedian, musician, or commercial Spiegeltent production, it is highly unlikely that artists and presenters will make a profit at the Fringe, perhaps least of all independent theatre.  What the Fringe can offer is a platform to present work to new audiences, new presenters and producers – a platform which is greatly enhanced by the power of APAM.  While the Fringe has its own program hosting producers and presenters, Honey Pot, if this will be able to replace the power of APAM in attracting theatrical productions is yet to be seen.

Outside of the international Fringe, Adelaide can tend to be very insular.  I’ve been shocked several times this year when I’ve mentioned smaller to mid-sized interstate companies whom I would have expected Adelaide theatre-makers to know of, only to be met with blank faces.  How much do these artists see themselves as participants in a greater Australian theatrical ecology?  Even if their work isn’t being seen yet outside of Adelaide, are our artists striving to be part of a national conversation, trying to make themselves noticed on a national platform?

There has been more than one production in this city this year I only heard about through a friend’s facebook status the night before it opened, or only after the reviews come out. If this is how I hear about work – as someone actively engaged in the local theatre scene – what hope does anyone interstate have of being part of our conversation?

When it comes down to it, I want to be able to say I am proud to come from Adelaide, that I believe we are an important national player, that our theatre-makers are among the best in the country.  As 2011 draws to a close, however, I am feeling exhausted by the work that Adelaide is, and exasperated that more people here won’t fight loudly and publicly and nationally.  But fight isn’t the right word; theatre and art should always be a conversation, and I see very few people from Adelaide participating in the current national conversation.

We have a Critics Circle so disconnected from the national dialogue as to profess that their own awards “arguably are the most coveted in the country” and “the most valuable for careers and reputations.”  I am, honestly, at a complete loss at what to say to something which is equal parts ignorant and pompous.  Not only does this hurt the standing of Adelaide’s arts writers, holding themselves above the nation in such a way for an awards ceremony which is barely a blip on the national awards radar, but it indeed hurts the whole Adelaide arts industry by spreading pomp and circumstance where it is not wanted nor deserved.

At home in Adelaide, it is easy to decree the lack of SA based nominations for the Helpmann Awards, to scoff at ArtsHub only focusing their 2011 wrap up on the Eastern Seaboard.  But: what would you place there?  What would you say is coming out of Adelaide to play on the national (or international) scale?  What would an Eastern Seaboard native say is coming out of Adelaide to play on the national scale?

They’re there, of course. Our children’s theatre companies, SlingsbyWindmill and Patch all have recent or shortly upcoming US tours; ADT regularly travels to Europe; The Border Project, Leigh Warren and Dancers with State Opera South Australia, and Brink Productions have all toured interstate in recent years.  But these are increasingly the exception rather than the rule; companies which are funded year-round afforded the ability to take their shows out nationally; medium-sized, not small-sized.

Work is being done to make touring easier: the Australia Council recently visited Adelaide in consultation sessions around creating a National Touring Framework; I hear about the occasional workshop.  But at the moment, particularly for independent artists, the wall between local presentation and touring can be insurmountable.

The brain drain will march ever forward; there is no solution in sight for venues or support of independent work; we will continue to be a city which looks inwards rather than outwards, while still being a city which supports imported international culture over work which speaks to our own.

The final paragraph is where I should tell you how to fix it, what we’re going to do, where we are going to go.  But I can’t.  I don’t know how to fix this.  We need to see massive levels of change: from the policy makers, to the organisations seen as industry leaders, to venues and presenters, to a spectrum artists and audiences can participate in, so we can retain and create artists who are willing and able to give their all to this city but be part of this nation, damned be the consequences.

Until that happens: could the last person to leave please turn out the lights?