ATF2013: Major Theatre Companies

by Jane

This afternoon, the conversation moved into the territory of the major theatre companies: panelists discussing their ideals and ideas for their companies and where they fit in the landscape. Hosted by Stephen Armstrong, chair of the Theatre Board at the Australia Council, he initially threw the conversation to Geordie Brookman, Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, to talk about what it means to take over a company.

Brookman has been in the position since May 2012, initially purely in a programming capacity   There is a ”strange process of coming into a company, taking the audience through your predecessor’s program and then beginning,” he said. “It’s like you have two beginnings.”

Brookman came into the company as part of an “Executive Team” with Rob Brookman as CEO. Together, said Brookman they wanted the company to be a “creatively brave and ambitious company that had an ongoing relationship with artists […] and a company that was deeply connected to its community and its colleagues nationally and internationally.”

When Brookman came into the role, he said, “we came into a company in a fragile situation.”

“Growth gets inhibited by the necessarily measures you have to take to stabilise a very large company some times. […] You cannot shrink or cut your way out of trouble. You can only create your way out of trouble.” The company has made an effort to collaborate with interstate companies, work on creative developments, and a new work program is underway.

One of the things Brookman has learnt in the company is “every project requires its own timeline and its own process.”  The company is engaging with wide number of sources – theatre makers and playwrights – and are progressing from there.

Leading a major company is also about building trust. “At it’s best, theatre is it’s community storyteller,” he said. “It’s the place to go where we tell each other’s stories. […] If that trust isn’t there then you’re up against it, so part of that process has been building trust.”

Wesley Enoch, the AD of Queensland Theatre Company said much of coming into the AD role is of building narratives: “There are all these narratives around success.”

“You don’t want to suppress or burden the outgoing directors program”, he said, but you want to create the most exciting narrative about your program.

“It’s hard to believe that anyone up here was once a freelance artist, but we all were.” Any AD, he said, wants to “stamp the aesthetic” of the company, and he said it is interesting to consider how this will develop at Melbourne Theatre Company under Brett Sheehy’s Artistic Directorship, and how he will stamp “an aesthetic, a drive and an artistic vision.”

Leticia Caceres, the Associate Director at MTC responded: “what I can say about making a stamp is I’m Argentinean and [Sheehy] out-passions me when it comes to the arts […] his passion floors me. […] His vision is quite eclectic and that to me is incredibly exciting because it opens up the conversation, the form, the spaces, and the type of artists that we’re working with.”

“I’ve always thought that state theatre companies should be at the cutting edge,” she said.

Enoch spoke about an “incredible blurring of the lines” between state theatre companies, arts centers, and festivals. “I’m asking what is the unique offering?”

Replied Caceres “the unique offering of Melbourne Theatre Company at the moment is stories.”

On spending the weekend reading the websites for the major theatre companies, Armstrong said “I was really quite moved to read the vision statements and the histories of the companies,” and asked Polly Rowe, the Literary Manager at the Sydney Theatre Company, to respond to STC’s artistic vision.

“Theatre Without Borders […] is not just about reaching out, but also about reaching in,” she said. Under Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, she said, STC worked with independent companies, interstate companies, and brought in international works, but also went out and worked with communities.

She went on, “maybe its also important to consolidate. Maybe we were trying to do too much” and maybe, then, she said, it’s important to start to bring back in and “build more of an STC style” and find the stamp Enoch was talking about.

For Matt Lutton, Associate Artist (Director) at Malthouse Theatre, his role has been “about continuing that conversation and that multi- disciplinary conversation.”

He’s interested in questioning “how you can get a group of people in a room talking before you start talking about the theatre […] trying to resource that so theatre starts to be made by a team of people.”

Working at Malthouse, he said, he finds it inspiring that anything can be initiated by any artist.

Brenna Hobson, the General Manager of Belvoir, spoke about what it meant for the company when long-standing AD Neil Armfield decided to leave the position. “We had an artistic director who was still creating incredibly good work. He still is,” she said.

“In a way, Neil was at the height of his powers,” so the company knew that they needed to create change. She went on to speak about how Ralph Myers changed the way the company used their Downstairs Theatre, making sure everyone who worked in that theatre was paid, cutting their B Sharp program of independent artists and programming the Downstairs Theatre themselves. Other changes were made to the structure of the company, including employing their first Associate Director.  At Belvoir, she said, they “can engage with any artist you find exciting.”

Peter Evens shares the AD role at Bell Shakespeare with John Bell. “If I had half [Bell’s] energy,” said Evans. Evans has been involved in the company since 1997 and said “we share a lot of the same values.”

For the company “there is still a desire to reach as far as we possibly can, so one of the things we’ve done in the last three years is to make work in other cities. […] We think it’s incredibly important to not just be a touring company but to be a national company.”

With a lot more companies doing Shakespeare and the classics, the company has had conversations with other companies and producing work not by Shakespeare: “we didn’t have a budget line for royalties.”

“We are a company founded on the back of a writer” and the company is moving more and more into commissioning. Without a venue, they are looking to work with companies to make more new work.

Rowe asked her co-panelists with more companies broadening their scope “is there a flattening out that we’re at risk of?”

Said Enoch “it goes back to the idea of a unique offering.”

“The number of physical theatre ensembles in Brisbane is in the dozens […] and we have a number of Shakespeare ensembles. So we’ve gone back to producing Shakespeare as a reflection of our community. […] So it’s about what’s unique about what we’re offering.”

Said Brookman, “every company’s place in the ecology is different.” Like Bell Shakespeare, he said STCSA doesn’t have a venue that gives different challenges to the company.

Mike Finch, Artistic Director and CEO of Circus Oz, refered back to Enoch’s comment about all of the panelists coming from an independent background. “I was definitely a poor artists, but I don’t actually remember a time when I was a freelance artist”, he said.

From the university course he went through at Bathurst “we were never sent out into the world as individuals.” At Circus Oz it is “a tribal structure, a family structure, your best partner is the other person on the stage with you or the person hanging onto the end of the rope. […] And that’s a metaphor and a reality.”

Circus Oz has three CEOs, and decisions are made collectively. On the new home base the company is building in Collingwood, said, Finch, “The DNA of the founders of the company is going to be in the bricks and mortar.”

Opening the floor up to questions, the panel was asked about the position of playwrights in contemporary Australian theatre.

Said Lutton “the doors are open to writers. I don’t think they’ve ever been closed. But there are also other ways to make theatre.”

Caceres  said “my first passion is to create Australian work. I love it. […] People love story. They love it. And especially when it’s about the here and now. Right now. About all of the things we cried about an hour ago.”

Rowe replied “I love new work – obviously I’m the literary manager – but I feel sometimes there is a culture of expecting quite unreasonable things from new plays” you can’t compare all new plays to August: Osage County or Chekhov, she said.

For Hobson, she thinks “we’re creating a false distinction between playwrights and theatre makers.”

Armstrong then asked about how can playwrights find their way into companies? Directors find their way in through secondments and assistant directorships, he said, but how can playwrights find these pathways?

For Brookman, “you have to create the space to fail, and you have to back artists over several productions.”

For him, the major companies need to be “brave enough to fail, and having the space to fail.”