No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Australia Council

Arts NSW Funding: HotHouse Theatre and Renew Newcastle

Update 26/11: Funding to Renew Newcastle has been restored

Update 2 26/11: HotHouse has just released a press release which reads: “Arts NSW has offered HotHouse Theatre transitional funding for 2013 at the full amount requested in its application.”

Today, Arts NSW released its funding for 2013, and two nationally significant arts organisations had their funding reduced, in the case of Renew Newcastle, and removed, in the case of HotHouse Theatre [will hyper-link when more information is available].

Renew Newcastle was established in 2008, and has gone on to spawn a national movement in Renew Australia, with presence so far in Adelaide, Townsville, Parramatta, and Geelong. The program brokers relationships so empty buildings and spaces are available for use at low cost with rolling leases. This helps inject into the “vibrant” economy policy makers are always talking about.

Particularly in the age of the internet and websites such as etsy, anyone can be a maker and a seller. Renew Newcastle brought these creators out of their homes and into the centre of Newcastle. When these creators set up in a publicly accessible space, they bring with them the public. With the contribution of Renew Newcastle, Newcastle was listed in Lonely Planet’s World’s Top 10 Cities for 2011 – the only Australian city to make the list.

Newcastle is a small city – although I was shocked to learn it is almost half the size of Adelaide – and even when I was there for TINA, a quiet one. At the core of the city, though, is an extraordinary collection of unique spaces: hand-made craft shops, vintage stores, galleries, and studios, to scratch the surface. These spaces give homes to people who would perhaps otherwise move south to Sydney, and contributes to the Newcastle ecology in creating a town which people from outside of these creative industries also have a reason to stay in.

In the UK’s NewStart magazine in September, Westbury said:

Recently SGS Economics and Planning undertook the first independent assessment of Renew Newcastle. Among its key findings were that it had directly contributed to avoidance or mitigation of blight and antisocial behaviour; improved business and community confidence; improved skills development; encouraged greater volunteer engagement; created intellectual capital, some of commercial value; created jobs; made cost savings due to reduced maintenance; and improved regional ‘brand value’, tourism and inward investment.

Most importantly of all, at least from my point of view, is that 80 projects involving hundreds, if not thousands, of local makers, creators and citizens have been given an opportunity to do what they do they believe in and are passionate about. In turn, those people have engaged, entertained and inspired many tens of thousands more both directly and indirectly. Optimism is replacing despair and stories about what is happening and possible are displacing stories about what has gone wrong and who is to blame.

The independent assessment Westbury refers to [website down at time of writing] also found that the project has a whopping return on investment of 10:1.

The power of the Renew projects is proving to have a transformative effect on how we look at space and at cities. The low rates and rolling leases mean they are perfectly tailored for these enterprises which wouldn’t be able to afford a commercial lease. This creates city spaces with a multiplicity of opportunities and experiences for creators and for customers. By their very nature, people that move into these Renew spaces are unique: not only in comparison to the broader commercial environment, but also to within the Renew projects.

Arts NSW funding into Renew Newcastle is comparatively tiny – just $50,000 per annum, but in 2013 that will be slashed to just $30,000, and comes as the organisation was looking to expand, asking for $70,000.

Renew Newcastle has most recently taken over the old David Jones building, installing nine stalls in the abandoned building. In the place of a commercial department store you can find thirty-seven facsimiles of and that couldn’t sustain itself in Newcastle, are stores of and for the community it exists in. Renew Newcastle continues to actively broker these relationships, and actively set a national and international example for how to rethink our cities and the ever growing number of abandoned buildings.

HotHouse Theatre was established as the Murray River Performing Group by a collective of young early graduates from the VCA in 1979. Located in the NSW/Victorian border towns of Albury Wodonga, and renamed during a 1997 restructuring, it is unfortunately all too unique its qualities as both a professional regional theatre, and a theatre focusing on new Australian work. HotHouse theatre creates presentation and development opportunities for both members of the local community, and members of the wider national sector through a variety of programs, including a year long subscription season, youth project The Studio, an education program, and month-long residencies.

Like most theatre companies in Australia, it has gone through peaks and troughs in its existence. Funded as a Key Organisation with the Australia Council, in the last year the company was put ‘on notice’ for its funding: rather than accepted into the traditional three year funding cycle, the company was funded for one year and in that time it had to prove it was working towards an economically and artistically sustainable future.

The company did this for both the Australia Council and Arts Victoria, and was reinstated in full to the Key Organisations list. These decisions do not come lightly, and the company would have invested significant time and energy into formulating future plans that fit within the artistic visions of these funding bodies. In addition to this vote of confidence, in the past two years HotHouse has increased subscription attendance 270% [private correspondence].

The company received no warning from Arts NSW that its funding was under consideration, let alone was tapped for possible removal. For each of Renew Newcastle and HotHouse Theatre, these new funding arrangements start from January 1. This leaves only five weeks for the organisations to radically readdress how they will approach the incoming year, with no prior warning to put contingency plans in place.

Just over a month ago, I was privileged enough to attend Kumuwuki / Big Wave, and spend the long weekend listening to and talking to people who create work in regional and rural Australia. We are a huge and disparate country, made up of many varied people and many varied communities, and the work which happens outside of our capital cities is just as vital as the work which happens in them.

We are continually becoming more connected as a country, and with the advent of the National Broadband Network this will again be more true than ever. It would be a tragedy, though, to assume this connectedness means cities can broadcast to the regions and this will be enough. Every community in Australia deserves the strongest chance to thrive. This means supporting the people and the organisations which supply the ideas and the space to make this happen wherever they are, but even more pertinently in regional areas.

Renew Newcastle continues to prove its worth locally, nationally, and internationally. HotHouse Theatre recently increased subscriber numbers well against national trends, is a beloved and longstanding part of the national landscape, and has recently proven itself in the eyes of the Australia Council. Nationally, we need to be paying attention to what happens in our regional centres. Nationally, we should all be scared for what these funding decisions mean. Each of these organisations are organising responses to fight for the reinstatement of funding. I urge you to get involved in any way you can.

Restoring the balance

This article was originally published in the June Adelaide Review. 

A recent report has found that women are underrepresented in key Australian theatre company roles such as writing and directing. But why?

Not one of the eight plays the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA) announced for their 2011 season – in late 2010 – was written by a woman. Indeed, from 2001 to 2011, women have written less than a quarter of the plays the company has mounted.

Come their 2012 program, there is now a female writer or co-writer on five of the eight productions. While outgoing Artistic Director Adam Cook told The Adelaide Review(‘Bright Future on the Stage’, October, 2011) this programming was a “coincidence”, the shift speaks to a much wider national acknowledgment of the underrepresentation of women in the key creative roles of writers and directors in our funded theatre companies.

While conversations about this misrepresentation have been occurring for years, they reached tipping point in late 2009, when several high profile theatre companies announced seasons of work with exceedingly few women. When Company B (now Belvoir) in Sydney released a season of works with only one female playwright and one female director, the first significant waves of awareness occurred in the debate.

First reported on the blog of Sydney playwright Joanna Erskine, who called it an “unacceptable gap in statistics”, the debate quickly spread through theatrical blogs, and began to focus on the underrepresentation of women in many of the country’s highest funded organisations.

This April, the debate came to a crux with the release of the Women in Theatre report from the Australia Council for the Arts. Compiled by academics Elaine Lally and Sarah Miller, the report casts an unflattering light on the theatre sector.

The report looks at the qualitative statistics to get an overview of the true position of women in funded theatre companies; and takes quantitative data through a series of interviews to try and shine better light on the causes of the issues.

One of the key findings of the report focused on the major performing arts companies in the period between 2001 and 2011. These eight theatre companies, of which the STCSA is a member, are the highest funded theatre organisations in Australia. The report showed women make up only 21 percent of the playwrights and 25 percent of the directors working for these companies. At 36 percent, the proportion of productions with at least one woman in the key roles of writer or director is no less dire.

Below the funding levels of the MPA companies, the Theatre Board Key Organisations are a collection of companies funded by the Australia Council with multi-year funding. Typically classified as in the ‘small-to-medium’ sector, Key Organisations represent a larger number of companies than the MPA companies, but each with typically lower outputs of work.

While the report showed greater representation of women in these companies, the proportions are still significantly below parity, with women writing 37 percent of the productions, and directing another 37 percent.

Raised in interviews Lally and Miller held with artists and stakeholders, the reasons for this continuing disparity between gender representations are complex.

While some of these reasons will be familiar to women in many industries, including the structure of employment pathways and the challenges of balancing a career and family, some are unique to the nature of the arts. As one interview respondent told the report, “all new work is risky but women’s work is perceived to be riskier”.

In 1984 the Council endorsed the paper Women in the Arts: A Strategy for Action, which was the first comprehensive look by the Council at the underrepresentation of women in the sectors they fund. While many strategies were implemented, the current statistics paint a concerning picture for how little things have changed.

That same year, Vitalstatistix Women’s Theatre Company was founded by artists Margie Fisher, Roxxy Bent and Ollie Black to champion the work and stories of women in theatre. While the Port Adelaide company has undergone many incarnations over the years, no longer presenting with the word women in their title, gender-aware programming is still a core part of their mission.

In response to this new report, current Creative Producer of Vitalstatistix, Emma Webb, said while the face of the industry is changing, “both statistical and anecdotal evidence shows there continues to be barriers and cultural issues that affect the career advancement of women in the arts”.

“Changes comes in stops and starts, peaks and troughs; the national debate around women’s leadership in theatre over the last few years, and reports like this, ensure the discussion around women in theatre is not some kind of historical survey but rather are in the here and now,” she said.

While the long-term effects of any response to the new report are yet to be seen, radically fast changes in programming at major companies like the STCSA gives hope for a changing industry face. Hopefully, the 2013 seasons will show us the only way is up.

Women In Theatre Report

I speak a lot about how blogs are changing the culture around the way we speak around theatre and the arts. I think, possibly, the greatest thing theatre-blogs in this country can do is speak for and create a movement with speed and with power.

When Belvoir announced their now infamous 2010 season, lining eleven men and one woman up on stage to say this is the theatre we’re making this year there was outrage. This physical manifestation of the gender disparity which has plagued the Australian theatre for as long as we have had one threw a new generation of theatre-makers and commenters up in arms.

I documented the main-stages of 2011, and things weren’t rosy. I fully plan to do the same thing again for 2012, as soon as I have a sliver of time in my life. But I was just one tiny fraction of the national movement.

In 2011, two companies – the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Queensland Theatre Company – had no women playwrights. STCSA’s AD Cook said:

there is no conspiracy, you just have to be talented, and the people who would hire you have to agree that you are … And that is the blunt fact of getting a job.  You just have to be good.  And the same with playwrights, they think “why aren’t you doing my plays?”  Well, I don’t think it’s very good. There’s always one answer, isn’t there?

By contrast, QTC’s AD Wesley Enoch said:

When you look at gender, women make up more than 53 per cent of the population. How are we responding to that as artistic directors? … When you look at the figures, then action comes about. QTC has no women playwrights in [2011’s] season, no indigenous playwrights or from a non-English speaking background. What are we saying?¹

Come 2012, STCSA has 54.69% female playwrights; and QTC has 22.22%. No one said this battle wasn’t going to be confusing.

It’s going to be long. And hard. And stressful. And, yes, always always confusing.

But yesterday, it took another huge leap forward with the publishing of the Women In Theatre paper through the Australia Council.  I contributed some of quantitative data to the report, which is compiled with quantitative interviews, and together they paint a national picture across the Major Performing Arts Group companies and the Theatre Board Key Organisations.

Please, read the paper. Share it among your networks. Take its statistics and try to make it better. And when it’s not better, call people out.

I like to think we’re part of a movement, that something is happening, that things will get better. But I can’t do it without you.

¹AWG “Raw Sexism at Play” Storyline Issue 29, Summer 2011

Adelaide’s Lament: Pent-up Frustrations

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.

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