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"It’s a giant jigsaw"

It takes a live-wire to electrify a venue in danger of losing its mojo.

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Colour and movement: Craig Donarski fires up Casula Powerhouse

Date: 6 Jun 2018

Craig Donarski stands out in a crowd.

When he’s wearing one of his collection of idiosyncratic jackets – pink leopard print, Mexican Day of the Dead patterns, a rainbow of coloured balloons, or peacock feathers – you can’t easily miss him.

So I’m surprised to meet him this morning dressed in a simple white T-shirt. “I’ve got a bunch of jackets in the cupboard, would you like me to put one on?” he asks, only half-joking.

Donarski is the artistic director of Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) and he’s a colourful character. A former radio journalist with ABC Triple J, he converses in a ringing voice regularly punctuated with gravelly laughter. He’s a fun a lunch date and as the public face of the arts centre, he’s equally at home chatting with the over-70s coming in to see Singin’ in the Rain as he is with an LGBTQI crowd dancing half-naked in the former power station’s cavernous foyer.

“We had a Bad Dog dance party in here recently,” he says. “We bus people in from the city for a dance party that starts at 2pm and ends at 11pm. It’s all over by midnight, it’s very civilised. They are people who love art, so we keep the galleries open until 7pm. They are out here dancing and then looking at the Archibald Prize …” he laughs, pointing to the open galleries just off the foyer.

Donarski has been director here for less than two years, recruited for his experience in bringing young and diverse audiences into established venues without alienating the old guard.

It was Donarski (in cahoots with executive producer Virginia Hyam) who created The Studio program at the Sydney Opera House, which drew in new kinds of audiences for cabaret, burlesque, comedy and genre-defying hybrids “that didn’t even have a name yet.”

When he started at the Opera House, the average age of an audience member was something in excess of 55. “They were ageing and dying,” Donarski says. “They were pulling dead bodies out at the end of concerts. ‘The man in H27 isn’t moving’… they were literally dropping dead.”

Donarski chortles again. He says outrageous things like this all the time.

With Donarski onboard running The Studio, the Opera House put a Speigeltent on its forecourt and brought in the Graphic Festival. “It was a really exciting time,” he says. “By the time I finished there, we had every rock band in the world wanting to play at the Opera House. They felt they had succeeded and youth audiences were no longer the priority.”

That’s when he got a call from Sydney Film Festival. They too had an ageing audience. They asked him to “do that thing you do” and he slashed the average age of the audience from 55 to 35.

“I did six festivals and had a ball,” he says.

How did he turn it around?

“We changed the language,” he says. “The festival assumed you’d been to uni or were a cinephile. Its idea of advertising was slipping programs into the Sydney Morning Herald. I made it more ‘street’ with posters, and social media and talking to radio stations like FBI and SER and Eastside Radio and all the things that get through to the kind of people who want to see Festival films. It wasn’t rocket science, it was doing the bleeding obvious.”

Donarski is bringing the same thinking to Casula Powerhouse, overseeing everything from the venue’s collection of more than 2000 artworks to the artichokes in organic kitchen garden. He’s booking pop stars, tenors in tuxedos and hip-hop artists from the local community. He’s building a skate ramp, a dog park and a new chicken house; “the Casula Fowl House,” he chuckles.

It’s all part of Donarski’s campaign to reinvigorate a site that “had gone to seed”.

“The wheels fell off this place a few years ago,” Donarski says. “The site had been earmarked as a possible intermodal freight terminal to service the new airport. The gardener left, the chef left, the theatre producer left, the marketing person left … It was moribund at best. The weeds were up to here, literally and metaphorically.”

Then in late 2016 the final plan for the new Western Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek was released – plans that located the freight terminal across the river at Morebank.

“That’s when I got a phone call and it was, ‘Hey Craig, how would you like to come out to Casula?’ Since then I’ve spent most of the last year refilling all of the vacant positions and restructuring the place from the ground up.”

The first task was to bring a sense of the electric to the old power station, one of four built in the early 1950s to supplement electricity generation during winter.

“We set out to dramatically increase the pace of activity here,” Donarski says. “What used to happen was that the place just about closed down between art exhibitions. Now we never close. There is always something on and there is always something new. This year, 24 exhibitions.”

There has been a similar increase in live performance programming, with dance parties, rock and pop concerts, and last year’s Soft Centre mini-festival of electronic and digital artists.

“We surprised everyone by winning the FBi Smack award for Sydney best music event,” Donarski says. “Everyone said what? Sydney’s best music event in Liverpool? It was even dubbed Sydney’s answer to Dark Mofo.”

Much as it was when it produced electricity, the Powerhouse is once again a place of many moving parts, says Donarski.

“We now have five galleries, one big theatre, a smaller theatre for intimate performances, a kids studio and an artist studio upstairs and a three-bedroom artist residence, we have a ceramics studio out there on the grounds and there is this great restaurant too, of course, because good food is a real driver of people coming to arts centres, especially with all the new residential development going on around here. We’ve been meeting with those new home buyers and saying welcome to your new back yard.”

Lessons learned from Donarski’s time with the Sydney Film Festival are being applied, too.

“I’ve been increasing the film program substantially because film is one of the ways you can reach the diverse audience who live near here,” he says. “We are one of the most culturally diverse local government authorities in the country. People speak over 140 different languages from over 150 different countries and more than 50 per cent don’t speak English at home.

“One of the easiest ways to bring in people is to show the cinema from their part of the world. This year, for example, we are the new home of the Pasifika Film Festival which makes total sense because this neighbourhood is a real epicentre for people from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands.”

Diversity in age is important, too. The Liverpool area is also one of the youngest, demographically speaking in the country.

“This ’hood is young!” Donarski says. “So we do big things like the WOW Children’s Festival each year and it’s growing and growing.”

The Liverpool area also has its economic challenges, which Donarski factors in to the programming and pricing of events.

“We have to be realistic and we are keeping the tickets super-cheap, otherwise people can’t come. We’ve brought in an equity program for people, too, so that people on low incomes who buy a ticket get one free,” Donarski explains. “I mean, why have an empty seat? I’m paying the artist to perform anyway and if we can only sell 150 tickets out of 300, why not give the rest away. There’s no cost in that.”

In his brief time at Casula Powerhouse, Donarski has created something as outlandishly colourful as his own wardrobe.

“The vision is almost a giant mosaic,” he smiles. “No one person could like all of it, no one person could be into all of it. It’s a giant jigsaw of music, theatre, festivals, dance, art, everything.”

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