Belvoir, Monday March 12, 2018
“I graduated from WAAPA in 2003, 15 years ago, and when I arrived in Sydney – I’d never lived here before – it was very clear within a week of turning up, that if you wanted to join this great old profession of ours as a young artist, the place to do it was the Old Fitzroy and here at Belvoir Downstairs. And the clarity of that being where you gathered and where you met your peers was so special and I aspired greatly to it.
And I was very lucky. My first time I got to work in Sydney was in a show at the Old Fitz called Dealer’s Choice, which until very recently held the record for being the highest-selling show at the Fitz.
I got very, very lucky and many of the peers I still work with today I met in those early years.
Also in that first year out, I auditioned for a show directed downstairs here by Lee Lewis [artistic director of Griffin] when she was starting out. She didn’t cast me in it. She says she regrets that now.
But I did aspire to work in the Downstairs Theatre very, very much and as an actor I never got to and it sort of saddened me quite a bit actually because it felt like you belonged to something if you could work here, in that space, in the B-Sharp days.
But I did begin my directing career in the independent sector here. I became the literary manager of this company when I was quite young, 26, and it took me quite a long time to summon up the courage to direct. I always knew I wanted to do it but I was very scared. It was about three years before I finally took the plunge.
It didn’t feel right for me to do my first show at Belvoir Downstairs so I went to Nick Marchand who at that point was the artistic director at Griffin Theatre Company which had the Stablemates program. He said here’s this German play [Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Arabian Night], how about you direct that?
I read it and thought I don’t know what the fuck this is, but I agreed to it because I think you’ve just gotta lose your virginity however you can at a certain point.
So I did it, and it was pretty dreadful. I didn’t know what I was doing and I think the actors knew that I didn’t know what I was doing.
I lost about $4000 of my own money on it. It was a profit share situation. There was a sort of economy that was built on top of it: you would have to pay a minimum amount of rent for the week or a percentage of your profits, and that made breaking even incredibly difficult. And you had to make sure you had a marketing budget, you had to have a publicist … the costs grew very quickly. I felt I had that experience and didn’t really learn from it.
So about five months later, I still didn’t really know if I could direct. I was on a plane reading this play, Summerfolk, and I liked it.
So over a period of 6 weeks I gathered 15 actors and I was lucky because I was working here and I knew there was a period of two weeks in the upstairs rehearsal room where there was nothing happening …
The show didn’t cost us anything really. We only did six performances. I put the whole thing on my credit card. We bought six blue tarps, a fuck-load of vegetarian sausages for Sophie Ross, and beers we drank during the show. At the end, we asked people for a donation.
We made a show we were really proud of and people wanted to see it … and the whole thing cost me about $600. It seemed to me this was the model by which to learn your craft, especially as scared young artist. It’s always been in my mind, that experience, the freedom of it was really special.
When I became the artistic director here, I was very aware that this very beautiful Downstairs theatre had spent much of the preceding time not being used; this beautiful theatre I had watched so many great independent shows in and that had become the home ground for so many really extraordinary artists in their early years, people like Kate Mulvany, Toby Schmitz and Lee Lewis.
Sam Strong’s debut was in there. Simon Stone and Anne-Louise Sarks made shows in there. I made a show. There was an extraordinary college of artists learning their craft during the 12 years of B-Sharp. Careers began in that theatre … and thinking about this space, it felt wrong to me that it was not available to people to have that opportunity I had.
So I began to think about how we may open it up again.
A lot has changed in arts funding situations in the last seven years and we didn’t have the capacity to open it up in the same way B-Sharp used to function. That took about $250,000 in direct and in-kind support on an annual basis.
I began to think about what I learned from being able to work rent-free, so we came up with this model which is a sort of flat-pack model where there are almost no costs. Everything can be unfolded with great simplicity so the focus is just on the work.
We’ve reduced the ticket prices and reduced the amount of money you are allowed to spend so you don’t have to make much money. You don’t have to lose $4000 dollars to learn nothing like I did.
We’ve worked very hard to come up with a model, and we don’t know if it’s going to work yet, but we think that it will.
Certainly, when we announced the space was reopening, the response was overwhelming, we got over 150 applications for six slots, so there is clearly a demand. We extended it to seven slots, we found the room to fit more in. Instead of 144 disappointed people it was 143.
It’s worth remembering that the point of this undertaking is to gather a community. It’s not just about the artists who are given a slot, it’s about the artists they choose to work with and the community that builds around them. Which is why we are launching the $20 artist ticket program at the same time.
Thank you to all the Belvoir staff. I asked this company to do an entire new season of seven shows when everyone already works way beyond their hours and beyond what they are paid. So a special thanks to Dom Mercer, and a special thanks to Amy Goodhew and a special thanks to the production department, but also to the entire company who will have to wriggle to find space to take this on. But look, we are all leaping together and we will find a way to make it work.”