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"We can only achieve change if we work together"

The sudden closure of an inner city venue points to a structural weakness in our independent sector, write KXT co-artistic directors Suzanne Millar and John Harrison.

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Indie Theatre on Shaky Foundations?

Date: 11 Jun 2019

So Limelight On Oxford has closed and has brought on a tremendous amount of online heat.

Some of it has to do with the management of this particular venue, but a lot is to do with the fact that at least 10 companies and more than 100 artists are now without a home.

In response, there are widespread calls from actors, directors and theatre companies to band together and create a collective to save Limelight.

This happens every time an unfunded venue closes down.

From TAP Gallery to Kings St Theatre to Sidetrack to Limelight – a new artist collective gets together and investigates possibilities and crunches the numbers. Sooner or later comes the realisation that such a venture is financially unachievable and unsustainable.

There is, unfortunately, a widespread lack of understanding within our own artistic community about what it takes and what it costs to run an unfunded venue.

This knowledge deficit is to everyone’s cost, and anyone who thinks they don’t need to know how the unfunded theatre sausage gets made should consider this:

Sydney has three amazing unfunded theatres – The Old Fitzroy, Newtown’s Old 505 and KXT – powerhouse venues with a vast artistic output and providing opportunities to dozens of companies and hundreds of artists every year.

Every one of these venues is in some degree of financial distress.

That’s right. Our most important independent theatres struggle every year just to keep their doors open.

Each venue is subsidising the work on its stages through underpaid or unpaid work to the value of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And to do that they carry varying degrees of monetary debt, for which the people running the spaces (artists themselves, let’s not forget) are often personally responsible.

The existence and work of these three venues is taken as a given, perhaps taken for granted.

But what if the weight of the debt became too much?

What would happen were one of them to close down?

The current anger and frustration, the scrambling to find replacement venues for homeless productions and the calls for more spaces should not allow us to lose focus on the facts: that despite the extraordinary progress, growth and success of the indie theatre sector in the last five years, our industry still rests on dangerously shaky foundations.

We need to work to remedy this, to secure the future of our industry, right now.

It is time to change the game.

Let’s look at Limelight. When last listed (in 2016), the building at 231 Oxford St, Darlinghurst was advertised at $2.6m with an annual lease income of $260,000.

No small theatre company would be able to generate sufficient income from tickets and bar sales to cover such a lease, let alone the other annual outgoings. Without a strong alternative revenue stream (say, a top-notch restaurant, still a huge financial risk in this struggling precinct) it is unsustainable.

There are regular and repeated calls for the need for more theatre spaces in Sydney, a result of the number of artists in this city seeking to present work. But the hard truth is that the indie sector (and the theatre industry in general) does not have the audience base to sustain a new venue, nor does it have the government or philanthropic funding support required to make up for that shortfall.

At the moment there is a disconnect between the major funding bodies and the indie sector. These organisations appear to be largely unaware of what’s happening in our corner of the industry and the progress that has been made in the last five years.

So how do we change that? By working together to use our collective energy and strength.

Together, the Old Fitzroy, the Old 505 and KXT have a greater output than STC, Belvoir and Griffin combined in terms of number of productions, artists at work, diversity of work and artform and new Australian writing. The quality of the work made is comparable.

Their contribution to the industry beyond this – in artist mentoring and development, for example – is even greater. And yet these efforts are largely disregarded by funding organisations.

We need to work with the major funding organisations and philanthropic foundations to raise awareness of the value our sector is providing, and to change the restrictive criteria in funding models that appear to make it all but impossible for indie venues and projects to achieve funding success.

Funding bodies pay significant amounts every year to our mainstage companies and nobody would suggest that’s not money well spent.

However, the remaining funds are hotly contested by other funded organisations, often with low output or minimal contribution to Sydney’s artistic life.

With our high output and cost efficiency, the indie sector offers an enticing alternative. Funding bodies would get extraordinary value for money by collectively funding the Sydney indie sector.

To keep the doors open an independent venue needs to generate a minimum of $100,000 per year. To survive, thrive and remain sustainable, even more.

But these figures are a mere fraction of the funding going towards main stages. And given the diversity and quality of the indie sector output, we provide a lot of bang for your unfunded buck.

A vibrant and fearless independent sector, with its financial load lightened, will allow us to shore up those shaky foundations, and to build something wonderful: a well-rounded and resourced arts sector with pathways and programs for advancement and the confidence to continue to fearlessly program and invest in the unexpected.

We can only achieve change if we work together.

Suzanne Millar and John Harrison | Co-Artistic Directors, KXT-bAKEHOUSE

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