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Is Sydney's Indie scene too conservative?

"the mainstage is tremendously isolated and closed-off to fresh blood"

Why does Sydney's indie theatre scene seem risk-averse? Composer and sound designer Nate Edmondson shares his thoughts.

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Category: Theatre
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“It’s not about moving up a ladder to the top”

Date: 11 Jan 2018

A few days ago, Audrey published a gentle provocation, Truth or Dare: Is Sydney’s Indie scene too Conservative? It quickly became one of the site’s most read articles.

Sound designer and composer Nate Edmondson was one of several moved to comment and he did so with a substantial and considered response on his Facebook feed.

We present it here, with Nate’s permission and blessing, to keep the conversation rolling.

So, over to you, Nate …

“I’ve worked with almost all of the brilliant artists interviewed here and I reckon I’d agree with almost all of what they have to say. But I’d add to it a few important, not-mentioned factors that separate Melbourne and Sydney.

Firstly, I think, so much of the theatre that migrates to us from Melbourne, and is successful across both stages, comes specifically from queer theatre companies, of which Melbourne has many and Sydney virtually none.

I used to make an annual pilgrimage to Melbourne to work with Stephen Nicolazzo and his magnificent collaborators who make up Little Ones Theatre, for years, until my work in Sydney and the mounting cost of travel became too much of a clash. The work they, and other companies and collectives of a similar bent in Melbourne, produce, is so markedly radical and boundary-pushing compared to what we see in Sydney.

Little Ones usually take classic texts and apply their signature high-camp interpretation. Texts not dissimilar to ones we see presented in Sydney (that I dare say would be labeled ‘conservative’) are given a radical makeover so as to create something unique and sexy and funny and fresh.

Similarly, Ash Flanders and Declan Greene at Sisters Grimm are working within their own unique brand of signature camp, but with original texts of their own making. And there are a whole load more like them down in Melbourne.

And these are the artists who so often are finding a welcome in Sydney on both the mainstage and indie levels, I think, because they offer something we don’t really have here.

In Sydney, our queer artists are scattered throughout the industry, and while they make great work within the various companies they find themselves, they seldom come together to work on productions that really push to challenge and defy the norms.

Look at most Mardi Gras season productions at our theatre companies (large and small) in any given year and you’ll mostly see a pretty conservative, tried-and-tested parade of productions that do little to shake things up. Unlike Melbourne, we seem to prefer to recycle a narrow canon of mostly American plays, with little originality, insight or radical interpretation of style or staging.

Also, in my experience, Melbourne has a very tightly interconnected and supportive indie scene and its artists are fiercely guarded with, and defensive of, their resources. Mobility only really runs in one direction – from Melbourne to Sydney – because artists from outside of the Melbourne scene are looked upon as intruders.

It’s a tough nut to crack. I’ve taken a few indie shows down and have experienced some incredibly hostile and unwelcoming attitudes from our southern neighbours when it comes to artist-heavy opening night crowds.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, though. It’s a defence mechanism I can totally understand, and it is often shared by audiences, too. I’ve had mainstage co-productions do incredibly well in Sydney and then mysteriously tank in Melbourne.

I think the tastes of audiences differ, too, and just as the artists of Melbourne can be fiercely protective of their turf, so can audiences be of their programming. I mean, the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is nothing new. I think it manifests more strongly in one direction than the other, and that’s OK, but it does have a heavy impact on artist mobility if you happen to be originating in Sydney. Given the costs involved, it’s a hard sell for our indie artists. Though I must add, it is changing and relaxing in recent years, I have observed, so perhaps Melbourne will repay the favour to us soon enough.

More importantly, Melbourne has a much more interconnected theatre scene. There, an indie artist can actually progress through to the mainstage because there are pathways between them. Here in Sydney, the mainstage world is tremendously isolated and closed-off to fresh blood, particularly if you’re not an actor or director.

It’s extremely rare to see an artistic director from the mainstage sector gracing the seats of an indie theatre. Sometimes, even to see any representative of a mainstage company whatsoever is a rarity, often generated through countless begging emails or personal connections.

Trust me, I do a lot of indie work, and a bit of mainstage work. With my feet either side of the divide I see how that division works every day, up close. It’s so disheartening to see the incredible work of our indie artists overlooked, to know that they’ll likely, statistically, remain trapped in the indie sector forever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you can only keep your head above water on indie theatre dollars for so long.

In Melbourne, artists who not long ago operated in the indie scene are working on the mainstage, even running the mainstage companies, or settling in as associate artists. There is genuine mobility between the sectors. Artists I used to work alongside, or on the same level as, in Melbourne, are now making a full-time living off mainstage contracts. There is a dialogue between the two sectors in Melbourne that doesn’t exist in Sydney, and a sense of aspiration we lack.

Barriers to mobility between indie and mainstage breed conservative choices and stagnancy in both sectors. Finding those pathways between the two allow us more risk-taking and diversity, like we see more of in Melbourne.

It’s not about moving up a ladder to the top. It’s about building a two-way road with roundabouts all the way along. The indie scene shouldn’t be a stepping-stone. It should be half of the road. Some of our best artists, such as Iain Sinclair and Kate Gaul have created work in both sectors. If people can move back and forth between sector then skills, knowledge and experience can be shared, and everyone benefits.

No one grows by standing still. We all need each other, and we all ultimately form one giant mechanism in this industry. Different artists and different disciplines will have their own precise balance to strike, but you’ve got to be allowed on that road in the first place, not just stuck on a roundabout with no exits.

It doesn’t mean everyone will reach the mainstage end of the journey. It doesn’t mean everyone will even want to. But it allows us to be aspirational and tough it out in a difficult industry.

A good friend of mine bemoaned this year’s loss of the Griffin Independent program to [accomodate] ATYP [during their renovations] as the loss of one of our last ‘aspirational stages’. And it’s pretty true. With no sense of a career pathway leading out of smaller indie companies, it seems that only the newly restored Downstairs Belvoir initiative offers any glimmer of hope for a stage that could potentially bridge the gap between indie and mainstage.

And that’s why Sydney indie scene might seem ‘safe’ or ‘conservative’. It’s because it can’t afford to take chances. If you’re even going to have a shot at moving up the food chain at all, then you sure as hell aren’t going to waste it on something risky.

Instead, companies are building solid, balanced indie seasons that challenge the mainstage companies not by trying to stand out from the pack, but by making work every bit as polished and professional as the mainstage seasons.

It’s only through the building of a solid reputation that mainstage companies pay attention and our indie artists stand a chance of growing into the greater opportunities they deserve.

Once those pathways between mainstage and indie have been restored, then we will see more of the perceived risk-taking, cage-rattling theatre we see in Melbourne.

For the time being, we have to keep making the kind of work that is indistinguishable from a mainstage offering, until the powers-that-be can’t ignore us any longer.

Congrats Kate Gaul, Stephen Multari, Claudia Barrie, Lachlan Philpott, Andrew Henry, Suzanne Millar and Emily Ayoub for your wise insights, and for fighting the good fight in your unique ways across so many of our indie stages. You’re all a testament to the healthy state of theatre in Sydney, and certainly in my comparatively limited time and experience here, I’ve never seen our indie sector so alive and so successful in its resonance and its audience numbers, and it’s ambition. It’s so fucking fab to be a part of this era.”

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