Backpacks are shoved into every small space in the foyer of the Kings Cross Theatre.
Water bottles and shoes are scattered about the floor. It’s a humid Sydney Saturday arvo and 15 actors, producers, playwrights, directors are just about filling the place.
These are the artists – almost all them under 30 – taking over the theatre space at the Kings Cross Hotel during March for Step Up, a program of new works and new artists curated by bAKEHOUSE Theatre.
The humidity is oppressive but the mood in the room is electric. The talk is of rejecting “sterile theatre” and storytelling without physical or emotional impact.
They want to tell their own stories in their own voices.
They want to build a community and experiment in a supportive environment.
They want their work to be seen in a space where excellence is promoted.
“Artists come to KXT to earn their stripes,” says actor-director Hannah Goodwin. “I haven’t worked here before now but I know artists are coming here because they can be ambitious.”
Goodwin is in the Step Up season directing The Carousel, a frank, sex-positive exploration of two sisters navigating adolescence and relationships written by Pippa Ellams.
The show has already been developed and shown at Shopfront in 2017 and has recently been performed at Merrigong Theatre Company in Wollongong. It plays at KXT at the end of March.
“When we tell people we have another run here, they can’t believe it because no one is taking risks on putting new Australian plays on more than once,” Goodwin says. “It is a very ambitious thing to do in this theatre ecology. I think bAKEHOUSE are trying to lead by example and what they do here is really inspiring for me as an emerging artist.”
Every production at KXT in the Step Up program has been informally developed and mentored by Suzanne Millar and John Harrison, co-artistic directors of bAKEHOUSE, and Andrew McMartin, the company’s production manager and resident stage manager. As senior artists, they believe it’s vital to invest in the next generation and new work, literally “stepping it up”.
“From our point of view, there is nothing like being thrown into the cauldron of having to produce work to learn and develop your practice,” Harrison says. “We are providing a space where you can make that step up to producing world-class work, particularly if you have the right team on board.”
During Mardi Gras, the queer theatre in Step Up includes Charles O’Grady’s Are We Awake? (which just closed with excellent reviews), Melbourne artist Kerith Manderson-Galvin’s Being Dead (Don Quixote), which opens this week, and Rotterdam, a comic story of love, gender and identity by UK playwright Jon Brittain.
Rotterdam is a work in progress, says its director Rebecca Blake. Audiences will see a showing rather than a fully fledged production. It features actors Ella Prince (4.48 Psychosis), Travis Jeffery (Tonsils + Tweezers) and Bobbi-Jean Henning (A Christmas Carol).
The actors will have scripts in hand, Blake explains. “Everyone in Step Up is testing out work. It is a safe space to fail – not that we want to fail – but we need a safe space to test things out with resources, support, mentorship and a really supportive audience.”
Nathan Juhasz, a university student in Wollongong, is a trans community consultant for Rotterdam. He says he’s been inspired by the development process. “It’s a play about sexuality and gender and how we explore that in day-to-day relationships. Being able to give my advice has been great, but then to see how that plays out into theatre is really interesting. I mostly write poetry and it’s given me the inspiration that I can see myself trying scriptwriting.”
After each Rotterdam showing, audiences will be encouraged to hang out after the show and give feedback.
“I love it when people stay back to talk,” says Blake. “When we did She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange here last year, we asked audiences to stay and chat with us at the bar… and they did. It was invaluable for us as emerging artists.”
Writer Georgina Adamson says KXT is one of the few theatres where an emerging artist program really means what it says.
“It’s not for someone like, say [playwright] Kit Brookman,” she explains. Everyone in the room laughs. Brookman is a much-admired playwright with several mainstage productions under his belt. Hardly an ‘emerging’ artist.
“As an emerging artist myself I get frustrated when I see programs meant for young artists or new artists going to people who are not young or new,” Adamson adds.
Actor Alex Malone, who is performing in director Claudia Barrie’s new production of UK writer Dennis Kelly’s play DNA, agrees.
“Emerging artists haven’t had the chance to tread the mainstage boards yet and we need exposure and to flex our muscles. Here, you get that opportunity. It’s not about ‘name’ actors. It’s about giving opportunity to newcomers and trusting they will do just as good job. And they do. There are award-winning shows coming out of here left and right and centre.”
Adamson’s Step Up show is INJEST, a work developed in Bathurst with director Eve Beck. It’s “theatre for people who don’t go to theatre,” she says.
“It’s sketch comedy-based and when we did it in Bathurst, a lot of people in the audience had never been to a show before,” Adamson says. “After the show they were like, ‘oh I like this thing called theatre, I’ll go again.”
Beck has worked at KXT before on Transcience, with actors Kurt Pimblett and Julia Christensen.
“When you do a show here, you start to build your network,” Beck says. “Later, when you go into another theatre, you meet the same people again. It makes everything seem more supportive and less competitive. There is community here and you see brilliant things here because people are taking risks on actors or designers. It’s very rare to see a mainstage show and think, wow! Who is that? Where did they come from? They use the same people all the time.”
Actor Daniel Monks, who starred in Are We Awake? has been impressed by the diversity of the audiences at KXT and their willingness to interact with performers and creators.
“It’s a young audience hungry for real theatre,” Monks says. “We did a Q&A for Are We Awake? And I found it so lovely because the people in the audience were genuinely curious and passionate about independent theatre. Often with Q&As you feel such a separation between you and the audience, but this just felt like a bunch of people talking about theatre in a non-hierarchical way. It was beautiful.”
Some of the credit must go to the KXT traverse stage, Monks says. It’s the only full-time one in Sydney. “It feels like you are sharing intimate moments. I think that’s why so many people stick around after the show.”
Monks’ co-star Matt Lee feels the same way about the traverse space. “It is brilliantly exposing for actors. There is nowhere for us to hide. It’s great and it’s terrifying, but that’s what we do it for.”
Lee graduated from acting school 18 months ago and working at KXT was on his shortlist of things to do.
“I saw Dry Land here last year and Straight the year before that and both plays hit me hard. I’ve been moved a lot in this space.”
For professional artists, Martin Kinnane (lighting) and Benjamin Freeman (sound), working with emerging artists is a privilege.
“It is amazing, actually. You get real collaboration,” Freeman says. “You walk in and right away it’s all about respect and getting to know each other. There’s a lovely family vibe.”
Among professionals, there is a notion that working in independent theatre is a step down, Freeman notes. “But really, it’s a new challenge. It’s not like working here is an easier job or anything. But the support network is a lot better than you see in mainstage companies, which are sometimes more focused on the business end of things.”
Kinnane agrees. “As artists, you put the same amount of work in whether you’re getting paid for it or not. You can see the excellence in the indie theatre sector when you go to the Sydney Theatre Awards, artists like [sound designer] Nate Edmondson are nominated for everything no matter which theatre he’s working in.”
Harrison says Kinnane and Freeman bring a wealth of experience to a show. “It’s a great thing for young artists to draw on. There is always some point in a bump-in where everything feels like the train is going off the rails. Having people who have seen everything and made every mistake you can make … their wisdom is invaluable.”
DNA cast member Jessica Bell-Keogh says Sydney’s indie theatre companies are the lifeblood of the performing arts in Sydney.
“I think now more than ever there is a real need for theatre. If you look at the world, there is a need for us to get in touch with our humanity and capacity for empathy. When people come to a theatre like this they know they will get a uniquely human experience that will not be repeated. That’s why they keep coming back.”
Under 30s are particularly drawn to the realness of an intimate theatre experience, Bell-Keogh adds. “You sit next to a stranger who you might never seen again, you turn off your phone so you don’t look like a idiot, you share some moments in the dark. It’s what brings you back again and again.”
What kind of theatre are these emerging artists hungry for?
“A young Australian voice that is authentic,” says Jessica Adie, an actor and writer. “And young people who sound like young people! I want to see people who look like my world.”
For Adamson, effective theatre is one that touches the emotions. “I see a lot of mainstage plays that are good but I’m not affected or challenged. I come out thinking, ‘beautiful design’. But I went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe recently and I saw so many things from so many places that really affected me. That’s why the indie theatres like this one are so important.”
Harrison casts an eye over the crowded room. “It blows my mind,” he says. “I feel like we have the lucky end of the bargain, an amazing pool of up-and-coming talent that is going to rule the Sydney theatre scene in the next 10 years and we’ve had the chance to work with them right at the start. It makes me really happy.”