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Is Sydney's Indie scene too conservative?

"I don’t see a lot of opportunity for artists to step outside the safety zone"

Is Sydney's indie theatre scene too conservative? Audrey asks some leading players for their thoughts.

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Category: Theatre
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Truth or dare (or can we have both?)

Date: 6 Jan 2018

Common wisdom has it that Sydney’s independent theatre scene makes work with the safety catch on.

Compared to Melbourne (Melbourne … always Melbourne), Sydney makers are conservative, focused on the well made, the tried-and-tested (preferably award-winning) and obsessed with catching the eye of the mainstream companies rather than pushing the envelope of form.

In recent years, Melbourne companies including Chambermade Opera, Ranters Theatre, The Rabble, The Hayloft Project, Black Lung, Fraught Outfit, MKA and Sisters Grimm have brought experimental works to Sydney and have been lauded for it. The traffic seldom runs the other way.

Some say that Sydney lost its edge in the early 2000s, when the limited number of venues and cost-of-living pressures began to compel theatre makers toward work that would at least cover the costs of making it.

Others suggest the focus on actor training in Sydney has created a performer-led rather than auteur-driven environment.

Is it that Sydney audiences have no patience for ‘wankery’?

Is it just a weather thing?

Audrey asked some of Sydney’s leading independent theatremakers for their thoughts.

Is the conservative reputation fact or furphy?

Lachlan Philpott, playwright

Room to move. Space to experiment. Sydney is conspicuously lacks both, says Lachlan Philpott. Almost all of Sydney’s performance spaces are curated by artistic directors, he notes, and it’s their consideration of risk factors – which invariably include bums-on-seats calculations – that lead to conservative programming.

“Much of the independent scene in Sydney has relied on support and approval of larger companies to exist. While the support is great, I reckon the approval is the issue because conservative curation undermines the sort of leaps of imagination and risk-taking that help artists and the arts flourish and grow,” Philpott says. “The people in bigger companies do their best, but it’s hard for them to forget their subscribers or vested interests.”

It’s a situation that leads to what Philpott calls “showcase” theatre.

“So much independent work feels like an audition for Sydney’s main stages and I find that sort of theatre blandly sad and sadly bland,” he says.

“It will take a long time to change the way many artists have come to think about the independent work they are planning and executing because this model has long dominated the way many theatre makers frame their aesthetic and professional aspirations.”

But there is hope, Philpott believes. Belvoir’s reopening of its Downstairs space to independent work is a step in the right direction.

“It’s a really exciting initiative because it appears to be focused on cutting down financial risk and capping the money teams spend on sets and costumes to make the work look like it isn’t an indie show. Instead it seems to be demanding that artistic teams focus on the acting, the writing and the way it is realised, hopefully empowering them to take time to develop and rehearse rather than fundraise, and to take artistic risks rather than financial ones.”

Suzanne Millar, artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co, Kings Cross Theatre

“I think there’s a lot at stake in indie theatre,” says Millar. “It’s a few people, investing their limited time and money into their passion. So it’s tempting to play it safe, to try to be the best independent – as in unfunded – version of our main stages.

“I think we’re all trying to do something big and exciting and rewarding in an extraordinarily limited landscape,” Millar says. “There’s a level of financial investment, administrative support and production prowess needed to allow Sydney indie theatre to deliver on its ambition, and those are all things that can be missing at different times. So it’s easy to narrow your field of vision, to focus on doing the best version of the thing in front of you right now.”

Since opening the Kings Cross Theatre in 2015, Millar says she’s seen an increasing appetite for risk among audiences – an appetite frequently underestimated by the city’s independent theatre makers.

“There’s a new audience coming through, a generation that wants to be a part of theatre that matters, that addresses issues close to them, and that has value to it. This tips over into what we’d like to see companies and venues promoting and initiating: community engagement, partnerships, collaboration. Big ambitious projects. Programs that are the beginning of great work. These are things that take time to get to the stage and fail as much as they succeed.”

If Sydney wants to buck its conservative reputation, it’s important the local industry celebrates risky work when it’s done well, Millar believes. “Then we’ll see real changes – practical, not just theoretical – around diversity and experimental work.”

Kings Cross Theatre is actively investing in more diverse and challenging work, says Millar. “We’re giving artists a stage to make mistakes, to begin glorious successes, to be adventurous, to learn the lessons of failures. And we’ve got those partnership and collaborations in place: relationships that will result in radical community engagement.”

Emily Ayoub, performer, director, Clockfire Theatre Company

The indie scene in Sydney is, in Ayoub’s opinion, “thriving and broad … audiences can see more traditional, well-made plays as well as more avant-garde work and it’s often unapologetic even when it tackles a well-made play, which is refreshing for audiences.”

What the city’s independent makers lack is sufficient time to develop ideas from the ground up, says Ayoub. “The development period is crucial for new writing, allowing artists the time to delve into research before actually rehearsing.”

Ayoub wants to see more focus placed on the programming of devised work. “I love the sense of ensemble and it gives each artist involved a sense of authorship, which is a huge responsibility. I love seeing that on stage, where you know the creative process has been extensive.

“For me, actors taking authorship and driving work on the floor is really satisfying as the vision is often collective and asks for a heightened sense of collaboration. This is a driving force in our [Clockfire’s] process – finding a collective vision and refining it over time as an ensemble.”

Andrew Henry, actor and artistic director Redline Productions, Old Fitzroy Theatre

“Conservative seems like such a dirty word,” says Andrew Henry. “I don’t think the Sydney independent sector is too conservative at all. All I know from my own experience of programming at Redline is that in 2018 our programming completely represents what Sydney’s indie companies are capable of: devised work, new work and Sydney premieres of tried-and-tested stuff.”

Henry believes the distinctions between mainstage and independent work are breaking down, at least in the eyes of audiences. “Mainstage? I have a mainstage season right here. But in Australia, ‘mainstage’ is a term used to describe prestige venues. I don’t really like the way it’s used to compartmentalise our industry, which is why I ‘m reclaiming the word here [at the Old Fitzroy].”

Henry sees a recent sector-wide lift in the quality of productions as one way to draw audiences into new venues and toward more challenging work. It’s a trust thing.

“To come to Woolloomooloo and into a pretty kooky little pub, and allow yourself to be transported by something is a risk for a lot of people,” Henry says. “But now we have about 3000 people that have already committed to the presale for 2018. That’s up from 400 last year. They are just lapping up the product we are putting out. We want this to be theatre for everyone. And I mean everyone.”

Claudia Barrie, actor and director, Mad March Hare Theatre Company

Barrie has been prolific of late, staging independent productions of successful American plays such as Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (for Eclipse Productions), Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land and Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo (for Mad March Hare).

Conservative choices?

“I think it’s about balance,” Barrie says. “As many main stage companies have such a strong focus on Australian and new Australian content I think we would have a huge lack of some of the immensely strong international plays if it weren’t for the indie producers.”

And just because a play has been successful overseas and has collected awards doesn’t mean the work is inherently safe, Barrie adds. “Many of those play are risky in terms of content and appeal and in my experience audiences love it – as long as it’s well done and not shock for shock value.

“I directed and co-produced a production [Dry Land] only a few months ago that was dealing with content not touched by the main stages, but barely discussed anywhere. The four-week season sold out 48 hours after opening. The emails and phone calls we received from people were so moving and profound that it reminded me why I keep fighting the good fight.”

Barrie’s next production with Mad March Hare is the Australian premiere of US writer Clare Barron’s Obie-winning drama You Got Older, playing at the Kings Cross Theatre from July 9.

Stephen Multari, actor, producer, co-founder of Mophead Productions

A great deal of work created at the independent level in Sydney is performer-driven, Stephen Multari concedes. You can’t blame them for preferring well made work that allows them to put their best foot forward in a very competitive arena.

“There are so many wonderful actors in Sydney who never get a look-in for the major theatre companies,” Multari says. “These artists have a need to create and tell stories and so it’s no wonder they start their own companies and cast themselves in roles they may otherwise never get a chance to perform.”

Though it may result in choices that appear conservative, it has created an independent sector where audiences can be reasonably assured of a quality experience, he believes. “Work presented in Sydney’s independent scene is now at a point where it competes on most levels with that put to the stage by mainstream companies. It’s some of the most exciting and exquisite theatre in the country. The general public has no idea that these indie shows are not fully funded. They look, sound and feel professional.”

And that costs, Multari adds. A lot.

“Producing theatre on an independent level is expensive. ‘Shoe-string’ budgets are not so ‘shoe-string’. Before you even attempt to pay your artists and creatives, you’ve racked up nearly $20,000.”

Which is one reason the tried and tested prevail, Multari says. “They’ve gained notoriety. They’re a safer bet.”

MopHead will be staging the Australian premiere of the Tony Award-winning The Humans at The Old Fitzroy Theatre in 2018. “ I can’t believe a main stage company hasn’t snapped it up,” Multari says. “It’s such a coup for us because we were back and forth with the literary agent for over a year trying to lock the rights down. It’s the most delicious family drama with so much heart it hurts. It’s going to punch you in the guts in the best possible way.”

Dino Dimitriadis, producer, director, artistic director of Apocalypse Theatre Co

“I love seeing independent companies take risks. I celebrate it and I seek it out,” says Dimitriadis. “But risk can take space, time and dollars.”

With little fat in budgets and project break-evens reliant on high levels of audience capacity, independent producers often need to feel assured a work is positioned to be a ‘success’ in order to not incur loss, Dimitriadis explains. Hence risk-averse programming can creep in.

But time constraints play a part, too, he says. “This is especially true in a culture where new Australian plays often only get one production and where devised work is not as familiar to audiences. I look at European models where some works can take years to develop and new writing is afforded extensive development support and opportunities to develop in performance.”

And space? “In Sydney, there are many independent artists competing for very few spaces. And unlike other states, there’s a lot of red tape in New South Wales when it comes to activating site-specific, disused, or commercial space for performance,” Dimitriadis says. “It’s not easy to just hire an affordable space and play.

“Curated spaces help us to draw audiences and to build energy around our work, but the process of competing for these seasons can result in companies feeling constrained in the level of risk they’re able to take.”

Dimitriadis says he is directing a “risky” venture for the Old Fitzroy’s 2018 season, a reimagined version of the Metamorphoses he staged in 2012 at PACT timed for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

“For me, 2018 is about backing bold artists and new work and voices that speak to now. ‘Why here, why now’ is the question I demand of every production I see or back,” Dimitriadis says.

“Three of my four productions next year are new Australian works. All of them are by female playwrights. One is semi-autobiographical and explores the complex terrain of reconciling culture with identity. I’m also expanding Rapid Reads, a festival of emerging writing that I started in 2017. The more experience I build as a producer, the more risk I’m able to take. I feel a responsibility to not sit in any comfort zone but use this experience to back ambitious work.”

Kate Gaul, director and artistic director, Siren Theatre Company

Gaul’s company Siren Theatre has been producing work in Sydney since 1997. She has observed the sector closely in that time. “Over the past 20 years, it has become quite conservative,” she concludes. “I want to see sparks of originality. I want to see quirky theatricality, cheekiness, rigour and elegance of staging. I don’t mind whether I see that at the Tap Gallery or in someone’s lounge room, I really don’t care. But honestly, I don’t see a lot of opportunity for artists to step outside the safety zone at the moment.”

Looking ahead into 2018, Gaul says she sees “a lot more of the same”.

“So much of the programming doesn’t interest me. I’m not excited by the theatres or the spaces. I don’t want to see a glamorous production or something expensive looking. I don’t need production values, but I do need rigour of interpretation. I want to see something really unique.”

There are some companies in Sydney pushing the envelope, Gaul says. “There’s Clockfire, who are not working with text at all, but forging a new physical language and creating theatre unique to them. There’s also the work David Williams does, and there’s Loose Canon Arts, who do original children’s work. There’s nothing boring about them. We also have that dance and contemporary performance sector full of independent artists who are definitely not doing established plays. There is a prevalence of a certain kind of work here, but I’m heartened that there are exceptions.”

Gaul is presently curating a program called Play List for Mardi Gras. “It’s a day of new theatre writing to unearth some fresh LGBTQI voices and I’m also producing a work from British company Milk Presents called Joan. They are coming to the Perth Fringe and I’m bringing them to Sydney because I thought their show was an absolute delight. It has real clarity, is beautifully written and is beautifully performed. I thought audiences in Sydney would really enjoy that, for all sorts of reasons.”

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