For the last two weeks audiences who have attended theatres in Sydney (and across NSW) have been asked to support the arts sector by letting their local MP know that they value the arts. Actors including Robyn Nevin, Kate Mulvany and Fayssal Bazzi have given curtain call speeches at Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons, Griffin’s The Literati, and Belvoir’s Back at the Dojo, telling appreciative audiences about the recent extensive funding cuts to companies in the small-to-medium sector.
Theatres such as Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir, Griffin, Bell Shakespeare, Ensemble, Australian Theatre for Young People, Sport for Jove, Red Line Productions at the Old Fitz, and Darlinghurst Theatre Company have all been giving the same speech, distributing #istandwiththearts postcards and asking patrons to fill in their name and address. Those cards have then been collected and will be delivered directly to each audience member’s local MP.
They’ve also asked audiences to sign the online #istandwiththearts petition, calling on the Federal Government to return the $72.8 million cut from the Australia Council for the Arts.
“What’s proven to be really exciting is the idea of bringing an audience in and saying ‘we do all of this for you guys, and we love entertaining you, but sometimes we need to tell you when something is wrong and we need your help’,” says Belvoir’s Executive Director Brenna Hobson. “I was talking to one of the actors on All My Sons yesterday and he said he found it a very moving experience connecting with audiences like that.”
The final figure for the campaign is far from finalised, but more than 10,000 people have signed online and the Sydney-based theatres have collected well over 6000 postcards filled out by audience members.
“We are currently experiencing a back-log, which is a wonderful problem to have,” says Hobson.
Belvoir’s boardroom is currently #istandwiththearts campaign central, packed with volunteers sorting through the postcards, including “some of the finest in the acting fraternity.”
“So far, we’ve sorted and distributed 6000 postcards and have a whole lot of boxes still to go, and the regional theatres are doing their own distribution,” Hobson says. “We had an initial run of 30,000 postcards that came to the companies and we had to do an additional 20,000 top-up run. There will be 50,000 that will have gone out by tonight.”
That’s a pretty considerable chunk of voters to be reached by NSW theatres alone in the space of two weeks (not including major musical theatre) but Hobson says we often forget that the arts are a part of of the vast majority of Australians’ everyday lives.
“You’re very aware that if you take your child to sport on a Saturday morning, then you’re a part of a broader sporting project that goes all the way up to the Olympics. I don’t think we necessarily make that connection when we go to see a performance or take a child to a ballet class, but it’s all part of the same thing. We’re constantly being told there are no votes in the arts, which seems crazy given how many people we know love the arts deeply.”
Audiences’ passions have been stirred deeply over the course of the last two weeks.
“We have had a few people write on the card about how important the work was to them as well, which has been fantastic,” Hobson says. “There’s been quite a bit of booing and hissing when actors talk about the fact that these companies have been cut.
“It hasn’t been vicious or nasty — people are passionate about this, so I thought we might have to weed out the odd profanity from the postcards, but we haven’t.”
As the #istandwiththearts campaign has taken place over the last two weeks of an election campaign, it will inevitably give audiences pause for thought when they get to the ballot box on Saturday. But Hobson says it’s more about reminding politicians of the value Australians place on the arts.
“Before the 2015 budget, the arts were supported on a bipartisan basis and ultimately what we need is to get back to that point. We don’t want to be a political football. For me, it’s the great irony that we’ve never had more supporters on the frontbench of both major parties than now, and yet at the same time we have a genuine crisis in arts policy and an absence in arts policy at a government level. It’s a great tragedy and something we should be able to work through with both sides.”
Many commentators have noted that the recent crisis has seen artists and arts companies come together and speak with a more unified voice. According to Hobson, Sydney theatre has always been very collegiate and conversations between the companies are common on all sorts of issues.
“But in terms of mobilising like this, I don’t think we have done it before,” she says. “One Labor parliamentarian commented to me the other day that he thought it’s the most organised the arts has been since 1972 and he has fond memories of that time. I think it’s something we haven’t always done as well as we should.”