St Kilda-based Theatre Works stands out in the indie theatre community as a company forging ahead with originality and ambition. There are countless other companies doing great work in the indie sector throughout the country, but Theatre Works present and support a range and number of independent productions that very few companies come close to. It might sound like an oxymoron, but Theatre Works looks a little like a big indie machine.
Daniel Clarke took over the artistic director role in 2011, and transformed what was previously seen as a venue far on the fringes of the theatre scene to a vital and lively part of the Melbourne theatre community. We asked him a few questions about Theatre Works’ 2014 season.
Theatre Works seems to have gained a lot of traction in 2013 under your artistic directorship – how do you think the 2014 season compares to last year’s?
I feel like this program is really diverse; from new Australian musicals to one-on-one performances across Skype … Theatre Works has always tried to program a wide range of styles and experiences but I feel like 2014 really highlights the breadth of ideas and visions of our independent sector. We haven’t, at least since I’ve been here, put all the artists and projects we are supporting in one brochure. There will still be a couple of surprises throughout the year but basically this is it – these are the ideas that we are supporting in 2014. I think it builds on last year’s program and perhaps feels more confident as a whole … I think that comes with experience, planning and building networks. Our program is also only as good as the ideas that we are pitched.
What are the principles you work to when programming new work?
There are a number of ways that artists can engage with Theatre Works and get support from us. Our signature program, Selected Works, is through an application process. We receive many applications from throughout Australia for this program – the application in total is about 4 pages. These are looked at by myself and the Artistic Sub Committee of the Board, which also includes our General Manager, Mark Crees and last year it also included our Associate Creative Producer, Bryce Ives. We are interested in original ideas. Big ideas. I’m interested in artists who are exploring form, artists who are considering our space, which is large and can’t be ignored. We want to understand why the piece must happen at Theatre Works. Why not another venue, another space? What is it about the work or idea that has to be explored at Theatre Works? We short-list a number of artists/companies and then meet with as many as we can. The artists then get the opportunity to pitch their ideas verbally and a discussion starts as to how the project may work here. Many great projects don’t get up through this program – if we had more resources we could support more projects. We really consider the planning of a project, the team, the track record of the artist/s, their capacity to deliver, and also their capacity to fill a 144-seater. It is a big jump in audience capacity from La Mama to Theatre Works. We try to see the work of the artists that are interested in presenting here. Understand where they are at in their creative lives and ask what part Theatre Works can play in this journey. Sometimes a project may need a number of years to develop, and we are trying more and more to work with artists from the ground up on projects. Some projects I just have to follow my gut instinct. There are some artists who aren’t great at talking about their work, or what they want to do, but you just know that they are going to develop something pretty amazing. Sometimes you just take a risk because something inside you knows that this work must be made.
You have some people who were behind some of Theatre Works’s stronger pieces over the last few years returning (e.g. Nicola Gunn, Little Ones Theatre). Is it important to build a base of regular artists?
Nicola Gunn has had a long association with Theatre Works, her last presentation here was Hello my name is… in 2012. I’m just thrilled that we are commissioning her to create not one but two new works in 2014. She is truly one of a kind. Interestingly Stephen Nicolazzo has also had a long association with Theatre Works, which I didn’t know until recently. He directed many of his earlier works here. In answer to your question I think it is really important to try and sustain relationships with artists. So it becomes more than just dropping in and doing a show. Working with artists over a number of years allows a deeper engagement, and a more complex and rigorous conversation can happen around the work. We don’t have a resident company here so it is important that the artists feel like it is their space. We also want to provide opportunities for new artists to play with us. This is important. We want a dynamic range of voices on our stage. ARTHUR is a company that we are developing a relationship with. After presenting Cut Snake in a tent outside Theatre Works last year we were so impressed by their work, the ensemble, their spirit and work ethic. It felt fresh, invigorating. We started a conversation with them then about what other ideas they may like to explore.
Independent theatre is seen to be becoming more accessible to artists nowadays, but Theatre Works stands out in that regard – do you consciously work to bring new artists and perspectives into Theatre Works?
We absolutely try and engage with new artists. This is one of the main reasons why we have an open application processes for most of our programs. We get to hear from such a great artists through this process and this is generally where the conversation begins. In saying that, artists can talk to me throughout the year about ideas.
You’re also experimenting with form – from the festival of live art to pieces like Wael Zuaiter: Unknown, which works largely with audio. Are theatre companies falling behind in this area? Should they supporting this kind of experimentation more often?
I think it is more that different companies and spaces have different aims and objectives. Red Stitch, for example, tends to program text base works. They new writing-focused. They are more likely to experiment within this genre rather than with Live Art. We don’t tend to program many “straight plays”. As an organisation we want to make space for artists to have bold artistic adventures. Experimentation is important to us.
You’ve also got musical theatre works in the season – a Sondheim and a new work – do you think that theatre companies often neglect the musical artform?
Theatre Works has had a proud history of supporting new musicals having had a long relationship with Magnormos. Margaret Fulton: Queen of The Dessert, by Present Tense premiered here and in 2011 we had a Musical Works program which supported the development and presentation of 2 new Australian Musicals. Musical theatre is not my area of expertise but I get advice and support from my Chair, Suzanne Chaundy and other peers. Audiences absolutely love Musical Theatre. There are not many opportunities for artists to develop new musicals, so if we can provide the opportunity to enable these artists to develop their art form then this totally fits within our vision. Musicals require development like any new piece of work. I hope Margaret Fulton is picked up by a larger company at some point. You can learn so much about a work by presenting it in front of an audience at Theatre Works. Things that can then be taken forward into future presentations of the work.
Obviously it’s too soon to say for sure, but if you had to pick one work that you think will stand out this year, what would it be?
It is hard to pick one – because If I’ve done my job right they should all be stand outs! However I saw Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel by Bryony Kimmings in Edinburgh last year and I’m sure it will be a standout. It is a coup for us to present this show in Australia, with the support of the British Council. I can’t wait to share it with Melbourne audiences.
Daily Review picks of the 2014 season
Wael Zuaiter: Unknown
Wael Zuatier was a Palestinian intellectual and translator who was assassinated in Rome in 1972. The Israelis say he was a terrorist, while the Palestinians said he was becoming too influential in Italian politics. Some people say it was a mistake based on bad evidence. Jesse Cox, the nephew of Zuatier’s fiancé, presents a live radio documentary that uses illustrations, documentary evidence, audio interviews and live performance to tell this intriguing story.
Person of Interest
Nicola Gunn is one of Melbourne’s most exciting performance artists, who experiments with anthropology, participation and the conventions of theatre. It might sound a little obscure, but Gunn’s performances are exhilarating and usually hilarious. Person of Interest is part of the Festival of Live Art.
The House of Yes
Little Ones Theatre last year had hits with their productions of Psycho Beach Party and Salome. In 2014 they present Wendy Macleod’s The House of Yes, starring Genevieve Giuffre, who has been wowing audiences in an eclectic range of (mainly) supporting roles for queer indie companies like Little Ones and Sisters Grimm over the last few years.
Pacific Overtures is one of music theatre legend Stephen Sondheim’s more neglected works. Presented by Watch This, who had a sell-out hit with Sondheim’s Assassins last year, the cast features some bright rising stars of music theatre.