Kate Cherry: "We must make shows for all audiences"

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Kate Cherry has been the artistic director of Perth’s Black Swan Theatre since 2008. After Cate Blanchett’s departure from Sydney Theatre Company in 2012 she is the only female artistic director of a state theatre in Australia. In recent years gender diversity has been a hot topic in theatre circles but the number of female directors or plays written by women remains disturbingly low. Cherry says gender balance has been a priority at Black Swan and has been achieved in 2013  – at least in its management structure.
This year has been another big one for Black Swan which has attracted more subscribers and more funding. Cherry has continued to help develop author Tim Winton’s voice as a playwright during her tenure and this year his play Shrine was a sell out. Additional funding is allowing new programs to develop new work. For all the good news at Black Swan elsewhere in Perth the Deckchair Theatre closed which reduced opportunities for theatre makers and audiences.
As Daily Review Perth correspondent Humphrey Bower writes today Perth is not big enough to be independent but is more a “village of collaborators”. Cherry says her company can’t make a show for one audience. “We must make shows for all audiences,” she says.
Kate-Cherry-WEBWhat did you want to achieve by the end of this year?
To solidify our relationships with key stakeholders, to engage a company of diverse, committed artists, to take a production of Tim Winton’s great new play Shrine to the Centenary Festival, to establish a dynamic working relationship with my new Chairman, Mark Barnaba, to continue to pursue gender balance in Black Swan leadership, to forge artistic relationships with China, to make sure John Stanton did Death of a Salesman in Perth, to introduce Perth to the brilliant comedies of Joanna Murray-Smith, to do a stand out production of Other Desert Cities with a great set and cast, to continue to grow our subscription base, and to establish the Black Swan Lab.
How many of your goals did you achieve?
I am proud to say the incredibly hardworking team at Black Swan in collaboration with all our business and artistic partners achieved them all. I am the Artistic Director of a company that punches far above its government funding weight, and that is thanks to an extraordinary board, a highly regarded General Manager, Shane Colquhoun – who always looks for ways to implement innovation, particularly in education, community outreach and customer care – and the support of so many terrific artists in WA and nationally, who are prepared to come to Black Swan and work incredibly hard to help us pursue our dream of WA having a state theatre company with its own brand of work that engages WA audiences and ignites international recognition. We constantly look to redefine opportunities for collaboration and ongoing relationships and in 2013 we were able to go further afield with visits to and discussions with companies in the United States, China and England which is really exciting.
I am also thrilled to say we now have four female board members, all strong, all excellent in their fields and all very different. So in two years the gender balance has moved from seven men and two women, to four women and five men – and in 2014 the brilliant Natalie Jenkins joins us as General Manager. This is really fantastic. Our Chairman Mark Barnaba engages at a high level with conversations regarding gender balance and diversity. He really understands the importance of promoting a mixture of people while keeping an eye on the main game, making great work for our current audiences and igniting a lifelong passion for theatre in new audiences.
Have you learnt anything new about your audiences this year? 
I find audiences fascinating. Theatre is ephemeral so audiences are always along for a new ride. I have had many great surprises with audiences. Two years ago when we did Hilary Bell’s The White Divers of Broome, I discovered an Islamic school wanted to come but could not because of the issue of where and when they could pray. We solved that problem by offering them a rehearsal room during interval so they could pray. We are constantly discussing how we as a resident theatre company can create scenarios that invite in new audiences.
This year whenever I thought about trying to sell Shrine I felt slightly daunted, a play about parents who have lost their 18 year old son in a horrific car accident, every parent’s worst nightmare. The play addressed questions of class and misbehavior amongst teenage boys but privileged boys in particular. I did the play because I loved it and I believed in it and because I thought it harkened straight back to Greek tragedy, set in Margaret River and calling for group catharsis. I found the subject matter so distressing and I wondered how the material would go with the audience.
On the other hand I expected Other Desert Cities would sell out, fresh from a triumph in New York, modern, hip, with great acting roles. In fact Shrine reached into our community and had an extraordinary emotive power the like of which cannot be conveyed in an article. Tim Winton is a wonderful writer and this time his work reached out across the stage and spoke directly to a community hungry for catharsis. Several audience members thanked the team for the Brechtian interpretation. As parents, they felt they could not have survived hearing the story without distancing. I felt making the choice was a risk, but the play hit home. It gave people just enough room to breathe. I heard from mothers, fathers, school teaches, social workers. A surfie wrote to me thanking me for giving him permission to come into the theatre. He had never felt invited into the Heath Ledger Theatre before. Shrine crept up, selling out every night with people queuing for single tickets. The actors joined with audiences staying in the foyer night after night talking to people whose lives the play had touched. Many members of the audience felt a powerful need to communicate with the artists involved.
Opposite that was Other Desert Cities, a highlight of the work I have done since being at  Black Swan, a great work by brilliant actors and designers that received rave reviews, and yet the single ticket sales never took off. These things are fascinating.
Are their tastes changing?
Well, when I started we only had around 600 subscribers, now we are well into the 2000s and still growing. Pursuing subscribers is relatively new for Black Swan and our move into the State Theatre Centre three years ago has also affected things. At the moment we are still in the business of convincing people to come to the theatre and that theatre has a role to play in their lives. That being said, our stakeholders and audiences are extremely passionate and generous and without their contributions of funds, good will, high energy and commitment to our ongoing success we could not have grown so quickly. We believe, in a state that boasts so many brilliant artists who work in solitude, that it’s our job to create collaborations and pathways that engage various artists and audiences in dynamic dialogue. We want to ask lots of questions, and see how our audience responds. We know we can’t please people all the time, we don’t see that as the aim. We are in the business of relationships, sharing our passion for the theatre because it can be right at the heart of communal discourse. The more forms of theatre that generate such discourse, the better, but as Verdi said, “my philosophy of theatre is that it needs an audience.”
I take pretty seriously the idea that I want to fill the spaces we are in, but that does not mean it always needs to be for 575 people a night. We regard the Black Swan Lab as a crucial component of the company, and we will work towards finding as many pathways as we can to help develop emerging artists while maintaining our heartfelt engagement with experienced mid-career and beyond artists. I think the choice of artists, their passions and the kind of relationships the audience are offered influence how many opportunities there are for diversity of theatrical practice.
Is your role to lead audiences into new territory?
My role is to maintain current audience levels and build new ones. I would hope every time they come to the theatre they experience something new. That being said, I personally believe the bigger the audience base, the more room there is to move in terms of going into new territory.
Have they been willing to follow this year? Are subscriptions up or down?
Subscriptions are up and we have had amazing responses from this year’s audience. Our subscription drive for 2014 has already broken previous records.
What was your greatest achievement this year?
Creating the Black Swan Lab.
Your greatest disappointment?
Not being able to do four productions in the Black Swan Lab, and not being able to provide enough work to some of the brilliant actors we have in Perth.
How healthy is the theatre scene in Perth beyond Black Swan?
Well, on one level, the theatre scene is great. We have a lot of talented people here, and new theatre companies are emerging. The independent artists in Perth do some great work and travel the world. On the other hand we have seen the demise of Deckchair Theatre, which means fewer opportunities for a wide range of artists. The Deckchair Theatre Artistic Director, Chris Bendall did some great work and engaged some terrific actors. It’s a shame to lose a company and it’s devastating to the fragile ecology of theatre in Western Australia. Regardless of the ins and outs of the closure, it was hard to see the impact it had on actors, designers and directors who suddenly lost jobs. The Blue Room Theatre has a great impact on the theatre community and it has a good bar where we can all afford to go for a drink and have a chat, but it is a big leap from the Blue Room Theatre to the Heath Ledger Theatre.
Last year you were one of six companies around the country promised a major funding boost by the new major Performing Arts Excellence Pool under the labor Government’s long awaited National Cultural Policy. Can you tell us where this money is going?
This additional core funding supported us doing two additional productions in 2013 including a new partnership with the Fringe World Festival and our return to the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre.
You’ve recently announced season 2014. You’re doing more shows in the Studio Underground as well as in the Heath Ledger upstairs. Can you tell us about this diversification of work?  
Black Swan is presenting work on two stages in the same venue. In the Studio Underground we have an opportunity to create a different identity and to respond to the want of new audiences for daring work that pushes boundaries. Our faithful subscribers and audiences can still expect the theatre they have come to love from Black Swan, but now we are offering more opportunities to engage with a broader mix of work. Something extra for those who are brave enough to come underground with us. A state theatre company cannot make a show for one audience, we must make shows for all audiences. And so we continue to present work on the Heath Ledger, we launch the Black Swan Lab and also look to lead the way with innovative projects including a new digital theatre project currently in development.
You’ve recently appointed a new program of resident and emerging artists. Can you tell us about this?  
We’ve run programs for emerging artists for many years. The feedback from the artists involved and outcomes achieved proved that engagement of this kind can help establish or change the trajectory of their careers. In 2014 we will have three artist development programs: the Emerging Artists Program, Resident Artists Program and Emerging Writers Group. We are also able to increase the number of emerging artists that will be part of the programs.
The Emerging Artists Program will focus on emerging Western Australian artists in the early stages of their careers. They can be actors, designers, directors, writers, composers and so on. The Resident Artists on the other hand are established artists who wish to further develop their careers with a yearlong engagement with Black Swan.
The Emerging Artists will work with Black Swan on at least one of our productions during the year. Working with a state theatre company like Black Swan offers national profiling opportunities and access to exceptional established artists who are now part of the Resident Artists Program.
The new program also responds to the fact that many emerging artists may only be with us for a short time and that we sometimes have just a few months with them. Our Resident Artists will be on hand throughout the year to offer master-classes, training and mentoring for these artists. It is hoped that our emerging artists not only develop their skills further, but are given the guidance to map and plan their careers and their place in the world of theatre.
We will also continue our Emerging Writers Group which has produced fantastic outcomes for us in the past few years, including the first production from a member of the group when Chris Isaac’s Flood premieres in the Studio Underground as part of the Black Swan Lab.

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