Postcard from Perth: a plea for diversity

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Summer is upon us, and the theatre season’s winding down in Perth, as it does all over the world when the thermometer goes up and people prefer to amuse themselves outdoors. Shakespeare In The Park anyone? More precisely, ’tis the season to do pantos, hunker down in (preferably air-conditioned) workshops for productions being staged next year, and/or start gearing up for Fringe World or even Perth Festival, both of which kick off in late January/early February. I’m busy developing work myself over the next couple of months, but I’ll be covering both Fringe and Festival shows on Daily Review when the time comes. Meanwhile I’m not seeing much action, but mostly spending my days being creative in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre, which otherwise hosts little more than a few parasitic end-of-year pre-Christmas functions. So, as the man said: I will be brief.
A few weeks ago I was invited as an erstwhile member of the former Theatre Board (now defunct) of the Australia Council (restructured in the wake of the Australia Council Act 2013) to participate in a half-day Strategic Planning Workshop on the future direction of the Council.  I met with three other Perth-based ex-boardies and peer panellists (two of us from theatre, two from the music sector), together with an Ozco representative and a hired consultant/facilitator, who steered us through a series of exercises designed to pick our brains and notate the results. The Sydney duo were at the regional tail-end of a State-capital-city tour, on the basis of which they would be drawing up a set of recommendations.
It was an interesting day. We were asked to begin with a series of words that described the Australian arts and culture we wanted to see in ten years’ time. Avoiding those old chestnuts ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’, I found myself championing ‘diversity’. I acknowledged that the term itself had a certain unmistakable chestnut flavour, but I said I was inspired by the concept of biodiversity: an ecological principal which I felt could be equally applied to the cultural sphere. Specifically I felt it should apply to a genuine diversity of works, artists, companies and artforms (including threatened and endangered species) as well as audiences, communities and even generations. We need to be mindful of access and participation, equity and sustainability, in the arts and culture no less than in sport and recreation, health, education, housing, infrastructure and the natural environment; but more specifically we need to ensure that both traditional and contemporary, ‘innovative’ and ‘excellent’ work is made and seen around the country.
It has to be admitted that, with the best of intentions and efforts, the Australia Council has not always scored well in this regard. I remember the funding round I sat on as a member of the Theatre Board: we rewarded excellence and innovation, and we did our utmost to be fair, given a heartbreaking paucity of funds to distribute, and faced with a heartbreakingly strong round of contenders; but the overall program of work we funded scored poorly when it came to regional diversity, and perhaps artistic diversity, too. In a nut-shell: the vast bulk of the funding went to Sydney and Melbourne, and the lion’s share of that to contemporary and hybrid work (much of it by young and emerging artists); all of which was undoubtedly excellent and innovative, although it left older or more traditional art-forms, artists and audiences somewhat short-changed. Arguably this reflects the cultural dynamics and demographics of the nation, and perhaps also the specific needs of the independent and small-to-medium sector of the industry (which the funding pool in question was largely designed to benefit) as opposed to the more mainstream ‘major organizations’ (who receive their funding separately and directly from a designated ‘Major Organizations Board’). Within this somewhat restricted ambit, the Board’s overall choices scored reasonably well in terms gender and to a slightly lesser extent multicultural diversity, at least with regard to individual artists (if perhaps not quite so well in terms of that other old chestnut, class).  And yet overall (perhaps as the only currently practising artist on the Board, and the only member from Perth) I couldn’t help feeling that somehow genuine diversity was being denied.
Art and culture made and seen in Australia is as vital to the life of the nation as any other essential goods and services, and like them it needs to be genuinely diverse to support a genuinely sustainable society. As such, we need Western Australian art and culture too, in all shapes and forms: commercial and subsidized; ‘major’ and ‘minor’, small-to-medium, fringe and independent; and across artforms, communities and generations.
Let me be even more specific with regard to theatre in a ‘regional’ capital like Perth. We need and have Black Swan State Theatre Company, but we also need a viable alternative mainstage company: ‘alternative’ both literally and figuratively in terms of style and content – think of The Malthouse in Melbourne, Belvoir in Sydney or La Boite in Brisbane. Perth Theatre Company strives to play this role, but is inadequately funded and housed to do so, and is still in transition in terms of identity. In my opinion the company needs federal funding from the Australia Council as a matter of principle as well as state funding from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. It also needs a home venue with at least one mid-sized and one small theatre: the existing and underused Subiaco Theatre Centre, although out of the Northbridge cultural centre loop, would be better from an artistic and practical point of view than the financial death-trap of the gloomy, overpriced and undersized State Theatre Centre Studio Underground; although both are currently managed by commercial operator AEG Ogden, an anomaly that needs addressing. And finally I think PTC needs to change its name to something less misleadingly mainstream: ‘Perth Contemporary Theatre Company’ for instance, with just one euphonious repetition in the acronym ‘PCTC’. This would leave Black Swan in residence at the State Theatre Centre, using more traditional productions in the larger Heath Ledger to cross-subsidize more innovative work in the Studio. Meanwhile, Perth’s excellent existing niche-artform and niche-audience companies also need balanced state and federal funding and adequately resourced home venues: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre and Barking Gecko Youth Theatre. And finally the Perth independent sector, nestled and nurtured at The Blue Room, needs a larger alternative venue in which to spread its wings. PICA goes some way towards providing this, but is more focussed on contemporary and hybrid performance work, in keeping with its profile as a contemporary art space. Rechabites Hall up the road in William St used to provide an alternative, but was barely viable as a building and auditorium verging on ruin; it currently languishes in heritage limbo, mothballed by the City of Perth. Another independent performance venue in the cultural precinct of Northbridge is sorely needed, preferably housing a dedicated producing organization specifically for Perth-based independent theatre: something like the role STRUT plays at King St Arts Centre for Perth contemporary dance. The Blue Room currently does yeoman service in this regard; but it’s overstretched in terms of resources; it does the job alone, with the attendant dangers of becoming a monopoly; and it caters primarily (and rightfully) for emerging artists (and those without other sources of funding). As for funding for independent artists: the closure of Deckchair and Thin Ice last year saw DCA temporarily reallocate the existing funds earmarked for those companies to a range of Perth independent artists who have embarked on more ambitious work over the next year or so. In my view this funding should remain in the independent sector and be matched by more equitable federal funding from the Australia Council to independent artists and companies across the country.
At the end of our Strategic Planning Workshop day, we broke up into pairs to compare notes on places we saw as potential models to aspire to in terms of culture. My partner was a musician, and together we quickly settled on Berlin. What made the city so attractive to both of us? The theatre and music scene obviously; but why? We noted the sheer number and diversity of companies, artists and subcultures in a relatively concentrated urban area and population, and the way artistic practice seemed to penetrate into every available and imaginable form of social space. Of course there’s also a lot of public money spent on the arts there, based on a tradition than values culture as essential to the imagination, creation and development of the individual and his or her common humanity (Bildung). Could Australia, or indeed Perth, follow or at least learn something from the example of Berlin? Why not? Why not, indeed.
As the man sang, from little things, big things grow; and grassroots culture, like grassroots democracy, is where true creative and political freedom begins and ends.

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