Postcard from Perth: declarations of independence

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Last week I was asked to contribute to a list of things that make Perth a great place to make work.
My first response was to take a snapshot of the artificial beach (complete with sand, deckchairs and sun-umbrellas) currently occupying the amphitheatre outside Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in front of the Cultural Centre screen (which shows non-stop contemporary art videos). During the day it’s full of kids and families playing, and at night adults cool their heels in the banana lounges outside the PICA bar.
I see the beach outside PICA as a symbol of everything I love about living and making theatre in Perth. It’s unpretentious, it’s communal, it’s democratic, it’s practical, and it’s fundamentally a space to play. I mean free play, not “playing the game”. I wrote a lot about the difference between playing and games, and the affinity between playing and art, a couple of weeks ago in connection with Ahil Ratnamoham’s performance work at PICA based on football. One of the most important things about play, I’ve decided, is that it’s collaborative. You watch kids play, and there’s something utopian about the way they take on and discard roles, tasks and objectives as the mood takes them. They achieve what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. I believe that’s what we seek as artists, and perhaps as audiences too.
Last Wednesday I was invited to an informal meeting of the WA Theatre Network in the courtyard behind PICA bar after work. The occasion was a visit to Perth from Nicole Beyer from Theatre Network Victoria. TNV is an industry advocacy body funded by Arts Victoria, focussed on the small-to-medium and independent theatre sector. Its brief includes the coordination of similar state-based “networks” across the country, funded or otherwise.
There was a bar tab courtesy of The Blue Room, and a small crowd of about 30 or 40 independent-theatre-types turned up (two hapless punters in suits left as soon as the speeches started). The meeting was hosted by Kerry O’Sullivan from The Blue Room, who gave a welcoming address. This was followed by a brief and inconclusive report from Michael Daly at the WA Department of Culture and the Arts (DCA) about the current and future status of the Theatre Works Grants: a special one-off funding round earlier this year which distributed around $380,000 – previously earmarked for Thin Ice Productions and Deckchair Theatre Company, both of which wound up at the end of last year – to independent or small-to-medium projects at various stages of development or production. We were told that tenders had currently closed for consultation on what should be done with the money next year. (All other things being equal, I couldn’t help thinking, why not simply do the same thing again: give it to the independent artists, to make more and better independent theatre, and get paid for doing so? But as an independent myself, I can’t claim to be altogether objective about this.)
Next came three short speeches or “provocations”. First, Nicole Beyer read out her passionate response – to be published in the next edition of Platform Papers (a quarterly issue by Currency Press of essays by practitioners on the performing arts) – to David Pledger’s recent and stunningly articulate Platform Paper on ‘Re-Valuing the Artist in the New World Order’, an outline of which he presented at the Australian Theatre Forum in Canberra earlier this year. Among other things, David’s essay is a scathing attack on the corporatisation of arts funding and practice in Australia, and in particular the ideology of “managerialism” which he argues has distorted the funding guidelines and initiatives of the Australia Council and its state-based counterparts. In reaction, he exhorts us to re-prioritise “the artist” as the central figure in arts practice – and indeed as an emblematic figure for the necessarily creative global economy and politics of the 21st century.
Nicole’s response to David’s critique (which she broadly endorsed) was followed by a provocation from Fiona de Garis from Performing Lines WA – the local producing body for independent theatre, dance and performance artists. PLWA is currently funded by the Australia Council under the Managing and Producing Services (MAPS) initiative, which supports similar bodies in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. Fiona’s speech acknowledged the irony that whenever independent artists ring her up to ask for guidance in finding a producer, she doesn’t know whom to recommend – the reverse irony being that getting independent projects off the ground, let alone funded or programmed, is increasingly contingent on having a producer on board from the get-go. As an independent artist I can testify to this double irony, having spent years producing my own unfunded work, and recently being obliged to return part of a small grant because I couldn’t credibly nominate a producer (the one I’d originally lined up got a managerial job with a mainstage theatre company).
The final provocation came from Amy Barrett Lennard at PICA, about the limited availability and viability of venues for independent work. Amy’s cautionary tale was about the PICA Performance Space, the floor of which recently caved in due to termite damage beneath one edge of the seating rostra, despite repeated requests for maintenance funding from the local authorities. As this is one of the main venues for the forthcoming Fringe Summer Nights season, which begins in late January, I couldn’t help fearing for my seat, if not my life, in little over a month’s time.
So: three interventions about systemic failure in funding, producing and programming independent theatre; and all three, I couldn’t help remarking, from well-meaning, salaried arts advocates, producers and administrators, rather than unsalaried artists. David Pledger, QED. The very phrase, “unsalaried artists”, is a pleonasm if ever there was one. What does all of this portend for so-called “independent theatre” in Perth and elsewhere?
Last Sunday, on the other side of the country, QTC Artistic Director Wesley Enoch delivered the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture at Belvoir Street. The title of his lecture? “I Don’t Do It for the Money.” His putative subject? Independent theatre: its personal, financial, ethical and cultural implications; and in particular its more recent co-opting by mainstage companies in the form of unwaged “independent” seasons like ‘Neon’ at the MTC, ‘Helium’ at The Malthouse, ‘Stablemates’ at Griffin and ‘LaBoite Indie’ at La Boite – the predatory economics of which Wesley openly called “immoral”. Needless to say, this part of his lecture has since drawn stinging counter-attacks from some of those companies (and from a few independent artists as well).
I think these counter-attacks miss the point. Wesley’s provocative critique is part of a broader and more realistic reflection on the current state of play and the tendencies he observes across the sector, and its likely future. Read more thoroughly, his lecture actually advocates a more profound incorporation of the values and principles of independent theatre into the modus operandi of the mainstage companies, rather than merely exploiting its artists, or worse, chewing them up and spitting them out again. Be streetwise; engage with your audience and “fan-base” directly; spend less on paid advertising; in fact spend less across the board; find other ways to raise cash; strip theatre back to the essentials (performance rather than production values); strip company infrastructure back to essentials; salary-sacrifice; put your money where your mouth is; respect the fact that artists have lives; rehearse part-time. And finally, as independent artists: reflect on whether what you’re doing is giving you what you need. Remember not just to practice your craft, but to plough your field. Look after yourself, and the ones you love.
I came to Perth for family reasons, and I found a village of collaborators. Funding, resources, venues, companies and audiences are limited, but in the independent sector at least there’s an amazing sense of camaraderie. In fact it sometimes almost feels like being part of a virtual ensemble; almost what I’d call a “real” theatre company.
I’m co-devising a new work now in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre with a director/choreographer/dancer, a sound designer/composer and a videographer/photographer/graphic designer, all of whom I’ve worked with on and off in various combinations for the last ten years. We’ve developed a common language. We work efficiently. Our egos don’t get in the way. We come up with stuff together that we wouldn’t think of separately. The work guides us. We collaborate. We’re friends. Like kids on the beach, we play freely. We achieve flow.
Perth isn’t “independent”. It’s not big enough to sustain a self-sufficient industry all by itself. It’s a great place to make work because there’s so much space around the work – the inspiration of the void, those gaps and lacks and absences, the spirit of the place, and the country around it, the weather, the beaches, the forests, the hills, the desert and the sky – but to be sustainable the work depends on collaborations: between artists, and between them and non-artists; across skills and disciplines, companies and sectors, venues and organizations, communities and cities, across the country and across the ocean. In particular more work made here needs to be shown and seen elsewhere to be viable long-term, and more artists need to be able to come and go to sustain and develop their craft and careers, to maintain a dialogue between here and elsewhere, and between our work and our lives.

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