STC's new boss: savvy business move or back to the colonies?

Yesterday, Sydney Theatre Company announced that it would become the only Australian state theatre company without an Australian artistic director. The appointment of British director Jonathan Church to the job, after months (well years, really) of speculation drew plenty of criticism from the some corners of the arts community and those miffed that a local had missed out on what is arguably the most high-power job in Australian theatre.

I saw a barrage of debate immediately on social media and then later in the evening saw a group of older theatregoers at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre passing around a printed email announcing the decision, shaking their heads in disbelief and muttering words like “disgrace” and “colonial nonsense”.

But there have been even more artists and commentators celebrating the appointment as a savvy business decision which should see STC continue to grow its audience and solidify its financial position.

This is the most divisive artistic appointment Australia has seen for many years, and one likely to shake up the entire theatre ecosystem.

Church is known in the UK as one of the geniuses of the business and has a reputation for turning around problem theatres, building audiences, contacts, touring opportunities and funds for theatre venues and operations. He’s also known for his commercial mindset, taking productions which originated at Chichester Festival Theatre, where he has been artistic director since 2006, to successful seasons on the West End and Broadway. Blockbuster seasons of musical hits such as Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and Singin’ in the Rain (which Australian audiences will see next year) have been integral to cementing CFT’s financial position.

STC is certainly not a problem theatre; it’s in a relatively strong financial position, it has a glowing international reputation and attracts the largest audience of any theatre in Australia (and 2015 might just be its biggest year yet, with a roll call of Australia’s A-list acting talent: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush and Robyn Nevin).

But despite that enviable position, STC looks set to face a few challenges in coming years. Government funding for the arts is in a shaky position (even if STC is largely quarantined from Brandis’ cuts) and the departure of the current artistic director Andrew Upton may have a significant impact.

Upton and his former co-artistic director Cate Blanchett have been successful in drawing corporate sponsorship, top-shelf artists and audiences who trust the STC brand. The solid base which they’ve built has allowed the company to take more artistic risks than you might expect from such a large arts organisation (they did program Botho Strauss’ Gross Und Klein for a 900-seat theatre, after all), but with the Blanchett-Upton star power unplugged, audiences mightn’t be quite as willing to go along with the ride.

There are certainly experienced artists in Australia who might do an exceptional job as STC’s artistic director (and will presumably get the chance to in the future). But when the Board of the STC is considering candidates and the choice is between somebody who has directed a smaller theatre company or been an associate at STC, and a person with Church’s track record for building audiences and programming work for larger theatres, it would be bordering on negligent to go with an untested candidate. There are simply too many people on STC’s payroll to take that risk when it’s not necessary.

It is important to have locals in artistic leadership roles (and the vast majority of our artistic leaders are locals) and provide platforms and jobs to local artists. But to do that, a ship as big as the STC needs a captain capable of steering it confidently and successfully through what may turn out to be a transitory but defining era for the company. There are only a handful of directors in the world with the experience Church has in that area.

There’s something almost colonial about how fiercely some in the Australian theatre community are defending against the appointment of a Brit to the STC gig. It seems to reflect a fear that our hard fought for artistic independence is under threat. I can’t see any credible signs that Church won’t be as least as successful in nurturing local voices as any Australian might be in the role. STC is now a truly international company on the strength of our local artists, and this appointment embraces that without an ounce of cultural cringe.

Church has stated his intention to immerse himself in the local theatre scene to find the greatest artists and strongest voices. It’s impossible to predict what he might program: you can never tell what an artistic director might do at one theatre from what they did at another. The proof will be in his first season, revealed a year from now.

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