Tuesday, 28 July 1998

Theatre Summit,l June 26 & 27, 1998

Theatre Summit
At North Melbourne Town Hall June 26 & 27, 1998
by Kate Herbert

"We want theatre to have a sexy future not just a noble past." Liz Jones, Artistic Director of Melbourne's precious theatre institution, La Mama in Carlton, voiced the desire of theatre workers who devoted two days to devising a five year plan for the Victorian theatre industry.

One resolution proposed that we be called a "theatre community" not "industry" :a term used to legitimise artists in a world committed to 'product', financial outcomes and economic rationalism.

The sense of isolation experienced by theatre artists is merely a microcosm of our society. People feel undervalued and insecure in workplaces, face redundancies, unreasonable hours, short contracts and alienating work environments. The wider community is experiencing the insecure lifestyle which artists have endured their entire working lives but to go any further into insecurity would be the death of the arts.

With the new philistinism that seems to be creeping into our politics, theatre workers are having to defend themselves against those calling, "Why give you money? What use is theatre?"

A country is defined by its social and cultural policy. The latter predetermines who is subsidised. With the shrinking arts funding pie we have lost our best middle-level theatre companies. Actors are out there hunting for waiter jobs - probably competing with their administrators.

State and federal funds still go to state theatre companies via the Australia Council's Major Organisations Fund and Arts Victoria. Individual projects are still funded. However, the middle ground has been eroded and companies that provided work for theatre artists and an exciting alternative to major companies, are in hibernation.

Theatre has its own eco-system. Its parts are interdependent. Mainstream companies are worried that this may diminish the development of new audiences for their own work: a trickle-up negative effect.

A huge marketing push is needed to inform the general population that theatre is not just for the elite. Yes. It is a risk. New plays, unlike movies, do not have the advantage of runs all over the world and $20 million budgets. But the beauty of the theatre is its immediacy. You can see and hear the actors. In some cases you are so close you could touch them, hear them breath, see them sweat.

Every night is different and you, as audience, are part of the equation. Unlike film, without you, the show does not exist. It can transport you in a way nothing else can. Remember, theatre stems from mystical, ritualistic and religious canons.

Few other industries need to constantly justify themselves as does theatre. It is exhausting. We need a catch cry "Theatre is sexy!" or "Go to a Show!" Playwright, John Romeril, suggests a "Go to a Show Week".

Melbourne needs to relish and promote its extraordinary theatre scene. It is unlike any other city in the country. Huge musicals are not the key to our identity. The diversity of our theatres, the proliferation of small companies, unusual shows , street theatre, festivals and quirky venues is what makes Melbourne's theatre scene idiosyncratic.

It is the fact that, in any one week, there are 6-8 new Australian productions opening unlike any other city in the country, in fact, the world. It is not the blockbuster musical which, as Kennett suggested, will make Melbourne the third "theatre city" after London and New York.

The five year plan includes resolutions such as developing a Theatre Centre which provides not only master training for actors as does the Actors' Centre in Sydney, but a whole administrative infrastructure for smaller companies an individual artists and houses a Peak Body to argue for the survival of the industry.

Theatre needs to reach more people so touring must be further fostered. Cheaper ticket prices for industry members and students would help keeps theatres alive and attract new young audiences.

The forging of relationships with local governments will provide a new source of funding and venues and enable theatre to go back into specific communities. This is reminiscent of the heyday of Community Theatre but in a new modern form.

Diversity is what makes Melbourne special. Why not sell this to the tourists? "See ten shows in five days. Visit the Playhouse, La Mama, a garage in Footscray, a cupboard in Fitzroy - and see great theatre."


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