DIY theatre: Sydney

At the beginning of 2014 I spent some time observing the roundtable dramaturgy process pioneered by the Lark Play Development Centre in New York. Whilst there I had the pleasure of meeting Doug Howe, cofounder of NITEcorps with Beatriz Cavur. New International Theatre Experience is a “global service organization that supports and empowers theatre makers by revolutionizing the way artists and administrators create, connect and cooperate in the twenty-first century.”

Part of this involves spotlighting different theatre cities on a monthly basis. In September 2014 they took a snapshot of Sydney by asking local artists to speak about different aspects of both our local and national ecology.

Doug approached me about the insight I’d gained from running Somersault and I’ve copied my attempt here. I tried to get a handle on the increasing trend of mainstage companies cashing in on the rough-and-readiness, the brash daring, of indie work (and the gaining of cultural capital through risk-taking-by-proxy). It’s a tangled mess but one that I would like to try and unwind, particularly as I’ve moved to Melbourne just this week and it seems to be the heartland of these DIY-ers.

I recently found myself sitting across from John Bell in the office headquarters of his theatre company, Bell Shakespeare, which is hidden away in The Rocks by Sydney Harbour. I had nervously declined a drink from his secretary, and sat in a surprisingly low-slung chair as my idol sipped his cup of green tea and waited for me to start the conversation. In 1970, Bell, Ken Horler, and Richard Wherrett established Nimrod Theatre Company, which is widely considered responsible for establishing and promoting the emerging Australian theatre of the early 1970s, or what came to be known as the New Wave. Almost for the first time, Australians could go to the theatre and see themselves, not their British counterparts, onstage. For a nation with an aggressive colonial history and a dearth of cultural representation, it was a revolution.

I had requested this meeting because I wanted to understand how Australian theatre in 2014 had grown since its heady conception. To my surprise, Bell’s immediate response was that “independent theatre now exists.” When Nimrod was created there was no fringe scene whatsoever; perhaps because there were so few professional theatre companies for theatre-makers to make work around the edges of. To those pioneers associated with the Nimrod triumvirate, today’s theatre landscape would now be unrecognisable. You cannot step sideways in Sydney without coming face-to-face with either a collective, indie company, or individual makers who are developing and producing their own work.

In light of this, there has been an interesting dance developing between mainstage companies and these independent artists over the last few years. Last June, I attended a forum on the state of Australian playwriting, and a young playwright on the panel suggested that she made her ‘real’ work, the work that drove her out of bed in the morning, for the indie sector because she felt restricted by the ‘blueprint’ of our major companies. That is, she felt weighed down by the unspoken requirements that professional companies hold for the work that they produce which is determined by the need to minimise production costs and is dependent on its potential appeal to subscribers. Worryingly, at this same forum Tim Roseman (Artistic Director of Playwriting Australia and, previously, director of new writing theatre venue Theatre503 in London) pointed out the very real possibility that King Lear would never see a production if it was written today. What company in its right mind would commission a new work that had to outlay the expense of hiring a minimum of 14 actors?

And yet…

Increasingly, these same mainstage companies are creating space within their season for independent theatre artists. In Melbourne, Malthouse Theatre’s Helium season is a curated collection of Australia’s “most exciting” independent performance work, which is picked for “big ideas, the high risk and the bleeding edge.” In Sydney, Griffin Theatre Company, which resides in the same space as the original Nimrod, runs an “annual season of new Australian and international writing co-presented with the country’s most exciting independent theatre-makers.” Melbourne-based queer D.I.Y. theatre group ‘Sisters Grimm,’ who famously staged their first works in their garage, are now on the cusp of their second production with Australia’s flagship organisation, Sydney Theatre Company.

I think the clue to this mainstage-indie dance is the recent surge in desire for the vitality of “D.I.Y.” theatre. Doing-It-Yourself smacks of the poor theatre student who does not have the funds or the know-how yet to engage in professional practice and so exists on the fringe, making his/her own art until he/she has developed enough industry experience to be hired for a “professional” production or by a “professional” company. However, the lack of resources in the indie sector allows a certain type of creativity that may be compromised when production budgets become the norm. There is a recklessness, a searing freedom, to making your own work when you have a shoestring budget and no company accountant keeping a watchful eye over your shoulder.

In 2013, I co-founded Somersault Theatre Company with playwright Alison Rooke. We recently produced our first show, My Name is Truda Vitz, which was a solo work I had written about my grandmother. We hired the theatre at Darlinghurst’s Tap Gallery, which is a mainstay venue in the indie scene and is infamous for being perpetually run-down and populated by cats (if you haven’t had a cat wander onstage during a show, you haven’t really lived). Although the possibility of fusing the entire venue by turning on a switch was always fairly high, there was also nobody we felt accountable to, besides our audience, for the work we were making.

I never met my grandmother. She died before I was born and even when she was alive she never spoke about what happened to her as a young woman. All we know is that she escaped Vienna in 1938 when she was 17, covered in contraband jewellery, and that she lived alone as an Enemy Alien in England for seven years. My Name is Truda Vitz was an attempt to reconstruct Truda’s life before she was forced to flee. As this reconstruction was ultimately fictional, the show was also about the importance of the act of paying testament (because of the scale of the event, the narrative that I imagined may not have belonged to Truda but it would have belonged to somebody, somewhere). I stood on stage each night alone except for my cello, which stood in for my grandmother in the piece. Our set was a chair and a sprawling family tree chalked onto the back wall. We served cleanskin wine after the opening night performance. We also sold out six of our ten shows.

“D.I.Y.” theatre is almost incompatible to the unspoken blueprint of many professional theatres and perhaps this is its attraction. With no company image to maintain or adhere to, there are no expectations of your work, and it is met by the audience on its merit alone. Although it cannot capitalise on the prestige associated with a company’s repertoire it is also free of the well-grooved patterns established by that same body of work. All that it has is the creative furnace in which it was made and the determination of artists to use whatever they have on-hand to produce their internal worlds onstage.

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