Where Is Ballarat’s Professional Theatre Company?

This article was commissioned by the Central Highlands Arts Atlas and first published on 12 February 2019.

Ballarat is a self-proclaimed creative city. We have one of the country’s longest running heritage theatre buildings and a big modern theatre, both of which present a range of professional performances each year. We have a well-regarded tertiary training academy for actors and musical theatre performers. We have three community theatre companies as well as a number of highly successful performing arts schools. We have the annual Royal South Street competitions and we have performing arts creatives working at Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle and as teachers.

So why don’t we have a professional theatre company?

Late last year, I interviewed a number of local female theatre-makers. When I asked them about the theatre scene in Ballarat – encompassing theatre made by community groups, independent professionals and students – some core narratives emerged. The consensus was that Ballarat has a under-supported independent theatre scene, with equitable access to small-medium sized professionally fitted-out theatre spaces and lack of support for development  and production being major barriers.

The first major barrier to the establishment of a Ballarat based professional company is space.

While hiring a 600-seat theatre is appropriate for the next big community musical, the presentation of drama requires intimate spaces. It is true there are plenty of halls and function spaces that could host a performances, and often do, but the lack of adequate technical equipment and backstage facilities means the production values are low and is inconvenient for the actors and crew.

To hire one of the few professionally fitted spaces in town – owned and operated by educational institutions – are either prohibitively expensive or perpetually unavailable.

This situation forces theatre-makers to hire sub-standard spaces which in turn means sub-standard productions. Hire fees are not cheap, and so spaces are used only for the season, limiting time to rehearse in a space or spend time in development of new works.

Which brings us to the second barrier, the investment of money & time.

Creatives are often choosing not to follow through on new theatrical work, because the risk is too high and the effort is not balanced by the return. Creatives who must be not only writers, performers and directors, but also project managers, marketers, publicists, technicians, designers and often funders become burnt out very quickly, preferring to sink their energy into local paying jobs or simply moving away to where there are more opportunities.

Those that do stay and make work just want to get on and put on a show. Most are doing it around a paying day job, and therefore are unable to dedicate the time needed to ensure the work is of high quality. This means that we have a vibrant but low quality independent theatre scene. And that hurts everyone because without high standards, we cannot hope to convince funders of investing, and audiences who are interested to try theatre are not compelled to return.

In order to encourage a higher quality of work, we need to offer creatives time, financial remuneration and peer support. They already have the desire to work and the passion to create theatre, but with all the investment and risk taken upon themselves, it’s easy to choose not to bother.

With a small amount of investment by council, existing venues and professionals in business and arts administration, Ballarat will truly become a creative city.

There are two avenues to establish a professional theatre company in Ballarat. Firstly, we establish our own. We have enough creatives in town with experience and willingness. Many are already doing the work in a self-funded way. Many graduate from university each year and rapidly disappear seeking work. Many are involved in community theatre but are wanting more. Some start-up funding and a space, with some support for administration and strategic planning to ensure the company is sustainable would allow the creatives to do their best work. An example of this in practice is City of Greater Bendigo’s Performance Subsidy Program which offers no-cost hire of a black box theatre  for up to 7 days. This opportunity for subsidised use of professional spaces and staff can be used – and is designed for – the development and presentation of new theatrical works. A similar in-residence program is now being offered by Castlemaine’s Phee Broadway Theatre.

Secondly, we can invite an existing company to move here. Arena Theatre Company, a long-running company making theatre for young people, relocated to Bendigo last year, and has already made an impact on the local theatre industry. The move came after the company lost federal funding and the board developed a strategy to re-develop as a regionally-based theatre company. Supported by local and state government, the company are now the in-residence company in Bendigo’s council run black box theatre The Engine Room. The company collaborates with young people from the Greater Bendigo Region in the research and development of all of their new work, and then premiere that new work locally before touring it nationally and internationally. In March 2019, they are launching a new development lab, in which creative teams from across Australia will join local theatre-makers to develop new works, network, discuss work, speak with presenters who will also attend.

Investment of this kind is essential if we want a thriving independent theatre sector which encourages new talent to remain in our region and if we want to expand offerings to audiences and build audience literacy around what theatre is and can be.

With the new Creative City Strategy from City of Ballarat, and venues like The Lost Ones and Ballaarat Mechanics Institute beginning to partner with performing artists, rather than operating as simply venues for hire, there is hope that we will soon see a flourishing of independent theatre in the region.


Leading Ladies of Ballarat Theatre

I interviewed eight local theatre-makers who reflected on their careers in the theatre, and gave their most pertinent advice for those wanting to make a life on the stage in the City of Ballarat & surrounds.

Featuring interviews with:

Beth Lamont Producer & Technician
Mary-Rose McClaren Academic, Writer & Director
Katrina Hill Actor & Stage Manager
Susan Pilbeam Producer & Director
Linda Davey Director
Alexandra Meerbach Actor, Director & Teacher
Paula Heenan Educator
Carol B. Cole Playwright

When did you first know that theatre was a passion?
Beth: When I was 19, I took up a theatresports course. I loved stand-up comedy but never wanted to do it myself but producing and being the tech was where I was meant to be.
Mary-Rose: My parents were both drama teachers and so I grew up going to South Street. As soon as I was old enough I subscribed to Melbourne Theatre Company.
Katrina: When I was little Riverdance came out and I wanted to be a tap dancer. It was the first time that something of that scale was on, and it was everywhere.
Susan: I realised early on that I wasn’t an actor. I first directed a show at university in my twenties and I realised it was actually something I had the skills for.
Linda: When I played Mother Rabbit in kindergarten. That was it! I just found it a magic world.
Alexandra: It was about grade 2. We performed at Her Majesty’s and it never felt like an overwhelming or terrifying experience. It always felt like home.
Paula: My dad was a musician in pit orchestra. So I’ve spent a lot of my life in theatre, but I was always too shy to get on stage. I didn’t do my first theatre show until my late teens.
Carol: There’s always been showmanship in the family, so I’m just one of them really.

What’s your career highlight so far?
Beth: Working as a Deputy Venue Manager at Sadler’s Wells in London.
Mary-Rose: Writing & Directing One Boy’s War for Ballarat National Theatre.
Katrina: Mr Bailey’s Minder for Ballarat National Theatre.
Susan: Studying in London and meeting cutting edge people like Augusto Boal.
Linda: A Tender Thing by Ben Power, with Full Circle Theatre. We were the first outside of the Royal Shakespeare Company to be granted the rights.
Alexandra: Directing Chatroom. I really love that art is a vehicle to start conversations in the community.
Paula: Sometimes just getting a really shy kid to sing a note in the lesson is the biggest thing for me.
Carol: Nothing Wrong With My Memory, which I did at Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts.

What difficulties have you faced in building a career in the arts as a women in the theatre, but also as a theatre-maker in a regional centre?
Beth: Trying to communicate my vision. People think small. But it goes the other way when I try to communicate too much and they get overwhelmed.
Mary-Rose: My biggest one is my own counter-narrative in my head, which questions my own ability. I’m sure that’s not unfamiliar and I actually think that’s quite a distinctly female thing.
Katrina: I never get cast as the romantic lead. I’m pigeon holed a little bit, but I get these really awesome roles – the stupid funny sidekick.
Susan: It’s much more difficult to get permanent employment. Doing piece work is interesting but its not sustainable.
Linda: The biggest issue is how one fund one’s life. I’ve had parallel careers and going in different directions at different times. But when life throws curveballs at you, it was quite difficult to sustain my theatre making.
Alexandra: I dont think it’s about being female, it’s about being new. There’s a bit of a clique, there’s not much mentoring going on. I don’t have that go-to production team.
Paula: The most difficult thing about what I do is the hours. I will probably never reconcile that with myself; the guilt that mums have. Raising five kids on my own, it’s a big sacrifice this industry takes.

What’s great about making theatre in Ballarat region?

Beth: Growing up here, and now having family here, I’ve always felt part of Ballarat so I feel like I want to contribute to it. I feel like I owe the place, in that its given me such a good life.
Mary-Rose: There are really good stories here. Ballarat has a lot of resonant things in the background and there’s a lot more to be told yet.
Katrina: People here are a little bit resistant to change and you have to be a bit pushy to get things happen. But you can be a big fish in a small pond here; you can be a mover and shaker.
Susan: Audience building is different here because you have to do true community engagement and really get to know them – and they you. I love seeing the joy of theatre coming to new audience members.
Linda: The proximity to Melbourne is really important for Ballarat. There’s a lot of potential here that hasn’t been captured. I think the best is yet to come.
Alexandra: Pretty much anyone who independently produces anything is filling a gap. There’s not as much competition, but in saying that there’s also not that much of a following for non-musical theatre.
Paula:  I couldn’t see anywhere else that is so culturally alive in the arts industry. I think Ballarat is incredible. Its second to none for performing arts.
Carol: Creswick Theatre Company have a very staunch core group of audience and a good committee. We have a nice intimate space so we’re very lucky.

What’s your best advice for emerging theatre-makers in our city?
Beth: If you show what you can do, people will find you. Getting out of town to the big cities and seeing how people think in other places and then bringing that home. But I’d love for them to not have to move away in the first place.
Mary-Rose: Most people doing grass roots type of theatre are really generous – so ring them up, email, make a link and have a chat. You also have to know that if they say your idea is shit that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Katrina: Don’t let the old theatre community tell you what theatre is or should be. You get the same results if you do the same thing over and over. I don’t mind making mistakes because that’s how you learn.
Susan: Be realistic. Nothing happens quickly and the dull stuff is really important – how do you get money, people and places organised.
Linda: It’s much more about what’s happening at the moment that enthuses you. Your art needs to be responding to you and your life and what you want to interact with – socially and in other ways.
Alexandra:  One of the best ways to get in the door is to help people. You put your hand up. You do something that puts you within a director’s circle. Being willing to learn.
Paula: Have an idea and let it fester. Go with it. There’s been a lot of stupid ideas that I’ve had that’ve come off and been really good. The sacrifices far outweigh the return.
Carol: Just do it. It doesn’t matter because you can always improve on it or alter it. Just sit down and start.

Links to some of the ladies awesome work
The Bard in Buninyong
Ballarat National Theatre Inc
Ballarat Centre of Music & the Arts (BCMA)
Creswick Theatre Company
Spark Creative
BallaRatCat Comedy

This article was commissioned by the Central Highlands Arts Atlas and first published in November 2018.