A Wearer of Many Hats

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I’ve often described myself as “a wearer of many hats – real and metaphorical”. You’ll often see me sporting a colourful woolen beret in winter, an orange felt hat in autumn and spring, and a broad-brimmed straw number in summer. I’m juggling  parenting, paid work and creative projects, and I have multiple creative projects on the go at once. So I guess my description is pretty apt.

But what I’ve been learning in the past few years is that I can’t wear more than one hat at a time. In reality, it’s impractical and unfashionable, but metaphorically, it’s very bad for my well-being.

Flashback to 2017, when  I wrote, directed and produced Hollow with the help of the small core team at Tripwire Theatre Inc., and it was really hard. Too much for one person, especially with the level of emotional investment I had in the show and it was compounded by what was going on in my personal life at the time. Despite being a complete mess after it finished, I learnt a lot from Hollow. I learnt how much I can achieve when I set my mind to it. I learnt how courageous I am. I learnt to compartmentalise theatre-making so that I’m only ever wearing one hat at a time. I love writing, I love directing and I love producing. But I know my limits now and I’m at a point where I can pick and choose projects and my role within them, and better still, I am trusted by other to bring a project to fruition. My time I spent doing it all with Tripwire has given me that opportunity.

This Sunday (exactly two years after the Hollow opening night), I am holding the first meeting of my team for Ballarat National Theatre’s production of Medea. I have my director’s hat firmly on. With a cast of 16 (some children) and emotionally charged content, it’s not unlike Hollow. The difference is, I have an entire production team to resource my vision for the show. I have a production manager, assistant director, designer, and the entire board of BNT to support me. I don’t have to find money to fund the show and I don’t have to market it. It’s a great feeling, and I have enough energy to put towards all the other things in my life at the same time. 

So, hats off to that!

When Opportunity Knocks, I Answer.

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I was right when I said that everything changes. I know I’d sworn never again to work with community theatre after being burnt twice. It seems I wasn’t the only one who had negative experiences and with a new broom comes sweeping changes. The new board of Ballarat National Theatre are open to creative risk, actively seeking new blood, and have a longer-term outlook. I’m excited to be a part of that. The opportunities to build more networks, to work with new people, to try new things as a director, to forge a reputation for professionalism and quality seem to now outweigh any potential conflict that might arise from working in community theatre.

This month, I will be directing Act Like A Girl, a monologue series which sees speeches for male characters transformed by the female voice. I’ve got my work cut out for me with 20 actors to coordinate individual rehearsals for! And later this year, I will direct for BNT’s September/October season.

I’ve also been asked to present a guest segment on The Arts Program on 99.9 Voice FM. Every now and again, I’ll be joining Lydnen & POD on Wednesday nights from 6-8pm, to chat about happenings in theatre and spoken word around Ballarat.

2019 is going to be a VERY busy year for me, with new spoken word projects, and my other theatre projects already on the calendar. It’s an exciting time because I never know where the next project will take me or who I might meet, and each opportunity is a brick in the wall that is my career in the arts. And it’s not going to build itself, so when opportunity knocks, I answer.

Follow this blog and my facebook page for updates on all my projects.

 

 

 

Killing It For Kicks – An Analysis of Jekyll & Hyde The Musical

Jekyll & Hyde The Musical was recently staged in Ballarat for the first time by Ballarat Lyric Theatre Inc, at Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts. In terms of production values and performances, the show really was excellent. A jaw-dropping set, belting vocals and crisp choreography lived up to the hype. And yet, I felt so deeply uncomfortable during the performance that I nearly walked out of the theatre.

Based on the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson and featuring a thrilling score of pop rock hits from multi-Grammy- and Tony-nominated Frank Wildhorn and double-Oscar- and Grammy-winning Leslie Bricusse, the content of this show is presented as entertainment, but I don’t enjoy watching a woman get raped and murdered, no matter how well she sings.

Jekyll & Hyde has been described as cross between Phantom of The Opera and Sweeney Todd. Unfortunately it combines the worst parts of those stories – the jealous controlling of a woman the protagonist professes to care for, and the protagonist reveling in violence for the sake of it.

It is the very existence of Hyde, allowing Jekyll to be unaccountable for his actions, that made this story so unpalatable. Acutely aware of the harm he is doing, as he lies to his employees, ignores his fiance, and manipulates his trusting friend John, Jekyll is forever held at arm’s length from the horrors his experiment inflicted. The appearance of his alter-ego Hyde effectively makes him a victim of his own violence, instead of being the cause of it, which he most certainly is. Jekyll is never allowed to reconcile his two sides and acknowledge that good people – good men – indeed do evil things.

In Lyric’s production program, the director’s notes made no mention of the social context into which this production was being offered. The story could have been a perfect vehicle for an exploration of the effect of toxic masculinity and what happens when suppression of men’s emotional needs leads to them acting in violent ways. Switch the big gothic Victorian era London laboratory for a suburban Australian shed, and the chemical experiments for a couple of stubbies and suddenly the two faces of Jekyll & Hyde are not so unfamiliar. It is a horror story which many loved ones endure in reality – the two faces of a man who uses substance abuse to mask his anger and an alter ego to take the blame for his negative choices. A man who manipulates those around him by alternately showing his loving and caring side, and the face of his ‘chemical’-fuelled anger.

It’s 2019. There is really no need to see a man killing people or raping women on stage. I know a lot of people like horror as a genre, and this is what Jekyll & Hyde offers, but considering that in Australia, one in six women, and one in 16 men have experienced real-life horror as a victim of sexual assault, the themes are too close to home for many.

I’m not advocating for never telling these types of stories or avoiding all violence completely. On the contrary, I’m interested in seeing stories which explore these topics. But so many of the depictions of violent acts in Jekyll & Hyde did not add to the story or character development, and seemed to be included only for kicks.

For example, in Jekyll & Hyde, the scene where Lucy presented at Jekyll’s rooms for medical treatment and showed the wounds inflicted by Hyde is so subtly effective. We didn’t need to see him inflicting them to understand what he was capable of. We don’t need to witness the rape or watch men being slain to understand that those things are horrific. The sight of bleeding scratch marks down a young woman’s back is horror enough, surely?

The story of Jekyll and Hyde still has merit, it still has things to teach us. However the story must be reframed for the modern context, it must make a social commentary on today’s struggle with the epidemic of violence that infiltrates so many of our lives. If there is not a strong message behind the performance, then it serves to further normalise these behaviours. Leave more to the imagination, be less explicit but more thought provoking. I would have liked to see the complexities of the story and its relevance to the conversation in the age of #MeToo brought centre stage, not hidden within a production that was – to pardon the pun – killing it.

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse, you can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or through online chat.

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.

 

Why I’ve Turned My Back On Community Theatre

In April last year, I submitted three proposals to direct for a community theatre company in 2019 and 2020. In November 2018, a long six months later, I got a response to my proposals. And it floored me.

My relationship with this company was already rocky. Their rejection of my proposal to produce Hollow was what lead me to create Tripwire Theatre Inc, and ultimately lead me to where I am today with my theatre-making work. You can read the backstory on my blog.

In the most recent submission, I urged the committee to consider that now is the time for a more artistically diverse program, and to be the heart of a change, leading the way among community theatre organisations who continue to make safe programming decisions which do not challenge either their members nor their audience.

After six months, I enquired about when I would get an outcome, as I had other 2019 projects coming up for consideration and wanted to make sure I could honour the proposals I had made, should they be successful. It was suggested to me that working with this company would not be satisfying an emerging professional director and that I should pursue other projects.

I immediately wrote back with a justification of why an I had submitted in the first place and why I would still like to do the job. While working with community theatre may not be financially satisfying, I have found it rewarding and I was looking forward to meeting and working with more local theatre aficionados. I directed for Creswick Theatre Company in early 2018, and while not without its challenges, I was very proud of the production and pleased to be able to focus on directing, rather than spreading myself thin doing producing as well. The opportunity offered by this particular community theatre company presented a the chance to direct in what is otherwise a very limited amount of opportunities locally.

In hindsight, it was obvious that my core values as a theatre-maker and those of the company simply did not align. They were right about that much. However, that does not mean that I deserved to be communicated to in such a disrespectful and condescending way.

When I eventually received an outcome letter from the committee it was so disgustingly patronising I honestly could not believe what I was reading. After the initial shock, it was actually laughable that a person could think it was appropriate to send it to another person in a professional capacity. They quoted my submission back to me in inverted commas. It was unnecessarily detailed in its outright rejection of my ideas, using words like abhore and detest to explain in turn why each proposal was utterly untenable. I was asked to explain the reasons for my given unavailability in order to accommodate someone else’s preferences.

And as the final insult, after tearing apart my ideas and hating on directors who have ‘concepts’, it contained an offer for me to direct a severely compromised version of one of my proposals.

It took every ounce of diplomacy to not immediately fling back an angry email. And it did cross my mind to accept the offer and carry out a subersive production which undermined the company from within. But the offer was one I was clearly never meant to accept. So, I didn’t waste much of my time thinking about it. I took the high road and sent off a very professional “thanks, but no thanks, and good luck for your future seasons”.

Community theatre plays an important role in the ecology of our sector, by providing an introductory level of involvement in the performing arts and becoming a place of belonging – with creative and social outcomes – for hobbyist thespians. But I won’t be spending any more of my time there because it’s not a place that I belong. For me, making theatre is not a hobby, or a side project. It’s my job. I’m passionate about what I do but I’m also serious making a career from it.

I will focus on making professional independent theatre that is edgy, relevant and makes a social or political commentary. And I will focus on working with people who respect me, who trust me and who are willing to pay me.

You won’t find my name among the credits in a community production anymore. And I don’t mind one little bit. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

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
MAD SWAN
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.