I rock up at The Hub at 10am for my tech rehearsal and sound-check. The temperature and humidity have dropped a little today, and I’m feeling relaxed and comfortable, as a former prime minister used to say. I’m fitted with a skin-coloured body-mike taped to my cheek that looks like a fat pimple in profile. I put my miniature set prototype on a handy stack of milk-crates, and walk up and down the stage, looking out at the rows of empty plastic chairs and feeling like a TV evangelist.
I’m first on the set-list, which is a relief; followed by two other text-based works, as it happens, both featuring cool younger men from Melbourne with beards. I sit in the auditorium and watch them rehearse with their laptops. I’m going to cream this. Let the old bull show them how it’s done.
I sit in the front row with my arts-funding-body observer-delegate friend. I share my anxieties with him about feeling like a dinosaur with my lack of interactive technology, my conventional-venue-located, character-driven show, and my conspicuous solitude onstage. He tells me not to worry: I’m the theatre of the future. I decide to use the line in my pitch.
The room is reasonably full now, and I’m given a great intro by Robyn Archer, who genuinely seems to remember who I am, and positively affirms the difference between me and most of the other acts, which hopefully puts the audience onside.
I won’t repeat my pitch here, but it seems to go down well. They seem to be listening, I get a few laughs, and a decent round of applause at the end. Then again, I’m an actor: what do I know? Robyn Archer even spontaneously sings a song afterwards, inspired by my content. I hope it works in my favour, and doesn’t make me look like even more of a dinosaur.
The other pitches go by in a blur. Someone taps my shoulder, and a voice from Minneapolis murmurs encouragingly: ‘How did it go? Sorry I’m late, I was on the ferry.’ ‘Ok, I think,’ I whisper back.
Afterwards, the tent empties rapidly. Probably the heat. A few people come up and congratulate me. Mostly friends. I climb back up on the empty stage and pack up my set in its little suitcase. Show’s over. I have a sudden urge to call a taxi to the airport and go home.
I go outside to one of the food stalls and order some Japanese noodles in a cardboard tray. Then I remember I’ve paid in advance online to attend a lunchtime workshop hosted by the Australian Performing Arts Centre Association and Theatre Network Victoria. ‘Get With the Program: Curation, Commissioning and Programming.’ I head inside with my takeaway.
It’s a sit-down lunch at separate tables, surrounding a central sofa on which the guest panel are awkwardly arranged with their backs to half of us, waiting to be interviewed by the head of APACA. The picnic-style lunch-packs are pretty meagre for the price; I’m glad I brought my takeway. Most of the people at my table are presenters, as are all the guests on the panel: two festival directors and two venue programmers, local and international.
My mood begins to plummet. There’s more talk of the need for ‘collaboration,’ and there’s a lot of references to ‘us’, the need for artists to think about ‘our audiences’, and, at one point, the challenge for presenters to retain creative ‘control’ over work they’ve commissioned. When the interviewer presses one of the presenters on the question of how in practice she’s increasing her level of collaboration with artists, she responds: ‘I don’t know.’
Afterwards we’re invited to brainstorm ‘one big idea’ at each table. I lose my patience, and tell my companions that the elephant in the room is the question of power, and that in my book, ‘collaboration’ means sharing it. With regard to festivals and venues, I suggest that presenters commission artists to make whatever work they choose; otherwise in my book it’s not a commission, just fee-for-service, like paying a plumber. Finally I suggest that an audience only exists in front of an actual performance. Otherwise we’re talking about communities rather than audiences, and trying to end-game the process by programming what we think they want.
Specifically with regard to this workshop, I suggest that there should be at least one artist on the panel. My big idea is that the next APAM should give red open-access delegate passes to artists, blue day-passes to presenters, and have ‘them’ come and pitch their venues and festivals to ‘us’ in the tent, and then try and arrange follow-up meetings with ‘us’ afterwards.
An international presenter at my table from one of the plethora of festivals that seem to exist in Ireland tells me she thinks the word ‘power’ is divisive. She prefers the word ‘respect’. I want to tell her, it’s not the word that’s divisive, and that I’ve had it up to here with ‘respect’, but I restrain myself. She tells me that in the end it’s all about people; that in the end she only works with people she wants to work with; nice people; people she likes. I want to say, that must be nice for her; I wish I had the same luxury; but again, I restrain myself. She says she tried my big idea at a festival in Ireland once, for a day, and it didn’t work. I want to ask her if she thinks what we’re doing now is working; but again, I manage to restrain myself.
Afterwards I go to the bar inside the Powerhouse and someone offers to buys me a drink. It’s my sound-art-performance-maker colleague from Melbourne. I download, and she commiserates, then heads off to watch more pitches.
Minneapolis sidles up to me, and observes cynically that the whole collaboration/networking thing is bullshit. Why can’t people just be honest about the fact that everyone’s here to sell or buy work and get on with it? She’s been trying to pin down a presenter from Paris who says he likes a work of hers but keeps playing cat-and-mouse instead of talking turkey. I tell her if he genuinely wants the work, she should say he can’t have it, but is welcome to commission a new one.
We agree that almost every conversation we have with anyone here is riven by a kind of double consciousness: should I be pitching my work to this person? Should I even be talking to them, or is there someone else I should be talking to instead? On the one hand it’s all part of the job of being an artist-producer, but on the other hand it feels incredibly corrosive, artistically, socially and even psychologically.
We start chatting to someone else at the bar. He’s here in his recently appointed capacity as the associate artistic director of a major dance theatre in Sweden. It’s a part-time job; he’s also the artistic director of his own dance group in the UK. He’s just choreographed a new dance work to music by Sigur Ros; have we heard of them?
We come from totally different worlds, but I tell him I love the idea of a part-time director of a venue who continues to work independently as a practising artist with his own company. We exchange business cards (he has two). He didn’t see my pitch, but when I tell him I feel like a boring text-based theatre dinosaur, he advises me to stick to my guns. I decide to take his advice.
An artistic director from Melbourne whom I know (and have emailed to arrange a meeting with) comes up to me and apologizes for missing my pitch. She’s in the middle of a meeting right now, but promises to catch up later. She goes back to her table.
Someone who works for a regional presenter approaches and apologizes for stalking me. She says she saw my pitch and wants to tell her boss about it. Minneapolis winks and melts away. I give the regional presenter my business card and USB stick. I remark that it’s probably the second time I’ve had an opportunity or even remembered to hand one out. She smiles nervously and leaves me alone with my drink.
I wander over to the artistic director from Melbourne and she detaches herself from her group and joins me back at the bar. We agree not to talk business right now, and chat about life and work generally.
I tell her about my feelings of disempowerment as an artist, and encourage her to appoint at least one actor as a resident artist with her company who also has a voice in programming decisions. She already has at least one resident director, a resident lighting designer, and even a resident playwright, but actors generally don’t get a look in as resident ‘creatives’. She takes my suggestion seriously; there’s someone she’s even thought of in this capacity. One concern she has is that actors will just want to program plays they want to be in. I say this doesn’t seem to be a problem with resident directors, so what’s the difference? I tell her companies make better work when actors are given a creative voice, and that as an actor I do better work too when I’m given collaborative power in the rehearsal room. She reminds me gently that not every actor is the same as me; that’s why I’m a theatre-maker with my own company as well as working freelance. It’s a good point. I thank her and wander back outside.
I can’t bring myself to go back into the tent and watch any more pitches. I decide to catch a ferry and wander down to the local New Farm jetty near the Powerhouse.
There’s an evening forum on ‘Independent Artists’ at Metro Arts, a cool, grungy producing venue in the CBD. They’re running a nightly schedule of informal activities, including a bar with food, performances and DJ sets. It’s running concurrently with APAM but isn’t officially part of the program. It sounds perfect.
I board the ferry, take off my red pass with my name on it, buy a ticket and ask advice from the ferry lady about where to get off. Being on the river and anonymous feels glorious. I feel like I’m on holiday. I get off at Riverside and suddenly I’m surrounded by buildings and traffic. I ask a commuter in a suit for directions.
Metro Arts is another example of what Perth lacks in terms of venues. It’s similar to The Blue Room, but commissions work as well as presenting it, and is located in a hive of buildings. There’s a courtyard out the back, and a cool restaurant downstairs.
I head through to the courtyard. There’s a bunch of other delegates, mostly artists, and one or two familiar faces from the local Brisbane scene. I chat to a distinctively tall Brisbane-based independent movement-theatre artist whose work I’ve seen in Melbourne and admired.
I feel like I’ve escaped from the Magic Faraway Tree for a while, and landed back on earth.
The forum panel is once again stacked with glamorous international presenters (one of whom I hopefully emailed before APAM without getting a reply) though there is one local state theatre company artistic director (as it happens, the same one who helpfully pointed out the rip in my shirt at the Welcome Lunch two days ago) and one lone independent artist from Melbourne (whom I also know – we’re a small tribe) who specializes in promenade small-screen interactive location-based one-on-one theatre and has cracked the international touring market. The host is one of that new breed: an independent theatre producer – though actually she’s just come back from working for a theatre awards organisation in London and has now been employed by a funded producing body in Sydney). Not for the first time, I ponder the meaning of that word ‘independent’.
There’s yet more talk about collaboration, and whether the ‘value’ of independent artists is overdetermined by market forces. Afterwards the discussion is opened to the floor for questions or comments, and I pluck up my courage and put up my hand.
I propose restructuring APAM so presenters pitch to artists instead of the other way around. I suggest that inferior blue artist passes be abolished, and more artists appear on panel discussions and are involved in the planning of APAM itself. I assert my use value as an artist and human being as distinct from my exchange value as a commodity, which is determined by my exploitation by presenters (Marx, Capital, Chapter 1). I call for more artists to have positions of power on boards of management and as part-time associate artistic directors, like my friend from Stockholm.
Then I have a Road to Damascus moment. I publicly renounce the term ‘independent’ and urge others do the same, as it’s outlived its strategic political value and now just signals that we’re prepared to work for nothing and are somehow different or inferior. I suggest instead we simply call ourselves ‘artists’ and ‘companies’, as by definition we’re already independent, or at least struggling to be, both as artists and adult human beings.
Finally I claim that as ensembles of artists, groups like MKA from Melbourne or PVI from Perth (both of whom have given brilliant pitches at APAM and are here in the audience at Metro Arts now) have more right to call themselves ‘theatre companies’ than the administrative and marketing husks that currently do so and hog most of the funding. I compare theatre with dance or music companies, which take the ‘ensemble of artists’ definition of a company, orchestra or rock band for granted.
I rest my case, Your Honour.
I hand back the microphone.
A salaried associate producer with a major performing arts company who’s in the audience demurs. She says having a salaried ensemble of actors would mean they’d be obliged to take work with the company that they wouldn’t necessarily do if they had the choice. I say, what do you think actors do now? She says they’d also be obliged to take on other responsibilities than just acting. I repeat my rhetorical question.
A member of an artist-company in the audience supports me. One of the presenters on the panel who’s from the UK (the one I emailed) also supports the idea. He talks about how the RSC revitalized itself artistically when it became an ensemble company. Another presenter on the panel who’s from Canada also pipes up. She says she’d like to see herself made redundant and hand decision-making power back to artists. The artistic director on the panel says he’s only going to hold his tenure for three years and then go back to being an independent artist.
You read it hear first.
Another, younger artist in the audience says she doesn’t want to be inside the system. She’s happy to do her own work outside it, with or without pay. The artistic director on the panel asks her if she thinks she’ll still feel the same way in twenty years’ time. She says she doesn’t know or care: maybe she’ll have a baby and concentrate on other things. She says it’s all about self-empowerment. She cites Foucault, but I’m not sure if she’s read him correctly.
The meeting breaks up. I chat with friends. I look around for the presenter from the UK on the panel with whom I was trying to arrange a meeting but he’s disappeared, almost certainly forever. Some younger artists invite me to join them for a meal, but I decide to head home. It’s been a big day. The tall movement-theatre artist from Brisbane who used to call himself independent gives me a local tip: there’s a smaller, slower, free ferry that leaves from Eagle Point just nearby.
I head back down to the river and board the ferry with a group of locals who sound South African. Out on the water, it’s dark apart from the gliitering colour-synchronized lights of Briz Vegas, and there’s a refreshing breeze.
Something’s shifted inside me. It feels good to be here.