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Features/Dance/Fringe World Festival/Perth Festival/Theatre

Stepping into the spotlight?

27 May 2020

The performing arts sector has been devastated by the pandemic shutdowns… but recovery could provide a window of opportunity for local independent artists. Nina Levy investigates.

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Amid the COVID-19 crisis, our State’s independent artists could be stepping into the post-pandemic spotlight.

WA’s so-called tyranny of distance – used to create a State of splendid isolation from COVID-19 – could well be its saving grace, say WA performing arts leaders. Local audiences, hungry for live performances, could be seeing WA independents filling the huge gap left by the national and international acts that are unlikely to be touring any time soon.

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease and galleries start to open their doors, it’s still unclear when performing arts venues will be allowed to accommodate enough patrons to make re-opening financially viable, nor how willing the public will be to turn up to shows. While performing arts workers are suffering, independent artists – already financially vulnerable – have been hit particularly hard. Generally not eligible for JobKeeper, many have also lost their part-time casual work in the entertainment or hospitality sector, and have faced delays accessing JobSeeker.

Bonnie Davies, CEO and director of The Gelo Company.

Nonetheless, CEO and creative director of The Gelo Company, Bonnie Davies, AKA Famous Sharron, sees a pinprick of light on the horizon.

“It’s likely that venues will reopen well before border closures and quarantine restrictions are lifted,” she observes. “With visits from interstate and international artists neither possible nor financially viable, there’s going to be a gap that local independent artists could fill.

“What if COVID is an opportunity for people in Western Australia to discover the richness of our own independent artists?”

Our vibrant local independent scene

WA performing arts leaders agree that our independents are more than capable of stepping into the breach. “I’d be so bold as to say that our independent sector is the best part of our performing arts sector in WA … the independents are the life-blood and energy that is Perth art,” remarks Kathryn Osborne, acting executive director of The Blue Room Theatre, artistic director of Riptide Youth Performance Company and independent director and producer.

More broadly, Perth’s performing arts scene has development and presentation platforms that are “the envy of other cities”, says Marcus Canning, one of the owners of The Rechabite, founder of Fringe World Festival and former CEO of Artrage.

Kathryn Osborne, acting executive director of The Blue Room Theatre. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

“We have one of the world’s greatest arts festivals, a fantastic fringe festival, one of the most celebrated training institutions on the planet, a dynamic array of year-round venues and stages and development organisations, access to an astonishing diversity of regional communities across the state, if you choose to connect. More importantly, we have a creative community that is resilient, innovative, can-do and not afraid to roll up its sleeves and get amongst it when the need presents.”

While its geographical distance poses challenges, the WA performing arts sector’s “splendid isolation” is also its greatest strength, continues Canning. “Isolation seeds independence in ways that are not evident in other cities,” he explains. “DIY is in our DNA.”

Marcus Canning, The Rechabite. Photo: Luke Carter Wilton

For Perth’s independent practitioners, that isolation also brings freedom, says Osborne. “The great thing about Perth is that you can explore and experiment, and … really hone your craft here,” she observes.

Anyone who is a regular attendee at the Perth venues that showcase local independent work – The Blue Room, PICA, The Rechabite, the Studio Underground, Subiaco Arts Centre, for example – will know how fortunate we are to have such a vibrant and innovative independent performing arts scene. But its impact goes beyond those artists and their audiences. Independent artists form a vital part of the arts ecosystem.

“There’s that wonderful image of the tree; the independents are like the microbes, feeding the soil which grows the tree,” explains Osborne. “Independent artists spring fresh ideas, innovation… push artistic practice forward, give audiences surprising and new experiences.”

“Every notable mainstream and mainstage talent worth their mettle has had some kind of formative experience forged away from the centre.”

Canning agrees. “[The independent sector] is where real experimentation and boundary pushing occurs,” he comments. “It’s where cross-artform collaborations are strongest and where hybridisation is engendered. It’s where the free radicals reside and where the emergent and the new not only cuts their teeth but hone them to be razor sharp.

“I’d argue that all great work and talent originates from the independent scene. Every notable mainstream and mainstage talent worth their mettle has had some kind of formative experience forged away from the centre.”

That means a post-pandemic window of opportunity for independents is a potential win for the whole performing arts sector.

Nathan Bennett, Perth Festival executive director

Home-grown festivals

One of the biggest opportunities for local independent artists will be the 2021 festival season. Though it’s early days in terms of programming announcements, particularly because it’s still unclear what restrictions will be in place in early 2021, Perth Festival executive director Nathan Bennett and Fringe World CEO Sharon Burgess say their respective festivals will feature predominantly local work. Even if our national and state borders are open in time for the festivals, the quarantine requirements may make programming shows from interstate and overseas financially unviable.

And then there is social distancing. “Clusters of infection occur in enclosed spaces like clubs and places where people are tightly packed in,” observes Bennett. “So traditional theatre venues are, no doubt, going to be impacted, and there will likely be some level of social distancing restrictions in place.”

Sharon Burgess, CEO, Fringe World. Photo: Naomi Jellicoe

Burgess agrees that social distancing will be a consideration to programming. “We need to see what the confidence level is of the audiences. That said, having tested the market a tiny bit throughout our IsoFringe activity, when we’ve been putting out content [online], the response from the public has been phenomenal… but there may be a nervousness about [being in close proximity to others]. We just don’t know.”

Income will be affected too, across government funding, sponsorship and donations, as well as box office, says Bennett. “But also … we need to consider what is appropriate to charge in this economic climate, and where to find the balance between free and ticketed events.”

With less money to spend, more free events and more outdoor events, an emphasis on local work makes sense, says Bennett. Fortunately for Perth Festival, that isn’t going to be a massive shift in relation to recent programming, with both Iain Grandage’s 2020 Festival and Wendy Martin’s 2019 line-up emphasising the importance of telling local stories.

Burgess feels similarly. “A very high proportion of our Fringe World participants are Western Australian so from that point of view, it will change but it will not change dramatically.”

Opportunity knocks

Rachael Whitworth, senior producer at Performing Lines WA

The door is open for independent artists and, at a time when traditional theatre spaces may not be viable for use, they’ve got what it takes to step inside, says Rachael Whitworth, senior producer at Performing Lines WA. “I think it is going to be the independent artists who can be, potentially, the most powerful and able to connect with audiences, because they’re going to make work that is not always made for a massive mainstage, that seeks to reach and engage audiences in new and different ways,” she observes.

When it comes to responding to challenges or changes, independent artists are also nimble and flexible, says Ryan Taaffe, executive director of CircuitWest. “Independents can see a problem today and start working on a show or a solution tomorrow,” he remarks. “Bigger companies [can’t do that], not through any fault of their own, but the style they operate in is a set pattern, created months or years beforehand.”

It seems like a perfect fit for independent artists but, says Davies, there is one more vital step that needs to be taken in order for independents to be able to flourish in the post-COVID world.

Movie cinemas, big theatres, nightclubs are going to be limited and it’s an opportunity to develop new audiences for the arts and culture sector.”

“So often,” she remarks, “it feels like the larger organisations are – out of necessity – fighting for their own survival, and it means they have a limited capacity to focus on the value or plight of independents while they focus on their own organisational challenges. Out of practicality it makes sense that independent artists are first to go live again. They are the creatives who can turn around work quickly, set up in venues at short notice and play to smaller rooms. If we, as a sector, promoted these experiences to Perth audiences with a united message, it could be incredibly powerful. It could connect arts experiences to a general public who are aching for connection and who often do not realise there is live music, theatre, comedy, visual art… right around the corner from them. Movie cinemas, big theatres, nightclubs are going to be limited and it’s an opportunity to develop new audiences for the arts and culture sector.”

Ryan Taaffe, executive director of CircuitWest

Rising from the ashes… together

That belief that the performing arts sector needs to work collaboratively – with larger organisations supporting independents – to meet the challenges of the post-COVID world, is echoed by arts leaders.

“The question is, how does the whole arts sector – venues, producers, independent artists, and independent producers and technicians and all those people – actually come together to decide what the new normal is?” Taaffe asks. “This is a chance to reset, to address many of the problems that existed before COVID-19.”

One of those problems, says Whitworth, is the lack of advocacy for independents. “In a lot of the conversations that I’m involved with at an industry level there is this deep recognition that artists are not necessarily being covered by the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments, but also this question about why venues and organisations are able to keep front of house and administrators financially sustained but not artists,” she remarks.

Out of system collapse, new ways of doing things inevitably arise and with them come new visions, new transformations and maybe new values.”

When it comes to conversations about how the arts sector will move forward, it’s vital to have independent artists at the table, Whitworth continues. “When you’re thinking about new ways of living in the world, what we need is an artistic voice within that conversation, to be coming up with new ideas that administrators don’t think about.”

Taaffe and Whitworth aren’t just talking the talk. Their respective organisations, CircuitWest and Performing Lines WA, are collaborating to find practical ways to bring the arts sector together, to start conversations about how to move forward.

“We’re trying to develop an event in June … called “WA Connects”, about the sector coming together and looking at what the new normal is post COVID,” Taaffe explains. “It’ll be about having those conversations to help artists understand venues, venues understand artists, producers. Because we say we serve the performing arts sector at CircuitWest, we see ourselves as having some responsibility in helping that conversation to happen.”

At a time when the performing arts community feels so vulnerable, it’s an exciting thought that positive change may emerge from the ashes. Canning, for one, is all for it. “This whole COVID shake-up excites me greatly. I love it when a static status-quo is slammed with a disruption it didn’t see coming,” he muses. “Personally, I kind of hope this post-COVID world, and the forced focus on the local, starts to engender a little more of that kind of authentic wild grass-roots spirit. Out of system collapse, new ways of doing things inevitably arise and with them come new visions, new transformations and maybe new values.”

‘[The independent sector] is where real experimentation and boundary pushing occurs … It’s where cross-artform collaborations are strongest and where hybridisation is engendered.’ ‘i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night’, by independent dance artist Rachel Arianne Ogle, is an example of such experimentation. The work, which is pictured top, was performed at PICA in 2019. Photo: Mick Bello

This article was originally published with the title “New visions?”

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Since July 2016 Nina has also been co-editor of Dance Australia magazine. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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