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Features/Theatre

Black Swan: the state of play

23 March 2022

After many challenges during its 10-year residency at the State Theatre Centre of WA, questions hang over Black Swan’s role as the state’s flagship theatre company. Mark Naglazas reports.

The anticipation of WA theatre-lovers was palpable when the curtain was raised on Reg Cribb’s Boundary Street, at the 2011 Perth Festival. It was Black Swan State Theatre’s first show as resident company, and the first production presented in the $100 million State Theatre Centre of WA.

Unlike Perth’s other performing arts forms – opera and ballet buffs were kept happy with the Edwardian charms of His Majesty’s Theatre and orchestral music had the refined acoustics of Perth Concert Hall – theatre needed a new venue because the old Pier Street Playhouse was about to be demolished in the Cathedral Square redevelopment.

The State Government replaced the Playhouse with the Kerry Hill-designed drama centre in Northbridge, including a 575-seat mainstage and a 235-seat downstairs space (plus other performance and rehearsal areas). The promise was to deliver the same high-quality experience enjoyed by theatre-lovers in other cities around the world.

Black Swan State Theatre Company’s residency at the State Theatre Centre of WA (STCWA) under then artistic director Kate Cherry got off to a rocky start. Boundary Street was widely panned, with the ABC’s Victoria Laurie concluding the production was riddled with technical problems and The West Australian’s David Zampatti claiming Cherry had “difficulty filling the stage with the forces at her disposal, leaving some scenes, especially the dance numbers, dreadfully exposed”.

With limited time between getting the keys and opening night, Cherry and Black Swan eventually overcame teething problems in the new building and presented work worthy of a state theatre company. At the end of the first year, Adam Mitchell’s production of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling had audiences enraptured and, in 2013, Cherry drew on her American experience to deliver a stunningly designed, impeccably acted version of Jon Robin Baitz’s contemporary classic Other Desert Cities.

Despite these successes it did not take long before the “build it and they will come” excitement wore off and audiences started to drift away.

Despite these successes it did not take long before the “build it and they will come” excitement wore off and audiences started to drift away. The work was widely regarded as uneven – the trilogy of Tim Winton plays copped an especially vigorous hammering – and too traditional to lure the younger and more diverse audiences essential to the company’s future.

In 2016, after nine years at the helm, Cherry’s contract was not renewed by the Black Swan board. She was succeeded by Victorian-based Helpmann Award winner Clare Watson, whose background in community and youth theatre gave a clear indication of where the board wanted Black Swan to be.

Watson put her stamp on the company with the opening show of her first full year in charge, the envelope-pushing You Know We Belong Together (2018), which she co-created with Julia Hales, a writer and performer with Down Syndrome. Over the next two years, Watson shifted the focus away from the tried and true to newer work that foregrounded issues of race, gender and identity such as Skylab, The Vibrator Play, The Torrents and Black Is The New White.

A woman with Down Syndrome stands with her hands clasped. The wall behind her is lit blue.
Watson put her stamp on the company with the envelope-pushing ‘You Know We Belong Together’. Pictured is the work’s co-creator, writer and performer, Julia Hales . Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Unfortunately Watson inherited a company in box office decline. Paid attendances nearly halved over five years – slipping from more than 43,000 in 2014 to below 22,000 in 2019. Subscriptions had also dipped drastically. While there was some recovery under Watson, it was modest.

Perhaps this startling decline in numbers is what led to the departure of executive director Natalie Jenkins in acrimonious circumstances in 2019, triggering a debate within the arts community about the abrupt announcement, which was made by the board led by high-profile chair Nicola Forrest. It prompted Black Swan co-founder Janet Holmes a Court to raise her concerns about the direction of the company she had launched with visionary director Andrew Ross and Duncan Ord, who went on to head the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

The board’s ill-fated attempt to reorient the company culminated in the announcement last July that Watson would finish up as artistic director 31 March 2022, nine months before the end of her contract. (Watson will, however, direct three productions for Black Swan in 2022.)

This was followed by the news in November that Black Swan would restructure its management, with a new CEO to sit atop the artistic director (current co-CEO Rick Heath has announced he will not be applying for the new position). It is a clear sign the company wants to bring its aesthetic and commercial ambitions into alignment.

Duncan Ord, who was Black Swan’s inaugural general manager, believes that the current problems faced by the company have their roots in its early years and the collapse of the first iteration of the State Theatre Company in 1992, just a year after Black Swan had been formed.

“Kate was criticised for her lack of ambition but doing traditional work was the only way Black Swan was going to stay afloat in this very expensive building.”

“Black Swan was founded to be the alternative to the State Theatre Company,” Ord says. “When it fell over, we were asked to step into that role. Suddenly we were burdened with the task of presenting the kinds of shows audiences expected of a flagship theatre company at the same time as maintaining our development of new work,” he says.

“The problem was that we did not receive the substantial increase in funding needed to give audiences the Western canon and the best in contemporary English-language theatre at the same time as making new, culturally diverse works of scale in the mould of Bran Nue Dae. That takes a lot more resources than simply putting on established works. Right at the beginning it was a struggle to do both things.”

Ord believes that the financial challenges facing Black Swan were exacerbated when the company moved into the new State Theatre Centre, a step-up which happened, once again, without a substantial increase in funding. “Suddenly Black Swan was having to pay three or four times the cost of putting on a show as they were used to in 1950s theatres such as the Playhouse,” he says.

“So [then-Artistic Director] Kate [Cherry] was forced to go back to the canon as a way of building audiences, knowing that sponsors and audiences were attracted to this kind of work. Kate was criticised for her lack of ambition but doing traditional work was the only way Black Swan was going to stay afloat in this very expensive building.

“It was totally unrealistic. That is the source of all the troubles Black Swan have today. It is funded with a totally inappropriate assessment of the costs and the risks needed to produce work of quality and a consistent repertoire to keep an audience base.”

A woman dressed in an early twentieth century style dress sits at a desk.
Watson shifted the focus from tried and true to newer work such as ‘The Torrents’, 2019. Pictured is Celia Pacquola. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

That imperative to transform Black Swan from a company dedicated to bringing WA stories to the stage into a state theatre company was underlined by the recent death of Andrew Ross, whose legacy – Sistergirl, Tourmaline, Bran Nue Dae, Meekathara, Corrugation Road, Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Cloudstreet – is being celebrated and lamented by those who long for the company’s glory days.

Former Black Swan board member Rob McKenzie backs Ord’s view that the cost of operating the State Theatre Centre has been a burden on the company and impacted on many of its programming decisions.

“Clare started doing more shows in the Studio Underground. That theatre costs less and is also less intimidating than the main-stage Heath Ledger Theatre to audiences the company was seeking to attract. The Studio Underground is, however, too small to be financially viable,” he says.

“Which is why at the time I lobbied for the new building to have 750 seats in the main theatre and 400 in the studio theatre below. It is really difficult to make a profit or even break even with the current capacities.”

McKenzie also believes the State Theatre Centre’s Northbridge location is proving a problem. “I’ve had several seriously bad experiences walking from my office in the city to the State Theatre Centre. It is a dangerous situation and keeping people away,” argues McKenzie.

In 2022, Black Swan has programmed shows at His Majesty’s Theatre, Subiaco Arts Centre and the Regal Theatre. With just two shows in the Heath Ledger this year, it can barely be described as the resident company of the State Theatre Centre, which one long-time arts observer believes is now a white elephant. The virtual abandonment of the Heath Ledger has left many theatre-lovers wondering if Black Swan is fulfilling its mandate as a state theatre company.

“Almost half of our state and federal funding goes into paying venue costs. And if you mount a more ambitious production such as a contemporary work with ten actors it is a struggle to break even.”

Outgoing Black Swan Co-CEO Rick Heath agrees that the State Theatre Centre is a huge burden for Black Swan and hampering its evolution as a company. “Almost half of our state and federal funding goes into paying venue costs. And if you mount a more ambitious production such as a contemporary work with ten actors it is a struggle to break even,” explains Heath.

“In order to fund those works, which are essential to our identity as a company, we need to put shows on bigger stages, such as The Regal, where we are doing the musical Once in May, and The Glass Menagerie at His Majesty’s in August. These theatres seat over 1000 people, which means we can make the money needed to support more challenging works.”

However, Heath believes that the quality of work presented by the company has also played a role in its struggle to maintain consistent attendance.

“There is an extra burden if you are a state theatre company because of a set of expectations. Audiences want to be reassured they are going to see the work they are promised and that work has to be high quality. I believe our failure to deliver on that promise has caused the audience numbers to fluctuate over the years.

“But that promise is a double-edged sword. You put on a work that is comfortable for an audience, that fulfills their expectations, but you risk being too safe or not surprising. Getting that balance right is really difficult.”

Heath believes that Black Swan have got the balance right for 2022, an assessment backed by a recent spike in ticket sales and extremely healthy projections for the rest of the year. “We have the confrontational, social justice-based Indigenous work City of Gold, we have new works by local writers Andrea Gibbs and Liz Newell, we have an acclaimed recent work from the UK, Oil, and we have our Tennessee Williams classic with Mandy McElhinney.”

Black Swan appears to be getting back into its stride with productions like ‘City of Gold’. Pictured is writer and performer Meyne Wyatt. Photo: Daniel J Grant

While Black Swan appears to be getting back into its stride, despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic, not everyone believes the health of our theatre scene depends on a state theatre company, especially one that does not have the economic resources enjoyed by its sister organisations on the east coast.

Henry Boston, former executive director of the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA, says Black Swan has lost sight of its founding vision and fallen into the trap of institutionalisation, in which protecting the organisation becomes a greater driver than its original purpose.

Boston believes that the funding malaise that has plagued Black Swan over the years is a symptom of a deeper issue, that is, the failure by successive state governments to develop and resource a longer-term plan to support the arts.

“Without such buy-in from the major stakeholder, the state government on behalf of the people, the essential original vision of companies like Black Swan will continue to be compromised and wither on the vine,” says Boston.

“Without such buy-in from the major stakeholder, the state government on behalf of the people, the essential original vision of companies like Black Swan will continue to be compromised and wither on the vine.”

Journalist and arts critic Victoria Laurie, one of the most astute observers of the local arts scene, believes that Black Swan’s struggle to hold its traditional audience while attracting a younger, more diverse crowd will be difficult because it is no longer the only show in town.

“There is simply too much competition,” argues Laurie. “Performing Lines, for example, has nurtured – with relatively little money – new producers, new writers and new performers to create extraordinary work such as Galup and Black Brass. And then you’ve got The Last Great Hunt, a company which is always highly original, and the WA Youth Theatre Company, which has produced award-winning shows often deeply embedded in the place where they perform, such as East Perth Cemetery and Tranby House.

“And some of the most powerful, exquisitely produced and original work that I have seen over the years has come from two woefully underfunded children’s theatre companies, Spare Parts [Puppet Theatre] and Barking Gecko [Theatre].

“Black Swan can no longer claim to be the pre-eminent theatre company in this town because there are smaller companies creating incredible work and supporting artists, with much, much less money. The challenge for Black Swan is to prove themselves at a time when they are clearly in flux.”

However, Ord says these smaller companies are not going to provide the careers offered by a state theatre company, which is why it is so important for Black Swan to thrive. “It is the mothership for the rest of the industry,” he says.

“A state theatre company operating at the top of its game helps build the overall theatre audience. It is an essential part of the part of the ecology.”

“A major company like Black Swan provides artists with career paths. It allows them to evolve the technical skills that are as critical today as they were in Shakespeare’s time. A string of smaller companies does not work. A state theatre company operating at the top of its game helps build the overall theatre audience. It is an essential part of the part of the ecology.”

Ord also believes that Black Swan should not abandon the State Theatre Centre. “It was constructed to house a state theatre company and it should be doing eight shows a year with an emphasis on the main stage,” he says.

Black Swan is currently finalising its new CEO and artistic director, so a vision for the company won’t become clear until those roles are filled. However, whichever way they nudge the programming pendulum – back to something more traditionally aligned with the idea of a state theatre company or continuing its quest to broaden its demographic and relevance – lifting box-office sales will be a priority.

Former Black Swan CEO Shane Colquhoun, who was in charge back in 2011 for the move into the State Theatre Centre, said the company simply had to take the audience along for the ride.

“The challenge for Black Swan has been to bring its audience on the journey as it strives to diversify its work and build new audiences for theatre. I have always thought WA audiences have not been sufficiently engaged in a conversation about what they want and expect from a theatre company. They need to be invited to get on the bus.”

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Author —
Mark Naglazas

Mark Naglazas has interviewed many of the world’s most significant producers, writers, directors and actors while working as film editor for The West Australian. He now writes for STM, reviews films on 6PR and hosts the Luna Palace Q & A series Movies with Mark. Favourite playground equipment: monkey bars, where you can hung upside and see the world from a different perspective.

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