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Q&A/What to SEE/Multi-arts

What to SEE: A showcase of the WA arts industry

8 July 2022

The performing arts industry looks to the future this month with WA Showcase bringing together producers, artists and thought-provoking speakers at a crucial time for the fragile industry.

The annual WA Showcase is the state’s biggest arts and culture conference, presented by CircuitWest. Executive Director Sam Lynch shares some thoughts with Seesaw’s Craig McKeough about the issues facing the arts industry and how he hopes to tackle them in this year’s program.

Craig McKeough: The WA Showcase runs from 25-28 July. What can participants expect from?

Sam Lynch: It is the most innovative pitching and learning forum in Australia. The industry has been smashed for two years and we are hearing from many participants that it’s make or break in the next 12 months. WA Showcase will get presenters, producers, artists and arts workers from all 10 regions and look to the ways we will contribute to WA’s recovery. For us, this will be mainly by seeing more producers and artists engage with more communities in more places than ever before and break out of the COVID fog. There are so many industries that have a big hand in the wellbeing of Western Australians, but it is arts that will really improve people’s mental health. You can have all the infrastructure investment in the world, but a new road will never lift a whole community.

CM: Tell us about some of the keynote speakers.

SL: Dr Christina Davies led an award-winning study that was the first internationally to quantify the relationship between mental wellbeing and arts engagement. The study concluded that those who engaged in 100 or more hours a year of arts engagement (i.e. two or more hours a week) reported significantly better mental wellbeing than other levels of engagement. This information could transform the ways arts is funded in the future.

Keynote speakers Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt. Photo supplied

Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett created the Australian Digital Concert Hall when the arts world collapsed in 2020 and venues were shut. They proved that people would pay to see high quality performing arts streamed to their TV and devices and in doing so helped put $2 million into the pockets of often unemployed artists.

CM: The Showcase is titled “The Next Stage”. Is the performing arts industry generally looking to the future or is it too easy to get stuck in the past restaging old favourites we know will be popular?

SL: Performing arts is always changing us. Now we need to look at how performing arts can change. There is so much leadership and new thinking being shown by our industry. WA Showcase has asked some of the most innovative thinkers to come and speak about the transformational path we all need to take to be better. We should always be destroying barriers and burning down barricades that stand between people and performing arts. The Next Stage is very much about pushing through barriers by listening to those who are already on the other side. 

Keynote speaker Dr Christina Davies. Photo supplied

CM: The Showcase will focus on arts in key areas – First Nations, accessibility, digital presentation, and working with communities. How are important are these discussions in broadening the way the industry works and engages in these areas?

SL: The industry often has a conundrum in that it feels ill equipped to reach in all of the directions it wants to. This is massively exacerbated with each kilometre of distance from a capital city. We will examine all of the critical areas the industry told us they need to grow and thrive in. One typical presenter said their future plan is about being accessible to everyone, presenting what the First Nations communities need, getting the community engaged constantly in performing arts and streaming to everyone who can’t make it into the performing space. These are very common goals in our industry. After WA Showcase, we’ll be a step closer.

CM: Is the industry doing enough to foster broader participation from, for example, First Nations people and people with disabilities?

SL: I am not First Nations, and I don’t want to speak on behalf of the traditional owners of this land. However, it would be impossible to look around our industry and say we are anywhere near where we need to be. So, with leadership from elder and artist Shaun Nannup and some creative brilliance from Eva Mullaley from Yirra Yaakin, we are hoping for some big conversations about where we need to go from here.

Many in the industry are working hard on access for people with disabilities. However, one story I always share is of two friends of mine who often have a drink before the show at a Perth theatre venue. One of them uses a wheelchair. The building’s design was made to be accessible, but this falls down when someone checking tickets addresses one friend as the carer for the other. They don’t even sit together. The assumption that someone in a wheelchair must have a carer is one aspect of the proof that we have much to learn about providing quality experiences to performing arts fans who have disabilities.

The industry has been smashed for two years and we are hearing from many participants that it’s make or break in the next 12 months. WA Showcase will get presenters, producers, artists and arts workers from all 10 regions and look to the ways we will contribute to WA’s recovery.

CM: First Nations productions seem to have taken a higher profile in recent times, especially through platforms like Perth Festival. Do we need to be looking at these stories and productions as part of the mainstream arts presentations rather than a genre? What needs to change to make that happen?

SL: This is a really complex question, but my answer would be that if an artform has been around for tens of thousands of years it deserves its own genre. In saying that, we must seek guidance from First Nations leaders and artists about the role they want their art to take, its place in our culture and its direction as it evolves. Jacopo Peri’s 420-year-old Euridice is generally regarded as the earliest surviving opera and it is practically brand new compared to the time First Nations people began creating art on these lands.

CM: These are just two aspects of the discussion around diversity in the industry. What are the pitfalls in efforts to make the arts more accessible and representative of people with diverse needs? 

SL: People tell me the biggest pitfalls fall into a couple of categories. The one we can all look to influence is ensuring that arts represent the great diversity of our society and that people with disabilities get to see themselves and their stories represented on stages and not just in front of them. Diversity thinking needs focus on not just who we get in our performing spaces, but who is performing and who is working in our industry. I’m not even from Australia but I can see people just like me represented in many arts settings all the time in WA. That doesn’t make sense. Representation is the step we need to take seriously.

The WA Showcase will be held from 25-28 July at Subiaco Arts Centre

Pictured top. Participants from the last WA Showcase presented by CircuitWest in 2019. Photo supplied

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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