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Celebrating a decade of Performing Lines WA

Last month, Performing Lines WA celebrated its tenth anniversary and officially said goodbye to its founding senior producer Fiona de Garis. At the party, Performing Lines WA Senior Producer Rachael Whitworth gave a heartfelt address, honouring both de Garis and the organisation’s achievements over the last decade. Seesaw editor Nina Levy was so impressed by her words that she has decided to share them with you all.

Ten years ago, Performing Lines WA  was established in Perth, with Fiona de Garis at its helm, a satellite for the Sydney-based Performing Lines. Since then the company has produced an astounding array of performances by some of Western Australia’s most exciting and innovative independent performing artists. In November Performing Lines WA held a party to celebrate its tenth anniversary and farewell de Garis, who accepted the position of executive director of Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre earlier this year. Please enjoy Rachael Whitworth’s address:

In 2008, Performing Lines WA was established with one staff member, producer Fiona de Garis, who was soon joined by the talented Sarah Rowbottam as a marketing assistant. Performing Lines WA was part of the MAPS program (Management and Producing Services) an initiative by the Australia Council and the then Department and Culture of the Arts. Squashed into a tiny office donated by Country Arts WA, Fiona and Sarah began working with their six chosen MAPS artists: Sue Peacock, Sally Richardson, Chrissie Parrot’s Jambird, Danielle Micich, PVI collective and Marrugeku.

At this time, there were no other independent producers working in WA so it was such new territory – so much opportunity but also, many challenges.

Long before I joined Performing Lines WA, I remember a dancer – a personal friend – lamenting that Fiona was not allowing Sue Peacock and her dancers work on a Sunday without paying double time. The dancer was completely outraged! How dare she put the project at risk by paying the dancers more money. Apparently Fiona wouldn’t even let them work on a public holiday! The artists had no idea of how to work with a producer or, how a producer could offer more than creating headaches and complicating things.

Eventually, both PVI and Marrgeku moved on, with James Berlyn joining the fold and MAPS renewed for a further three years. Rather the replacing the sixth artist, Fiona negotiated that, to suit the WA context, the final sixth slot should be a flexible one, allowing us to go where the need was greatest and we could have more impact. In hindsight, winning that battle and being the only MAPS unit with this extra flexibility may be one of the reasons why, 10 years on, WA is the only state to continue with a “producing services” model. This typically insightful move from Fiona reflected Performing Lines WA’s constant gaze towards the bigger picture.

Transformation is a key driver: James Berlyn in his one-man show, ‘Tawdry Heartburn’s Manic Cures’.

I was lucky enough to join Performing Lines WA as Producer in 2011, while our founder, Wendy Blacklock, was still general manager of Performing Lines. To this day, I feel her legacy. “Change through practice” was something Wendy always spoke about. It is this that Fiona and I have held closely in our hearts and our vision; not just talking about change, but doing something that has impact and models potential, evolving and growing. I can see now that this has permeated everything we have done over the past 10 years, and believe this is why a very small organisation has achieved great things.

So what do we do?

We champion artists. We do this by believing in them, supporting them and, at times, challenging them to achieve their goals and create something extraordinary.

Transformation is our key driver, whether that be in an artist’s practice, spotting a gap in the industry, pushing presenters to program something they may have never presented before or surprising an audience with the unexpected. We created many one-man shows with James Berlyn, for example, often designed to be performed for an audience of one. From drag queens, to manicurists, to a show performed in a completely made-up language, these intimate shows touched people as they toured to major Australian Festivals, developing James’s artistic practice and raising his profile – and, no doubt, helping him prepare for his current role as Executive Producer of WA Youth Theatre Company, where he is growing the next generation of West Australian artists.

Our extended engagement with people – not just projects – can create long-term sustainability and transformation for artists, whose ideas can then go further and have more impact.

Developing touring ecology: Danielle Micich’s ‘Shiver’.

We’ve been a passionate advocate for the developing touring ecology in WA, always working collaboratively with presenters rather than just “selling” a show. In 2014 we were awarded the first Pilot Boost Touring grant for contemporary dance work Shiver by Danielle Micich to tour seven regional WA venues. Boost was an experiment to see if deep community engagement strategies built audiences and enriched their experience. Working in partnership with Ausdance WA’s regional facilitator Annette Carmichael, the Shiver tour engaged with local artists and community members in bespoke ways across the state and was incredibly successful in engaging people with the contemporary dance art-form. This landmark tour underpinned what is now the Regional and Remote Touring Fund, which has a unique and much-needed focus on responsive and deeper engagement with regional audiences.

We always want to work with artists who have something important to say about the world in which we live today. Core to our practice as producers is supporting artists committed to pushing the boundaries of their artistic form, and interested in using new performance models and new platforms that may sit outside traditional theatre walls.

In 2017, in partnership with Perth Festival, we premiered Small Voices Louder by Alex Desebrock’s company Maybe ( ) Together. The show has just completed its second tour of WA. A two-part interactive performance project, Small Voices Louder captures kids’ thoughts, concerns and big ideas. Transformed into byte-sized sound-works, these are then shared back to the tour communities via radio, podcast and social media, foregrounding children’s voices in the usually-fairly-deaf adult world.

Using new performance models: Maybe () Together’s ‘Small Voices Louder’.

Outside WA, we have actively grown our networks, intent on profiling the amazing work of West Australian artists to create more sustainable careers for them. At times our artists create a ripple of change on the national landscape.

We have worked with Sensorium Theatre almost from their inception, the only Australian company creating work for children with disability. Working with this company has meant more than just creating high quality artistic product. It is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way the industry thinks about inclusive programming.

Changing the way the industry thinks about inclusive programming: Sensorium Theatre’s Odyssey.

Sensorium’s excellence and best practice models were recognised this year with an invitation for a three-week season at New York’s Lincoln Center. Sensorium not only toured to the Lincoln Center but shortly afterwards to Singapore where the interest in their work was so strong, we are investigating a three year engagement and artistic exchange program.

But it’s not only Sensorium playing international stages. I am increasingly witnessing a demand for West Australian work overseas. Recently, we produced a development of Sally Richardson’s new cross-cultural work Gui Shu, a collaboration between independent artists from Taiwan and Australia with a showing at the Asia Discover Asia meeting in Taiwan in August. At APAM this year, Maybe ( ) Together was approached by an American agent wanting to represent Small Voices Louder internationally. We were invited to present Small Voices, along with Sensorium’s new work Whoosh!, as full shows at IPAY in Philedelphia this coming January. Unfortunately we were not able to fund this, so will instead pitch both works to over 500 international delegates. And before a new project, Layla and Majnun, has even been finished, we have had presenters from across Australia and globally enquire about this epic Persian tale of star-crossed lovers.

The experience of working with Sensorium increased our commitment to inclusion and diversity and we began to question our own claim to be working with artists reflecting the society we live in, as we were mostly working with artists from a similar cultural background. On the bigger stage, we were also not seeing the real diversity of Australian society being reflected. How could we contribute to the sharing of more diverse stories for more diverse audiences? These were big questions that led us back to change through practice. In 2017 we needed a new associate producer and decided to prioritise culturally diverse candidates. This is how Zainab Syed came to be a key member of our team and her appointment has had a fundamental impact on us internally, on our program, and – already – on WA audiences.

Less than three months after Zainab joined us we embarked on creating Layla and Majnun, and almost immediately found a completely new audience. During the development we hosted a talk by Layla and Majnun’s writer and internationally renowned scholar, Feriadoon Mojadedi. The talk sold out, and that night I was completely overwhelmed, mainly because most people that were there I had never seen at the theatre before. I felt immense pride as I recognised quite concretely how a simple decision can have such an immediate and far-reaching impact.

Pushing the boundaries: ‘Dark Matter’ by Praxis

Core to our success has always been our amazing team. Missing tonight is Sarah Rowbottam (now producer at Arts House, Melbourne), and here tonight is Thom Smyth (now marketing manager for Performing Lines in Sydney), each of whom played enormous roles in developing Performing Lines WA.

Supported by our Sydney head office our WA team is actually only the equivalent of 2.8 full time staff. Associate Producer Zainab Syed, Producer Jen Leys, and Marketing and Project Coordinator Cecile Lucas – you are incredible women.

And so, you can see that, over the last 10 years, we, Performing Lines WA, have also transformed and will continue to do so. In the beginning, both artists and producers were learning how to work with each other but in the long-term, we have strived to produce work that the world wants to see backed by the experience and skill to make it happen.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Fiona (but I’ll talk about her in a minute).

To the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries I also want to say a big thank you. You have been the only State Government with the vision to continue to support producing services for independent artists when MAPS ended and let the model evolve in response to emerging need. Change doesn’t happen quickly and we hope that you can see what an incredible impact Performing Lines WA has had on the arts sector in our 10-year journey.

To all the wonderful artists we get to work with every day. I haven’t been able to mention you all but there is a slide show tonight displaying all the projects by all artists we have worked with over the past decade.

Wendy Blacklock and Fiona de Garis

Lastly, to Fiona.

As you have heard, tonight, this dream of Performing Lines WA has been one that Fiona has nurtured, developed and championed. She  has been such an incredible leader of our team. We haven’t had many staff over the years and I think this is because Fiona is so great to work with; giving, passionate, attentive to detail, demanding of the arts sector, insightful, intelligent… and just a really nice, caring person.

One of Fiona’s biggest strengths is “realising potential”, not just of the artists (who LOVE her) but also of each of the members of the Performing Lines WA team.

This has been particularly true for me. We have been so lucky to have worked together for over eight years. We were the perfect combo – her straight-forward stage management sense and intuitive people skills coupled with my artistic background; challenging each other, pushing each other with a constant focus on how to make better art.

Fiona leads with care and sensitivity and when she says what she thinks, everyone listens.

So, thank you, Fiona, for realising all of our potential and bringing Performing Lines WA to the exciting place it is today.

Read more about Performing Lines.

Pictured top is the Performing Lines team at the tenth anniversary/farewell Fiona party, with Wendy Blacklock centre, Fiona de Garis, Cecile Lucas and Megan Roberts (Performing Lines General Manager) to her right and Thom Smyth, Rachael Whitworth, Zainab Syed and Jen Leys to her left.

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