Theatre conference? You want to be in Cats or something?

28 October, 2009 by No Comments

This post was contributed by Xanthe Coward, a COE09 conference delegate. Many thanks also to Xanthe for her live-tweeting during the sessions. You can catchup with all the hashtagged contributions to the Twitter stream by searching for #coe09

Why are doing a theatre  conference? Why are you doing theatre? Do you want to be in Cats or  something?!

Last weekend Brisbane’s !Metro Arts played host to 100 independent theatre practitioners, including professional and emerging  playwrights, performers, directors, producers and promoters from all over Australia.  In what turned out to be a particularly conversational 3 day program !Metro Arts, in cooperation with Jute and Playlab, set about challenging the definition of what it is to be an artist in the independent theatre sector in Australia, and asked, “How will it – and you – survive?”  The question in the block-quote above was put to one of the delegates by a friend, and it seems to sum up the attitude of many of the broader population who aren’t aware of theatre – apart from the blockbuster musical –  or who don’t really understand how and where else this thing called theatre gets made.  Last weekend, however, pedestrians on Brisbane city’s Edward Street, as well as visitors to New Farm’s Powerhouse might have noticed that theatre is something that attracts an extremely eclectic crowd.

Moira Finucane’s Keynote Address reported by Katherine Lyall-Watson explored the very notion of defining oneself,  surviving as an independent artist, and carving one’s own path in a maelstrom of mainstream arts.  Wait, what does “mainstream” mean?  Oh, right…CATS!  Moira’s story and indeed, her whole vibe, were powerful and inspirational for new and seasoned artists alike.  Day 1 wrapped with a Tiki party, complete with DJ, drinks and leis.  This is where the real connecting and networking continued.young sunflower sprout in the soil with droplets

On Saturday we enjoyed working in the raw space of the Powerhouse in New Farm, sharing opinions, approaches and practice with regard to all aspects of the independent sector.  I was live-tweeting the session and heard  from theatre makers, Kate Foy (@Dramagirl) and Chris Beckey (@chrispbeckey) who were also following the discussion through my tweets.  As far as social media is concerned, it emerged that those already utilising Twitter, Facebook and SMS updates to regularly promote their shows and their work are reaping the benefits.  As far as a return on investment is concerned, they see the results in increased ticket-sales.  La Boite, for example, reaches out to many of us via social media networking tools with special ticket offers and news.  Whilst there still seems to be some resistance to embracing digital technology, it’s only a matter of time before social networking will become the preferred marketing option.  I’d love to hear what you have to say about your group’s use of social media … or whether or not you use it.

After a lovely picnic lunch by the river under the big old trees in New Farm Park, we heard a range of perspectives about the pitfalls and playgrounds of professional touring from Circa, B-Sharp, and Post Productions.  Informal discussions in between the programmed events exploded in energy, enthusiasm and plans for projects that were at seed stage before connections were made, and have now had the benefit of germinating over a coffee across the road or drinks downstairs.  In fact, some of the most valuable outcomes of the national independent theatre makers’ conference were always going to manifest themselves away from sessions – outside, on the street, under the sunshine and the influence of lots of caffeine and nicotine!

Sunday’s program allowed artists to engage further in more personal conversations about their own work, in a more business minded context, or to engage in a full day of physical theatre with the extraordinary Nikki Heywood.  Her sweaty Sexing the Cherry workshop represented more of what could be offered in future programs. As creative artists and theatre makers it sometimes felt as if we were doing more talking than creating, but that’s a conference for you. Ultimately, there was something for everyone.

Something for everyone – perhaps this is the most important clue to more clearly defining what we do as independent artists, or what independent theatre means to us.  It’s our own work created and staged our own way, on our own terms. Sound familiar to any of you? More importantly, does it sound as if it would interest anybody else? Can we entice audiences to see our work?  Seduce them?  Keep them coming back?  How do you do it?  Katherine Lyall-Watson shared her take on the Vanessa Pigrum’s session,  a terrific post on the The Perfect Proposal aka ‘the pitch’ which talks all about how to get your project up and out there.

The three days were invaluable.  From right across the country Australian indie writers, performers, directors, producers, promoters and supporters converged on the same place, at the same time, with energy, passion and ambition.  The conference itself was like a major production, and the value of bringing artists together in this way cannot be underestimated. The say that it takes a village to raise a child, and it will take all of us to raise the expectations of audiences and those of our colleagues in the independent sector.  Having made the connections, the challenge is to continue the conversation and to create across many borders.  No excuses.


Coming next:  More from Xanthe and At the Centre of the Edge ‘Once you have found them, never let them go! : value-based arts marketing’

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