Brisbane has the right to a healthy layer of DIY theatre – partially supported and encouraged, venue or company based – in professional, independent companies that evolve. People need to be empowered to work outside the prevalent bureaucratic funding model. My passion is theatre where performers do their thing – performers in an empty room – not big sets and costume stuff. Then the audience brings its own life, energy and imagination to it; that’s the kind of theatre I love – that’s fringe.
I spoke a little while back with Flloyd Kennedy actor, blogger, voice-coach, theatre-maker and enthusiast. She’s so committed to the importance of theatre-making that she (initially) single-handedly organised the inaugural one-day Bits Festival of fringe theatre held in Brisbane last November. I was intrigued by the concept and keen to talk with Flloyd about what brought her to do such an extraordinary thing – creating a fringe festival event from scratch is hardly for the faint of heart, but then that’s not a label that would stick long to Flloyd.
… there is still not the opportunity here for audiences to experience new ideas or for rough, raw, experimental work to get a first showing. There’s still a missing layer..
Flloyd’s background in producing theatre in Scotland during the 80s enabled her to see ‘strange little companies from eastern Europe doing slightly dangerous work for audiences you’d like to come to the theatre – the kind of audience you’d like for DIY theatre.’ She’s missed that layer of work in Brisbane since her return in the mid-late 90s. ‘In 97 I was sadly disappointed. There were professional and pro-am companies, but the whole scene was so inconsistent with a cross-section of talent. Very often there were excellent actors on stage with the not so good, and the quality inevitably was diluted.’ Although she feels there’s been a huge improvement during the past 3 or so years in the quality of work being done – and she credits Sue Benner and !Metro Arts development programs as well as the Brisbane Festival’s Under the Radar and now La Boite and JWCOCA for initiating and developing support for independent theatre-making – there is still not the opportunity for audiences to experience new ideas and rough, raw, experimental work to get a first showing. There’s still a missing layer. ‘By the way,’ she adds, ‘if it’s curated, it isn’t really a fringe festival.’
A lot of young artists may need mentoring and, in the current climate, it’s not generally considered possible to try out a performance other than via a curated event, one that requires going through the whole application process. Flloyd believes that not everyone is ready for this step, or capable or necessarily wants to go through a process that essentially reflects the top-down, very bureaucratic way the arts happen in Queensland and around Australia. There’s more than a touch here I feel of the American can-do work ethic, of the individual entrepreneurial spirit; Flloyd’s also worked in the US and maintains a practice there as a voice coach.
‘Yes, of course by all means apply or learn how to jump through the hoops,’ she adds quickly, ‘ but as an artist you really do need to just do what you do, ask for help, and, if you fail, to ask why, get some answers, and do it again. Don’t expect it, don’t wait for it, do it!’
Having the space and freedom to ‘fail’ in order to learn used to be a constant refrain in the theatre training programs at USQ; I wonder then whether Flloyd is talking about an extension of the learning, an add-on grace period ‘out there in the public eye’ to the training in Queensland drama schools. We talk a bit about the ongoing development of craft skills for theatre makers, something she’s also passionate about.
Flloyd’s quite emphatic about theatre-making being no different in the constant application of its particular craft skills than is say, plumbing, architecture, or dentistry. ‘Of course you train, get your qualifications, but you learn on the job.’ Theatre works on the same principle. What does concern her apart from the lack of a first, teeth-cutting stage for new graduates and opportunities to ‘fail’ if necessary, is the sense of entitlement so many have. I asked her to expand.
Most new graduates want the dollars to do the work; their aspiration is to get a job, not to make theatre.
‘Most new graduates want the dollars to do the work; their aspiration is to get a job, not to make theatre.’ A harsh judgement? Flloyd doesn’t think so. ‘Theatre makers should be making theatre all the time, ‘ she says. New graduates think they know how to do it, and they don’t. They should be working at the craft as much as possible and not expecting to get money to do so.’ She pauses for a bit, ‘Theatre is too important to society to be doing it just for the money; there needs to be a huge, seismic shift in thinking about being entitled to financial support.’ She adds as an afterthought, ‘that’s while we are waiting for the seismic shift in the community about being entitled to enjoy artistic or cultural work without paying for it!’
This opens up a whole new are for debate about new business models for independent theatre – one that is just waiting to happen it seems to me. I was fascinated last month by a comprehensive blog post from Nick Keenan on a new and, more importantly, a sustainable financial model proposed for Chicago’s New Leaf Theatre. I wondered at the time whether something similar might not work here for an enterprising indie company. Certainly, mentoring in the independent sector should be as much about business practices as artistic ones – but that’s another topic.
The Bits Festival held over one day on November 28 was, according to Flloyd, and from feedback from performers and audience surveys, ‘a resounding success.’ It had been established from the outset as a non-curated event, with no selection committee, ‘and we were lucky enough to get free venues – this time round. We had 14 different groups ranging from established artists to debutantes, some cabaret, some mildly political satire through one-person presentations, as well as a clown troupe.’ She goes on, ‘These were quality people. We gave them a space, a time and promoted them via our networks, but each individual and every group had to do their organising and their promotional work themselves, as they would have to do at any major fringe festival, such as Adelaide, or Edinburgh.’
An initial face to face pitch to Brisbane artists and creatives was also videoed, and found its way to YouTube and beyond. I actually got to know about Bits Festival first via a Twitter link, and subsequently embedded Flloyd’s video on my own blog – a little bit of link love never goes astray! ‘As a matter of fact,’ Flloyd laughs, ‘we got one of our venues the Fringe Bar in the Valley for free from the owner who saw the word ‘fringe’ hashtagged (#fringe) in one of our tweets.
We got one of our venues the Fringe Bar in the Valley for free from the owner who saw the word ‘fringe’ hashtagged (#fringe) in one of our tweets.
I ask about the social networking strategy used for BitsF. Getting the word out involved a small organising committee marketing and promoting the event, while the very nicely designed website by Oblong and Sons and the Bits Festival blog formed the digital hub. A Facebook group and Twitter account operated as the satellites. Media releases and the all-important follow-up phone calls and face to face meetings rounded out the approach. ‘We used the web-based tools because they are free,’ she tells me. She is grateful for the generosity of colleagues who also supported the enterprise through pro bono contributions and sponsorships – venues, marketing expertise, graphic design, materials and so on. Finally, I ask Flloyd the inevitable question, and she doesn’t hesitate. ‘Yes I’d absolutely do it again. It’s been a success; some of our performers are now planning for Adelaide and Melbourne fringe festivals, and we’ve already been approached by groups from Melbourne and Sydney wanting to come here next time.’
I ask what were BitsF’s sticky bits, and the challenges for the next festival. ‘You always need more people, perhaps a broader skills-base in the organising committee. We have the experience now after the first festival, no lack of talent, the ways and means to get the word out. In the past part of the problem in getting fringe theatre happening in Brisbane has been access to space. Of course, what we’d all really like,’ she adds, ‘ is an abandoned warehouse – with the owners’ permission, of course! A café to hang out would be great, maybe a drop-in centre. Space has been really hard to come by in Brisbane; you get something for a good rate and then the owners either jack up rental or the venue falls by the wayside. But the Bits Festival proved that there are spaces; you just need to use them creatively.’
With Flloyd Kennedy leading the charge, somehow I think this modestly titled little fringe festival is going to get a whole lot bigger.
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