Everything’s coming up roses for the Empire Theatre right now. Lewis Jones and I are having lunch at Encores, the very smart little restaurant attached to Toowoomba’s iconic theatre. As is fitting for the Garden City on the Range, we can see gardenias and overflowing beds of gorgeous pink and white roses just outside the floor-to-ceiling open windows. There’s a crisp autumn breeze, a touch of rain, but there’s no dampening of enthusiasm when Lewis talks about EPC, the Empire Theatre Projects Company – he’s its Artistic Director. The Empire goes well with the roses; it’s a beautifully restored art deco building that is justifiably the pride of the city. Lewis is clearly relishing his job at the helm of EPC. Since his appointment in 2008, his task has been to establish a company to work with and reflect the community of Queensland’s Darling Downs region.
‘Friends in Brisbane ask me, How are things up there? and they think I’m joking when I say, I have the best job in the world. I really do.’ I’m keen to hear why he thinks working in a regional city trumps a similar job in a metropolitan centre. It seems to be all about opportunity, and it’s all positive.
I want to know about his plans for the young company, and he tells me that the EPC, in a nutshell, is about ‘multi-tiered arts engagement with the people of the region.’ Uh oh – arts jargon, I think. Next he’s going to use the word that everyone in arts funding circles loves so much – vibrant. I’m relieved when he doesn’t, though clearly there’s much that is lively and engaging about his plans – like the man himself. He goes on, ‘Well, EPC is all about theatre obviously, but new music, contemporary dance as well … performance … we’re helping to establish professional practice for emerging and established artists here, making strong connections with the performing community.’ It’s never been done before or as comprehensively. And then, there’s audience development, schools outreach, networking, creating connections, empowering, diversifying programming. The Empire already has a huge pool of nearly 700 brilliant volunteers who work the front of house as ushers, keep the theatre and its dressing rooms full of fresh flowers, bake biscuits, provide lunches for community productions, run tours, raise funds – they are legendary. And on this note Lewis adds, ‘I keep thinking about what Alan Brown, arts researcher said in a recent Long Paddock keynote – the best audience development tool you have is participation, work that’s created with regional sensibilities. I want to expand the core of what we already have here in the region.’
The best audience development tool a theatre can have is participation
EPC is funded through the ‘parent company’ the Empire Theatre, itself Toowoomba Regional Council’s hub organisation for performing arts and, when you hear Councillors talk about it, a source of great pride. Apart from the architectural significance of the building itself, Empire Theatres Pty Ltd is also a very successful business. To their credit, many of the city’s leaders, who were opposed to the restoration of the theatre during the 1990s, now freely admit their mistake. Ross Miller lost his job as Mayor, being voted out of office as a direct result of his own and the foresight of others in championing the restoration of the old hard-top. As if to confirm and further support the development of the performing arts for the city and the region, the fledgling EPC received a 3 year Regional Stages grant, worth $100 000 per annum. This huge win, co-funded by the Australia Council and Arts Queensland means a great deal to the life of the theatre and the community, as Lewis tells me.
It’s enabling and fast-tracking the EPC’s main task to ‘broaden and deepen the theatre’s connection with its community.’ ‘We ask this of every project under consideration by EPC.’ He goes on, ‘An open door is no excuse for a lack of diversity; we need to be proactive in reaching out, building relationships, and once our presence is established, working at them. We’re here for the whole of the community, young, old, in between.’ It’s a big job, but building a theatre company from scratch, finding out what kind of beast you’re creating as you go must be exciting. ‘Local aspirations for the arts are limitless,’ he believes. ‘I’ve been welcomed by the community here, and I’m loving the ongoing conversation with our audiences, our ongoing dialogue.’ I understand a little more why he sees his job as the best in the world.
We’re a broad church; we won’t get everything we want done, but by the end of the year we will know more about what we do well, don’t do well, or should do better, in other words, the kind of theatre we’ve created.
The season for this year is in full swing, and programming is well underway for 2011-2012. There’s High School Musical directed by Lewis, and the first of the Empire’s annual community musicals for the year. The city’s traditional love of music performance has seen the Empire producing high-value, pro-am productions for 10 or so years. The pro part is the executive production team – director, designer, choreographer, musical director, stage manager; the am are the performers and musicians. These productions also offer professional development opportunities for assistants under the mentorship of the creative team. The productions are hugely popular, attracting a broad cross-section of the community, with the addition of workshops to train the inexperienced in the weeks leading up to auditions.
Last year the EPC also hosted a series of play readings to further assist in developing local directors and actors. One of these has expanded into a full pro-am production, currently in rehearsal, of Louis Nowra’s Cosi directed by Sam Atwell. There is an already-oversubscribed series of after-school and weekend theatre workshops for young people from primary through secondary school – playwright Dave Burton was appointed late last year as the first youth director, and a part-time education liaison position was filled recently. Later this year, the second big community musical Spamalot will work the Empire’s mainstage. Links with the USQ Creative Arts school are as strong, if not stronger than ever. The joint is jumping … vibrant even.
We talk a little about one of the key projects for the year … April’s Fool, a locally-written play, which is in creative development for its world premiere in August. It will be significant as the EPC’s first fully professional, mainstage production, also planned to tour the south east of the state.
Regional Stages will fund much of the developmental aspirations for the EPC for the next 3 years. Lewis has also just signed on for another contract with the Empire. I ask him what kind of EPC does he want to see grow in this time? He lays it out: firstly, a youth theatre, diverse in outreach and practice, and ready to stand on its own, independent feet. ‘We’ll enable it of course, but we’d be very happy to see it leave home.’ He also wants the company to be producing works that have meaning for the community.
I want us to have a reputation around Australia for producing high quality work that tours locally and nationally
EPC is already creating mentoring as well as employment opportunties for local artists and creatives, and he wants to see that continue as well. What about co-productions with other companies? ‘Yes, definitely,’ he responds. It’s a business model that is working very well in Australia at the moment, and there’s no reason why regional companies shouldn’t share their resources – artistic and financial to contribute to our common-wealth of theatres. Anything else? I ask him. ‘I would like to be able to help build the community’s confidence in its capacity to create.’ He continues, ‘for too long the colonial model of bringing culture to the region has ruled. I want people here to believe in their own ability to make performance. We’ll benchmark, but not compare.’ I almost faint with delight! You have my vote Mr Jones!
We need more like you.