Theatre here there and … anywhere: Paul Osuch (Interview 8)
The ways of social networking can mean that you get to ‘know’ a lot about someone … or at least what is posted about that someone online … long before you meet them. And that meeting can be face to face or via the old-fashioned telephone call.
So it was that I got to know Paul Osuch before we ‘met’ via a video Skype call a week or so ago. What I knew about Paul was that he was the founder of Jam and Bread Theatre Company, which, for lack of a venue went dark before it had even lit up. You know the old saying about a door closing and a window opening? Well, the Jam and Bread door slam has opened a window into a rather cool idea – the Anywhere Theatre Festival (ATF) planned for Brisbane in May 5-14, 2011.
I also wanted to talk with someone who’s tried and been unsuccessful in acquiring a performance space in Brisbane – what led eventually to Jam and Bread’s early demise. Then there was the ATS and planning for another new festival in town, but I especially wanted to meet Paul to find out more about this online presence – someone who clearly has some big ideas, but whose name wasn’t especially familiar to me in theatre circles. We ended up having a wonderfully rambling conversation for about an hour. At the end of it (and I still haven’t met Paul face to face) I feel I do know him a whole lot better. Those big ideas are taking root, and what he had to say about his experiences in Brisbane made for a fascinating conversation.
Apart from his producing and directing credentials, Paul is a playwright and script-writer. In company with other writer and actor friends including Stephen Vagg and Guy Edmonds, he began creating sketch comedy and then short plays in Brisbane at the Cement Box Theatre. It was at this time (1998-2002) that Vagg wrote what became a trilogy of works (All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane, Friday Night Drinks and Dirty Caff) with Paul’s own Borderline Defamation Productions. ‘They all had a distinctly local flavour,’ he tells me. ‘For a start, no one had ever written about an infamous night club in Brisbane before this.’ With the introduction to directing, he also came to learn the importance of production and marketing. ‘It was good to see that for the 20-somethings at the time, Brisbane stories were really successful in picking up a particular audience.’ I’m keen to find out more abut how and why that happened.
Paul eventually left Brisbane to study at NIDA’s playwrighting studio for a year and, after that, packed up for London. ‘My wife was studying there at the time and it was the perfect place for me as well; I could direct and write, and I also ended up marketing West End shows.’ He mentions his association with Shunt, Forced Entertainment and the Hampstead Theatre all of whom used or experimented with different theatrical conventions. ‘It was fascinating and exciting to work with them.’ At that time he also directed his own play Remote Control (2005). He pauses for a bit, ‘Never again,’ he adds with a laugh. ‘Since then I’ve let someone else do the directing of my work and I’ll direct other writers’ work.’ There’s another conversation down the track I suspect!
In hindsight, a couple of plays I worked on in London bent my writing towards taking the work out of conventional theatre spaces.
A 3-year stint away from Australia ended in LA where Paul wrote sit-coms. ‘This wasn’t the direction I wanted, so we came home prompted by wanting our child to be born here and not in LA. I got back here ready to go; all I had to do was find a place to work.’ And that’s where things didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned.
‘We wanted a space for a studio and, when we started doing the search on behalf of Jam and Bread, we ran into all kinds of issues. Building inspections were one thing, but the amount of work required to bring a space to readiness was something else.’ He spent a lot of time looking for venues. ‘It’s a huge logistical exercise to get a place that can be filled for 40 weeks of the year, and one where you have the run of the place to bed in and try out your approach. We spent time working on a business model, asking just how it could run.’ He mentions Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors Theatre as a company he admires.
As recent discussions here have shown, the small work and performance spaces needed by artists and creatives are either not there or are simply unaffordable on a long-term or even short seasonal basis to most indie companies who work on a shoestring anyway. There’s another issue too. ‘The problem for us wasn’t so much the cost of converting a space to a workable proposition, but the need to have transport links to pockets around the city.’ Lots of spaces they saw just weren’t accessible; no transport, no venue.
Paul suggests as a way round the dearth of spaces by creating a network where groups can tour to expand their audiences and show their work beyond a home base. ‘There are existing suburban halls and amateur premises which would be ideal. With the current rate of population growth in SE Queensland, there is definite scope for a small network in the outer suburbs,’ he goes on. ‘By pooling resources we could tour around as professional outfits.’ It’s an intriguing idea, and I’m inclined to agree with him that, given the lack of resources around the ridges, this one deserves further thought.
Existing suburban halls and amateur premises could go some way towards solving the lack of performance spaces in SEQ
We move on eventually to the Anywhere Theatre Festival, and I ask Paul who he anticipates is going to get involved. ‘Well, practitioners, of course,’ and he adds that he’s excited by the positive feedback generated since the announcement last month. ‘I’ve been talking to many in Brisbane and Melbourne, people who already do work that fits into what ATF wants to do.’ He notes Zen Zen Zo and QSE. ‘ATF would be a perfect opportunity to shine a spotlight on theirs and others’ work.’ He goes on to talk about the kinds of work that would fit ATF: naturally, performance, but also live art and installations, where different spaces and venues might help the momentum of the work. ‘We decided on May 2011 as the ideal time for us.’
Why May? Obviously the planning cycle – it takes time to get a festival up, but then there’s the climate. ‘It’s starting to cool down a bit, and it gives Brisbane people a chance to wear their winter coats!’ As far as touring is concerned, Paul mentions three companies from Norway, Finland and the UK who have already indicated to him that they want to bring their promenade, site-specific work out to Australia, and are interested in ATF. ‘May works on the international festival circuit. Locally it’s a good fit for the Brisbane City Council calendar too,’ he tells me. He adds that BCC have been very positive with assistance on registration to include approval of the spaces ATF wants to use.
I wonder how dependent ATF will be on government or corporate sponsorship. ‘We’re not dependent, but we will be applying.’ Discussions are underway with Arts Queensland. ‘My work in the UK has helped me to come up with ideas and models to make for different engagement and to provide value to a corporation – not just brand-stamping. So, yes, I’ve started what are proving to be very positive discussions with some major companies.’
Paul notes that ATF will be coordinated if not curated. ‘As an inaugural festival, we’re leaving it open to anyone to register. We want to talk to groups before registration so we can provide them with insider knowledge.’ He refers to his own observations of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. ‘If you don’t have that knowledge before you pay up front, you can find you are one of a dozen or more productions of say, Hamlet. It then becomes a marketing nightmare for you.’ We chat a bit about Edinburgh, the largest and arguably greatest fringe festival in the world. He goes on, ‘I remember the Underbelly precinct there with 5 venues inside; I just stayed there and wandered from one to another. Fantastic!’
And what about the nature of the festival – will there be a focal location or is it planned to be spread wider? The upcoming Brisbane Festival, for example, is taking their title seriously with suburban events as well as inner-city happenings. Without being specific, Paul talks about the potential of digital technologies to connect people who are far apart, as well as things like flash theatre and spontaneous flash mobs. This leads us inevitably into his plans for the use of other digital tools, the social media.
I’ve noticed the smart ATF website (on the free Blogger platform) and their Tumblr style ‘lite’ blog (also free), the appearance of ATF in the Twitter stream – very very free and fast-flowing. Follow them @anywherefest. ‘I see the connection and communication as a single strand revolving around theatre practitioners and then the wider public. Twitter also has to be a two-way thing.
Social networking works when it flows both ways – real engagement not just broadcasting out
I’d like to see questions and commentary evolving.’
Paul then harks back to a key discovery about the power of that golden marketing commodity word of mouth – virtual or otherwise – during the Cement Box days. ‘With nothing other than a couple of ads in the street press – no radio, tv or print ads, we’d have 200-300 wanting tickets for what was a tiny venue. I remember at the time getting a call from Rosemary (Walker) at La Boite wanting to know how we did it. We used the cheapest and most popular communication means available at the time – email. No other company was using these tools to get to their audience base. The season sold out.’
It’s an approach that Paul calls ‘permission marketing.’ ‘It’s the send it to me because I’m interested approach – a different form of advertising and it works.’ With the viral capability of digital networks, the virtual word of mouth spread can be huge. It’s the way ATF will be marketed, and it’s started already.
If you’d like to know more about the ATF download the Producer’s Pack, and watch this space. And break a leg, ATF!