Memories of 2010 – and a few hopes for the new theatre year

The light’s in the sky for the first day of 2011. Time to look back and sketch out – from a very personal perspective – a view of the theatre year just gone.

2010 in Queensland theatre was the year of change, and the word most often heard in conjunction with this sense of refreshment and newness – excitement even – was ‘independent’ or ‘indie.’ The work of small, indie companies spiced the theatre year in the state. It was varied and always intriguing even if, at times, the reach of much of the work exceeded the grasp – as it should.

In Brisbane, the major subsidised companies Queensland Theatre Company and La Boite Theatre provided space under their wings for independent projects. Cairns under the aegis of JUTE, and Townsville via the newly-named Full Throttle Theatre Company (formerly Tropic Sun), operate collaborative support projects aimed at assisting the development of individual artists. Further south a special grant from Arts Queensland and the Australia Council got Regional Stages going with the Gold Coast, Bundaberg and Toowoomba as the initial 3-year grant recipients. From this support the Empire Theatre produced its first fully-professional production April’s Fool under the direction of its AD Lewis Jones. The Empire Theatre Projects Company (ETPC) has also entered into partnership with other indie companies for creative development of new works.  Many believe that this pairing or collaboration amongst companies – the subsidised with the independents –  is a very workable model for the future, providing a useful synergy. Independent theatre as a force in Australia is here to stay as a recent article noted.

Independent theatre is the lifeblood of the Australian stage: the work of our main theatre companies would be unimaginable without these small, artist-driven groups. It’s in the indie sector that everything begins: new writing, new performance, new visions. … The best of them challenge theatrical orthodoxies and bring fresh ideas into play. And, over the past few years, they’ve sparked a renaissance in Australian theatre. The Australian Dec 7, 2010

In Brisbane, !Metro Arts continued its mentoring of artists and small groups as it has for some years now. There’s no doubt that, when independent theatre and arts activity are thought of, !Metro Arts gets the guernsey. The Brisbane Powerhouse, along with the Judith Wright Centre, provide space for independent theatre projects – local and touring. Festival activity was as fast-paced as ever in 2010 with Noel Staunton, the AD of the Brisbane Festival, opening up the city with his inaugural month-long performance fest in ways not experienced before. The new amphitheatre/plaza at The Brisbane Powerhouse played host to a production of Macbeth directed by Michael Gow. The Under the Radar fringe festival was back with more activity and energy, and the shorter (one weekend) but no less energetic BITs (the ‘s’ is for ‘sampler’) Festival of uncurated work provided the necessary missing link in the gestatory phase and a developmental stepping stone for local artists. BITs also acts as a taster for audiences of the kind of work being at least thought about by local artists. As always, lack of space is a continuing problem for theatre makers in the state, although the Anywhere Theatre Festival scheduled for May 2011 in Brisbane is providing an imaginative way to get around this issue; producers have to present in venues which are not performance spaces.

In 2010 the state’s indie companies produced some terrific work: Blackbird from 23rd Productions, Tender by AndMoo, the ETPC’s April’s Fool, and Boy Girl Wall created and presented by The Escapists were the pick of the pack in 2010. It’s good to see Boy Girl Wall getting another run in the 2011 La Boite season. It’s rare for a new work to get a second production – or is this a third, as it played the Adelaide Festival in 2009. Fractal Theatre, now based in Ipswich, came back with its distinctive physical/poetic/musical style. Berkoff’s The Secret Love Life of Ophelia was a great choice for their first outing. And then, there’s the ongoing educational work of Shake and Stir set to tour nationally in 2011. This little company is surely one of the big indie success stories of the past couple of years.

Musical theatre, so we’re told, is a favourite of Brisbane audiences. Companies like the busy Harvest Rain, which has built a loyal audience base, continue providing big and small productions and, in the case of HRTC, training in the singular art of the musical theatre performer – the triple threat. Speaking of which, the Queensland Conservatorium of Music has picked up the baton and is introducing a new degree in music theatre in 2011 – dare we say it, about time. Harvest Rain’s JC Superstar had a highly successful season at QPAC and will return with it in 2011. Whilst it would have been nice to see a new production of a musical theatre classic from this company, you can’t blame them for making the most of a good thing; it’s show biz after all. On another note, HRTC surely gets the gold star for its marketing chutzpah!

For the artistic leadership around the country this year there has been a real changing of the guard, a generational shift well-documented elsewhere. Queensland Theatre Company’s 40th year was marked by a search for a new artistic leader. Wesley Enoch was appointed mid-year as the 6th Artistic Director of the state theatre company, replacing the outgoing Michael Gow, who maintains his association with the Company via his 2011 mainstage and studio seasons. Enoch is one of the many new ADs at the helm of Australian theatre companies and, since his accession, has been hard at work getting to know the locals in the Queensland theatre community and prepping for his first full season in 2012. He will be joined by new Artistic Associate Todd MacDonald and a group of artistic advisors from the community. For its 2010 mainhouse season QTC followed the standard mix of old, the new, and the newish tried and true plays. My favourites were Fat Pig and Grimm Tales, as well as an education production of Waiting for Godot, which could have played on a mainstage anywhere.

David Berthold continues as Artistic Director of La Boite Theatre, and it’s been a successful full second year at the helm for him. The old La Boite has been given a face wash and an upgrade under Berthold’s leadership, and the 2010 season – another old, new, and newish tried and true mix – produced some memorable productions: of those I saw I Love You Bro, Stockholm and Gwen in Purgatory were my picks; I must have been the only one in town that didn’t like Hamlet, however. Many in town now see La Boite as leading the charge in innovative theatre in Brisbane, though it’s hard to justify based on one season alone. However, the signs are good; the indie season continues and a new program Scratch, which is curated by a team of independent artists, is set to generate work from the ground up.

La Boite’s season 2010, like that of Queensland Theatre Company’s, used a programming/business model which included co-pros and productions by other Australian companies ‘on tour.’ This partnership model has been criticised by those who see fewer opportunities for local artists and creatives. Equally it’s praised for bringing the work of interstate artists and companies to Queensland audiences and, in the case of co-productions, providing each company, its artists and creatives with national exposure via a tour following on from the original home-state season. The balancing act is a fine one indeed, and ADs of subsidised companies and their Boards need to remain acutely aware not only of their fiscal responsibilities but also of the impact this model has on employment opportunities for local theatre workers, as well as for the development of local theatre. The partnership model continues in 2011 for both Brisbane subsidised companies.

Both Queensland Theatre Company and La Boite Theatre will continue to be challenged by the issue of gender equity. There’s real anger bordering on despair amongst many female theatre artists and creatives in Brisbane. Whilst female directors are served fractionally better in 2011 than in the past at Queensland Theatre Company, for example, the upcoming mainstage and studio seasons by both subsidised companies provide few roles for female actors. This is not a new issue but it is one that has been getting more attention of late – as it should.

You don’t have to be an expert to see that Western theatre has always been dominated by male roles; there still are more roles for male actors than for females. Cross-gender casting has been used as one strategy to overcome the ingrained, historical gender bias and, in some cases, the outcomes have been worthwhile, even revelatory. I hope this continues. However, given the composition of most mainstage programs and, despite the introduction of studio seasons or fringe experimentation in the main-house companies, I doubt the kinds of plays and the ratio of male to female characters are set to change in the foreseeable future. What is needed is something to redress the imbalance.

Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, the co-artistic directors of Sydney Theatre Company planned their Season 2011 around a few caveats, one of which included providing work for female actors – great roles in plays old and new.

Will it reverse the historical trend? Who knows, but it’s a start and this, at least, can be done. Over to you Queensland ADs.

An equal-opportunity intervention strategy is needed. The ball is soundly in the court of ADs, and that includes the independent theatres, those groups supposed to be challenging received theatrical orthodoxies.

Greenroom will be tracking the stats for 2011 as the year unfolds: ratio of male to female artists, directors, self-produced and co-produced, play type and so on. We’ll keep you updated.

And, as far as this blog is concerned, Greenroom finished its first full year as an independent voice for professional theatre in Queensland and launched its own ‘people’s choice’ Groundlings awards. Nominations are open now and close on February 1 by the way. Got yours in yet? Hit the big green button up top!

My wishes for the happiest and most rewarding of years to you, and thanks to all the Greenroom guest reviewers and contributors and to you for dropping by, reading and having your say. You’re most welcome. I only wish real coffee were available in this virtual Greenroom!

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One thought on “Memories of 2010 – and a few hopes for the new theatre year”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out Kate – we’re thrilled with the year past and are really excited about the year ahead! Yes, we are bringing our most successful production ever back to QPAC by popular demand but I must jump in and say we will also be presenting a brand-new production of GREASE in May at the Playhouse, which we hope will be just as well received! Thanks for all your support in 2010 Greenroom – looking forward to a great 2011!

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