Guess what frustrates many arts-workers living and working in regional Queensland, especially if their base of operations lies within a 2 hour driving radius of the capital where (arguably) the 'important audiences' lie? You know where I'm going with this, right? I meet it all the time living as I do in Toowoomba where we tend to shrug off the apparent lack of interest from elsewhere i.e., the audiences from Brisbane, with the 'water doesn't flow uphill' epithet. For those of you who don't know the geography of SE Queensland, Toowoomba sits on the top of the Great Dividing Range less than a couple of hours from the state capital.
If you are a professional theatre maker, you do know when the work deserves a wider audience. However, unless a concerted effort is made to 'tour' it, then the work stays at home. Whilst sharing excellent work is undeniably valuable in profiling the group and the individual artists and creatives, I think it's a false premise to assume audiences and colleagues in a capital city are needed to validate the work being made in the regions. As the region to the capital city so the capital city to a bigger capital city to the world etc. You know ... the cringe thing again?
Last week I spoke about these things and a lot more with Timothy Wynn
the Artistic Director of That Production Company
which, after a couple of years in Brisbane, is now based in Ipswich - about 40 mins from the capital. Tim, along with professional partner Cassandra Ramsay
is committed to working in his own back yard. Tim is currently directing a production of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play RUINED
(2007) with a cast of Africans now living in and around this regional city. It's going to be an Australian premiere and it's certainly note-worthy for Tim's commitment to building work in and for his own community.
Tim has just come off a professional directing secondment with JUTE
(Cairns, NQueensland). "Whilst I don't have any tertiary qualifications in theatre, I was involved with theatre and performance in and out of school throughout my childhood." After Year 12 he worked for a year and then headed to NYC where he soaked in theatre whilst studying at the Lee Strasberg Institute.
By the time he returned to Australia in 2008 Tim was clear that he was heading towards direction and decided that the way to become a director was to produce and direct a play and then another and another and another - learning along the way. That Production Company was born in 2009 with the production of Wedekind's SPRING AWAKENING in the studio at Metro Arts. They went on to do 4 shows in 2 years just rolling from one to another. "We didn't plan to do this; it just happened." Tim produced DANGEROUS LIAISONS, THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES (at Twelfth Night) and then in 2010 "three nights of Lorca at Metro Arts." It was ambitious and by the end, as he admits, "we needed to rest, have a rejuvenation period. We slammed on the brakes so we could start to plan. We needed to think about sustainability, ask what we as a company wanted to do. We needed to formalise it in some way."
I'm curious as to why they chose Ipswich as home base for the rejuvenated company. Apart from its being Tim's home and, presumably, more economical for a business to develop, why choose a regional city just outside the capital? This is where we start to talk about the relationship between a company and its audience.
That Production Company decided that, instead of competing for the same young, cool metro audiences, the best place to begin was to start engaging with its own, local community. Along the way they were surprised by what they discovered from community members themselves and by the subsequent support they have received from the regional council and local business. Tim tells me that although they have "repeat offenders," (those audience followers from back in Brisbane days as well as regulars from both coasts) that the audience demography is changing. "For RUINED and, based on what the cast is telling me, there is a chance for the African community to come - a new audience for theatre. There was such excitement in the casting process and auditions and that in itself generated a lot of excitement and interest in what we are doing."
"At the outset I wanted to get people who don't go to theatre to tell me why they don't go. I set about tapping into what was happening socially and culturally within the community, drawing the community around us and assuring them the stories related to them. That Production Company produced SAVED by Edward Bond and Tim admits that most of those who came had no idea who he was or what that theatre is about.
"I was nervous about the reaction that Bond in all his 'in your face glory' would have. Many who came - and lots had never been to theatre before - made a point about saying why they loved it. They were having conversations weeks later on our Facebook page
. I knew then what engagement meant and that this is what we should be doing. SAVED was our pilot and reaffirmed the need to be visible and out in the community."
I ask Tim he considers himself a professional theatre worker? "I do because I don't think of myself as anything else. I can't imagine doing anything else in lieu. I understand I don't have to be doing it all the time. Right now I'm working in a call centre to pay the bills, but I am a professional theatre maker because the level and standard and attitude and people I work with makes me one and also because I wish to stand up and identify as a cultural leader. To do that I needed to declare myself as one believe in it and work at it."
I am a professional theatre maker because the level and standard and attitude and people I work with makes me one and also because I wish to stand up and identify as a cultural leader. To do that I needed to declare myself as one, believe in it and work at it.
Tim was in Cairns in 2011 for the Regional Theatre Makers Conference. There was a lot of talk there about being active in cultural leadership. "If we think we know a lot about our particular practice we should say so." Tim has found that the IRC (Ipswich Regional Council) liked this and listened to what he had to say. "They would not have listened to me if I hadn't spoken up and declared myself." As to making money from arts practice, "There will be things that are funded and things I do for free but you need to have self assurance, belief and passion."
Tim believes That Production Company's involvement with IRC and the Ipswich Festival of Culture, corporate sponsorship and other wider connections in the community have come out of their productions but also their proactivity in profiling the company as a cultural leader - having a voice when these matters are raised. They're also doing an adaptation of a children's play for a literary festival later in the year. "That came from a local librarian who heard about me and approached me for assistance with it." They are also producing a show for the Anywhere Theatre Festival: THURSDAY'S CHILD by Cassandra Ramsay.
I'm keen to hear why Timothy decided on the current production RUINED a play about African women in the war-torn Congo. "We were approached after THE FASTEST CLOCK IN THE UNIVERSE (2012) by Ipswich Festival of Culture for one of their big events the multicultural Global Fiesta. From a programming perspective it seemed like a good thing to incorporate in our planning.
"People do ask how such a play as this can be this relevant to a contemporary Australian audience. The issues around immigration at the moment are very much a part of our culture and I don't think there is enough opportunity to share the stories of those who have come to our country. Although only one of our cast is from the Congo (the others are from Rwanda and Sudan) most have shared the same stories stories - their trauma is real. If they are going to be living with us and sharing our community we need to be aware of where they are coming from."
When you think of Ipswich you think of Irish Catholic miners or football teams but there are communities of Africans around the SE and we need to embrace them here at home and more broadly in the Australian community.
I ask about the challenges of working with a cast of untrained actors whose first language is not English. Tim talks about the strong performative element in the lifestyle of African culture. Leading up to the production he has done as much research as he could and then found that his company of actors are very protective of cultural matters. "The way they explain it is that their countries - the Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan - are close culturally so divisions have been imposed. All are insistent on accuracy when it comes to cultural matters; they are united in that sense." There is a language barrier, he admits. Tim is only too aware of what he calls "working on three levels: their own language, English written by an African-American writer and direction by a 25 year old white Australian male. We're a multicultural group right there."
Referring back to the JUTE professional development secondment, Tim notes, "That full-time experience for the first time opened up my eyes to the way professional directors work and, of course, my goal is to work that way. However, it is so satisfying working with someone who is a 'new' actor and watching them put the pieces together and give a performance that only they can give. It's just as rewarding as a collaborative project with a professional. My cast's love of theatre and storytelling is beginning to reveal itself. I'm actually starting to get pitches from them for more work. One asked me whether I'd thought of directing something like a Tennessee Williams play?' There are lots of rewards!"
That Production Company's production of RUINED opens on 24 April and plays through to 4 May with no shows on Sunday or Monday. You can catch it at a newly-renovated venue Studio 188 the site of the first Baptist Church in Queensland.
Feeding the Inner Artist
What are you reading now?
Two books - A DIRECTOR PREPARES (Bogart) and THE EMPTY SPACE (Brook). I get an idea from a book and surf from one theatre book to another following an idea. I'm looking at Ann Bogart's books
and Peter Brook's. I imagine him talking the way he writes. I finished the GAME OF THRONES series so hoping he writes the next one.
What are you listening to?
I really love musical theatre. I have a diverse taste in the kinds of theatre I like but big, showy musicals are my love. I also love music in theatre so whenever I am doing a show, I try to find a musical 'in.' For RUINED it's African hip-hop with suggestions from the cast.
How do you relax?
I love trashy tv - REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW JERSEY and NEW YORK. I don't think it's good - more like watching a car crash. The stakes are so high and tiny things are made into massive dramas. JERSEYLICIOUS - oh yes.
What is your favourite art form apart from theatre?
Photography. We work with a photographer in Ipswich and some of our biggest supporters are visual artists who have been really encouraging. Leanne Vincent who works here is one of my favourites. Whenever I go to a gallery I look for photographic portraits - the moment between a camera and a person.
Who has been the most influential person in your creative life and why?
A lot of people have helped me but Cassie who runs the company with me is my rock. We've been through a lot of things, tough at times, but we share a passion for the work. We run a company together and without each other - a constant pulling each other up a very steep hill - we'd never make it.