Letters from a voluntary exile: a third letter

GUEST POST: Nick Backstrom is an actor and writer, formerly based in Brisbane and more recently in Melbourne. He also sings, teaches and directs, though rarely at the same time. Nick’s Melbourne relocation will form the basis of his occasional posts to Greenroom. He would be delighted to respond to any comments or queries made here.

Hello friends

Let me tell you a story.  I went to a casting the other day for an RACQ commercial.  If I had landed it I would have been flown up to Brisbane to shoot it, and it was a Queensland-only ad.  As I waited, one of the other actors asked the receptionist if they were looking all over Australia for the right face.  She replied “Oh no, we just do all our casting out of Melbourne.”  I told them that was why I moved to Melbourne from Brisbane.  So it goes.

It’s been interesting reading all the stories recently about what’s wrong with Queensland theatre – or not wrong.  May I weigh in? Too few venues, too little funding.  I know, startling insights.  

Melbourne is chocka with little venues seating less than one hundred or thereabouts. These places are affordable, accessible and if it all goes wrong, it really doesn’t matter.  If it works, fantastic!

As I mentioned on Facebook the other day in a reply to – my own status update I think – when it comes to theatre (or film for that matter) they can’t all be winners.  Does Queensland or Brisbane have enough theatre and spaces and funding so that if a production doesn’t work, for any of the myriad reasons a production does not work, the players and producers just go on to the next one, taking what they have learned and applying the lessons to the next production and so improve their skills and practices? 

I saw a terrible play the other day, in one of Melbourne’s major theatres.  It was part of a development program that has funded plays that work, some that kinda work and some that don’t.  That’s what development means!  The producers, the writers, the actors will learn from their failure and be able to approach the same program with their next project.  Or one of the other local or state government programs.

And with the little spaces, dotted around the city, the audience may get the idea that theatre is not some forbidding activity that takes place in special areas into which only the initiate may go – I suppose I could have just used the word ‘esoteric’.  And it sometimes works, sometimes kinda works, and sometimes doesn’t.  And they can take a punt on the next one.  And the one after that.  The audience aren’t just suddenly going to turn up.  They have to build, over time.  And that means theatres taking losses as they build that audience.  Can people funding their own work afford that?  How about governments then?

Am I rambling?  These arguments come up every now and then and go around the same traces and then go away.  What changes?  I wish I knew what the circuit breaker could be that could take us somewhere new.

Does Brisbane have the luxury, yet the necessity, of failing? No, yet that is what is needed. Melbourne has that.

Brisbane. A few years ago, a friend of mine was in Belvoir St’s The Underpants, which was part of the QTC season.  It was a big hit.  He told me one of the subscribers came up to him and said it was so wonderful to have a play that was so delightfully silly, and that it had been so long since it had happened. Scott Witt’s Scapin had been put on by QTC only the year before!  As the last play of the season!  It hadn’t been six months since QTC had done a ‘wonderfully silly play’.  I fear the subscriber had fallen victim to one of Brisbane’s problems – the perception that good theatre is from somewhere else.

I was reminded of this incident when I saw someone -I wish I could remember who or where – declare the Bell Shakespeare’s production of King Lear as the “Theatrical hightlight of the year” – before it had even opened.  Looks like the idea that good theatre is from somewhere else still has legs. Having now seen that production, I would be extremely surprised and disappointed if it was the theatrical hightlight of the year in Brisbane or anywhere else.

By the same token, I was also reminded of the Underpants incident a few months ago when the Haymarket’s … Godot couldn’t find a venue in Brisbane. Reactions to this varied. On one hand we had Langbroek declaring Brisbane a cultural desert. On the other extreme, we had others who said ‘We have QTC’s … Godot, we don’t need another one.’

Both these views are equally facile.

My advice to Brisbane theatre-goers: lament missing McKellan and Rees, and celebrate seeing Gilfedder and Probets. There is no reason you cannot do both.

Brisbane is not a cultural desert, and I feel I do not have to go into the reasons.  As to the other one – well, frankly, Brisbane missed out on not seeing the Haymarket’s production. It was superb.  Sadly I cannot compare it with QTC’s – I’m sure Eugene Gilfedder and Bryan Probets were likewise very good – but I did not see it and comparisons, in any case, are odorous.  But to say ‘We don’t need that production,’ smacks of sour grapes to me.  It has small town mentality all over it. My advice to Brisbane theatre-goers: lament missing McKellan and Rees, and celebrate seeing Gilfedder and Probets. There is no reason you cannot do both.

And imagine the wonderful luxury of having had both those productions in one city.  When Depardieu was playing Cyrano in the Paris cinemas, there was another wonderful French actor playing him in a Paris theatre, both to great acclaim, and to full houses. Imagine that.

Love and mercy.

5 Replies to “Letters from a voluntary exile: a third letter”

  1. Enjoyed reading your thoughts Nick and wish you all the best.
    Coming to Melbourne for theatre work seems very strange,sounds like you might be on the wrong continent (As my Dad told me). or pehaps a few decades too early.
    Coming here from London has been a bit of a shock, too few people, too many 3rd rate state funded shows. Negligable film industry. Etc etc.. All these things are tough on creatives, and have been discussed ad nauseum by every poor(Australian) artist. At the moment it is a fabulous place for a uranium mine, or to have a lovely holiday. But I genuinely feel that every show, or creative act here in Australia, is worth dozens elsewhere, because of the diffaculties each artist has to go through.
    Youve got to face it mate, you are not only an actor, you are an arts pioneer.

  2. HI Scot
    I wonder if the Anywhere Theatre Festival coming next year might blend the best of the unusual or unexpected indoor venues with Brisbane’s love of the outdoors? There’s no reason we can’t have both, of course, but I agree about the competition. We still need more ‘off-off-Broadway’ sized (100 seats or less) venues around the place, ones that are accessible and affordable for the kind of work Nick (and others) talk about.

  3. All good thoughts Nick – I think part of the problem here is that it’s more of an outdoor lifestyle — I know it’s a bit of an old chestnut, and I know they love sport in Melbourne – but it’s probably fair to say that people here in Brissy participate in more outdoor activities themselves (as opposed to watching them) – and basically aren’t as introspective/inclined to get into thoughtful matters as much as they are in Melbourne. There are pro’s and con’s to each – maybe too many navel gazers in Melbourne and too many red necks here — but wouldn’t it be great to have as many small theatres with out the fear of failure that they have in Melbourne. But then I’ve always loved the Qld environment for art – like flowers in the desert – rough and ready and in a way a great place to do your own thing. Either way I’m sure Melbourne will be good to you!

  4. “theatre is not some forbidding activity that takes place in special areas into which only the initiate may go” Hit the nail on the head. It’s so frustrating how was dress up theatre as a sanctified goddess, when really she’s a rough old broad that everyone can, and should be able to have a crack at…. (in an appropriate, available and affordable venue!!)

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