Wesley Enoch (Interview 28 )

I’m interviewing Wesley Enoch in his inner-city apartment in Brisbane – 5 minutes on foot to Queensland Theatre Company headquarters on South Bank where he is Artistic Director, and 7 minutes to the Airtrain connection at South Brisbane station – important when you do as much travel as he does. He loves walking to relax although he confesses he doesn’t do as much as he should. ‘I’ll get back to it now the warmer weather is coming in.’ Whilst Wesley doesn’t own a car, he does have some wonderful pieces of art. We’re surrounded by prints, paintings, photographs, ceramics – all Australian and many by indigenous artists – on walls and shelves. Each of them has a story and, when I first arrived, he took me through them one by one.

He’s been on the job now just over a year – he took up his appointment on 19th of July 2010, although it’s been in a full-time capacity since the beginning of this year only. I’m keen to learn more about how it’s going, to hear Wesley’s thoughts on the business of being an Artistic Director today, and what it’s like being back home after all these years.

He’s a Stradbroke Island man, educated and raised in Brisbane and a graduate of QUT with a BA in Drama Majoring in Dance. Wesley then went on to do an Honours year at QUT – and his dissertation topic? Establishing a context for the understanding of contemporary aboriginal arts.

Wesley was the first indigenous Australian appointed as Artistic Director of a major theatre company. I ask how important it was to him. He responds, ‘It really hadn’t occurred to me until Neil (Armfield) rang and congratulated me. I was more focussed on a personal ambition to engage with a wider audience.’ He shrugs, relaxed about it, ‘people had been waiting for it to happen, and it did. One of the outcomes has been that more of the discussion about establishing a national indigenous theatre company now seems to be flowing towards QTC.’ He adds, ‘I was talking to students recently and saying that when you are in your 20s you’re radical and revolutionary but in your 40s you’re more evolutionary. The radicalism of my 20s is now the evolutionism of my 40s. I’m thinking now of how we work on the aesthetics and not just the politics. The 20 year old has achieved the goals.’

As writer and a director Wesley Enoch has forged an impressive national career during those past 20 years – first as AD of Queensland’s Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts company and then as Associate Artist at QTC, Resident Director at STC, and Associate Artistic Director at Belvoir for many years. His plays include Seven Stages of Grieving with long-time colleague Deborah Mailman, Black MedeaSunshine Club and The Story of the Miracles at Cookies Table. He was a nominee at the recent Helpmann Awards for Best Direction of a play for Walzing the Wilarra with Yirra Yaakin at the Perth International Arts Festival theatre program. As a freelance director he has engaged with most, if not all, of the country’s major theatre companies. His plays have been performed internationally to acclaim. I can only imagine the nodes on his professional network to be almost infinite. In fact, Richard Fidler in an interview on the ABC last year described him as ‘one of the most dynamic and influential people in Australian theatre today.’ Wesley raises his eyebrows at this and, with genuine modesty and a pinch of drollery says, ‘Really?’ Whilst he takes the role seriously, he certainly wears his mantle of office lightly. His frankness, availability and genuine interest in what’s going on and what people have to say have already earned him a positive reputation in the local theatre community. When people speak he listens, and it’s been noticed. Ask just about any arts worker in town and they’ll tell you they’re hopeful for the future because Wesley’s on the job.

So what about becoming an Artistic Director after all those years as a freelance going from one job to another – what’s it feel like, what’s different? ‘Even though I have been employed as a freelance by various organisations – my whole career has been full-time for about 20 years. Because you are not in one company forever, you always maintain a freelance state of mind.’ One of the reasons he started applying for AD jobs was because he felt he was constantly responding to the demands or the requirements of another’s artistic direction. ‘I wanted to be on the other side of that. I wanted to talk to an audience beyond just the work that I make.’ Is this part of what it means to be the Artistic Director of the state theatre company – indeed, of any Australian theatre company today?

Being an Artistic Director means being a champion for the art form. For the period of your tenure you are the custodian and you have to grapple with changes in society, to help articulate debates, be the public voice of the form at the time.

You have to engaged with what you consider to be the major issues and debate of the time. Making work or choosing a program is an extension of that role – the cultural role you play in society. Making work that fascinates you is one thing but being an AD also means you have a cultural role to play.’

One of the big items on the federal government’s arts agenda right now is the discussion paper on a National Cultural Policy for Australia, and so we chat for a bit about it. ‘It’s interesting to see how the idea for such a policy has developed over time. If you look back to the 60s and 70s and those decades’ representation of the ‘Australian voice’ you can see them as, in fact, a de facto cultural policy. Then came the whole creative industries thing with its focus on the economics of the arts and so economic arguments began and took over the debate. Now we almost need to look back once more on who we are, on our identity and, especially, why we value the arts. We need to have a debate on the intrinsic value of a national cultural expression. For me it’s as much about the content of the work and to the perceived accessibility of the arts. How do we break down those elitist barriers so people feel they own the rights to express themselves and own the rights to arts companies.’ It’s the big question.

How do you get the message out, I wonder? Wesley responds, ‘You can begin by imagining your life without the arts. As soon as you start to take that away you almost enforce a sense of its value.  By asking “Imagine if it weren’t there – for example, the chair you are sitting on or that you never got a book or didn’t listen to music, watch tv or look at street signs and so on. What is left?” It’s then impossible to comprehend. The arts are a clear expression of you and your life in society.’

One of the discussions that comes up from time to time in arts circles has to do with artistic succession planning and nurturing a new generation of arts leaders. I ask Wesley for his thoughts on how well we are doing this. For example, how do we ‘grow’ our artistic directors in Australia?

‘The loss of the small to medium sector has meant a lack of candidature. If we think back to 10-15 years ago there were smaller companies where you could get experience – say as an Associate – now there don’t seem to be that many long-term possibilities.’ He goes on, ‘I look back at what Robyn Nevin did for me – took me as a resident and gave me opportunities as did Neil Armfield and Nick Enright.’ Over the past couple of years there has been a changing of the guard at the head of many of Australia’s arts organisations and, very noticeably, in its major theatre companies. Wesley believes that this is part of a generational shift at work right now. ‘The next generation doesn’t want to be locked in and all the models are shifting.

What excites people, I think, is not what our arts organisations are now but how they can change. The status quo is being challenged all around the country.

Belvoir Street has totally changed their model as did STC and it will be exciting to see what Brett Sheehy will do at MTC and how the momentum for change can be maintained. Our ADs are now coming from the fringes so people who have learned to articulate new practices … ‘ he pauses, ‘like Ralph Meyers (a designer and Artistic Director of Belvoir Street) who articulates his process in a different way to the way Neil did. I come from a world that includes Aboriginal arts and practices so I take into account other things. I’ve been on the fringes too.’

We chat a little bit about the changes happening closer to home in Brisbane and the growth of the independent scene in all its diversity. ‘What we now call independent theatre used to be funded; now it’s not.’ He adds, ‘Of course, not everyone’s artistic practices are suited to the kind funding models we have right now.’ He cites the example of David Pledger who is a performance director, film-maker, choreographer, writer, dramaturg, instigator and collaborator in new media projects. His work with the hybrid performance group not yet it’s difficult which he founded in 1995 is long-term, developmental. ‘You can’t actually support long-term projects like this with bits of funding here and there. It doesn’t work for them. Because we have lost some of the smaller company infrastructure we used to have, it’s now up to the larger companies to see what they can do to add value to and support for a much wider range of practices and, of course, the (funding) pie is too small.’

And change within Queensland Theatre Company – what’s happening there I ask him, and what have the first 12 months on the job have been like? Getting to know the ropes seems to have been top of the list. ‘The first 6 months I was flitting in and out and finishing projects but trying to get all the other stuff under my belt; the second 6 months has been more active in imagining 2012. Let’s say orientation then application of the knowledge.’

He’s finding that season planning cycles aren’t as quick as they are in the freelance world. ‘In March I went “Oh, damn, I’m not going to get any co-pros” (co productions with other companies) as everything is locked in so much earlier. Then there is getting to understand the dynamics of personalities in the different ADs around the country and working with them to develop projects.’ He goes on, ‘As for the kinds of shows to program, I’ve found that Brisbane’s commercial realities are different, and the market lessons I learned from Sydney and Melbourne are not applicable.’

One of the things Wesley undertook when he arrived was to talk to as many people in the theatre community as he could. The door was opened, the invitation extended and he’s spoken to 270 artists during that time.

If you wanted to but haven’t talked to me yet you haven’t been trying.

He’s also seen lots of shows and been working at ‘becoming part of the industry.’ He goes on about the ‘thing of perception out there. As I look back, really not much has changed since the fundamentals of Michael’s (Gow) time.’ He refers to a few articles in the media ‘from people who had a mindset about the Company but one not based in reality.’ He doesn’t go into details, but emphasises the importance of artists in the community understanding the way the Company operates. He adds, ‘It’s no good hanging on to stuff that isn’t true.’

One of his changes was to appoint an Artistic Associate Todd MacDonald, a creative colleague and ally and someone to bounce ideas with. Another addition to the Company think-tank came with the appointment of a group of 10 Associate Artists appointed for a year. The plan is for 5 new people to join the group each year as five move on. These Associate Artists are ‘a cross section of people who advise me and engage in a whole range of debates about the wider arts community, and who reflect on the quality of what we are doing. I want it to be a two-way street of communication.’ Wesley wants to know what they think of the Company’s productions, whether the shows are up to standard or not and, if not, why not? ‘These are lessons I need to learn as an AD.’ He grins, ‘and there have been some very frank conversations behind closed doors.’ He also wants them to hear about some of the dilemmas he faces – the issue of employment for local artists and guest artists for example, a perennial topic. ‘I also want them to hear about my values – take gender equity and indigenous issues.’ He tells me that next year one quarter of all the employees in the Company – right across the board – will be indigenous. ‘Those discussions keep you honest and I value them.’

There have been other, smaller changes in structure and personnel and an ongoing discussion which revolves around ‘… the sense of how we see the making of work. How do we put value on all our work? Mainstage has always had value in its bigness and visibility but how do we value the work of the R&D arm of the company? How do we put money into it? We are bringing our Y&E (youth and education) programming arms together, and I am going to be directing an Ed (Education) show next year. I love that audience. It’s not seen in a big ticket, big theatre, important way but all of these things are important. Ultimately it’s about perception and communication.’ He goes on, ‘So, we’re asking how do we talk about all the other things we do? We are a very active member of our society and we shouldn’t allow it to be the dominant story – there is so much more we can talk about.’

I’d like to be remembered for being a maker of active not passive art

Next up for Wesley is the launch of the 2012 season – his first – on 9th October. He admits he’s champing at the bit having been curator this year of Michael Gow’s last season for the Company. ‘It’s a balancing act to keep expressing your values and to maintain the ambition for what’s possible – I want to include our big indigenous show in the season and I also want to do the new Williamson. There’s a subscription season to juggle and the budget and issue of backing yourself for investment,’ investment being the term non-profit arts companies prefer to loss. ‘The Company girds their loins and sets itself the challenge. I certainly have not felt that artistic programming has been compromised because of budgetary constraints. We ask what hard decisions do we have to make and we set out to solve in financial as well as artistic terms. There may well have to be deep cuts in certain areas in order to achieve what we want – yes, it’s a balancing act.’

Feeding the inner artist

What are you reading right now? ‘The Prince by Machiavelli. I’m trying to understand how the benevolent leader sits atop a structure – he’s got a bad rap, actually. I also have a couple of management books 6 Effective Habits for Good Leadership. And, of course reading so many plays. My iPad has 110 plays on it … ‘ I ask what app he uses and it’s Good Reader. ‘I don’t use it well enough yet, but my iPad has revolutionised the way I do things, and it’s specially good if you are travelling.’

I know Wesley has a HUGE DVD library – over a thousand I think he told me. I ask him about his movie taste. ‘I like social phenomena – I’ve watched the last Harry Potter and then the ones that lead up to it. I’m interested in what it means to society? It brought back mysticism which then led to the vampire books and movies. I think other super-power movies and DC comics have had a push too because of the HP phenomenon. I’m fascinated with the way there has been a momentum in the popular media which has been brought about by what was just a cult book at the time. I remember a friend bringing in the first book and saying this is all the rage, and then how it took off. It’s reflected the cult of the individual, the uniqueness of children of the X Generation with special powers. I also watch a lot of B Grade stuff – I’m not a great art house cinema goer. I tend to buy lots of DVDs as reference points and often the movies I go to are pure formula. Then you watch a movie that’s high class and it breaks the formula; I love that tension. Some US television is amazing where the key creative artist is the producer; it’s a unique position for your work.’ He refers to Claudia Karvan and the shows she has produced and appeared in: Love My Way, Tangle, Spirited. ‘I think the constant tension between producer and the artist is a good one. Artists shouldn’t run away from the producer but find ways to hone an argument and shaping an artistic vision with that in mind as well.’

What are you listening to? Wesley has put together a playlist of songs for the season ‘It’s what’s the feeling I want for a show. Next month I’m putting out the cakes that represent each show.’ As a pretty amazing cook – I’ve watched him at work – he’s serious about this one.

What art forms apart from the theatre feed your imagination? ‘Visual arts, installation art is inherently,’ he pauses, ‘not theatrical but you – the viewer – complete it like a stage set. I love going to see things and to place interesting art around me and stimulate myself that way. Public art is really interesting in that you put something in a space for people to interact with.’ We chat a little about the public art that was introduced to Brisbane during Expo 88. ‘A lot of students at the time had their bodies modelled for the white figures at Expo; I now see a former colleague as I wander around town.’

How do you relax?
‘With a hot bath, talking to friends – I like the sense of being around a lot of people and observing them, so coffee shops are a great place to do that.’

How would you like your tenure here to be remembered?
‘I haven’t thought about the legacy stuff yet, but I would hope it would be that explorations were done, that there was a connection between people and art. Yes selling tickets but that there were social discussions about issues. A piece of art can stimulate small p political discussion and get stuck into how values are expressed. I’d like to be remembered for being a maker of active not passive art.’