The Mixtape Collective (Interview 34)

Steve Pirie, Dan Stewart, Claire Christian, Ari Palani
Steve Pirie, Dan Stewart, Claire Christian, Ari Palani

It’s a wet Toowoomba morning outside. Inside the Metro Cafe up by the Toowoomba Railway Station it’s warm and welcoming, and I arrive to find the Mixtape Collective (Steve Pirie, Claire Christian, Ari Palani and Dan Stewart), smiling-faced with empty coffee cups in front of them. They’re ready and waiting for our chat. It’s a good sign.

I want to talk to them about how this little outfit operates, how they began, why, how it’s going and, more specifically, how they’re preparing for their Brisbane debut and the all-important-for-a-new-play second production of Escape from the Breakup Forest which played the city’s Empire Theatre last July. I order coffee and to get the ball rolling ask how everything is going.

“As far as the new production of Breakup … is concerned,” says Ari, “the reality of the whole thing struck home when we saw the images from the recent Brisbane photo shoot. There were nervous giggles all round.” “As far as Mixtape goes, we’ve got a show if not a business plan,” adds Claire with a grin, and we’re off and running.

Claire was a late addition to the mix. Steve, Dan and Ari had worked together before as high school friends or in productions. “Each of us admired how the others in the group approached their work and we recognised a kindred spirit in the kind of work we do,” says Steve. Disgruntled by a lot of what they were seeing coupled with a mutual distaste for “the kind of theatre that was being created by artists for other artists and not a wider audience,” they decided to do their own thing. Once Claire (now the Empire Theatre’s Youth Arts Director) arrived several years ago, it was soon apparent that her approach to work complemented theirs and as time went by, they all realised they shared the dream to create theatre for an audience that doesn’t know about or doesn’t get theatre. They came together and the Mixtape Collective was born.

First task of the newly formed group was to apply for (and get) an RADF grant to develop a best practice model for a collective. “It made sense to start where our roots are – here. We’re proudly regional and this is our base,” adds Claire. “Because of this, Mixtape’s interest is to serve regional communities first. What we are aware of in our geography is in our work.” Ari breaks in, “We engage every week with young regional artists – every one of us. Our resources are regional. We only realised how much of our work was part of our own community when we went to the Judy (the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art in Brisbane).” During the time they were developing their work in Toowoomba Mixtape found that they had depended on the tried and true local ‘bartering’ model for services to assist others. “We’d borrow tools or someone’s ute in return for tickets,” says Claire. “It’s taken a village to raise our theatrical child,” Steve finishes.

The way the group talks – quickly, articulately, enthusiastically – gives real meaning to the idea of a collective. One starts talking, another chimes in and a third will elaborate. They’re also feeling positive about where the collective is positioned right now. “We just feel that the time is right in Toowoomba. In the past 2 years we’ve noticed a very visible appearance of an arts community – especially in the visual arts and theatre.” (Steve) We chat for a bit about the cultural heritage of the city.

Claire is emphatic, “We need Regional Stages NOW.” The Empire Theatre Projects Company received a 3-year, $300,000 state government Regional Stages grant 4 years ago with a brief to develop performing arts within the region. The funding for that valuable investment in regional Queensland has now run down, but there is no doubt that this was the catalyst for the creation of new work and, more importantly, for a new confidence that regional practitioners actually could produce high-calibre work. David Burton’s April’s Fool was first produced in 2010 went on to a national tour. This work, written, produced and developed in the city about a local story was the most visible of the many success stories to emerge during the Regional Stages period. There continue to be many more like Escape … itself which was made possible as part of the Empire’s Studio Homegrown Series. Those 3 years can already be seen as an enormously valuable seeding period for the development of performing arts in the region.

“It would be ideal if the work we are doing now had the resources to take it further. That’s why we need Regional Stages again now. The kids up here are hungry for it and very different to those elsewhere.” (Claire) Why, I ask? “They want IT more. When they see IT – when they recognise their passion and see the opportunity –  they take it and run with it,” she says. Steve goes on, ” That was me. I realised no one was going to help me back then. I knew I was just going to have to do it myself.”

It’s one thing to provide the opportunity, to build it, to get young people passionate about creating work as they clearly are but will they come – the audiences, I mean? We talk about building audience culture for the work they are creating and I ask where Mixtape’s followers are coming from. In a couple of minutes I learn all about the Toowoomba Tegans as the group fondly style the young men and women who “get smashed at Fibbers (a local pub) on a Friday.” Claire goes on, “We’d love them to pay $25 first to see a show with us then head off for cocktails.” Mixtape have their eye on this lot.

Then there are the Theatre Virgins. “My brother will bring a group of his mates to come and see Claire’s ‘thing.’ It’s such a win when newcomers love our stuff. We’ll do what we can to get them in to see this ‘theatre thing’ before they go out.” This is another potential audience segment in Mixtape’s sights.

“Theatre has to compete with other things,” says Steve.  “All the other kinds of entertainment that are available – and the biggest crime for us would be to be boring.” “There’s a big investment of time and $$ for people who’ve had a bad experience … we want our work to be joyful and entertaining.” (Claire) Nothing wrong with that, I note. “You know, it’s often a bit of silly fun that a lot of theatre virgins react to. Escape … really resonated with young men,” says Steve who wrote the play. “I didn’t want to make a show that necessarily did that but it did, apparently. It’s a story about telling a story.” The show certainly did resonate. It was hugely successful in Toowoomba and attracted the Virgins and the Tegans. Theatre marketers out there are you noting this?

We chat a bit about this first production of Escape from the Breakup Forest which played in the Empire Studio last year. “A lot of the reaction to the show took us by surprise,” Steve adds. “One of the happy accidents occurred at the end when Dan says the line, ‘hold someone’s hand tonight.’ We looked out and we were amazed that a lot of the audience did. There was another line, ‘And if you came here alone tonight, turn to the person beside you,’ and they did and THE AUDIENCE CHEERED. That was exciting.” He finishes,” What excites me is directly sharing a story with the audience. My theatrical primer is ‘Sharing the secret.’”  Ari adds, “We look for the joy in stories. Joy is our engine.”

So, with one success under their collective belt and a sense that what they are doing is working how has been the process of being a small business on 8 legs been so far, I wonder. Quick as a wink, “Swift,” from Ari, “things are moving quickly.”  Claire adds, “Focussing on the business. Things tend to grow fast and then dissipate. People have great ideas but strategically don’t know how to talk about it. We have to be strategic.” Steve: “We want the end goal to be that Mixtape is something that makes money. We’ve found that we really do have the ability to think like producers and partners. Claire again: “We utilised our first RADF to talk to lawyers, accountants and about what happens or who’s responsible if one of us buys a car with company money.” “Each one of us is focused on the company rather than on ourselves as individuals,” (Dan).  “I am so attracted to the business side of things and how to make a small business successful.”  Dan’s had plenty of experience as the small business owner of one of the city’s most successful cafes, so he should know.

Dan has a quiet focus which he brings to our discussion and you can also feel the dynamic of the interplay within the group as our conversation continues. I ask what does each of the others believe they contribute to the business? Steve, who has emerged as clear spokesman for the group begins, “We possibly need to start to think about this but we have terms that describe ourselves for ourselves. He rattles them off: Dark Lord of the Arts; Dance Captain; Treasurer. Dan goes on, “Actually, we are learning on the job. In a perfect world we would have all the ‘plans’ in place first but we went ‘theatre’ and things fell into place. We thought ‘theatre’ first. It’s working.”

Steve picks up again, “We’re putting stuff in – not taking it out. Our backgrounds plus our collaborative sense are our strengths. We bring performing skills of course and have learned so much by actually having to do stuff – work a jigsaw machine, make sets, design, market and so on. Performing in a show I’ve written is a massive challenge,”  he finishes. Ari picks up, “We all have works in process which may get some development. We were a bit ruthless with Steve during creative development.” On cue, they all nod sagely and then burst out laughing. And that’s probably why they’re so successful thus far, I think. Apart from their skills and talents, they have a shared vision and are candid and trusting of the collective mind at work.

So, about the Brisbane season – what do they want? “A sense of arriving at the party ,” says Steve, “We’re the ones arriving with the wine … or a nice, scrummy cider we’ve brought from the farm.”  “There seems to be a bit of a buzz from people who seem to know who we are.” (Claire) “We’re  thinking it might be nice not to do the show but just turn up to the after-party,” adds Steve. “Other collectives (Dead Puppet Society) tweeted about being excited to see the show, so there seems to be an energy about this one which is really thrilling. We want to show something that is progressing the dynamic interplay of what’s happening between regional and metropolitan art centres.” (Ari) “People have an odd idea about how long it is to get from Brisbane to Toowoomba. If they won’t come to us then we’re coming to them.” (Claire)

Escape from the Breakup Forest written and designed by Steve Pirie, directed by Claire Christian and Ari Palani features Steve Pirie, Dan Stewart and Ell Sachs. It plays its Brisbane season at the Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley opening 16 March and playing Tue/Sat till 23 March. They’re hoping for an additional season at the Gold Coast Arts Centre in May-June.