A challenge to arts presenters: dig where you stand

Imagine if regional presenters cared half as much for the artists who live in their own towns as they do for bringing in the money-spinning touring works.
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Taking the 1.5 hour flight from Dubbo to Sydney in a tiny Beechcraft filled with 19 other delegates, I had time to reflect on the four days of intense discussion, dreaming and debate at Artlands 2016.

A highlight for me was keynote speaker from the Netherlands, Co-Coordinator Rural Routes Henk Keizer, whose mantra echoed in my ears as I looked down onto the patchwork quilt of geometric grader patterns on the western plains of interior NSW. Keizer seemed to summarise my practice as an arts manager and a theatre-maker in a single phrase – ‘Dig where you stand.’

My practice was born in the joy of devising new work as part of VCE Drama. But my conservative rural Victorian school career counsellors planted doubt in the achievability of my goal to be a theatre director. So I enrolled in a teaching course at Deakin University. From teaching Drama, to Arts Administration (and always writing and performing on the side) my route has come full circle. Now, with a Graduate Certificate in Arts Management behind me, I find that my idealism is not a weakness but a strength. I have both the courage and the skills to back myself and the audacity to tell everyone about it.

In ​his keynote at Artlands 2016, ​Keizer spoke of the artist as a stranger with no story of their own to tell, but with the role of  listening and reflecting the story of the place back to those who reside in it. Tripwire Theatre Inc’s mission – my mission – is rooted in the notion of digging where you stand.

At Tripwire, we believe that regional theatre artists and arts management professionals should have high-quality opportunities to collaborate creatively, share their knowledge and skills, and promote a passion for performing without leaving their local region.

This week, I attended the Victorian Touring Workshop run by VAPAC & RAV at the Malthouse Theatre. On the panel entitled ‘Building Relationships with Presenters’, Mik Frawley from Lighthouse Theatre in Warrnambool spoke passionately about how he sees his role as leading his established audience gently into new territories. His focus was on programming that stretche​s conservative audiences (Warrnambool, like many regional areas, is not demographically diverse) and fills the needs of new audience segments.

Not all communities have a Mik Frawley running their Performing Arts Centre, and if the venue mangers are indeed the “tastemakers for their community”, it does not bode well for producers when the presenter is quite happy to maintain the status quo for their existing audience base.

How can emerging theatre-makers – locals who live and work in their own region and who make new work – possibly hope to get support from the major venues when the programming plan for those venues is so safe and monotonous? Take a look at many regional PACs annual season and you will see a dearth of golden oldie tribute shows, stand-up comedy favourites, blockbuster musicals and local performing arts concerts.

Read: Counter urban movement city arts doesn’t see

The panel at the Victorian Touring Workshop told the many independent producers in attendance that presenters care most about their audience. But what kind of world would we live in if they cared half as much for the artists who live in their own town as they did for bringing in the money-spinning touring works?

Which brings us back to Tripwire’s mission statement. We want our community to have access to high quality, affordable performing arts which is not imported, but made especially to reflect our local values, celebrate our successes and critique our failures.

In the dynamic final session at Artlands 2016, the National Thought Leadership panel spoke of “the sense of possibility that is evoked by paying attention to the local”. And that sense of possibility is what fuels my practice and our work at Tripwire. I look at the two major cities in my region with like a gardener waiting to break rich soil for the first time. In Bendigo, we have a still-new state-of-the-art facility that sits idle waiting to be filled from the offerings at Showcase Victoria. In Ballarat, we have Federation University churning out high quality performing and technical theatre graduates but no professional company in which they can remain in the area to work. I work towards a future when Tripwire Theatre Inc finds a home in one of our regional venues who would channel investment into a long-term residency for a local professional company to make and present new work.

As the announcement that Regional Arts Victoria will be scaling back its touring funding sunk in for the delegates at the Touring Workshop, it served to reinforce my view that Regional Presenters have to shift priorities from purchasing touring works to funding those who are already working on their doorstep. Skinder Hundel (CEO New Art Exchange, UK) said at Artlands that if you “program for your community, the audiences will come.” I challenge Regional Victorian presenters to take that one step further – if you program for the artists, the community will come.

Regional Council-run venues have an remarkable opportunity to show leadership in the sector by offering a lifeline to emerging theatre-makers in our regions which would allow them to really dig where they stand. Regional theatre-makers have everything it takes to dig an Olympic-sized swimming pool – we just need someone to help find us a decent shovel.

My participation in Artlands 2016 was supported by Regional Arts Victoria’s Travel Grant program.

Find out more about Tripwire.

Megan Riedl
About the Author
Based in Central Victoria, Megan is a playwright, actor and director. She has a Grad Cert in Arts Management and is currently the Artistic Director of Tripwire Theatre Inc.
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