So you want my arts job: Artistic Director

If you can balance strategy, business and networking with creative inspiration, then working as an artistic director might be the job for you. Shaun Parker explains.
So you want my arts job: Artistic Director Photo credit: Shantala Shivalingappa
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Richard Watts

Monday 23 March, 2020

Shaun Parker is an award-winning choreographer, dancer, actor and counter-tenor whose work has spanned film, television and live theatre productions. He is Artistic Director of Shaun Parker & Company, which he founded in 2010.

Born on a grape-growing property in Mildura, and a graduate of the VCA, his work has toured to 18 countries including Germany, Sweden, Austria, Luxembourg, France, Malaysia, USA, Lebanon, Palestine and the UK. His choreographic works include: KING, REMOTE, In The Zone, Am I, Happy As Larry, This Show is About People, The Yard, SPILL, TROLLEYS, Rika’s Story, My Little Garden, Blue Love, TUT, Love Installment, Tenebrae III and the award winning short films The Love Trilogy and NO.

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Parker won an Australian Dance Award for both This Show is About People, and The Yard, for his work with underprivileged teenagers in Western Sydney the Shirley McKechnie Award for Choreography, a Green Room Award for AM I, the Argus Angel Award (UK), the Bearer of Hope Award (Germany), the Banksy Award (New Zealand), the NSW Premier’s Creative Achievement Award, and was nominated for three Helpmann Awards and the NSW Premier’s Export Awards.

Parker’s anti-bullying dance program in schools, and his other interactive community events have been lauded for their connection with audiences to deliver strong social impact.

How would you describe what you do?

I create dance shows of a variety of scales. From choreographing performances at festivals and the Sydney Opera House, to shows designed for local communities and schools, and even pop up dance shows in shopping malls and public spaces, we take the arts to all kinds of people.

My aim is to connect with the people watching, and for the show to resonate with them to the point they can see themselves on stage. This way they can laugh and celebrate, but also consider and reflect on what they are viewing.

My biggest aim is to challenge social topics, inspire the audience, and also entertain a wide range of people. Last year we took one of my youth shows into the Randwick Hospital to the Starlight Room for children in hospital.

How did you get started in your career?

The amazing Meryl Tankard came to Victorian College of the Arts in the third year of my dance degree. She had performed Two Feet in Melbourne, the week before visiting my university; I went to watch and was blown away.

She came to Victorian College of the Arts to audition students for Australian Dance Theatre. I made it through to the final shortlist, then a month of so later I was offered a place in the company and I begun as soon as I graduated from university! That was my big break, it’s what every dance student dreams of – I was given an amazing opportunity and started my career in the industry I loved.

How did you become an artistic director?

In the early years of my career, all I wanted to do was dance for as long as possible, at least until I was 50 years old. However, travelling around the world for almost 20 years performing other people’s choreography really got me thinking. I was committed and gave my all during rehearsals, but towards my mid 30s, I’d get home from rehearsals and my mind was in turmoil. I would think of ways the choreography could be done differently, and how the dramaturgy could be tightened – I knew it could be improved and I desperately wanted to add my own spin on it.

This was the moment when I realised I had to start creating my own pieces, and it was this revelation that lured me into choreography earlier than I had originally expected. Suddenly there was no turning back. It’s a real-life case of I didn’t choose the Artistic Director life, the Artistic Director life chose me!

What’s an average week like?

I feel incredibly grateful to work in an industry that I love and that I get to work with inspiring people every single day. The arts industry is a fantastic community of like-minded individuals. While I am so passionate about my work, my average week is usually mayhem, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Until I had my daughter, Ava, I was never good at multi-tasking. I learnt an awful lot in her early years and became an expert in time management, which has really helped later down the line.

My average week involves checking emails at any opportunity and liaising with our team including our Executive Director, our dancers, and set designers for future shows. I’m usually in rehearsals all day, and if I have a couple of hours spare I crack on with grant applications and risk assessments. I also look ahead and plan the next couple of years by creating strategies, as well as working with our PR and marketing teams, for media interviews and opportunities.

Outside of work hours I try to spend as much quality time with Ava as possible. I pick her up from school, and take her to friends’ houses or to her drama classes.

When I do manage to get a couple of hours to myself, I’ll either watch a movie or go for a run and swim down at Coogee Beach. My all-time favourite way to relax, and something I make sure I do at least once a month, is a two-hour sports massage. Exercise and a massage are vital for me to keep a healthy and happy body and mind.

What’s the most common misconception about being an Artistic Director?

The majority of people think that my job is just art, fun and creativity but in truth, I do an awful lot of strategy, business and networking – creating performance is very minimal in comparison to everything else going on.

There’s an awful lot more work behind the scenes than I think people realise.

If you were interviewing someone to take over your job, what skills & qualities would you look for?

The work should come first – so the very first thing I would look for is a unique visionary talent. Their ideas have to be like no one else’s and they must have their own choreographic signature with a spark that sets them apart.

If they have this, then I would also look for a good business mindset with great communication skills, a sense of fun and the natural ability to be an inspirational leader for the dancers and the wider Shaun Parker & Company team.

What’s the best thing happening in the small to medium sector at the moment?

The innovation! The arts leaders and producers in the small to medium sector are incredible innovators. The amount they achieve with such limited funding is a credit to their creative abilities. They work very hard and fast and have this great agility to move in any direction.

That said, it has to be acknowledged that currently, the industry both locally and globally is experiencing unsettling times, and the impact of COVID-19 on the performing arts – along with many industries – is already significant. However, I truly believe that we will come out the other side feeling stronger and even more unified. Now is the time to come together to share our passion and creativity, to show our audiences how incredible our industry is for sharing stories, entertaining people from all walks of life, and capturing imaginations during a time of uncertainty. 

I greatly admire our wonderful arts managers, producers and artists in Australia!

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About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts