Peak body for performing arts touring calls it a day

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Richard Watts

Changes to the sector, coupled with funding strictures and the need to avoid duplicating services, have led to the Performing Arts Touring Alliance winding up.
Peak body for performing arts touring calls it a day

A scene from the 2018 regional tour of Skylab, a Black Swan State Theatre Company and Yirra Yaakin co-production.

The Performing Arts Touring Alliance (PATA) was established in 2009 in order to strengthen the touring sector nationally. It has now officially been disbanded.

‘PATA existed as a medium-term national strategy, supported by the Australia Council, to drive better communication and unity of purpose amongst venues, producers, government instrumentalities and peak bodies that deliver performing arts touring across Australia,’ said Rachel Healy, co-Artistic Director of Adelaide Festival and the most recent PATA Chair.

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‘Over the last few years, relationships across the touring sector have steadily strengthened, and while there are still many issues and challenges faced by those involved in performing arts touring, the pressure on Australia Council resources has meant that the PATA Board decided it was time to support other organisations to expand their role in sector leadership rather establishing PATA as an on-going entity.’

The most recent iteration of the PATA Council comprised representatives from Performing Arts Connections Australia (PACA), Regional Arts Australia (RAA), the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) and Theatre Network Australia (TNA), plus tour coordinators, the small to medium sector, and independents.

Formed at a time when considerable tensions existed between presenters, producers and touring managers, PATA provided ‘a safe space, a neutral space’ to talk about the issues confronting the sector, according to Merryn Carter, PATA’s Manager since 2013.

‘There were some pretty gnarly arguments happening, and so PATA was founded to bring the sector together, and it’s particular structure made sure that there were lots of people from all the various groups who were involved in touring represented around the table, so that there was a balance between the different points of view,’ Carter explained.

‘For instance, there were strong opinions that perhaps the way the touring systems worked weren’t in the best interests of either producers or presenters. But the producers and the presenters couldn’t necessarily agree on what was going to work best for them – and there were lots of conversations, heated conversations, around how it could be restructured, why it should be restructured, and whose interests could be better represented.

‘So one of the objectives of PATA was to facilitate conversations that resulted in changes to those problems … and they’ve been a lot of changes since 2013,’ said Carter.

Such changes include the strengthening of dialogues within the touring sector, the rise and fall of the short-lived arts market Showbroker in South Australia, and the creation of PAC Australia’s successful Performing Art Exchange (PAX) presented in tandem with its annual conference, which next year will be held at the Events Centre, Caloundra, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

What did PATA achieve?

One of PATA’s key contributions to the touring sector was consensus building and relationship building across the sector, according to Carter.

‘We used to say, “PATA is Switzerland”. You’d come into this room and we encouraged frank communication, with respect. In the first discussions I was part of there wasn’t much respect. So what we tried to build was an atmosphere where saying what you really thought was encouraged, with respect, and addressing the issues so that we could find mutually beneficial outcomes for. And so I think one of PATA’s lasting legacies will be a sector that is more cohesive than it used to be,’ she said.

Healy told ArtsHub: ‘We are proud of PATA’s many achievements, particularly hosting annual national forums in which key touring issues and priorities (changing programming needs; marketing and audience development, community engagement, the role of local government and data collection of touring activity) were identified by the sector and appropriate actions taken.

‘Of particular note was Merryn Carter’s appearance into the Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding in August 2015 in which she specifically tackled Senator Brandis’ assertion that it was the major performing arts organisations – those organisations that he had personally insulated from funding cuts – that conducted most of the touring to regional Australia. Merryn’s Australian and international data demonstrated that it’s our small to medium companies that did the heavy lifting in performing arts touring for both national and international audiences. She asked the Inquiry if we really wanted to risk regional communities losing access to the performing arts experiences that are frequently a mainstay of a regional community’s cultural life.

‘The experience of 2015 proved the importance of combating misinformation about regional touring and the importance of educating government about the regional touring “food chain”; and the agencies and artists at the front line of delivering arts experiences to Australia’s most isolated communities. We are confident this advocacy will continue,’ Healy said.

Nicole Beyer, Director, Theatre Network Australia (TNA), said: ‘For producing companies and artists, PATA has been a useful forum to raise issues in a unified way, around unfair touring systems, and to address the difficulties faced by independents in particular. It is through PATA that Theatre Network Australia (as a member of the PATA Council) could advocate for Go Pitch funding – for supporting independent artists who are pitching at the state and national marketplaces. Go Pitch has now been rolled out at a state level (at Showcase Victoria) and nationally at PACA’s Performing Arts Exchange, and at Showbroker.   

‘It’s been a pleasure working with Rachel Healy as Chair, Merryn Carter as Executive Officer, and all the other PATA Councillors. Through PATA, TNA has developed strong working relationships with the other peak bodies, and will continue to work with them to improve the ways we support the making, selling and touring of work in Australia,’ she added.

More to be done

While PATA has disbanded, the touring sector nationally still faces a number of challenges, including strengthening opportunities for audience development, harmonising state and federal funding, and overhauling Playing Australia, the Regional Performing Arts Touring fund – including increasing its funding by at least $2.7 million.

‘Playing Australia hasn’t been reviewed in the 24 years since it’s been put in place, and its funding has gone down by 37% since 2004 in real terms,’ said Rick Heath, Executive Director of PAC Australia and one of the founding members of the PATA council.

Given the current re-examination of the Major Performing Arts (MPA) Framework, and in light of the fact that almost half the funds allocated through Playing Australia in 2017 went to just six MPA companies at the expense of the innovative small to medium sector, Heath believes the time is right to also put Playing Australia under the spotlight – and to consider a more holistic approach to touring models nationally.

‘What’s required really is a total reimagining of how we do touring – and even redefining what touring is,’ Heath said.

‘If a company goes to a town for a residency for a month, is that touring? And I’d argue that it is, but not in the traditional sense.

‘Currently we’ve got a whole framework that doesn’t support a new model of working, which is exactly the same as the MPA Framework, so there’s a strong similarity there,’ he said.

Merryn Carter agreed, noting: ‘When you’re talking about regional Australian access to arts experiences, Playing Australia could have a lot more impact if its investments were leveraged by further funding which supported audience development. And there’s a whole conversation to be had there, and those topics haven’t yet been explored by government.’ 

With a new Chair, and new Board members – including Rachel Healy – PAC Australia is currently developing a new National Performing Arts Reference Group, as part of its approach to supporting a new national touring logic framework.

‘In the past what we’ve done is looked at the logistics and coordination and harmonisation, all of that kind of stuff, in isolation, whereas we’re now looking at that as one stream parallel with another stream – we’re making sure that the market is ready based on the supply and demand quantity, and I don’t think that’s been done before. And if it comes off PATA has absolutely laid the foundation for that,’ said Heath.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts