21 reasons our arts industry will bounce back better than ever (Part One)

Simon Hinton, Artistic Director/CEO of Merrigong Theatre Company, has written a love letter to the theatre industry celebrating our arts champions.
21 reasons our arts industry will bounce back better than ever (Part One) Art champions: top row (L-R): Alana Valentine, Robert Love, Rhoda Roberts and Chris Drummond. Bottom row (L-R): Paul Dellit, Collette Brennan and Candy Bowers. Images supplied.  

Simon Hinton

Friday 26 June, 2020

Way back in early April, in the early days of this COVID shit-show, I posted the first of a series of Facebook/Instagram posts that read: 

21 Reasons I Know the Australian Arts Industry Will Bounce Back Better than Ever:

Yes, these are dark times my friends, you don’t need me to tell you that. My job currently is trying to work out how to save an organisation that relies on Box Office and Venue Hire for more than 80% of its revenue (and we’re the lucky ones!). Saving jobs, survival, is my total focus for now. But my mind’s started to turn to reasons why our industry might not just survive, but one day roar back to life better than ever. All of the reasons I could think of were people. So, I don’t want to diminish how hard this time is going to be, but each day I’m going to share one of these reasons. To be clear, these aren’t the “top 21 reasons”, they’re just 21 reasons, in no particular order, and the more I’ve thought about it, I could give you 50, 100, 200 without too much trouble.

These are our champions.

So, COVID-19, you dumb motherf***er, if you think you’ve got the arts industry beaten, take a look, because this lot, our top warriors, are arrayed before you in battle formation, and you’d better believe we will outlast, out-think and out-create you.

Reason number 1: …

OK, so I was overly ambitious thinking I’d do one a day. It started as a mental health project, really. I was feeling so despondent, and hopeless, and truly searching for reasons to believe everything was going to be ok. Now that I’ve finished all 21, I realise that it’s given me so much hope, focussing on other people’s strengths and capacities, not contemplating my own sadness. I’ve been amazed at how people have been moved by being honoured in this simple way (and for some it came at a moment of self-doubt or sadness themselves, which felt like the universe working how it should). I need to find a way to keep the principle of this practice a permanent part of my life.

Here – in three parts, featuring seven champions per part – are all 21. Consider them love letters to our theatre industry.

Reason 1: Alana Valentine.

Boy, are we gonna need some great new plays when we reopen our theatres! I’m guessing quite a few will come from this prolific writer. Alana Valentine's work is so compassionate, so full of heart, but matched with her inquiring, keen intellect. Over the years she's established herself as one of our greatest storytellers. In plays such as Parramatta Girls, Barbara and the Camp Dogs and Letters to Lindy, she's connected countless Australian communities with our own stories. She's passionate about audiences, and legendary for her willingness to do no end of Q&A's, audience meet and greets and the like (a theatre company's dream). She's meticulous in her research, and has an extraordinary ability to get a diverse range of people to open up and tell her their unique story, and then trust her to give it voice (just ask Lindy-Chamberlain Creighton). If I had to pick someone to one day turn the experience of our community – our ‘Coronavirus days’ – into a meaningful work of theatre that will give us real insight into who we are and who we might become from this experience, it would be Alana. Can't wait to see what incredible new works she writes AV (after the virus).

Reason 2: Robert Love (AM)

It’s tempting to think of Robert as an elder of our industry – he certainly has the calm wisdom. But I like to think of him as a marathon runner. His 20 years at Riverside Theatres Parramatta represents one of the great ‘long-hauls’ of our business. His unbelievable determination and perseverance is an inspiration. There’s not much worth knowing about our industry that he doesn’t know. Having founded a theatre company (the legendary Toe Truck Theatre) and been GM of our largest theatre company (STC), since 2000 he’s gradually changed the fortunes of the performing arts in the most heavily populated area of our nation – Western Sydney. There isn’t a bureaucrat he couldn’t out-think or outlast, or an artist he couldn’t inspire. There’s no-one I admire more in this industry, and we are going to need him to fight back after this shit-storm, so it’s essential we all start convincing him to forget about the retirement he’s been murmuring about.

Reason 3: Rhoda Roberts (AO)

As an actor, journalist, producer and artistic director, this Bundjalung woman of the Wiyebal Clan, has contributed in so many different ways to our industry over the years. There’s currently no more important work than championing First Nations artists, and connecting them to everyday Australian audiences, and in this regard Rhoda is our champion of champions. As Head of First Nations Programming at the Sydney Opera House, she’s a pioneer in the truest sense, forging an incredible array of First Nations offerings from within an institution and a building originally designed to stamp European culture on Aboriginal land – trust me, the irony is not lost on her! I recently got to experience up close the incredible cultural care and nurturing she provides all who cross her path – what an example! As our nation emerges from these dark Coronavirus times, we’ll need to urgently and finally turn to our First Nations leaders for guidance and strength, forging new ways of doing things informed by ancient culture and knowledge. Lucky for our industry we’ve got a (not so) secret weapon ready to go – Aunty Rhoda!

Reason 4: Chris Drummond

Adelaide’s Brink Productions is aptly named. When you make theatre you’re always ‘on the brink’ – of making something amazing, of disaster, of epic failure, of acclaim, of exhausted collapse. There have been times when the uncertainties of funding have driven Brink Productions to the brink of disappearance. But a singular artistic brilliance, in the form of Chris Drummond, means the company has continued to punch way above its weight, one incredible work after another. Brink’s Artistic Director for the last 16 years, Chris Drummond is one of our great directors. His works always display a mastery of the elements of theatre – combining incredible aesthetic sensitivity with great intellect and feeling. He’s as comfortable with epic staging as he is with intimate storytelling. But when we’re ready to tell the story of this time, and make theatre about it, there’s one reason I’ll want Chris to be directing it, and that is the deep humanity of all his works – they reach out to you, and embrace you in joy, pain and beauty. He’s generous to an audience, without pandering, never alienating them, but never disrespecting their intelligence either. I can’t wait to see the work he’ll make about all this one day, because I know it will be work that will heal us and make us stronger, and we’re going to need that.

Reason 5: Paul Dellit (OAM)

The most influential leaders are not always those with the job titles to match. We’ve all experienced someone in an organisation having a profound impact on the culture and feel of a workplace, even though they’re not the CEO, GM, Artistic Director or the like. I don’t know Paul Dellit well, but I’ve observed his work from afar, and our paths have crossed enough for me to conclude that he’s a huge part of defining the culture of Queensland’s largest performing arts organisation, QPAC. He’s worked at numerous organisations in Queensland and around the country, but it’s as a producer at QPAC that he’s now known for the extraordinary care he provides for artists. There are many people that love our industry, but few who turn that into action as effectively as Paul. His positive, caring attitude towards artists, and his infectious love of musical theatre are well known, as is his championing of the Actors and Entertainers Benevolent Fund of Queensland, of which he’s President. As we emerge from these dark days, it is artists that will have borne the brunt of the industry’s pain, and we’re going to need Paul Dellit’s unwavering positivity and love of artists to heal some deep wounds. In the meantime, if you can, go and toss a few bucks (or more) into the collection bucket at abfqld.com.au/donations/ – these funds are desperately needed now.

Reason 6: Collette Brennan

About 3 ½ years ago I visited the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. While the scale of this reclaimed convent (Australia’s largest multi-arts precinct) was impressive, to be honest the job facing then newly-appointed CEO, Collette Brennan, seemed daunting to me – so much work to do on the infrastructure, a huge fundraising task, and a mammoth programming mountain to climb. Fast forward to APAM/Asia TOPA in February 2020, and a second visit to the Convent absolutely blew me away. Now a home to numerous arts companies, with newly reclaimed spaces for exhibition and performance, it buzzed with creative energy. If anyone needed more evidence of the dynamic force of Collette Brennan in our industry, here it was. I was gobsmacked at what she had achieved in such a short time. So, I know, when we emerge from these strange times, that Collette will be leading the way, doing what she does best – connecting people. Her incredible energy in connecting artists, producers and presenters around the world is legendary – countless Australian artists and companies have her to thank for their international relationships. From years leading the international charge at the Australia Council and beyond, Collette’s unstinting generosity to her industry colleagues is matched only by her legendary ability to host drinks gatherings in far flung parts of the world. When we can finally reconnect with the rest of the world in person, I know who I want to be organising the party!

Reason 7: Candy Bowers

In the worst hit industry in this Corona shit-storm, the worst hit of all are the independent artists, who fall through the cracks of most of the Government support. And of course after all of this, we’re going to need strong, independent voices in Australian theatre more than ever – voices that challenge us all to not allow our industry to just ‘get back to normal’ but instead change that normal and create something much more powerful, open, inclusive and radical. We’re facing an extraordinary opportunity to rethink the power structures of our industry, and most importantly, to position artists at the centre. Cue Candy Bowers! This South African-Australian powerhouse (‘straight outta Campbelltown’) survived NIDA, co-created the brilliant Sista She, has toured a number of successful solo shows, and is even a producer of the phenomenon Hot Brown Honey. But perhaps her greatest contribution to our industry is that she never stops telling it like it is. She holds our collective hand to the flame, calling out our industry’s lack of diverse representation, challenging the gate-keeping that keeps women, people of colour and other dynamic voices sidelined. So (not that Candy needs permission from a 50-year-old white man!) I for one hope she’s ‘front and centre’ as we forge a new Australian arts industry out of the ashes of the old one.

Look for part two and part three of this series in the coming days on ArtsHub.

About the author

Since 2005, Simon has been Artistic Director/CEO of Australia’s largest regionally-based theatre company, Merrigong Theatre Company in Wollongong. He has worked in a range of arts industry positions, including as Marketing Manager of Queensland Theatre Company and Executive Officer of Ausdance (NSW). Simon has served on numerous industry boards and committees, and is currently Vice President of Performing Arts Connections (PAC) Australia, a member of the Theatre Board of Create NSW, and serves on several Helpmann Awards panels.