A new era for regional Queensland arts

A diverse group of bodies, old and new, are committed to providing opportunities for regional artists over the long-term.
Regional Queensland performers in a musical in 2024.

Regional Queensland’s performing arts sector has never been short on talent or enthusiasm, but 2024 is a year of unprecedented change. While actors in Brisbane continue to fight for a fair go for local roles, regional counterparts are often caught between many governing bodies, each with different funding structures and operation models and at various stages of their life cycle.

The latest changes include the launch of the new QTouring, managed by Stage Queensland through Arts Queensland. Artists across the state have greeted the launch with optimism for a post-COVID revival of regional Queensland arts. But their hope is tempered with a healthy scepticism of the state’s ability to sustainably serve regional arts and audiences. 

Equally dramatic was 2023’s announcement of Shake & Stir Theatre Company receiving $2.5 million over three years to deliver ‘curriculum connected school touring services for regional and remote kindergartens and schools’. Shake & Stir has over a decade of experience in secondary school touring and the development of mainstage works. Their expansion into primary touring across regional and remote Queensland surprised many in the sector, but the company has committed to securing new partnerships across the region. 

In the far North, JUTE Theatre Company, located in Cairns, has spearheaded the creation of DARTS (‘Driving and Activating the Regional Theatre Sector’). The three-year vision delivers skills development, artist residencies, interregional touring, creative development and production to the regional arts sector. Importantly, DARTS proposes artist-led touring models. 

It’s meant a busy couple of months for the performing arts in regional Queensland. One of DARTS’ first major outcomes, a ‘planning jam’ that brought together over 40 professional theatre artists, has already taken place. Last week, QTouring hosted a connection and showcase conference in Caloundra, bringing together venues and artists from across the sector. 

For artists working on the ground, the two different bodies (combined with a third, the Regional Arts Services Network) have meant an uptick in optimism and legitimacy. 

‘For so many regional artists, it’s about being validated,’ Suellen Maunder, Artistic Director and CEO of JUTE Theatre Company tells ArtsHub. ‘What the DARTS Planning Jam did for many artists was simply say, “Your work is valid. It matters. It is legitimate”.’

Artist-led touring for regional Queensland

At the DARTS Planning Jam, Creative Producer Jess Lamb began one of the sessions by asking how many artists in the room were in the middle of developing new work in regional Queensland. ‘It was astonishing,’ Lamb told ArtsHub. ‘We had over 40 artists there, and over 30 new works were in development. It just reminds you that a tremendous amount of work in these regions needs to be recognised and seen.’

Lamb is located in Yeppoon, on Queensland’s central coast. As a playwright herself, she sees the value of the artistic networks that DARTS provides. There is a direct benefit to DARTS being led and governed by regional artists, not a metropolitan body.

DARTS arose out of an Arts Queensland Strategic Partnerships grant. That started the ball rolling, but Maunder admitted there’s a ‘tough road ahead’ to secure funding for the program to deliver its three-year vision. ‘We need big investment,’ Maunder told ArtsHub, but she is confident that DARTS will deliver on its vision. Metropolitan companies and bodies have been interested in DARTS and spiritually supported it but have been largely unable to dedicate funds. 

At the QTouring conference last week, Maunder took the concept of DARTS to venue managers. ‘It’s like I was speaking another language,’ Maunder told ArtsHub. ‘In the DARTS model, JUTE wouldn’t decide what work tours, nor would the venues. Everyone would trust the artists to select work that they believe is right for the audiences they want to target.’ The DARTS proposal is a radical departure from the default thinking of regional arts touring.

As Lamb explains: ‘Our initial surveys were very clear: regional artists want paid and project-based outcomes.’ DARTS is working to facilitate those opportunities. In addition to touring, DARTS is curating a diverse range of professional development opportunities for regional Queensland artists.

New vision for regional Queensland school touring

Nelle Lee, co-Artistic Director and co-founder of Shake & Stir, began her professional life touring work in regional Queensland schools 20 years ago. ‘It was with Queensland Arts Council,’ she tells ArtsHub.

Like many Queensland artists of her generation, Lee was witness to the eventual transformation of the Queensland Arts Council into Artslink and its eventual dissolution completely. 

Shake & Stir Theatre Company is the heir to that legacy, given their receipt of significant state funding to provide primary school touring across regional and remote Queensland. Artists and producers who spoke with ArtsHub declared themselves fans of Shake & Stir’s theatre productions but as previously discussed, confessed to some surprise at the announcement. Any resistance has softened in recent months as the company has expanded its network and begun consulting schools and companies. 

‘The funds mean we can get out to regional and remote Queensland more often,’ Lee tells ArtsHub. ‘It also means we can help companies who don’t otherwise have the means to tour as much as they would like. For visual arts, dance, or media arts, that’s not Shake & Stir’s bag, so we can collaborate with these other companies making beautiful shows. That’s really exciting.’

Regional Queensland performers Bulkaway Muruku present their unique storytelling sessions.
Bulkaway Muruku has partnered with Shake & Stir to deliver their unique story time sessions to regional and remote schools. Photo: Shake & Stir.

ArtsHub reached out to Arts Queensland for comment on the tender process that led to Shake & Stir acquiring the funds. At the time of publication, they have issued no comment. 

After touring New Zealand and across Australia as an actor for almost 20 years, Lee confesses there is something special about coming home and working with Queensland audiences. ‘Queensland and Western Australia are the best audiences,’ she laughs. ‘There’s just something about them.’

A big vision for regional Queensland arts

It is a little too early in QTouring’s life to properly assess how it will work alongside companies such as Shake & Stir or initiatives such as DARTS, although it is reasonable to assume it will act as a broker between artists and venues. There is also uncertainty around the future of the Regional Arts Services Network (RASN), funded through the Queensland Government and Arts Queensland. 

Read: Bespoke approach builds better regional artists

RASN started operating in 2018. In 2021, the initiative was renewed, with $7.8 million invested over four years until 2025. The network works with Empire Theatre, Central Queensland University, Topology Music and Regional Development Australia Tropical North. It’s funding ceases in June 2025.

RASN’s presence, combined with the new QTouring and DARTS, makes for a crowded marketplace. In theory, it should mean an abundant future for regional Queensland arts. Time will tell. 

David Burton is a writer from Meanjin, Brisbane. David also works as a playwright, director and author. He is the playwright of over 30 professionally produced plays. He holds a Doctorate in the Creative Industries.