10 things theatre companies can provide to artists

Too often conversations around the careers of artists can get lost in the abstract. To counter that, Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Sam Strong gets practical.
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Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong. Image supplied.

ArtsHub performs a wonderful industry service for artists: spotlighting careers, highlighting the challenges of different cities, and shining a light on neglected parts of the sector.

However, a voice has been missing from these conversations. That voice is the voice of companies, the providers of opportunities to artists.

So, I thought I would write about artist pathways from the perspective of an Artistic Director, and from the perspective of a major performing arts company. I want to flip the conversation about what artists can do to advance their own careers on its head. Instead, I want to talk about what companies can do for artists.

There are some important preliminary points to make.

First, the issue of artist pathways sits in the broader context of the ongoing conversation around equity of representation in Australian theatre. Over the last few years, key events have provided lightning rods through which underlying industry sentiment has earthed. Working backwards, STC’s production of The Long Forgotten Dream recently prompted a front-page debate around the politics of the creation of Indigenous theatre. Shortly before that, the prominence of male directors at the Helpmann awards re-awakened the debate around women directors – a discussion thrown into sharpest relief by the infamous Belvoir 2010 launch (and a declaration, I was one of the group of men on the Belvoir stage that night so memorably described by Van Badham as the “skinny jean mafia”). Earlier still, season brochures or Platform Papers raised awareness of the absence of a tradition of diverse casting in Australia, or the under-representation of female playwrights.

Second, if you are serious about artist pathways you need to be genuinely open to what the sector has to say. This can sometimes be uncomfortable. I was in part prompted to codify my thoughts about artist pathways by a distressing comment I read on this website that suggested that the State Theatre Company didn’t care as much as it should about artists. Personally, nothing could be further from the truth. But the comment is worth taking into account because it clearly represents a genuine experience for someone.

On that topic, if there are things that Queensland Theatre isn’t doing for artists that you think we should be doing, get in touch. I want to hear it. As a sign of good faith, my email is sstrong@queenslandtheatre.com.au. If you don’t feel comfortable contacting me, contact our Senior Producer Sophia Hall on shall@queenslandtheatre.com.au.

But let’s get concrete. Too often conversations around the careers of artists can get lost in the abstract. To counter that, here are 10 things companies can provide to artists:

1. Tickets. Let’s start with a simple one. Full price tickets to mainstage theatre shows are too expensive for people making a living as an artist. One consequence of this is that those aspiring to work in mainstage venues don’t get to see enough of the context in which their work will sit – how different designers have used the theatre, what audiences have responded to etc. Most companies have addressed this with some form of accessible or subsidised ticket scheme. At Queensland Theatre, we have subscriptions through which artists can see our work for $10 a show. I think this might be the cheapest artist ticket to the Australian mainstage, but I’m very happy to stand corrected.

2. Space. Finding rehearsal space is one of the biggest challenges of making independent theatre. I’ve rehearsed plays in my living room, in offices, in storerooms and in parks. At Queensland Theatre, artists can access rehearsal space for free. Yes, the resource is finite and in hot demand but it’s there and it’s vitally important that it’s there. In the future I want to take this provision of space even further. Any independent artist building a show at Queensland Theatre should feel as welcome as an artist building a show produced by the company. Even if you don’t yet have a coffee mug with your name on it, you should feel like you do. You should expect key artistic staff to drop into your rehearsal room as frequently as they do for Queensland Theatre shows (if you want that of course!).

3. Access to decision making. A vital part of creating pathways for artists (and especially for cultivating arts leaders) is bringing people into the room where it happens. I’ve always made a point of democratising the artistic leadership of any company I’ve been involved in, bringing more artists to the programming table and into the warts and all conversation. I founded the Griffin Studio resident artist program on this basis in 2011. Likewise, the National Artistic Team at Queensland Theatre. Selfishly, these sorts of robust conversations make for better programs. Selflessly, they help build the next generation of arts leaders by shining some light on the otherwise dark art of curating. Most importantly of all, they are a concrete step towards making our companies and their leadership less monopolised by white men.

If companies want to better represent the realities of Australian society, then they need to give more diverse people a seat at the table where decisions are made. To take but one example, Queensland Theatre’s reputation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre began well before I was AD. It began because the company had one of the country’s leading Indigenous artists, Wesley Enoch, as its Artistic Director. In my time as AD, it has expanded to include shows like My Name is Jimi, An Octoroon, or The Longest Minute by having leading Aboriginal artists like Wayne Blair, Nakkiah Lui, Jimi Bani and Isaac Drandic, not just creating work, but part of the decision to program it. Our aspiration to create great theatre by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists is built around the fact that we have an Aboriginal artist permanently employed as our resident dramaturg and a key part of our artistic leadership team.

4. Access to decision makers. It’s important to find avenues for people to get in front of key staff, especially Artistic Directors or people who can employ them. I’ve known theatre companies whose philosophical approach to talent is a bit like a guard on the citadel wall – looking to keep people out rather than let them in, to find fault rather than potential. This is the wrong way around. Companies exist to create opportunities for as many people as possible.

How do you do this? A first step is to lead from the front and make yourself available. In my first few months at Queensland Theatre, I met with over 300 artists individually to best immerse myself in the Brisbane landscape. I try to set aside time each week to meet with any artist who wants to talk with me. But to be frank I don’t do this as well as I should at the moment. This is an official apology to anyone who I’ve taken too long to get back to. The demands of being an AD with a family who’s also directing three shows a year can slow response times a little.

Auditions are an important way to engage with the work of artists. At any company I’ve been involved with I’ve tried to be at as many general auditions as I can and have seen the work of literally thousands of performers. On the one hand, this is a lovely experience because you get to be in the presence of acting and writing all day. On the other hand, the symbolism of attendance is important. It sends the message that artists matter and that we respect their work.

A final point about auditions. Beginning at Griffin, I have always ensured that slots are made available for people on a first come first serve basis, as well as people put forward by agents, often a 50/50 ratio.

5. Investment. If you asked the independent sector how a company like Queensland Theatre should invest its resources (and we have), you would get a response as varied as the artists that make up the sector. Some might say we should vacate the field entirely and leave it to the genuinely great work already being done at the Powerhouse or Metro Arts. Some favour a classic independent season like the old La Boite Indie or B Sharp. Some would argue for curatorial freedom like MTC Neon while others would favour greater incorporation into the company identity like the old Griffin Independent. Some legitimately believe that a subsidised company should never have people working for less than equity minimum inside its walls. The sector is also constantly morphing. Interestingly, most of the examples cited above have now iterated into something different in less than five years. Different cities and ecologies also throw up different challenges, including the belief that it’s always better somewhere else (even if it isn’t).

What does a company do in the face of such fluidity? The answer: you commit to some form of investment because putting your money where your mouth is, is important; you listen to what the sector wants and needs; you make a choice knowing that you will never please everyone, and then you evolve based on continuing to listen to the sector.

In 2017 we committed $100,000 to the Brisbane Independent sector, based as much as possible on the bespoke tailoring of those resources to what independent artists asked for. In 2018, with our spaces closed for renovation, we invested in our relationships with two independent companies (Dead Puppet Society and Lone Star) to extend the life of the shows we co-created.

While it is currently a secret, we will soon launch the next iteration in our quest to best work with the Brisbane and Queensland independent sector. This will retain the successful components from the past – access to space, bespoke provision of resources – as well as extending to the development of an emerging company, bringing additional artists into leadership positions, and partnering to create work.

6. Quotas. There is a range of contrasting views on how to make our artists, stories and audiences more diverse. Lots of companies are doing good work. But the issue keeps coming up because progress is slow. For my two cents worth and from recent experience, I think public commitments are important, whether or not you call them quotas. So, since 2017, Queensland Theatre has made an express commitment to gender parity of writers and directors in our seasons. This means that, taken together, at least 50% of our writers and directors will be women. We achieved it in 2017, in 2018 and we will do it again in 2019. As we put together the composition of the season, this is not an aspiration or a negotiable variable. It’s a given. It just is.

7. Sensitivity. Most people in leadership in the arts know what it is to be on the freelance side of the desk. More particularly, they know how much a project or a role can mean to you and how crap it can be to miss out on it. Being on the inside puts an obligation on people to never forget what it was like on the outside, or moreover to do their best to dissolve any boundary between the two. It also puts an obligation on gatekeepers to deal appropriately with those they are engaging with, and disappointing.

Another part of sensitivity is making sure people can find pathways that work for them. It’s not good enough to just replicate what the current artistic leadership did to get into their positions. There are a range of social, cultural or gendered reasons why the ‘just ask for a meeting and just ask for what you want,’ approach doesn’t work for everyone.

8. Leadership. Leadership in the area of artist pathways means committing to continually improving how you support artists. It also means thinking strategically about their careers across time and companies. In 2019, we have a writer making their mainstage and Queensland Theatre debut. That debut was made possible because we created a pathway for that writer (and nurtured their relationship with a director) through our youth and education program.

Finally, leadership requires a generosity of spirit where you are not just leaving the door open to others, but you are actively training your successors. Great arts leaders don’t have a sense of territory. They empower others, even if that person might take a job off them sooner rather than later.

9. Cooperation. One of the most exciting developments in theatre in the last few years has been an increasingly collegiate attitude amongst companies and across the industry. The recent partnership between Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, QT, STC and MTC, to nurture the careers of Asian Australian theatre directors, is a case in point. Another powerful example is the Safe Theatres forum on sexual harassment and abuse of power earlier this year. This forum witnessed a room full of people drawn from every part of the sector acknowledging that some issues transcend individual interests or historic or potential divisions. So, companies shared resources or processes that they might once have considered their intellectual property or competitive advantage. The outcomes of the forum were collectively communicated, not something for any one organisation or individual to own or take credit for.

Successfully nurturing the careers of artists requires a similar privileging of the whole ecology over individual company needs. Talent exists to be shared, not owned. Companies should think about how artists move between organisations rather than just how they arrive or stay at theirs. Any good pathways strategy is mindful of where your company sits in the whole local and national landscape. It acknowledges that you can’t address all of the challenges yourself and the best chance of the best outcome comes from coordinating your efforts with others.

10. Hospitality. For me, the underlying philosophy of a great theatre company is simple: to be an open and welcoming place that makes people feel like they belong. This is the case whether you are an audience member who has been coming for 30 years or 30 minutes, a donor who gives tens of thousands of dollars or ten dollars, or a Torres Strait Islander teenager coming to the theatre for the first time because your community is on stage. Step one is to cultivate that generosity of spirit in all who represent the company. Step two is to find concrete ways for it to manifest, from the tone of a welcome pack to the way a multi-million dollar renovation enhances people’s experiences.

If this is the present, what does the future hold? In short, more of the same. Trying to do more of it. Trying to do it better. I am optimistic that the Australian mainstage is moving in the right direction, even if the pace is sometimes a little slow. New generations have moved into leadership positions and those positions are turning over more frequently than they used to. The once yawning aesthetic chasm between the independent sector and the mainstage has all but closed. Sisters Grimm went from defacing the posters of the MTC to being in photoshoots for the same company in less than five years. Independent collectives like Little Ones Theatre, THE RABBLE, The Good Room, Belloo Creative, The Last Great Hunt, and Sport for Jove are providing a new engine for the whole sector, making the highest quality work on their own terms. The faces on stage are far less white than they were even five years ago. Since that Belvoir launch, the next generation of female directors have come to the fore: Bridget Boyle, Leticia Caceres, Caroline Dunphy, Sarah Giles, Sarah Goodes, Kat Henry, Adena Jacobs, Nescha Jelk, Lee Lewis, Rachael Maza, Paige Rattray, Anne Louise Sarks, Imara Savage, and Clare Watson to name a few. These women have created a significant percentage of the output of the Australian mainstage in the last few years (including most of the best shows), they have occupied associate roles, some are already Artistic Directors, and some soon will be.

All of this positive change notwithstanding, I think there are three areas of focus for the future:

  • Maintaining artist wellbeing. Companies are getting better at maintaining the physical and mental health of artists working for them through the creation of national codes of behaviour and dedicated human resources and company management roles. But we can do more to look after a workforce who are subject to extraordinary demands and for whom sustainability is a genuine challenge. At Queensland Theatre we are currently investigating a scheme through which we would take greater responsibility for the mental and physical health of performers, extending our efforts outside of when people are rehearsing or performing a show and into the whole Queensland industry.
  • Creating family friendly work practices. Anyone who has done a tech week with a toddler (I’ve done a few) can tell you that our industry can be especially challenging for people with families – a journalist once aptly used the term ‘structurally hostile’. This is changing and at companies like Queensland Theatre we are taking concrete steps to make our industry more family friendly. Even in the last few years I have seen advancements at a number of companies such as shifting the inherited norm of rehearsal hours to better accommodate family responsibilities.
  • Supporting mid-career artists. Our industry can be too obsessed with the new and the young. This means it’s harder to secure second and repeated jobs than it is your first. It also means the industry can have an unhelpful amnesia about what has gone before. Finally, it can lead to a drain of expertise from the industry at the very time when established artists are ready to make the profoundest contribution.

In conclusion, any process for artists to access a company will by definition be imperfect. We can mind it, but we will never completely close the gap between the huge number of good people and the tiny number of jobs. But anyone who has made theatre will know that striving for perfection is the point. So too with how we look after our most precious resource, the foundation on which everything is built: artists.

Sam Strong
About the Author
Sam Strong is currently the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre, and was previously Chair of Circa, Associate Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, Literary Associate at Belvoir, and Dramaturg in residence at Red Stitch. He has directed productions for Queensland Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Black Swan State Theatre Company, Belvoir, Griffin, Red Stitch and the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals.
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