Vital Signs: Melbourne’s Independent Theatre Scene in 2018

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Sydney’s got the beach and Melbourne’s got the culture, right?

Funny how tired that sounds today, doesn’t it? Sydney’s arts scene is thriving and, when you consider the massive contribution coming out of MONA in Hobart for example, it’s obvious that Australia is a very different place to what it was even 15 years ago.

But Melbourne has long enjoyed a flourishing cultural life with a strong independent scene, and still offers an enviable variety of activities for foodies and fashionistas alike.

We have energetic, exciting performance companies, galleries, laneways full of bars, fashion, food and finery…and, well, interesting weather. In the very least it encourages a variety of outfits!

We also have a subscription culture. For many years we’ve been blessed with independent radio like 3RRR and 3MBS long before alternative radio was even a thing elsewhere.

And it’s this willingness to nurture the things we believe in, to put our money where our tastes lie, that really energises our arts and performance scene.

People go out of an evening; they actually leave their houses and 65 inch screens behind, check out an installation or a show, a festival, street party, and maybe book in to a highly recommended restaurant as well.

And they’ll probably be a subscriber or a donor to at least one of the cultural events they attend. Victoria is traditionally associated with a high number of big name foundations and has always had the biggest percentage of people claiming tax deductions for giving – even though NSW, the more populous state, is now catching up in a big way.

Apart from sheer population size, Melbourne has all the best attributes of major international cities like New York and London with major companies and many, many independent venues living comfortably side by side.

 

Who are the Independents?

(Olga Makeeva, Chrissy O’Neill and Jo Petruzzi rehearsing Right Now by Canadian playwright, Catherine-Ann Toupin)

In Melbourne, state funded organisations and a host of grassroots companies are all vying for our attention. In theatre, 2017 was another bumper year for small to medium companies with independents featuring heavily in all categories of the annual Green Room Awards.

Small theatre companies have shot up over the years. In 2018 you could easily be visiting a Melbourne Theatre Company or Malthouse production or, just as likely, catching a show in one of many tidy little spaces featuring companies like The Rabble, Lightning Jar, New Working Group, Riot Stage, Four Larks or Red Stitch.

45 Downstairs, La Mama, The Darebin Council’s new venue, The North Melbourne Town Hall, The Lawler at Southbank and many other stages also regularly program new ‘independent’ work as part of a curated season.

However, many of the smaller companies, lacking their own venue or a consistent income stream, tend to survive for only as long as their original creative driving forces are involved. Understandably, there are limits to living without an adequate and predictable income.

Melbourne’s ‘vibrant’ independent scene exists largely through the artists who effectively subsidise the industry. Hardly the picture of health we like to present to the world.

 

The Tradition of Giving

(Red Stitch Artistic Director, Ella Caldwell)

When artist-run theatre company, Red Stitch, arrived in 2002 the newly-formed ensemble’s stated aim was to be truly independent. Not ‘fringe’ (the buzzword of the time). Not just ‘new Australian writing’. This company was going to be about great new plays and great performances. It would have its own venue, curate its own season of work and survive on box office, philanthropic and subscription income. That way, the artists themselves (and, effectively, their audiences) would truly be in charge of the work presented.

The focus, for this new company, would be to remain independent of the conditions attached to government funding and the remit of community venues. Instead, the actors and creatives in the company would search far and wide for local and international work that they felt would truly excite them and their audiences.

And so an incredible new subscription-based Melbourne cultural organisation was born. With little or no administrative support, all the actors and crew within the newly formed ensemble were required to contribute to artistic decisions, office work, set building, front of house, promotions and venue management. From a modest 30 seat venue in 2002 the company now resides in an 85 seat building in East St Kilda.

Over the years some government support has kicked in – especially for touring projects and script development – and there has even been limited federal funding for a few years (2009-15). However, most of that funding gets tied up in growing administrative and production expenses – an inevitable consequence of maintaining a safe and functional workplace.

The company now receives approximately $30-40k annually from local government programs, $80k from state government and, with federal government funding cut by the Australia Council in 2016, the reliance on philanthropy is now greater than ever.

As it happened, 2016 was also the year Red Stitch was formulating a new donor program called ‘Kindred’. The great hope of Artistic Director, Ella Caldwell, is to establish Kindred as a mainstay of Red Stitch’s funding.

“It was so lucky that (Kindred) was already there in place when the funding cut happened…Just having established the dialogue with our supporters and building those relationships. So it didn’t just come out of nowhere…it’s a huge focus for us.

“It really aligns with the view of our chairman and board that we never rely on ‘discretionary’ funding because they can just pull you at any time. And (with philanthropy) it’s more based on the quality of the work being presented than ticking some abstract KPI’s…”  (Ella Caldwell, Red Stitch Artistic Director)

Given the annual turnover of the company is now pushing $1m it’s really remarkable it has survived so well and for so long.

 

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

(Zoe Boesen in the Green Room nominated Red Stitch production of The Moors by Jen Silverman, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo)

And, while the stated objective of Red Stitch is to prioritise increasing the financial reward to its artists every year, they each only take away about $3k for roughly 10 weeks of rehearsal and performance.

If an ensemble member is not working on a show directly, they’re supporting the company doing production tasks and front of house duties. The company maintains that it’s this personal, direct relationship with audiences that inspires loyalty and connection.

Actor’s survive, stitching together a meagre income elsewhere from part time jobs, occasional voiceovers and guest roles on commercial TV. Most become Red Stitch ensemble members because it’s a genuine way to dedicate yourself to the profession and be the master of your own creative destiny. It’s a welcome change from being totally at the whim of TV producers and a great way to be seen doing truly amazing work.

But it’s not that easy when you have to collectively plan some 12 months ahead to guarantee subscription income and hope that employment circumstances will allow you to perform in the wonderful plays you help to program. In the independent scene performers are usually the last to be paid, and at Red Stitch it’s always been an equal payment for every cast and creative. No stars here.

Kindred Spirits

So, for Red Stitch to survive, the key is tapping into Melbourne’s culture of giving whilst maintaining a loyal subscriber base (some 33% of its audiences). Which means continuing to find exciting new work and rewarding audiences with powerful, intimate theatre on a fraction of the budget of the major state companies.

And growing box office. There are big plans to get the company into bigger venues at least for some part of the year but that means maintaining a delicate balance between leasing a viable performance space that is still small enough to support new and unusual work. History is littered with theatre companies who have dropped off a cliff when they were forced to abandon the things that made them great.

“Hopefully 2018 will be another big year for donations and for our Kindred program, – as well as a new benevolent scheme that we’re putting together. But, for now, even though we’re constrained by the size of our venue on really successful shows, there’s still some capacity in the season to target as well as remounts and tours…” (Ella Caldwell, Red Stitch Artistic Director)

As Red Stitch enters its 16th year, it appears Melbourne’s independent spirit is still alive and kicking!

Find out more about Kindred

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Book Tickets to Right Now by Catherine-Ann Toupin

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