What Does Your Theatre Company Do?

May 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

As we all know, Marion Potts is leaving the Malthouse. For those interested, applications to be the new Artistic Director close May 29. Love or loathe what Marion did in the role, there is no denying that she used her position to promote bodies of difference on the main stage: this season alone there are shows that explore gender, race and body shape – as well as the requisite explorations of theatrical form.

As applications roll in, and a fairly strong contender waits in the wings, we can only hope that whomever takes over the role continues the tradition of championing change in its myriad manifestations – a worthy aspiration, as Jane Howard recently pointed out. While there are, no doubt, numerous speculations about who will take over, the exit of one cultural character and the impending entrance of another brings with it a number of questions around the nature of artistic leadership itself; chief amongst them, for me, is: what does a theatre company do? Which leads to, what does my theatre company do?

For her faults, Marion had a clear objective coming into the role and saw it through. She brought with her an expertise in circus and cabaret, which was exhibited in Meow Meow and even Meme Girls. Projects with an international focus, such as The Good Person of Szechwan, Blood Wedding, and Die Winterreise provided an opportunity for audiences to explore other languages and influences, and shows such as The Shadow King and Blak Cabaret enabled indigenous artists to tell their stories.

In addition, she provided a home for a number of developing and emerging theatre makers; including, but not limited to, Lally Katz, Declan Greene, Anne-Louise Sarks, Adena Jacobs and Simon Stone. These people may well have developed their craft elsewhere, however, I imagine they would all be thankful for the opportunities made available to them at the Malthouse. There are numerous criticisms to be levelled at Marion Potts but it is difficult to argue that she did not stand by her initial intentions.

The Malthouse, as we now know it, is not the same as the company that began there. For those who came in late, it started its life as the Playbox, and it was dedicated to new Australian playwrights. In the early naughties this was deemed untenable and so it shifted focus, as it changed Artistic Director to Michael Kantor. These days you would have to look elsewhere in Australia for a company that is so dedicated to new Australian writing; The Griffin, in Sydney, currently holds that mantle. There are, of course, other companies, like MKA – theatre of new writing –, The Hayloft Project, The Rabble or Sisters Grimm, who are dedicated to new work but none of them has a permanent home.

Larger companies such as MTC or STC engage in cultivating new writing but must also navigate a number of other factors, including mission statements that promise to showcase the best international works, and you can hardly fault them for doing so. In Melbourne there is also the likes of Theatre Works, which curates a season that includes international work, and Red Stitch, which is, as it describes itself, an actor’s theatre, rather than a developmental home for new plays.

As someone who is interested in new Australian writing, I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to engage with and showcase new plays. Playwriting Australia does a tremendous job, but it is not a production company. Other people have a different approach to their craft and search out companies that suit their artistic sensibilities. The company you keep is essential in the theatre industry; your company is your family. Given that, theatres and those in charge of them have an immeasurable influence over the creative world around them.

This can, of course, lead to cliques and to a perception of an ‘in’ crowd; a deadly sentiment that can bring an end to creativity. And people will constantly complain about companies not doing what they think they should be doing. For example, I often lament that Melbourne does not have a theatre space dedicated to new Australian work. However, the reality is that companies constantly change their focus. One of the most thrilling aspects of the arts as an industry is how it remains in flux. These changes often come, unsurprisingly, with a change of leadership.

The shifts and fluctuations across the theatrical landscape demonstrate the importance of those leading the cultural conversation. The implications of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton taking over STC were seen not only in repertoire but also in subscribers – we wait to see the outcome of their leaving. Wesley Enoch is able to champion indigenous art through his tenure as Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company. And as Eamon Flack takes control of Belvoir we will no doubt see another theatrical reshuffle within the company – Ralph Myers had his own fans and critics.

I am not interested here in arguing the virtues or shortcomings of these people, or even the specifics of their actions, I merely bring them up to illustrate differences in artistic leadership and how that can bring with it structural changes in a company and a community. Furthermore, I want to draw attention to how these changes subsequently have an influence over younger practitioners – specifically, in which works get programed and who gets cultivated as an artist.

We often think that these organisations (particularly the larger ones) are fixed, that there is a specific output a company has, that expectations are always know and unchanging. You hear people saying, for example, ‘it was very MTC’ – whatever that means. But theatre companies are a moving feast of directors, writers, actors, designers, producers and so on. These practitioners are the ones that can take the lead on cultural change – otherwise, what is their theatre company doing? Is entertainment enough?

Which leads us back to the initial questions; what does a theatre company do? What does my theatre company do? We should ask ourselves these questions constantly and revaluate our artistic output; without this critical view, the industry becomes petrified, or, at least, is shooting in the dark. As theatre companies change artistic director we must ask – and the newly incumbent leader will be expected to answer – what is it that we’re doing here? It’s a worthy question and I ask you, what work does your theatre company do?

This article first appeared in Theatre People

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