THEATRE WORKS: A Playhouse for the People

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Daniel Clarke, Creative Producer and Chief Executive Officer of Theatre Works, St Kilda’s independent theatre company, is very clear as to what his main role is in the organization: ‘I am not here to produce my own work. I am here, primarily, to encourage and help other artists to create, develop and stage original material. And encouraging local artists is a very important part of that.’

This philosophy lies at the heart of much of what Theatre Works does as a creative organization, too.

Theatre works is located at along Acland Street in St Kilda.

As one of the country’s most important independent theatre companies, its primary focus is on presenting innovative, contemporary theatre by reputable ensembles from around the country. But Daniel and the current creative management team want to do more than that, they want to strengthen its ties to the local community too.

It hopes to do this, not only by coming up with interesting and varied programs for local audiences, but also by turning Theatre Works into more of a community theatre: a place where local artists can develop and stage new ideas and where people in the area can become more actively involved in the process of theatre-making.

This kind of community theatre is nothing new to Theatre Works. In fact, you could say that this was the main reason it was created in the first place. It was established in 1980 by writer, Hannie Rayson, as part of a scheme of the Victorian College of the Arts to encourage students to set up their own companies and take theatre out to the suburbs.

And that is just what they did. The ensemble became the Eastern Suburbs Community Theatre, and renamed Theatre Works soon after. It became a kind of experimental travelling theatre, putting on performances and workshops at schools and community centres, as well as creating original work to be performed in places other than the traditional theatre house.

Productions such as The Go Anywhere Show and Paul Davis’ ground-breaking play Storming Mont Albert By Tram, a play that takes place on a Melbourne tram, and which was staged in one, helped to secure the company a reputation for being innovative and for succeeding at their primary goal of taking theatre to the people.

With the move, in 1985, to Christ Church Parish Hall, in Acland Street, St Kilda, Theatre Works continued to build on their reputation. The group began to focus more on producing their own work, but continued with the original concept of taking theatre to local audiences by creating work that could be staged in various locations in the area.

Paul David’s play Living Rooms, for example, was staged at Linden House, now the home of Linden Gallery. Fabulous Tales from the Horse’s Mouth, by Ken Harper, was performed at the St Kilda Botanical Gardens.

It was from 1988 onwards, perhaps, that Theatre Works began a more traditional trajectory.

Under the artistic direction of Caz Howard, Paul Davies and Wolfgang Wittwer, the plays that were created in this period, such as Hairpin Bends: The Rise and Fall of the New Woman, by Caz Howard and Susie Fraser, and Tes Lyssiotis’ The White Sports Coat, a pioneering work about the experiences of Greek migrants in Melbourne, were intended to increase the appeal of theatre to a larger section of the public by dealing with the experiences of people who had existed on the margins, if at all, of more traditional theatre.

Increasingly, the work was being created under a more traditional method of actors working with a director and set designer to produce work to be staged at the Parish Hall theatre house.

This was, perhaps, even more the case during the 90’s, under the artistic direction of the Robert Draffin. He introduced a program of works, such as the Madman, Blackman, Fatman trilogy, works based on the characters of Rigoletto, Othello and Falstaff, that was intensely experimental and a critical success. But, it seemed that company was moving even further away from its original goal of engaging more of the community in theatre.

In the event, the cost of putting on such creatively ambitious projects exceeded the funds the company was able to attract. Difficult decisions had to be made quickly to save it from financial collapse. The board decided the company had to scale down on the number of its own productions and make the theatre available for other groups to perform.

The decision compromised the company artistically. While good work continued to be performed, including that of the two groups in residence, Born In A Taxi and Rawcus, the creative management had little control over what was performed.

Draffin resigned. Audience numbers slipped. Theatre groups began to take their work elsewhere.

This lull in creativity, however, had its advantages. It gave management the opportunity to use what funds they could get to improve the structure of the building and the facilities. It invested in better lighting equipment and a new seating bank.

In 2003, the board negotiated funding from Arts Victoria and the City of Port Phillip, allowing them, once again, to have more say as to what was put on. It began to attract a better quality of theatre groups, such as Mayhem Cabaret and Theatre in Decay, to perform.

And, just as importantly, it began to work with local community theatre groups, such as Victorian aboriginal group Ilbijerri and local youth group project Tribes of St Kilda. It also began to put on works as part the Fringe, Comedy and Midsumma festivals.

Daniel likes the idea of Theatre Works going back to its roots. His training as a director and producer has involved working extensively in professional community theatre, and I sense that he rather enjoys it. ‘I like the idea’ he says ‘of theatre professionals working with members of the community to create work. I’d like to see the local community engaged in the creative process of theatre in their local playhouse.’

Since joining Theatre Works, Daniel has been working hard to realize that vision. The management has increased from one to three staff members, giving them more time to spend on harnessing artistic talent and developing new programs.

‘I’d like build Theatre Works into the sort of place where artists feel free to come to us with an idea that they want to develop from scratch. If it’s an idea that we consider worthy of development, we will guide them though the writing process, put them together with people with whom they could work in partnership, or show them how to go about funding the project. We will do this, even if the final product doesn’t end up on our stage.

Theatre Works neither wants to, nor can afford to, restrict itself to working only with emerging artists. ‘But,’ says Daniel, ‘we want to make it clear that the services we provide are open to all artists, not just to those that are established.’

And to make sure it’s accessible to everyone, it intends to offer generous terms for the use of the theatre and at the box office. The Parish Hall is one of the largest spaces available to any independent theatre group in Melbourne, and they can afford to offer it at very reasonable rates.

‘Not having the expense of putting on our own work, means that we can use the funds we get to help others by keeping production costs to a minimum.’

‘Depending on the type of project,’ he goes on to say, ‘we may allow artists to hire the hall, provide them with some technical support and the use of a publicist for free, and then do a split of the box office takings between us.’

And Daniel is open to dealing with artists who are keen to experiment with new theatrical forms and take artistic risks. ‘I like encouraging people to find different ways of presenting a story. The size of the theatre here means that we can experiment with larger scale projects, and because the seating banks can be moved around, we have a degree of flexibility to how a work is presented.’

So, expect to see more theatre-in-the-round, more work in the style of immersive installations – using wrap-around wall projections, sound effects and music to tell stories – more dance and cabaret.

And Daniel is excited by a return to the original idea of Theatre Works taking performances out of the theatre house. The One-on-One Festival, due to take place in 2013, will bring together one actor and one member of the public to create theatre that will take place in restaurants, cafés, hotels and other locations around St Kilda and the surrounding areas.

There are, of course, financial limitations to the sort of program that Theatre Works wants to present. Like most other independent theatre companies, this one can’t rely on box-office takings alone, or even on the money it recoups from hiring out the theatre.

The popularity of some of its recent programs, such as those in the Midsumma Festival, for example, is helping at the box office and the company intends work with other commercially successful festivals, such as the Comedy and Cabaret festivals. They are also working toward more private sponsorship and philanthropy.

For the time being, however, Theatre Works is restricted by a budget that relies fairly heavily on government subsidies that have to be justified. It’s a precarious situation to be in, especially during economic downturns. This unavoidable fact, however, has to be considered when thinking about how creative the company can be.

But Daniel seems confident that they can continue to be experimental and receive government subsidies – as long as the audiences keep coming.

And that’s the other difficulty: how to attract as large an audience of regular punters in the area as possible. ‘We don’t have a very big budget for marketing.’ Daniel says. ‘That makes it difficult to let potential audiences know what we are putting on – even to let them know that we’re here can be tricky.’

‘St Kilda’s transient population’ he goes on to say, ‘makes it hard to gauge who will constitute the bulk of our audiences over the coming years and what they are likely to want to see. That can make putting together future programs difficult.’

Then there is the problem of overcoming the natural resistance of audiences to seeing new material, or work that seems too experimental. ‘I guess that it’s important to emphasize that the theatre you’re presenting is of high quality.’ says Daniel.

‘I think that as long as audiences know that the standard of the production is high, they’re generally happy to come along,’ he says.

Despite the difficulties, Daniel hopes to encourage local audiences to come to Theatre Works with an open mind and be willing to experience theatre in as many forms as possible.

And not just as passive consumers of theatre, either. There are plans to open up the theatre for open rehearsals, so that people can come along to observe how the productions that they’re coming to see are put together. And, he hopes that with programs such as the ‘One on One’, audiences can feel they can become more involved with the process of making theatre.

Theatre Works, like other small, independent theatre companies, faces some tough times ahead. No matter what the difficulties may be, though, Daniel and the team will strive to retain strong links with the people of St Kilda. And if Daniel’s conviction is anything to go by, no doubt they will succeed.

Square Peg’s production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty runs until June 17. Redroom Theatre’s Himmelweg, by Juan Mayorga, will run between June 21st and July 1st. Tickets for the July-December season will be available from July 1st.

By Angel Torrijos

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