Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Are all Actors Liars?

First Posted on this artical outraged many of the Aussietheatre chat room community. The main outrage was that it was thought that I was one “not to be crossed” when relating a story (a true story) about an actor I know who lied about where he was trained to get a foot in the door of some auditions. Anyone, who knows me, has worked with me or has had dinner or coffee with me knows that I really don’t care about training institutions at all… but I do care about honesty. This mis-interpretation by an aussietheatre chat room punter, really made me realise how poorly some comprehend what they read, and thus inspired me to finish up writing for that particular readership.

Read more

Should Artistic directors direct most of their theatre’s Shows?

First published 2007

Imagine a world where no one was allowed to be an artistic director of a theatre company for more than 5 years. Imagine a place where artistic directorships were voted on by actors and crew. Imagine where the job security, superannuation  and safety  enjoyed by the current artistic director does not exist. How would this change the landscape of our current theatre scene?

What if the Artistic director’s artistry was in choosing other artists to make other scripts come to life? Some theatre’s seem to be under a tyranny of samey-sameness… as I like to put it… and yes, there are some new bright NIDA faces to add to the weather beaten director-ly ruts of the established theatre scene… but it all seems like a massive artistic case of déjà vu. Same, same, not different.

If you only had 5 years as an artistic director what would you program, how would you do it? What would the legacy be? Its sort of a similar question to “if you were on a desert island with only 3 books which books would they be?” or (my favourite question at the moment) “if you got paid $150,000 every year for the rest of your life, what would you do with your life?” Those who say “travel”
forget that they could run out of places to travel to… just as those who respond to the artistic directorship question say “I’d program classics or musicals” .. forget that they are a finite source …. If artistic directors had 5 years: one shot to get it right and leave a legacy, what do you suppose would change?

What if an artistic director handed all the creative ownership of the pieces over to directors, writer and actors who controlled the pieces? What if Ms Nevin never directed nor performed in an STC production. Would the choices of plays and casting change? What if Mr Armfield chose the directors to direct all the Belvoir pieces (In the same way Ms Wallace does)? What would these major companies produce? Who tells the artistic director that they are being self indulgent in “hogging” all the plays and all the roles? Who stands up and says “perhaps its not all about you and what you can do?”

I have never worked in a main stage theatre. I don’t know how it works… but this is how it seems to me. That the artistic directors choose what they want to do… and keep themselves in work.

Well I must say that I am very thrilled with one Sydney based theatre company at the moment… just on the basis of its choice to choose a non director as its artistic director… this seems to have changed the very dynamic of the theatre itself. Nick Marchand is a playwright. And I can say that from my perspective he is doing as an artistic director should, look forward and work hard.  None of his scripts have been programmed in this first year, and in fact he seems so engrossed and fascinated with the task of choosing and balancing the selection of plays, that he appears quite ego-less about it.

And from my outsiders perspective I find it refreshing that the artist director is not merely there to stamp their name over the season or to wield a fist of fury in justification of “I have arrived and its mine… all mine!!!!!!” Instead I think Marchand has handled his first 6 months I his new job with wonderful grace and dexterity.. and a huge amount of balance. And I am very surprised and grateful for the diversity and the fresh perspective on new writing he has introduced to the landscape of Australian theatre. Perhaps one can’t run a theatre company to its maximum effectiveness if one is involved in every show? But a clear and empassioned overview, such as Marchand’s may just be what the doctor ordered!

In the Company of Actors

First Published 200:

I arrived at the state theatre on Thursday in a taxi. My work colleague and I were a couple of the few full time workers who were able to skip out of work for 3 hours to indulge in the Sydney Film Festival screening of a new documentary on the Sydney Theatre Company’s New York Production of Andrew Upton’s Hedda Gabbler.

Ticket in hand and without snacks I found my seat next to a delicately elderly woman who enjoyed telling me that I didn’t need to worry about the seat allocations. (I am so theatre sometimes I cringe at myself : this film-going octogenarian was so much cooler than I am! I am a complete dag!) And I nestled in after a brief chat to a very lovely director I am working with at the moment and dodging a few actors of yester-year I have known.

Under the sleepy cover of darkness I waited and watched as the film unfolded. I know you all heard how it went. It was a complete and utter fantasy.

Cate Blanchett described about the “dangerous” nature of theatre. How it is visceral and real and immediate. Of course throughout the medium of film this means a whole lot of nothing, just as a celebrity TV chef telling us how wonderful the meal they are preparing smells, nearly feels like a lie. The medium of film did nothing for the theatrical nature of the piece.

I have not known theatre to be so sanitized. I think there was a smattering of expletives… all courtesy of Hugo Weaving… but it was a friendly and sweet and non swearing rehearsal from what I could tell.. and the most interesting and most stressful situation in the whole thing was actually Robin Nevin trying to use the subway ticket machine: a real human moment for someone as formidable as she!

I don’t think it was about actors.. or rehearsal or theatre. Its seemed more of a corporate video for the STC. It should have been called “In the company of a very well resourced theatre Company” or “You want it , you got it” because that’s what it seemed like… “oh dear, you need a higher set coz it will look silly in the New York space? We’ll build it for you, Robin Nevin! No worries! And I’ll get paid and have all the materials I need and a crew to help!” and “Oh,.. you need to be dressed for a scene change do you Ms Blanchett? You got it! Happy to help!” or  “Need your name on a coffee mug so you don’t drink out of someone else’s by mistake, Mr Weaving? You got it!” How I laugh at this notion!

How I cringe at Ms Nevin as she explains to the documentary makers how theatre literate the New Yorker Theatre goers are…  and I think.. If they are so literate.. why didn’t you take  a classic Aussie play to them? Ham Funeral? Coralie Landsdowne Says No? Even  the great Aussie spectacle Robbery Under Arms? Why Ibsen? Why previously ‘The White Devil?”

No. Sorry. I don’t buy it. Sorry, this isn’t theatre at its most dangerous! It’s theatre at its most comfortable and bourgeois and most predictable! I wonder what it would be like for Ms Nevin now… to work in under resourced and ill-equiped Sydney or Melbourne independent cutting edge theatre spaces. I would watch TV if there was a reality TV show or documentary on that! I would PAY to see that!!!!!! But perhaps as a young woman she was seen with a hammer in hand.. a paint brush smearing the last scrapings of the paint that has to cover the wall before we leave at 2am tonight.. perhaps she was up a ladder helping the crew , back before she was the queen of Australian Theatre? Gee I’d love to see that though… wouldn’t you?

Actors are brave and vulnerable and wild and manic and funny and strange and suspicious. Also they break. They snap, they demand they cry and yell. This title gives no insight into actors. Or what it’s like. Or who they are. Or what being amongst them is like. It just feels like a poorly produced movie with no plot and doesn’t show theatre as it is… but a Stepford Wives version: that feels like Low calorie sweetener on my tongue.

The Producer

First published2007

I have spent since early April developing and producing a week of new one act plays. I have hired a theatre space, bought public liability insurance and selected 9 scripts (with the help of a producer/actor Helen Stuart), I have found directors, actors, and people to be involved. It’s a roller coaster though.. and at each moment of doubt something wonderful happens… the other day I was having a hard time with a script and out of the blue an amazingly wonderful thing happened. Larry Kelly a lighting designer called me and offered his services and lights. I was gearing up the courage to ask him… but he heard I was going to be looking… and he called first. Amazing, generous guy. And a laugh too!

The premise of this week is to offer people who are in between shows, or have a small project they want to test or develop an opportunity to show themselves what they can do. Last Sunday I had the directors and writers meet at my house, with a afternoon tea under the frangipani tree in my back yard. Tea, coffee, a fruit platter, cheeses and Portuguese tarts on a table. One of the directors turned up early and watched as I put a large bunch of white lilies, iris and velvet-red snapdragons on the table. And she said something along the lines of, “why are you fussing with that, we are just a bunch of out of work bums.” That’s not how I see them. I think are and deserve the best. They work hard, will be working hard and without them, theatre would be monochromatic and dull.

It’s not a competition. It’s the opposite, it’s for people to make connections, do the work they want to do, to meet and appreciate, to suggest actors, to share resources. I am putting up all the money to get the shows up and I hope to cover costs. If we do, great. If we don’t that’s fine aswell because at least we had a red hot go… at least we dared to do it ourselves. And if I lose money, but I had a great time, learnt a lot about my peers, the process and producing.. I think that’s worth it, don’t you?

If everyone’s a critic, who knows best?

First published: MAY 19 2007

So the box office phone is running off the hook… and your show is over booked…People are busting to get in to see it. Actors peak nervously from behind he curtain or piece of set that has been hurriedly bashed into being… the reviewer is in… yep, the reviewer who is one of half a dozen opinion typists in tomorrow’s budgie cage liner…. And everyone waits. Baited breath. Waiting and wondering… what will he/she think? Will he/she like it?

There’s a thing that happens to some actors when they know a certain person is in the audience. It is also the same static electricity which develops as a result of a famous director/actor being in the room… or the same feeling when you have an un-quenchable crush on someone and you know they don’t even know your name, but you wish they did because they are lovely and I only they knew …if only they… sorry off the point there….

The Industry Peer
I was stage managing a show last year, and I was told by front of house that a particularly impressive industry person would be in the audience. A person, that it might be better if I told the actors… just in case. So on the half hour, I strolled around to the dressing rooms and told one dressing room full of actors the fact that “the grand dame” was in the house tonight. An actor thanked me, replied “thanks, good to know.” One actor barely blinked and asked if the “comp for his wife was ok…” Another actor asked how big was the rest of the house was for tonight because he was hoping that the industry peer could get a good seat. Then I went to the other dressing room, where another actor, on the verge of soapie stardom, burst into a blue fit of expletives at me. Raging “why had told him, did I want to ruin his performance!?!” I quietly and calmly replied that some people like to know, as “the grand dame” often sits in the front row and is slightly conspicuous due to her bright grey hair. I replied “Which would he prefer, being forewarned or surprised whilst on stage to find her right there front left?” I guess by his reaction that he would prefer I was dead, that the grand dame was invisible and that he was an accountant. To each their own.

The Critic
Some nights, the critic is in. A critic who may be from an internet website, a newspaper, a university rag.. Perhaps one who is often seen with a pipe, perhaps a silver haired be-spectacled note taker, perhaps a half baked punter, or a wine guzzling fanatic.. Whoever it is, the critic enters a theatre and the dynamic changes. The air sizzles. It crackles with the threat of a doomed review.

Can it be that after 4-6 weeks in rehearsal the fragility of the performer is dipped in the directors silver plating only to be worn away by the suggestion of a critic? The actors are rehearsed up, they know their lines, they have a director and a stage manager and possibly a producer, production manager and crew supporting them, helping them, believing in them… (in independent theatre: often doing all this for FREE!) They are ready. They are emotionally prepared…

But when a critic enters: One person with one perspective: I can change everything. Everything is reassessed, the heat is on. Its make or break time. The critic may have had a bad day. The critic may be hungry/cold/ sleepy/ suffering from bronchitis and they are ready to judge the whole performance. Ready to critique and put in writing that which can be re-read. Re-digested. Cut out, put in scrap books… that which can be quoted, that which is written in indelible ink. And suddenly nothing the director has said may make any difference. It’s up to the actor to do it. Get the job done. At least tonight. Get it right. Watch it!

The Audience
Let put this out there right here and now: EVERYONE’S A CRITIC. Everyone feels they can/ should write reviews. Some may not write well researched or articulate, inventive or exciting reviews. But they think they can, because everyone has an opinion about theatre. And everyone should. There should be a dialogue.. And that means that people may disagree. So should the Critic be more important than the punters opinion? I don’t think so. Sometimes, and yes this does happen, the theatre’s ticket sales absolutely don’t reflect the review. A wonderful review and no one sees it: it happens. Everyone sees it in spite of the review: yep, that also happens. Your mum, your colleague, neighbour and a random guy on a date sees your show.. and some like it some don’t. Would you change all of it to suit everyone? Would you try to satisfy everyone: The woman who only likes Rogers and Hammerstein, the neo punk princess, the corporate sponsor, the part time English teacher, your brother’s mate who is there incase there is free booze, the wannabe actor who dresses like a sparkling cupcake? HOW? How are you going to please them all?

So actors/theatre people… do your best, you know when things are a bit crappy. That’s fine, acknowledge it an try to remedy it. You are allowed to have an off night. But try your hardest, be clear of your intention and always aim to communicate. Not everyone will like you or your show. Not everyone will see your show. That’s fine too. You’ll be ok as long as you do all you can and are capable of making it the best it can be. No ones perfect.. and everyone’s a critic, so take what you want from the critics and your friends and neighbours and remember: at least you are being talked about!

If a play is on in a theatre and nobody goes to see it…

First Published: May 12 2007

Curious to hear what non theatre goers think of theatre, I asked a tradesman friend what he thought. He furrowed his brow, chewed his lip and replied “Isn’t the theatre where people practice acting before they’re in a movie?”

I think a common misconception is that theatre is the “poor cousin” to film. That people train in theatre (the safe place where no one can see you fail and can’t record your failure)… but the aim is to be in film… and that being in television is a stepping stone to the ultimate: the Hollywood Film. Yes, glorious glossy, red lipped film: with its glitter star doors and directors in cravat and megaphones and its multimillion dollar budgets. Film: With its “film is forever” quality.

Once upon a time, I was so hard-core about the theatre that I refused to see film. (Yes, now I am sounding a little weird) I absolutely would not go the cinema, sighting it was full of nattering teenagers throwing popcorn at each other and snogging each other in between noisy slurps of post-mix coke a cola. I thought that the majority of film was Gwyneth Paltrow being paltry. I thought that film was this rich spoilt brat who didn’t work hard for its audience. I was all about theatre… theatre that emotionally draining, insatiable mistress of the “now”. All about the magic of sitting down and wondering “how did they do that?” and marveling at the actors remembering all their lines… and watching the stories take their unexpected turns. This reaction was based on an assumption that theatre and film fulfill similar functions. That one fulfills that function better than the other does. That one has more intrinsic worth.

One friend of a friend in Canada, relayed an argument about the theatre and film debate he had with a person who was (and I guess still is…) completely devoted to the theatre. The argument went along the lines of “No matter what you do and create there will be a finite number of people you will reach as there is a limited time period and a limited number of seats to fill. Film, on the other hand is for all people… people who are everywhere and all across the world. No matter what you do, you’ll never be as well known as me.” And thus the theatre director looked at the film director and became sad. In fact spiraled into a “what am I doing all this work for if only a few people will see it?”-kind of spiral… a spiral which leads to larger unanswerable questions about your place in the universe that may take years, a gnostic yogi, a mumbling prophet and a lifetime of mung beans to work out.

Well its true.

The film director is right. More people may see his work. But is that the value you put on what you do? What is the point? What is the value?

I think the value is different for different people. And despite the strength of film’s “longevity” over theatre: theatre still exists and has for thousands of years. In fact, I am sure that theatre was invented before film because there may be a bit of an Occupational Health and Safety issue if men in togas had to run around the set making films. Theatre is a much more toga friendly environment.

Theatre is an active medium and as such it is not a safe place. It really needs an audience. A lot is at risk: money, reputation and self esteem. And I guess the same is in film too… except the film actor is not nervously preparing backstage or in the greenroom repeatedly asking the stage manager how many people have booked or in the audience.

Theatre is in the same realm of film because it falls under the umbrella of “entertainment”… but so does a day at the cricket or an afternoon at the zoo… but that does not mean it should be cursed to a life of comparison… and perhaps it should stop being viewed as a quaint antique form of entertainment: a form which was only important coz screens weren’t invented yet. It is and of itself a worthwhile pursuit. And I’ll give you a few reasons why:

1. We are saturated by technology, phones, ipods, internet, computers … and the invention of the blackberry has made us available to be connected (bothered by other people) 24hours a day. Theatre gives us a break from interfacing with screens and others. It allows us to turn off our phones for an hour or two and escape the outside demands: allowing us to search inside ourselves: within.
2. It allows us to connect with new ideas, that aren’t our own. Ideas that may not tickle the fancy o a Hollywood producer with money and celebrities on their hands. It gives us a view of something new. A view of ourselves or other people in an immediate way. A way which we reach out an grab and absorb as fast as we can, so resonates within.
3. It forces us to see the work of the actor. And appreciate that acting is hard… it’s not about models on stage reciting lines, or celebrity. It is about story and character which can’t exist without the actor.

I have a few more reasons… which I may share with you some other time… In the meantime remember: theatre is not the poor cousin of film or the training ground for celebrities. It is an art within itself. And all art is important (even film!) Theatre is to sculpture as paintings are to film… and why don’t we enjoy them all?

FEATURE: Spreading like Wildfire

It was Sandra Stockley’s bright spark, which ignited Wildfire Theatre Company less than a year ago… and there is no shortage of theatrical fodder to fuel the flames. Despite her sophisticated and calm demeanour, Stockley’s passion for theatre is anything but. As an actor, frustrated by working on other people’s projects and tired of waiting for shows to materialize, Stockley took matters into her own hands and began to develop a theatre company which would allow her to call the shots: to choose the projects, to enable her to approach people she is interested in collaborating with to create a unique, imaginative theatrical experience.

Inspired by her performance training and experience in Europe, Stockley hopes to bring Sydney (and eventually Australian) audiences access to performance styles and approaches to theatre that are not necessarily regularly taught in Australian training institutions. “A lot of [theatre] spaces [in Sydney] do not lend themselves to the type of physical based theatre I have experienced in say, France… because the spaces here are so intimate the style of theatre has a closeness, more like television, than theatre.” Stockley, between sips of peppermint tea, speaks about the need to create work which exists “outside of the normal world” and which contains ideas that embrace large scale spectacle and “explode the inside, out.” It is easy to see that her ideas are ambitious and invigorated with an aesthetic embracing adventure and imagination.

Earlier this year Wildfire Theatre Company presented Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane directed by Maeliosa Stafford at The Seymour Centre which was greeted with critical acclaim. The review from the Daily Telegraph stated:
“Just when independent theatre was looking jaded along comes this little gem of a production. It’s an auspicious debut for the newly formed Wildfire Theatre, which has opened with the kind of taut theatre we would all love to see more often.” A precedent which has set the bar high for Wildfire Theatre Company’s next production: the scottish play.

Transferring techniques she experienced as a performer in France with École de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and her training with Philippe Genty and in London with Theatre de Complicite, Stockley has turned her hand to directing Wildfire Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth, opening at The Cell Block Theatre this Friday. Relaying this style and aesthetic to the cast of Macbeth has been a wonderful “artistic challenge” to face and is made easy by her ”hugely talented” cast.  Her bravery mounting a show as large as Macbeth in a space not regularly used as a theatre is impressive. When I ask her about the magnitude of this, her Australian directorial debut, she seems genuinely at home, “having previously played Lady Macbeth in 2000 I felt extremely comfortable with the text, with the language and the characters and how to cut it.”

With a dedicated cast and a passionate crew including Set Designer Barry French and costume designer Clare de Mayo, Stockley talks freely about her collaborative process directing Macbeth, and also about “managing the ideas and the experience and keeping the reigns on the play , especially working with a cast who haven’t worked together for a long time trying to get your ideas across to people who have not ever seen a show like the one you are trying to create it is a real challenge… especially when everyone has an idea about what the meaning of the play is or what acting is.” Drawing on her experience on the other side of the footlights, Stockley’s directorial process is composed not necessarily of the process she does have, but rather processes which she refuses to have. Having experience as an actor, she is aware of the particular and unique qualities actors bring to a text and also the fragility and difficulty actors face sometimes in auditions and in rehearsals. Armed with this knowledge, having had the shoe on the other foot, she says she appreciates directors in a different light. “ Directors are always on, they don’t have any breaks, and they are holding the reigns for the whole show, even if there is a break in rehearsal the costume designer might have a question about this, or the designer wants to know about that…” It is clear that Sandra Stockley, is “on” and will continue to be “on” in many capacities as Wildfire grows in her wake.

Feature: Bumming with Tahli Corin

It’s a week out from opening night when I meet Tahli Corin and its clear she hasn’t been bumming around. Bright-eyed, effervescent with excitement and anticipation, she tells me the story of how she came to be a writer, and how it happened that the first play she has written has landed safely in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir St… and it is a sweet tale that stretches over two years which involves a little chance, a need to avoid watching film, a gin and tonic in Hong Kong and a poem by Charles Bukowski called “Bumming with Jane.”

Trained as an actor in Adelaide, Corin spent some time with a touring children’s show (Monkey Baa theatre) before taking matters into her own hands. Admitting that often actors are at the mercy of the tastes and decisions of others Corin admits she is “far too impatient” to let projects she wants to be involved with find her and so made a decision to write a play. Using playwriting as a means to escape the steady film diet her partner was consuming as a part of an AFTRS screenwriting course, Corin was delighted to discover the liberation that comes from being able to call her own shots… “to create without asking permission.”

Corin freely admits that to produce a show you must really love it. That the energy and time and effort it takes to put on a show must be worth it…

For two years Corin worked on her play… confessing that in the long term love affair with the characters and story of “Bumming with Jane”, hasn’t always been easy. As with all relationships there were moments of reckoning. Whilst touring, she locked her self away in her room in Margaret River with a bottle of wine and as she wrestled with the characters who “were not doing as they were told” which turned out to be “a good weekend of not much love but good cheese.” Using her back ground as an actor she set to work on the script making sure that the “action was present and characters were as clear as I could make them.”

And how did the play end up with its premiere at the Downstairs Belvoir Theatre? After submitting the play, Corin was in Hong Kong where she met up with Belvoir St Theatre’s Artistic Associate, Eamon Flack who also happened to be in town and somehow over a gin and tonic they discussed the possibility of having the show as a part of the B Sharp Season.

Corin cites director Kellie Mackereth, recent NIDA graduate as a wonderful person to collaborate with on “Bumming with Jane”. After seeing Kelly’s production of Lunch by Steven Berkoff in the 2007 NIDA Directors showcase, Corin knew that Kelly was the director she wanted working on the project. “The actors seemed to be enjoying themselves” and that was the kind of working environment she envisioned for the actors working on “Bumming with Jane.” Corin attributes the invaluable support of Mackereth who has spent nearly a year with the script, making dramaturgical suggestions strengthening the world of Patrick and Jane. And after such a development process Corin praises the importance of dedicated and focussed actors such as Sophie Cook, Tahki Saul and Gertraud Ingeborg. “In the casting process- it is wonderful to have the actors we cast just as much in love with the characters as Kelly and I.”

Having a dedicated team of collaborators who are equally passionate about the characters and story whilst “taking the play to a whole new level” and liberated Corin from the rehearsal room and has allowed her to fully embrace the role of producer. Racing from a production meeting at Belvoir St to lunch and an interview then off to the Sydney Theatre Company to borrow Gobos … then who knows where. Although Bumming with Jane is a story about “love, poverty and the fleeting joy of choosing to live a free and ragged-arse life” Corin is a highly energetic, deeply thoughtful and perfectly impatient person, who’s impatience has been rewarded.

Feature: Virginia Hyam, Executive Producer, Sydney Opera House

The Studio at the Sydney Opera House has developed its reputation as a kaleidoscopic venue that hosts international and local artists, embraces a smorgasbord of diverse, provocative, innovative and acclaimed entertainment, all under the all-seeing eye of Executive Producer, Virginia Hyam.

Technicolour postcards advertising Studio shows scream out from Avant Card stands across Sydney promising unique experiences of Internationally acclaimed shows. In the past year she has programmed everything from the controversial yet ever- charming Tim Minchin, a rock-star ukulele player from Hawaii, burlesque comedians and adults-only puppets from Canada…. And her brave, bold, diverse choices light up the studio at the Opera House week after week and soon the next six month season will be revealed…

Hyam’s signature authenticates the blurb inside each Studio brochure brimming with the boldest, bravest fringe shows, musical and magic acts from festivals across the globe. Sporting a distinct contempo haircut, Hyam is often encircled by a fizzing ring of opening- night bubbly, chatting with artists from a variety of performing arts backgrounds. She is busy… I was lucky enough to catch a slice of her time for a lunch-time interview: just after her meeting with an agent and just before she disappeared to pick up airline tickets to Korea.

Sitting across from me in a cramped, yet cheerful, Japanese restaurant, with a flyer for Hamlet in one hand and chopsticks in the other Hyam candidly spoke about the Sydney Opera House Studio, her life long passion for the performing arts and her unique career path.

Where does she come from? How did she get here? What inspires her? How does she choose the programme?

How did she become the Executive Producer of the Sydney Opera House? Did her career start, like so many in the arts, with an arts management degree?  She smiles and her eyes twinkle… “It used to be something I would think about “oh my god! I don’t have any arts management training!” but now I think I’ve been doing it for so long now that it doesn’t matter. So I guess you could say that was completely self taught in learning how to engage with the industry.” And it seems that learning on the job has worked in her favour, with a string of impressive job titles and a strong vibrant season about to be launched in mid-June.

Starting her career as a school teacher, Hyam brachiated from arts organization to arts organization; from the Come Out Arts Festival in Adelaide, to Director of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 1996, then to become the Executive Producer of the Sydney Opera House Studio in 2001. From brave new beginnings, Hyam has developed the Studio’s reputation for providing audiences with access to fascinating shows and unique artists at one of Australia’s internationally recognizable venues at a reasonable ticket price. Nearly eight years on, Hyam continues to engage with independent performing artists with her unique blend of natural generosity, open-minded adventurousness and a thirst for entertainment in all its incantations.

Hyam attributes landing her position at the Studio to a modest “right time, right place” on the back of her work at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. And although she has worked across several states, and with artists from all over the world she views her role as an arts ambassador in very clear light… “I guess in many ways I feel like my career has followed a really simple trajectory of it always being about supporting emerging artists and independent artists, new contemporary work new ideas and cross platform.” There’s nothing pretentious about her, nothing that appears to be posturing or insincere: just very genuine, generous  and highly energetic.

Prior to Hyam’s appointment, The Studio was an occasionally programmed space- which was beyond the financial reach of many struggling and emerging artists.  “I went in there with my fringe head on going “you can do all these things!!!” and they loved it and loved the idea that the opera house was putting on bold work which would not otherwise be put on there.. it’s about bringing in audiences, it is about giving artists a platform that wouldn’t otherwise have one in that environment and that’s what has fitted in there. And it’s really fitted in with what my philosophy was and it still is very much for and about independent artists…” Amid the teriyaki and miso soup, I began to understand how much Hyam sees herself as a facilitator of artists and audiences: a person who encourages and celebrates collaboration and who is always looking for interesting and challenging new work and who is aware the big difference a small space can make in the landscape of Sydney’s performance venues.

There is nothing stale or safe about her choices: she’s not there to find performances that merely adhere to a “SOH studio style-manual” (which doesn’t exist) nor to program shows which are automatic sell out seasons of critical (or popular) acclaim. She is there to nurture artists, entertain audiences…

What is it then that she looks for in a production? With Sydney AND the rest of Australia AND the rest of the worlds artists competing for a spot at this well resourced, iconic venue, how are artists/shows chosen? And the answer lies with the audience. It seems that she is trying to shake the cobwebs from dusty regular theatre-goers and ask them to take a risk something she is constantly seeking: to “try something new.” Virginia programs not by style, nor by art form but based on one simple criteria: “entertainment.” And keeping the audience’s need for entertainment in mind, she sees performances, programs shows and facilitates artists regardless of their genre. How does she know a good show? “If  I have been challenged, if I have laughed or had a cry … its not about the art form it’s about the engagement with what ever it is, if all you understand is the beauty of it that’s ok.  I think you have to program on your own tastes to some degree, you sort of have to.” It is this faith in her own taste and instincts: developed over years of trial and error and an insatiable hunger for new ideas and innovative practice that drives Virginia’s quest for programming brave and bold new works. It is not a detached, impersonal filling of a quota which fuels diversity in her programming tastes is a very simple down to earth message: “I love going to cabaret, I love going to music, I love going to dance, I love a lot of different things actually and I think, ‘why wouldn’t other members of the population be like that too’?”

After years dedicated to the unearthing of emerging artists, Virginia Hyam continues to encourage artists and audiences to push the boundaries of their own experiences. There is a generosity and warmth which backs her choices and that inexorable goal of “constantly trying to be at the beginning of popular trend” keeps her interested in her work. But what if others aren’t happy with her choice? And how do you handle that… again something that has been learnt on the job: “the minute you don’t trust your gut, something goes wrong” that’s what I have learnt really.” That and learning to “face that sometimes you were wrong, and sometimes it wasn’t worth fighting for, but you did fight for it.” Sometimes audiences walk out, sometimes they complain about the content, and that doesn’t bother her at all. “Perhaps they should have read the promotional material: it gives a clear indication on what they might expect, people should research the shows they are about to see.”

Hyam’s willingness to take risks and her passion for entertainment can be seen in the upcoming program. Somehow amid the pressure of reviews and box office income and shows that compete for her attention, Virginia Hyam is completely at home. She finds inspiration and buoyancy amongst the community of artists, the buzz of creation and hectic schedules and continues her crusade into a bright bold season of surprising and vibrant work.

Return top

Augusta Supple

Sydney-based theatre director, producer and writer. This site is about my long, deep, bright-eyed, ever-hopeful, sometimes difficult, always invigorating, rambunctious, rebellious, dynamic and very personal relationship with Australian Arts and Culture... I reflect on shows, talks, essays, writing, artists that inspire me to say something, and you'll find out what I'm working on, who I'm working with and what inspires me.