Australian theatre grapples with access, diversity and job losses through the coronavirus shutdown – ABC News
It’s hard to quantify just how damaging 2020 has been for the Australian theatre sector.
Performing arts workers — from writers and directors to ushers, stagehands and lighting artists — lost work overnight, after theatres across the country went dark in March.
Due to the short-term contract-based nature of their work, many were let go without severance pay and were not eligible for JobKeeper.
Live theatre is now getting back on its feet, but the damage for companies has been significant, with the MTC estimating its box office loss at $12.5 million; additional losses include money sunk into canned productions and countless shows, festivals and tours that were in the works that weren’t even announced yet.
Back in April, I Lost My Gig tallied losses across the entire live entertainment industry at $340 million.
More recently, artist Anna Tregloan’s The Impossible Project mapped the artistic projects dashed by 2020, in a haunting reminder of the year that could’ve been.
So as this challenging year draws to a close, this is the state of things for the performing arts sector.
For those wary of reading on — don’t despair! It’s not all doom and gloom.
Nadine Garner, a mainstay of Australian TV, film and theatre for over 25 years, was performing in David Williamson’s Emerald City at Melbourne Theatre Company’s 550-person Sumner Theatre when the pandemic ended the run — a month earlier than planned.
“It hasn’t been a particularly lucrative year, but I want to use the word of the moment: ‘pivot’ — I’ve had to pivot in terms of creating work for myself,” she told Michael Cathcart on The Stage Show.
Garner and her long-term collaborator George Adams ended up creating The Forgotten Mysteries — an audio project that she recorded from her wardrobe.
“The thing George and I wanted to do was just create little, lovely worlds for people to step into knowing that they couldn’t go out and see movies, to theatres or orchestras.”
Garner is far from the only theatre artist to turn to audio in the pandemic — Noni Hazlehurst told Stop Everything! that the only three days of work she’s had since March were on the new Audible audio fiction podcast Winding Road.
In Perth (Noongar country), Aboriginal-led theatre company Yirra Yaakin transposed a long-term collaboration with Indigenous theatre companies Te Rehia in Wellington and Native Earth in Toronto into a new program developing 15-minute radio plays.
Yirra Yaakin artistic director Eva Grace Mullaley says: “[Unlike Te Rehia and Native Earth] We had never done anything like a radio play … So I really wanted to bring it back to life during these COVID times, where we need these digital platforms.”
Performing arts companies and venues across Australia took their work online during the pandemic, which meant you could catch a Bangarra Dance Theatre performance at the Sydney Opera House from the comfort of your lounge room.
Morwenna Collett, the former CEO of Accessible Arts, and a musician with a disability, says the shift online has “really opened doors, literally and figuratively,” for her community.
“It has removed a bunch of barriers that existed for people around works that were shown in inaccessible venues, [and for] people who may not have been able to travel or be away from home for long periods of time,” she says.
But Collett has been disappointed to see that some streamed performances lacked audio descriptions, transcripts or captioning.
“It’s a real opportunity for arts organisations as we go into 2021, to think about making sure that the things that they stream are accessible for everyone.”
While she recognises online offerings offer challenges for struggling companies trying to break even, she’s heartened to see many companies are offering “hybrid” digital and physical seasons next year.
In 2021, MTC will be launching their Digital Theatre, with filmed plays available to stream on demand, with captioning.
MTC artistic director Brett Sheehy says: “I think that it may have taken us a couple more years … to get into that space. But this [the shutdown] forced the issue and it’s a great way to go forward.”
Collett is on the access and inclusion committees for Sydney Festival and Perth Festival.
As these festivals prepare for COVID-safe delivery in the coming months, their programming has gone local as a result of travel restrictions.
“I think one of the other silver linings for COVID-19 for Australian artists is the real focus on Australian work next year, and potentially in 2022 as well,” says Collett.
The Black Lives Matter movement, and an attendant reckoning with racism and white supremacy in the media, has also been a key part of 2020.
Australia’s performing arts sector has not been immune.
In June, more than 100 alumni, students and former staff signed a letter accusing the National Institute of Dramatic Arts of “systemic and institutionalised racism,” which led NIDA CEO Liz Hughes to issue an apology.
In September, actor, singer and dancer Tarik Frimpong launched the Artists of Colour Initiative, a scholarship competition for theatre performers that identify as “Bla(c)k, Indigenous or as People of Colour”.
Frimpong, who has appeared in West End musicals and made his film debut in 2018 in Mary Poppins Returns, says the theatre shut down was a difficult time for Australian theatre.
“But one silver lining … was that it did feel like everybody within the theatre community in Australia was on a kind of intermission,” he says.
“This intermission, in true artistic fashion, allowed for a lot of reflection … and a lot of people were able to become more aware of problematic things within the Australian theatre industry — systemic issues like the lack of racial diversity.”
Frimpong says that as a Black mixed race performer, he has been waiting a long time for this moment.
“It’s something that you’re kind of always aware of because you’re in it … from auditioning or looking around the rooms or being in shows where I am the only person of colour.”
Frimpong says the AOC Initiative was spurred on by (though not conceived as a response to) the all-white line-up of finalists for this year’s Rob Guest Endowment scholarship.
“The main thing I wanted to achieve with the initiative was to celebrate, to champion, to uplift, to amplify and to connect all the amazing Black, Indigenous and POC talent that I knew existed within this industry,” he says.
Last week, actor Martha Berhane won the initiative (although she’ll be splitting the prize money with the other five finalists).
The initiative also facilitated Zoom events that brought together the judging panel (which included industry heavy hitters like Fiona Choi and Thando Sikwila) with the young performers, in an attempt to ensure greater access and representation for performers of colour in musical theatre.
Frimpong is hoping to see more diverse casts and creatives going forward, and would like schools and performing arts institutions to prioritise diverse faculty and repertoire.
“I just want to see the conversation continue. I don’t want to see anybody shy away from it.”
‘Giving away a part of our heart’
Frimpong’s work is evidence of the sheer talent of young performers across Australia, but many young people beginning their arts education are facing a bleak outlook.
Universities across Australia have made mass redundancies in response to lost income from international students, who have withdrawn en masse in the wake of the pandemic.
Those cuts are hitting the performing arts hard, with drama departments closing at the University of Newcastle, Latrobe University, and Monash University due to staff cuts.
More recently, Flinders University in Adelaide has decided to restructure its drama course, after a review into its Bachelor of Creative Arts.
Julian Meyrick, professor of creative arts at Griffith University, has written about these cuts (prior to the Flinders University news) and what’s at stake.
Meyrick told The Stage Show: “Everybody who’s teaching in the creative arts across Australia … they are suffering now in a way that I have never seen before. And I’ve been in the game for quite some time.”
“In terms of how we should take it, I think we should take it as a wake up call … it’s giving away a part of our heart.”
He says we need to stop and consider the impact of these changes and reverse them.
“The creative arts generally, and drama in particular, help us speak through hard times, and to those hard times, about what really matters … [and] sometimes in life when we let things go, they’re not so easy to get back.”
‘The light at the end of the tunnel’
Western Australia experienced a shorter lockdown than most states, but it’s still been a challenging year for their sector, with many local companies among the 49 who were unsuccessful in securing four-year operational funding from the Australia Council for the Arts.
Yirra Yaakin is now the only theatre-focused arts company in WA with four-year operational funding from the Australia Council.
“I suppose the fear for next year is that so many of our now unfunded companies are in a transition year, trying to figure out how to support themselves,” says Mullaley.
On the other side of the country, Victoria’s long lockdown meant MTC was forced to cancel 11 of their 12 productions slated for 2020, but Sheehy says ‘Act 1’ of their 2021 season has been selling well.
This mini program includes a staged reading of an MTC Next Stage commission by Louris van de Geer, with Garner in the cast.
Garner is looking forward to getting back on stage, but is concerned about the sector’s recovery, describing the Federal Government’s response to the sector’s shutdown as “piecemeal”.
“I don’t think the rescue packages that have been afforded the arts are going to pull people completely clear of trouble. So I think we’re very much a work in progress in the arts.”
In June, the Federal Government announced a $250 million rescue package for the arts sector.
Although the package’s $75 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) program has come under criticism from the arts community, a number of organisations have been successful in securing significant funding from the initiative — including Malthouse Theatre, La Boite and MTC.
The RISE funds have been key to both MTC’s ‘Act 2’ program and their Digital Theatre, with Brett Sheehy describing it as a “godsend”.
“[But] It’ll take some time for us to really assess what the impact and damage [of 2020] has been across the whole landscape,” says Sheehy.
“We had major artists, significant actors, directors, writers … saying they didn’t know if this was a space they wanted to keep working in or could keep working in.
“I just pray that everyone in our orbit got through it and can see light at the end of the tunnel as we re-open up.”
This content was originally published here.