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.