Ah, the Majors! That golden chalice! That pot of gold! The sweet spot on a fresh pillow! The Major performing arts companies the big end of town – big budgets, bit shows, big annual turn over, big audiences.

(Isn’t it fascinating that an artform obsessed with collaboration has so much status obsession and so many hierarchical structures?)

Interestingly for many the Majors indicate the legitimate end of art making and cultural expression in the country. For one I’ve had an interesting relationship with several majors as a freelance independent artist (very publicly so) – In the past I’ve been invited to

Chair: Stephen Armstrong(SA); Speakers: Geordie Brookman (GB), Leticia Caceres (LC), Wesley Enoch (WE), Peter Evans (PE), Mike Finch (MF), Brenna Hobson( BH), Matt Lutton (ML), Polly Rowe (PR)

Jane Howard’s Blog is perfect to reference for this presentation and you can check that out HERE

The Majors discussion at ATF2013 when my Twitter account stopped: it had been a huge morning of interactions… here’s a few of the notes I took around the discussion:

What is the unique offering that each Major company makes to the landscape of Australian Theatre?

WE: Our core business is making theatre – that’s why we get funded that’s why we do what we do.

LC: The unique offering of MTC is story. We are interested in plays. We have a literary manager.

WE: We like white people we want you to come to the QTC… We sees ourselves playing a role in the ecology – work of scale.

PR: We talk about theatre without borders – the idea is not just about bringing in but reaching out and so we have a community department that works with kids in Bankstown, and that a theatre company should offer large scale work but small scale work.

SA: How does that vision impact on the actual practice?

PR: Andrew’s thinking has changed and he had initially thought it was a good idea to get into bed with everyone, so to speak.

SA: Someone’s feet always get cold.

(scattered chuckles from the audience…)

PR: One of the thing Andrew has done has brought in key artists so its more of a house style not just a presenting venue.

SA: Matt Lutton: what about the Malthouse?

ML: I joined Marion when she started. We are in the engine room for ideas. How you can get a group of people in the room before we start talking about ideas. Theatre is made by a team of artists. The thing i find very inspiring is that a project can be initiated by artists from any art form.

SA: How was the transferrance from freelance (Thin Ice in WA) to being in the Malthouse?

ML: At the Malthouse I’ve been encouraged to think big and being liberated and you are humbled to make the most of that – but sometime being a part of a big thing can be quite limiting.

SA asked how ML would change Malthouse. WE stopped that conversation as it was potentially going to undermine Marion Potts.

BH: Ralph came in to create change – he was a set designer – not a director. He wanted to stop hosting independent company and that meant that we had to start producing our own works – that was about employing a whole bunch of artists – about to bring on two associate directors. Ralph’s vision is that he just wanted to make good theatre – it sounds pad but it means that you get rid of any shackles of the notion “my theatre is going to do… ”

PE: At Bell Shakespeare – not just a touring company but a national company – and there are a lot more people doing classics – and so we have to change. I really want to broaden our repetoir. the major change that Chris Toohey would know is that we didn’t have a budget line for royalties – but we are a company that is founded on the back of a writer – and so our Minds Eye program is about partnerships and we are talking to lots more work which is inspired by Shakespeare.

PR: Is there a risk of flattening out if the majors start dipping toes in each others waters?

WE: Goes back to the question what is the unique offering? Our job and purpose is to magnify and reflect and be open to that – what is the unique thing they can offer?

MF: As artistic director: My job is to make the ship doesn’t sink.

WE: An AD is an artist that stamps the aesthetic of the company – how do you do that? It’s not unusual to do 15 hour days…

Liz Jones from LaMama: (From the audience) The plight of the playwright – I just wonder where the playwrights go now? We do facilitate the development of emerging companies… BUT the individual playwright that the pathways have vanished. Can any one in the Majors address that?

ML: Its about continuing the conversation. The doors are open to writers they’ve never been closed: but there are different ways of making. There was a myth for a while that Malty wasn’t interested: but we want to do our over version.

LC: I adore Australian work its the thing she’s most passionate about an we can’t deny it and we are trying to be proactive about it – adn we do have Chris mead who is a champion for diverse voice. There is still a perception that Australian stories wont sell as well as foreign and classics – and I don’t know why – My point is that people love story and especially when its about the here and now right now and all the thing that we cried about an hour ago… I absolutely 100% believe that and I might talk and talk and talk and I am waving the flag 0 give us time.

PR: There is a perception is that New Work is hard and it is harder – and I think there is an unreasonable expectation on new plays – and we compare wot August Osage County or Chekov and it is going to be different. I think we could make more incentives for directors on
Directors should have a small royalty on directing new plays.

LC: I disagree – a credit as the dramaturg in the room perhaps but the royalties issue is what makes tours come unstuck.

BH: Belvoir has made a commitment for only new Australian works – and working with a company called post who don’t call themselves writers but is just as important. Directors need to have multiple opportunities and to be brave enough to fail and having the space to fail.

WE: Can I be controversial: I think SA is based on evidence based decision making: what will the costs be: what role do collectives and artists have in their own audience development… you are not to arrive with your training wheels on…

Question from the audience: How many of the State companies attend alternative spaces to find work? Eg art galleries? I’d rather go to those alternative spaces.

Tim Jones from Seymour Centre (From the audience) : Are you do anything for mid to late career artists if we all want to be like John Bell and work late into your career – do you do anything for those artists?

PE: I agree. There was nothing for emerging – and now it is fantastic – but there are now some Gen-Xers in the black hole.

WE: We need to know that we are in an industry of natural attrition – there is skill, there is talent, there is chance – and sometimes we are not in charge of that. It’s more than that – isn’t that the goal of every artist to have a career that lasts until death. And how do we regard our senior artists?

So… that’s a bit of a taste of the conversation that happened with the majors…

My reflections are really about ecology and the biological terminology which is offered up: perhaps the idea that there is a natural attrition to the lifespan of artists careers is an interesting one: is this survival of the fittest?

In the realm of ecology there are many forms of symbiosis (mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic) – and the simplicity of understanding art through a scientific lens indicates that there is some sort of control or ideal that can be measured and weighed. I don’t at all disagree with the fact that the Major companies rely on the small- medium sector, and perhaps one of the most important messages to come out of this discussion was an acknowledgement that all (or nearly all) sitting on the panel had at some time been freelancing.

So often it feels that the independent sector (and I am relating to Sydney in this instance) has a large interest in creating work that “auditions” for the main stages. What is really unfortunate about this audition mentality is that there is an idea that once you’ve been inside a major, you’ve “made it.”

You’ve been legitimized or recognised as a talent.

Also there is a misconception that paid work is more validating than unpaid work.

It’s my firm and sturdy belief that the riskier and most interesting and vibrant work happens in the independent sector – and that sector is fueled by inspiration which isn’t and can’t be subscriber dictated, money oriented. The independent sector has to generate work that is compelling and inspiring enough for people to want to invest their time… and so therefore, for me I look at the strength of the independent sector as a litmus test of our artscene.

I also don’t think that mainstage or independent or quirky gallery space or site specific work are really in competition with each other. Nor do I think that the mission statement of any company should be to do anything other than “to make really great theatre…” as Brenna suggested.

Much of the development of artists doesn’t in my view happen in the soft shelter of the Majors – nor does the support they offer last forever. What is important about the majors is that they offer scale and the safety of resources. They also offer aspirational exposure (whereas some Indie spaces accommodate 43 people – main stages offer ten or twenty times that)… in offering that level of exposure – the stakes are raised for the artist – because everyone is a critic and when you are exposed to that many minds/hearts – ideas are inevitably questioned.

Is there a natural attrition? Perhaps?

Do we facilitate our senior artists. No.

And it is to our shame and detriment.

Furthermore in the biological overview of the artistic field – we perhaps need to talk about what makes a strong eco-system. And a strong eco system is one which is highly diverse. There is no denying that the previous session was a wake up call about the diversity in Australian theatre. I ask again – where are our mulit-language playwrights? How many of us have not been churned out of a Drama School with the expectation of templated approaches and behaviours towards art and when making or regarding art?

Is our industry diverse?

The role of the artist is to keep evolving and growing and adapting and that is the most important element in understanding the ecology of theatre.