Emily: Steve, I have to commend you on all the work you’ve done on the Sydney Theatre Report, I’m sure it will benefit many artists, so thank you. To start off, what do you think is the significance of the theatre as a physical structure, in the way that society perceives and prioritises the arts?
Steve: That’s tricky to define, because the first question I had to work out for the report was, what actually is a theatre? It defines the art form, but the art form can define the theatre as well.
Emily: Yeah, I find it quite ironic that the Sydney Opera House is one of the country’s icons and yet that isn’t mirrored in our culture of funding and support for the arts it seems.
Steve: It’s the most famous theatre in the world.
Emily: Exactly - with the financial challenges you highlighted in the report for obtaining a venue, do you think it perpetuates a culture where those more socioeconomically advantaged, or older audiences, have a greater access to the arts?
Steve: Of course. I come from – certainly not a poor background, but working class, I’d consider myself. I didn’t go to any of the drama schools, or to the drama schools with the teachers who have connections in the arts. That does make a difference, those connections, because there are some spaces and roles for people with these connections because you’ve worked with the teachers before. If you want to go to the well-known drama schools you need to be able to pay the large fees and you can’t work while you’re studying. You can’t work, you have to be able to pay for it and so I guess it’s possible that you could live off savings, but basically you have to come from a wealthier background. And then it’s these people who are able to make the connections to get into the industry. Whereas in Melbourne I don’t think this happens to the same extent – I haven’t spent a great deal in time in Melbourne but just from talking to people and seeing shows there, it seems that it’s a bigger problem in Sydney.
Emily: Why do you think that is?
Steve: It’s linked to access to venues – over there you can just hire a space while here it’s a lot more difficult. It’s even changed a lot in the past few years. Back in 2008 the Crypt Theatre was still open and that’s closed now, the Tap Gallery used to have two spaces that were accessible on a lower budget – it was the cheapest space available - and now that is closed. There are a few spaces that are curated or ‘partly curated’… it’s become cool to be curated. (laughs) Because it sounds cool, sounds like they’re choosy, but even people who are just partly curating are still basically saying that you need experience, we need to know you, need to know who you are and what you’ve done before so we know what will be on our stage. And look that’s fair, I might do the same if I was running a venue. But now there’s virtually no venues in the small range, and very few in the small-medium range if you don’t have experience. Just coming in, you feel that as a struggling artist – as most artists are – you should be able to give $600 or $1000 for the show’s venue, maybe nobody comes, but it doesn’t matter because you’ve had the experience and you can try again the next time. Now you’ve got to pay $2500, or you’ve got to know people, go and meet, drink, have a chat with people, kiss ass basically for 6 months before anyone will let you in the door. So it’s killing the entry-level work.
Emily: That makes sense, although I feel like there have been some smaller venues cropping up, just in the past year.
Steve: I’m a bit iffy about some of them to be honest, because lots of the hire venues reserve the right to refuse your show – and they maintain that the company must have some experience to be accepted at the venue. A hire venue needs to be guaranteed.
Emily: Right, so it comes back to the entry-level theatre makers having trouble getting their foot in the door.
Steve: That’s right.
Emily: On a bigger scale, many of the larger theatre companies are funded by very wealthy private donors - an example being the renaming of Sydney Theatre Company’s Roslyn Packer Theatre due to a very large donation from Ms Packer. Also I think your report noted that Bell Shakespeare is 70% privately funded. Do you think that private funding could affect the way people create art, or have any impact at all?
Steve: I don’t think there’s very much impact, but one of the biggest impacts is that the Roslyn Packer Theatre is called the Roslyn Packer Theatre, and every time someone goes in there they’re reminded of patronage of the arts - which is a good thing. We all like patrons of the arts. But where that may get tricky is if, I don’t know, I write a spoof about the Packer family – obviously that’s one theatre I can’t do it. (laughs) And actually… maybe there would be several things I wouldn’t want to do. You start to worry about what you’re actually saying and whether it will offend so-and-so. So it can impact, but I think it’s a minimum risk, especially with a company like Bell Shakespeare, because it’s all across the board, and there aren’t names attached so much. But it’s a little bit like political donations isn’t it?
Emily: I think that’s quite a good parallel! With theatre practitioners, I assume their primary concern is with making theatre. If you just want to go out and create, do you think that all these business concerns (with funding, venue hire etc) cause people to become more risk-averse because of the financial risk involved?
Steve: I don’t think people are playing it safe exactly, but it is absolutely limiting. I have been trying to get a show going for 5 years, as an example, but there is one show I just can’t find a venue for, so I put it on the backburner, because there’s no space that suits. I’m very whetted to space, some theatre makers don’t care so much, they find a space and make the work fit to the venue, I like to create a work and find a space that works for it, so I’m a bit finicky. I suppose I’m doing a lot of stuff as well, I have three theatre companies and so am working on many different things at one time, I have my fingers in different pies, or different fingers in the pies, whatever the saying is. (laughs) I can always put one to the side and do another instead. I have that option, but a lot of people don’t have that luxury. They hire whatever theatre that they can get, and usually there would be enough options that they could pick the right venue, but I’ve had the conversation with several people who say I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have this show with 12 actors, and I’m just going to have to take what I can get and make it work – even though there’s no backstage area, we’ll have to have everyone on stage, or traipse through the audience.
Emily: To sum up, what do you see as a way to solve, clearly there’s a whole heap of issues, what do you see as one key way to rectify some of the problem?
Steve: The recommendations in the report sum it up well. Basically, we as an industry need to work together – it sounds all happy, but there it is – there’s a lot of mistreatment of artists, I’ve had it happen to myself. We do need to be nice to each other, so that’s the first thing. The next thing is the schools need to open up allowing the public to use their spaces. For arts venues, they need to lower their prices, and people need to support that. And for some of them, being transparent about it. I can’t tell you how difficult I found it to find some of the prices, and even personally once I have hired a venue, trying to work out all the conditions and rules with the contract. There are a thousand and one catches and loopholes just to make things tricky, with additional charges etc. They need to lower their rates and be transparent. There are so many things the council could be doing to help. Such as libraries, they won’t hold your flyers – in Sydney, I have never had a library accept flyers to advertise a show, nor distribute them, because they say it’s not a community event because you’re charging. It’s a very simple thing, obviously we’re not making much money – let’s face it, these are not for profit events.
You can read the Sydney Theatre Report 2015 for yourself – it’s available here.