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Victorian theatre sector united despite wedge attempts

Arts Hub reports on the sixth annual Victorian Theatre Forum: ‘Champions of Change’ held at Malthouse Theatre on Tuesday 17 November 2015. Full article below by Richard Watts for Arts Hub, Friday 20 November 2015.

Richard Watts for Arts Hub, Friday 20 November 2015

Attempts at wedge politics earlier in the year have only served to unite the sector say delegates at 2015 Victorian Theatre Forum.

Despite the challenges of the last seven months, including cancelled funding rounds at the Australia Council and the lack of consultation around the introduction of the NPEA – now replaced by Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund –  the Victorian theatre sector presented a united and optimistic front at the sixth annual Victorian Theatre Forum on Tuesday.

Approximately 160 theatre sector members and other parties attended the forum, hosted by Malthouse Theatre and exploring the theme of ‘Champions of Change’.

Alongside sessions on arts advocacy, the role of optimism, and sustainable independent practice, delegates also heard from Brisbane-based cultural strategist Cathy Hunt discussing the need for arts loans, not just arts grants (an issue covered in detail in her recently published Platform Paper, Paying the Piper: There has to be a better way); and short briefings on a number of upcoming events, including the recently announced triennial festival ASIA TOPA, to be hosted by a consortium of state-owned cultural assets including Arts Centre Melbourne in 2017; and the 98th International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) congress, to be held in Melbourne from 30 May – 4 June 2016 – the first time in 15 years that the event has been held in Australia.

The highlight of the day, however, was the forum’s closing panel, All Together Now, a cross-sector discussion featuring performance-maker Nicola Gunn representing the independent sector; Ilbijerri Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rachael Maza, representing the small to medium sector; and from the majors, MTC Associate Director Leticia Cáceres and Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Director and co-CEO Matthew Lutton.

Though some tensions between the different sectors were evident at times during the discussion, overall the session demonstrated that the challenges of recent months have served only to unite the theatre sector – despite attempts at wedge politics earlier in the year which allegedly originated from the office of then-Minister for the Arts George Brandis.

‘We’ve seen the sector under enormous pressure over the last six months and it’s responded fantastically, really,’ observed Norm Horton from Feral Arts, one of several interstate guests who attended the forum.

‘I think that the Senators who have been involved with the Senate Inquiry were fully expecting the wedge politics to work and for this sector to be really badly divided, competitive and self-interested – and we haven’t seen that at all.’

Ilbijerri’s Rachael Maza said the day’s events were a practical example of the goodwill uniting the sector.

‘It’s nice to get out of my own little bubble and get an insight into the experiences of others, and I kind of really empathise with the challenges that we all face. But what I sense is that, unlike any other time, it feels to me that there is a unique opportunity – and whether it’s been created by the recent crisis I don’t know – but I think there’s an opportunity here for the industry to break down some of these barriers between the hierarchy, absolutely,’ she said.

Malthouse AD Matt Lutton said that the panel discussion highlighted the ‘pleasure of the differences’ between the separate aspects of the sector.

‘Our sector relies on there being variety and difference,’ he said. ‘We’ve had major disruptions and anxieties throughout the year and I think that can help us grow; to re-look at ideas and re-look at models, and we should be continuing to do that and be imaginative in the way we make our work, as in what we put on stage. And I feel like the fact that those conversations feel encouraged is really exciting.’

Nicola Gunn noted that she empathised with the majors, ‘because there seems to be a lot of pressure on them to support independent practice in this country’. But she also expressed frustration that the artistic vibrancy of independent artists and the small to medium sector was sometimes overlooked.

‘I think what I want recognised is the fact that independent artists make some of the best fucking work in this country. And can we just acknowledge that it’s about value of aesthetics? And we, the independent artists of this country, are making the best work, it is the work that’s touring internationally, and I just want everyone to fucking admit that. That’s all. That’s all,’ she said.

Reflecting on the success of the forum, Theatre Network (VIC) Director Nicole Beyer told ArtsHub: ‘The overwhelming conclusion from today, for me, is how far we have come as a sector in the past six months. There is a strong sense of unity, despite the diversity of opinion and also despite the anxiety that has been so prevalent.

‘I am impressed that there was so much engagement with ideas such as the need for new investment models proposed by Cathy Hunt in her keynote; with the need for continuing advocacy, research and data collection; and with the general idea that we need to keep on working together to strengthen the sector,’ she said.

‘It was also really heartening to hear how much the sector has valued TNV’s work throughout this year. We’ve had a big increase in membership from across Australia, and today many members made a point to come up and express their gratitude for our work. And I think that’s as much about providing a place where people can share their anxieties and feel that they are not in it alone, as much as the advocacy work that they know we are doing on their behalf. So for TNV, it’s been a great assurance that we have an ongoing and valued role in the sector,’ Beyer concluded.

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