Everyone’s a critic

RICK HEATH is a performing arts industry veteran of 25 years and a former executive producer of the Perth International Arts Festival. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he takes umbrage at former Black Swan State Theatre Company patron Sally Burton’s criticism that the company’s 2019 season was too alienating for audiences. Mr Heath, who’s previously co-produced works with Black Swan, says he’d like to have seen artistic director Clare Watson push the envelope even further.

SALLY Burton was not right in feeling “a little nervous about the backlash from Black Swan” (“Burton slams Black Swan theatre groupHerald, September 21, 2018), but she should feel nervous about the backlash from any open-minded human being.

For want of a better Australian reference, JFK is quoted as saying that ‘conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth’.

It would seem from Ms Burton’s comments that freedom nor growth are high on her agenda.

The appointment of Clare Watson as Black Swan’s artistic director was received as a welcome sign of reinvigoration by the industry.

I speak as an arts worker that trained at WAAPA and has spent the majority of my professional career working from Perth; bar two years on the East coast, one as event operations manager for the Sydney Opera House.

Destructive

I’m a fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management in Washington DC, a former general manager of local dance company Buzz, executive producer with the Perth Festival and for the last ten years executive director of one of Australia’s leading cultural peak bodies, Performing Arts Connections Australia.

Nothing is more destructive to our industry than opinion stated as fact.

Ms Burton’s statement about her ‘theory’ of an 18-year-old paying $80 for a ticket to see an inaccessible show is blatantly ill-informed and speaks to the extent to which she is clearly out of touch with audiences in Perth.

Notably, and thankfully, the industry has moved on well beyond the opinion of a single punter informing its audience-development strategies.

Ms Watson’s 2019 season still errs on the conservative side, yet I don’t envy her extreme challenge in trying to meet so many

diverse needs, while offering authentic cultural leadership in our community.

Particularly in light of the loss of both Deckchair and Perth Theatre Company.

In answer to Ms Burton’s question, what is a tax-funded state theatre company supposed to do?

I’m happy to say, exactly what Black Swan is doing.

Ms Watson has selected a program of works that speak to the diversity of our community and raise awareness and debate about the place in which we live.

Contentious

The issue of what an audience wants and what an audience needs is contentious.

Taxpayers’ money should be contributing to the well-being of our broadest community, and in the case of the arts industry, not focussed simply on entertaining those who can afford to attend.

In response to her comments about the WA Ballet; do we really need to see taxpayers’ money being spent on yet another Nutcracker.

By contrast, I had the privilege of hosting an international delegation of arts leaders at WA Ballet’s Milnjiya earlier this year.

The work spoke to our national identity and showcased the extraordinary depth of talent of our First Nations people – that’s where I’d like to see our taxpaying dollars being spent.

I cringe at the thought of a continuing practice in which ‘little girls in their pink skirts’ are held up as a measure of a love of the arts.

Employment for actors in this city is an issue; it’s an issue for any creative talent and I lament the day my daughter, about to graduate from dance at WAAPA, will have to leave Perth to forge a career that is sustainable.

However, to align the programming of our state theatre company to this issue is both ignorant and short-sighted.

Maybe instead, Ms Burton could direct her attention seeking behaviour at the WA premiere, the arts minister or the treasurer and highlight the return on investment received by offering greater support to the arts industry in WA.

Noting the total sum of our arts budget was once quoted by a former director general of the department for the arts as being less than the rounding error on the state budget. Our national industry currently contributes $4.2 billion to Australia’s GDP and employs over 34,000 people.  

For Ms Burton to question the use of members of the community in the production of Our Town once again highlights a lack of understanding about what modern audiences seek and the way people want to engage with theatre.

Integrity

Following a recent study that I personally undertook, across 17 communities in WA, I can categorically state people are looking for stories that are relevant and that resonate with their own lives…Alan Ayckbourn?…Alan Bennett?

Clearly Ms Burton’s move back to UK will be fulfilling.

Quite aside from Ms Burton’s narrow mindedness, The Herald’s reporting appears unreasonably provocative and largely irresponsible.

It’s highly disappointing to see the opinion of one ill-informed individual from one segment of the community used publicly to slam the integrity of an entire theatre program by an acclaimed artistic director, whose job it is to lead not follow.

When Ms Burton can speak about audiences in reference to the work of Wolf Brown, Culture Counts, the Cultural Development Network, Michael Kaiser, John Knell and Dianne Ragsdale (to name a few), then her opinion will be worthy of publication.

With Ms Watson’s 2019 program I don’t fear we are ‘heading towards the final phase of audience alienation’, I feel hope as I see a genuine and committed step towards audience engagement.

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