See article in its original context here by Richard Watts ArtsHub.
Blood, sweat and fears: establishing an independent theatre company
Plans, personnel, the right project – a number of ingredients are required when setting up a new theatre company.
Running an independent theatre company can be exhausting, heartbreaking work. Conversely, it can also offer theatre-makers enormous freedom, allowing artistic vision to flourish unhindered from commercial imperatives – albeit usually on the smell of an oily rag.
Together with collaborator and designer Romanie Harper, Aaron Orzech has formed Melbourne’s newest independent theatre company, The Family; their debut production, The Collected Works of Victor Bergman, opens at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs in early December.
‘We’d both worked with a bunch of different independent companies, Romanie as a designer and me as a performer, and we really wanted to break out on our own and have some more creative control over our own products. The company came out of a desire to do that,’ Orzech said.
Melbourne has dozens of independent companies, some of which are created to present a specific work before dissolving; others with longer term goals. The Family’s identity and aims are, at this early stage, still in flux.
‘One of the things we’ve set ourselves as a principal of the company at this stage is that – particularly in this debut show – we’ll really follow our instincts and see what comes out of it, and not have a programmatic idea of what we want the company to be and what it is to be. I guess part of the idea is that the identity of the company comes from the practice.’
Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson co-founded independent theatre company Ellen Belloo in late 2013, to help her stage her play Motherland.
‘When I started off with Motherland initially I was producing it on my own and that was incredibly difficult; trying to wear too many hats at once is exhausting and overwhelming and I think you burn out really quickly. As soon as you have other people to share the workload with and share the responsibilities with it makes a massive difference as an independent artist,’ she said.
‘It started off with me as a playwright and Caroline Dunphy as a director working together … and I think what we found when we started working together was this lovely synergy. We both had the same goals and the same ideas and values about what we felt was important and what we wanted to do; we just realised that together we were greater than on our own – we could do something really special when we worked together which didn’t happen as well trying to do it solo.
‘It was a very organic and slow, natural decision to say, “Ok, let’s make a company, let’s do this”,’ Lyall-Watson said.
The company has since gained another two members, and is planning its next works.
‘I think what works really well for us is we all have very specialised and distinct skill sets that complement each other rather than competing. So I write – that’s what I do, that’s what I love; Caroline directs and also acts, but her role with Ellen Belloo is more of a directing role; and then Kathryn Kelly is our third member and she’s a dramaturge so she brings all those wonderful skills and also helps us with writing grant applications and that sort of thing; and then we’ve got Danielle Shankey who’s a wonderful producermarketing and media and all those sorts of things are her forte. And I think for us that makes us a really strong team because we have really different skills, and without one of those skills we’d be floundering a little bit.’
Not every company forms so organically; sometimes the creation of an independent theatre company is very carefully plotted and planned.
Troy Harrison, co-creator and co-Artistic Director of Sydney’s Workhorse Theatre Company, said he and his collaborators had very clear goals of what they wanted to achieve with their first production, staged in 2012 at the now-closed Tap Gallery.
‘The first thing we really wanted to do was make sure we started with a production that would make us recognisable, so a high standard of production was always first and foremost. It’s very easy to get a bad name as being amateur, it’s a very small industry, and so the very first thing we wanted to do was the highest-standard production that we could,’ he said.
Similarly, Workhorse were also careful to establish a specific niche for themselves in the Sydney theatre sector.
‘We sat down at the beginning and said “What is it we have to do to stand out?” And at that time all of Sydney especially was going through a very big new Australian work phase; everyone wanted new Australian work. And that’s great, we’re very much in support of new Australian work, but we just felt that that part of the market was taken. So we decided we’d go for the edgier stuff that the mainstream theatre don’t seem to gravitate towards, whether it’s the name or the title or what the play’s about; work that wasn’t being put on.’
The company was also careful on consulting widely before establishing themselves, Harrison said.
‘We were lucky. I’d just done a workshop with Kat Stewart, a very well-known actor in Australia who was a part of Red Stitch down in Melbourne when they were setting up; and I had a lot of dialogue with her about the pitfalls and what to expect, what was hard, what was easy; so we had a sort of leg up when we were starting about taking it seriously as a business,’ he said.
Being mentored by more experienced theatre practitioners has also been valuable for The Family, explained Orzech.
‘Mentorship has been pretty important for both of us, and one of the other reasons I guess we started the company was to try and take some of the skills and experiences we’ve had working with some of those more established artists and to apply them to our own work. So I think that’s definitely something we could keep doing. And definitely the conversations we’ve had with those people about creative development in the future but also how a company might function in the future, have been pretty important,’ he said.
For Workhorse Theatre Company, having a solid business plan and an experienced board to guide them has been central to their development.
‘I think everyone who wants to do this needs to sort of realise whether they just want to put on a production here and there, or do they want to run a sustainable independent company? They’re two very different things,’ Harrison explained.
‘If you want to become sustainable you have to treat it like a business. You have to go through the taxation. We’re now a non-profit organisation so we can now start looking at grants and things like that. And so the biggest piece of advice is if you want to find sustainability and work towards that is realise that you’re opening a business. For these first three years the acting side of it has been about 10% of what we’ve done; the rest has been starting up and running a small business.’
The Family have a very different approach.
‘We don’t really have a fixed plan about how we would want the company to function in a financial sense,’ Orzech said. ‘I think we’re both probably quite idealistic in the sense that any kind of business plan would need to serve the needs of the kind of work that we really want to make, in the same way the identity of the company will emerge through that.
‘Perhaps one of the pitfalls we’re trying to avoid in some ways is being a company where branding and business planning comes first … I think there can be a danger that there can be a bit of a trickle-down effect from the way that bigger companies promote and brand themselves to get people to come and see their work, which can sometimes take over from the creative side of independent companies.’
Lyall-Watson stresses the importance of finding the right people to work with when establishing a new theatre company.
‘I think the most important thing is to all be on the same page with what you’re wanting to create and what your values are, because if you all feel passionate about the same vision you can get there. It’s when you set up a company because you’re wanting to be a star and have a starring role – because there are companies that set up where, for instance, most of them are actors and everybody wants the best part. And that makes it really hard because there are going to be times where one of you can’t act in it and someone has to take a stage manager or producer role. So if you all have a shared vision for what sort of theatre and what sort of art you want to create, that makes a huge difference and is really important,’ she said.
The Family present The Collected Works of Victor Bergman
4-14 December 2014
Workhorse Theatre Company present Cock
The Old Fitz, Woolloomooloo
3 February – 6 March 2015