22 September 2008

Do Canberra Audiences Know Anything?

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An article in the Canberra times this weekend by Dr Adele Chynoweth, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University School of Humanities, seems to have got a couple of local theatre heads (or at least the ones I hang out with) out of joint a bit – largely because it argues that Canberra is too dominated by the amateur theatre scene, at the expense of developing a more professional theatrical industry here.

Two of the pertinent quotes read as follows:

Kate Shearer, artistic director of (the professional) Jigsaw Theatre Company, notes too that in Canberra, “The market is incredibly saturated with amateur theatre companies and Joe Public doesn’t really know what he’s buying.”

Caroline Stacey from The Street Theatre also says, “In Canberra, people are unable or unwillingly to distinguish between professional and amateur theatre and it runs from practitioners, spectators, right through to media. The distinction is important because without it one can’t have a dialogue. It’s about how one talks about and creates work. Talking about work as a social activity versus a serious investigation of various methodologies is a completely different dialogue. People are not willing to engage in that. There has not been enough on-the-ground development in professional practice for a long time.”

Well, there’s nobody more Joe public than a Riotact Reader, so… I’d like to know – do you think that you as a member of Joe Public do know the difference between a professional and an amateur theatre production? And are you able to or willing to distinguish between the two? And does it really matter whether the guys in front of you are being paid or not as long as they are producing good quality, committed, interesting work?

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“And does it really matter whether the guys in front of you are being paid or not as long as they are producing good quality, committed, interesting work?”

A very valid point.

From the majority of the posts that I have made on this forum it is not too hard to figure out that I am involved in amateur theatre in Canberra and like trevar I might have a certain bias in my thoughts on the subject. To give you an idea of my involvement, I was the director of The Who’s Tommy, The Full Monty and most recently Pink Floyd’s – The Wall. My pre-production work on these shows can be counted in terms of years not months. Planning for Tommy started 11 years before a foot was placed on stage. My total payment for my services for each production was a pair of engraved glasses that is presented to each member of the production team. I was not, nor would I ever expect to be, paid for what I bring to the production. But that’s my choice… I’m not complaining about that, nor would I.

The one thing that I try to get across to the casts that I work with is that professionalism is a state of mind. We may not be paid but we put on the best we can do with the resources and funding we have. The audience don’t care if we were trained at Nida or did a summer course in theatre back in high school, they paid for a ticket and want a good show… and yes we may cut corners given that most of us have limited resources at hand but compared to the pro’s we don’t do a bad job. And the talent is not just “on stage” but there is also a stupendous amount of talented people working on sets and costumes and every other aspect of the show.

The other thing I would like to say that the cost of a ticket to an amateur production is really based on the cost of the production that is put on. Even though we are amateur productions, our costs are not. We pay for lights & sound (where would amateur theatre be without Chris Neal), theatre hire, rehearsal venues, and of course royalties. And we have to cover all of these costs before a cent of profit for the next production is shown. So when you pay your $33 or $40 for a ticket, that is what you are paying for.

The article mentioned is that there is a saturation of amateur theatre in the area. And that may or may not be the case. But as none of the groups I have been involved with receive any government funding (unlike our professional bothers) we survive based on the productions we put on. We can’t stage a show and write it off as a tax loss if it sinks. Each production is funded on the profits of the last production and the very limited corporate sponsorship that we might find (most of which is given in kind or resources and not dollars but it is always something that we are extremely grateful for). If we do a series of bad shows (based on the choice of show or quality of the production or to a lesser extent talent) we lose our audience and we simply cease to exist. So given that the majority of amateur production companies have been around for a long time, I don’t think that is the case.

Finally, even if you disregard all of what Dr Chynoweth had to say, Kate Shearer said that “Joe Public doesn’t really know what he’s buying”. Oh really?? We survey our audiences regularly to find out this kind of thing (how did they find out about us, what they would like to see etc) and I would have to say that statement is very demeaning on understanding the Canberra theatre going audience. Joe Public knows and expects that when he or she comes to a local Canberra show, almost down to the specific group that they are supporting, that they will get a production that is comparable to anything that comes to Canberra from a professional stage.

sexynotsmart10:47 pm 23 Sep 08

There is nothing wrong with the Canberra theatre scene, professional or amateur, performers or audiences. Just remember there’s only a quarter million people in the region.

I’ve seen 3 live performances this year – a biggie at Star City, a pro-am at the Street, and Bill Bailey. And they were all fantastique.

Like other dilettantes, I loudly declare that Andrew Lloyd Weber destroyed light opera. But I still treasure my programs for Cats, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard. My point is that I go to big cities to see the big shows. I’m sure Dr Chenowyth understands the economics of touring companies, but it didn’t shine through the Canberra Times article.

And finally… now that I’m the wrong side of 35, I feel compelled to instruct our youth in the ways of the world. Guys, put down your PS3 controllers and get to an amateur theatre production. It doesn’t matter which one. They are a GREAT place to meet chicks. Play the percentages – talk but don’t interrupt, act slightly bored, and dress expensive-but-scruffy. You’ll look like a failed writer, a spy from another theatre group or an Arts student. But you will look like you belong.

Now your artfully delivered pickup line will only yield criticism about tone, inflection, stance or ironic juxtaposition with post-industrialist context (whatever that means). So leave them for the queue outside Mooseheads or Academy. A safe bet is:

Icebreaker: Did you enjoy the show?
Follow-up regardless of response: Would you like to get a drink?

Because LoveBumps was pretty smashed already, she asked that it be chips and gravy instead. There was a van next door to the Street Theatre.

Now, I might be biased (I am the artistic director of one of these amateur groups), but I think it is wonderful to see that the professionals feel so threatened by those of us who do it for free! That is the most complimentary thing I’ve heard in years! There is one point that I have to agree wholeheartedly with Dr Chynoweth on: she criticises governments’ preference for arts funding that keeps genuinely critical art works at bay. Jon Stanhope, as the Arts Minister, has certainly taken this approach. He only goes to see the visiting productions from interstate, and basically ignores local theatre artists.

BTW harvyk; we get more than 50 professional touring shows from interstate each year, mostly at the so-called “Canberra” Theatre Centre, as well as at least 10 local professional productions, mostly at The Street Theatre.

Theatre is great and you generally get what you pay for. The exception is amateur productions that can give you far more bang for your buck than what you expected.

I think Canberrians appreciate a good performance, the payroll of the actors isn’t something to get hung up about.

So to Kate Shearer… put on a great production and people will pay more money for it and they may look out for your companies productions in the future. If you can’t do a better job as a professional company than the amateurs, take a long hard look at yourselves.

Most amateur theatre I’ve been to has been because I know someone who is in the show. I like to support their efforts. Sometimes the show is a bit rough around the edges, but so what? That can be what really makes it memorable.

The difference between amateurs and pros? Price, props and maybe a biggish name or two.

I’m more likely to be disappointed by an expensive show rather than one put on by students/thwarted thespians/enthsuiastic suburban folk.

People are not so much ‘unwilling’ to distinguish, as there’s little or no distinction between “pro” and “am” other than a bit of a cash component. In an environment where there is masses of enthusiasm, knowledge, discipline and talent, the “amateurs” can often outshine tired old pros doing a hack thing.

Given that we are lucky to get a professional show through Canberra more than a couple of times a year I amateur is really the only way to go to the theater in Canberra. If you want an example of what I mean, look at the Phantom of the Opera, it was in Sydney for quite a long time, and many Canberran’s traveled up to Sydney to see it (including people I wouldn’t have thought would be fans) and yet Canberra didn’t even get a single day here.

The really funny thing is that when a professional show does come through Canberra apparently it’s patronage is far higher than in both Sydney or Melbourne (it could be because in Canberra it runs for a week if that, in Sydney and Melbourne the shows will usually last for a few months).

Just my observations, based on no facts other than what I’ve seen.

Woody Mann-Caruso10:18 am 23 Sep 08

I know the difference, and it isn’t on the stage. I’d reject any notion that “social activity” and “a serious investigation of various methodologies” are mutually exclusive. Anybody who has been involved with passionate amateurs in any sphere – open source software, motorsport, theatre, whatever – knows that they’ll go to the ends of the earth to get something right, to do it better. The idea that once money enters the equation things are suddenly better is laughable – if anything, commercial interests can only serve to muddy the waters.

tylersmayhem9:02 am 23 Sep 08

I definitely prefer amateur productions a lot of the time. There’s often more at stake for the actors and the quality is often even better than the pros. Add to that the previous comment about $40 difference is also bang on.

The most recent example I can give was the performance by Stephen Berkoff at the Canberra Theater last week. It received a couple of rave reviews, so I thought I’d check out “Victor Maitland” in the flesh. I was also keen to see a long time actor who has global notoriety.

I was left cold, disappointed and confused…and $65 lighter after the 90 minute (including intermission) show. It was more of an opportunity for those who’ve seen his more serious work over the years, to come and laugh at him carrying on like a year 10 drama student. I have seen quite a bit of stage in my time – and have been left speechless by the quality and power of some performances, but not this time.

I may not be an avid or experienced theater performance fan, but he could have at least delivered the classic lines out of Beverly Hills Cop: “I don’t think you have the slightest idea who you’re f**king with”.

DarkLadyWolfMother8:10 am 23 Sep 08

Having seen my fair share of both professional and amateur productions, I’d agree with Thumper.

To an extent, all a professional production does is put more polish on the production. Curiously, I’ve found that’s sometimes to the detriment of the it. Perhaps I just like that more ‘raw’ edge you get with some amateur productions. It seems to give it more energy and make it more entertaining to me.

Perhaps Canberrans do know what they want, and it’s not the professional scene? It’s amazing they never think of that kind of answer…

Amateur theatre is raw, gritty, and gives up and coming actors the chance to have their talent seen and heard. Art is of the last bastians of creative freedom we can enjoy as the commercialisation of society becomes more widespread.

I don’t like amateur shows like Cirque de Soil that is fer sure.

The difference ?
About 40 bucks

I think one problem is that Canberra is too small a place to support a professional show. There are simply not enough people to sustain a show and cover the immense costs associated with a pro production.

Canberrans are very casual about the theatre, even evening performances are dress-down affairs.

The Street Theatre person sounds like one of those people who would label anyone who won’t sit through “The Birthday party” without falling asleep a philistine anyway.

It doesn’t matter to me as long as I enjoy the show. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t know whether it was amateur or professional in Canberra unless I was familiar with the theatre company or somebody told me.

Quackers and I did join Canberra Rep but we haven’t been along to any Happy Hours or anything yet.

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