Collectively Inspiring

I’m leaving Seattle next week, returning to Brisbane to pick up where we left off with my students, and continue the development of a couple of new solo performance projects.

Seattle has quite a reputation as an ok place to live; the scenery is spectacular, and the people are very down to earth and pragmatic. The weather is always sunny when I’m here, but the locals accept the long wet winters with remarkable patience.

Mt Rainier, beyond Seward Park.

Seattle also has quite a reputation as a place where theatre thrives. Large productions are often tried and tested here before transferring to Broadway, there are several main stage houses performing classics and contemporary work, and quite a number of small venues supporting an eclectic range of independent groups.

Two organisations in particular have captured my attention, because they encapsulate the kind of professionalism and commitment that I believe is essential for theatre to thrive.  One is the Sandbox Collective, made up of local performers who train together on an ad hoc basis, form and reform into different combinations for different projects, supporting each other’s work and promoting a sense of adventure that keeps the spirits high when the cash flow is low.

The other is the Seagull Project, “Ten Actors, One Room, Nine Months, One Play”. The group has committed to a nine month long exploration of Chekhov’s The Seagull, to creating a richly diverse ensemble of actors, designers, choreographers and directors.  They are supported by ACT Repertory Theatre’s Central Heating Lab, which provides support for independent groups similar to Brisbane’s Metro Arts Independents Program, or Laboite’s Indies, or the Judith Wright Centre’s Fresh Ground.  The difference between the Brisbane programs, and ACT’s, is that the latter is open to all performance genres, with the emphasis being on the professionalism of the participants.  It assumes that the actors will be paid. The budget template ACT provides to applicants has Actors’ fees at the top.

The ten actors who are involved in the Seagull Project are not students, or even recent graduates.  They are all experienced actors who identify themselves as such (I’m sure they have ‘day jobs’ as well, they have to eat!) but my point is, these are not people at the beginning of their careers who are looking to showcase their talents in order to break into the industry.  They are not ’emerging artists’.  They are artists.  I can vouch for that, having seen some of them at a reading the other night, presenting some Russian folk tales and literature that they’ve been exploring as part of their process. It was an extraordinary evening’s entertainment, and I was just blown away by the talent, skill and expertise they shared with us.

They have committed themselves, not just to devoting their time and energies to this project in order to get on stage, but also to raising the necessary funding to provide a fully realised production next January.  Their budget is $100,000.  That is so that everybody gets paid. Five months into the project, they have managed to raise $80,000, some of it ‘in kind’, some from philanthropic benefactors, some from fund raising events.

It’s very hard to imagine this sort of thing happening in Brisbane.  We are so used – in the independent sector – to actors working for nothing, it is pretty much taken for granted, and many companies don’t even budget for actors’ wages. Our more experienced actors, the ones who do occasionally get paid to perform, are unlikely to commit to such a long term project, especially one that involves doing their own dramaturgical research, re-training, up-skilling and fund-raising.

I could be wrong. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. In fact, I look forward to a barrage of your comments informing me about instances of some of our finest, most experienced actors doing just that. And then I will look forward to seeing the insightful, skilful, richly complex and intelligent theatre that results.