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CHANGING TIMES AT NIDA

Chris Puplick

Platform Paper 33

Chris Puplick

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After 50 years of growth the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) has come to be recognised as the pre-eminent theatre training school in Australia and one of the finest theatre schools in the world. Its graduates have been the mainstay of our stage, film and TV industries, and in many ways constitute Australia’s most visible export. But in 2007 a new force with a different mission took command, determined to address perceived new challenges for the new century. Emotion has been high as petitions have been ignored and mentors marched away ‘in an overt policy of removing all former practices and corporate memory from the building’. What new opportunities have been embraced? What is being achieved and what lost? Former Board member Chris Puplick has written an intensively researched case for urgent action to be taken to reverse NIDA’s decline. The current Board and management, he believes, have demolished the ‘old NIDA’ and now preside over a new crisis of management, pedagogy, governance and confidence.

 

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About the Author

CHRIS PUPLICK, AM was a member of the Board of NIDA 1994–2000 and 2007–10. He has had an outstanding career in public service, particularly in the arts and health; and served two terms as a Liberal Senator for NSW. He was inaugural chair of the National Film and Sound Archive 2008–12.

…when it comes to the performing arts and filmmaking, almost no attention has been paid to questions of fundamental education and training. Successive national governments have invested large sums in support of both of these industries but there has never been an independent or parliamentary inquiry into arts training as such. There are programs and support networks to help theatre practitioners establish performing arts companies and gain funding but almost no advice on what constitutes proper student training.

 

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Editor's Note

This section is customarily reserved for readers' responses to previous Platform Papers as a way of continuing the national debate on matters of public interest. However, though the argument put by the October issue, no. 33, Changing Times at NIDA, raised a deal of emotion and controversy; the management of the National Institute of Dramatic Art declined our offer to publish a substantial answer to the issues raised. In the words of their solicitors: 'Given the approach Currency House has taken to this matter, NIDA does not have confidence that its side of the story will be presented in a fair and balanced manner.'

Equally, the many people who attended our launch, and who were previously on the teaching staff or members of the NIDA Company, were vigorous in expressing their opinions but chose not to commit them to paper. Exceptions, however, were David Elfick, film producer and a member of the NIDA Company, Bill Winspear, a long-time Board member; and Christine Roberts, former librarian, who lost her position in the reassignment of the library space at NIDA. Their letters are published below. An edited extract from Jeremy Sims' launch speech which canvassed wider issues, is also published for your interest.

DR BILL WINSPEAR AM is a dentist who has been associated with NIDA for nearly thirty years. He has been a member of the Company since 1984 serving as a member of its Board of Directors for fourteen years (1984-95; 2006-10), as a trustee of the NIDA Foundation (1995-2008) and as Chairman of Friends of NIDA (1998-2011). He was appointed a director of the Seaborn, Broughton and Walford Foundation in 2002 and is currently its Secretary/Treasurer.

As expected, Chris Puplick's Platform Paper Changing Times at NIDA (October 2012) has provided another opportunity for the continuation of combative words between the champions of the 'old NIDA' and of the 'new NIDA'-sadly a division coined after the appointment of its current Director Ms Lynne Williams in 2008. Since its publication, arguments and counter-arguments have been publicly aired regarding the changes that have been implemented and/or are planned in realising NIDA's new-found vision and 'revitalisation'.

Having been involved with the organisation for nearly three decades, I am well aware of the past conflicts that have been waged at NIDA when change was demanded or carried out. I have observed at first hand the overwhelming passion and commitment that exists within its creative environs and which, at times, has exploded into extravagant dimensions. There are many graduates who did not enjoy their time at NIDA; there are others who embraced the experience and thrived during their training. But that's NIDA!

I was not surprised by the media's reporting of this latest skirmish which I found to be fair and appropriate. However, one article by Andrew Taylor of the Sydney Morning Herald (22-3 September 2012) captured my attention. Mr Taylor wrote about 'NIDA's pre-eminence being challenged' and posed the question: why there is a need to 'have a three-year university degree for actors if it [NIDA] fails to spot talent and is no guarantee of future success'? He based this enquiry on his observation that a number of prominent practitioners had been rejected by NIDA in the past; and some theatre directors appeared to be dismissive of higher education training. One director purportedly remarked that 'the intensity of the training means schools frequently focus on their own criteria, methodologies and philosophies, rather than looking outward and engaging with the artistic dialogues, trends and debates occurring around them on the professional stages'.

Ms Williams, in her Six Year Program of Renewal, has proposed a new vision for NIDA which needs 'to incorporate the totality of NIDA as an organisation but recognize elite practice-led higher education and training at its core'. In prefacing this statement, she proffers the question: '[W]hat are the attributes necessary for a NIDA graduate to succeed in this rapidly evolving world of performing arts and how can NIDA best prepare these future leaders of the arts and entertainment industry for a fulfilling and sustainable career?'

A fair question, especially in light of Mr Taylor's article. One that deserves to be addressed not only in respect of NIDA's future journey of 'renewal', but also by the wider performing arts community. How important is a formal tertiary education to the developing talent in acting, design, production, directing and playwriting?

Mr Puplick opines in his chapter 'Arts training in Australia', that 'when it comes to the performing arts and filmmaking, almost no attention has been paid to questions of fundamental education and training;' and laments 'the lack of attention to fundamental questions of basic theatre training [that] pervades even the submissions made by NIDA and other training institutions to the ongoing National Cultural Policy review'. Understandably there are those who would be keen for Mr Puplick's paper to vanish without trace; but equally there are those who would want his essay to initiate discussion on the training of performing arts practitioners. Whilst I certainly hold the latter view, I am unsure as to how to progress this important dialogue.

But what are the 'fundamental' issues? Are there too many publicly funded teaching programs in Australia, producing an unsustainable oversupply of graduates? Can the current public budget be more effectively utilised? Should these programs be better integrated into regional performing arts companies to ensure greater hands-on exposure? And most importantly, are the current curricula adequately equipping graduates for their future careers? As a first step, it might be of benefit to organise an open national discussion by eminent practitioners from all arenas of the industry, to exchange their views on the current status of vocational training in the arts and the changes needed to secure best practice.

Finally, I must acknowledge the masterful address by Jeremy Sims (a NIDA graduate) at the launch of this paper. His analysis of the current situation at NIDA was both dispassionate and considerate; he spoke with a balanced understanding of the issues that have, and are currently, confronting the Institute. After more that fifty years, it is not surprising that NIDA graduates are in the ascendancy, being acknowledged not only as talented and innovative practitioners but as capable, corporate leaders of their profession.

I sincerely hope that NIDA's Board of Directors will now provide opportunities for Mr Sims and other members of the alumni to contribute their skills to its future governance. I would respectfully suggest that it is well overdue for the appointment of NIDA graduates to the Chair of the Board of Directors and of the Board of Studies. These initiatives would be an enormous fillip to Ms Williams' 'renewal program' and be warmly welcomed by the extended NIDA community.

DAVID ELFICK of Palm Beach Pictures is one of Australia's best known film and television producers and directors, known for movies from Newsfront to Rabbit Proof Fence and beyond. He is a member of the NIDA Company.

I attended the launch of Chris Puplick's paper and was disheartened that a gathering which contained such keen intelligence was wasted on relentless negativity towards the current NIDA administration.

When someone is appointed to the position of Chief Executive of an organisation they will have their own vision and agenda. Unless the organisation becomes totally dysfunctional under their administration, and clearly that is not the case under Lynne Williams' stewardship of NIDA, it does the organisation more harm than good to relentlessly criticise and undermine everything they do, especially if you opposed their appointment. Many aspects of the entertainment industry are rapidly changing and organisations like NIDA that provide the creative talent to the industry need to adapt to continue to serve the industry effectively. A CEO is appointed to make decisions that will achieve this.

Much more would be achieved by recognising some of the positive changes that have recently been achieved. Then any criticism might have more traction and be taken into proper consideration. When new staff are appointed they should be given a chance to show what they can achieve without being constantly criticised. I feel that this particularly applies to the Head of Acting Jeff Janisheski.

What is achieved by referring to the current crop of NIDA actors as attractive television performers? This is insulting and inaccurate to characterise these vulnerable young actors in such a way.

A CEO will make many appointments; some will perform above expectations, others perhaps will not. It is impossible to run any organisation and get everything right. That is why I support three-year contracts with an extension of a further three years. It works in other organisations such as AFTRS. Perhaps NIDA's unique requirements need an ability to extend appointments beyond six years and I am sure this could be accommodated. NIDA has lost the input from a lot of very talented people and I would urge Malcolm [Long, NIDA Chair]and Lynne to reach out to John Clark and others who have given so much to NIDA and see how they could be included in the NIDA they currently administer.

I am a member of the NIDA Company. The idea of making the Company a more robust forum for open discussion is a good one. The membership would only benefit by being reinvigorated by new members who can stimulate debate on matters of concern. Perhaps the Company should meet twice a year and become an active forum for creative thinking and discussion on this extraordinary institution that is NIDA.

CHRISTINE ROBERTS was senior librarian at NIDA for 29 years. She resigned in protest in 2009 following the management decision to reassign library space to other uses.

I congratulate Chris Puplick on producing a paper succinctly describing the recent changes at NIDA while deftly avoiding the tide of negative emotions overwhelming those of us who have gone. The pain of an environment in which our qualifications, ability and experience were not respected and the 'unhappy or hostile' circumstances of our departure are still with us.

On reflection, perhaps we ourselves should bear some responsibility for the Administration's successful removal of almost everybody associated with NIDA's former management. We had worked for so long in such a creative and productive environment, our only care being for our students. We were not used to having to watch our backs and lacked the skills even to see the approaching tsunami before it was upon us.

I can only hope that this period is but a blip on the radar and not the beginning of the demise of what was truly a great institution.

JEREMY SIMS graduated from NIDA in 1990 and is a popular stage and TV actor. He is co-founder of Pork Chop Productions, and director of the play and film Last Cab to Darwin; and the film Beneath Hill 60. Below is an extract from the speech he gave on 17 October 2012 to launch Changing Times at NIDA.

What I would like to do here is begin what we all hope will be a process of informed and open debate. Nothing more. I will offer some personal thoughts not on the specifics of the paper, but why this is such a contentious and difficult matter to grapple with in the first place.[…]

My major qualification for being here is that I am a NIDA graduate. I stumbled out into the real world in 1990. I graduated from the acting course, so […] I represent only thirty per cent of the graduates of this famous school. The rest graduated in technical production, design or directing, or any one of a myriad of courses with longer titles now on offer. As my friend Mikel Mynster points out, for most graduates NIDA stands for: 'No I Don't Act'.

So this is not just a debate about an actors' factory, but about an institution charged with producing qualified theatre professionals ready to work in the theatre industry. For that reason, the list of Hollywood celebrity acting graduates regularly trotted out by the school in publicity blurbs as some kind of raison d'être, and lapped up by a lazy press looking for a photo and a simple angle, is not just off the mark, but […] insensitive and ill-informed.

Still, if a school for theatre professionals were to be judged solely on the ability of its graduates to find work in their chosen industry, then there is no doubt a certain schizophrenia in the performance data. NIDA remains incredibly successful in some areas, particularly in technical production […] where industry demand far outstrips supply, and yet is woefully inadequate in others, such as acting, where the number of alumni finding meaningful work five years after graduation is typically less than a third…

What then is the special purpose of a National Institute of Dramatic Art? Is it simply to train a suite of professionals to work specifically in the theatre, as it was probably set up to do back in the 1950s? Or is it now much broader than that: to train a body of 'creative artists' who will filter out into Australian cultural life more generally and 'give life to lifeless forms' in theatre, film, television, literature, dance, education, commentary-out and out like ripples on a pond?

If it is the former, then this modest aim should be stated clearly, and the needs and advice of the major professional theatre companies […[taken on board; after which a simple and easily framed conversation would, one imagines, ensue. But if it is the latter, as I suspect it should be and has probably become;[…] then there are subjective quagmires and minefields at every turn. How do we gauge success here?

From my year, the mix of colleagues now working in the industry includes film directors, television producers, political commentators, documentary makers, teachers and intellectuals. Only four out of twenty of us still act for a living. But plenty of ripples have spread out over the pond. The point seemed to be back then to find at least a few people in every year who would attempt to turn the world upside down. People who wanted to blow up the room and everybody in it just to see what would happen. To that end it seemed to me that the school, at its best, was determined to fight hard to create the parameters and paradigms that would ensure that this energy and creativity could be harnessed and focused on the shared goal of making great theatre, So the question was not ever just 'how' but also, crucially, 'why'.

One of the players at the heart of all this, senior acting teacher Kevin Jackson, who taught me, gently makes the point that if NIDA were simply an acting school, then they would have kicked Baz Luhrmann out after six months. Hopeless actor, but a unique and passionate creator. Would Baz have done what Baz has done without NIDA? I doubt it.[…]

Over the years, and certainly as the size of the school has increased [,,,] the median age, and range of life experience, of NIDA students has diminished. This is statistically true. My year had three students over thirty when we started. Many had already worked at several jobs. The median age of a NIDA student, particularly in acting, has fallen steadily since then. I hope this has not been because regulating chaos and creativity is easier with the less experienced and opinionated…

Personally, I auditioned for NIDA in the hope of escaping Perth. When I got there I quickly realised that the greatest asset the school had for me, was not the building, or the teachers, but the students, gathered from all corners of this vast and at times stultifying land, and dropped in a rehearsal room along with me. I'd never met so many interesting people in one go before.[…]

If nothing else, I hope that in all this, NIDA's role in finding and bringing together a group of smart, ambitious, passionate, argumentative, difficult and inspired artists is not forgotten. There are very few key performance indicators that will allow you to judge who those people are. You are going to have to employ and trust people-human beings with subjective opinions, committed individuals with experience and guile and passion to match-to guide and facilitate the process. You are going to have to set up organic, subjective and intuitive processes that build trust and risk-taking in equal measure. It's not easy.

The theatre community in Sydney is small and I haven't been able to avoid the stories of pain and bitterness and dislocation felt by a whole generation of teachers and administrators who are no longer at NIDA. People who devoted their lives, for little remuneration, to building community bonds that can't be bought or outsourced. It would seem, at the very least, that too many people with too much experience have left, or been pushed, from the one place in too short a time for it to be good for anybody.

That is the only opinion I will venture. I hope for the sake of the present crop of students that they aren't unduly affected by all this. I do because we simply need them to work and play and learn and create with each other, with their teachers, in a way that will enable the best to emerge and engender the next generation of cultural growth in a country where it is sorely needed.

Videos of Jeremy Sims' and Chris Puplick's launch speeches are posted at www.currencyhouse.org.au