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Platform Paper 11
What is the culture of our place, of our backyard? Lyndon Terracini, who spent thirty years in the opera houses of Europe before settling in the NSW town of Lismore, reveals the rich diversity of Australia’s country-town culture and makes a strong plea for their right to the same respect as metropolitan culture. With the rapid demographic changes presently taking place, he writes, our European traditions are fast becoming irrelevant. Preservation of our stories is as essential to our survival as our flora and fauna. As director of the Queensland Music Festival 2000–2005, he spent many months in outback areas and small towns, building huge collaborative performance works in which whole districts participated. He describes the commissioning of music and texts, the mixing of star practitioners with local workers, and the way the communities took ownership. A creative culture, he argues, should be a pyramid, based in the stories of our backyard and the culture of place. From that grows innovation, skill, professional art practice and, at the summit, the kind of work that can be life-changing
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To create work that has important culturalsignificance to a particular place and people, andwhich is then embraced universally as an importantartistic creation, is what every artist strives for. It’sthe pursuit of that elusive state that we define as art;it’s our eternal quest.
Michael Richards is author of grow the arts, reap the harvest, and was lead writer on arts Queensland's 00 regional arts development fund evaluation.
The great strength of Lyndon Terracini's paper is that it has emerged from his own personal odyssey through the arts and is enriched by his responses and insights into performances and events he has variously instigated and participated in. Lyndon has, in the vernacular (appropriate given his concern for popular engagement) 'been there and done that'. He knows what he is talking about, and he speaks not with the studied detachment and supposed objectivity of the scholar, but with the visceral conviction and innate authority of the partisan. Much of what he advocates is important and highly prescient, and warrants implementation or support.
Lyndon's call for 'a regional state of mind' amounts to an appeal-and I interpret his argument in my own terms, at the risk of extending it slightly-for arts production to be decentralised, democratised and reintegrated into everyday life. For this to happen the arts must stimulate, foster and contribute to a living dialogue that permeates communities and engages their people by ventilating issues of real and immediate concern, through familiar and meaningful voices and iconographies.
Lyndon articulates his call primarily in terms of regionalism and place, but in our shared lexicon, regionalism and place are about far more than geography and location; they embrace all the material and immaterial contexts, characteristics and accoutrements of the human condition, such as both physical and intangible environments, beliefs, values and attitudes, vocations, aspiration and fears, and so on.
Truly relevant and meaningful art will thus reflect a strong awareness of its 'place' of genesis, and become a celebration of the culture and people of that place, resonating with and expressing a sense of their community. Indeed, the rediscovery and strengthening of community is a necessary accompaniment to the creation of such art. The joint processes of creating art and asserting community intertwine and reinforce each other, reintegrating the arts into the fabric of daily life, and fostering not only more relevant and powerful art, but more satisfying and creative lives.
This leads to what I call a 'creative community culture'. Such a culture discredits the spurious nexus between consumption and lifestyle, and allows people to live richer and more satisfying lives without increasing their consumption of material goods. A necessary characteristic is that people understand and are empowered to tell their own stories in their own voices, as an antidote to the repressive and stultifying uniformity of globally franchised culture.
Other principles Lyndon advocates are equally important. His call for arts funding to be seen in terms of research and investment is seminal and goes to the heart of arts funding policy. It mandates the corollary that we should be prepared to drill many 'dry wells' in order to discover one that is productive, and it requires that we recognise and accept diverse and oblique channels of investment return. I whole-heartedly endorse it.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this call for a return to relevance for the arts is that they should draw attention to and expose for discussion critical issues of public concern (moral, social and environmental). The arts provide versatile tools, both delicate and powerful, to help us analyse, consider and comment upon these issues that confront us all-from drugs, violence, family breakdown and social dislocation to the sustainable use or resources and the looming catastrophe of global warming.
In this respect, although Lyndon does not discuss it, the arts have a key contribution to make to the health and effectiveness of our democracy, by amplifying grass-roots concerns and providing diverse channels of communication and feedback, adding to those essential arteries that carry the lifeblood of civil society.
I am less comfortable with Lyndon's use of the pyramid as a metaphor for his ideal cultural configuration. The pyramid is inherently hierarchical and inflexible, and it provides the quintessential structure of the arts bureaucracies Lyndon decries. As such, it sits uncomfortably with his call for popular engagement and creative management. The pyramid also suggests, inevitably to me, a vertical scale of quality and value in which both are equated with altitude, and so fosters notions of elitism and exclusivity which are at odds with Lyndon's general egalitarian and democratic thrust.
In fact, we already have a pyramid; it is the structure of our society, a pyramid of prestige, money and power. Even at its most benign, this pyramid is oligarchic and elitist; at its most pernicious it becomes oppressive and autocratic. If the arts are to be more egalitarian and further the democratic cause, our aim should be, if not to demolish this pyramid, then at least to flatten it by simultaneously reducing its height and broadening its base, and by creating more numerous, shorter and less constricted connections between its apex and its base.
antonietta morgillo is a writer, performer and theatre maker. she currently works as the Program officer for the theatre board of the australia Council.
There are lots of issues that could be raised when addressing the making of art in a regional environment: what works in the country, what do people want in the country and what the difficulties, both financial and otherwise, are. And many of these were raised during the panel discussion of Lyndon Terracini's paper in Albury in February 2007. However, rather than focusing on the challenges, let's focus on the inspirational aspects of Lyndon's paper.
The projects Lyndon describes use a diversity of strategies to raise substantial funds, make great work, and engage effectively with the community. These projects offer ample evidence that there are new, and successful, ways of making theatre in a regional environment. It's not easy, and there are many complications, but there are also many possibilities.
We-that is, theatre makers, producers, funding bodies-are all looking at ways to generate sustainable theatre-making in a regional environment. Finding a model, however, that will create innovative, high-quality work that engages its audience, whether or not that work tells stories of the place in which it was created, is a bit of an experiment in the current climate. We, at the Theatre Board, have been encouraging some of these experiments by cooking up initiatives that provide would-be theatre makers with opportunities.
Our Touring the Theatre Making Process initiative supported partnerships between professional theatre artists and regional communities to create new work. The idea was that artists who had a tried and tested process would choose a community that would welcome their residency and be willing to make a theatre work with them.
This initiative contributed funding to Big hART's 'Gold' project, Y Space's 'La Trobe City Proposal' and Darwin Theatre Company's work 'The Road to Minyerri'. In this last project, a new work was created with the isolated Aboriginal community of Minyerri near Roper River, 600km south of Darwin. The elders now see the project, for which the entire community collaborated in transforming a rock outcrop into an amphitheatre for the performance, as a way for their language and local stories to regain importance in the eyes of younger people in their community. They are keen to repeat the exercise next year.
Local Stages is another Theatre Board initiative, in partnership with Arts NSW, that aims to encourage regional performing arts centres (PACs) to move from being predominantly presenters of touring work, to becoming hubs for local theatre-making. The idea of this experiment is to make more effective use of the existing cultural infrastructure in regional areas, unlocking the potential of these PACs, and promoting ownership of such activity by local governments, and through this, to help local artists make great work in a supported environment.
There is now a creative producer in each of three PACs in NSW: Anne-Louise Rentell in Wollongong, Margie Breen in Bathurst and Scott Howie in Griffith. Their role is to create programs that nurture professional practice in their region. They have been given a budget and resources to enable them to commission and produce new work by local artists. Local Stages has also been launched in regional South Australia in partnership with Arts SA and Country Arts SA. The creative producer, Stephen Mayhew, is located at Country Arts SA, and he will be focusing on two regions, the Upper Spencer Gulf and the Lower South East, areas that include the towns of Port Augusta and Mount Gambier respectively.
Local Stages will give performing artists in regional areas significantly greater access to resources and facilities, and thus relieve them of the burden of having to create and maintain their own companies. And Australian culture will be enriched, as it has been by Lyndon's remarkable work, by the creation of innovative works in other regional areas.
Of course, there are challenges working in the regions, but then artists trying to survive in the high-rent cities are also under pressure. I call on those with the creative minds and the years of experience in making theatre to help devise more innovative, strategic ways of connecting people, organisations, infrastructure, and funding sources so as to enable artists to keep making high quality art in, and from every part of our country. There are many possible experiments that haven't even been envisioned yet. Let Lyndon Terracini's work in Queensland point the way.