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'Always' 2018, Jacob Nash artwork Barangaroo Reserve
Photograph: Anna Kucera'Always' by Jacob Nash, Sydney Festival 2018

What next for Sydney’s performing arts scene? We ask some major players

From the giant Sydney Festival to the tiny Old 505 Theatre, the solutions come in all shapes and sizes

Written by
Stephen A Russell

When outgoing Sydney Festival artist director Wesley Enoch unveils his final program, for January 2021, before handing the reins to Olivia Ansell, there will be one major change. With international borders unlikely to reopen any time soon, he’ll be fielding an all-star Australian line-up, with a First Nations focus.

“I’ve always been about Australian voices and Australia artists, especially First Nations artists,” he says. “With the Black Lives Matter conversation, people keep asking for my opinion, and I know why. Because the Sydney Festival has been in this territory, not just in my time, saying First Nations artists and voices are important, so let’s feed the festival some steroids and let’s go Australian made.”

He’s quick to issue the caveat that he doesn’t want it to be jingoistic. But he does want to rip out the creeping tendrils of cultural cringe. “We get caught in a kind of cult of celebrity,” he says. “We get told that these people are famous somewhere else, so therefore they must be the best. When in fact, the rest of the world often looks to us, especially in circus, and in our First Nations storytelling.”

As Enoch sees it, the performing arts are at the heart of how we tell the story of our nation. And he’s through with those who refuse to recognise that. “At this point in time, you feel totally abandoned by the federal government,” he says. “Every time they try to avoid talking about us, be it theatre or dance, music or cinema or, or whatever else, you just realise that they don’t want to talk about what makes a nation understand itself.”

Wesley Enoch, artistic director of Sydney Festival
Wesley Enoch, artistic director of Sydney Festival Photograph: Prudence Upton

It feels like the arts have a target painted on their back, he says. “It’s been outrageous, their total absence from any kind of conversation that says we play any role in not just the economy, but the social fabric of this country. And in the last couple of weeks, especially with the Black Lives Matter conversation, you just realise how out of touch, sometimes, politicians are with the bigger issues. And I can’t help but be a bit of a conspiracy theorist and think there seems to be an ideological issue about the arts and entertainment industries that often bite the hand that feeds them, with their social commentary.” 

We’re at risk of losing some of our major players, Enoch warns. “We’ve seen it with Carriageworks just recently, but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Theatre Company or Sydney Dance Company, will we see them threatened? Because many of them are on the edge of solvency.”

He thinks those prestigious companies will probably receive a slice of the recent $55 million state government arts Rescue and Restart package, “and good onya, but will we see state or federal government supporting the small-to-medium sector, the more experimental or emerging artists? Will we see a kind of intergenerational conflict, about what gets saved and what doesn’t?”

He hopes not. “We’ve all been talking about ecology for a very long time, but many organisations talk about self-interest when the pressure hits. And in these times what we really need to do is focus on actually is what’s good for the community. Because if we keep thinking about protecting our lot, we won’t allow any growth to happen.”

Enoch thinks the re-emergence over the next six months, towards summer and the Sydney Festival – which even in a normal year attracts 87 per cent of its audience from within the city boundaries – will divide folks into two distinct camps. “One response will be, ‘shit. I can’t leave my apartment, I have to lock the door and stay inside. I don’t feel safe’. And the other one is the hedonistic Sydney response, which is, ‘I’m going to go out and I’m going to pash everything on the lips.”

Here’s hoping the latter outnumber the former. As Kerri Glasscock, Sydney Fringe director and owner of Newtown’s independent Old 505 Theatre sees it, the entire arts sector model is going to have to change to recognise that it’s the little guys who do a lot of the heavy lifting.

“It’s an extremely uncertain time for the independent and the small-to-medium sector, because we’re looking at the unfunded part of the sector, which, let’s be honest, is the bulk of activity that happens in our city. It’s the small live music venues, the tiny theatres, the comedy clubs, where most of us see our entertainment, and they’re going to have a very tough time emerging out of this.”

That’s because they drive creative risk, and that’s going to be an increasingly difficult ask. “We’ve all become accustomed to being able to go out to multiple shows at any night of the week. And the work as audience members see presented in those small venues is underwritten primarily by the artists and the venue.”

Reality is, they’re not going to be able to take as many chances. “With my 505 hat on, when I would program my year ahead, I would normally take a good four or five risks each year. It’s not a financially lucrative industry anyway, but you could weather some of that risk to support work you believe in knowing that, by the end of the year, it would even out on the balance sheet. I’m just not going to be able to do that anymore.”

Kerri Glasscock, director of Sydney Fringe and Old 505 Theatre owner
Kerri Glasscock, director of Sydney Fringe and Old 505 Theatre ownerPhotograph: Supplied

If the edgier shows don’t happen, we all lose out, Glasscock says. “As far as the health of our sector, and also the creation of our country’s canon, if those indie venues aren’t able to shoulder that risk and invest in new work or work in development, then where does that leave our young artists and our sector?”

That could mean tightening up on refund policy, she suggests. It could also mean less diversity in the shows that do get a run. “It’s a well-known fact in the industry that I can have 60 people in here at the theatre and sell a third of the amount of drinks I would to 60 people seeing live music.”

But it might be the smaller venues that are more able to wear social distancing restrictions, Glasscock notes. “When we run our budgeting master classes at Sydney Fringe for our emerging producers, we recommend they budget on a 30 per cent capacity, so maybe the small spaces can come online quicker, but we still keep coming back to this question around risk. We’re advocating very loudly at Sydney Fringe for a stimulus package that we can disseminate really quickly through to venues and artists, because whilst the NSW government’s $55 million package is incredibly welcome, of course, it’s going to obviously prioritise safeguarding those major companies.”

The Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) is an engine room of future talent that inexplicably lost out in the recent Australia Council cuts. That leaves the company facing tough times ahead even as it prepares to move into fancy new digs at Pier 2/3, including a purpose-built 200-seater performance space.

Artistic director Fraser Corfield says the company is lucky, to some extent, that theatre productions are only a part of what it does. Due to the current situation, ATYP moved its workshop program online, helping it reach more Australian youth than it ever could before. But restrictions on audience numbers and the impending funding cliff are a worry.

“There’s been a systemic neglect in funding of theatre with and for young people over at least a decade,” he says. “Twenty-six leading companies have been de-funded by the Australia Council over that period. The fact that in the last round that resulted in five of the largest and most successful companies being ousted, including ATYP, Barking Gecko and Polyglot, is ludicrous. There’s going to have to be a long-term rebuilding of the performing arts industries out of this.”

Fraser Corfield, artistic director of ATYP
Fraser Corfield, artistic director of ATYPPhotograph: Supplied

We need big-picture thinking, Corfield argues. “There are broader social concerns around the deteriorating mental health of young people and the need for community building exercises coming off the back of the bushfires and Covid. The arts sector can easily be a key plank of all of those things.”

He’s crossing his fingers ATYP can negotiate some relief on the funding front and maintains high hopes for the company's future. “The new theatre will be a game-changer for the company. We’ll have the capacity to run longer seasons with larger audiences, so there’s a lot to look forward to if we can navigate through these the curveballs.”

Mikala Tai, director of Haymarket’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, sees a new shape forming amidst all the chaos faced by the arts industries. “I hope it will look different,” she says. “We can’t go through such a complete upheaval of society as we know it without some significant, responsive growth from the arts. This is the moment for sustainable change to occur.”

Mikala Tai, director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Mikala Tai, director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian ArtPhotograph: Supplied

She hopes one day we can, “look back at this moment as the point the arts became truly engaged with the diverse, paradoxical, messy and exciting reality of contemporary Australia.”

It’s a big hope, but Tai insists, “I have faith. I like to always look for a silver lining, even if it is very, very thin. This moment is a great opportunity to rebuild a performing arts scene that connects with more audiences, speaks to more people and actively engages with the diverse nature of Sydney.”

What lies ahead for Sydney Festival after Enoch? We caught up with his successor here

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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Image: Supplied

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