ATF 2015; what’s beyond? Scrap that. Theatre, period; what’s beyond?

I am not planning to write about my first Australian Theatre Forum experience. Nor will I summarise what went on. There are a great few articles and blog entries from Alison Croggon, Humphrey Bower, Eloise Maree, and of course the wonderful twitter stream that is #ATF2015.

These thoughts that I am now putting into words and out into the online world though, are not new, but have been made more urgent for me from what I had heard and witnessed at ATF2015.

Personally, and within my immediate community of makers, the conversations around moving forward have started and are definitely happening, and the hunger for the how-to is strong.

We are searching for other frameworks to make and present our work. We are searching for other frameworks to own and hone our artistic practices and discipline. We say “institutions do not validate our artistic work, nor us as artists.” (And I know this thinking has always existed in artists before me; this is not new!)

I definitely am searching.

I appreciate the existing structures for what they are. I engage with them; I have worked in and with them, and for them. But the reality is that these institutions are not sustainable. And we cannot continue to rely on them, nor can the organisations and companies.

And when I say structures – I mean the whole world that is – the industry as we call it. From the funding bodies, festivals, organisations, companies, makers (independent or not), actors/dancers/designers/technicians/staff, philanthropic partners, corporate partners – the whole lot! The very model that is the not-for-profit; the Artistic Director/GM/CEO/Executive Director management hierarchy, under the advise of a board etc etc…the very institution that is this economic model!

Is that model even relevant?

Or has that model existed in order for the arts to be players in the economic climate of today – a legal obligation towards accountability and transparency of management and financial transactions?

But is that complementary to the Arts at all? Or have we subscribed the Arts to simply function within a system that is continually dependent on subsidies?

There was a lot of talk of Politics, with a panel on Art and Democracy, and a no-confidence motion on Abbot and the government. But as Goenawan Mohamad challenged in his keynote lecture and discussion after, what of the politics in the form of the work we make? I ask, what of the politics in the form of where and how we make our work?

It is possible to move beyond symbolic gestures.

I moved from keynote to breakout session, from tea and cake to evening drinks, and I wondered, “is this forum model, adapted from a good old conference model used across industries, even relevant to the way theatre makers and enablers have conversations?”

I am reminded of the tour of Graham’s farm in Narrendera. I am reminded of how I realised, that we aren’t actually as creative, or experimental, or innovative, or daring, as we think we are.

We subscribe, once and again, to existing structures that aren’t necessarily efficient, effective, nor economical in financial resources and/or energy.

If we are convening as an industry, then where is the external expertise to exchange new knowledge so that our industry can grow? Why are we not engaging with the ever and fast changing world to better equip both ourselves, and our businesses to interact with them?

It was heard many times, on the panels and in the midst of the foyer, that social media like Twitter is where the conversations and the activism (will) happen. With and without my professional experience in Marketing and Communications, and quite simply as a millennial, I wanted very much to go up to the people who have said that, tap their shoulders and tell them that they have very unfortunately missed the boat.

Where are the entrepreneurs and technopreneurs who could shed light on some new developments in the world of platforms, social media, networking, and marketing, online and offline?

We talk about our audiences, but we don’t invite our audiences to come and chat with us in these forums? Frie Leysen in the final keynote also challenged the way we tend to discuss Audience as if they are a homogenised entity! Damn straight we do! And yet, we don’t have/don’t commit the resources towards understanding them beyond the post-show survey. But do we know of the work that Arts Participation Incubator led by Deakin University is doing? And are we on board?

We use the words Risk and Investment, when all we are afraid of is what we will lose? But in the finance world, Risk is defined as: the possibility that an actual return on an investment will be lower than the expected return. I definitely know very little about the finance world – but how could this definition philosophically shift the way we view the risks we do take in the arts, financial, artistic, and personal!

Someone said we should be better small businesses. Someone else asked if we should really be businesses at all.

I say, let’s really go interdisciplinary. Let’s challenge the breadth of the things we know. We shouldn’t have to be small business, nor should we not be. But if we choose either, do we know how?

And more than how – can we learn to understand the ways in which different industries grow and change, and be innovative and try new models for ourselves?

But let’s be real.

We cannot talk about wanting to pay our artists without brainstorming different ways to earn the money. We cannot ask for tickets or space to be cheaper or free, without owning the fact that someone else will always be subsidising that discount.

We cannot hold a panel session called Pathways to Diversity, only to have that panel be the most diverse of the entire forum, while a panel titled Smashing the Silos be made up of five white Australians, which is precisely indicative of the lack of Diversity and the irony of the theatre world. I do want to highlight though, that it was in the practice and lab-focused sessions that featured a great diversity of artists and practices, but like Rani Prasmeti called for – it is about diversity across leadership, management, makers, and audience.

We cannot also have a panel on the next green steps when we haven’t got the heart to put it to ourselves to bring a mug for the cups of tea and coffee that were so dutifully served throughout the forum.

On one of the mornings, I deliberately sat out of the breakout sessions. I needed a breather and I needed to sit with these thoughts that I had. What transpired was a wonderful intergenerational conversation with Deborah Wayne Leiser-Moore. Between us both, the world had vastly changed, but her experience nourishes me, and my view of the world invigorates her, and between us, we share the stubborn desire to make the work.

So perhaps it is in the listening that we have failed ourselves?

I learnt this from my marriage counsellor. In relationships, the dynamic that is the Painter and the Pointer exists. Painters articulate a lot of things – they verbalise and process as they do. It is through verbalising and painting the landscape of their thoughts out that they begin to understand. Pointers process things internally, and often have already sent a lot of the noise to the thrash bin, so whatever they may articulate is usually already the arrived thoughts and decisions.

I admit. I am a pointer.

I thought Frie Leysen’s final keynote was such a direct challenge; we were essentially being asked, “Do you have the balls?”

We expect rigour from our artists. We ask them to articulate their artistic inquiries. We ask them to experiment. We say failure is ok.

Can we expect the same from our arts managers? The enablers, as I like to call them.

Many of us do wear the many hats!

Can we, together, have the rigour to talk about our strategies, and how we have failed? Can we share new inventions? Can we launch new ideas, and share research and resources, so that we can arrive at possibilities of an innovation ahead, sooner?

Do we dare re-imagine the structures in which we exist? Do we dare re-imagine the world in which we inhabit? And if we do, are we building them? Are we really, really building them? Or are we very simply functioning?

For an industry that deals with the art of performing, when we get together, can we actually provide clearer, more articulate images of ways forward that we can take home into our own work?

Project idea:
ADs/CEOs/GMs/EDs/Etc – talk to me. I want to dream with you. Tell me what is failing. Tell me what is working. Continuing on The Artist as Entrepreneur, I want to meet with other start up companies and individuals; I want to be better at financial literacy; I want to explore various business plans and organisational summaries; but with people who have a sensitivity to the arts. I’m not sure I really know how to move forward. Talk to me.

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