Theatre People celebrates ten years of Theatre People achievements, triumphs and controversy…
When I was younger and let’s say, not so Theatre savvy, I had never heard of the wondrous web site www.theatrepeople.com.au if you can even imagine! I remember vividly the excitement of the cast of CPAC’s Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat in 2005 (it’s was my third ever show and my first titled character – “Wife of Gad”… it was a big deal for me then ok!?!?!) when we heard that a reviewer from the website Theatre People had come to see our little show! This was my first exposure to the web site that in the years to come would claim my very heart and soul: excitedly reading our review and seeing our pictures up on the site. Pretty much from then on, I was addicted to it. I’m sure that all of you reading have a similar tale to tell. Indeed, our little show was in the Calendar compiled by Gavin D that year, and I remember sitting entranced at the launch by performances from people I didn’t know at the time but would go on to be very familiar with, like Paul Watson and Natasha Bassett. Gavin D would be my first TP Boss with the Theatre People Paper! Slowly but surely, my life got taken over by Theatre and Theatre People, and I have loved every minute of it so far.
As much as I may feel like I’m an old theatre hag now (a rhetorical statement) I have actually only been around a short time. So I’m assuming, and quite rightly, that Theatre People was chugging along nicely long before I came along! And with this, our ten year anniversary, we at TP would like to share our history with you.
Most people know that Chris Hughes is our “Head Honcho”; I’d go so far as to call him the back bone of TP, or perhaps the nervous system. Anyway, whatever the analogy, what I’m trying to say is that he is vitally important to the day to day operation of TP, and has been so everyday for the past ten years. I was keen to hear how it all began from. “Like a lot of great ideas, Theatre People was born out of necessity,” said Chris. “At the time when we formed, the only publication that was available to us was Stage Whispers. It was a really dated publication which offered very little to readers in the speed in which content was delivered to market. What’s more, they charged for their publication. We identified this as a real gap in the market and we quickly went about filling it. The internet allowed us to deliver our content quickly and cheaply, so we set about creating a site that was more of a ‘peer review’ style of publication which offered something more.”
Founding Editor Julia Sutherland paints a dramatic picture of how it all started…. “It was a dark and stormy night; way back in 1999…I’m fairly sure that’s accurate, apart from the dark and stormy night bit. Chris and I were working together, running a dinner theatre venue in North Melbourne. We’d been working together for some time, but had been friends and theatre buddies several years longer. During our working relationship we used to talk of starting a kick-ass magazine for the theatre community, but weren’t sure how to come up with the capital. One morning, Chris rocked in to work and told me he’d had a Joseph moment – the night before he’d dreamed about the magazine, and had seen the solution; ‘We put the whole thing on line’. And so we did. We went to work on what we could do ourselves – developing content, deciding on the name, sectioning the site and planning for advertising and networking, and sought advice and input on everything else such as IT and financial planning. That whole planning process took the best part of a year, and then in October 2000 we launched Theatre People.”
Chris gathered together the strongest and bravest Theatre types in the land for his new endeavour. “Our initial team was made up of well known theatre people, some of which are still with us today. Julia Sutherland and I came up with the idea in a coffee shop in Warrandyte. I can remember trying to come up with the name. Julia said ‘How about Theatre People?’ I thought it sounded a little too much like People magazine but she insisted. ‘Look at it like this…In my friendship group, I have my normal people… then I have my Theatre People’. She was right. That’s what we called them. This was the language we spoke, so the name stuck. We’ve always been conscious to ensure that we speak the language of the people we are writing for. I asked Richard (Thomas) to join me and we both threw in a few hundred bucks in each to get the site going. Sally (Hughes) joined us to manage our admin, a role she still performs today and Cath (Burrowes), our then web designer built us the first incarnation of the site. Looking back at it as pretty darn ugly, but as we had no budget for design, I did it myself!”
In keeping with the name, Julia knew the site would appeal to the Theatre Masses: “Apart from the obvious promotional vehicle that Theatre People is for companies and shows, I think Theatre People provides a focal point for the community. TP gives people a place to go to touch base, to liaise with the like-minded, to hang out at the eternal on-line cast party! The main reason we decided to call the site Theatre People is that we are of a breed. A weird and wonderful bunch at that. And all minority groups need somewhere to go to hang out with their own ilk.”
Julia’s Co-Editor, Venessa Paech gave me an observation on the great Hughes-Sutherland team in action: “I was relatively new to Melbourne from New York, and looking to connect with the theatre community when I got my first local role in a show at Monash with the lovely Jules Sutherland. My continuing friendship wth Jules led me to an introduction to the inimitable Chris Hughes. Both were working on a little endeavour called Theatre People. These days community-centric media and a socialised web are all the rage, but these guys were ahead of the game. I had some writing experience, so I happily volunteered to help with occasional reviewing and some site editing. The site offers critical coverage to an important part of Melbourne’s cultural canvas, and chance for emerging writers to hone their skills, and a voice to a passionate, vibrant, group of people.”
The content of the site is quite similar to what we see today, the features page, what’s on and audition listings, reviews… and of course the very first scandal on the TP Talk forum! “We had no money for marketing,” said Chris, “but we had a stroke of luck in our opening week. When the site first opened, our TP Talk page was unregulated. You could post what you wanted, when you wanted about anyone you wanted and considering the theatre community had never had anything available to them like this before, they clearly had a lot of pent up aggression that they wanted to get out of their system and they saw our board as a good forum to offload their grievances. This was helped along by the fact that two of the biggest companies at the time, CLOC and Catchment both announced that they were doing ‘Anything Goes’ in the same season. This sparked a debate that brought almost a quarter of a million hits to the site in our first month, as the word of mouth picked up and people flocked to the site. ‘No news sells like bad news’ as they say… While we appreciated the traffic a public scrag fight brought, we really didn’t appreciate the resulting angry phone calls and empty threats of legal action, so we took immediate action to regulate the board and set some rules around appropriate posting.”
“The upside was that it allowed fast and open communication between members of the community,” said Julia. “The downside was that some of the posts went from controversial to bitchy, and that hardly anyone was reading the rest of the onsite content that myself and others had busted our butts to generate! A few months in, the executive decision was made to take down the Forum, and replace it with TP Talk. I was at first a little wary of having to vet and edit people’s comments – I don’t like to play God with people’s free speech – but found that the disclaimer at the top of the page meant that people were only contributing good, appropriate discussion anyway.”
The Reviews section on the other hand got off to a much quieter start, according to Chris. “Our first review was written by John O’May. John is an esteemed professional actor and has starred in many productions including the MTC’s "A Little Night Music" where he played the leading role Fredrik Egerman. CLOC was performing the production, so we sent him along to review it. He loved the show and did a fantastic job and I hoped it would set a trend, but I quickly learnt that not as many professionals would be as forthcoming as John.” Of course, the controversies on TP Talk often link back to what a Review may or may not have said….
Tristan Lutze is a name that will be familiar to many of you readers. “I started writing an anonymous column, under the pseudonym Spidermonkey, which I sent onto founding Editor Jules Sutherland. After a while, we became friends and when she departed her post for travel reasons, I took over. I started as Editor in late 2001. The site had been around for over 12 months at that point, and like most of the music theatre community I’d heard about it because of the live forums of the site. Everyone, from every show, would go home and log into the site and talk about that night’s performance. For political reasons, the forum was shut down after a while, but the name was out there. I edited the site for 5 years, getting up every morning at 5:30am to update it, making sure there was new content on there every day and ensuring that everybody’s reviews and articles adhered to the TP Style Guide. I, obviously, didn’t get paid, but at the time it was all new to me and now, thanks to those 5 years, it’s what I do for a living. Theatrepeople was my training ground.”
“I was immensely proud of what TP managed to do in the community while I was there (though I don’t for a moment believe I had anything to do with it!). There were times it felt as though everyone was there, contributing, reading, commenting, and it made the whole experience of going to rehearsal and putting on a show in some outer suburb of Melbourne feel somehow bigger. You were connected directly to the people you were doing it for.”
Venessa recalls seeing growth early on: “We grew our coverage scope and started looking at bigger topics and issues in the sector, signifying, I believe, a move beyond your average ‘community’ media website. And each time new editorial voices have surfaced, it has challenged and grown the site. It’s not been easy, or always political. TP remains a topic of debate in the community it serves. Personally, I think that’s the hallmark of strong content and concept – it sparks conversations. Also, occasionally, songs.”
“I’ve been thrilled to see the recent moves into a broader scale of content,” said Julia. “I think it’s great to have a balance between the focus on musicals and plays, regional and metro, professional and amateur, adult and junior and so on.”
Next week: Site expansion, new ventures, and reflections from team members past and present