Theatre Works, one of Australia’s longest running independent theatre companies, is turning forty – and what a fabulous forty years they have been! From its foundational, and heady beginning, in 1980, through changes in creative direction, following the illness and subsequent death of founding member Caz Howard, as well as needing to adapt to loss of funding, Theatre Works is still committed to Australian culture and a belief in the ongoing relevance of new theatre and new ideas.
For General Manager, Dianne Toulson, the best part about working at Thetare Works is the opportunity to be a part of a team that supports artists’ dreams and aspirations. “It is an amazing feeling having that first meeting and asking the questions “Why this work? Why here? Why Now?” And the response is in-depth, articulate and well-researched,” she says. “It is also amazing that, from that conversation, a partnership evolves where together we create a work that includes so many voices. The work brings together a collective of passionate theatre-makers that sit in a room and brainstorm their vision and then bring it to life on stage. Even when there is failure there is always success and wonderful outcomes.”
And, yes, for Toulson, sometimes it’s just about the journey. Being a part of the platform that builds the future for artists is worth the challenge that working in a creative environment can throw at you.
Toulson’s first real connection with Theatre Works evolved from her time at Red Stitch. “Dan Clarke was the Creative Producer at TW during that time and we connected regularly on the challenges of funding and operating such unique entities,” explains Toulson. “Many times, we crossed paths while trying to raise support and funding (with many glasses of wine and tears!).”
With Theatre Works, Toulson was always surprised and engaged by the diversity of the programming and the inclusion and opportunity for so many artists – something she is still passionate about, and why she is here now.
And it was her heart that first brought her there. “Having had a diverse career in many arenas, my passion lays with creating or facilitating opportunities for the emerging, ambitious, passionate and hard-working artists,” she says.
Toulson explains that Theatre Works is the place for those artists to flourish, to be given opportunity and support and she wants to be a part of that. “Hungry creators that have a passion for their work and a belief in why they create it is the most rewarding gift and the reason I am prepared to roll my sleeves up and support them. Without fail, I always get a thank you.”
Toulson’s tenure began in 2017 when she replaced Kate Hancock as GM. There are two things that Toulson celebrates the most in her time as GM – the ability to share her wealth of experience and successful programming under financial duress.
“Firstly I’m proud of the opportunity to share my knowledge, experience and skills within the team and with artists. With my experience being eclectic and across all aspects of producing and presenting work – including the business side of operations – I feel my experience is the main asset to my position and the artists.
Secondly, programming and delivering our 2020 season in our 40th year with very limited financial capacity is going to be a challenge; but it is a testament to the team here who have stuck with the vision and will now work towards an amazing 2020!”
“To say it has been a challenging rollercoaster would be an understatement,” says Toulson about her tenure so far. “There have been many personal highlights, but the one that stands out was programming the 2018 season and delivering a small organisational surplus for the year.”
However, she acknowledges, the most important achievement for herself and the organisation are the opportunities and support that has been given to artists in that time and into the future.
Along with 250 other small to medium Arts groups,. Theatre Works missed out on long term funding at the end of last year and Toulson acknowledges that every arts organisation seems to be struggling with financial pressure. “It’s been interesting to look back over the history of this organisation to see ebbs and flows in outcomes based on successful funding applications,” she say. However, Thetare Work has survived through all of these iterations and seems to be able to re-invent itself over and over. “This is a testament to the dedicated team of people that passionately deliver opportunities for artists,” says Toulson.
However, the biggest surprise for Toulson, coming into this emerging environment, is the overwhelming demand by artists for the support that Theatre Works provides.
“Every program or EOI we roll out is enthusiastically received, with an overwhelming number of applications,” she explains. “It’s clear that there is not enough supported opportunities for emerging artists and that the co-producing model is valued by the everyone. A lot of people would be surprised to know that although we can no longer support the productions with cash or direct funding, the actual financial contribution ranges between $12K – $30K for every production we work with.”
Toulson adds that there is also a requirement to recognise the value of the extensive knowledge and skills base within the TW team that supports the professional development of the artists that produce work there.
Toulson believes that, for artists, Theatre Works’ place is as a conduit; the place to take the artist to the next step in their career or for their work. She also believes that there is power in being independent and the longevity of the collective is something that should be celebrated and acknowledged.
Over these past two years, the company initiated rigorous audience investigation; asking patrons, and the community, what Theatre Works means to them. There was overwhelmingly positive responses, with the resounding answer being that no matter what relationship was had with Theatre Works in the past, the memory remains in the heart and draws audiences, and supporters, back.
When asked to share some of Theatre Works’ success stories, Toulson is diplomatic saying that every artist there has worked hard to succeed and go to the next level.
“Yes, TW has supported and contributed and may have been the catalyst but… we cannot claim credit. Of course, there are standout partnerships over the years like Little Ones, The Rabble, Susie Dee & Patricia Cornelius and so many more. My dream is that they come back and knock on our door sometime soon in the future (Our coffers may be empty, but our hearts are full 😉)”
And the plan for 2020 is exactly what it has been for the last 40 years, and that is to keep the doors open and continue to do what has always been done and to it well – Supporting artists to get their work on the stage. Of course, she adds, there are some special little events especially focused on the celebration of 40 years!
There will be an exhibition opened at Linden New Art celebrating the 40 year history with show images, posters and archival documents along with announcing a production by one of the Theatre Works first directors but that one, she says, is hush hush at the moment…
This year, the aim is to continue to inspire more people to discover, create and love theatre.
“We want to invite new audiences, regular patrons and returning artists to our Acland Street theatre with a diverse program and a lower ticket price. Each show is selling tickets for only $20, all year round, to make Theatre Works accessible for everyone.
So, come down to St Kilda, buy a ticket, support the future of Australian artists and see something bold, hilarious, heart-warming and new.”
The world premiere of The Great Australian Play runs February 19 – 29