Sally Richardson on forging the future for the Arts
Writer /Director/Producer, Steamworks Arts Productions
Midday, a Dance Studio at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
Students are busy rehearsing dance routines behind large fire doors. Corridors are lined with people on sofas pouring over manuscripts. Artworks, and videos of famous Alumni proof to their busy audience that success has its origin between these walls.
I’m standing where Hugh Jackman, Frances O'Connor, and Tim Minchin once hurried along the corridors, probably late for their Uncle Vanya and Lady Macbeth monologues.
This quickly concludes my mandatory namedropping. I'm here for Sally Richardson. (OK, I’m name dropping again). Sally is a renowned Writer/Director/Producer based in Perth.
Through her production company, Sally has presented and produced over 30 new Australian works over the last two decades. She collaborates with artists across theatre, contemporary dance, circus, new music, film and related hybrids. Her productions are critically acclaimed in Australia and Internationally.
Describing Sally as passionate about the Arts is an understatement. Her Life is committed to holding up a socially and politically charged mirror that reflects the changes in Australian society and our region. Her work through Steamworks focuses on championing the voice, presence and creativity of women in performance.
I’m meeting Sally at WAAPA in a studio space where she is currently undertaking practical research for her PhD thesis. A Cello is on the floor as I enter the studio. She documents her explorations on video and in images, writing and taking notes to later guide performers in the next stage of development.
‘The Performing Arts is a collaborative enterprise. From stage management, technology, marketing to the creative aspect, you can’t, nor are you really meant to do it all by yourself.’
‘Building creative teams is really the key.’ Sally reminds me of our collaboration in early 2002 when I developed her initial company brand identity, design work and poster promotions as well as some photography for Savage Grace, written by Alana Valentine and directed by Sally.
‘There are different artistic roles you may adopt in creating work’, Sally explains. ‘Makers and Facilitators. Original artists have a compulsion to communicate and to connect, to tell a story. As Director I may facilitate the realisation of their ideas, their voices, working with them on making the concept clear and theatrically/performatively compelling. Doing what is required in assisting and nurturing the show’s realisation as it heads towards its audience.
‘Collaboration is at the core of my process and practice. I shape the work with the artists, so it's not about getting them or making them do MY ‘great’ thing. The leadership aspect is about exploring decisions which later may find their way on stage, all the while listening to a team of people involved in the show’s creation. if we ‘find it’, ‘create it’ together, it will ultimately strengthen the work. I try to create a working culture with the team that is open to challenges, and that invites trust and openness.'
Sally had previously worked seven years full-time with Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and continues on and off collaborating with Aboriginal artists.
‘One of the things I learnt from working in partnership with first nations artists is that decision making can be shared, that there is potentially a less dictatorial approach through shared ownership of decision-making processes. You can use the modality of a story being passed around a circle – with no one person controlling the full story at all times.
‘To get results from working collaboratively, we may explore the ideas with the core creative team working out a collective language for the work. That may be a process, a way of working, a structure to work within etc.
‘When you make a show it's about an invitation to audiences to join the communication even though they are not speaking. You feel an energy flow from the audience; in their focus, their laughter, their attention. It's so amazing. Seeing your own work come to life is mind-blowing, actually, it’s very addictive’, Sally smiles.
‘For example, 歸屬 GUI SHU (BELONG), a four-year collaboration with Artists from Taiwan. It took a number of residencies and shared development to actually feel like we had equal ownership of the work and a shared vocabulary to make the work.
‘I enjoy facilitating bringing people together, making room for the range of artist’s voices in that process, so they are not mere participants.’
‘I see it as a wonderful outcome that every original collaborator from 2015 was there for the season premiere at PICA in 2019. It’s a delicate balancing act of people, production and process…one in this instance I think we achieved.’
‘Right now, audiences are seeking immersive experiences more than ever before. There is a shift in setting the expectation of engagement that is exciting.
There are fantastic directors in contemporary Opera, dance, Theatre and related hybrids working with all kinds of different modalities, and the conventions are evolving and changing with multiple platforms for presentation.
‘The mystery of art creation is broken down by access to new technology and engagement platforms with live performance feeds, chatting with artists, behind-the-scenes-videos, open studio days, VR and so on. When you think about the additional audience that’s might be accessing this material online, this is very positive.
'It’s less about ticket price, venue access, potentially allowing for a genuine diversity, it's less elite. A live-work may be witnessed by 300 or 400 people and an online audience just multiplies this engagement tremendously.
‘Potentially right now the Arts in Australia is struggling with issues of visibility, relevance, and identity, in reaching a changing and demanding audience. How do we better represent the diversity within our community?
'For example, our population is now 13 per cent from an Asian background, but our performance outcomes don’t reflect that. The Arts aren’t addressing or leading some of the massive cultural shifts and conversations that are taking place in our society. There are incremental changes in terms of gender parity, representation, the focus with first nation artists, etc, but it’s way overdue.
‘I can say that it has been a long journey for me of finding new ways of working and creating because ultimately the Arts still is very hierarchical and entrenched in white, Western, patriarchal structures.
‘In other societies, art, spirit, expression and religion are integral parts of life. The whole Western idea about arts being an elite form, representing the cream of the crop with everybody else just a hobbyist doing ‘craft’ is again about hierarchies, class and status.
‘Often the Arts is viewed as extraneous, not really ‘necessary’ alongside health, education, and that we don’t make a meaningful contribution to society.
‘I said the Heart Surgeon who just watched and was entertained by this show can now get back refreshed to what they do best. What we provide is a necessity for the health and wellbeing of our society.’
‘The Arts creating community is changing and communities are not as controllable as they were. It also means a lot more negative exposure of artists online. Anyone feels free to offer an opinion and critique e.g. feminist writers, who get trolled and slandered. I’m in enormous admiration of how they cope with the violence and aggression towards them, and I wonder how we can curb that anger in future?
‘Maybe the upcoming generation, alongside some legislation won’t let this kind of behaviour continue. I’m hoping for a revolution, really!’
‘I’ve been involved for a year in the Australian Arts Council Leader’s program. It’s a diverse collective of 20 established arts leaders in the sector. The group meets to consider the big picture, exploring alternative viewpoints, policies and sector advocacy. We all go back to the coalface and influence our communities in various ways, how can we change what we are doing?
‘It’s been fantastic, as training and development is a rarity in this sector given there are so many small organisations involved. There just isn’t the time and resources to support ongoing professional development.
‘I mentor young women artists seeking avenues to employment in the Arts. When I started, there was very little support, and its important to me to empower and inspire women to take leadership in the sector.’
‘I think there are broader policies and models from other ecosystems to be explored and I want to be part of that strategic thinking for the Arts.’
‘There might be an illusion that the Arts are an amazing think tank of possibilities, but I believe the most exciting innovative work right now is possibly happening outside the Arts sector, in other areas. I would welcome this evolving, where creativity is valued more highly.
‘The contribution of the arts to the economy is constantly underestimated. More people are engaged with the Arts than mining or sports.
‘Like any other economic model, the Arts cannot remain in a continuous growth cycle.’
‘Contraction of resources, funding cuts and recently, the amalgamation of the Arts with the Department of Transport are visible signs that THIS Australian Government’s priority is not Arts and Culture. Artists have to really rethink how they can get away from being marginalised and institutionalised within defunct models and structures.
‘I’m asking myself at this critical moment for the Arts whether to keep fighting to scrape the money together for another show, or investing my experience and insights in ways that might have a greater social impact. I want to be part of sharing ideas about the value of Culture and Arts and how we visibly engage the public.
‘Sometimes the lifestyle aspect of the artist is nerve-wracking; I can now manage this instability and anxiety about the future. Success is fragile and the uncertainty makes you vulnerable. One year you might be the show on everyone’s lips and for no particular reason, the year after your value has diminished. Three years on and you can again be right back on top with a successful show at a festival.
‘There is no corporate ladder, it's just a jungle gym in the Arts,’ Sally laughs.
‘‘This year marks the 20th anniversary of Steamworks Arts and we are aiming to get funds for a seminal play to return to the stage.
‘Somehow, I’ve come full-circle with Steamworks. The company and I are personally so entwined that I feel I’m currently at crossroads and am quietly reflecting on what’s next for me.
‘To focus on what needs to change and my place within that process. If we (The Arts) continue to see ourselves as the centre of the universe, it won’t end well.’
I point to Sally’s wrists with Kanji tattoos. She laughs, ‘this happened progressively over the last four years as I was making quite radical personal changes by living abroad in Asia. Why tattoo cursive on your body? Why not!’
‘As you have an ageing body you become much more comfortable in your spacesuit. ‘
‘My friend, actor Nicola Bartlett, calls her body a “spacesuit”. That there is the invitation to decorate your spacesuit however you want. I have it there so I can read and see it, be reminded of what matters to me. Sometimes strangers read it and connect with me just over that.’
The letters spell Sally’s life story about Courage, Fearlessness, Belonging, Grace, Artistry, Family.
‘When I was younger there was not much room to grow as a person. The Performing Arts provided me with a means of being able to speak my truth. I write almost every day, it's like breathing. Writing helps me to process and reflect. It may sound indulgent, but it’s an essential tool for me; I don’t think I’d be here without it.’
The Common Ground:
Use the knowledge you already have to shape the future, support and give back what and when you can
Feminist writers and artists are reverting back women’s histories to their rightful existence and out of ghosting
Funding models for the Arts need rethinking and alternatives
The Arts are contributing substantially to the economy
Ask where does change need to happen and how can you be part of it; moaning from the sidelines doesn’t cut it anymore
Just considering what's right for you instead of forcing a direction lets you reflect on your next move
The Arts give us voices to express differences and diversity without violence and suppression
Focus on what needs to change and your place in that
We need the Arts in all expressions for our humanity.