Black Swan recently hosted a party to celebrate Janet Holmes à Court's birthday and her contribution over the years to Black Swan and Western Australian culture. As Black Swan's Founding Patron, Janet has been with us since the beginning - developing the very idea of Black Swan, driving our growth, and helping us develop into the state theatre company we are today. At the party, former Black Swan Artistic Director Andrew Ross made a speech to Janet that we'd like to share with you:
Where to begin? I contemplated this question while flying in from Jakarta yesterday afternoon. The flight passed over the small densely populated islands of Indonesia and approached the biggest island in the archipelago, following the Kimberly coast, flying over countless uninhabited islands, the islands of Randolph Stows To The Islands.
We crossed the coast and flew over the Pilbara, the Gascoyne, and the Murchison, which inspires the estate of Tourmaline, to a sharp west-east line that could have been inscribed with a T-square and defines the beginning of the patchwork of farming country, the northern wheat belt.
Dear, dear close friend and collaborator Bob Juniper titled one of his paintings, Landscape for Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein had said that to understand 20th century cubism you need to fly over a landscape such as this.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world you must first understand a place like the Mississippi. I think for me Black Swan, or at least the idea that engendered Black Swan for me, began when I realized that to understand the world I must first understand Western Australia.
This vast, vast landscape under this huge, huge sky, that brought me to tears yesterday, was the lens through which an artist sojourning here must view this world.
I was already acutely aware that Western Australian poets, novelists and painters had already ventured into that country and imaginatively wrestled with the compelling, haunted landscape and the manner in which we have inhabited it.
However I was also aware that the theatre, my craft, had mostly viewed the world through other lenses, and had rarely expressed Western Australian voices. Of course there were exceptions. The first of these was only a few years after the first European settlers arrived. Yagan of the Swan River conducted and MCd what was described as a Corroboree for the settlers. That night a clearing in the Swan Valley was the beginning of our theatre.
Sydney celebrates a production of George Farquars, The Recruiting Officer, as the beginning of its colonial theatre history. Theatre here in Western Australia has a different genesis.
So Black Swan begins with a conversation in the bar of the Octagon Theatre after a performance of Bran Nue Dae, a show I think of as having lineage to that first of first nights in a clearing in the Swan Valley.
The conversation was between Will Queckett, Duncan Ord, Janet and me. Janet insisted that Bran Nue Dae, or at least what it represented, must continue. In the euphoria of the night and in wake of the recent collapse of two major theatre companies we talked furiously and frivolously of a new company that might define Western Australian theatre for some time into the future. For Janet this idea was far from frivolous and unachievable. She was absolutely determined and did not galvanise that determination only by finding some money to get things started. Money alone was never going to make it happen. Janet gave much more; time, lots and lots of time and energy, encouragement and wise counsel.
Why? I think because Janet believed that certain stories must be told, and that our audiences and eventually the world must see and hear those stories and artists must make their living telling those stories.
I have never felt so supported and so valued during those precious, privileged years. These days people write books and conduct seminars on good governance of arts organisations. We had governance driven by passion and guided by instinct. If the paragon of good governance is to have a Chairman who intrinsically understands and is engaged and entwined in the company and its work, while giving artists total freedom, even defending that freedom, then we had the ultimate in good governance. I later discovered that this is a rare thing in the performing arts in Australia.
Janet actually loved what we were doing. For me this was a rare and remarkable privilege, a blessing that I neither expected nor contemplated. To quote our opening production Twelfth Night: love sought is good but given unsought is better.
I am not the only artist who needs to acknowledge your support Janet. A great number of artists owes the very beginnings of their careers to you through Black Swan: Trevor Jamieson, Leah Purcell, Iain Grandage, Tim Minchin, Kyle Morrison, Luke Cowling, Billie Court, Michael Angus, Ursula Youich, and many many more.
It is impossible to reflect on those years without paying tribute to some of the Black Swan family who are no longer with us: Bob Juniper, Jack Davis, Edgar Metcalfe, Bob Faggetter, Stanley Mirindo, Barbara Henry, Dot Collard, Lucien Savron, Big Johnny Sahanna, Mark Priestly and Anna Mercer.
Janet thrived in the company of artists and regularly turned up to rehearsals at morning teatime with a basket of muffins. We had a lot of fun. You came to our shows and came often, I remember you and Bernie at Tourmaline jostling your ways around PICA. They were indeed very special times. As Rob says in the Merry-go-Round in the Sea, it will never be that minute again. It will never be today again. Never.
Dear Janet, I also remember your acute but unobtrusive awareness of the people around you, the things you did quietly for people, acts of generosity that nobody knows about. I remember your patience, your candour and your humour.
Above all, you were generous with the scarcest commodity in your life, in all our lives, your time. Some of the most crucial conversations that shaped the destiny of Black Swan took place sitting in your garden with a bottle of Vasse Felix, or cycling around the shores of the Swan River.
You once told me that Robert used to say I didnt do it but I caused it to be done.
Well Janet, you caused it to be done.
- Andrew Ross