Black Swan Artistic Director Kate Cherry recently chatted with the Daily Review for the first of their end-of-year wrap ups with artistic directors around the country. Kate talks about the highlights of the year, her aspirations for the company as well as some of the most pressing issues that arose over the last 12 months in the Australian arts community. Have a read!
There have been various issues in the arts this year sponsorship controversies at the Sydney Biennale, Wesley Enochs complaints of the lack of artistic leadership, Andrew Bovells speech about his embarrassment at being Australian because of racism how has that affected you personally?
None of it has affected me personally. Regardless of my personal opinions on detention centres, I dont understand why an artist would practice self-censorship in a free country. I believe in freedom of expression. I think every action a person takes is political. Why not take the opportunity to protest using the art?
Wesley is a very close friend of mine, but I dont agree with everything Wesley has to say in his deliberately provocative platform paper on artistic leadership. I think there are many ways of showing leadership. Some people speak through their own work, or the work they chose to curate, others by the people they empower. Some leaders are introverts. Some great artistic leaders are introverts. I think the danger comes when artistic directors have to become salesmen promoting a product rather than creative visionaries developing a platform for the kind of work they believe is important or the way in which they wish to engage with their society. I personally think there is always a danger in the arts that we engage with too many like-minded people, to be frank, even peer panels can have their issues. It is easy for us to become a bunch of artists all saying the same things because we want to impress each other, get on with our peers, get good peer reviews when, in fact, our relationships with audiences need to be just as dynamic if not more so. But the post-modern world is tricky to negotiate. Audiences, traditional critics, bloggers, and peers tend to have widely differing views of what makes for good theatre or dynamic conversation
I think great theatres make space for intellectuals, populists, passionate proponents of the future and traditionalists, honouring traditions, but also recognising the ephemeral nature of theatre. We are built on heritage and innovation, the power of the individual and the strength of collaboration. We are ephemeral and transformative. I am usually interested in what a leader has to say in the programme they put together and the reasoning behind the programming. I am less interested in what an artistic leader has to say about politics because I have more faith in the power of art than in any political party. The very act of making theatre is political because in a sanitised, individualistic success-oriented world it reminds us that humans are fallible, it is about the possibility of failure, loss and, of course, it engages with the collective unconscious. We all make enormous, high stakes decisions about how we will conduct our lives. The theatre illuminates these choices. At its best, theatre offers clarity. The theatre brings the dark into the light, and lets us share our laughter and our private grief with strangers, what could be more human, more collaborative, and more fragile?
I admire Andrew Bovell greatly, adore his work, and agree with a lot of what he has to say, but and I am not embarrassed about being Australian. There is an element of society in Australia that is racist, and a vast proportion of the indigenous population live in appalling conditions. I am proud of the Australians like Andrew and Wesley who urge us to be better, and who are unafraid of engaging in the body politic. Having lived outside Australia on and off since I was seven, I dont think we always recognise how lucky we are, and how we could most effectively use our affluence. I am concerned about a lot of things: the two-speed economy, the gaps for women, the disastrous indigenous statistics, the lack of educational opportunities for at risk children, but I am also constantly heartened by how many people want to fix the problems. I think we are going to reassess many things in the next 30 years about what it means to be on a planet with shrinking resources and artificial intelligence advancing at such a rapid rate. In my 20s I did very cerebral work sometimes all about form, sometimes overtly political, now I am more drawn to ask what does it mean to be human?
What steps has Black Swan to address any of these from a management level, if at all?
Well, we have two women as joint CEOs and four women on a board of 10. We have several priorities: engagement with the regions that is a crucial part of diversity, reaching out intergenerationally, discussing co-productions with companies like Yirra Yaakin. We are small, but aspirational. The board itself is committed to indigenous participation in the workforce, but Yirra Yaakin is a very strong company in its own right, so we wish to engage with them as equal partners. We are very interested in potential exchanges with Asia, and the potential of enhancing Asian American collaborations in Australia. It has to be done carefully so that we are all listening to each others cues. Crossing traditions and cultures is exciting, but it must be done with great care that is not to be interpreted as trepidation. It takes mutual respect and understanding between people who often dont speak the same language. It requires building personal relationships (which is always fascinating) and creating strong infrastructure that is not fun at all, but vitally important.
Did The Ben Elton Show cause any consternation from your board or sponsors?
None. It would not occur to them to interfere artistically, and the Premier and the Arts Minister have always expressed support for freedom of speech. I am hamstrung only by the need to build audiences and build infrastructure at the same time, and, the very initial stages of building the research and development arm of the company. That will need a big infusion of money, but with R and D there are no quick wins.
Is theatre a growth area of culture in WA or is it hard to get people to attend or sponsors to participate with Black Swan?
It is a growth area. Audiences continue to grow for us, and our sponsors are extremely loyal. We are pretty excited by the opportunities for the future building of audiences.
Is compiling a season the biggest single job you have as an AD?
Yes. I love it.
Theres been more talk of the need for cultural diversity at our theatre companies. How is Black Swan addressing that issue?
At the moment we are addressing the issue by concentrating on the development of Western Australians as cultural leaders. There is a vast amount of talent in WA, and our imperative is to develop and promote that talent, to reach out to regional communities, to break down barriers for women, and to provide Yirra Yaakin with infrastructure and support when we can be of service in bringing their stories to life.
Whats been the riskiest thing youve done this year at Black Swan?
Doing The Seagull in period costume because it relied on people understanding and interpreting metaphor. I thought about making it modern, but the play involves a kind of isolation that is not possible with mobile phones. In a time where we are literal and think that a text can only be modern when it is updated, suggesting we can always behave appallingly, we have always had narcissists, and we always will, that we miss the most important moments in our lives because we are distracted by spite and stupidity its called archaic with nothing to say. I had really interesting feedback on that show. People either loved it, and completely understood what we were doing or were totally bewildered by it. I was thrilled because Humphrey Bowers review encapsulated what I wanted to say. He saw the show as I had wanted it to be seen so that was very satisfying.
My husband took me to the most beautiful biosphere for diversity in Adelaide earlier I the year when I was there to direct La Traviata. We sat in that extraordinary atmosphere listening to a place teaming with life, birds and insects and plants literally teaming with life weaving this gentle spell, and suddenly teenage boys burst in making an awful lot of noise, yelling and shouting at odds with the environment, dominating it, and the question crossed my mind, does it take listening very carefully to even begin to understand the roles we play in any kind of diversity. Are we so noisy now, we dont even notice when the other speaks?
What risks would you like to have taken but couldnt and why was that?
I would love to do a lot more innovative work with young directors and theatre makers, but we often dont have money to support very long processes. I dont want every director to have to work the same way so we are looking at how to enable theatre makers to have different lengths of time to create. I am fascinated by gamers. They use our mythology in entirely new ways. One of the residents is going to pursue the cross-over potential between gaming and theatre.
Do you think audiences might be more adventurous than arts company management and corporate sponsors give them credit for?
I dont know what adventurous means any more. For some people they feel adventurous going out at night. Making adventurous theatre, is that just about form? Is it adventurous to defy conventions, to explore the unknown, to be messy, to defy KPIs? I think adventurous programming is a cliché idea. Corporate sponsors are often very sophisticated in their tastes.
What have you been most proud of this year?
Bringing Kristen Linklater to work on voice with WA actors, seeing Sigrid Thorntons brilliant Blanche dominate the stage brilliantly supported by our fine WA actors, Roger Hodgmans enchanting production of As You Like It, launching the Lab, watching the growth of the Associate Directors and realising the impact our resident artists will have on the companys future.
I have been surprised, shocked, delighted, outraged, but I have never been disappointed. I hate that word. I immediately feel like a school maam pursing my lips over my own season.
What surprised you this year?
The resilience and determination of the team I have the privilege to work with, being able to maintain an on-going relationship with our patron Sam Walsh even though he is now in London his obvious care for the Black Swan family is heart-warming and the loyalty of the staff as we were stretched and tested by a series of big work ideas being realised and finally, but most importantly the impact long term investment is having on WA writers.
Whats on your wish list for Black Swan?
Full-time Associates, and an ensemble of actors and actor-educators, long running projects with rural communities where we exchange rehearsal rooms and playing spaces, and a vital, thriving Festival of New Work.