Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Sydney's musical theatre scene needs more government funding

By day I go to university and study how to be a journalist. On the days I'm not at university I work as a journalist at By night I am a performer.

For the last 10 years I have saved all my pennies and invested them in singing, dancing and acting classes. Why? Because I love musical theatre; it's my 'passion' in life (or "purpose" as one would say in Avenue Q). I love watching it, I love writing about it, I love performing in it.

Realistically, though, musical theatre in Sydney and Australia at large is a struggling art. The country is full of talented performers who usually go offshore to get work and make a living from their craft. They train here then ship off to Broadway or West End and end up calling those places home because that's where they are appreciated as the talented performers they are.

The Arts community in Sydney is so small and Elisa Blake in her article for SMH (27/03/2010) which can be viewed here summarises why Sydney's performing arts scene is dying a slow death. Her story focuses on why Melbourne has developed the reputation as the Arts capital of Australia and offers realistic ways Sydney can re-claim the title.

What is the overarching verdict, though, when everything boils down? The need for more government funding. The need for the government to realise that every now and then $2.8 billion reserved for stadium upgrades should Australia win its bid to host the 2018 World Cup could be better spent on helping those struggling theatre companies that work tirelessly to create a culturally vibrant Sydney Arts scene.

Sport seems to be the theatre's main competitor for funding but the mind boggles at why the government isn't placing more value on the Arts.

I could ramble on for hours...

BUT I decided, on reading Elisa Blake's article in April, that I had to voice my concern. The Keneally government is in such a state of disarray as it is, it seemed harmless to suggest that her government could get a bit of positive press for doing something good for the community- ie. investing in more infrastructure for the Arts, increasing community theatre grants, the list goes on.

Wicked's phenomenal takings at the boxoffice proves that there are people out there who are willing and able to go see theatre. We need to harness the energy of the thousands of passionate Wicked fans and followers and direct it towards achieving sustainable long-term goals.

My letter was only one drop in the ocean but I encourage more people who are passionate about the arts to take a stand and fight for the future of the musical theatre industry in Sydney and throughout Australia.

Below documents my progress to date:

11 APRIL 2010
Initial email to Premier Kristina Keneally

"Mrs Keneally,

As the political race ensures, a suggestion of mine would be 'do something' about Sydney's musical theatre scene. I know not every person watches musicals, but there is a significant number who would feel pride at getting 'one up' over Melbourne if nothing else.

Elissa Blake wrote a fantastic, well researched article about this concern for Sydney in SMH's Spectrum (March 27-28), called "Culture Shock".

The article can be viewed here:;jsessionid=AC11794F07117A61F04BECBB3F7AEC1C?sy=nstore&pb=all_ffx&dt=selectRange&dr=1month&so=relevance&sf=text&sf=headline&rc=10&rm=200&sp=brs&cls=11&clsPage=1&docID=SMH10032720IM33D9K9E

To direct you the the crux of the problem, I quote directly from Elissa's article (bold is my emphasis):

The producer John Frost, who opened the hit musicals Wicked and Chicago in Melbourne and will soon open Fame there, says Sydney is heading towards a crisis of venues in the next two years with the Capitol and Lyric theatres (both 2000 seats) and the Theatre Royal (deemed too small for most musicals at 1200 seats) expected to be fully booked.

"New shows won't be able to come into Sydney at all and when the Opera House does get around to refurbishing and the opera and ballet companies need new homes, it will be absolutely impossible to bring a new musical to Sydney," he says. "It will stop productions of shows altogether because you can't bring a show to Australia and not include Sydney."

Frost says the city urgently needs another 1600-seat theatre - and not one "that sticks out like a pimple with nothing around it. It will need to be surrounded by apartments, hotels, restaurants and bars. The public has a ferocious appetite for big musicals and they need to be fed.

"But the government will fart around forever ... you and I will be retired before they approve a new building. The bureaucracy will drive you nuts."

The director Neil Armfield says politicians in this city seem to "run a mile" when it comes to the arts. "[Victorian premier] John Brumby turns up to a lot of opening nights. He's a physical presence in the scene and there's great political pride in the achievements of Melbourne's artists," he says. "After Bob Carr, we've seen a procession of premiers who seem to be trying to distance themselves from the arts."


It's not just a matter of civic pride. Big new shows bring in big money. When Wicked opened in Melbourne and played for 13 months, it injected about $125 million dollars into the local economy. "That's a big chunk of money for any state to lose," Frost says. "Sydney should be the arts hub and not playing second fiddle."

Commercial theatre is attracted to Melbourne because Victorian tourism and events bodies are offering large, undisclosed amounts of money to producers on the understanding the show opens in Melbourne and everyone keeps mum about it moving to Sydney 18 months later. The private sector chips in so the hotels and restaurants can hoover up visitors from New Zealand and Queensland before the show opens in Sydney.


Reading the article in whole would give a much better indication of where the problem lies and effective ways to fix it.

I highly recommend reading the article if you have time, and I would love (not only as a musical consumer but a performer myself) to see Sydney back on top.

We have lost Hairspray, Rock of Ages and Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies; lets give Sydney something other than the Sydney Festival to feel proud of when it comes to promotion of the arts.


Maryann Wright"

27 APRIL 2010

Response from the 'Director General' of the NSW Premier and Cabinet

Today (6 SEPTEMBER 2010) I received this letter in the post
Direct response from the 'Director-General' of Communities NSW (under which coordination of the arts falls)

While it is nice that my letter was actually read and responded to in a more personalised fashion (why, Carol Mills even signed the actual piece of paper) it is one thing to write nice rhetoric and conduct an "audit of cultural facilities" and another to actually build a decent theatre and re-distribute money away from the land of men with too much testosterone kicking balls around on a grassy field in short-shorts and towards the Arts.

What do you think? Am I expecting too much? Does anyone think the Arts get enough funding as it is and we are crazy to think we deserve more money?

1 comment:

Albert Wong said...

Good points Maryann. I think insufficient funding for the arts is a problem not restricted to Australia, unfortunately. Sadly, too few people nowadays fully appreciate the importance of the classical arts.