Megan J Riedl: Where is Ballarat’s Professional Theatre Company?

Ballarat is a self-proclaimed creative city. We have one of the country’s longest running heritage theatre buildings and a big modern theatre, both of which present a range of professional performances each year. We have a well-regarded tertiary training academy for actors and musical theatre performers. We have three community theatre companies as well as a number of highly successful performing arts schools. We have the annual Royal South Street competitions and we have performing arts creatives working at Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle and as teachers.

So why don’t we have a professional theatre company?

Late last year, I interviewed a number of local female theatre-makers. When I asked them about the theatre scene in Ballarat – encompassing theatre made by community groups, independent professionals and students – some core narratives emerged. The consensus was that Ballarat has a under-supported independent theatre scene, with equitable access to small-medium sized professionally fitted-out theatre spaces and lack of support for development and production being major barriers.

The first major barrier to the establishment of a Ballarat based professional company is space.

While hiring a 600-seat theatre is appropriate for the next big community musical, the presentation of drama requires intimate spaces. It is true there are plenty of halls and function spaces that could host a performances, and often do, but the lack of adequate technical equipment and backstage facilities means the production values are low and is inconvenient for the actors and crew.

To hire one of the few professionally fitted spaces in town – owned and operated by educational institutions – are either prohibitively expensive or perpetually unavailable.
This situation forces theatre-makers to hire sub-standard spaces which in turn means sub-standard productions. Hire fees are not cheap, and so spaces are used only for the season, limiting time to rehearse in a space or spend time in development of new works.

Which brings us to the second barrier, the investment of money & time.

Creatives are often choosing not to follow through on new theatrical work, because the risk is too high and the effort is not balanced by the return. Creatives who must be not only writers, performers and directors, but also project managers, marketers, publicists, technicians, designers and often funders become burnt out very quickly, preferring to sink their energy into local paying jobs or simply moving away to where there are more opportunities.

Those that do stay and make work just want to get on and put on a show. Most are doing it around a paying day job, and therefore are unable to dedicate the time needed to ensure the work is of high quality. This means that we have a vibrant but low quality independent theatre scene. And that hurts everyone because without high standards, we cannot hope to convince funders of investing, and audiences who are interested to try theatre are not compelled to return.

In order to encourage a higher quality of work, we need to offer creatives time, financial remuneration and peer support. They already have the desire to work and the passion to create theatre, but with all the investment and risk taken upon themselves, it’s easy to choose not to bother.

With a small amount of investment by council, existing venues and professionals in business and arts administration, Ballarat will truly become a creative city.

There are two avenues to establish a professional theatre company in Ballarat. Firstly, we establish our own. We have enough creatives in town with experience and willingness. Many are already doing the work in a self-funded way. Many graduate from university each year and rapidly disappear seeking work. Many are involved in community theatre but are wanting more. Some start-up funding and a space, with some support for administration and strategic planning to ensure the company is sustainable would allow the creatives to do their best work. An example of this in practice is City of Greater Bendigo’s Performance Subsidy Program which offers no-cost hire of a black box theatre for up to 7 days. This opportunity for subsidised use of professional spaces and staff can be used – and is designed for – the development and presentation of new theatrical works. A similar in-residence program is now being offered by Castlemaine’s Phee Broadway Theatre.

Secondly, we can invite an existing company to move here. Arena Theatre Company, a long-running company making theatre for young people, relocated to Bendigo last year, and has already made an impact on the local theatre industry. The move came after the company lost federal funding and the board developed a strategy to re-develop as a regionally-based theatre company. Supported by local and state government, the company are now the in-residence company in Bendigo’s council run black box theatre The Engine Room. The company collaborates with young people from the Greater Bendigo Region in the research and development of all of their new work, and then premiere that new work locally before touring it nationally and internationally. In March 2019, they are launching a new development lab, in which creative teams from across Australia will join local theatre-makers to develop new works, network, discuss work, speak with presenters who will also attend.

Investment of this kind is essential if we want a thriving independent theatre sector which encourages new talent to remain in our region and if we want to expand offerings to audiences and build audience literacy around what theatre is and can be.

With the new Creative City Strategy from City of Ballarat, and venues like The Lost Ones and Ballaarat Mechanics Institute beginning to partner with performing artists, rather than operating as simply venues for hire, there is hope that we will soon see a flourishing of independent theatre in the region.

Megan J Riedl is a Ballarat-based arts management professional and independent theatre producer, with a creative practice in poetry, playwriting and directing for the stage.