April 28, 2008
REPORT ON THE SECOND B-SIDE WELLINGTON INDEPENDENT THEATRE PRACTITIONERS FORUM
On the 29th and 30th of March the second B-Side Hui for Wellington’s independent theatre practitioners was held. Over 70 performers, directors, producers, publicists, writers and designers met over the two days to discuss and formulate plans around issues of key importance to them. On the first day twenty separate topics were discussed – many of these with overlapping themes. Topics ranged from "What would a Production House for NZ theatre look like" to "Touring – how to make what we have go further" to "How do we treat our craft as a profession and not as a hobby". On the second day these issues were prioritised, converged and action groups discussed the next steps.
A copy of each discussion is available on http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/modules.php?op=modload&name=Forum&file=viewforum&forum=28
The practitioners represented a wide range of roles, skills and experience and also included practitioners from Christchurch and Auckland. A huge amount of information and ideas were exchanged, issues interrogated and action plans developed. At the end of the second day participants were asked to say what this B-side meant to them.
Here are some of the things people said:
§ Being together as an active community is helpful. There is unity in diversity, and the B-Side respects diversity. We’re actually doing it! Change is occurring!
§ We have to be the drivers of change – theatre owes no one a living. Think nationally. We can build sustainable careers while maintaining artistic integrity.
§ The personal is political so use it. Stay active, positive and become leaders of the community. Difference in opinion and robust discussion is crucial. Seek different points of view and encourage discussions on TBI or in person. Be the change you want to see.
B-Side was, and is, a response to a growing call for meeting, discussion and community building for independent theatre practitioners. The 2007 Circa-hosted National Theatre Symposium, dominated by the concerns of established organisations, highlighted a clear need for a place for representation and open discussion around key issues facing independent theatre artists and other practitioners. Members of the BATS Theatre Board brought together a committee (Anna Cameron, James Hadley, Jo Randerson, Hone Kouka, Sarah Griffiths, Miria George, Will Harris and Briar Monro) to look at how this need may be attended to. And so B-Side was born: B-Side, as in, what is the other side of this record that we are always hearing?
It was clear to the B-Side committee that any pre-emptive setting of agendas would be counter productive and so Open Space (a technology for meetings which places control of agenda and responsibility with participants) was used as a format. At the first B-Side 27 separate discussions were touched upon in a 5 hour session.
What the first B-Side produced primarily was an identification of the topics of concern to practitioners, an excitement about coming together and optimism about the future. What it was unable to do was to provide time for in depth analysis and the development of action around key issues. However, much of the information from that first B-Side informed other activities including the current assessment of the arts sector by WCC’s new arts unit, City Arts, and the focus of the Wellington Independent Theatre Practitioner Support Programme currently being piloted by independent creative producer, Briar Monro. Many connections formed at that first B-Side have gone on to produce active creative collaborations.
In evaluating the first B-Side the committee turned their attentions to the question of how to sustain the momentum. B-Side was created to empower the sector to take responsibility for itself and the committee didn’t want to become yet another group of overcommitted people who the sector then looked towards for the next step. What had we created and how would we ensure the initial buzz materialised into real action to benefit and develop the theatre sector?
The need for a second B-Side was clear. This time it would be a two-day symposium to allow for greater depth of discussion and so action points could be developed from these discussions. We also decided to identify and approach other people from the first B-Side who could broaden the resource base of the committee so Eleanor Bishop, Leo Gene Peters, Hannah Clarke and Lisa Maule came on board.
At the second B-Side many of the same topics surfaced again. The two day format, however, allowed for greater depth of analysis of the issues, with time devoted to identifying possible solutions and next steps. People engaged with much more rigour around many of the ideas. Frustrations were encountered, anger at cycling around the same old sticking points, but some steps forward were identified. The unity of thinking around several areas of need was clear;
§ there needs to be a producing space for independent practitioners – able to pool resources across a number of productions and pushing for the development of the highest quality NZ work
§ there needs to be support for the development of producers
§ there needs to be an advocacy body for theatre that is representing all theatre practitioners
§ there needs to be a point of contact for Wellington’s theatre practitioners – a place where resources and information can be shared, a place of meeting and collaborating.
The beauty of Open Space is that it provides a space for anyone to put forward issues that are of key importance and ensures that people take personal responsibility for bringing those issues forward. The challenge of Open Space is that it places the responsibility for moving forward on any issues firmly with the participants. This is a particular challenge for the independent theatre sector which is so poorly resourced in terms of supporting infrastructure focussed towards the development and support of artists and other practitioners. In Open Space if people don’t put themselves forward to take action nothing gets produced – there is no magical body to step into the gap. So it is of no surprise that the three key issues/action groups were all about providing such infrastructure:
§ the development of a Production House
§ the development of an Arts Café
§ the development of an advocacy body
Now we are faced with both possibility and challenge. The possibility of what might be developed, the challenge to make it happen. The sector has empowered itself, and with that comes the responsibility of leading the change.
§ The plan for an Arts Café is rolling forward. A group has met and has formulated a plan towards developing an arts café in Toi Poneke [Wellington Arts Centre] that provides a meeting and resource space for the wider arts sector. Members of this group have met with WCC and Toi Poneke to discuss ways forward. The next step is to develop this idea further, to clarify the kaupapa of the space, to clarify the partnership between Toi Poneke, WCC and the arts sector with regards moving this idea forward and to present plans for a feasibility study to WCC.
§ The Production House idea, enthusiastically embraced by a large group with diverse needs, requires greater clarification. Is this an organisation that produces independent artists, a national resource point for producers and/or the wider performing arts sector, a service organisation like DANZ, a series of producing clusters or incubators or a space that houses a range of independent producers? There are a number of other initiatives which are currently exploring some of these areas including the Wellington Independent Theatre Practitioner Support Programme, the Producers Room, the changes happening at Downstage, PROMPT’s plans for a national producers guild, DANZ’s producing clusters and the Arts Café. The next two months will see some clarity emerging around some of these initiatives which should highlight the next step to be taken.
§ The idea of an advocacy body/guild remains as an idea since no-one volunteered to take any further steps towards realising this possibility. It is quite possible though that Actors Equity may be able to answer some of the needs expressed in this group.
§ The B-Side committee has identified a possibility for another B-Side that, utilising a different format but still based within the initial purpose of B-Side, creates a ‘marketplace’ for Wellington’s theatre makers – an opportunity for everyone to come together specifically to share information. This in part answers the need for a sharing of information that was so apparent at the two B-Side Forums and provides an opportunity to invite others into the gathering. Service organisations, venues, recurrently funded companies and funders will join independent companies, artists, producers and other practitioners to exchange information – converging knowledge so that our sector can work more co-operatively and efficiently.
The B-Side initiative has been and continues to be an important part of the wave of change that is occurring across the Wellington Theatre Sector. Changes of staff at WCC and CNZ, alongside new initiatives at Downstage, the Wellington Independent Theatre Practitioners Support Programme pilot and a new positive, empowered community of theatre artists have all contributed to an optimistic sense of hope for our industry: the hope that ongoing stress points and difficulties of independent theatre artists may soon be eased. While artists realise we have to push hard for the changes the sector needs, we also feel that there are sympathetic organisations that are keen to partner us in these new initiatives. The B-Side will continue as long as is needed, and in whatever form the committee feels is most useful to the industry as a whole. While everyone may not agree on solutions, rigorous and honest discussions will make for the strongest possible forward actions. Onwards into the future of a diverse theatrical landscape with theatre for all of Wellington’s audiences!