Volunteer (amateur) community performing arts organizations provide physical and social spaces that encourage networks of civil engagement. In the case of the regional city of Bunbury, Western Australia, its community performing arts organizations have demonstrated initiative and resilience in the face of changing economic times. Their activities, as in most voluntary organizations, are based upon members’ skills, labour and time and their longevity is evidence of a continuing need for their services.
This paper provides the specific example of Bunbury-based Stark Raven Theatre Company, a volunteer community performance group formed in 1997 that aims to present original work, productions of Australian plays and innovative performances of ‘classic’ or canonical plays. This group has used particular strategies to demonstrate initiative and resilience and continues to contribute to a vibrant local map of cultural production.
Volunteer (amateur) community performing arts organizations provide physical and social spaces that encourage networks of civil engagement (Putnam 2000; Cox 2000). In the case of the regional city of Bunbury, Western Australia, its non-profit community performing arts organizations have demonstrated initiative and resilience through changing economic times. Their sustainability is founded on passionate personnel in the form of their volunteer members, careful planning and prudent budgets. A volunteer is defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) as “someone who willingly gives unpaid help in the form of time, service or skills through an organization or group”. Of the 4.5 million Australians over the age of 18 who volunteered for non-profit institutions in 2006-07, the largest category is those who volunteered for culture and recreation (ABS 2009). The members of community performing arts organizations—whether performers, crew, or supporters—are unpaid volunteers who contribute their skills, service and time to achieve group objectives, which often extend beyond the immediate challenge of staging the next production.
In the period 1990 to 2004, I investigated the role and function of performing arts in regional communities through a case study of Bunbury, culminating in my doctoral thesis Performing Arts in Regional Communities: The Case of Bunbury, Western Australia (McCarron 2004). This participant observer study drew upon my local knowledge and engagement supported by publicly available documents, interviews and material community practices. In part, the study argued that the term “community theatre” is more appropriately used to describe the volunteer (amateur) community theatres of Australia, than the use of the term to apply to a form of professional theatre whose members worked on funded community arts projects, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s (see Fotheringham 1992; Foster 2000).
Bunbury is a coastal, regional city 200 kilometres from Perth: “The Greater Bunbury area is home to approximately 63,000 people, with its population increasing at an annual growth rate of 4.2 per cent over the past five years” (South West Development Commission 2009). Regional growth in the past decade is due to the coastal location, and the proximity of large alumina mines such as Worsley Alumina (BHP Billiton) and Alcoa. The city is a major service centre and its port is one of Australia’s biggest regional facilities exporting alumina, mineral sands, woodchips and timber. Thus the community, like others in Western Australia, has been at the forefront of the most recent mining boom. Since the 1980s, when the then state government established a South West development authority, the city has been re-imagined and gentrified in order to provide a more cosmopolitan experience to its residents and visitors. This is exemplified by its 800 seat theatre, the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre (BREC), which opened in 1990. The major mining companies provide significant sponsorship for the city’s major arts organizations and their employees are often enthusiastic participants in community performing arts groups, although the rosters of mining workers including those who work “fly in/fly out” rosters in the north of Western Australia, present a challenge to rehearsal schedules. 1
Bunbury’s oldest non-profit community theatre, the Bunbury Repertory Club, dates at least from the 1930s (Murray 1996), with others formed in the intervening years, and they have survived in spite of changing economies, governments and, somewhat bizarrely, a tornado in 2005 that severely damaged two of the oldest theatre buildings in the town.
In this paper I briefly outline the diversity of community performing arts organizations in Bunbury to demonstrate the continuity of cultural production and civil society they provide the community, and then discuss the example of Stark Raven Theatre Company, a performance group formed in 1997. Stark Raven aims to present original work, productions of Australian plays and innovative performances of ‘classic’ or canonical plays. This group demonstrates initiative and resilience and continues to contribute to “a vibrant local ‘map’ of cultural production which is intergenerational and outward-looking” (McCarron 2004, 101).
Community theatres and Bunbury
The following list of community performing arts organisations in the Bunbury community indicates the predominance of British, European and American performing arts genres since the late nineteenth century. The list is not complete because there have been various short-lived groups that have formed for particular projects. It also does not include dance and contemporary music groups. The number and longevity of most of the groups in this list indicates their resilience and resourcefulness; they have outlasted depressions, wars, booms and busts. Some performers participate in more than one group, depending upon current projects and the opportunities they offer. Committee membership tends to be stable, with some members maintaining their contributions for decades.
|Bunbury Repertory Club||(1930s-present)|
|Bunbury Musical Comedy Group||(1960s-present)|
|South West Music Guild||(1970-1990s)|
|Bunbury Youth Chorale/Bunbury Young Voices||(1984–present)|
|MESH Youth Theatre||(1980s-2004)|
|South West Opera Company||(1994-present)|
|Bunbury Men of Song||(1997-present)|
|Stark Raven Theatre Company||(1997-present)|
|BRECCY Youth Theatre||(2007-present)|
|South West Philharmonic Orchestra||(2008–09)|
Table 1: Bunbury Community Performing Arts Organisations
Typically the repertoires of these groups are mainstream, conservative, popular and aspirational, often for the same pragmatic reasons that face mainstream professional theatre—the need to draw an audience to cover costs and, if possible, to achieve a surplus to fund future projects. However, since the payment of performers is not a concern, these groups are able to stage works that are often unavailable to regional (or even metropolitan) audiences. These include large-cast works, popular work (musical theatre), comedy and drama drawn from the Western theatre tradition. Despite being on the circuit for touring productions from commercial and state-funded flagship companies, as well as having a suitable venue, Bunbury audiences rarely see the major companies such as the Western Australian Ballet, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, Perth Theatre Company or Opera Australia. When a tour is offered to the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, it is usually a pared-down regional touring production with smaller casts and limited staging, such as Opera Australia’s production of Madame Butterfly. Performed by the company’s regional touring arm, OzOpera, it was staged at the Entertainment Centre in September 2009 with a cast of thirteen, and an orchestra of eleven. It had one performance with an audience of 710 (Harvey 2009). Three weeks later the South West Opera Company’s production of Oliver was also staged at BREC. This had a cast of sixty-four including thirty-four children, an orchestra of seventeen and a backstage crew of twenty (not including the Entertainment Centre’s own paid technical crew). This production had four performances with a total audience of 2,534 (including 803 children) (Eckersley 2009). Thus the local production reached a sizeable audience, enabled a new generation of children to either participate in or attend a significant and well-loved work of the musical theatre, provided an outlet for the talents of the performers, and an opportunity for the further development of their skills.
Until 2010, only two of the local groups listed in Table 1 had performance spaces of their own: the Bunbury Repertory Club and the Bunbury Musical Comedy Group. Their theatres were built or adapted to the needs of their own performance styles. As noted above, both theatres were badly damaged in a tornado that cut a path through inner Bunbury in 2005. In the aftermath, both groups sought financial support from local government, whose administrators floated the suggestion that each should cut their losses and integrate with the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre rather than rebuild their damaged theatres. Such a suggestion was a grave misapprehension of the loyalty and determination of community performing arts groups. The Bunbury Musical Comedy Group’s New Lyric Theatre, which had sustained the greatest damage, was rebuilt and is now enjoying a resurgence of interest in its activities (Gobell 2008). However, in 2010 the Bunbury Repertory Club’s Little Theatre, a much older building, was closed and a two year memorandum of understanding negotiated with the Bunbury Musical Comedy Group to share the New Lyric Theatre (Relph 2010).
All other performing arts groups use various venues for their rehearsals, performances and storage. The Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, although used for staging larger productions at a subsidized rental cost, was not designed with adequate rehearsal or storage facilities to house a resident performing arts group. However, the Centre uses dedicated funds to sponsor: community co-productions with local performing arts groups; the Bunbury Eisteddfod; BRECCY Children’s and Youth Theatre; the South West Philharmonic Orchestra (its formation in 2007 was a BREC initiative); subsidized performances for children ; and an annual free community concert.
A permanent space is a wonderful asset for a theatre group and contributes, arguably, to a strong sense of identity and place for its members. However, it also means that a considerable amount of capital (economic and human) is required to maintain that space. A large part of the annual expenditure is for the maintenance and upkeep of the building itself and for paying rates on what is, in the case of the Bunbury Repertory Club and the Bunbury Musical Comedy Group, increasingly valuable inner-city land. This ongoing responsibility then tends to steer programming towards safe choices that will return a surplus, most of which is used for capital items rather than artistic development. Some supplementary funding for capital items can be obtained via Western Australian government agencies, such as Lotterywest and Healthway WA, but this induces further safe programming choices because funding bodies require evidence of community use of the facility.
Both MESH Youth Theatre and Stark Raven Theatre Company chose to use existing spaces rather than devote time and energy to the task of obtaining and maintaining a permanent home. Some of the members of these two groups were also members of the older established groups and felt that a permanent theatre space impacted on the ability of the group to take a flexible approach to performance. I was the coordinator and director of MESH Youth Theatre from 1997 to 2004 during which time the group established a link with the South West Campus of Edith Cowan University and used its facilities for its regular youth workshops and a variety of community venues for performances.
In her recent article “Theatre in Australia’s National Capital”, Adele Chynoweth (2009) suggests that amateur theatre is valorised over professional theatre in Canberra and is provided with funding and other in-kind support that the few professional groups are able to access. She suggests some reasons for the strength of amateur theatre in Canberra, such as a large number of public servants and the propensity for many to look to participation in the performing arts as a recreational option. I have lived in three regional communities over four decades (Yass, New South Wales; Alice Springs, Northern Territory; Bunbury, Western Australia) and note that the strength of the amateur performing arts attributed by Chynoweth to Canberra (once referred to as a ‘big country town’) is typical of these regional towns. In both Alice Springs (during the 1970s) and Bunbury (during the 1990s) the notion of a semi-professional theatre company was floated but found to be uneconomic and therefore unsustainable. The amateur performing arts groups in these communities typically have a core group (usually committee members) who are permanent residents of the town and an extended membership of enthusiastic participants, many of whom are public servants, professionals, or employees of major organisations, such as banks or mining companies, who are based in the community for defined periods of time and who look to the local performing arts groups for their recreational needs in the same way that others look to sporting clubs. These groups are financially self-sufficient, but occasionally seek funding from state government community funds such as Lotterywest and Healthway, WA, to purchase equipment or for specific projects that target a health objective. Very few of these groups apply for state or federal arts funding, finding the criteria too restrictive and the work of preparing a submission, which may or may not succeed, an unproductive use of members’ time. Community theatre groups rather enjoy their independence and self-management.
What is not often recognized is that many of the participants in amateur performing arts’ groups in Australia have quite high levels of training in the performing arts. They have not chosen to pursue performance careers, preferring to use their skills in their own recreational contexts. Musicians have typically learnt a musical instrument through school music programs and/or private tuition; dancers are able to receive training through private dance schools and within school physical education programs; and actors receive initial training in drama programs that are offered up to final year level in many secondary schools. Furthermore, quite a few participants in amateur performing arts’ groups have had post-secondary training in performing arts. Some of these work as music, dance or drama teachers or are in regional media organizations and find opportunities to extend their skills through challenging roles in community performing arts. What a waste of talent and resources there would be if the extensive network of community performing arts groups across Australia did not exist.
The 2000 Voluntary Work Survey states that:
The most common type of involvement in heritage and the arts was with organizations involved in the Performing arts (102,600 involvements), which accounted for approximately one-third (34%) of the 306,400 involvements (ABS 2008).
A survey of cultural industries shows that:
Some 2,548 people worked as volunteers in music and theatre productions in June 2003 again giving a ratio of about two volunteers for every five persons employed. The 1,272 paid staff working on 176 performing arts festivals (of 2 days or more duration) during 2002-03 received assistance from 15,728 volunteers (ABS 2008).
I take the position that all participants in community performing arts are ‘volunteers’ and contribute to civil society regardless of whether they are front of stage, onstage or backstage. Community performing arts organizations provide entertainment, mentoring of young people, community spaces, identity, skills development and funds to their communities. Their members are loyal and energetic, donating much of their recreational time to achieve group projects. It is these qualities that ensure the longevity and sustainability of their groups and meet the definition of “active citizenship” as outlined by Mills and Brown in their Australia Council report Art and Wellbeing (2004). Stark Raven Theatre
Stark Raven Theatre was formed in 1997 by a small group of individuals from Bunbury, many of whom are education or media professionals with post-secondary training in performance. Some were members of other established community theatre groups who wanted opportunities to perform contemporary works or to develop original works. Leanne McLaughlin, a drama teacher at Newton Moore Senior High School, was a founding member of Stark Raven and became interested in accounts of the collective theatre groups in Melbourne in the 1960s. She advocated a more flexible group structure than was offered by the established groups in Bunbury. For Leanne, the notions of the ‘collective’ and non-traditional performing spaces were key. She proposed the idea of prioritising Australian or original works, alongside innovative productions of ‘classic’ or canonical works. Other priorities were to encourage and support young people who had graduated from performing arts programs in local secondary schools and who wished to remain in Bunbury for work or further education (McLaughlin 2001). The following table of seventeen Stark Raven productions (six of which were directed by McLaughlin) shows that these objectives have been realized:
As it happened, the romanticized notion of ‘the collective’ was soon dispelled; in order to operate as a non-profit organisation, the Stark Raven group required incorporation and office bearers. They also discovered that eligibility for sponsorship was dependent upon being a legally constituted body. However, the group still operates through a small number of committed individuals who try to retain the originating ideas articulated by McLaughlin and others.
The use of non-traditional performance spaces was a pragmatic solution for Stark Raven, but McLaughlin also felt that new, younger audiences might be attracted to venues that contrasted with the formality of traditional theatres. Bunbury has a number of old hotels, most of which have large function rooms that are rarely used. Stark Raven’s first production, Cosi by Louis Nowra, was staged in a rear storeroom of the Burlington Hotel. Although providing ample room for a stage and audience, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the space was an excellent foil to the themes of the play which is set in a psychiatric hospital.
A similarly claustrophobic effect was obtained for their production of The Return by Reg Cribb, which is set in a train carriage, by using a former nightclub cellar at the Lighthouse Motel in Bunbury. For two productions by local playwrights, The Japanese Affair by Norm Flynn, and Nathan Anzac Jet by Brad Snelling and Geoff Robinson, the rear bar at the Highway Hotel was sufficiently large to install scaffold seating and a stage area. For the production of Emma—Celebrazione by Graham Pitts, the South West Italian Club, a large community hall, was used, with the audience seated at café tables, catered by the volunteer members of the Italian Club.
Stark Raven’s use of non-traditional spaces has been successful both artistically and economically, particularly as the hotels were prepared to make their unused spaces available to the group for minimal or no cost. Arguably, the selection of these venues made the theatre-going experience less familiar and more exciting; for the audience, part of the appeal of attending their performances is to see what use is being made of the space. Audiences have remained loyal to the group and appear to enjoy the ‘liveness’ of theatre performed in such spaces where the proximity of performer to audience is closer than in the permanent theatres in the town. This certainly was the case with the productions of Cribb’s The Return and The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell, both of which were intense and unrelenting psychological studies.
Early in their twelve-year history the group experimented with performances at Bunbury’s and surrounding communities’ street markets and community festivals, thinking that this would be a useful revenue source for the group. However, this has now been discontinued because it was found that the workload and commitment detracted from the group’s ability to stage their more-satisfying stand-alone productions.
On three occasions Stark Raven has staged major productions in conjunction with the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, and for these productions employed professional directors: Perth director Andrew King for Hewett’s The Man From Mukinupin (2000), Sydney director Michael Lindsay Simpson for Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2002), and Melbourne director Sue Ingleton for Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (2008). The community co-production program is an annual initiative of the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre and calls for expressions of interest from community performing arts organizations in staging a production at the centre. The attraction of this program to local groups is that the Centre underwrites the cost of the production and, if losses are incurred, absorbs these via its Entrepreneurial Fund (funded by regional shire councils). Stark Raven has used these opportunities for the ‘professional’ development of its members. Larger productions also attract new members and provide opportunities for those interested in backstage work to learn technical skills whilst being mentored by Centre staff. The choice of script for each of Stark Raven’s co-productions was guided by the secondary English and Drama curricula and the productions were heavily promoted to schools, drawing considerable support.
The occasional use of professional directors for major productions occurs with community theatre groups but is usually dependent upon obtaining arts or other government funding. Bunbury groups tend to contract Perth-based directors with established careers as actor-directors. Because of Bunbury’s proximity to Perth, it is possible for a Perth-based director to travel to Bunbury on a weekly basis for rehearsals. Andrew King, John Milson and Jenny McNae have all directed productions for Bunbury groups. Surprisingly, graduates from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and other metropolitan university theatre courses have rarely been attracted or recruited. On the two occasions when Stark Raven engaged an interstate director, this was considered a bold move and not without considerable financial risk.
In 1998, Leanne McLaughlin undertook a cultural exchange with the United Kingdom performance group Horse and Bamboo Theatre, where she explored the potential of puppetry and other approaches to theatre. In 2001, she was introduced to the work of Michael Lindsay Simpson, a Sydney-based director who had trained in puppetry with Philippe Genty in Paris and with the Muppet Artists at Humbolt University, UCLA.
Stark Raven’s proposal, in 2002, to invite Michael Lindsay Simpson to direct Macbeth was a daring one and a logistical challenge. It would not have been possible without major sponsorship from Edith Cowan University. All participants had to commit to four weeks of daily rehearsals, spread over two school vacations. Adult members took leave from their work, even long service leave, to be able to participate. Whilst in Bunbury, Lindsay Simpson also conducted drama workshops in schools and at the campus of Edith Cowan University. A major aim of the Macbeth project was to include as many young people as possible, and to this end a partnership with MESH Youth Theatre was established. As the then volunteer director of MESH, I coordinated the participation of young people as actors, chorus members, crew and stage managers. Seventy per cent of the thirty two member cast and fifteen member crew were under the age of twenty five (McCarron 2004). With his background in puppetry and innovative approaches to texts, Lindsay Simpson—somewhat radically—involved all cast and crew in the design and direction of the production. For the young people involved, the self-discipline expected and demanded by the director came as a shock but their level of engagement remained high and their input was valued by all concerned.
Perth-based professional actor/director Andrew King has had an ongoing relationship with Stark Raven. As stated above, he directed The Man From Mukinupin by Dorothy Hewett and The Japanese Affair by Norm Flynn. In the latter he worked as dramaturg with Flynn prior to the production.
Stark Raven has staged five original works and has a further two in development. The street theatre performances Makin’ Moves (1998) and Bessie and Her travelling Players (2001) were developed by Leanne McLaughlin; two dramas Coming Back (1998) and The Japanese Affair (2002) were by Bunbury playwright Norm Flynn; and Nathan Anzac Jet (2005), a musical, was co-written by Brad Snelling and Geoff Robinson.
For playwright Norm Flynn (2001), Stark Raven Theatre has been a supportive vehicle for his passion for telling Western Australian stories. Flynn is well-known for his commitment to community theatre and has worked with most of Bunbury’s performing arts groups. He has a considerable body of work to his name, which has been performed or published locally. The sources for A Japanese Affair were oral history interviews with Bunbury residents about their memories of Bunbury during the war years, 1939–1945, and, in particular, the reported surveillance of a Bunbury woman by military authorities because of her alleged liaison prior to the war with a Japanese citizen. Flynn found evidence for this report in military archives. He then integrated this narrative with the ongoing post-war relationship of Bunbury and its citizens with Japan, including the experiences of a Japanese woman who came to Bunbury after the war as the wife of an Australian soldier, and the city’s sister-city relationship with Setagaya, a city ward of western Tokyo. The challenge for Flynn was in selecting and crafting a play-script from such rich and complex material, made more so because some of the key figures were still alive. The dramaturgical relationship with Andrew King, funded by small grants (from state funding bodies), facilitated this process and demonstrated what can be achieved with the strategic use of professional input (Flynn 2001). This has been one of Stark Raven’s achievements: to use the limited funds available to them for the development of the group’s creativity and skills.
Australian Plays For Regional Audiences
Stark Raven Theatre has staged productions of works by established Australian playwrights Louis Nowra, Andrew Bovell, Dorothy Hewett, Graham Pitts, Katherine Thompson, Norm Flynn and Reg Cribb. Of these writers, Hewett, Pitts, Thompson, Flynn and Cribb are Western Australians by birth or (occasional) residence. With the exception of Flynn, professional productions of their work have been staged in Perth, nationally and sometimes internationally, but few if any of these professional productions have toured regional Western Australia. Regional audiences continue to be relatively deprived of opportunities to see work by our leading writers even when the content is derived from regional stories such as The Man From Mukinupin (Hewett 1980) orEmma (Pitts 1996).
The Western Australian playwright Reg Cribb has enjoyed considerable success in the last ten years, with a considerable body of work staged nationally and internationally. However, none of his works has been toured regionally in Western Australia by the professional subsidized theatres who have staged them, although it should be noted that Last Cab to Darwin did a regional tour of the eastern states in 2004 and was awarded the 2005 Drovers Australian Performing Arts Centres Association (APACA) Excellence in Touring Award. Apart from the production by Stark Raven in 2007, The Return (2003) by Cribb has had seven amateur productions between 2003–09, three of which were university productions (National Institute of Dramatic Art, University of Tasmania Underground Productions, La Trobe University) with one other West Australian production by the Kalamunda Dramatic Society (Leonard 2009). Community performing arts groups such as Stark Raven or the Kalamunda Dramatic Society provide an essential service in making Australian works available to audiences who are unable (or unwilling) to attend metropolitan commercial or government-funded professional theatres.
Stark Raven has experimented with regional touring and took the original works Coming Back (Flynn) and Nathan Anzac Jet (Snelling and Robinson) to Perth for two performances. They toured with the recent production of The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell (Cribb) to the communities of Margaret River, Denmark and Nannup, which are up to 200 kilometres from Bunbury. Just as in professional theatre, touring represents challenges—not the least of which, for a volunteer organization, is the availability of performers and crew.
Whether Stark Raven Theatre will achieve the longevity of other Bunbury performing arts groups is yet to be seen. MESH Youth Theatre sustained itself in the Bunbury community for almost twenty years providing performing arts opportunities for many young people. However, as it required a high level of adult volunteer support and, with new requirements for volunteers working with children and rising insurance costs, this proved increasingly difficult to sustain. Regrettably, MESH Youth Theatre came to an end in 2004. Longevity is not in itself a measure of quality and sometimes it is important to know when to ‘exit the stage’. Some of the youth work undertaken by MESH has since been undertaken by other groups. Stark Raven Theatre, however, continues to demonstrate initiative and resilience through its performing arts volunteers and, in its twelve-year history, has achieved some notable successes.
Throughout this account I have emphasized the voluntary aspect of community non-profit performing arts organizations. I have chosen not to identify these groups as ‘amateur theatre’, although of course this is how they have been described in Australia, particularly during the twentieth century. Using the descriptor ‘amateur’ immediately sets up the amateur/professional binary and subsequently a privileging of one category over the other. A more productive discussion can be had when such organizations are viewed as non-profit community organizations creating networks of civil engagement. This includes: sustaining supportive, creative environments for people to pursue their interests; providing live entertainment, promoting theatre, developing skills; mentoring young people; fundraising for community projects; employing professional personnel as required; participating in community events; and constructing or maintaining community resources. Stark Raven Theatre Company is an example of the resourcefulness, energy and commitment such organizations inspire in their members. Its promotion of Australian, original and canonical works is invaluable in a regional community, where access to such works is limited by the ‘tyranny of distance’.
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(1.) Much of the workforce for West Australian mines and the primary extraction industries follow a pattern of intense work of up to 10 months whilst housed in temporary or seasonal accommodation, before returning to families and long-term accommodation elsewhere during the off-season. These “FIFO (fly-in/fly-out)” workers often reside in the Eastern states of Australia.—eds.