Overturn your assumptions, don't presume a western perspective, get to know the festival circuit, and pay attention to geography. Matt Trueman talks to artists and producers who share their tips about touring in Australia
A practical guide to touring in Australia
The Queen of the Night at Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019. Photo Duncan Jacob
Australia might be a world away, but for UK artists, it can feel just like home. There are enough similarities to make it a perfect first step on the international circuit – one more and more theatremakers are taking.
“In terms of the ability to connect with audiences and artists, it’s very, very familiar,” insists independent producer Jo Crowley, who produces for theatre company 1927. “It’s not like taking work to Manchester exactly, but then again, it kind of is.”
The lack of a language barrier allows shows to transfer without loss, but beyond that, there’s a bed of shared cultural assumptions and theatrical conventions.
Since 2007, 1927 has taken its unique fusion of live action and animation to Australia five times. It has also created new work there: The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets was co-commissioned by the Malthouse in Melbourne, and formed part of the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase in 2011.
Performance artist Bryony Kimmings has had similar success, winning fans on and beyond the festival circuit. “On a good year,” she says, “Australia accounts for half my income. It’s a really lucrative part of my practice. People are really hungry for and appreciative of good theatre out there.”
Both 1927 and Kimmings combine experimental performance with pop cultural sensibilities in a way that chimes really well. But then, Brits tend to do well Down Under. “We’re kind of heralded before we’ve even arrived,” Kimmings reckons. “It’s a bit like in pop music: Britain to the Australians is a cultural Mecca.”
"There’s not such a class divide. Theatre’s not seen as elitist in the same way"
1927's The Animals and The Children Took to the Streets was a co-commission with Malthouse in Melbourne. Photo: 1927
Australia still retains an unfair reputation – a certain presumption of philistinism, where sunshine and sport sit ahead of high art. In fact, in 2016, twice as many Australians attended a cultural event as a sporting one: 86% to 43%. The arts employed 200,000 people and contributed $4.2 billion (£2.3bn) to its GDP.
For British artists, Kimmings argues, that’s a sizeable market: “People have much more disposable income, and they’re willing to spend it on art.” Her shows sell tickets around $80 (£40) – considerably more than in the UK – and she says art tends to be more accessible. “There’s not such a class divide. Theatre’s not seen as elitist in the same way.” Australia’s emphasis on comedy, cabaret and circus can clatter through a lot of social barriers.
“Despite its small population Australia is the third largest consumer of UK culture after the USA and Europe,” says Helen Salmon, Director of the British Council in Australia, “And it has been thriving economically. The last time Australia had a recession was before the Maastricht Treaty was signed, the Soviet Union still existed. Now in the context of Brexit, the UK’s relationship with Australia is very much on the agenda.”
It's very easy to think that on face value, Australia is very similar to the UK. However, Kath Mainland, formerly of the Edinburgh Fringe and now Melbourne International Arts Festival's Executive Director, warns against this assumption: “The society’s similar, we talk about the same issues, but the context can be very different. You think about a white, western narrative – that’s not necessarily the default.”
Half of the Australian population have a parent who was born overseas, and in Sydney and Melbourne more than a third speak a language other than English at home. Australia has for decades positioned itself as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region, reflected in its international arts collaborations.
Australia also has its own specific history – one couched in colonialism – and today’s arts sector is at pains to redress that past, emphasising Indigenous artists and First Nations work. “We’re not less focused on artists from overseas,” Mainland explains, “but we want those artists to be saying something different from and important to us.”
"Half of the Australian population have a parent who was born overseas"
Bryony Kimmings's I'm a Phoenix, Bitch will play at the Brisbane Festival this Autumn. The production forms part of the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase 2019.
The right artists can make a massive difference. Jess Thom, AKA Touretteshero, took her show Backstage in Biscuitland to Melbourne in 2016 and the Sydney Opera House a year later. It was programmed, very deliberately, to push the conversation about accessibility on. “There’s a strong community of disabled artists there,” Thom says, “and everything felt fairly straightforward from a physical access point of view.”
Notions of relaxed performances, however, are just coming through. Thom encountered other unenlightened social structures – and recommends disabled artists taking extra care with immigration procedures.
“The structures of the Australian arts sector were modelled on those of the UK, and while that makes it a familiar environment for British artists, the barriers are also similar,” says Salmon. “The statistics around diversity in positions of power are closely aligned with the UK, as well the slow rate of change. However, we have seen the impact of sustained commitment to disabled artists from the UK touring Australia."
As well as sending Australian programmers to Unlimited – a festival that highlights extraordinary work by disabled artists, and the Edinburgh Showcase, the British Council in Australia also offers opportunities such as INTERSECT, that are designed to build international networks and exchanges between the UK and Australia.
“We’re waking up quickly,” Mainland confirms. “We’ve been behind the curve, but we’re making progress. Festivals have a real role in that, we should always be raising the game and the gaze of our artists.”
"Australia has one of the strongest festival circuit’s in the world"
River Fire at Brisbane Festival 2018. Photo: Brisbane Festival
Australia has one of the strongest festival circuit’s in the world, feeding an appetite for innovation and inspiration. The sheer size of the country affords individual states and cities the space to run their own flagship events. The result, for international artists, is a ready-made touring circuit that can bring its own in-built buzz. Crowley says that the circuit offers a pragmatic and financially viable route: “They’re like the big international festivals in Europe.”
Kimmings has followed that trail several times and, she says, it makes Australia a great place to run a new show in. By starting in Perth, remote on the west coast, she got her 2015 show Fake It ‘Til You Make It up to speed in front of early eager audiences, before bedding in properly at Adelaide. What’s more, the circuit can offer momentum as word of mouth carries over from one festival to the next. Reviews too: “There aren’t many papers,” Kimmings explains. “There are only three national papers, so if they write about you, the local papers will too.” It’s also an ideal route to the Edinburgh Festivals: “You can arrive in Edinburgh with the show on its feet and still be eligible for certain awards like the Fringe First.”
Sydney Festival, January
Sydney Festival is an artists’ favourite which attracts 500,000 people to a series of large-scale free outdoor events. Previous UK companies who have performed at the festival include Wayne McGregor's Random Dance, Cheek by Jowl and Gate Theatre.
Perth Festival, February
Over on the west coast, Perth is relatively self-contained, but it has a loyal local audience and good pedigree. The festival commissions and presents work at the cutting edge of technology and work that gives voice to the current generation.
Adelaide Festival, March
Arguably the big daddy of Australia’s arts festivals, Adelaide Festival stretches back to 1960 and boasts a burgeoning fringe with strong comedy and cabaret credentials. Fancies itself a rival to Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Dark Mofo, June
This Hobart winter festival of experimental work has positioned Tasmania at the centre of a culture-led tourism boom. Its January music festival Mona Foma is curated by Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes.
Brisbane Festival, September
Since 1996, Queensland’s capital has run a curated international festival and, in 2009, it became an annual event. The festival programmes work that has something to say about contemporary concerns and embraces non-traditional venues.
Melbourne Fringe, September
Taking place in theatres, houses, alleyways, shops and restaurants, Melbourne Fringe takes over the city. The festival is open access and encourages artists of all disciplines. Big names stand alongside emerging artists, and enthusiastic amateurs in a diverse programme.
Melbourne International Arts Festival, October
Melbourne’s rotating artistic directors have curated a programme of large-scale performance since 1986. The festival spans dance, theatre, multimedia, music, visual arts, free and outdoor events.
"The hardest challenge is making sure you’re being responsible in terms of your environmental impact"
Shipping, demoorage and customs checks. The set of Warhorse had a complicated journey to Australia. Photo: Brinkhoff & Mogenburg
DISTANCE / GEOGRAPHY – PRAGMATICS
Obvious as it sounds, Australia is a long, long way away from the UK – the other side of the world. There are 10,500 miles between London and Sydney – a 10-hour time difference – and flights take 22 hours with a stopover in Singapore. That inevitably impacts on international touring. It’s not as simple as a North American or a European tour.
Rachel Roussel-Tyson, general manager of War Horse’s current international tour, advises careful planning. Shipping takes a minimum of six weeks, necessitating well-planned packing. “If something’s been on the sea for a long time, it can get hot, it can get cold, it can get infested with bugs.” De-moorage takes time too, allowing for customs checks.
Australia’s size entails another shift. Its land mass is the size of the USA. Any national tour has to take that into consideration. “It’s a lot further than going from Southampton to Edinburgh,” Roussel-Tyson notes. While that affords opportunities – each city has its own audience base – one has to allow enough time to get from leg to leg. She recommends researching hire costs to save shipping and trucking where possible. “Australia has a really strong events hire sector, something you wouldn’t get in, say, China.”
“The hardest challenge is making sure you’re being responsible in terms of your environmental impact,” says Crowley. The key, she believes, is maximising the benefits of any tour. Where possible, 1927 have always tacked on a stint in Singapore or New Zealand. They have also sought development time in co-producing theatres to coincide with performance runs. Kimmings and Thom have both offered workshops to organisations en route.
"The partnerships in Australia has been really useful"
UK artist Seeta Patel and Australian artist Lina Limosani in rehearsal. Photo: Chris Herzfeld
An alternative is to think longer-term. Over the past three years, dance artist Seeta Patel has cemented a collaboration with Lina Limosani, a dancer based in South Australia. Having started working together in 2016, the pair has been back and forth between Britain and Australia every year since – culminating in a slot in this year’s British Council Edinburgh showcase with Not Today's Yesterday.
“We’ve sort of co-produced to make the project happen,” Patel tells me. The approach has allowed access to two complimentary funding systems, including support from Arts Council England and the British Council through the Artist International Development Fund. While Britain prioritises project funding, as Patel puts it, Australia tends to fund artists longer-term, making pots of money available for immediate needs. Limosani found funding to fly to Edinburgh, for example. “The support in Australia has been really useful,” Patel stresses. “I’ve only been able to access that because of my collaboration with Lina.”
It’s something Mainland confirms: Australia is eager to back homegrown artists. She admits that there’s not a lot of funding or support to get international artists to come to Australia, but stresses that smart thinking can circumvent the issue. Mainland cites the Confederation of Australian International Arts Festival’s new Major Festivals Initiative, which, much like Creative Scotland’s Expo Fund, seeks to bolster the scale of Australian stage work. That opens opportunities for presenters, collaborative projects and a spirit of exchange – and those cultural similarities, despite the distance, start to make themselves felt.
Matt Trueman is a freelance theatre critic. He reviews London theatre for Variety, and writes regularly for the Financial Times, New York Times and the Guardian amongst other publications.
Find out more:
> Discover more about INTERSECT, an exchange programme aiming to strengthen international connections between UK and Australia
> Watch Bryony Kimmings talk about her latest show I'm a Phoenix, Bitch
> Read a blog about the importance of bringing Indigenous communities into Australian performing arts