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10 June 2009

Harnessing a place

interview with Caroline Stacey

The Street Theatre in Canberra Image: The Street Theatre in Canberra  

Caroline Stacey is the Artistic Director/CEO of Canberra's The Street Theatre. Before coming to Canberra to give a new life to this slightly tired and largely forgotten theatre venue ('like an old laundry, with white walls and grey carpet'), she was responsible for reinvigorating the Castlemaine State Festival in Victoria. She is also one of Australia’s leading opera directors. Nicole Canham asked her about the role a physical location can take in art.

Nicole Canham: You've done quite specific work in different places, including festivals, but you have also done something here in Canberra – you have come to one venue, The Street Theatre, and transformed the meaning of the venue for all the people who are coming into contact with it. As a director and artistic director, what role do you think place, physical location, has in inspiring and shaping artistic practice?

Caroline Stacey: I think the notion of place is fundamental to creating work, in terms of physical environment or geographical location: what that means in relation to '...the notion of place is fundamental to creating work, in terms of physical environment or geographical location'how people are interacting with that geographical location and how that shapes persons, communities, and whether those communities are social communities or defined socio-economic groups. It really is the starting point. You're standing in a particular place, at a particular point in time, with a body of people, and you want all of those people to be engaged and be part of a dialogue around an aesthetic and a practice for that place. So, for me, it is the starting point to understanding, I guess from a programming perspective, how to program, how to shape a vision, how to find a way of talking and communicating that is ever-changing. It is living, breathing, dynamic, and, I guess, owned.

To be quite funny about Canberra, a lot of people deny Canberra and deny their ownership of it as a place, either of living, or of coming from, or of going to, or passing through. So in actual fact there are some wonderful tensions culturally within this community, and, I think, within Australia as a nation – but that's another story.

NC: Can you give us some examples of particular projects in which you engaged with place?

CS: I was artistic director of Castlemaine State Festival for seven years, and when I inherited that festival it had a strong connection to community. But I don't think it had harnessed effectively the possibilities of place, both in terms of constructions of heritage and of what that means looking forward and back in time, and of really the possibilities of site as a way of exploring resonances between both regional and metropolitan artists.

A very simple example is that there were all these disused mines and mineshafts in Castlemaine. Some cute little places that would have heritage tours, but all constructed with a very particular type of experiential framework. But everybody who lived in the community, as kids, had played in the zillions of mineshafts that are around that Castlemaine region. Every person you met who had grown up there had a particular mineshaft that was a place they had a connection to as a child. I thought, well, there has got to be something in that as a possibility, as a sort of performance site, and so I built a whole series called 'Music Down the Mineshaft' and looked at programming work underground. People were really captivated by that – people visiting as well as people who obviously lived and worked within the community, because it spoke on a whole lot of levels.

'Every person you met who had grown up there had a particular mineshaft that was a place they had a connection to as a child.'I am really interested in performance in many ways being ephemeral and having the possibility of happening in a place on a whole lot of levels, especially somewhere with the sort of residual echoes of those mineshafts for example, so that you forever change people's relationship with a particular site or place. I'm not just talking about the geographical but the feelings around a building as a town hall, or a building as a church, or as a mineshaft, or whatever, and all of the connections that go with it. You have created a work in it, around it, on it, a work that maybe directly engages thematically or with the place; or maybe not, maybe it is just a vessel for holding something, but it changes the way one thinks about that place and gives a connection in a different way. I think that's the way memory is built.

As a festival director I found that really interesting because what I enjoyed was watching people who lived and worked in the Castlemaine community see an audience of outsiders experience a place that they had a particular reading of . Possibilities are opened up, and sometimes also wonderful new ways of making connections between people.

I also did a project in a cemetery in Castlemaine that caused enormous controversy but also brought communities together. I think cemeteries are spaces that, whilst they host the dead, in a way they are living, breathing entities, and it is wonderful to move communities through cemeteries and to find different ways of experiencing those places. I did a big cemetery project in Melbourne in 2000 with a group of young people, and we created a work that responded to the Melbourne cemetery site for the Bicentennial. It was done at night – we had a number of different kids from a local housing estate, from three or four different primary schools, from a couple of high schools, and that project was all about people getting to actually move through. They were all living and working around the cemetery but never really went into it, and it was fundamentally about the notion of ownership, of ownership and direct engagement and of wanting to be part of the life of that place.

NC: How critical is the idea of sense of place in developing audiences, and how necessary is it for artists to do this work?

CS: When I think about audiences and myself as an audience member, I guess we all know the way that we think both in terms of artists and audience members. We live in a world where people are really time poor, where we call upon individuals in a variety of ways, and I think part of the challenge for an artist is to create an experience that is really direct, immediate and that is really positive.

'To me, a very clear vision for how a place is harnessed, and the energy in a place is harnessed, is a very immediate way of making unique experiences.'In the end people really want to be there, [they want to feel] that they have actually gained something, not that they have lost those hours in their day. To me, a very clear vision for how a place is harnessed, and the energy in a place is harnessed, is a very immediate way of making unique experiences. When I think about creating work – whether it’s festivals, a place that is a venue like The Street Theatre in Canberra – it is about the total experience and it is about all the different ways in which somebody will intersect with the notion of place.

Of course you have not just got physical location, you've got virtual location, you've got the general word and chat in the community, whether that talk happens at a local level or at a national level or at an international level. We all know that word of mouth is the way that audiences, and I am using that in a sort of broader sense, engage with place. If you're exploring a place and you are really looking to connect, then the creation of experiences that are transformative and really reveal new aspects of it are fundamental – whether they are emotional resonances or various groups of communities or physical place.

It is fundamental to create these kinds of transformative experiences because we can't assume anybody is going to go to anything. You actually have to work pretty hard to even signal where you are. The noise level in terms of activity is pretty intense. If you are creating silence within that noise, for me the creative possibilities are probably more interesting. Even when I come to conventional theatre-making, say if I was directing an opera in a conventional theatre space, I do think about the architectural structure, I think about my feelings of being in that physical space. As a person I have a tendency to not want to hide but actually want to use structure, use what's there because it speaks more clearly and cleanly than, for me, actually hiding and pretending that it is something that it is not. That is probably fundamentally where my aesthetic lies as a theatre-maker, and I apply that to whatever I'm working on, whether it is a community cultural development project or venue or festival.

NC: You have been in Canberra for three years at The Street Theatre. Could you tell us a bit about what you have achieved in that time and what you are working towards when it comes to changing past perceptions of the theatre as a venue?

CS: The vision is very simple: to create a place that everybody owns, that artists and audience want to be in. They want be here and they want to be part of the creative energy that is here. So it is a pretty simple-sort-of it vision. The complexity comes with what it is that people will want to come to, and be part of, and be attracted to.

When I arrived, I really started with physical structure. That's fundamental to that vision of people wanting to be here, and creating a place that does capture Canberra's aesthetic – and that comes from notions of identity and how people define themselves in relation to the city and this place within the city. We are very much embedded in the fabric of life. If you are living here, The Street is a place that you should go to, you want to go to, you want to be there, whether you are making art or whether you are an audience member, you want to be a participant, a really active participant. I think The Street as a place is much more in the hearts and the minds of local residents than it was three years ago. I feel that it has an energy to it that it didn't have when I arrived.

Just on a very basic level, the space was like an old laundry, it was just white walls, grey carpet and it didn't feel to me like a performance space or like a theatre space, it felt like the sort of brutalist buildings I was surrounded by and walked by every day in Canberra. There are colours that give energy, there are structures that give energy. It needed to be completely repainted. A creative space needs to be comfortable, people want to be able to sit down in it and not feel like they are being sucked dry of any sort of creative thought that they might have. There are very pragmatic factors.

'A creative space needs to be comfortable, people want to be able to sit down in it and not feel like they are being sucked dry of any sort of creative thought that they might have.'We don't try to be all things to all people, we don't see ourselves necessarily as a family-focussed venue. We are situated between a university and the city centre. Essentially the people who float through this precinct are adults or young adults. It is more that slice of bohemian life, and if we have achieved one thing, it is that certainly the response from artists who come into the space has been incredibly positive. In three years, I think the transformation has been from somewhere which was morbid, like you actually walked in the building and you felt like it was dead, to a place that really feels it is humming. It's been quite a painful journey in many ways, but also an interesting journey. Some stuff has been very simple, the interior decoration or the new website. But fundamentally it comes down to the work that you are programming and getting people to understand why you are programming in a particular way. Why particular artists are in that space.

We do see ourselves as an arts house and I think it was really previously seen as just a venue for hire. Fundamental to the change in energy is the notion of actually caring, really caring on a deep level for the venue as practitioners and as managers so that we want our building to look and feel good. We want to have the right equipment for artists. We are very lucky that the ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope recognised the need for the infrastructure to be overhauled and he gave us a one-off grant to basically update all of our equipment. Most of the equipment we had in here had been bought second-hand and was up to 30 or 40 years old.

NC: There seems to be a strong trend towards collaborations, community engagement programs, and residencies for artists, and I guess therefore ways of exploring direct connection with specific communities or places. You have talked a lot about what has physically happened to make it possible for people to want to come in, but do you think, in terms of building that relationship with the broader community, you will need to go out to them to bring them in?

CS: Absolutely. Fundamental. We see the audience and artists as equal partners. Everybody is a participant in that creative process. When I came into this place three years ago, there was a lot of trouble getting people in and out of the venue in any way that made any sense, and it was because the venue was really confused itself. There needs to be a curatorial approach to the program and very clear messages to the audience who are also participants. I think that's through paid advertising, the whole branding and actually getting messages out in a clear way through that channel. There is also obviously how we position in relation to the work that is on – sort of editorial and artistic messages – and then there are all the different niche groups that we go to with the different work that we program.

Talking about the whole ticketing thing, when I came to The Street, there was certainly a sense that tickets were given away because it was the only way to get an audience here – which is an extraordinary mentality. One of the things that we have really addressed is that care factor and valuing factor as well, and we just don't do that anymore. We looked long and hard at how to position The Street in the hearts and minds of Canberrans and we are a tiny bit of the way there. It's a 15-year job to build a really strong audience. It's about resources that you have, it's about how you talk.

When I came here, I was very concerned when I talked to a lot of people and they had actually never heard of The Street Theatre, and it had been here for 15 years. To me that is an issue. After 15 years as a performing venue, there should have been a higher degree of ownership. It is through the programming and the work that is on, knowing who is going to want to see what work, in what way, that is critical for really building niche audiences for niche work. It comes back to the ownership issue. People need to be very comfortable with the experience that they are going to have, and for me, what I want to achieve, is to get to a point where you know that it might be a little bit edgy or a little bit different but that it will be an experience that is really positive. It could be hard, it could be difficult, whatever, but you're not going to come away saying that I will never go back, I lost that night of my life.

NC: What about Canberra itself?

CS: Canberra's unique. Canberra is a very tricky place and it is a much more difficult place than I thought it would be. It is difficult to build ownership and participation when you have a highly transient population. 30% of the population move in a year. You've got a broadsheet that a lot of people read, but then a lot of people read broadsheets from other states. How do you get that ownership and engagement when it is actually difficult to directly access participants, and you've got limited resources? That's the challenge. I think it's the word of mouth, changing the energy, the care, and in a way creating a little oasis or island, so that people say, 'ah, I heard about this place. I want to go there'.

Further links

The Street Theatre (www.thestreet.org.au)
Castlemaine State Festival (www.castlemainefestival.com.au/)

Nicole Canham is an independent artist (clarinet) and artistic director specialising in chamber music performance and audience development. She has also worked in theatre, film, new music, improvisation and folk music and built a body of work with colleagues from other art forms. She has worked with The National Library of Australia, The National Gallery of Australia , The National Film and Sound Archive and Old Parliament House to develop site-specific programs and commissioned works. She has performed internationally with the quartet Clarity, an ensemble she co-founded in 1996. As Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, she achieved record attendances and box office during her four-year term (2005 – 2008). In 2009, Nicole is undertaking research into the positive impact of culture in diverse communities in North and South America as a recipient of a Churchill Fellowship.


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