The Fourth Decade: 2010 – 2019

2010 – TW’s thirtieth anniversary was an opportunity to look forward as well as back. A year-long program of celebrations included a special Birthday Dinner hosted by stalwart local supporters Claypots Seafood Bar which brought artists, Board members and other supporters together, in some instances reconnecting with the company for the first time in many years. The energy and commitment shown at this event reinforced confidence in the company’s significance within the ecology of Melbourne theatre and marked the start of a renewed – and successful – drive for patrons and advocates. The creative program included a higher than ever proportion of works curated and presented by TW through its Selected WorksIn the WorksMoving WorksCircus Works and a new Girls at Work! program for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, with several of the supported companies and artists going on to tour work nationally and internationally.  Mutation Theatre won the inaugural Theatre Works Fringe Festival Award for original Australian work by an independent company. Nicola Gunn’s restaged production of At the Sans Hotel picked up 4 Green Room Awards nominations and was invited to tour to Sydney’s Liveworks Festival (2010) and the Next Stage Festival in Toronto, Canada (2011).  2010 was also a year of organisational change. A Board Visioning Day was followed by a comprehensive staff review commissioned from Andrew Bleby and Associates; this recommended that TW ‘bite the bullet’ and invest its accumulated surplus in a new staffing structure to take advantage of the momentum built up over the past decade and allow the company to stake a credible claim for creative leadership in the years ahead. After a national search, Daniel Clarke was appointed as Theatre Works’ inaugural Creative Producer, to begin work in 2011.

2011-13 – a key goal for TW in this period was to secure recognition as a key national arts organisation and to win new sources of funding, including inviting the Australia Council to renew its investment in the company after a ten year hiatus. Daniel Clarke and new GM Mark Crees hit the ground running in this regard, securing a three year Producers grant from the Australia Council for 2012-15, together with an increased commitment from the City of Port Phillip which had to that point only supported TW on a project basis. The creative program for 2011 was well received, attracted good audiences, critical and peer acclaim, including several Green Room Award nominations. TW’s partnership with Magnormos culminated in two Green Room Awards; Best Ensemble for the cast of Peter Fitzpatrick’s flowerchildren and a special Outstanding Support for New Australian Musical Theatre award to Magnormos itself. The creative program for 2012, the first wholly selected by Daniel as Creative Producer, created further excitement, starting with a supercharged Midsumma Festival season, including the presentation of US theatre artist Nilaja Sun’s acclaimed No Child at the Victorian Arts Centre for the Melbourne Festival and concluding with Present Tense Ensemble’s new Australian musical Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert directed by Bryce Ives and Nathan Gilkes. Fraught Outfit’s restaging of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona directed by Adena Jacobs attracted sell-out crowds and critical plaudits, winning Green Room Awards in five categories including Best Production; Nicola Gunn’s Hullo My Name Is … was also nominated for Best Production. The program for 2013 broke all previous records. No Child returned for another successful season at TW; audience attendances for the year were up by another 12% with a record 15 Green Room Award nominations. Awards went to Genevieve Guiffre for her performance in Little Ones Theatre’s Psycho Beach Party; the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s M+M, one of two TW commissions in that year’s Melbourne Festival, won two Awards including Best Ensemble. M+M and TW’s other work in the Festival, The Rabble’s Room of Regret, were both nominated by The Guardian as national cultural highlights for 2013. Another bold new initiative mid year was the inaugural fundraising party, Abundance, held as a benefit for TW’s partner companies; now a continuing annual tradition.

2014-15 – international connections continued with the wildly successful presentation of UK theatre artist Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at Melbourne Town Hall for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2014, followed by tours to Adelaide and Perth in 2015. In an overlapping season, Kimmings presented the delightful Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model to a quite different audience at TW with fellow performer, her 11 year old niece Taylor. TW’s contribution to FOLA was recognised, along with presenting partners Arts House and Footscray Community Arts Centre, with a special Green Room Award for Curatorial Contribution to Contemporary Performance. TW went on to become a commissioning partner on Kimmings’ Fake It ‘Til You Make It with Southbank Centre London, with seasons at TW for the Comedy Festival, Adelaide and Perth in 2015. Back home, 2014 saw the launch of The Bridge donor program, TW’s first organised attempt to secure ongoing support from its friends and patrons. Highlights of the 2014 season at TW included Elbow Room’s highly original The Motion of Light in Water, Dirty Pretty Theatre’s stylish adaptation of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Watch This Productions’ staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures and Uninvited Guests’ I Heart John McEnroe. These productions attracted 18 Green Room Award nominations between them, with the Award for Best Ensemble going to the cast of McEnroe. This success was almost equalled in 2015, with a total of 12 nominations shared between Fabricated Rooms’ Grief and the Lullaby, Don’t Look Away’s timely revival of Alma de Groen’s The Rivers of China, St Martin’s Youth Theatre and Fraught Outfit’s extraordinary reimagining of The Bacchae, and Little Ones Theatre’s high camp Dracula – although on this occasion none resulted in an Award. The year finished with Present Tense’s ambitious pop operatic retake on JS Bach, Ricercar. Other events in 2015 included the mid year appointment of new GM Kate Hancock, the FLIGHT Festival of New Writing, featuring works by graduates of the VCA’s Masters in Writing for Performance, and the inaugural Directors Lab, curated by Daniel Clarke as part of the Melbourne Festival, with support from the Ian Potter Foundation, The University of Melbourne, the Besen Family Foundation and the US Consulate General Melbourne. The success of this project saw it return twice more, through to 2017.

2016-17 – Daniel’s time as Creative Producer/CEO at TW was capped in January by his success in winning the prestigious Facilitator’s Prize at the annual Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards, with a citation recognising him as ‘a visionary arts leader who transformed Theatre Works to become one of Melbourne’s leading theatre venues’. He had however already decided to pursue other options; the Board was actively seeking his successor and in March, John Sheedy was appointed with the new title of Creative Director. 2016 season highlights included Black Hole Theatre and the Netherlands based Duda Paiva Company’s imaginative meld of dance and puppetry, Blind, for FOLA; the New Working Group’s bracing production of Mark Wilson’s Anti-Hamlet; OpticNerve Performance Group’s hauntingly beautiful adaptation of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and INFLUX’s gutsy and confronting Animal. These shows attracted a total of 12 Green Room Award nominations between them; Animal scooped the pool with no less than 4 Independent Theatre Awards including for lighting and sound design, Best Ensemble and Best Direction for Susie Dee. In December, the Commonwealth Government Department of Communication and the Arts awarded a grant to TW through its Catalyst program of just over $250,000 over 3 years, for an Artist Future Fund. A new shift in direction was announced for the 2017 season; time and resources would be allocated to just 8 productions over the year, with a strong focus on new Australian work. The overall goal was to maximise the longevity of productions and support the careers of participating artists. The year also saw more significant staff changes, with outgoing GM Kate Hancock replaced by Dianne Toulson in September. Apart from the first play, Lifetime Guarantee by Ross Mueller, directed by John Sheedy himself and the second last, the immersive All My Friends Were There by ‘live art production house’ The Guerilla Museum, the season presented works by companies and artists already familiar to TW audiences, including The Rabble, Fraught Outfit, Don’t Look Away, Rawcus, Lally Katz, Patricia Cornelius and Susie Dee. The season was generally well received by critics, garnering 13 Green Room Awards nominations across 4 productions with the final show for the year, Rawcus and Invenio Ensemble’s Song for a Weary Throat, the standout with 3 Green Room Awards from 4 nominations – for Best Ensemble, Best production, music composition and sound design, the latter shared by Jethro Woodward and Invenio’s Gian Slater. But despite the support offered by the Catalyst grant, audience numbers failed to make up for the weeks devoted to rehearsal and development; Sheedy’s resignation was announced for December.

2018-19 – In 2018, Dianne Toulson returned the focus of programming to keeping the theatre ‘live’. The number of productions in the season more than doubled, along with special events including a writers’ Sunday afternoon event and a performance season of Hello, Beautiful written and performed by TW founding member (and then Board member) Hannie Rayson. Highlights included OpticNerve Performance Group’s production of Robert Lepage and Marie Brossard’s Polygraph, and Red Hot Theatre’s production of Connor McDermottroe’s gritty and moving Swansong, which returned to Theatre Works in 2019 prior to an extensive regional tour. Little Ones Theatre’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and The Rose garnered two Green Room Award nominations, including for best Performer (Jennifer Vuletic) and Lighting Design (Katie Sfetkidis). Chris Beckey was also nominated in the Performance category for his work in The Danger Ensemble’s The Hamlet Apocalypse.

Incoming Artistic Director Bryce Ives responded to the challenge of boosting audience engagement by guiding a new creative consultation for Theatre Works. Over several months in mid 2018, Bryce conducted a series of in depth conversations with community members, with artists and with Theatre Works’ stakeholders, patrons, friends and supporters. Out of this came proposals to re-calibrate the theatre, prompting staff and board members to reach out beyond the ‘bubble’ of the theatre scene to build audiences, actively and creatively re-engage with Theatre Works’ existing networks and to forge new links with diverse local cultures and communities. While Bryce’s tenure was relatively short, his questions, “Why this, why here, why now?” and the response – “Because Now”, “Because Heart”, “Because Future” – helped spark a renewal of passionate community engagement, culminating in a public call-out for work for the 2019 season.

Spearheaded by Dianne and Bryce, this initiative showcased a reinvigorated commitment to new work and new partnerships that has characterised the best of Theatre Works’ program activity over the past four decades.

After Bryce’s resignation, Dianne worked through over 130 applications to program a 2019 season full of new work, new partnerships, new provocations, local connections and new offers to new audiences. This renewal bore fruit in the success of Laura Bridgeman and Julie McNamara’s local production of The Butch Monologues, a partnership with Arena Theatre to produce and tour Jolyon James’ Robot Song, a year-long female-identifying writers development program culminating in a two week season of She is Vigilante and a vibrant Fringe Festival season including the Green Room Award-winning work, The Market is a Wind-Up Toy by The Bloomshed.

2020 and beyond – forty years! A huge achievement for a company run in a church hall on an oily rag by an independent Board of Directors, one that depends so much on its relationships with community, with artists, with supporters and with audiences, one that continually forges those bonds anew through its commitment to Australian culture and a belief in the ongoing relevance of new theatre and new ideas. One that lives and breathes the idea ‘think global, act local.’ Why here? Why now? Because it’s so worth it.

Theatre Works.

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