How Independent Theatre Works Down Under
By Carol Dance
Cover Photo Credit: Back to Back Theatre
Australia has a healthy independent theatre scene for many reasons. Firstly, we’re a creative mob and like to tread the boards, write, play music, dance, paint and sculpt. We even sculpt sand. There are choirs for homeless people. Yes, we have homeless, too.
There are amateur theatres supported by memberships, community groups supported by local businesses, and completely independent semi-professional groups supported by the passions of the writers, actors and directors. Most Indie groups receive no government funding yet thrive due to their energy and talent.
Australia is geographically disperse making it difficult for plays to reach a national audience.
Sydney is 3,935k (2,445 m) from Perth. The cost of developing a play in one city can be defrayed by it having an extended life in another city. Imagine the transport cost! Touring does exist, but shows that go on the road require the actors to spend days getting from one place to another.
In the UK, often the first presentation of a play is in a regional centre. If it’s popular, the play then moves to London’s West End or even the Barbican. Testing a play out in the regions is also a way of fixing any unforeseen warts before it goes to London. That can’t happen in Australia. There is no regional trial system.
Because our cities are so far apart, each regional city has an incentive to produce plays itself, and each has a captive audience – people in a town five hours from Sydney aren’t going to pop down for a night of theatre. They are more likely to go to a locally produced show and have a great night out. So, great distances can help Indie Theatre.
Geelong’s Back To Back Theatre is one such example. This town of 184,000 people has an amazing Indie Theatre that created a show about the elephant-headed god Ganesh travelling through Nazi Germany to reclaim the Swastika. An ancient Hindu symbol, Ganesh Vs the Third Reich. The concept was so unusual and so well executed it won multiple awards and travelled to Edinburgh and Germany.
Australians are very practical people. We like seeing a minimalist show (sometimes code for doing it on the cheap) with actors wearing their own clothes as costumes and a few lights on a simple grid.
We like stories that relate to our history, everyday lives and our geography. Stories set in the outback are always a treat. Plays that speak of the high cost of housing in Sydney and Melbourne resonate with young people especially. We like seeing our local people on the stage, having something to say and saying it passionately. Or having fun saying it, like this group of Aboriginal (Indigenous) dancers who created a Zorba Dance. They did this to thank the local nurse, who is Greek, whom they all love for her dedication to the community.
The dance the young men created was such fun that it became an international hit. The Chooky Dancers, from a remote Aboriginal community on Elcho Island off the northern tip of Australia, in 2007 created the dance, wearing traditional markings, set to the music of Zorba The Greek. Here’s the clip of the 2007 dance:
One of the locals uploaded a video clip of the Zorba Dance and views peaked at over 500,000 hits worldwide in a few weeks. And then this happened: The Chooky Dancers were invited to perform their ‘thank you’ to the Greek nurse, in GREECE by the descendants and creator of the movie, Zorba the Greek. From their website: “The funny dancing and comedic element of their performance has its origins in their community. It’s a tradition in a young boy’s initiation ceremony. You make up funny dances and do them at the ceremony to make it more of a fun day for the young boy.”
Now called Djuki-mala they have performed all sorts of new dances to ecstatic crowds in China, the Solomon Islands, Canada, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Europe, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Lebanon, Cyprus (the Greek part) and, of course, all around Australia.
Most small Indie Theatre groups remain local, relevant and passionate about their work. They continue to surprise with reviews that surpass many of the shows put on by the government supported iconic theatre companies. Seed Bomb by Dani Giorgi is one such play. “Seed Bomb is a play for 2019 Sydney”…. “a funny, likable and blooming good yarn….“a subtle, combustible comedy”. Sydneysiders loved it because it was about Sydney.
Photo Credit: Subtlenuance Theatre
Indie Theatre also includes companies that thrive on non-Australian topics. Théâtre Excentrique’s Anna Jahjah created a well-reviewed version of Eugene Ionesco’s classic Exit the King. She read the original in French, and found interesting nuances that didn’t exist in the usual English translation used by directors. Anna explains the company’s passion for complex international and classical plays: “I come from a French-Lebanese background and have always been open to other cultures. In Paris you can watch a lot of international plays all year round. And classics. I love this mix. I chose to do the same in Sydney to reflect the diversity and complexity of our world.” Théâtre Excentrique has given us a deeply thoughtful performance chosen with an eye to the treasures of the past, their relevance to the present and their importance to the future (South Sydney Herald).
Long live Indie Theatre in Australia and everywhere! Here’s a partial list of our Indie Theatres. Check out the great variety, talent and enthusiasm Down Under.
Carol is a Sydney playwright, producer and artist. She has had four full-length plays and 14 short plays produced (Sydney, Malaysia, India). Her published plays are at australianplays.org. Her artwork is found at Paintings by Carol Dance