Not your average flagship

Dickon Oxenburgh, Andrew Ross interview

Dickon Oxenburgh

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross

At the beginning of his 10th year as Artistic Director of Black Swan Theatre, Andrew Ross talks about the development of a different kind of theatrical aesthetic.

When Black Swan was set up, the central objective was to have a theatre company that engaged with the mainstream of cultural, political and social life of Western Australia, rather than just the theatre ‘industry’ of Australia. We were interested in giving a theatrical expression to WA’s cultural life, rather than the imitation of repertoire of other companies elsewhere.

It’s my sense that there was a deal of cultural resistance to the company at the outset. Do you think that has changed?

I think the resistance was political. A lot of that controversy over the Black Swan’s program was motivated by industrial issues concerning employment. Also, in the early 90s the view of what could constitute mainstream theatre was for the most part borrowed from elsewhere. For a time the 2 models co-existed, but it was inevitable that both could not survive.

So the concept of a state or flagship company has changed over the years?

I think the notion of the flagship company now has a lot more to do with what WA contributes to the rest of Australia, than the way its repertoire correlates with other flagship companies—this is a by-product of globalisation—the necessity to produce distinctive, regional works. Each company has to chip out their own aesthetic and cultural position within that framework.

When we set the company up 10 years ago we wanted to emphasise certain things that were important to us. The first was the development of WA plays: we’ve done a large number over the years and currently have 5 projects in various stages of development. Trevor Jameison and Scott Rankin (Box The Pony) are working on a play that deals in part with Trevor’s family’s (Pitjantjatjara) dispossession by the Maralinga nuclear tests, with the working title of Dust Will Fly, while Ningali Lawford and Ali Torres are developing a show reflecting on the lives of their mothers on Kimberly properties during the 60s and 70s. Black Swan has been commissioned by the Centenary of Federation Council to create a work on Sir John Forrest and his role in Federation. This is being researched and written by Phil Thomson and a production is aimed to be on stage around September or October 2001. Over the years we’ve shown a close interest in interpreting the literature of Randolph Stow and to follow up on our success with Midnite, Tourmaline, and The Merry Go Round In The Sea, we have begun work on the stage adaptation of To The Islands.

We have also felt it important to define that regional identity within the context of the Indian Ocean region. This aspect was slow to develop at first but has gained momentum in the last few years with touring productions from South Africa and, latterly, Indonesia with The Year Of Living Dangerously, where a group of artists from Surabaya in East Java participated in the 1999 Festival of Perth production.

How did that come about?

We are working closely with the Taman Budaya (arts centre) in Surabaya, helping to develop international funding support for the formation of a new annual arts festival called Festival Cak Durasim. Actually, Surabaya shares some characteristics with Perth: relative isolation, a distinctive regional culture and propensity to view Jakarta in much the same light as we regard Sydney!

WA has a sister state relationship with the province of East Java which takes the cultural component of this relationship very seriously, beginning with the gift to the people of WA of an entire Gamelan orchestra. Over the years there have been a number of cultural exchanges and tours—Chrissie Parrott Dance Collective’s Satu Langit (One Sky) among others—but what I’m interested in building up is the long-term intimate relationship between the two artistic communities.

There were a couple of other developments in the region last year: a group of musicians toured Malaysia, holding workshops and performances that explored the acculturation of many traditional Malay songs into the music traditions of northern WA. This influence arose during the early days of the Broome pearling industry. Black Swan’s general manager Duncan Ord visited Shanghai and Singapore, while you visited Kuala Lumpur to further develop the possibility of touring and exchanges in the region. Regionalism has also influenced Black Swan’s interpretation of the ‘classic’ repertoire...

We have explored the classic repertoire within a regional context through earlier productions, such as Twelfth Night and Waiting For Godot. We haven’t moved on this area as much as we’d like to lately, though a cross-cultural, Indian Ocean region production of The Tempest is scheduled for 2002/3.

We have been involved in producing and touring foreign and Australian contemporary plays such as Closer, Art, Trainspotting, Popcorn, Dead Heart, Away and Cosi.

Finally, and very importantly, we have had the opportunity to help develop the talents of Indigenous performers and creators such as Jimmy Chi, Jack Davis, Sally Morgan and Trevor Jameison.

I believe we’ve remained true to our original artistic principles. Sometimes we’ve had to change the way we’ve gone about things while waiting for the resources to become available but we haven’t seen the necessity to reinvent ourselves in the process.

Dickon Oxenburgh has worked with Andrew Ross on several Black Swan productions, most notably adapting Randolph Stow’s The Merry Go Round In The Sea and Christopher J Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 12

© Dickon Oxenburgh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001