out of the frying pan…

gail priest converses with artists from the spark program

Olivia Crang, Senseless (creative development)

Olivia Crang, Senseless (creative development)

Olivia Crang, Senseless (creative development)

SINCE IT WAS ESTABLISHED IN 2003, THE SPARK PROGRAM HAS SEEN 35 YOUNG ARTISTS THROUGH ITS PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM. AN INITIATIVE OF THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL AND RUN THROUGH YOUTH ARTS QUEENSLAND (YAQ), SPARK TEAMS UP EMERGING ARTISTS (18-26 YEARS) WITH ARTIST MENTORS, PROVIDING TRAINING, ADVICE AND IN SOME CASES EVEN A LITTLE BIT OF FUNDING TO KICK-START A PROJECT. SIX ARTISTS WHO HAVE HAD THE SPARK EXPERIENCE IN 2005-2006 ARE SURVEYED HERE TO GAUGE THE IMPACT IT HAS HAD ON THEIR PRACTICE.

the projects

Animateur, writer, director, performer Olivia Crang invited David Pledger from Not Yet It’s Difficult to be her mentor in establishing the performance company x:machine. Crang worked with Pledger’s NYID on his latest project apoliticaldance (RT 77, p41, 42). “I liaised with various members of the company while observing rehearsals, as well as organising marketing, publicity and front of house aspects of the production…It offered me the chance to reflect upon my own dramaturgy and working methodologies. [David] has a great way of raising fundamental issues and questioning how his art tackles them…By giving me the chance to become actively involved in his processes, I have picked up on some of his strengths.”

Western Australian dancer choreographer Aimee Smith worked with Andrew Lake to develop a 20-minute solo dance work called Courageously Heroic Gallantry performed by Aisling Donovan (RT78, p33). “I wanted to use this creative process to develop my skills, focusing on the integration of digital media and contemporary dance… With such tight time and financial restrictions new works are often premiered underdeveloped, but with this project I felt…I was that step closer to realising a concept.”

Also in WA, director Matthew Lutton set himself up with Artrage’s Marcus Canning as mentor to help his company ThinIce to create their first self-devised (as opposed to pre-scripted) work, The Gathering (RT70, p15), and to guide the company through a key growth period. “I was preparing to apply for our first annual program of activities, so I needed to learn a lot of new skills about setting up company structures…It was about having an outside eye, and a support network…someone who was objective [about] my artistic process, but was intimate with my work and aesthetic.”

Megan Sarmardin met composer and instrumentalist John Rodgers when she was performing in Bob Cats Dancing for the 2004 Queensland Music Festival. She subsequently asked him to help her develop a music theatre piece based on her family history. “Out of this project we worked together to develop the show and two songs; Little Birung (about my great-great grandparents fleeing from the authorities) and No Where to Hide (the experience of what I thought my great-great grandmother went through when she saw non-indigenous people for the first time).” Through the project Samardin was able to develop both her songwriting and performance skills. “I’m more confident in performing. I have worked with a number of musicians thanks to [John’s] musical knowledge and networks.”

Teik-Kim Pok is a Sydney based artist who worked with Rolando Ramos to create the video design for PACT Youth Theatre’s production Before the Lights Go Out (RT71, p32) at the Sydney Opera House. He was particularly interested in Ramos as their career trajectories were similar. Both started as performers and shifted into video work. Pok drew on Ramos to develop technical skills but also to have “conversation[s] about the role of the multimedia artist in the collaborative dramaturgy of the live performance we were working on…I managed to get a better idea of what my performative aesthetic was in an overall sense rather than actually splintering my identity as performer and then multimedia creator.”

As of 2006 SPARK opened its doors to visual artists as well. Queensland artist and curator Bree Jackson was able to draw upon the skills of Raw Gallery’s Rob Kelly, working as the exhibitions co-ordinator as well trying her hand at curating a major exhibition: You Are Here. “The fact that my SPARK experience was project-based really helped with being able to draw on actual experiences and questions to approach my mentor with…Being part of [it] has definitely helped me to make people more aware of my practice and abilities and kick-start my practice as an emerging curator by getting my name out there.”

the caffeine catalyst

At the beginning of the ten month program, YAQ co-ordinates a formal three day planning session where all the mentors and mentorees come together. There is an expectation that meetings between the mentor and mentoree will take place every few weeks, but beyond that how the relationship transpires is up to the individuals. Most of the six artists surveyed believe that coffee was the best catalyst for their information exchange. Jackson says, “My mentorship with Robb was really laidback. We had casual meetings to discuss the project and basically just had a chat about where I could go from here, how I should approach each situation.”

Smith says, “We would chat about ideas related to the work and my practice, and other times we’d chat about things completely unrelated. The more regularly we did this, the more information was exchanged, the more we got to understand each other’s practice, and the deeper the mentorship grew.”

For Lutton being able to get all his ideas out to an eager experienced ear was vital. “I am notorious for having too many ideas swirling around in my head… a lot of the time Marcus would just let me talk through my plans, and he would then encourage me to be more precise and succinct. He would help me clarify my goals.”

For Samardin, trust and mutual respect is the key to their successful relationship, “to communicate with one another on both a professional and personal level. I trust [John] enough to tell him feelings about certain events/experiences in my life, then we make it into a piece of music/work.”

professional profiling

In addition to the artform specific wisdom that mentors were able to share, all the mentorees talk most positively about the networking and profile opportunities that came from these professional relationships. Crang states that it has put her in “closer proximity to the networks, resources and knowledge that I need to develop, engage with and extend my practice.”

Bree Jackson says, “With direct support from YAQ and the…Australia Council [connection] it was definitely easier to get important industry professionals and contacts along to the exhibition…From my involvement in SPARK I have made some great contacts and networks that I could call on for future projects.”

For Smith and Pok it was important to connect with peers. Teik-Kim Pok says “to meet other artists from around Australia of my age, who were looking to develop their own practice in a similar spirit in different artforms, gave further definition and context to my ideas and process.” It was a similar situation for Lutton who met his latest collaborator through Canning: “I am currently creating a new version of Antigone with local song writer and performer Rachael Dease, and it is a result of my mentorship that this connection was made.”

up and running

The all important factor of development programs is what happens afterwards.

All of these mentorees still have active engagements with their mentors. Crang meets Pledger once a month for feedback and discussion, Jackson still works for Kelly at Raw Space and is now on the board, Samardin has been working with Rodgers on a variety of projects, and Lutton’s offices are based at Artrage with Canning. Lutton states that his relationship has shifted subtly from mentor to colleague: “The mentorship certainly set up a relationship…and I know that Marcus is someone I can always turn to for advice and feedback.”

When you look at the projects the 2005-2006 participants have on the boil, the results of SPARK are impressive. As well as a string of directorial projects including The Lady Aoi for Black Swan Theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (RT 79 online), Lutton’s ThinIce company is applying for its second round of annual programming funding from ArtsWA. Lutton is also off to England to work on a contemporary opera for Aldeburgh New Music after which he returns to assist Neil Armfield on Michael Gow’s Toy Symphony. Olivia Crang’s x:machine launched in March and is working on Senseless, a collaborative piece for 25 artists of different disciplines conceived online for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and Serial Blogger for Next Wave 2008. Megan Samardin is developing a proposal for the 2007 Gympie Muster as well as working on corporate gigs like the Department of the Premier’s Reconciliation Business Awards and making her demo tape. Bree Jackson continues to work at Raw Space, is the Exhibitions Assistant at Institute of Modern Art (IMA), as well as applying for other curatorial projects. Teik-Kim Pok is off to Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s La Pocha Nostra Summer School in Tucson, Arizona courtesy of a RunWay emerging artists travel grant. And Aimee Smith, along with tripping over to Taiwan to choreograph a work for the Taipei National University, has joined the EPIC program (Emerging Producers in Community; RT 73, p9) to work with AWESOME Arts in regional communities in WA.

With similar achievements for many of its participants, the SPARK program seems to be fulfilling its brief to “fire up young artists”, and there are now 12 more with the announcement of the 2007 participants. Let’s hope that small and sporadic funding and the general insecurity of life in the arts in Australia doesn’t extinguish the flame.

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2007 SPARK teams are Yusuke Akai (QLD) & Jim Denley (NSW), Aisling Donovan & Sue Peacock (WA), Ashley Dyer & Margery Smith (NSW), Ofa Fotu & Steve Bull/Kelli McCluskey (WA), Amber Haines & Stephanie Lake (VIC), Luke Haralampou (QLD) & Morgan Lewis (NSW), Ming-Zhu Hii & Melanie Beddie (VIC), Gareth Hudson & Art Phillips (NSW), Alisdair Macindoe & Lucy Guerin (VIC), Paul Morrison (NSW) & Brian Lucas (QLD), Lara Thoms & Caitlin Newton-Broad (NSW), Willoh Weiland & Roger Alsop (VIC)

SPARK, Youth Arts Queensland; www.yaq.org.au

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg.

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2007