post-youth new growth

keith gallasch: pact’s regina heilmann and chris murphy

Teik-Kim Pok, Lara Thoms and Naomi Derrick, Holiday, spat+loogie, at Tiny Stadium’s Festival

Teik-Kim Pok, Lara Thoms and Naomi Derrick, Holiday, spat+loogie, at Tiny Stadium’s Festival

IN REALTIME 88, FORMER PERFORMANCE SPACE DIRECTOR FIONA WINNING PAID TRIBUTE TO PACT YOUTH THEATRE FOR ITS NURTURING OF GENERATIONS OF CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE ARTISTS. FOR ARTISTIC DIRECTOR REGINA HEILMANN AND ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR CHRIS MURPHY THE TERM ‘YOUTH’ HAS BECOME PROBLEMATIC. HEILMANN REPORTS, “WE JUST RECEIVED OUR TRIENNIAL FUNDING FROM THE THEATRE BOARD OF THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL AS AN ORGANIZATION THAT SUPPORTS EMERGING ARTISTS. A LOT OF OUR YOUNG PEOPLE ARE BETWEEN THE AGES OF 20 AND 30 AND THEY DON’T IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS YOUTH. AND WE’VE INTRODUCED PROGRAMS THAT HAVE MEANT THAT THEY KEEP RETURNING TO PACT BECAUSE THERE ARE CONSTANTLY CHALLENGES AND CONTEXTS FOR THEM TO WORK WITHIN. SO, AS THEY’VE GOT OLDER WITH THEIR PRACTICE OVER FIVE YEARS OR WHATEVER, AND NEEDED MORE CHALLENGES, WE’VE WORKED WITH THEM.” I MET RECENTLY WITH HEILMANN AND MURPHY, RESPECTED MEMBERS OF SYDNEY’S CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE COMMUNITY, TO TALK ABOUT THE EVOLUTION OF PACT AND THEIR OWN SURVIVAL IN IT.

emergence & mutualism

PACT is now working with these emerging artists by producing and presenting their work, as it did recently with solo works by Georgie Reid and Sally Lewry (RT 89, p35) and Janie Gibson’s The Whale Chorus (RT84, p36) which had come out of a PACT residency. Murphy explains that “PACT presents…” wouldn’t exist if there weren’t works to warrant it: “There has been a natural evolutionary quality about the company over the last seven years. Works rise to the surface.” PACT has also established peer-run labs; most recently Teik-Kim Pok and Ashley Dyer worked for three weeks with 13 young artists all sharing processes: “Teik-Kim had worked with Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Ashley with Roy Hart and each is developing their own eclectic process.”

As well as producing work by emerging artists and encouraging mutual peer support, PACT itself benefits from artists returning to it. The performance trio Post emerged from the ImPACT Ensemble, the organisation’s core activity. One of its number, Mish Grigor has become part of the Quarterbred curatorial team which independently produced the recent Tiny Stadiums Festival (Feb 23-March 8, http://quarterbred.blogspot.com) and the Quarterbred Symposium (Feb 28). Quarterbred has emerged from PACT and is closely associated with it, but its team refer to Heilmann and Murphy only for advice. Ashley Dyer is involved in the peer-run lab, is part of the Quarterbred committee and is also working with Heilmann, she says, “researching the capabilities of our website as to what we can offer in terms of profiling young artists. He’s also researching other presenting partners, venues and organizations locally, nationally and internationally. That’s quite a lengthy process but we should be looking to broker or find pathways to get these artists out beyond PACT.”

While some will need this kind of support, the current generation are already, says Murphy, finding their way to Melbourne’s Next Wave, Brisbane Arts Festival’s Under the Radar, Performance Space’s LiveWorks or a SPARK mentorship (p22). Heilmann adds that this generation has considerable networking and curatorial strengths as well, citing Lara Thoms, “an amazing force”, for her work for Quarterbred which this year attracted 100 applications for its program and included artists from Melbourne and Brisbane. Murphy explains that Quarterbred, now in its third year, came at a time when PACT’s short works program, Zing, was running out of exactly that and “alternative venues like Lanfranchi’s where a number of PACT artists had lived or performed were closing down.” Out of that a committee of seven was formed, including Di Smith of Brown Council, all with responsibilities, and with growing autonomy. Heilmann says that she and Murphy increasingly rely on young artists and curators like Grigor and Thoms because they travel and make contacts. Murphy makes the point that Quarterbred has become, in effect, an Artist Run Initiative with an identity in its own right.

As impressed as she is with one generation’s drive, Heilmann worries about the next PACT generation who might not, she says, have the collective strength of the Quarterbred generation: those “who may need a bit more facilitation, who are less experienced or haven’t got the same drive, or haven’t met their older peers. ‘Succession’, I think, is the word.”

performance at the centre

Heilmann also points out that the company foundation is rooted in performance whereas Quarterbred is much more into hybrid, interdisciplinary art. So there’s a melding happening. “I look after the more foundational aspects of the company where we bring in new people who are interested in what performance can be. A whole range of people come into that program, a lot of non-performers—visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, dramaturgs, writers—just to find out what performance might be about. Then you’ve got people interested in acting and who have quite a traditional understanding of what that is. So a whole conglomeration of people come into the ensemble to learn basic skills and to work together in a facilitated project. That’s the only work that I’ve produced over the last few years, artistically, developing participant’s improvisational and conceptual skills. It’s an eight-month program. We audition in April in a group workshop and try to work out who would make good ensemble players. Then, every Saturday, 20 people come together and train for a full day. Dramaturg Chris Ryan has been a key partner in that, along with Chris and I, plus some others, and then in the last three months we spend more time on what the performance will be. All of the performers have been part of the final work.”

But the time has come, Heilmann says, “to maybe up the ante a bit, because young people have so many commitments. There seems to be this need to do a lot of things now, getting on with their own thing, doing this project and that project. Life gets in the way. And you ask, where’s the continuity? Where’s the commitment? Where’s the rigour? And that’s been frustrating. So we’re really looking to how we can introduce some procedures to ensure that people do take it on as a commitment and are serious and professional about it.” Murphy adds, “Rather than feeling frustrated again, we’re thinking well, why don’t we just change what we’re doing? If only five people end up working on the piece, it’s cool!”

focused diversity

Where do PACT performers come from? They’re attracted, says Heilmann, by word of mouth, by seeing PACT shows, by encouragement from people like Clare Grant at University of NSW, “a huge advocate of the program”, Paul Dwyer at Sydney University, Yana Taylor when she was at the University of Western Sydney.” Who are the participants? Largely white middle class, says Heilmann: “we do encourage diversity but it’s quite tricky to get people through the door in that way.” But PACT has a history of focusing on cultural diversity in other ways. “Former PACT director Caitlin Newton-Broad instigated the first community project called Stand Your Ground in 2001 and it connected with Alexandria Public School and kids came into PACT and did various sessions. It was a bit like a danceathon or eisteddfod with a set and beautiful lights, people having a good time, a bit of modelling and stuff like that. It was great. Performer Karen Therese came on in 2005 as our Community Cultural Development artist and she made contact with the Block in Redfern, introduced herself to all the youth services and local communities and made the project Gathering Ground at the Block.” The resulting events were notable successes but, say Heilmann and Murphy “huge and consuming in 2006 and 2008” and “hard to align with our key mission, which is about support for emerging artists.” So, another adaptive decision was made, “a handover of the Gathering Ground project to Redfern Community Centre to run. Last year was a transitional project. It attracted a lot of little kids. It was good. Legs on the Wall are continuing to work there.”

PACT’s attention to diversity is meanwhile channelled through the Karen Therese-initiated Step-Up Project which Murphy explains “is a targeted residency mentorship for emerging indigenous artists. We also have Vacant Room, which is an open program while Step-Up is a targeted residency. The residency/mentorship program runs over four to five weeks. Last year we had three teams. Regina did pretty much all the project management for that last year with a bit of help from me.” Heilmann adds that “we can actually work on skills and showing the work of emerging artists who are already passionate and keen to work within a creative field, who are already doing it and just need a forum or a context, which is more aligned with what we’re already doing.” The participants are coming primarily at the moment from Eora TAFE as well as NAISDA and Wollongong University.

staying alive

I ask Murphy and Heilmann about how they’ve sustained their own lives as artists while running PACT. This is obviously less problematic for Heilmann who directs the imPACT ensemble productions. Murphy continues her connection with Theatre Kantanka: “I must say the period I took off last year to work on that show was like coming back to something that was pure, unadulterated pleasure. It was completely intoxicating and I realised, okay, this is me with this hat on and going back to PACT is just a completely other hat.” She’s also appeared numerous times with Toy Death, the experimental sound performance ensemble: “It fulfilled my need for excitement.” Heilmann says, “I’ve been very satisfied as a director, because it’s been my primary output. I derive great pleasure from making work and creating dynamics and pictures and working with rhythms and space. So that’s been very fulfilling. In terms of my life as a performer, well I’ll do a Tony Osborne workshop and whip up a performance once in a blue moon. And I did actually lock myself in a studio last year to start working on a solo and did a 20-minute piece for the Goethe Institut’s GerMANYVoices festival. I’m working with Gail Priest now on a little creative development and with Nigel Kellaway later in the year in a residency at Performance Space. So, little bits and pieces. But first and foremost, it’s been exciting working with all these emerging artists.”

In another adaptive move, four years ago Heilmann and Murphy dissolved their co-directorate with Heilmann becoming artistic director and Murphy associate director. Murphy says: “I do most of the project management for all the programs we run. I look after programming the space and almost all the communication with our constituents. And teach on a Saturday afternoon, run the box office and bar, organise that and do most of the publicity.’

I ask how many days the directors each work. Murphy: Ten! Heilmann: We get paid for four! Both still clearly enjoy the job: “Even though we’re not doing the same job, we’re sharing the responsibility for it.” They know about burn-out, they say, and stagnation, but “as long as we feel the place is evolving, as long as there’s change, then we feel like we’re okay, PACT’s okay.”

Clearly the productive work PACT is doing for its emerging artists, white middle class or Indigenous, training them, offering them production possibilities post-imPACT Ensemble, encouraging independence and a life beyond PACT with an alertness to the possibilities of hybrid practices, is a proven success. By adopting an adaptive approach to PACT’s programs and their own careers within the organisation, and by allowing PACT’s ‘graduates’ a strong creative role, Heilmann and Murphy have ensured continuity and development for an organisation that contributes much to audiences and emerging artists in New South Wales and beyond.

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 19

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2009
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