putting innovative australian performing arts on the map

jeremy eccles: interview, wendy blacklock & performing lines

Wendy Blacklock

Wendy Blacklock

Wendy Blacklock

“GIVE ME AN OVERVIEW OF THE ORIGINS OF THE KEY WORKS PERFORMING LINES HAS TOURED?” WAS ONE OF THE FIRST QUESTIONS FENN GORDON ASKED HER PREDECESSOR, WENDY BLACKLOCK, WHEN SHE ASSUMED OFFICE AS CEO OF PERFORMING LINES.

Gordon had formerly worked at Performing Lines for a year as she progressed from being seconded by Creative New Zealand to becoming a major player in the Australian performing arts scene as Director of Market Development for the Australia Council for the Arts. Blacklock’s extensive arts knowledge says much about her legendary capacity to ensure that every aspect of this complex little organisation’s business passed across her desk during the 30 years of her dominion there.

Indeed, when she talked after her ‘retirement’ about the growth of Performing Lines from its earliest existence as the Australian Content Department of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT)—which Blacklock started with just one associate, Trish Solomons—to today’s team of seven producers, an accountant and a part-time marketing expert, touring 16 productions in 2010 to 64 venues from Cairns Centre of Contemporary Art to the Venice Biennale via Sydney, Melbourne and Flinders Island, Blacklock let it be known, “Of course I checked all the budgets myself—my father was an entrepreneur!”.

Few would have guessed it; Blacklock’s early life acting the dumb blonde in myriad stage and TV productions led many to assume that the persona was reality. But from the first days of Australian Content in 1981, she put the commercial completely behind her to nurture the experimental, the cross-artform, the Indigenous and the multicultural. And fellow performers with ambitions in these directions were comfortable opening up to her about their dreams.

So Aboriginal actor Brian Syron brought playwright Robert Merritt to her office in the AETT rabbit warren with his play, The Cake Man, which had already had a couple of fringe productions in Sydney and been filmed for the ABC. Where else could it go? Well, it so happened that Blacklock was looking for something to send to the World Theatre Festival in Denver on behalf of the AETT. And most shows it did then weren’t Australian. With some lateral thought about funding sources such as the Aboriginal Affairs Department, the show did go on.

That ‘Where else could it go?’ question was a constant in Blacklock’s mind. The only way small performing companies could survive, she believed, was to be given the maximum encouragement to create well—preferably involving Blacklock herself in the rehearsal room—and then tour as long as there was a market for them. “The Australia Council [her major funder] sent in a consultant once,” she recalls, “asking why we were operating overseas? They thought it was a distraction. But I said, ‘You funded the show, we toured it and now it’s ready for the world. It’s a logical progression.’ And they eventually realised it themselves, setting up the Performing Arts Markets to encourage international sales.

“But back then, we were on our own. There was no Playing Australia, Mobile States or Sound Travellers, no subsidy for tours, no association of venue managers like APACA [Australian Performing Arts Centres Association], no Long Paddock, and no Roadworks group of 11 really adventurous regional art centres” who today entrust Performing Lines to send them two shows a year by companies like Force Majeure or Red Stitch in 2010. And yet somehow, back in the 90s, Performing Lines managed to extend the lives of productions by such companies as Human Veins, One Extra, Entr’Acte, the Sydney Front and even Open City—the performance company that became the publisher of this magazine.

And that Indigenous strength—which has today lead to the Sydney Festival putting Blacklock (so much for retirement!) in charge of I Am Eora, a major commission for next January and to Performing Lines being appointed by the Australia Council to establish and manage a new National Indigenous Touring Consortium—grew from two things. Firstly, there was Blacklock’s enquiring mind which asked, “What else is there about?” after The Cake Man. She soon found Jack Davis’ The Dreamers in Perth, and sent it off on a 17-week East Coast tour; then went on to commission Uncle Jack to write the children’s play Honey Spot, which is still running, as well as No Sugar, which would end up in London.

Secondly, there was Blacklock’s determination to make her project truly national. “We needed to know what Tasmania, West Australia and the Northern Territory were doing—not just send them stuff that was ‘good enough for Sydney and Melbourne, so it must be good enough for them.’ Such an egocentric view! The ethos can be so different. Take Tassie—it was so tough there, many artists had left for the mainland, meaning audiences had no experience of local shows. It took us four years to reverse that by a two-way process of touring national shows in and Tasmanian shows out.”

One of Performing Line’s seven producers is Annette Downs, based in Tasmania, who works with independent artists and companies, matching emerging artists with mentors, advising on appropriate artists for projects, linking Tasmanian producers with national and international touring opportunities and developing networks and support for regional touring. Funds come from Arts Tasmania. Similarly in WA, producers Fiona da Garis and Rachael Whitworth work with five core companies/artists, but occasionally produce projects for other independent dance and theatre artists. They’ve included dancer Aimee Smith, who’s quoted on the Performing Lines’ website as saying, “I never want to self produce again.”

And then there’s MAPS in NSW with producer Viv Rosman—a joint State and Australia Council venture with Performing Lines offering management and producing services, plus touring, to three dance and three theatre companies. “Producers are fashionable today,” relishes the woman who trained up names like Wendy Martin for the Sydney Opera House (now at Southbank, London) and Karen Rodgers now with Force Majeure. “Even the Australia Council has recognised that artists can’t exist in a vacuum.”

And even a Duracell dynamo like Blacklock learnt to share her own vacuum. With the advent of triennial funding, now at $350,000 a year to create a box office risk-free turnover of almost $4 million; with the Major Festivals Initiative asking Performing Lines to take on big shows such as The Theft of Sita [2000, director Nigel Jamieson, composer Paul Grabowsky and Indonesian artists] and Three Furies [2005, writer Stephen Sewell, director Jim Sharman]; plus those ongoing deals with the States, Performing Lines needed others with experience to share the load. In came Harley Stumm, fresh from rescuing Legs on the Wall, and John Baylis, with extensive experience in touring programs at the Australia Council. “Performing Lines needs a range of skills…you really do have to like contemporary dance to produce it. And Harley loves performance art, while I was always a script person.”

“Creating new work on limited sums of money is hairy,” Wendy Blacklock concludes. “Limiting the risk requires attention to detail. But most of all, good producers need to love the artists.”

Wendy Blacklock, founder and former General Manager of Performing Lines, has been recognised with many awards, including an Order of Australia, Helpmann’s JC Williamson Award, a Drovers’ Touring Legend Award from APACA, and a Sydney Theatre Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her contribution has been honoured in the recently installed Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, Sydney. Detailed accounts of Blacklock’s earlier career can be find at www.liveperformance.com.au/halloffame/wendyblacklock1.html and elsewhere online. For more about Performing Lines, go to www.performinglines.org.au.

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 8

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011