The business of Bell

Virginia Baxter

Along with the press releases handed out at the launch of their new program (Volvo presents Bell Shakespeare’s Roman Holiday 2001) at the Opera House in January, we get a free copy of the Volvo magazine.

The company is upfront about its corporate connections and its strategic direction: “The Bell Shakespeare Company is committed to being a commercially viable national organisation. Whilst we have the imprimatur of Government, we believe that as an enterprising and energetic company we need to be in charge of our destiny.”

Everyone from the company who speaks about the 2001 program is careful to pay homage to the sponsors sustaining this company now in its 11th year. In the otherwise laid back atmosphere you hear a faint crack in the ice in Marketing Manager Jill Berry’s drink when Associate Director Des James says his Actors at Work! team travel around the regions not in a Volvo Cross Country but a Tarago. The publicity shots of John Bell on his “Roman Holiday” projected onto a screen for the launch suddenly scream Vespa and not S60 sports.

Looking at the lineup, you can only marvel at the art of the Bell Sponsorship and Marketing team and at the range of players at the money end of town taking a crack at Shakespeare. Volvo gets top billing as Principal Sponsor, responsible for the expanded Education Program. “And It’s not only children who have benefited. Bell’s fresh, innovative approach…has received very positive feedback from customers and dealers who have attended the productions…some of whom have not experienced Shakespeare since their days at school,” says Managing Director Richard Snijders. Volvo see that “(Bell’s) mission, to change the perception of Shakespeare and bring it to the wider community reflects our own commitment to bring our newly designed and innovative motor vehicles to the Australian population.” (Coming soon to a garage near you?)

Another big player, the NSW Ministry for the Arts, with a 3-year allocation of funds and a supporting cast including Volvo and Fujitsu (“the possibilities are infinite”) picks up the tab for Bell’s expanded national touring program to major cities and towns in regional Australia.

Without BHP, Sydney Water, Edison Mission Energy and AGL, Bell could not turn on its Education Program Actors at Work! in which the team Jeremy Brennan, Patricia Cotter, John Turtwin and Nicole Winkler directed by Des James take scenes from Shakespeare’s plays to explore a set of curriculum-sensitive themes for Junior and Senior Secondary students. Director’s Cut for students at Years 8-12 expands the repertoire to contemporary Australian plays, movie scripts, poetry and songs in an examination of the Australian character. For Years 2-8 Chris Canute adapts and directs the award-winning children’s book My Girragundji by Meme McDonald and Boori Prior, a real life tale of country life and early manhood through the eyes of a young Aboriginal boy. The company also arranges special schools performances of the mainstage plays, workshops and master classes for students and teachers.

Spear carriers for Julius Caesar include Salomon Smith and Barney, Object Oriented Pty Ltd and Wesfarmers. Meanwhile Ericsson takes on Antony & Cleopatra and Australia Post delivers The Tempest (directed by Des James). A host of bit players tackles special events. And I wonder what exactly it means to John Bell to be personally sponsored by Orange who also host the website (www.bellshakespeare.com.au).

As you might expect with a monopoly board of moolah, a large part of the proceedings is taken up with talk of turnover, statistics, issues of scale and reach. Even the mileage covered by Australia’s only national company is calibrated (110,000kms). In the remaining time John Bell explains the major shift in the company’s artistic aims for 2001.

From its inception in 1990 until 1995 Bell Shakespeare accrued an ensemble of actors. In 1996 they changed direction with productions featuring a variety of innovative directors including Barrie Kosky, Jim Sharman and Lindy Davies. Though the strategy paid off in some truly memorable productions, what went missing, according to Bell, was the company culture. In 2001 he has decided to grow that side of the business with an ensemble of 13 including Robert Alexander, John Batchelor, Caroline Brazier, David Davies, Paul Eastway, Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Hegney, Ashley Lyons, Robert Meldrum, Katrina Milosevic, Sean O’Shea, Oliviero Papi, Esther Van Doornum. Rowena Balos and Lindy Davies will regularly tutor in voice and Gavin Roberts (ex Legs on the Wall) in movement. In a season titled The Romans 2001, John Bell directs the ensemble in both Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, 2 plays written 8 years apart but presented as “one continuing epic story…offering audiences the opportunity to follow the brutal and passionate history of the Roman Republic.” (Not quite the Roman Holiday of the breezy brochure).

The ensemble will be joined throughout the year by guest actors (including Michael Craig, Christopher Stollery and John Adam (Julius Caesar), William Zappa and Paula Arundell (Antony & Cleopatra) and director John O’Hare, for the off-Broadway hit adapted from Shakespeare by American playwright Joe Calarco, Shakespeare’s R & J. This production is set in a regimented boy’s school where the play has been banned because of the sexiness of some scenes. “Four teenage boys find a copy and decide to act it out and in the process, their adolescent hysteria transforms (the play) into something more profound.”

Bell Shakespeare is an Australian success story: a company which started small with a specific focus to create a contemporary Australian theatre by making classics meaningful to young performers and new audiences. The company is fuelled by John Bell’s vision shared with his artistic and management team. That is the strength of the company whose survival over 11 years has been heavily dependent on finding other than government sources of income. Though now one of the Australia Council’s major performing arts organisations and assisted in no small part by considerable sums from the public purse, it’s the corporate sector that stars in the company’s acknowledgements.

At the launch, it was good to hear the shift in John Bell’s voice as he spoke about the new ensemble and to see amongst both the company’s and the principal sponsors’ releases words like “innovation” rating more than passing mention. In recent years, Bell Shakespeare have attracted a new audience with some remarkably radical productions. It is to be hoped that the future business of Bell factors in more of the same.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 24

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001