Thinking bigger in Parramatta

Keith Gallasch: Robert Love, Director Riverside Parramatta

Robert Love, courtesy Riverside Theatres

Robert Love, courtesy Riverside Theatres

Robert Love, director of the endlessly busy Riverside Parramatta, is passionate, argumentative and often very funny about the arts in Western Sydney (he has a great stock of telling anecdotes). Given that the greater part of Sydney lies in the west and a third of the NSW population lives there, it grieves him that save for his venue, with its own limitations, no art centres or companies of substantial scale are located there. Instead, for audiences in the west, there’s the “lunacy of travelling great distances to the city. No option.” But he has plans.

Love, like Campbelltown Arts Centre director Michael Dagostino, lives in Sydney’s west. He insists, “Until you begin to live there, walk up the street, talk to people, see what’s going on, you can’t respond to the stories that are there.”

Of Western Sydney’s very productive arts centres, including his own, Love says, “we do have people making a significant impact but it should be at a different level.” Compared with the State Government’s total investment in Sydney proper, Love declares that the $3m funding of the west, reckoned to be 1%, is altogether inadequate. Local government is a significant investor, but private donations are rare when there is little of scale to attract them. Love’s background in the arts is extensive lending considerable weight to the ideas he has for Parramatta and the west.

Love majored in drama at UNSW, founded and worked with Toe Truck, a leading theatre in education company, from 1976 to 1980, working in part with theatre innovator Nigel Triffit, creating works with lightweight aluminium sets (“we learnt a lot about pop-rivetting”) and getting run out of a country town unappreciative of a show about teenagers, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The local headmaster provided the petrol for the brisk exit. From the 80s to the late 1990s Love administered the Seymour Centre and Nimrod Theatre simultaneously for a volatile two-year period, was General Manager of the State Theatre Company of South Australia and then Sydney Theatre Company.

Love says that his first connection with Parramatta came when he managed the STC’s touring program before becoming General Manager, “in the days when there was an actual commitment to expand audiences in Western Sydney, which we did for three years with an intensive program by reducing our Sydney one.”

Appearances & realities

A mere glance at the Riverside Theatre’s 2014 program, with a couple of David Williamson plays, several Shakespeares and a Russian ballet company might suggest that the Centre plays it safe. “I resisted doing things like Annie for a long time, but an audience of 10,000! Eight thousand saw Hairspray last year.” While the co-production of Annie will draw audiences to Riverside, appearances are deceptive. Love is firmly committed to encouraging and supporting contemporary dance, a disability arts program, filmmakers, community groups, physical theatre and emerging theatre companies. The result is considerable diversity which, says Love, reflects the communities of Parramatta: “When someone asks me, who our audience is, I say, audiences.”

Working models

Riverside Theatres operates as producer, co-producer, production supporter and enabler, host and venue for hire, as well as running workshops, seminars, exhibitions and partnering festivals. As Love says, “We do lots of things. As for producing, we used to do more, but it’s very costly for us, but this year we’re 100% producing Alana Valentine’s Parramatta Girls, which premiered at Belvoir in 2007”—but never played in the city of the story’s origins. It has a strong cast, including Christine Anu and Annie Byron.

For three years Riverside Theatres has operated the True West Theatre Company (see Teik-Kim Pok’s review of Finegan Kruckemeyer’s The Violent Outburst That Drew Me To You, page 38) with the support of Arts NSW funding which was not granted for 2014. Love is unhappy: “There is no strategic sense or continuity. It’s funding the dots, not funding the lines, or thinking about legacy and where it goes.” Riverside also lends support to companies like the much applauded Sport for Jove which commenced its career performing in the Blue Mountains and Sydney’s west.

On the screen

Love has a screening program which he’s eager to develop. Not only does it show the UK’s National Theatre streamed productions but also supports local filmmakers. Writer, actor and co-director George Basha and fellow director David Field’s new feature film Convict (2013; their first was The Combination, 2009) couldn’t get a cinema release so Love arranged a two-week season attended by over 2,000 people. Love is impressed by the film: “It’s low budget but they’ve never made Parramatta Gaol look more interesting. The lighting is terrific, it’s shot beautifully and there are some great faces [provided by local auditions]. We want to provide artists with opportunities.” He said of this audience that it was clear by the way they came into the foyer they’d never been in an arts centre.

Disability & creativity

Riverside also invests in disability arts with their Beyond the Square program, “which started before me but we shifted it from visual arts more towards performance, movement and music. We received a bit more funding from Arts NSW in the last three years allowing us to appoint a full-time creative director, Alison Richardson, and employ an actor with a disability, Gerard O’Dwyer (Tropfest, Best Male Actor, 2009 in Be My Brother).”




2014 program

The 2014 Riverside program is a big, diverse mix of mainstream and innovative productions, which include a new work from Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, Monkey: Journey to the West, “featuring Blue Mountains musicians and the local parkour group 9lives,” directed by John Bell and on its way to the Opera House in 2015. There’s a big NZ musical, The Factory (and a big Pacific audience for it, says Love) about the Samoan migrant experience; Parramatta Girls; physical theatre companies CIRCA and Stalker (with the visually striking Encoded); It’s Dark Outside (virtuosic puppetry from WA in an affecting play about dementia); Tectonic Theatre in The Laramie Project; Steve Rodger’s Food (an engaging romantic comedy about food and multiculturalism) from Belvoir and Force Majeure; Deckchair’s The Magic Hour, featuring Ursula Yovich with some very Grimm tales; and a concert from contemporary music paragons Ensemble Offspring.

Then, says Love, there are all the hirers of the venue, which include the Sydney Music Festival, a celebration of South Asian music which will sell out 12 concerts in the large theatre. There’s also the very well-attended productions of the Bangladeshi theatre group Natuki, who commission plays, collaborating with non-Bangladeshi writers and performers.

Dancing with FORM

FORM is a vital organisation for dance and not only for Western Sydney, programming dance works and workshops. Love tells me, “It came to us from Ausdance, we ran it and then it incorporated to stand on its own. We continue to host the company, provide office space and computers and assist with theatre space.” Love says that while the audiences are not big yet the work is important.” FORM’s Dance Bites program for 2014 includes Samantha Chester’s Safety in Numbers, Perth choreographer Sue Peacock’s Reflect, Flatline’s Sketch, Trio for three (Matt Cornell, Josh Thomson and Miranda Wheen) and Tess De Quincey & Co artist Linda Luke in her solo work Still Point Turning with composer Vic McEwan.

The future in the making

Love’s goal is “to get a resident performing arts company of scale and significance and the financial capacity to be here for at least three to five years to service Parramatta, Western Sydney and regional NSW. We’re getting some traction on it. We don’t want to run it. We will support it. It needs to respond to the diversity of the region, must do educational work, be self-sufficient and have an element of populism, otherwise it will die. I think that can be done.”

Love’s other goal involves rebuilding the Riverside Theatres “with a master plan to take it up one or two storeys, with view of the river and a better relationship with the park, so that it becomes a community hub.” He sees the current building as being like a railway station “where you wait on the platform to go on a trip,” but “the journey should start when you see the building and you see yourself in it.” This has to be “if the council believes Parramatta is a global city.”

New money, new hope

James Packer’s $60m art gift (his much debated “thank you” to Sydney for the chance to build the Barangaroo casino resort) gives $30m of it to Western Sydney over 10 years. The Daily Telegraph modestly claimed: “Mr Packer’s $30 million allocation to western Sydney comes after The Daily Telegraph’s Fair Go for The West campaign found that only one per cent of the state’s arts budget is allocated to western Sydney” (Nov 12, 2013). The funds will provide, says Love, “great opportunities, not just a splash for cash.”

Love argues that the NSW Government “should then double its grants to Western Sydney to $6m annually to match the Packer funds—it would make an enormous difference. Resurrect a university performing arts school [Love regards the closure of the University of Western Sydney performing arts degrees as a tragedy for local career development] and you start up a healthy arts ecosystem. I keep telling governments it’s easy; you can only win.”

Riverside Parrammatta, NSW:riversideparramatta.com.au

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 14

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

24 February 2014