Theatre Interrupted

Discover how our alumni have been leading the charge in theatre and the arts through the challenges of the pandemic.

At the height of their powers, Australians working in the arts and creative industries make us glad to be alive – or at least think differently about ourselves, our communities and the wider world.

Yet although the sector contributes more than $110 billion to the Australian economy, it’s viewed by some people as an indulgence during good times, rather than being important at any time. 

“Maybe it’s because of my background, but I wasn’t encouraged to have a career in the arts,” explains Joanne Kee, Executive Producer and Artistic Director at Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta, who earned a Graduate Certificate in Management from Western Sydney University in 1999.

“My parents took me to a lot of performances, but they wanted me to get a job somewhere ‘more solid’ than the arts, like in finance. So that’s why I studied management, which as it turns out, gave me a firm base for managing arts organisations.”

“I was very impressed with Western Sydney University because it has always had a multicultural community – and it’s been very dynamic, responding to changing times and people’s needs.  My degree has provided me with a rigor to my work, particularly when writing something like a strategic plan or a funding application.“

Even in good times, arts organisations must make tough financial decisions about which jobs and creative works they can viably support. But Kee hadn’t experienced anything quite as challenging as a pandemic during her 25-year career.

2020 started promisingly at Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta, with a couple of successful shows such as Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam and Lady Tabouli, plus the True West playwriting festival. Then COVID-19 forced the theatre to close its doors until late Spring.

“We had risk management plans to help manage our commitments and cashflow, and these included postponing some shows until 2021,” Kee says. “We decided it was really important we continue to support our creative community, so we adapted our Creative Hello program, to help people in Western Sydney’s arts community connect online.”

She says the arts sector can be incredibly resilient, though it desperately needed better funding support during the pandemic. On a positive note, she’s immensely proud that despite lockdowns and theatre closures the Theatre funded and developed a new show called Queen Fatima, which premiered at the Sydney Festival in January 2021.

“We want to share stories that resonate with people, especially in Western Sydney,” she says. “So, I’m really proud that audiences, artists and people in our industry have really engaged with us."

Sarah Barns, co-director at media and arts practice ESEMProjects, echoes the same pride in western Sydney’s creative scene. Like Kee, she took an alternative route into the arts, focussing her studies on digital communication, architecture, and sustainable development.

After stints at the CSIRO and the ABC working on digital strategies, she was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at Western and completed her Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Research: Smart Cities and Platform Urbanism in 2018.

“What was really interesting to me was the cohort of people at Western, who had innovative approaches to thinking about places and spaces, and how digital technology is changing our relationship to cities,” she says. “I was really fascinated by the opportunity to engage more with western Sydney, because I was highly aware through my previous work of just how much transformation was coming to the area.”

Barns and her team at ESEMProjects kept busy during 2020 developing a large-scale interactive video installation in three dimensions called Storybox Parramatta, produced in partnership with Western Sydney University and the ABC.

“We’re overwhelmed by the level of community and creative interest in Storybox,” she says. “We’ve loved the way contributions from Western have responded to storytelling in this format. It makes my day being able to enable community creativity and to see so many perspectives shared in a public space.”

“Although COVID gave us a kind of digital fatigue, there’s also recognition that digital is more central to our lives than ever. So, it’s important we think more creatively about the integration of digital into physical fabric of public spaces – not just for ads – because it’s much nice using screens to engage with people’s stories.”