A new broom is sweeping through Australia’s theatre and dance companies.

This week’s announcement that the artistic director of Melbourne dance company Chunky Move, Gideon Obazanek, will step down in 2011 is just the latest in a series of major transitions for Australia’s medium-sized theatre and dance companies. In the past year alone, half a dozen key figures in Australia’s tightly-knit performance community scene have retired or moved on, making way for a fresh crop of younger artistic directors.

Gone or going are some of the legends of the Australian stage: Neil Armfield at Belvoir, Simon Phillips at the Melbourne Theatre Company and Michael Gow at the Queensland Theatre Company. Replacing them are a new generation, including Ralph Myers at Belvoir, Marion Potts at Melbourne’s Malthouse, Sam Strong at Griffin Theatre, Jon Halpin at Hot House and Wesley Enoch in Queensland.

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While there is a certain sadness in the industry at the changing of the guard, there is a also a palpable sense of enthusiasm about the new direction. Respected theatre critic Alison Croggon puts it simply: “It’s going to be exciting.”

Enoch recently took over from Gow, a much-loved Australian playwright and director, at the QTC. An indigenous Queenslander, Enoch is himself an award-winning playwright and has worked as a director with many of Australia’s best-known companies and actors up and down the east coast.

“It’s interesting,” Enoch told me, “because I feel a real generation shift that’s happened, with Michael [Gow] going and now Simon Phillips leaving the MTC, it’s kind of complete, the generational shift has happened, most artistic directors now are in their late 30s or early 40s or thereabouts.

“Artists of our age — the Xs basically, Generation X — we see the world in a different way, we perceive the world from the edges if you like. The Baby Boomers have kept us at the edge, and therefore we have developed careers which transcend the normal boundaries, so for me the indigenous background, having a dance background, being interested in contemporary performance as well, means that I’ll bring all those sensibilities to the theatre.”

Enoch is looking to develop some of the unique qualities of Queensland’s theatre and performance scene. He points both to Queensland’s demographic diversity — the state has the highest proportion of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as a share of its population, and has experienced strong migration from New Zealand and the Pacific in recent years — as well as its famously laid-back lifestyle.

“In Queensland, I think you go to the theatre as an extension of our forms of relaxing and having fun… I actually feel that there are unique qualities in Queensland we need to respect and reflect. On a superficial level — let’s look at outdoor work, that might make sense. Let’s look at work that is celebratory in its nature, because I think that people together sitting together and enjoying theatre together is very important too.”

Halpin comes to the Hot House job after several years as associate director at QTC. The regional company based in Wodonga, known for punching above its weight artistically, has been an incubator of some of the country’s best theatrical talent in recent years. He too is excited about the new generation.

“There’s a whole bunch of us who are new, the conversations are coming thick and fast because we’re all wanting to work together,” he says. “It’s up to us to give more opportunity to the artists … a recognised renaissance comes from the work.”

Halpin points to the fact that Melbourne underground theatre collective Black Lung has progressed from producing six-person backyard shows in Northcote several years ago to main-stage presentations in Sydney and Brisbane in 2011: “Every few years you get a new group of people doing exciting stuff, like Black Lung, and its up to the bigger theatre companies to get on board so that more people can see that work. QTC has got Black Lung in their season. That would have been unheard of three or four years ago.”

At Hot House, Halpin’s 2011 season includes a new work by Rosalba Clemente, Disarming Rosetta, as well as TURNS, a new performance written by Reg Livermore. But Halpin is just as interested in developing the company’s community engagement, starting  “free or almost free” acting classes for 18-25 year olds. “I’m interested in what we can generate here — I think a lot of people want to have access to the theatre,” Halpin says. He’s also “in talks” with Albury Council about inaugurating a contemporary theatre festival at the Butter Factory Theatre, possibly in 2012.

Marion Potts comes to Malthouse as one of Australia’s most respected theatrical directors; her previous role was second-in-charge at Bell Shakespeare. “I technically don’t start until January,” she told me in a phone interview, only a week after moving from Sydney, “so I haven’t felt the full force of it yet, but but its fantastic to be in and around the company in a period of transition.”

Potts, too, is inspired by the new wave of directors: “I’d like to think we might be more collegial and really take the responsibility for raising the bar nationally. I don’t think that sense of collaboration is about watering down aesthetics, it’s actually about doing stuff that neither partner might be able to do.”

Potts recently gave the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture on the state of Australian arts at Malthouse. “One of the things I talked about a great deal there was that if we want the calibre of work to improve, then we really need to look at the way we make work … if there are failures on our stage, it has seldom got to do with our lack of ambition or aspiration or talent or lack of imagination, but it is often to do with the circumstances in which the work is created,” she says.

“For us to be still working with an anachronistic rehearsal model of four weeks — this idea that somehow the work or text will be ready by the time we walk in — all of that has been so entrenched into our infrastructures that we need to completely start again and look at overhauling that process.”

Potts’ 2011 season aims to start the overhaul. The season includes a new play by Lally Katz, A Golem Story, Beckett’s The End, featuring a solo performance by the acclaimed Robert Menzies, a Simon Stone-directed run of Brecht’s Baal, Obarzanek’s return to stage performance in his Chunky Move swan-song Faker, and a return season for one of 2010’s real discoveries, Declan Greene’s gothic passion play Moth. There’s both continuity and departure from previous Malthouse offerings.

For Alison Croggon, one of the sharpest observers of the Australian theatre scene, the transition is the culmination of a longer-term trend. “Artistically speaking, what’s happening through 2011 represents a transition that has been happening for a number of years,” she wrote in an email. “Probably the most notable thing that happened [previously] was that Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong took over the Playbox, which had been languishing in the doldrums, and turned it into the Malthouse. In that time, mainstage conventions (in Melbourne, certainly) have changed out of sight: the theatre culture has become much more diverse, much more open to experiment, much more international in its outlook.

“There are various reasons for this — Robyn Nevin’s tenure as artistic director at the STC (she was, for instance, a champion of director Benedict Andrews, and persisted in programming his work despite a fair bit of resistance from subscribers), Kristy Edmunds’ tenure as artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, Neil Armfield’s tenure at Belvoir.

“Still, it’s pretty amazing it’s all happening at once.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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