December 01, 1993

A Head Full of New Ideas

Chris Westwood, newly appointed Executive Producer of South Australia’s State Theatre talks with Murray Bramwell

When, at the end of September, Chris Westwood announced her program for 1994 much else was also heralded for the State Theatre Company. Now to be known simply as State Theatre, the company was, with the departure of current Artistic Director Simon Phillips, seeing the beginning of a new format. Gone is the familiar figure of the AD -names like Colin George, Jim Sharman, Keith Gallasch and John Gaden. For the first time, State has a woman in charge- Executive Producer, Chris Westwood.

Like many arts organisations State Theatre has been having its troubles of late. Reserves have diminished, subscriptions have been uncertain and audience response has sometimes been inscrutable. The recession has everywhere hit the performing arts and this is no less evident in South Australia which has additional economic migraines of its own. All this makes for enormous pressure on artists to keep coming up with the goods. When, as with the Artistic Director’s role in a theatre company, it means administration, management, programming often a year in advance, as well as directing new work, then it is, as the sports commentators like to say, a big ask.

Departing AD Simon Phillips has produced excellent work for the company but the conflicting demands on his energy have not made it easy to be creative. Or to maintain activities outside the company as high-demand free-lance directors like Phillips need to do. Procuring a top rate director for a two or three year span is no longer feasible in a mobile and rapidly mutating market. Nor are directors necessarily the best people to anticipate and respond to local conditions, pesky budgeting formulae and diverse audience tastes. So the Board of the State Theatre Company took advice and has decided to develop a different model of operation.

Enter Chris Westwood. Not exactly a newcomer to Adelaide, Westwood began her career at the Festival Centre Trust just on twenty years ago. She co-founded the now widely acknowledged Come Out youth festival. After that she worked for Nimrod and set up her own consultancy firm Understudies, promoting shows such as Robyn Archer’s hit production Pack of Women. Then she returned to theatre company management with a vengeance. Her role in establishing and developing the Belvoir St Theatre is by now probably legendary. She left Belvoir St at the end of 1988 for a position as Director of Arts for ABC Radio where she remained until taking up the State Theatre offer.

It is undoubtedly a coup that State has acquired someone of Chris Westwood’s calibre to undertake its shifts in direction- and she is apparently thriving with the task. Which is just as well because, as with any structural change, there is a lot to get right and quite a few people sitting around who wouldn’t be sorry if it all came to grief.

Arriving in July, Westwood set to work on her program. Hoisting in Dennis Watkins as Artistic Counsel she has got a cluster of ten productions together. Immediately apparent is the number of women directors, designers and writers she has gathered in.

The season opens with a new production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist directed by Robyn Archer and designed by Mary Moore. Louis Nowra has a new work opening in May with Lydia Miller in the lead and directed by bright young Adam Cook. American playwright Elizabeth Egloff’s The Swan will be directed by Melissa Bruce. Red Shed and State director Cath McKinnon will work with Mary Moore on Dymphna Cusack’s Morning Sacrifice and Rosalba Clemente is directing Anthony Minghella’s A Little Like Drowning, a study of a third generation Italian family.

Adelaide will also get to see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with the import of the Neil Armfield MTC production. Exclusive to Adelaide will be the Teatro del Sur production of Warsaw Tango written and directed by Alberto Felix Alberto and State is going back into the musical business with a new work by Dennis Watkins and Chris Harriott, The Emerald Room. It sounds like Weimar Noir. The notes call it a menace a trois.

The program says Westwood is pitched at the 35-50 age range-“People interested in ideas, well-read, who like to see classics but re-interpreted in new forms, people interested in what other people are doing and thinking. Besides that we have to meet the social justice objectives of the State Arts department, the touring objectives of Playing Australia- the idea of dropping productions into the national grid, the Australia Council’s priority for excellence and the sponsors’ requirement for looking more sexy. Round the rim of our target audience are these demands that have to be met to get funding.”

Already subscriptions are looking lively – 350 from people who have never subscribed to an arts program before. There are also the faithful who will always subscribe- those as Chris Westwood drily observes, who will wait out whatever is currently offered rather than not attend. Some will stay away because they don’t like the program choice. Westwood is philosophical about that. She also has a shrewd eye for the demographics and notes, as the music programmers also have, that the subscriber population is an aging one. She is looking to survey the non-returners with a view to developing matinees and other special programs. Niche marketing is a phrase Chris Westwood likes to use.

“That’s the difference between being Artistic Director and Executive Producer, she observes,” The AD is saying :`I’m fulfilling my objectives, my vision, what I need to do for myself that will be of interest for Adelaide.’ I’m being more conscious I suppose. I don’t have my own artistic livelihood invested in this. My concern and investment is in this company and in Australia’s cultural development not my personal vision.

“I have no artistic vested interest except that the work is high quality, that the artist merit is good and the audience finds it interesting. I don’t care whether they like it not but I want them to go away saying they got their money’s worth and really talking about what they have seen.”

Promoting discussion and developing ideas is important to Westwood. Her research has clearly persuaded her that she needs to win caffe latte society back to the theatre. That starts with attitudes in the company itself. When, after a succession of tribulations, State was forced to scratch Timon of Athens from the forthcoming Adelaide Festival card Chris Westwood saw an opportunity for the company to soak up some culture themselves. The cancellation suited her for other reasons as well-

“I didn’t want to do a Festival production because State has always wanted to do a new work which comes up untried. Then they panic and throw half the year’s budget at it and it always compares unfavourably with outside work. Also, it doesn’t let the company go to the Festival.”

This time Westwood hopes to have funds available to help staff attend shows. “I’ve told them they don’t have to come to work as long as they go to Writers Week and stay up late talking about art with people in bars. I want them to be more outward looking. I’m surprised how little people know of other writers, directors and work because they don’t get the chance to see it.”

Chris Westwood has plenty of ideas about building the company’s profile. She is adamant that it has the best medium sized workshop capacity in the country and wants that to prosper. Well aware of Adelaide’s beleagured image elsewhere in the country she is keen to see that view torpedoed.

“Adelaide is seen as a debt-ridden hellhole and it’s wrong. There’s money here but people won’t open their purses for good reason. But perception is changing. Meryl Tankard’s company is one sign, so is the fact that Barry Kosky is coming for the next Festival.”

In the meantime, Chris Westwood is not afraid of some old-fashioned spruiking. When Under Milk Wood opened in late October she wrote to Princess Diana (of Wales) to see if she’d like to come. She couldn’t quite fit it into the schedule but Westwood gleefully points to the politely demurring reply framed on her office wall. And when business for Under Milk Wood was looking particularly good in the final week of its season the Executive Producer suggested that front of house get out the House Full sign. When she discovered that the company didn’t have one, Chris Westwood was dismayed and immediately ordered one to be built. She hopes to have a great deal of use for it in the near future.

The Adelaide Review, December, 1993.

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