Williamson returns ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Williamson returns

In 2004, our most popular commercial playwright David Williamson decided to go into semi-retirement. His decision was on doctor's order's - as the Age reports today, "The pressure of coming up with one, sometimes two, plays a year had taken a toll, as had some of the vitriolic views of critics". (Hey, he should try being me for a few years). Anyway, he's back, writing a vehicle play for the rightly esteemed diva Carolyn O'Connor, which will premiere in the MTC's next season. You can hear the financial excitement crackle through the land.

Despite the awful strain of it all, there are compensations for being Williamson - his last play took $1 million at the box office. And without the annual Williamson play to bump up the coffers, the State companies went into mourning. This is about the economics of survival. As I said in 2004, on the occasion of Williamson's retirement:

The fact that our major theatres are funded so poorly explains why Williamson is a fixture on our subsidised stages. The MTC receives only 15 per cent of its funding from government sources, which leaves 85 per cent of its budget to be raised by box office and sponsorship. In 1996, the most recent figures I could find, the comparable flagship companies in France, the National Theatres, received 73 per cent of their funding from the State, 21 per cent through the box office and the remaining six per cent from other sales.

I'm unsure of the present levels of MTC funding, but they might be even less. Certainly, the STC's government funding amounts to 7 per cent. At this rate, our two largest theatre companies can barely be said to be subsidised. And while our flagship companies are so scandalously funded, it is unsurprising they should fall on Williamson's neck with cries of joy.

Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that the anxiety of underfunding should foster a fortress mentality that makes the State companies reluctant to enter the critical discourse on wider questions about theatre in Australia (such as Lee Lewis's paper on Cross-Racial Casting). But it's lamentable, all the same. And in the end, you have to feel a little sorry for Williamson, who seems to be carrying our State companies on his back. It's not his job, after all.


Paul Martin said...

Get your priorities straight, Alison. With the good fight going on in Iraq, you can't expect our federal government to cough up funds. Oh wait, there's a spare $20 BILLION...

Imagine the society this government could have created...

David Williams said...

hi all,

i think that there's a bit more state investment in the STC than that set of figures might indicate Alison, for example the construction of the new Sydney Theatre, the extra $1 million to fund the Actors Company, and of course the rumoured 99 year lease on the premises at the Wharf for a token fee. compare this to the situation of a smaller organisation in Sydney such as Performance Space prior to the move to Carriage Works, who paid around $300k per year rent on the Cleveland St venue, a very substantial chunk of any state monies that might come in. that's not in any way to suggest that STC doesn't deserve more State support, simply that the arts in general could use it. And we all know that.

and on paul's point, the new RAAF fighter jets the F35s or Joint Strike Fighters are now ten years behind schedule, and the price per aircraft has risen steadily over the last year from $44 million to $66 million to over $100 million. Per aircraft... And due the delay in delivery, we bought some older style F/A 18 Super Hornets for $5 billion. Chuck in $10 billion or so for some new ships, $2 billion for a failed naval helicopter upgrade that delivered a big fat nothing, a $1 billion lawsuit from said dumped helicopter contractor, and $59 million for some second hand, sorry reconditioned battle tanks, and you've got a great arts industry, health system, and education sector.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for that, David. My understanding is that the bulk of the money for the Actors Company is privately raised? Whatever criticisms might be made of Robin Nevin - and I'm aware that many are made - it's a fine thing she's done there. And it's almost miraculous, in the current climate, that such a thing exists.

Governments love bricks and mortar (as the Carriageworks experience shows) but aren't so good at putting things inside it. Less easy to put a plaque on an actor, I guess. In any case, the MTC for years has paid a large part of the their funding straight back to the government in rent for their spaces at the Arts Centre, in a weird policy of the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. It will be very interesting to see what happens when they move to their new space.

Jo Dyer said...

Hi Alison

Jo Dyer from Sydney Theatre Company here. A quick note re Sydney Theatre - whilst the NSW Government ensured Sydney Theatre was built as part of the broader development of Walsh Bay, they do not provide any ongoing financial support for this important new state cultural institution. Not only that but they charge STC an annual rent of hundreds of thousands of dollars - significantly more than the figure David cited the Performance Space paying for their new space at Carriageworks.

The only way STC can afford to pay this rent to Government and to manage the theatre on a break-even basis is to charge ourselves the same commerical rent we charge all other outside hirers such as the Sydney Festival or the Australian Ballet. We love Sydney Theatre but it's an ongoing challenge to get it to pay its way. There is no other theatre of comparable size in this country that is run without any government subsidy - whether federal, state or local -at all.

On the issue of the Actors' Company, however, whilst it is true we have had to raise not insignficant additional funds from both corporate organisations (thanks, Audi!) and private donors to make this wonderful experiment possible, the bulk of the funding for the ensemble does come directly from the NSW Government. Bob Carr's personal commitment to the arts generally and Sydney Theatre Company specifically directly enabled its establishment. At this stage we can only hope that the funding is renewed in three years time.


Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks Jo, it's good to see the facts.