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Sean Pardy Sean Pardy
In the heart of Darwin in a set of lovely heritage buildings adjoining a large park is Brown’s Mart, the city’s first home for theatre and live performance. It’s a key site for the development and production of new work, providing professional support, affordable space and nurturing programs: Build Up, Shimmer and Share.

When Virginia Baxter and I were in Darwin last September, running a review-writing workshop for the NT Writers’ Centre during the Darwin Festival (territorians Fiona Carter, Nicola Fearn and Mike Bodnar now write for RealTime), we met Sean Pardy, Executive Director of Brown’s Mart Theatre, and chatted about his organisation’s connections with the city’s performance culture. I recently spoke with him in more detail about this.

Are you a Darwinian or Northern Territorian by background?

I wish I could claim that title but unfortunately no. We moved up here about five and half years ago. Previous to that I was doing theatre in Sydney, running a company called Critical Stages, which has been growing in leaps and bounds since I left—hopefully not because I left! Before that I was technical director at Darlinghurst Theatre, tour managing and stage managing, production managing and then just some quiet lighting on the side.

What drew you to Darwin?

I thought, we only live once and I wouldn’t mind seeing a different part of Australia and embracing a different community. We drove up with our car full of stuff. We had no friends, no jobs and no house to come to. We just arrived. And Darwin being the very welcoming place that it is, we soon landed on our feet. Slowly but surely I picked up a few contacts here and the industry is very supportive and easy to get to know. Eventually I found myself doing the venue managing here for about 18 months. I had a little spell as an independent artist, producer, freelance lighting designer and production manager. Then I took a job at the Darwin Council as a youth worker. At the beginning of last year I started here as Executive Director.

Brown’s Mart has been historically associated with community arts; what’s its focus and character now?

There’s been a very interesting shift in the venue and particularly the organisation in the last four to five years. It’s very much supporting professional Top End artists but the performance sector is so small up here that to truly support it we need to support all avenues of theatre creation. So not only do we run our Shimmer season of professionally produced local work, but we also run a Share program that provides affordable access to community groups or to artists who might be prepared to do a co-operative production or maybe some minority groups who are trying to get some work staged. We also support music by hosting Happy Yess, a live original music venue in the precinct and there’s Live on Fridays—free live music in the afternoon into the evening. There is a degree of crossover—an actor might also be a musician; sometimes theatre shows have a live musician [from our music programs] on stage.

Shimmer is your annual program of new work?

I would describe it as artist-driven work. Each production has a lead artist or creative producer driving that work; often it’s the writer or director but doesn’t necessarily have to be. They’re putting that work on because it’s important to them and they understand who the audience is they want to reach. Those artists then apply for funds—philanthropic or private sponsorship or government—to generate the resources to get the production on. We provide support as well. We put in some cash for those productions, some infrastructure and marketing support and guidance along the way in terms of producing the shows.

Are these co-productions?

Absolutely. We consider ourselves the presenters of the work and those creative individuals are the producers and they own the work; it’s theirs and we wouldn’t ever want to take it away from them.

What’s in the Shimmer program this year?

There are four works. The first was Jehovah’s One Table Restaurant by local writer Levin A Diatschenko, a philosophically based comedy, very funny and very well attended too. Set in a one-table restaurant, as the title suggests, it delves into the question of who we are and what we’re doing on this Earth mixed up with a love story and a philosophical take. Diatschenko’s a young up and coming writer with a background in film and literature. He’s written a few books and he’s just started to get into writing for the stage, which is great because he’s certainly a prolific writer. And paired up with the right dramaturg and directors, I think he’s got a bright future.

Next up was a co-production between Knock-em-Down and JUTE Theatre Company called Bastard Territory by Stephen Carleton [see the review, page 36].

Stephen is a Brisbane playwright. JUTE is based in Cairns and Knock-em-Down is a Darwin-based theatre company.

Yes, it’s exciting. It’s a big mix with actors from Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane; a great collaboration in that way. And it’s been really successful. Tongues are wagging. One of the characters describes the place as the “bastard territory” because everyone has an opinion on how it should be brought up but nobody sticks around long enough, which is very true. People fly in for a couple of years, get the experience and then fly out again.

The next play, The Hoist by a young writer Sarah Hope, has actually gone into rehearsal today. It won the prize for best script in the NT Literary Awards last year. Sarah’s a great young writer who has done a lot of work in remote communities, a lot of cultural development work. She’s a tutor at Corrugated Iron Youth Arts based here in Darwin. This is also a co-production, between Salt Theatre, which is Sarah’s company and Corrugated Iron and it’s going to help celebrate [the latter’s] 30th Anniversary this year.

Programming a work like this is a way to get new young artists involved and also to attract a younger audience. It’s a coming-of-age story about two boys who’ve been best mates for most of their lives, coming to the end of high school and contemplating questions like, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’

The Hill’s Hoist is such an Australian icon.

It’s in the design and part of the storyline involves climbing up on it, looking out to sea and dreaming of your future. In the script the Hoist is a character called Shirley. She doesn’t speak, I’m pleased to say.

The last of the works is a multimedia and puppetry show, The Book of Shadows. Is this another local product?

Yes. The creative brain behind The Book of Shadows [] is a Darwin-born writer, documentary maker and cross-media artist working here and in Melbourne, Tim Parrish who has paired up with an excellent local puppeteer, Conor Fox, and Stephen Mushin who has great puppeteering experience in Melbourne. In January, the artists went to Ubud in Bali to meet with masters in shadow puppetry and enjoyed a fantastic collaboration with them. What’s going to be interesting about The Book of Shadows is the combination of live performance with actors, puppets, shadow puppets and live projections. So the audience won’t always know which they’re watching. It’ll be a visual feast.

The Build-up is a seeding and development program, what kind of commitment do you make?

It’s very important because without support a lot of the ideas for works wouldn’t even get off the ground. We fund four developments a year with cash support of up to $12,000 and in-kind support valued at $6,000 per development. Again, it would be led by a key creative producer or lead artist and they’re able to source more funds if they feel they need them or if they want to have a longer development stage. It doesn’t have to end in a performative outcome, but it’s great for us if maybe the year after they might be able to propose a production.

We ran the first Build-up development last year and we’re negotiating to put that work on in 2015 and a second is toying with the idea of maybe 2015-2016. Another had an outing at the This Is Not Art Festival in Newcastle. It’s through the Build-up that we hope to grow the Shimmer seasons.

You regularly feature Indigenous works at Brown’s Mart. Are they part of these programs?

We’re very supportive of Indigenous artists. Last year we programmed three productions in which the key artists were Indigenous. One [was reacting to] the 100-year commemoration of the Cullen Compound, where local people had been kept, part of the Stolen Generations experience. We work very closely with the Darwin Entertainment Centre’s Indigenous Creative Producer Ben Graetz. Together with him we’re working on getting [well-known actress] Tessa Rose’s scripts developed and produced. We’ve also worked together with local artist Ali Mills for a similar program. And we’re trying to provide support for Lynette Hubbard to get her show, The Adventures of Namakili, further ground. It had a season here but we’d like to see Lynette touring the country with it.

Darwin is a fantastic melting pot of cultures and Indigenous people represent about a third of the population so it’s just natural that we’re big supporters of Indigenous work.

Do you have ambitions beyond what Brown’s Mart is currently achieving?

I think our programs, particularly in the last 18 months, have really started to develop. Beyond that our ambition is to have a sustainable theatre model. All the [artists and producers] flog their guts out trying to generate enough income so that everyone can be paid fairly. We’re receiving Program and Presenter funding from the Australia Council while the NT government provides the bulk of our funding. We’d like to even that up a little, increasing our federal support to provide certainty for the artists that there will be work into the future.

Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin,

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 29

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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