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The Studio: eclectic and electric

Keith Gallasch talks with Virginia Hyam

Christine Johnson, Lisa O’Neill, Pianissimo Christine Johnson, Lisa O’Neill, Pianissimo
The irrepressibly energetic and adroit programmer Virginia Hyam is running her 5th 6-monthly season for The Studio at the Sydney Opera House. Hyam has carved out a space for idiosyncratic, often cutting edge entertainments from around Australia and created new audiences to match them. As just one dimension of the Sydney Opera House’s expanded vision of the art it presents and the audiences it needs to develop, The Studio is a key player.

The 24 shows in the program to July are indicative of Hyam’s eclectic taste as well as that of her largely young audiences. Not surprisingly then music in one form or another is to be found throughout a program which includes Pianissimo from the wonderfully eccentric and innovative talents of Brisbane artists Christine Johnson and Lisa O’Neill; hip hop comedy in Inna Thigh by dynamic rappers Sista She; virtuoso percussionist Ben Walsh in his one man, many drums show First Sound; the Ennio Morricone Experience’s instrumental extravaganza of spaghetti western music; Morgan Lewis in the see it-and-DIY hip hop theatre show, Crouching B-Boy Hidden Dragon (RT 54, p38); and there are dance works from leading choreographers Russell Dumas and Sue Healey. Other shows and events in the program—the recent Global Beats mini-music festival, the Message Sticks Indigenous arts celebration, a smattering of comics, The Song Company doing a not-to-be-missed reading of The Song of Songs, new media screenings, exhibits and performances in Scope (as part of the Sydney Film Festival) and, for something completely different in an already headspinning lineup, the popular Scratch Nights. The first of these is Embalmer! The Musical, the second the immersive and interactive Sprocket from Sydney’s new media outfit, Tesseract Research Laboratories. I asked Hyam if her approach to programming had changed over the last 3 years.

I think it’s coming from the same basis, the core being that there’s no particular formula as to what shape it should take. It’s not all theatre, not all dance, and has a completely eclectic feel. It’s responsive to what contemporary work is out there, around Australia and what is in the process of creation, so that we’re involved in the making of new performances. It’s about supporting emerging artists and established artists involved in small scale work and talking to both niche and broader public audiences. Balancing all of these is what I’m still trying to do with the program.

At your launch for the first program for 2004 there were very few of the usual arts suspects, and you said proudly, there’s probably quite a few hairdressers here.

What we’re really on about is trying to attract people to come to the theatre who otherwise wouldn’t. I know everyone talks about developing new audiences but I think The Studio program is an avenue where we can. Purposefully it’s been made accessible both price-wise and with a lot of the content. I think [the British show] Duckie was a good example, attracting a queer audience from across Sydney who might be clubbers who wouldn’t necessarily think of coming to live performance. I’m hoping that they’ll be intrigued to want to come back and see something else.

Is there is in fact a flow on effect?

Certainly over the last few years we’ve noticed there are crowds that regularly come back. When we do our data collection to send out the program, there are very large numbers of people who’ll come and see 3 and 4 shows across the year. It’s not a subscription series because we don’t want subscribers to then be dictating what the program will be. Every year I set out to cater for certain groups and their tastes. People pick up the program and see 2 or 3 things in a 6 month program of particular interest to them. Consequently we talk to a whole range of audiences.

You rarely program shows with long seasons.

The average season is 2 weeks or one, or one nighters. I’ve tried longer seasons but, to be quite honest, some of the work we bring in attracts only a certain number of people and if you spread it over 3 weeks, you’re only diluting the size of your audience. Often we’re introducing new artists into Sydney and I tend to reintroduce them back into The Studio once they’ve developed a name here. Christine Johnson from Brisbane is a good example. She’ll be coming back this year with Pianissimo, her show with Lisa O’Neill, The audience for Johnson’s Decent Spinster last year built up well over the 10 performances of a 2 week season. And we offer a broad range of choice. You’ll see the same sort of fields repeated across the program. It’s a bit like a festival. If you miss one thing you know there’ll be something else interesting coming up.

The program reflects the changing nature of the arts field in your hook up with Sydney Film Festival and various new media arts organisations.

The film festival came to us, seeing The Studio as a good venue to present their new media work because of the sort of audiences we have already been attracting. I saw it as a really positive relationship. The other element that came into it was the Ennio Morricone Experience doing spaghetti western film music. I asked the festival if they wanted to have them as an umbrella event. It’s a perfect partnership. Those sorts of relationships are crucial.

Your program, as ever, looks very entertaining, full of laughs, campery and satire. That’s not to say that it’s not serious fun, as in the work of hip hop artist Morgan Lewis.

I think I like politics presented that way. And you’re right, there’s a lot of that throughout the program and that’s the contrast I’m trying to find with other work that’s already happening around Sydney. I know people want to profile their work at the Opera House but not everything can be or is necessarily appropriate or indeed best shown here.

What’s the relationship with artists coming into your program?

Everything that goes into The Studio has to be supported. And that’s what I love about the program. I love building it and it’s always done in collaboration with independent artists who are all coming from the same place of being under-funded or unfunded and working out ways that we can make it work between the two of us. When I started there was a certain contract you’d have with the artists and now we have many versions of that contract. You’re thinking there can’t possibly be another kind of relationship and then it’s oh, I think I’ve just come up with another one! The core factor is that it’s a shared relationship. It’s very rare that The Studio is just paying out the money, putting the show on and going forward. More often, we’re all working together to ensure the success of shows. That’s what’s exciting about it.

You’re not in a position to commission new work all the time.

Exactly. There are not a lot of commissions in the first part of 2004. We’re developing some new work in the second part of the year. Certainly, it depends what’s on the table and what’s already out there and who’s coming to me. It’s fluid but every 6 months there’s money going towards development of something. And it’s often on a smaller scale. In the next 6 months we’re developing a relationship with the independent radio station, FBI, doing plays that will go live to air from The Studio. We can do small things which can have quite a vast effect on the people involved. I’m really interested in commissioning emerging artists and bringing them into the venue working within a different framework. The Dance Tracks program has been a great model for that and an opportunity for commissioning artists to do short works.

What about the future?

We’re looking at establishing a jazz festival working with Jazz Groove and SIMA [Sydney Improvised Music Association]. What’s going on in Sydney is constantly changing...our program has no fixed formula. It has to be fluid, it needs to remain current.

The Studio, Sydney Opera House,

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 41

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

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