Sunday, 10 March 2013

Nicole Kidman and my knee

Nicole Kidman placed her hand on my knee. I blushed. She said to relax and not to worry. We were in her trailer at Fox Studios during filming of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, just shortly before Christmas 1999. Kim Williams, then head of Fox Studios, was also there, along with Angela Bowne SC. Who knew what would happen?

Nicole put her money on the table, and asked Kim to match it. Kim immediately did, but then to his continuing credit offered to call David Leckie, then head of the Nine Network, asking that Nine match it too. As ever, Kim was true to his word. David happily agreed, and then a few days later the Australian Theatre for Young People had close to half a million dollars over three years.

I recalled this moment at the 50th Anniversary gathering of ATYP at The Wharf in Sydney on 23 February. It was a moment that enabled transformation. I had been appointed Artistic Director of ATYP earlier that year and knew of the challenges facing a company that needed, and was inviting, change.

The Board had asked me to look into a particular possibility: that the company live up to the promise of the national reach inherent in its name. It's difficult to make anything in Australia national - geography is tyrannous - but ATYP has had that promise embedded in its very identifier since 1963.

We went about meeting the challenge in a few ways. Why don't we ask 30 youth arts companies from right across the nation, from small regional towns to capital cities, to each send a young artist to something we'd call the National Studio? There they'd meet and work with some of the best professional artists we could muster. Where better to hold the event than in the middle of the country?

It was a bold idea, but sometimes bold is best. In the first year, we grouped in Alice Springs, and then in the few years after that we met at Glen Helen Gorge, about 130 kilometres from Alice Springs, in the western reaches of the West MacDonnell Ranges on the banks of the Finke, the world's oldest river. Nick Enright, Meryl Tankard, Deborah Cheetham, Kate Champion, Benedict Andrews, Gideon Obarzanek, Victoria Longley and many other artists of the highest calibre joined us for ten days of free and creative collaboration in the Australian desert. Thanks to Qantas and Coca Cola Amatil we were able to make the event free. For many of these young people, and for one or two of the artists, it was the first experience of the ineffable wonder of Central Australia.

To be national in Australia also means to be regional. So we created a raft of long-term creative residencies in the Pilbara in WA, in the Northern Territory, in Walgett in Far West NSW, in the Upper Hunter of NSW, and in Tasmania. For sometimes months on end, and returning annually, resident artists encouraged communities to better understand and enjoy the connections between the arts and living.

To be national also means to be international. So we made a production with Theater an der Parkaue in Berlin - Germany's largest theatre for young people - which resulted in a fascinating event at the Sydney Opera House as part of Sydney Festival. We forged a close relationship with the National Theatre's International Connections project in London. This saw an ATYP production invited to London's NT, and then an NT Young Company production head to the Opera House.

These were remarkable days. About 6,000 young people aged between three and 26 engaged in our work every year - that's not audiences, that's young people doing things.

My own memories, though, which I shared on that anniversary weekend, are tied up with people, not projects. That's often so in life. I remember, in particular, three extraordinarily driven women - Carolyn Fletcher, Popsy Albert and Angela Bowne - who encouraged me to believe. I remember the friends I made, bright young people, now into their 30s, who remain some of my very closest, and still bright, companions in life and art.

Long may ATYP prosper.

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