Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Response to Wesley Enoch

La Boite is one of several established theatre companies around the country housing programs that support ‘independent theatre’, a term commonly held to mean theatre made by groups of artists coming together, often with little infrastructure and few resources, to make work they passionately believe in.

In his Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture delivered on Sunday, the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch, called such programs ‘immoral’. In essence, he claimed that established theatre companies use independent theatre companies as sources of unpaid labour. He quoted figures for a recent La Boite Indie show that were incorrect.

Wesley's reprimand drew responses from Melbourne Theatre Company here, and Griffin Theatre Company here. Wesley spoke about La Boite specifically, though disappointingly he misled his audience on the facts. As it applies to La Boite, I think his view is misjudged.

It’s very easy to create agitation when you suggest that ‘all artists should get paid award rates’. Of course they should. Who could reasonably argue otherwise? Why isn’t it happening everywhere?? I really wish it were that simple.

Immoral or not, La Boite Indie (as we call our program) has made a remarkable difference to Brisbane’s theatre culture. After four years, there are many more groups of artists gathering to produce work and many more audiences coming along to see the work. Most satisfyingly, several companies are now on their way towards much better levels of financial sustainability.

Dead Puppet Society is a good example. It’s now enjoying a six-month residency at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York and will return to Australia in 2014 for a fully funded national tour of The Harbinger, a work that premiered as part of La Boite Indie and subsequently transferred in a fuller version into La Boite’s mainhouse season.

The Danger Ensemble, after creating two productions for La Boite Indie, was invited to co-produce The Wizard of Oz with Brisbane Festival and La Boite in 2013. Following the success of that production, Danger Ensemble Artistic Director Steven Mitchell Wright will direct a Brisbane Festival and La Boite co-production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in 2014. Sarah Winter’s A Dinner With Gravity also premiered as part of La Boite Indie and has had further performances in Europe. A Tribute of Sorts came to award-winning life for La Boite Indie and will feature, ironically enough, as part of Queensland Theatre Company’s season in 2014.

One of the companies presented at La Boite Indie 2013 will move to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2014, something we brokered as part of our partnership with QPAC. This terrific initiative will continue, enabling one of the independent companies in La Boite Indie 2014 to move to QPAC in 2015.

So why did La Boite Indie emerge and how does it work? It’s actually pretty simple. The financial resources of La Boite stretch to five productions a year, six at a pinch, filling our theatre for about 30 weeks of the year. The obvious next question: what do we do with the other 20 weeks?

There are three basic options: leave the theatre dark, rent it out for corporate events or to other arts companies, or create some kind of program that gives over the space to artists to make and present their own work.

When I arrived at La Boite, this down time in the theatre was hired out in a relatively ad hoc way. I called a meeting of the city’s theatre artists to discuss whether there was a better option. About 100 artists took interest and we had a useful discussion before arriving at what is essentially now the La Boite Indie model. It was good that such an idea emerged from a collective voice and genuine need.

There are a few things to make clear. La Boite Indie does not in any way replace La Boite’s own programming – it’s something we host and help after our own money has run out. Nor does La Boite make any money out of La Boite Indie – all the box office income goes either straight back to the independent companies in cash, or to contribute to the costs of the show. Sponsorship from Brisbane Airport Corporation and QPAC also goes into what we offer the companies.

Here’s how it works. We call for proposals and then a short list is looked at by a panel of five, most of whom are from outside La Boite. I always thought it was important that I not make the choices – that’s part of the independent, arms-length approach.

For La Boite Indie, our big theatre is transformed into a much smaller space. A 400-seat space is often too difficult for a small company to inhabit, so we install special walls that turn the Roundhouse Theatre into a more manageable 95-seat black box. This utterly different space is also helpful in distinguishing La Boite from La Boite Indie in the public mind.

Then we enter an arrangement. At that first public meeting, it was a commonly held view that upfront rent on the theatre was often very difficult to find, and that any financial contribution made by the independent company to the joint enterprise should come from box office income. La Boite returns 70% of the box office to the companies, and retains 30% to support the program. It caps its overall share, though, so that in the event of a high-selling show, La Boite’s share will never be more than $3,000 a week, or the equivalent of about 120 tickets a week. Once that point is reached, 100% of box office goes to the companies.

So, the most cash La Boite will ever see from a three-week La Boite Indie show is $9,000. And, actually, I think it’s only ever got to that once. La Boite does not run its own bar (it’s run by a tenant), and we don’t have any financial interests in parking around the area, so there’s no auxiliary income to speak of either. Wesley got all these figures very wrong. Though perhaps it doesn’t matter.

What happens to that money? At the beginning of the project, we give a tiny $1,000 to each of the companies, just as a starter. That’s not part of any further calculations. Then we pay for all the marketing and publicity, distribute posters and flyers, run a digital marketing campaign, engage casual technicians to help with bump-ins and casual front-of-house staff to run the box office, auspice any grants that might be involved, cover insurance costs and a range of other things.

It’s a tricky financial balancing act. As I say, by the time we get to La Boite Indie, our money has already run out. I wish we could do more for the companies that join us for La Boite Indie. Actually, I wish that La Boite Indie didn’t exist at all. I wish that our revenue from all sources was enough to stage our own productions all year round. But it’s not.

La Boite Indie is inadequate, but I don’t think it’s immoral. Put simply, I think it’s the best and most purposeful use of a vacant theatre. I’m reminded that when spaces are vacant at QTC, they are offered for free to artists to rehearse and work in, and even to have small showings. In these cases, there are artists working without salary in QTC spaces. It’s really just a few steps away from the idea underlying La Boite Indie. Do I think QTC’s practice is immoral? No, I think it’s generous. I think QTC should keep doing it.

If I’m wrong, and there’s a widely held view that it’s immoral to invite artists into the La Boite Indie model, then we should get rid of the model. If it’s the case that everybody involved in a performance on our stage, no matter what the context, needs to be on award rates, then it’s clear that La Boite Indie cannot and should not proceed and we should stick to our ‘mainhouse’ and do nothing else. That appears to be Wesley’s view.

This new concentration on our own work would certainly make for a stronger La Boite. But the truth is that I want a stronger theatre culture generally.

If we abandoned La Boite Indie, we’d be left with two basic options: rent the theatre out, or leave it dark. What would be the result? It would not make a scrap of difference to La Boite’s own programming. It would not mean that we would stage extra or different kinds of productions or employ more actors. It would mean – and this really troubles me – that artists not involved in La Boite’s main season of work would need to find somewhere else to produce their work, with less assistance, creating an even more horrible gulf between funded companies and ‘the rest’. It would mean that Brisbane’s theatre culture would darken.

Wesley is the Artistic Director of the highest subsidised theatre company in Australia. Last year, QTC took $4.884 million from the state and federal governments. That’s far more than Sydney Theatre Company or Melbourne Theatre Company, for example, and almost six times La Boite’s subsidy. I don’t begrudge that, and indeed in an ideal world I think it should be much higher. However, it means that QTC can very comfortably afford to program all year round, while La Boite cannot. Another horrible gulf.

I’ve sometimes heard Wesley remark that if $1 million were taken from QTC’s subsidy it wouldn’t actually make that much difference. If that’s true, here’s a suggestion. Give that $1 million to La Boite so that we can make a difference. It would be enough to pay full wages to every person involved in La Boite Indie. Give us that money, and we pledge, with hand on moral heart, to use every cent in exactly that way.


  1. Ah well ... as long as the playwright keeps getting nothing, that's the main thing.

    1. The playwright receives 10% of gross box office, unless some special arrangement is reached (if, for example, the piece has some level of group creation).