Theatre People feature: “Perth: A Cultural Wasteland?” June 2011

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This is an op-ed piece I wrote for Theatre People.

Earlier this year, reporter Liam Bartlett published an article in The Sunday Times entitled “Art’s a dirty word in WA”. In the article, Bartlett admonished Western Australia for being “culturally poor” despite our economic prosperity from the mining boom. This sentiment was recently echoed by international producer John Frost when he brought his joint production of Wicked to town. Frost fumed at WA, publicly stating, “You are the only State in the country that doesn’t have an arts centre and you are the wealthiest State in the country, supposedly. It is an outrage.”

Both Bartlett’s article and Frost’s comments have sparked much discussion within Perth’s arts community. Yes, Perth has always had a reputation for being an oversized country town that’s more concerned with footy than theatre, but is it fair to label us “culturally poor”? That kind of broad statement sweeps aside all the talented, committed creatives and arts workers in Perth who are tirelessly pumping life into the City’s arts community.

We’ve been working hard to shake off the moniker of “Dullsville”, but as usual we’re doing it at a glacial pace. With the mining industry’s help, Perth has the fastest expanding population in Australia. Our little city is growing up. But our perception of our city is slow to catch up, and the growing pains are indeed painful. In January, the new $100 million State Theatre Centre opened, the first theatre to be built in Perth by any state government. That is a massive step forward. However, the State Theatre Centre’s main stage ­– the Heath Ledger Theatre ­– only has a seating capacity of 575. The other stage seats 230. That’s small, even for Perth. (For comparison, the Regal Theatre seats 1074, and Burswood Theatre seats 2300.)  On top of that oversight, the venue is so expensive to use that WA’s flagship theatre company, Black Swan, has announced it may not be able to afford to put on its usual seven productions a year. So, somehow, the State government has managed to spend $100 million on making it more difficult for theatre to be produced in Perth.

No matter how much talent this state produces, it can’t flourish unless it has the infrastructure to support it. In the past few years, the City has spent millions of dollars on the public transport infrastructure, the main result of which was the extension of the train line to Mandurah. So now we can travel even further away from Perth. Great. But within the City, we still have very limited train and bus services after business hours, and taxis are prohibitively expensive, making it difficult and costly for residents from the suburbs to stay in the City after work. As a result, everyone crowds the trains and the freeways home at five o’clock every day, leaving the City relatively empty. After dark, Perth becomes a desolate wasteland of closed cafes and empty footpaths. I swear I saw a tumbleweed once. If the City was the kind of place more people wanted to hang around of a night, then they’d be more likely to go see a show, or drop into an art gallery, or listen to some live music. Instead, most people spend their spare time (and money) near their homes, out in the suburbs – nowhere near the few professional theatres that Perth has.

And then, of course there’s the long, painful debate about extended trading hours. This may not seem directly related to the arts community, but of course it is. If you go to see a show in Sydney or Melbourne, afterwards you can find a nice café or restaurant and sit down with your friends, grab a bite to eat, and discuss the play you just saw. The trip to the theatre becomes a night out, a relaxing and fun experience for everyone. However, in Perth, thanks to the limited trading hours, not many places are open on weeknights. Any restaurants that do stay open late usually close their kitchens before 9 p.m., so if the show you’re seeing finishes after then, you might as well just go home.

As a city, we’ve got the population size to warrant a bigger, more accommodating arts infrastructure. We’ve got the passionate, talented people needed to get a thriving theatre community going. At the moment, it’s like Perth is a tiny little fishbowl and we’re trying to grow whale sharks in it. It’s no wonder our best talent keeps outgrowing us and moving over to Melbourne, Sydney, or overseas. Perth’s theatre community may not be getting the support it needs from our State government, but that doesn’t mean we are “culturally poor”. I believe we are culturally rich, and we have the makings of a strong theatrical base here. Our theatre community is unfortunately scattered around the fringes of the city, in the suburbs, without a centre to hold us all together. Perhaps the new State Theatre Centre will be that rallying point for Perth’s theatre people. Perhaps not. Bartlett may have underestimated Perth’s cultural riches, but he was spot-on in assessing the lack of “cultural leadership” in WA. So, all we need now is a leader.

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