Independent theatre faces huge challenges, but artists are fighting back. Ben Brooker looks at RUMPUS, a co-operative venture in Adelaide about to enter its second year
Go to the website of RUMPUS, bedecked in harvest gold backgrounds and Recoleta typeface, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across the digitised archives of Magic Mountain or Greenhills – theme parks built in the early 1980s. They were recently demolished but remain embedded in the childhood memories of most South Australians of a certain age.
Such an unabashedly retro look, mirrored by Meg Wilson’s ’70s sports club/granny’s lounge room-inspired design for the space’s front bar and foyer, seems at first glance a curious choice for an independent theatre organisation led by theatre-makers still young enough to prize innovation and reject the démodé (director-facilitators Nescha Jelk and Yasmin Gurreeboo, and actor-General Manager Rebecca Mayo). Exactly what is this sense of nostalgia trying to evoke?
‘In the parlance of ecosystems, it isn’t a biotic factor – a living part of the system – but an abiotic one, constitutive of the environment itself’
Perhaps, by definition, it’s a wistful longing for past times, when things were better. After all, as Robert Reid has noted elsewhere on this website, it was in the 1970s and 80s that Australia’s independent theatre sector was last robustly funded, a “middle of the… industry [that] was essential for the sector’s sustainability and growth”. Reid wrote: “For artists, the process of going from working in a small venue like La Mama to a mid-sized venue like Theatre Works was an important stepping stone on the path to working in a major venue like the Fairfax.”
Adelaide has never had a large enough population centre to support a middle tier like Melbourne’s, but our ecosystem had its own small flora and fauna, many – like the Border Project (2002-2014) and, later, five.point.one (2009-2016) – emerging from pools of graduate talent. These pools, it seems, have for the most part dried up as the environment for independent theatre has steadily atrophied. As is so often the case in Australian theatre history, the recent past already feels like a bygone era, little remembered, barely understood – a hauntology, as Mark Fisher might have put it, of lost futures.
Relentless funding cuts and the dissolution of Arts SA into an unbranded arm of the Department of Premier and Cabinet have exacerbated all the old problems faced by independent companies and artists in Adelaide: meagre levels of public subsidy; a festivalised culture that sees investment in the arts as a question of capital works and tourism rather than building a strong and sustainable local scene; a moribund critical culture; and a lack of industry pathways, especially for culturally diverse artists, except those that lead straight to Melbourne, Sydney or Berlin (the city’s notorious “brain drain”).
But RUMPUS (not an acronym, just a reflection perhaps of the all-caps times in which we live) isn’t a theatre company. In the parlance of ecosystems, it isn’t a biotic factor – a living part of the system – but an abiotic one, constitutive of the environment itself. RUMPUS’s mission statement reads, in part:
On the 8th of July 2018, a community of local artists met to find a new way forward and the idea for RUMPUS was born: an exciting curated season of work in a new venue where artists can pool resources, collectively build audiences and grow a better ecology for creating bold, diverse and innovative work.
Its base, in the swiftly gentrifying inner-northern suburb of Bowden, is the old Clipsal plant at 100 Sixth Street, now an empty shell with some cultural pedigree, having been home to the original Fontanelle and Sister art galleries.
‘RUMPUS’s biggest source of funding has so far been the artists and facilitators themselves, measured out in so many hours of unpaid mental and physical labour’
The company’s first season – comprising two new Australian plays (one based on a previously published poem), a new adaptation of a European classic, the South Australian premiere of an extant US play, and two work-in-progress showings – wouldn’t look out of place under the banner of any small-to-medium company. Its model, barring the fact each season is curated by a different panel of local artists, is not dissimilar to La Mama’s: programmed shows, each receiving a small production budget, the venue at no cost, and additional assistance such as front of house staff. The Australia Council provided organisational funding for the inaugural season, with only one work – Foul Play’s contemporary adaptation of Lorca’s Yerma – receiving full funding from the South Australian Government (the rest were co-ops). An $8000 local council grant helped to cover venue expenses but, as usual for the independent sector, RUMPUS’s biggest source of funding has so far been the artists and facilitators themselves, measured out in so many hours of unpaid mental and physical labour.
As you would expect, these works, playing between September and December last year, were a mixed bag critically speaking. Dan Thorpe’s XXX Neon Sign – a sort of monologue with songs based on James Andre’s epic poem about the goings on of a Brisbane porno shop – would have benefited from further development and more apposite dramaturgy. House of Sand’s The Split, by Hobart-based playwright Sarah Hamilton,and Foul Play’s Yerma were accomplished, quietly affecting two-handers, albeit ones in which nothing much happens – or, as someone once said about the plays of Chekhov, nothing much happens, and keeps on happening, until one thing changes, after which everything is different. Which would not, come to think of it, be an inaccurate description of American playwright Sarah DeLappe’s Wolves, first-time director Elizabeth Hay ably steering this effervescent portrait of a girls’ soccer team towards its tragic though unsentimentalised conclusion.
While watching these plays, it was hard at times to escape the feeling of being in the presence of a venture run by friends for friends, a club to which all but a likeminded few need not apply. But this city often feels like that, its provincialism thrown into sharp relief by the Adelaide Festival’s weighty international (i.e. European) fare.
‘As the Fringe does little to develop local audiences – and even less to support local artists – grassroots initiatives like RUMPUS, taking as their utopian starting point a community of artists, can only be welcomed’
And, some might say, so what? Though there are heartening signs of change under recently-appointed Artistic Director Mitchell Butel, the State Theatre Company continues for the most part to appeal to older audiences, as does the high-end, more literary-minded work of Brink. And while younger audiences are well-served, if not spoilt, by the likes of Windmill, Patch, and Slingsby, our funded companies are producing scant work that speaks to the 20- and 30-somethings who constitute RUMPUS’s natural demographic – an audience best catered for in recent years by the Adelaide Fringe’s edgier offerings. As the Fringe does little to develop local audiences – and even less to support local artists – grassroots initiatives like RUMPUS, taking as their utopian starting point a community of artists, can only be welcomed.
The company announces its second season next month, having received 49 expressions of interest – up from 26 last year. At least 85 per cent of these, I’m told, are for brand new works. In the meantime, the Arts Industry Council of South Australia’s Measuring Impact report, undertaken by independent consultants Jones MacQueen in 2019 and launched in January this year, will do its bit to shore up the social and economic case for the small to medium arts sector in SA.
Among its key findings, drawing on data for 2018 from 33 regional and metropolitan organisations, are that: 1.8 million people experienced the work of SA’s small to medium companies; the sector generated $9.8 million in ticket sales, entry fees, and other income; and that, presenting a total of 445 Australian works – 67 percent of all programming – were more than 1070 employed and subcontracted artists and arts workers, and around the same number of volunteers.
Ultimately, it is the devotion of audiences – and, of course, the long taken-for-granted tenacity of artists – that will sustain all of this. If the damp squib that was last year’s Arts and Culture Plan is any indication, their engagement – buttressed, one would hope, by a reinvigorated critical culture helping them to better meet new or challenging work – will count for far more than the government largesse that cannot be relied upon for the sustainability of independent companies, nor for their transition to more established structures, which this state has always crucially lacked. In some ways, RUMPUS does in fact answer to the Arts Plan’s call for organisations to share resources and otherwise work together more closely – as expected, the Plan included no announcement of additional money. For better or worse, Adelaide has always been noted for the collegiality of its arts industry, and there’s only so far already threadbare resources can be stretched.
However, funding alone, even if it were on the table, would not be enough. What is required is a cultural shift that repositions and values independent artists and organisations as pivotal to the totality of the arts – something neither the parsimonious State Government, nor the increasingly bloated, cash cow-like Fringe, has any obvious intention of doing. Above all, RUMPUS – even, and perhaps especially, while still finding its feet – channels the necessary optimism of independent artists into something both like a vision of tomorrow and a dream of the past.
Nostalgia, after all, has always really been about the future.