Finding common ground on red earth

Richard Watts

Performing Arts Connections Australia’s 2018 Performing Arts Exchange and Conference goes regional, with five days of performances, pitches and vital conversations at the Red Earth Arts Precinct.
Finding common ground on red earth

A panel discussion at PAC Australia's 2016 conference. Photo credit: Alex Sibbison

It’s all too easy to be distracted at a conference or performing arts market in a major city – the allure of nightlife, coffee with friends and meetings with colleagues can sometimes result in you spending less time at the conference than you actually should – and being preoccupied while you’re there.

Performing Arts Connections Australia’s 2018 Performing Arts Exchange (PAX) and Conference, Making Space, neatly sidesteps such challenges by locating itself in Karratha, on Ngarluma Country in Western Australian.

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Executive Director of PAC Australia (formerly APACA), Rick Heath, is refreshingly frank when describing the decision to present Making Space at Karratha’s recently opened Red Earth Arts Precinct.

‘It’s quite a risk for us, putting it in a location like that,’ Heath said. ‘And I’ll be honest, there was a point where we thought, “Oh my god, are all the producers still going to come to Karratha? And are all the presenters going to see value in that if they don’t?” And you know, the line-up is as huge as ever, actually – in fact we’ve got many more producers interested in being there than we can accommodate, which is excellent and also a relief.’

The experience of visiting Karratha, located some 1500kms north of Perth, is sure to be memorable for those who make the trip, Heath added.

‘It’s very much about making space in our busy schedules; it’s about headspace as much as anything – that sense of being able to disconnect, focus and the benefit that you get from the isolation of a place like Karratha. I think that will be very interesting. And it will only be those people who are really committed to doing that who will be there – and that’s a good thing too.’

With over 200 members across the country, including 86 regionally-based performing arts centres, Heath said the decision to hold Making Space in Karratha was, in part, a value statement from the peak body.

‘It is about walking the talk and this is a classic example of that. Yes, regional people are important and we want to give this community the experience – the kudos, almost – of hosting this national event and having several hundred arts leaders be part of their community,’ he said.

It’s also an opportunity to put Karratha’s Red Earth Arts Precinct squarely on the map.

‘It’s a city that was until recently known as a mining town and also referred to as a dormitory town, where people just came to sleep between stints of work. They’ve built a $56 million arts centre and they’re wanting to essentially rebrand their identity,’ Heath explained.

‘It’s a kind of test case, to say “Well, they’ve just built this facility, they’re not just the resource centre they used to be; is this actually going to change the identity of that place? Is it going to put them on the map? And is it going to help the touring circuits nationally and in Western Australia?”’

Book now for the 2018 Performing Arts Exchange and Making Space conference.

THREE KEY THEMES

One of the key themes of Making Space, at both the PAX and the conference, is around audience development in the broadest context.

‘It’s really easy to go with what you know – it’s that sense of herding, it’s normal, it’s comforting. But how do you challenge that? And whose job is it to introduce you to what you don’t know? Because another point of view, or multiple perspectives, is really important,’ Heath said.

Fresh perspectives will also be explored at this year’s Performing Arts Exchange, which features an increased focus on Indigenous works. Full length works being presented at PAX include Big hART’s The Tjaabi Project, and Skylab, a collaboration between Black Swan State Theatre Company and Yirra Yaakin. But delegates needn’t fear they’ll spend all their time at Red Earth Arts Precinct watching shows.

‘With The Tjaabi Project by Big hART for instance, we’re busing everybody out to Roebourne, which is a community about 35 minutes’ drive away, to an outdoor amphitheatre on the edge of a river bed and with a BBQ for the whole community with the delegates – it’s very much about connecting with the country up there rather than keeping people inside a proscenium arch theatre in a dark hall,’ Heath laughed.

A second program stream will explore identity – including both local, national and international identity.

Heath expects that keynote speaker Sigal Cohen, Director of International Relations and Development at the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, Israel, will have much to say on this subject.

‘I spent some time in Israel and Palestine last year, and Sigal is a person with strong opinions critical of the of the conversation in that region. It’s not black and white, it’s not purely religious based, it’s not about borders, and I think there’s a really interesting conversation about where she is in her organisation and how they communicate what’s important in that community. In a similar way we need to have a conversation around – if you want to go there – the occupation of Indigenous land by white Australians. There’s definitely a parallel there,’ Heath said.

The final theme that will be teased out through discussions at the conference has to do with finding common ground in a time of socio-political extremes.

‘We’ve secured Gill Hicks as one of our keynote speakers, who was a victim of the London bombings … and she will be exploring the question, where is our common ground?’ Heath explained.

‘How do you address that kind of violent extremism? Not by asserting blame, which is then attached to a much broader set of conversations around identity politics, whether that’s around gender or race or religion or regionality or traditional vs contemporary.

‘I think it’s really easy for us to get into our own safe space or require that safe space which then potentially alienates other people from our position – and that’s what I’m really interested in, in this sense of, you know, making space. Where is our common ground?’

Registrations are now open for Making Space, the PAC Australia National Performing Arts Exchange and Conference, taking place at the Red Earth Arts Precinct, Karratha WA, from 2-6 September 2018.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts