Jenni Medway and Nick Atkins are co-artistic producers of Crack Theatre Festival, a national festival showing experimental and emerging theatre practice presented as part of This is Not Art festival in Newcastle. In the third of a series of interviews, Eleanor Zeichner asks about the themes of this year’s festival, the challenges and benefits of using abandoned commercial spaces, and the importance of a national focus.
What were your festival highlights this year?
Jenni: My festival highlights were definitely watching all the crowds come in each night. We were thrilled with the response and really glad for our artists that they could have such sizeable and considerate audiences. I was also thrilled that we had a more national focus with artists coming from Darwin, regional SA, Melbourne, Bathurst, Lismore, Freemantly, Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra. Of course, it was also a massive highlight to see Unfinished Business by No Show who swam an inflatable boat full of festival memorabilia out to sea!
Nick: One of my highlights this year was an in between moment of sorts. Arie Rain-Glorie presented his installation ‘interiors’ that ran from Thursday to Saturday. His work sat quietly in the Crack House and saw punters and artists move through a space divided into a grid. Arie recorded actions, events and happenings as time passed. I walked through the back room on the Saturday and notice the dancers from Breathing Dirt (Brisbane) and Jack Beeby (Shoot to Kill, Melbourne) sharing the space and placing with the work. I walked past again a few hours later and they were still there. This moment is a highlight for me because I felt extremely proud to have helped curate a festival and space where artists that don’t know each other prior can engage in a fun and in depth dialogue around their work.
As artistic directors you drive the creative direction of the festival – how does your creative work outside Crack inform your programming?
Jenni: I work as a freelance dramaturg so a lot of what I was thinking of is the structure of the programme and audience experience. We were both very keen not to programme against our own festival and not to have a lot of shows clash with each other so thinking about how audiences might choose to move from one venue to another in order to maximise audiences for our artists was definitely in my head. Also thinking about the kinds of shows we were working with and how an audience would experience them one after the other. Audience experience is something I think a lot about when I am working as a dramaturg and it’s definitely something I felt transferred across. I also care a lot about representation and diversity and I think we tried hard to create a programme that reflected this.
Nick: I’m a performance maker and writer. Perhaps it sounds a little simple but I remember at the end of the festival reflecting to Jenni how the act of curating and making, for me, echo one another. My favourite metaphor that I tend to think of when making a performance is baking bread. It’s about having the ingredients you want, a series of techniques to bring these together, a sense of timing and someone to share it with. Coming away from the festival I’ve started to think of curating and festival management as very similar. Everything seems to have a larger scale however.
How do you support your participating artists to foster experimentation and creative risk-taking?
Jenni: I think we provide a space away from mainstages that means that artists feel a bit more comfortable bringing work that they are testing out. We’re really upfront with the fact that we want people to be using Crack Theatre Fest as a space to develop work and try things out for the first time. I also think the fact that everything is free eliminates pressure for artists to prepare a product worth a certain ticket price. The atmosphere is so comfortable and open I think it makes a great space to do this. We also try and throw a few other events in there that might encourage people to jump in the deep end. We did that with Crack on Crack this year where we asked people to do a 2 minute version of their piece.
Nick: I know that the fact that Crack is a free festival is of significant importance to the ethos of this festival for both Jenni and myself. Although this means that we can’t always support our artists financially the fact that we are a free festival build an environment where audiences are more willing to take a punt on your work and engage in a constructive dialogue around what they see. At the same time artists aren’t competing against one another for audiences and feeling the need to make their work appeal wide audiences with a view to selling tickets. I think is an important energy for fostering experimentation and sets us apart from Fringe Festivals.
There was a thread running through your 2013 program of works that dealt with or discussed mental health. Why are these stories important to tell in this context?
Jenni: I think that any time you sense a theme across the programme, it’s good to stop and reflect on why it is important to people at this time. I think people are beginning to explore mental health issues in an open way which is why we decided to have a panel on mental health to talk about how it’s expressed in the arts and also how people use the arts to assist people living with mental health issues. I also feel like mental health is always relevant across the board and knowing a lot of people working in the arts who suffer from a mental health issue it seemed right to stop and talk about that. I also feel like Crack is a forum for things happening in the industry at this time and our panel series tries to address any strong and important themes we think it’s necessary to discuss.
Since its inception, This is Not Art, and by extension Crack Theatre, have striven to use the abandoned or under-used commercial spaces of Newcastle – what are the benefits and challenges of using these spaces to make theatre?
Jenni: I think it sets up a really great environment and adds to the challenge of working within a non conventional space. We had many challenges this year with our space as it had not been used for such a long time that the clean up to make it useable was huge. Not to mention the fact that we had the public bathroom upstairs leaking into the building for quite some time which meant that we had to block off a lot of the space we’d planned to use. I think it’s important in Newcastle to continue to revive abandoned spaces to exhibit their potential. Renew Newcastle is such a powerful force down there and it’s great to be able to contribute in a similar way. It’s also great for artists to get the opportunity to be a part of that transformation. We had some great installation works this year that really worked with the space that we had and transformed it.
Nick: When working with disused spaces I think one of the greatest challenges is negotiating with gate keepers. In our experience we were lucky to have a great relationship with the property developers responsible for the space. However despite all their good intentions they are a for profit organisation with no experience in managing arts and cultural activities. The challenge for us is finding a common language to articulate what we want to achieve and doing so in an way that is mutually beneficial for our partners.
I think disused spaces are a great platform for artists to remember they aren’t presenting work in a vacuum. We are pretty keen on context at Crack and when your venue still has Go Lo stickers on the floors and walls you can’t help but keep context at the fore of your mind.
How will your Emerging Presenter grant change the way you’re able to operate?
Jenni: The Emerging Presenter grant is a huge huge thing for us. We couldn’t be more thrilled. It will mean that we can fully fund a project from each state and territory in Australia and bring it to Newcastle. It will finally give us the chance to financially support artists which is really important for artists I think both in terms of being able to pay the rent but also psychologically. To get a paid job when you’re an independent artist can really make what is often a slog with little money, a little bit more worthwhile. It also means that access is increased so artists who wouldn’t have been able to afford the trip but who have a great work are no longer limited. I think on the whole it will mean we can support artists much better and encourage their practice but also increase the diversity and access to the festival.
Nick: The Emerging Presenter grant will add a new dimension to Crack. We strive to make the festival not just open nationally but accessible and this is a strong step in the direction. It will also enable us to consolidate the artistic base and community that has been growing around Crack for the past seven years.
Why is it important to have a national focus?
Jenni: I think it’s important that Crack is a place where people who work in contemporary performance are able to come together and celebrate what each other do, talk about it and learn valuable skills. Australia is such a vast country. To be able to link artists in with each other who would have no other reason to meet each other can lead to collaboration but most importantly vast support networks. It’s important to feel like a community and I think the wider your community is, the better. It’s also increases the diversity of the work and allows people to see maybe different forms or practices that are emerging in different parts of the country.
Nick: For me Crack needs to have a national focus because this makes it a very unique and urgent festival for the country. As most artists know it costs a lot of money to make work and often younger artists work for years to a single presentation opportunity and then are back to making again. With a national network and even awareness I think artists are more likely to travel their work, hopefully earning themselves a little bit of cash and encountering new audiences which I believe can only improve their vibrancy as makers. Crack has, can and will now continue to play a key role in building these networks for next three years at least.
Crack Theatre was recently announced as a Creative Australia Emerging Presenter for the Theatre section of the Australia Council.