Trips far from the light fantastic
In shell-pocked Belgrade, war was the only story on the streets of what was once the capital of Yugoslavia. It was 1993, and a cultural ban had Eastern Europe’s biggest festival begging performers to come anyway. Sydney’s Stalker Theatre Company said yes, and stiltwalked its spectacular “theatre of the apocalypse” right through the embargo.
“People were literally crying just that we had come,” says Rachel Swain, Stalker’s co-artistic director.
It was a pivotal moment for the world-renowned group. “Presenting in such an extreme environment … affected the creative heart of the company,” Swain says.
Touring a work internationally can transform the artists, allow the work to evolve, build a profile, develop a larger audience, validate companies in the eyes of their home audience, recoup their investment, or just keep everyone employed.
“Inevitably, there’s a desire to benchmark our work internationally,” says Rob Brookman, who is organising to take the Sydney Theatre Company’s Hedda Gabler to New York next year. While primarily producing for the local audience, the company aims to tour overseas every second year.
“It’s important not just for the company [to attract the kind of actors it wants in the ensemble] and the artists [who get an international profile] but also for our community – for our audience to see that a company they support can cut it on the world stage.”
Touring can also be a killer, psychologically and financially.
Leigh Small, the general manager of Sydney Dance Company, says: “There is a physical and emotional side that can’t be underestimated.”
Like the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Circus Oz, Sydney Dance is classed as a “global” arts company which has to do 20 per cent of its work overseas under the terms of its government funding agreement, sealed after the 2000 Nugent report into the performing arts. “[After] somewhere between six and eight weeks, the company on tour starts to implode.”
A year ago, the ACO did 13 concerts in 13 American cities in 17 nights, catching buses or enduring hours of airport security with their instrument cases to board Dash-8 planes that couldn’t fit the whole orchestra. “Never again,” says the orchestra’s general manager, Bill Gillespie, despite the tour’s profits.
The orchestra, which has just come out of a deficit, revamped its touring strategy, cutting its overseas tours from two to one a year.
An independent producer, Marguerite Pepper, says: “There is nothing glamorous about international touring.” She keeps artists on the road for up to five months at a time, managing jet lag, finding rehearsal venues, fitting in rest days, making sure they eat.
For Pepper, it’s about keeping artists employed. “The cost of creating a new commissioned work is huge.” In a big country with a small population, you can’t “tour the work aggressively enough to recoup that initial investment”.
A sell-out overseas tour can still cost a company money. The first international tour “always” loses money, Pepper says. But it’s an investment in a circuit that can keep artists afloat over time.
International touring has become a major focus for Australian artists. In 1996, the Keating government gave the Australia Council a mandate to develop an international marketing strategy. The current Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, created the Australia International Cultural Council in 1998 to encourage diplomatic efforts to promote Australian culture.
Austrade extends export grants to arts companies. Recently, arts groups were among those invited to meet Australian ambassadors to Europe to discuss developing opportunities there.
Still, with no equivalent of the massively funded Goethe Institute (Germany), British Council or Alliance Francaise, the Australia Council has to do the job with smaller coffers and farther away from the mature markets of Europe and North America.
Its biennial Australian Performing Arts Market has, since 1994, brought overseas presenters here, to talent-spot. The result? More than 60 Australian companies making 150 tours to 1200 venues, ringing up $30 million, the council says.
As prestigious invitations roll in, each creates connections that lead to more invitations. Now some smaller companies, such as Stalker, which relies on the international festival circuit, get export grants from the council. The council’s music and theatre boards have increasingly sought-after, quick-response funds for some touring that otherwise wouldn’t be financially feasible.
How do Australian arts companies make money on an international tour? “With great difficulty,” says Small, who has the benefit of sponsorship from an airline and a freight company.
In a report on the dance company’s dicey financial position, the accountant who chairs the Australia Council Theatre Board, Ian McRae, says international touring is important for the company and Australia. But they compete against US and European companies that come for the price of a short-hop ticket.
“Our geography [is] a constant cost barrier in a very competitive world market,” he says. “Additionally, Australian companies are less able to return frequently to a particular city or area (thereby building a following).”
Sydney Dance self-presents a season at the Joyce Theatre in New York, even though having its entire company there for 10 days makes it unprofitable. But without New York reviews, conservative presenters across the more profitable US market wouldn’t book them.
Those tours are logistically tricky. Small says: “If you have two lucrative dates, but two or three days in between, you lose all your profit in per diems and hotel bills.” With a US tour, you have to string together cities along each coast. “If you crisscross, you spend a lot of money in travel days and overtime – travelling is considered work time.”
She says about one in every six festival offers will include air fares, accommodation and daily allowances. “In most cases, you’re expected to fly yourself to the northern hemisphere and in some cases pay per diems … The fee never covers all those costs.”
Sydney Dance has knocked back prestigious invitations because the European festivals fall during its Sydney seasons, which are sandwiched between immoveable annual subscription seasons of the opera and ballet at the Opera House.
Other factors also come into play. Circus Oz’s general manger, Linda Mickleborough, cites the terrorist attacks in New York. In 2000, Circus Oz did 23 international showing weeks. In 2001, it was 11 weeks. “That was immediately post-September 11 and … [presenters] were coming, who would normally buy the show, saying, ‘We’ll have to wait and see’.” In 2002, Circus Oz did only two weeks overseas. It has built back up to 10 this year.
SARS had an impact. “But the really significant thing has been strengthening of the Australian dollar,” says Mickleborough, whose aim is to spend about 11 weeks in regional Australia, 11 in capital cities and 11 overseas. Internationally, “even when people pay us the same fee, we’re earning less”.
The ACO’s killer tour made extra profit because the US-born Gillespie was able to hedge the undervalued dollar. The tour paid off, too, because the international guest artists involved are now coming here – record companies in tow – to tour and record with the orchestra. The orchestra can now go to the most prestigious festivals in the US this year, performing eight shows in a three-week trip. It “will lose money”, but it is important to its long-term aims.
Mickleborough, having overhauled Circus Oz’s tour strategy, says Australian companies have grown more savvy in negotiating the ups and downs – financially, artistically and humanly – through the strains of the past five years. “It is when things get so tricky … that you give them your greatest focus.” Autor: Lauren Martin