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  • Daniel Stoddart

Does professional theatre even exist in Newcastle, and does anyone even care?

If you are reading this, chances are you call yourself a member of the Newcastle theatre industry. Or you know someone who “works” in the theatre industry here in Newcastle. In which case, you have probably noticed an almost overwhelming presence of made-in-Newie theatre. According to Dr. Shane Bransdon’s research into the theatre ecology of our city, there are, in fact, a vast (and growing by the week) number of groups and production companies popping up left, right and centre. Recently I’ve been pondering some questions and confronting my colleagues with three main issues:


1. Are there too many theatre companies in Newcastle?


2. What are the differences among all of these groups?


3. Does it matter or does anyone even care?


Big questions, I know! In fact, too big to be solved in any one article. So, I briefly skim over the first question. I honestly have no idea what constitutes “too many”. Perhaps the research, meticulously prepared by Dr. Bransdon can go some way towards answering this question, by identifying the current (pre-Covid) ecosystem of theatre companies and how many tickets are being sold across the sector. I would boldly predict that sharing this total audience base over even more product would have a negative impact for our overall theatre industry. I don’t know how you would set about fixing this because; a) you can’t tell people not to start their own company, and b) who gets to decide which companies are worth keeping and which should just pitch shows to another producing body for inclusion in a larger season? This question remains unanswered … for now!


As a brief sidenote to the above, the more companies there are, the more the talent pool is stretched to its limits. Sadly, more companies do not equal more talent. More companies just results in the talented, and more experienced performers, being scraped like butter over too much bread, diluting the overall quality of product. But, I digress …


The second question is a little easier to address. Let’s take a look at some of the many names/labels that have been adopted or claimed by theatre groups here in Newcastle. There are quite a few: Community, Amateur, Profit-Share, Non-Profit, Semi-Professional, and Professional (not currently used). Now, let’s try to sort things out by definition:


COMMUNITY THEATRE productions often include amateur groups and incorporated associations (cast of volunteer actors and production members who don’t get paid for working on a show and usually include untrained and/or inexperienced members). These groups may sometimes pay their directors and technicians. The term “community theatre” basically refers to theatre made by and for members of a community.


NON-PROFIT means the group uses its income to cover all production costs, rolling any profit over into future productions. But, we are talking theatre in Newcastle here, after all, so it’s very rare for any theatre group to be; rolling in dough, laughing all the way to the bank, eating lobster dinners, or, just plain “profitable.” Community theatre groups (mentioned above) are usually non-profit, since they can use this status for their benefit in terms of reduced production costs (theatre rental, advertising, etc.), tax leniencies, ability to secure funding grant support, as well as having more supportive access to using various community resources.


PROFIT SHARE (also known as CO-OP) productions usually mean that no one receives a proper salary, and that any 'profit' made at the end gets distributed amongst the company and production personnel. The sad reality however, is that there doesn’t usually tend to be any profit. If there is, production personnel and actors may get a nominal few hundred dollars. Which is better than nothing! In my experience, as an actor in Newcastle, the most I have recieved was $1500.00 for performing in a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) with The Very Popular Theatre Company in 2006.


SEMI-PROFESSIONAL THEATRE, a.k.a. ‘pro-am’ (“professional/amateur”) productions include professionals and amateurs working together. This usually means the ‘pros’ get paid and the amateurs don’t, especially in the case of directors, musicians, and working actors. In a pro-am production, professionals get a paid gig, non-pros get to work with and learn from pros, and the theatre group gets to promote their show featuring professionals. It is a win-win when done well. This model can often carry with it a discussion surrounding “fairness.” Why should some get paid and others not? Well basically professional actors have been trained and act for a living, so whatever they do in the field, should help pay their bills. Non-professionals often volunteer for the theatrical experience. Sometimes it’s a fine line between the two categories, but they are categories none-the-less.


PROFESSIONAL THEATRE productions are made up of an entire cast/crew paid a salary to be in the show. In Australia, professional salary standards are determined by the MEAA. Actors, directors, designers, and other crew members. Here, “professional theatre” also implies a certain high standard, because it involves entirely trained professionals in the field of theatre/theatre-making/acting. This term can be confusing because people often incorrectly equate “professional” with “professionalism”. Any theatrical production, whether it’s a school play, an amateur community musical, or a huge-budget first class national theatre production, can show “professionalism” (or lack thereof). Ultimately, if the cast, crew and production team doesn’t get paid, then the production is not professional by definition.


The “face” of a production is usually (but not solely) its actors, so great actors are crucial for a successful production. Based in Newcastle, I’ve known many talented amateur “untrained” actors who have so much stage experience under their belts, they can definitely hold their own alongside younger actors who’ve gone through conventional training. However, there’s no argument against the obvious benefits of a cast made of trained actors, who’ve learned how to hone their talents, showcase a more refined way of physical and vocal expression, character and story interpretation, make more defined and varied acting choices, and definitely know the basics of acting/staging and other production demands, to name a few.


Ultimately, I keep returning to my final quandary: Does anyone even care? Does any of this even matter?


Novocastrians are definitely hungry for theatre. Maybe not as much as watching grown men run around throwing balls to each other, but there is a strong theatre-going crowd in the Hunter. However, I’m unsure as to whether they’re hungry for quality theatre, or just theatre, regardless of the quality. Does some sort of standard by which audience members select their theatre exist? Many Novocastrians are well-cultured and have experienced high-end stage productions from the West End to Broadway, large-scale touring productions to small thought-provoking “experimental” theatre events, and everything inbetween. In Newcastle, however, it appears there’s some sort of theatre “force field”. Novocastrian audiences seem content with, and amused by, locally staged shows which wouldn’t get the time of day elsewhere. In fact, it appears that almost every show in Newcastle gets overwhelmingly-positive feedback from audiences. For example, I regularly see on Facebook, “This one is not to be missed!”. Why? Do audiences not care for the content and quality of a production, as long as it’s put on by people from Newcastle? Do they personally know the people involved in the production, so they feel more connected or obligated?


The reason may be simply because there is no real theatre critic or review system for theatre produced in Newcastle. Sure, there are occasionally wonderful articles by people like Jack Madden and his team at Sit & Stare (whose writing I find valuable and entertaining) and a few reviews written about shows, but I’ve never seen anything written that was negative or near-negative, or even just non-biased and straight-forward. I mean a review that would include not only say what the reviewer liked about the show (detailing specific production aspects, like costumes or effects, funny or touching moments, characters, or songs if applicable), but also what he/she/they did not like. That kind of review would provide the reader, and the production team, with specific “notes” on what worked and what didn’t. Therefore, not only helping the creative teams to improve, but also aiding the audience with awareness of what is, and is not, worth seeing. There should actually be several reviewers or critics, in order to create a solid variety of strong, non-biased opinions.


There is undeniably a strong community of Newcastle-based theatre folk. Production members usually know each other one way or another, from previous work in other theatre groups, or know someone who knows someone. This community creates a great bond and “family” (“almost incestual,” as is often remarked), and it’s understandable that many, in fear of any repercussions, immense feather-rustling or boat-rocking, dare not speak their mind, by possibly sounding negative or unsupportive.


I don’t think a review should rip anyone to shreds in terms of critique, but there’s definitely room for constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is extremely important, and giving such feedback is even more supportive than merely being immensely positive or “polite”. Also, without any non-biased theatrical critique, the general public has no type of reference to go by, and the theatrical community doesn’t have a real chance to learn, improve, or progress.

That said, despite what kind of theatre production is on offer, or who produced it, audiences will decide which type of show they would like to go see, for whatever their reasons may be, and will buy tickets accordingly. How much are audiences willing to spend on Newcastle theatre? Does it depend on a production being “Community”, “Pro/Am”, or “Professional”? So many questions, so little time!


Maybe tickets and ticket pricing is a conversation for another time. For now, it’s good to know that theatre in Newcastle is alive and kicking once again and there’s a growing selection for audiences to choose from.


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