WELCOME TO THE SPRING ENEWS FOR THE AUSTRALIAN YOUTH PERFORMING ARTS INDUSTRY. LET’S KICK OFF WITH SOME REFLECTIONS FROM PENNY HARPHAM, WESTERN EDGE.
Hello from Poorneet (tadpole) season in Naarm (Melbourne). Whenever we reach September in this city there is a collective sigh of relief, a little ‘we made it through Winter’ moment, which this year feels more pertinent than ever, as it’s the first time since 2019 we’ve all been able to be together to mark this specific seasonal change.
And what a Winter it’s been to bring the sector together – FUSE summit, the Australian Cultural Policy and some of us preparing for APAX which is taking place this week. At Western Edge we’ve also staged our first school production since before the pandemic and are in the middle of presenting our Community Edge Ensembles production across the West – a 20 week program that brings young artists from Wyndham, Brimbank and Maribyrnong together to collectively devise an original new work, which then tours to Wyndham Cultural Centre, The Bowery Theatre and Footscray Community Arts.
This will be the last of the ‘first since the pandemic’ programs to get back up into the world, marking 2.5 years of pivoting, patiently waiting, regrouping and rescheduling. It has taken a toll, and as the company now starts to settle into this new normal finally – with new Artistic Directors, new Chair of the Board and Board members, new programs and productions being planned and core programs back up and running – I feel an enormous sense of … exhaustion. Of resilience-fatigue. A full body release. Of looking back over the past 9 months and feeling disbelief on how any of us actually got through that / are getting through this with so many personal and community responsibilities around the actual work of creating art and running companies. 9 months on top of a once-in-a-generation challenging 2 years before that. Of the need for a conversation around wellbeing that isn’t just focussed on quick fixes or self-care routines. But actually on how we, as a sector – which is to say, a community – create space for some stillness, some genuine care for ourselves and each other, to allow time to reflect and process and embed the learnings from COVID into policies, procedures and company cultures.
That is now our focus at Western Edge – what does rest look like in the company?
What does ‘good enough’ look like? Our artistic practice is deeply grounded in our own mottos of Come As You Are and Happy Failure – a sweet relief from The Show Must Go On. But what does that look like across all levels of our company? What if we don’t get Aus Co next year? What if we can’t deliver on all our ambitious KPIs? What if our shows don’t land with audiences? What if we can’t connect back with community as quickly as we hoped to? What if all our core staff and artists need to take prolonged time off as the grief and shock and fatigue of the past few years starts to bubble up and move through our bodies? What then? Are we still worthy? Are we still allowed to exist? Are we still artists and arts workers if we are not winning awards, reaching as many young people as we would like to? How do we break out of this system that tells us we are only as good as our last show, that we should be grateful for every dollar of funding that we earn, that any moment it could all swing the other way?
Being around others at the FUSE summit was a vital step to healing and feeling connected to the larger youth arts community again. Being in the same space and place and time with others was so nourishing, and I want to thank everyone at ATYP for bringing us all together.
I attended with Ras-Samuel Welda’abgzi – a young leader and artist from Western Edge – who spoke at one of our Livestream talks after the summit with fellow Western Edge artists and young leaders Amarachi Okorom and Leigh Lule about the importance of him being there to hear in depth about the sector, to learn about what is needed to keep it going, to represent young people and diverse artists from Melbourne’s West in national forums. He was really inspired by the summit and has some great suggestions on how young people could be more involved in the future – I wanted him to co-write this with me to share his insights but he is shooting a series for Disney Plus at the moment so, you know, he was a bit too busy to hang out with me! Once his schedule settles we’re going to meet up and write a proper reflection which I’d be happy to share with anyone who is interested.
As well as FUSE, the momentum around the Cultural Policy submissions really proved to me that this sector really has each other’s backs. I know I felt so supported knowing that I could draw on submissions from ATYP, TNA and Arts West (an alliance of arts orgs across Melbourne’s West) to create a submission for Western Edge. I really want to thank everyone who contributed to making that process smoother and more accessible – everyone at Western Edge really appreciated the guidance and frameworks provided for us to launch from (and I heard last week from TNA that there were over 1200 submissions – how good is that?!)