Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sustainable Time

How time is managed is a key factor in the implementation of structural change. The term 'sustainability' need not only refer to energy consumption. It may also refer to professional work practice.

The MPAB companies and other peak bodies in the performing arts sector have been slow to question or even wonder about the shape of a career in Australian theatre - how this fluctuates over a week, a month or years. Meanwhile, the rest of the community is engaged with ideas about leading a balanced life, allowing time for family, community volunteering and other activities that lie outside the work sphere.

The chasm between the small-medium sector and the MPAB will never be breached as long as there are two modes of time/work management in place. Artists in the small-medium sector are accustomed to holding down part time jobs in the education sector for example, as it is impossible to sustain oneself financially through project work. Yet when we are given the opportunity to work within the MPAB sector, we are expected to be available for long working hours, to the exclusion of other commitments and activities, for the sake of an eight- week contract. The full-time leadership roles of associate director or artistic director are predicated on this model of 'giving over' to work, a 19thc belief in the intrinsic value of hard work. If one questions the value of working an 80-100 hour week, one risks being considered (oh horror!) a 'hobbyist'.

The management of the resource of time has consequences for women directors who are also parents. When one is a parent, one has responsibility not only for one's own timetable, but also the timetable of a child, which may not intersect with a 9-6pm-and-beyond working day. Of course women are not always the primary carers of their children, but they often are, and the reasons for this are cultural, emotional, structural and need to be addressed by MPAB companies if they intend to redress the gender imbalance in key creative roles. If we choose to have children, attend their school working bees, or volunteer in local environment groups, surely that makes us more resilient, connected practitioners, in touch with the world and her dreams? What kind of artists do we become when we grind away our time in rarefied 19thc arts sweatshops?

The time is ripe to make room in the MPAB world for the skills and varied experienced of many different kinds of practitioners, not only for the mono-focused, ‘unencumbered,’ driven white male.

A solution to fit the problem

In any change, the solution is the same size as the problem. For example, as we become more aware of global warming and diminishing oil reserves, we may convince ourselves that changing light bulbs, recycling and driving smaller cars is enough to solve the problem. This puts us in a state called 'cognitive dissonance', where we are half awake, believing we have been given the answer, yet knowing it is not really a solution for the problem.

The rush to solve the problem of inequality of opportunity for women directors in the Australian theatre workplace has lead to a flurry of events and initiatives in the past five months: the 'Where are the Women' forum held at Belvoir Street in late 2009 might be seen as one of these knee-jerk solutions. Despite the fact that this event was hosted by Belvoir Street, there has been no real desire for systemic change within this company. A transparent process for the selection of the new Associate Director at Belvoir Street is one way that this example of 'cognitive dissonance' could have been addressed. However, Belvoir Street has chosen a new Associate Director without an open process that could have provided the opportunity for female directors to apply for this position. Like changing the light bulbs, or driving an electric car, hosting forums and announcing initiatives for women directors within a particular age bracket does not address the underlying systemic problem.

If the MPAB companies truly wish to find a solution that is the same size as the problem, then the federal Equal Opportunity legislation may be a good place to start. Accountability, transparency and a willingness to engage with change and to consider new structures are the ways in which the MPAB companies might build a bridge between their own practice and the small to medium sector. If there is courage and energy for change, then we could create an industry where inclusion, resilience and social relevance are the pillars that support an excellent national theatre.

Jane Woollard

Artistic Director

Here Theatre