Interview with Rose Myers
Artistic Director, Arena Theatre Company
RM: I’m just trying to remember what period of time I was actually working at Melbourne Uni now. I’m just casting back in my mind. It would be the 90s.
What were you doing then?
RM: I was the artistic director of the theatre department there. After Andrew Ross and before Kim Hannah. For three years I was working there. I loved working there, it was a great job. It was a very exciting environment to make work, and I guess for me my practice is about making contemporary performance work, so I was interested in that environment, the university community. The first piece I made there was called Zero Sum which was about the Dili Massacre because there had been a student from Sydney University killed in that massacre. I made a piece about the first ever women at Melbourne Uni. I made a piece about the medical faculty.
You tried to engage the different faculties?
RM: No, not really. I think it was to try and make work that was relevant to the University. Not that we really had a big discourse with other faculties. But students from all faculties were involved in the productions and that was the most exciting thing I guess about working there, was the students that I had the opportunity to collaborate with over three years. That was alot of fun.
What course were you doing there at the time?
RM: I wasn’t studying there. It was a job. I saw it advertised in the paper and I had to apply for the job and got the job, so I never studied at Melbourne Uni. My brother was studying, actually he was studying there at the same time I was working there.
OK, great. So I can scrap experience already because you were a theatre person before that and you brought that into the University, so that’s a really interesting angle to talk about as well. So you came as a professional to Melbourne University.
RM: Yeah. I think that’s what most artistic directors have been from Melbourne Uni as I understand it. You’re right, they have studied there and have come back to work there.
Maybe you can talk about coming from the profession?
RM: So you want me to talk about the University, the environment at the time, what was on offer to students, the way that the theatre department was kind of regarded in the University, the role it played in the broader University. That was 91 to 94, OK.
RM: My name is Rose Myers and I was the artistic director of the Melbourne University student union theatre department from 1991 to 1994.
Do you want to tell us a little bit about what was it like back then? What role did you play in campus life? You know, stories that you remember, people that you remember from that era?
RM: Yep, certainly. I mean I think the thing about Melbourne University student union theatre department is that it is incredibly unique resource department in the context of an Australian university. That is the level to which it is resourced as a facility that all students can access as part of their degrees. So in a way I found the exciting thing about that was that you had all these amazing students who were. I think university, well it was for me, a very formative time and an exciting time really. In many ways your whole world is expanding and to be studying in a range of disciplines, but to then come in and think what might be my form of creative expression, so like to have access to a means of creative expression. I think it is quite an interesting context in which to create art, because you’re not learning a craft. The students that I worked with weren’t drama students. They might have been like art students, or med students or law students or whatever.
So people from different faculties at that time got involved in productions?
RM: Yeah, yeah.
As performers or backstage or…?
RM: Everything, every aspect and what I would do when I worked there was that every year we would do a big first year production which was non-audition based. It was just open to everybody and that was a way of kind of like alerting people to the fact that the theatre department existed, and we’d do huge, we did one musical called Anus Horribilus. It was based on the Royal family and that was really fun! [laughter] Then we’d kind of do one really super refined type production, where we’d have, like professional artists would come in and collaborate with the students in the creation of the work.
Do you remember one of those that you can give as an example?
RM: There’s a few that I’m particularly fond of and most of the work we did had some kind of relationship to the university context, because in a way as a creator of work, that’s my background is making new Australian performance that has a dialogue with the world. So its kind of program work that was surrounded, issues and things that were in the university environment, so we made one piece which was called The Princess Ida Parlour and it was about the first ever women at Melbourne University, and it was written by Anita Punton who’s gone on to do alot of writing. She was a student at Melbourne Uni but this was her first professional commission. That was inspired by a photo I saw of an exhibition that showed some of the first suffragettes who were the first women at Melbourne Uni. And they were really rowdy and that was quite an inspiring image. It showed that they kept having to be told to be quiet and they were smoking and like doing hoola hoops and stuff in this room which is the Princess Ida parlour, so, and it was pretty fascinating in the whole kind of environment in which they. And then they opened the Queen Victoria hospital, some of those women. That was a great story. Another piece was a piece, ‘cos it was around the time of the Dili massacres that I started working there [student union theatre] in East Timor and there had been a student called Kamahl from the University of Sydney who had been working as an interpreter for a guy called Bob [?] from Community Aid Abroad in Melbourne who had been killed in the Dili massacre, so we kind of made a piece of the Timorese community and we had a professional designer, John Bennett. We had Guy Rundle who was one of the people working on the writing of that work and he’s gone on. He was a student at the time but he’s gone on obviously to – he was also a writer for Arena magazine but to obviously have a huge profile as a writer.
So you could bring professionals from outside because you yourself work in the industry and came to Melbourne Uni?
RM: Yep, yep, so when I set up projects I put together teams and look at different ways that the students could be involved because a lot of my process is about devising work.
[A lot of noise causes a major disruption and both interviewer and respondent have to wait]
You were talking about your process of devising theatre and what your…
RM: Yes, so well, my practice is really about new Australian work and I have a fairly collaborative process of working, so we wouldn’t like commission a script, but we’d often develop the works with the students through processes of improvisation and then a writer would come in and write the script and work the designer. So it’s a very collaborative process.
And what was that like for the students, you know, coming and working with people who are so professional and from that field?
RM: It was a pretty vibey place to work. Apart from the kinds of projects that the department would run themselves there was a huge range of student activity. One of the things that I think is really interesting, is that in a way that there is this audience that in many ways alot of the rest of the theatre industry is really eager to capture, which is young people. But Melbourne Uni, I really remember it as a place where we would have the Guild Theatre, the Union Theatre, we had the MUD Festival which had heaps of venues going, but always the seasons would be packed out with people, and lots of new, really interesting work. Maybe alot of really long-winded work where you would work for two hours and if had half an hour’s worth of good ideas in it. You know, it was exciting to just be in that kind of environment and to see those kind of people – really it’s like a playground for people in a way – like they are having their first opportunities to test their ideas.
There must be a lot of freedom in that as well?
RM: Oh, so much. That’s the thing I was saying before. Because of the kind of – you can go to a craft-based institution like VCA and learn how to be a director or learn how to be a writer and that’s really great, but I think there is something inherently interesting about people who, they’re studying and they do stuff at the theatre and they are studying another discipline altogether, and they come to the theatre department and their minds are excited and they are being supposed to psychology and, you know, all different fields and different disciplines and that ….
[another plane overhead interrupts the interview]
RM: Some of the other things we used to do was lots of stuff for the Open Days. So we used to also support all the independent student work with production advice and we had a choreographer and I would often be involved in some of the new scripts that were developing, so there were lots of other roles that we played.
Do you want to talk about that a bit? About how you personally assisted, like if a student came to you with a script and said ‘I’ve got this idea to do blablabla’?
RM: I think we were there to support the kind of facilitation of that. Basically students would – there would be the venues available for hire for certain weeks of the year and also there was like college musicals, comedy – the comedy scene was pretty huge at that time. One year I directed the Comedy Revue. It was all devised and often really highly political content that was coming out of those revues at the time. There was just a great diversity of activity that surrounded the department and the whole Union. And also students could apply for money to the Theatre Board to put their work on and at the time there was a threat of voluntary student unionism, when the kind of Kennett government came into power. So there was a big movement within the university to save the student union theatre department because it looked like the whole union might actually close down. The value of the theatre department was really apparent when lots of people came out, lots of leading figures in Australian cultural industries and even broader than that, and kind of came out and talked about what the student theatre department had allowed them to do in terms of developing their ideas, their networks, their creative expression.
Yeah, it’s very important, I think, to have theatre on campus.
RM: I think so too. I don’t anyone really has articulated why it is so valuable. I mean obviously you don’t need to convince people like me that! Like the means of creative expression for people, but it’s great for people’s developments of their own minds, which is, you know. And also if you think about it, as universities become more and more, you know, the funding situation becomes tighter and everything goes in cycles, but like the value of an arts degree becomes less or more, but it’s actually that freedom …
[more background noise that interrupts the interview and they have to stop again.]
Maybe we can move from that to a sort of story you can remember from that time or people that, you know, were involved at Melbourne Uni at the time that went on to become famous or do some really interesting things?
RM: I guess I was there only eight years ago so alot of them aren’t really famous yet. There’s people like Chloe Hooper, Ben Ellis, who was one of the students who was in the first project that I did when he was in first year. I think he’d been living in Bairnsdale and he was a student who had come up and he was really excited about being… I think he’d lived in one of the colleges and he enrolled to go on a cultural tour and it had just been a pub crawl but I met him after that and he was a first year student in the first show that I directed at Melbourne Uni, and he’s gone on to do heaps of amazing stuff and win lots of awards for his work. Chloe Hooper was a student in first year who was in some of my shows and who I was pretty good friends with, and then she went over to America to study and I visited her over there and had dinner with her, and then she’s published her book which was really hugely successful. Just loads of interesting people like Anthony Watt and Guy Rundle, who I mentioned before, Nita Punton, people like Scott Brennan like everywhere really that you looked. Oh, yeah and Michael Cathcart and Daniella Farinacci [?]. She studied Criminology and then she got involved in the theatre department and she did heaps of work with Michael. He did stuff that had an impact on the university community, so he did a piece called Fairies which had like all of these old tutus from the Australian Ballet! [laughter]. One great thing about Melbourne Uni was the kind of people power and also the kind of resources that you could pull and in an environment like that. After working there for three years it really struck me when I came back here, you know, that suddenly like you could say like we want to build this set and have a working bee over a weekend and you’d have like thirty people turn up and the production manager would sort of organise everyone and get heaps of work done really fast. But when you are in a professional environment every hour has to be paid for and also the kind of resources and projections, apart from the student resources. Alot of amazing talents among those students – alot of musical talent. Alot of very well educated people who had very fortunate opportunities to be very skilled at piano. We had a guy like who was the leading theatrical organist and he played in one of our productions and he had a sponsorship of a huge organ and just all sorts of interesting stuff like that. Great musical skills.
What was MUDfest like at the time?
RM: Ehm, MUDfest was pretty lively. I am thinking that it was probably about the fourth MUDfest when I worked there. Third or fourth. The artistic director was a guy called Rod ______. He was artistic director I think of the first two or three festivals. He was an ex-student of Melbourne university and Suzanne Chaundy [?] and they run Strange Fruits, the performance company with people on poles. They did some great stuff there and I mean that was alot more multi art form as a festival. I remember they did the installation of the whole lawn, covered in books, which was really beautiful.
Another interesting kind of aspect of student theatre is when critics come from outside from the real world to give reviews of student theatre. A few years back, there were a few examples of reviews coming and slashing students for productions, like without, like forgetting that it’s actually student theatre and most people are starting out. Do you remember times when reviews came and they were good or bad reviews or what was the kind of relationship between the Melbourne University student theatre and the real world?
RM: I remember we had quite a few reviews of our work in the paper and yeah, that was always, I think it was fairly well reviewed overall, but its a difficult one, because I suppose you’ve got to say, well, I mean the reviewers, whether they review in the context. It’s the same for alot of alternative work. I mean that’s the issue for theatre across the board, like all theatre is made in a context or, and often reviewers will review from one point of view, unfortunately, so. I can’t say I remember that ever being a real issue. I think that the students didn’t go and see alot of work outside of the department and I always thought that was problematic, like they did see alot of work but they had their own work to do, plus they were doing theatre. But they didn’t really. The Creative Arts school wasn’t as strong as it is now. So that’s probably changed but ….
I don’t know if it even existed back then?
RM: I don’t think so.
It was the School of Visual and Performing Arts before.
RM: I didn’t feel that a lot of people came in and saw student’s work and I don’t think that students went out and saw a lot of other work.
So it mainly an internal – students for students?
RM: It was more like that although the department productions which I directed would usually be reviewed in the Age and I think we got good reviews for that work. That I remember. They were probably mixed, but. I think that’s probably something that needs to be thought about. Whether students need to have their work reviewed in the Age, I mean it’s a pretty harsh world and they might find it beneficial and they might not. They might find it soul destroying! It’s pretty hard even getting a bad review when you’ve been doing it for a long time, you know. I think the difference is that you do understand the context when you have been working for a long time. When you may be just new you might not know how to read the review in some ways? Or know like I guess I know well the reviewers around town and where they’re coming from and if certain reviewers would say something about my work I’d have context in which to understand them, like I mean, well they are a text and acting reviewer, you know, and so obviously they never like what I do, or …. I don’t know, that’s a hard one.
And you’ve gone from pretty much there, from being the artistic director, straight to Arena? Tell us a bit about that? What was the transition like?
RM: I’d come from that small company environment before I went to Melbourne Uni. In fact, Melbourne Uni is the biggest place I’ve ever worked, really. Like ever since I graduated from uni about eighteen years ago or something I’ve always worked in small companies, apart from the three years that I worked at Melbourne uni, so that was a bit of an eye opener for me, in terms of academia, with much more of a bureaucracy then. But an incredibly free place to work in many ways because like here we have to do alot of fundraising and we know how to budget and yeah, it was just a great fun place to work. I really, really loved working there and found it very stimulating and exciting and just an amazing and unique kind of place for ideas and …. I mean a great thing too about being a professional was that, just to see the passion of the student’s work, was like really a great reminder for me. Like I remember the way that students used to kind of like give each other presents and cast parties and stuff like that. The making of the work and the meaning that it had for people. People weren’t cynical! [laughter] That was a really great thing about the uni environment. People were passionate and they were super excited about it and they were super excited about alot of things as you should be at that time of life. It is a very exciting time. When the world is just opening up for you.
Did you have the Clyde at the time just out of interest?
RM: The Clyde Hotel?
RM: Yeah, yeah.
That’s an amazing part of theatre history at Melbourne uni! [laughter]
RM: The Clyde Hotel. It’s pretty dingy. Has it still kind of got that same decor?
A bit of it, yeah.
RM: They used to renovate the student Union actually, like all the time. Like every year because different students would be running the place, and they’d have ideas for how they could arrange the internal walls or, and because I came from a small company environment. Like the first time I encountered stuff like health and safety really.
Great that’s fantastic.
RM: Is that useful? I find it hard to remember. It’s been so long since I worked there.
That’s fine. Maybe we’ll do like an end kind of bit. So that sounds all really fantastic and quite familiar, I have to say. As someone who has just graduated from Melbourne uni and has done a bit of theatre.
RM: We used to have a lot of students at Melbourne uni who would never graduate too. I suppose that is one of the differences now with like HECS and you know, like students in the olden days used to hang around that department for like ten years. But unfortunately for students now it isn’t like that good, you know, and I think that’s really sad. I think its also sad for the intellectual life of our country in so many ways, because I mean you can learn alot in the kind of academic environment, but there’s something else about being able to take that stimulation into your own form of creative expression that is very significant and I think it is the thing that should be most celebrated and treasured about that whole environment.
That’s right because really its the only place where you get to engage your academic sort of side with your creative. And you don’t really tend to do that outside that much unfortunately. Outside is more focused on the creative, whereas in the university you kind of tend to bring whatever you are studying at the moment into your….
RM: I think that was what I was trying to say before about that kind of interdisciplinary nature of ways of working so if I had to answer to you one kind of question about what I would say was wrong with the Australian arts industry, I’d say that people are forgetting to ask the fundamental questions about the work they are making, and that is, why make it in the first place? Why are we making this work? I think when you are in that university environment, it’s not just a craft-based institution, then you are really close to that question in a way. Like you’ve got things that you are desperate to express and to have that forum by which to express that and to acquire skills in expressing it, and therefore kind of refining your ideas, it’s just really vital.
Fantastic. On that note thank you Rose Myers. Thank you so much for your time.
RM: One thing I failed to say that the isn’t the place where you shouldn’t have to worry about whether the show is … it’s a laboratory, its a place to be playful, it’s not a place where people should be judged in a kind of harsh way. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about. I mean I don’t think that art should be reduced to a kind of good and bad anyway.
RM: And the other question was ….?
If someone told you that student theatre wouldn’t exist as of next year, what you would think about that?
RM: I think that Melbourne uni student union theatre is a place that is really vital in terms of the way students have the opportunity to find a creative express for the kinds of ideas … oh, I think I said it better before.
Just say like two sentences of what you said before. Do you need like a leading question?
RM: That’d be good.
So you’ve seen a lot of people develop out of Melbourne uni student theatre into the professional real world. How would you feel about that environment not existing any more, having seen all of these fantastic people grow from this environment to the industry and contribute so much?
RM: I mean, not just to the industry, but to many industries in which they’ve gone, because I don’t think it’s just about feeding the creative industries of Australia. I think its about feeding the intellectual life of Australia in a much bigger picture way and that’s one of the very exciting things about working there. It’s like people may become professional artists and many, many people often do become leading artists in Australia and that’s exciting, but you know, if you are someone who becomes a doctor and you participated in student theatre, then that’s about the way you think and the way that you get to be with other people in an active, creative expression. I mean that’s a very human act. It develops your humanity and your intellectual framework. You know, it develops your understanding of how people work or your capacity to ask questions. You know, I mean, I just think it’s a very unique and exciting environment and I think there should be more, not less!