La Boite is one of several established theatre companies around the country housing programs that support ‘independent theatre’, a term commonly held to mean theatre made by groups of artists coming together, often with little infrastructure and few resources, to make work they passionately believe in.
In his Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture delivered
on Sunday, the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, Wesley
Enoch, called such programs ‘immoral’. In essence, he
claimed that established theatre companies use independent theatre
companies as sources of unpaid labour. He quoted figures for a recent La
Boite Indie show that were incorrect.
Wesley's reprimand drew responses from Melbourne Theatre Company here, and Griffin Theatre Company here.
Wesley spoke about La Boite specifically, though disappointingly he
misled his audience on the facts. As it applies to La Boite, I think his
view is misjudged.
It’s very easy to create agitation when you suggest that ‘all
artists should get paid award rates’. Of course they should. Who could
reasonably argue otherwise? Why isn’t it happening everywhere?? I really
wish it were that simple.
Immoral or not, La Boite Indie
(as we call our program) has made a remarkable difference to Brisbane’s
theatre culture. After four years, there are many more groups of
artists gathering to produce work and many more audiences coming along
to see the work. Most satisfyingly, several companies are now on their
way towards much better levels of financial sustainability.
Dead Puppet Society is a good example. It’s now enjoying a six-month
residency at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York and will return to
Australia in 2014 for a fully funded national tour of The Harbinger,
a work that premiered as part of La Boite Indie and subsequently
transferred in a fuller version into La Boite’s mainhouse season.
The Danger Ensemble, after creating two productions for La Boite Indie, was invited to co-produce The Wizard of Oz
with Brisbane Festival and La Boite in 2013. Following the success of
that production, Danger Ensemble Artistic Director Steven Mitchell
Wright will direct a Brisbane Festival and La Boite co-production of
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in 2014. Sarah Winter’s A Dinner With Gravity also premiered as part of La Boite Indie and has had further performances in Europe. A Tribute of Sorts
came to award-winning life for La Boite Indie and will feature,
ironically enough, as part of Queensland Theatre Company’s season in
One of the companies presented at La Boite Indie 2013 will move to
the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2014, something we brokered as
part of our partnership with QPAC. This terrific initiative will
continue, enabling one of the independent companies in La Boite Indie
2014 to move to QPAC in 2015.
So why did La Boite Indie emerge and how does it work? It’s actually
pretty simple. The financial resources of La Boite stretch to five productions a year, six at a pinch, filling our theatre for about
30 weeks of the year. The obvious next question: what do we do with the
other 20 weeks?
There are three basic options: leave the theatre dark, rent it out
for corporate events or to other arts companies, or create some kind of
program that gives over the space to artists to make and present their
When I arrived at La Boite, this down time in the theatre was hired
out in a relatively ad hoc way. I called a meeting of the city’s theatre
artists to discuss whether there was a better option. About 100 artists
took interest and we had a useful discussion before arriving at what is
essentially now the La Boite Indie model. It was good that such an idea
emerged from a collective voice and genuine need.
There are a few things to make clear. La Boite Indie does not in any
way replace La Boite’s own programming – it’s something we host and help
after our own money has run out. Nor does La Boite make any money out
of La Boite Indie – all the box office income goes either straight back
to the independent companies in cash, or to contribute to the costs of
the show. Sponsorship from Brisbane Airport Corporation and QPAC also
goes into what we offer the companies.
Here’s how it works. We call for proposals and then a short list is
looked at by a panel of five, most of whom are from outside La Boite. I
always thought it was important that I not make the choices – that’s
part of the independent, arms-length approach.
For La Boite Indie, our big theatre is transformed into a much
smaller space. A 400-seat space is often too difficult for a small
company to inhabit, so we install special walls that turn the Roundhouse
Theatre into a more manageable 95-seat black box. This utterly
different space is also helpful in distinguishing La Boite from La Boite
Indie in the public mind.
Then we enter an arrangement. At that first public meeting, it was a
commonly held view that upfront rent on the theatre was often very
difficult to find, and that any financial contribution made by the
independent company to the joint enterprise should come from box office
income. La Boite returns 70% of the box office to the companies, and retains 30% to support the program. It caps its overall share, though, so that in the event of a
high-selling show, La Boite’s share will never be more than $3,000 a
week, or the equivalent of about 120 tickets a week. Once that point is
reached, 100% of box office goes to the companies.
So, the most cash La Boite will ever see from a three-week La Boite
Indie show is $9,000. And, actually, I think it’s only ever got to that
once. La Boite does not run its own bar (it’s run by a tenant), and we
don’t have any financial interests in parking around the area, so
there’s no auxiliary income to speak of either. Wesley got all these
figures very wrong. Though perhaps it doesn’t matter.
What happens to that money? At the beginning of the project, we give a
tiny $1,000 to each of the companies, just as a starter. That’s not
part of any further calculations. Then we pay for all the marketing and
publicity, distribute posters and flyers, run a digital marketing
campaign, engage casual technicians to help with bump-ins and casual
front-of-house staff to run the box office, auspice any grants that
might be involved, cover insurance costs and a range of other things.
It’s a tricky financial balancing act. As I say, by the time we get
to La Boite Indie, our money has already run out. I wish we could do
more for the companies that join us for La Boite Indie. Actually, I wish
that La Boite Indie didn’t exist at all. I wish that our revenue from
all sources was enough to stage our own productions all year round. But
La Boite Indie is inadequate, but I don’t think it’s immoral. Put
simply, I think it’s the best and most purposeful use of a vacant
theatre. I’m reminded that when spaces are vacant at QTC, they are
offered for free to artists to rehearse and work in, and even to have
small showings. In these cases, there are artists working without salary
in QTC spaces. It’s really just a few steps away from the idea
underlying La Boite Indie. Do I think QTC’s practice is immoral? No, I
think it’s generous. I think QTC should keep doing it.
If I’m wrong, and there’s a widely held view that it’s immoral to
invite artists into the La Boite Indie model, then we should get rid of
the model. If it’s the case that everybody involved in a performance on
our stage, no matter what the context, needs to be on award
rates, then it’s clear that La Boite Indie cannot and should not proceed
and we should stick to our ‘mainhouse’ and do nothing else. That
appears to be Wesley’s view.
This new concentration on our own work would certainly make for a
stronger La Boite. But the truth is that I want a stronger theatre
If we abandoned La Boite Indie, we’d be left with two basic options:
rent the theatre out, or leave it dark. What would be the result? It
would not make a scrap of difference to La Boite’s own programming. It
would not mean that we would stage extra or different kinds of
productions or employ more actors. It would mean – and this really
troubles me – that artists not involved in La Boite’s main season of
work would need to find somewhere else to produce their work, with less
assistance, creating an even more horrible gulf between funded companies
and ‘the rest’. It would mean that Brisbane’s theatre culture would
Wesley is the Artistic Director of the highest subsidised theatre
company in Australia. Last year, QTC took $4.884 million from the state
and federal governments. That’s far more than Sydney Theatre Company or
Melbourne Theatre Company, for example, and almost six times La
Boite’s subsidy. I don’t begrudge that, and indeed in an ideal world I
think it should be much higher. However, it means that QTC can very
comfortably afford to program all year round, while La Boite cannot.
Another horrible gulf.
I’ve sometimes heard Wesley remark that if $1 million were taken from
QTC’s subsidy it wouldn’t actually make that much difference. If that’s
true, here’s a suggestion. Give that $1 million to La Boite so that we can
make a difference. It would be enough to pay full wages to every person
involved in La Boite Indie. Give us that money, and we pledge, with
hand on moral heart, to use every cent in exactly that way.