Last week NORPA celebrated 20 years in business and launched their exciting new 2013 season, which features New York’s gender-bending cabaret sensation Taylor Mac, Ensemble Theatre’s Frankenstein and a wicked re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz. Seven spoke with artistic director Julian Louis about what lies ahead in the performing arts.
What do you think is the secret to NORPA’s surviving 20 years in a regional setting where arts and theatre can often suffer poor attendance?
NORPA has been run and staffed by tenacious and determined people who are passionate about the northern rivers and performing arts. Alongside the great shows NORPA has brought to the region, I think our success is also owed to the audience. People in this region are genuinely interested in live performance and new Australian theatre. We stay relevant through making our own work and our adventurous programming. In 2012 our homegrown shows were sell-outs, so I think the desire is out there.
What have been the challenges for you over the last five years?
It’s quite challenging to be a producer of work and a presenter of work – NORPA does both. We actually wear three hats: we are creators, presenters and venue managers. It’s this combination that establishes our connections to the community. But it’s challenging because I would like to wear the creator’s hat more often.
I think the main challenge is how the arts has to constantly justify itself to funding bodies. This can be challenging when working regionally where state and federal organisations don’t always see firsthand what work we do.
How do you go about sourcing NORPA’s season of shows?
There are touring menus and some of these shows have secured Playing Australia funding. Some of the shows in 2013 we have found outside the normal mechanisms. The shows we present aim to show audiences in the northern rivers the best theatre on the menu – the most dynamic and interesting works being created today such as Frankenstein, which was a hit at the Opera House earlier this year; and Happy As Larry, which is touring nationally because it’s one of the best dance works performed today. There is an intelligent and hungry audience here that loves to be entertained but who also want to sit up and become engrossed in stories or ideas that say something about the world we live in today.
In this year’s season there are lot of outsiders – and it’s through their perspectives that we experience a range of emotions and situations. For example, Frankenstein is a man-made creature born into a beautiful world on the outside but that can be very cruel. He searches for love in a world that tries to destroy him.
Are there any new original NORPA productions on the drawing board? What is happening with Generator?
For those not familiar with it, Generator is our new work program – it’s where we incubate unique new theatre works. We’ve got a lot on at the moment. We have four productions in development and others that we are working on also. One of the works is based on The Idiot by Dostoyevsky and it is such a fun premise – it involves clowning, dancing, and is set, in my mind, in the backyard of a house in Goonellabah. Then as mentioned, there’s My Radio Heart – a multimedia collaboration with Sydney’s Urban Theatre Projects, local electronic music outfit Tralala Blip and the local disability sector; a collaboration with the Bundjalung community, Rhoda Roberts and Frances Rings from Bangarra; and a final project centred around Lismore’s iconic Winsome Hotel exploring homelessness in the northern rivers.
What partnerships have helped forge new markets or ground for NORPA?
We’ve partnered with La Boite Theatre and the Brisbane Festival to help create the Wizard of Oz by the Danger Ensemble. This show promises to be equally magical but radically different from the classic story we know. Also Open House – the circus show we created with local acrobatic family The Pitts has been invited to perform at the Darwin Festival – which we are very happy about for all the local artists involved. Our collaboration with Lismore City Council is particularly exciting at the moment with the renovation of the Lismore City Hall – I can see this will increase our audiences dramatically.
How about City Hall? Does it change what you can do with the refurb?
Hugely. We will now have a loading dock for starters, so we won’t be pulling theatre sets up by hand in very challenging working conditions. More people can enjoy a drink in the foyer; the disability access has improved. The acoustics, the lighting stock, the seating and the general workings of the building will be greatly improved. We can’t wait for people to experience it. I’m excited to see Happy as Larry as it’s some of the best dance in the country and it’s got a big design element – seeing this show in Lismore City Hall will be really exciting because we now have the lighting and infrastructure to deliver it.
This year, and 2014 season, people will really start to see the new venue hit its stride by the size and quality of the works we are bringing.
What are the shows that you are most excited about in the coming program?
Taylor Mac, who features on the cover of our 2013 brochure, is a cabaret legend from New York – his show will cause a stir as he is very irreverent and funny. He will be performing a song from each year of the 20th Century. Frankenstein will be fantastic as the first show in the new Lismore City Hall, and The Wizard of Oz, as this dynamic Brisbane-based creative team will bring us something quite special.
What shows do you have on board that are edgier than usual? Do you ever program something you love but could be a risk?
There are always risks in every season I’ve curated, and this year is no exception. This year’s selection of works celebrate contemporary theatre – and a lot of very physical style theatre. The Wizard of Oz is still being created – so it’s a risk but I have great confidence in the creative team and the concept – it’s such a fun idea – but it’s not a show for children.
What is your vision for NORPA for the next year?
More of creating our home-grown shows and more of the highest quality live performance. We’re having fun as a company at the moment and I’m lucky to work with an amazing team of people. We’re really looking forward to welcoming people into a new premier performing arts centre in the region!