Matt O’Neill meets with Brisbane Powerhouse Artistic Director Kris Stewart to discuss the recent launch of Brisbane Powerhouse’s World Theatre Festival programme for 2014 – and ends up discussing so much more.

If you want an insight into Stewart’s approach as an artist and a director, you could do a lot than worse than reading a (largely unedited) transcript of his conversation. Much like his career, his conversation ping-pongs between interests. In discussing a topic, he’ll approach it from a multiplicity of vectors. Without prelude, he’ll flit from one angle to the next and back again.

It’s an approach that can be seen throughout his career. He has attacked theatre in much a similar way. Directed shows on Broadway and organised fringe festivals in Sydney. Having spent his recent years directing Australia’s Wicked production, he’s recently set up shop as Brisbane Powerhouse’s latest Artistic Director. Seemingly chaotic, it’s nevertheless all connected. In that also, his practice and conversation are mirrored.  

The recently announced line-up for Brisbane Powerhouse’s 2014 World Theatre Festival, for example. Superficially, it’s hard to draw threads between Broadway performer Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul and Multinesia Productions‘ Black Faggot – but both are works tackling growing up and finding identity within a minority culture, albeit in entirely different ways and contexts.

Stewart’s conversation is similarly surprising in its ordered chaos. His thoughts on politics are echoed in his philosophies about negativity among artists. He himself recognises it when talking about the barriers or lack thereof between his work with musical theatre and his work as artistic director. It’s all connected.

Hence, it seemed dishonest and counter-productive to withhold any particular component of the conversation. It’s all far more interesting seen in context.    

Kris StewartFirstly, how do you feel the launch went?
The launch went really well. It was a really great vibe in the room. It’s really good to have opportunities in Brisbane for a lot of the companies and organisations and venues to get together. It’s a really supportive town, I think. There’s not the same level of... competitiveness, I guess, that you can see in other cities.

It really feels like a very supportive, collegial place so it’s great to have opportunities like this to really celebrate that and show stuff that we’re really proud of in a great, supportive environment.

Going by what you said there, what you’ve said in other interviews and what you said in the launch, I can’t help but ask – do you feel like you have to sell Brisbane to Brisbanites? You seem to feel a little like you need to convince Brisbane artists that they’re better than they realise. Maybe I’m projecting?
[laughs] Sometimes, Brisbane people are the last people to catch up on how good Brisbane has become. I don’t even quite know what combined for that to happen. But, the amount of people from outside of this town who come here and are struck by how amazing the facilities are and the opportunities are.

There are so many tremendous companies doing work here, whether you’re down where we are or over near South Bank, there’s some great precincts and pockets that have been established where people are just doing really interesting stuff and are very supportive of each other. But, if you speak to people, they sort of seem a little bit... I don’t know whether it’s just a lovely humbleness or a lack of confidence or it’s a hangover from previous things that you knew of the city that you’re not really conscious of... But, this is actually a really lucky, fantastic kind of town.

There’s still, from some people, a sort of lack of confidence about the work that I just don’t think is relevant anymore and we kind of need to shake some of that off. There’s certainly the potential that Brisbane artists are their own greatest critics or their worst enemies... When, actually, there’s so much great stuff being done and we should wave the flag a bit more.

Was there a particular experience that demonstrated to you that Brisbane had changed? You speak of it moving on from what it was before. When did you notice that?
It’d been quite a long time between visits when I came back to Brisbane. About eight or nine years, really. I moved overseas for a long time and only came back four or five years ago.

So, we came here after not having visited for nearly a decade and I can remember just getting picked up from the airport and being driven into the city and seeing this transformation of the town... Having drinks in South Bank, looking out at the precinct and just thinking ‘This is amazing! This is beautiful!‘ You know, that kind of precinct is the equal to anything in the world. And, there was certainly nothing like the Powerhouse when we’d last visited the city. That sort of thing didn’t even exist back then.

Maybe one of the things we need to change is this idea that still exists slightly in the subconscious of a lot of Queensland artists is that they need to go somewhere else in order to do what they do. Sometimes, the easiest way to find an artist from Queensland or Adelaide or wherever is to go and knock on a door in Sydney or Melbourne. It’s so crazy that people don’t stay here and know that this is a great place to do good work. The work being done here is the equal of stuff being done everywhere else.

There has been, over the past thirty years, this diaspora of Queensland artists previously thinking they had to move in order to do the work they wanted to do – but that doesn’t exist anymore. It shouldn’t.

The great legacy of a place like the Powerhouse, I think, is that continual investment we can make and what we can do to help people in this city make things. Probably what I’m most excited to have coming out of WTF is She Will Walk The Sky – which is a piece where we identified interesting artists and said ‘that level of circus and aerial work that is happening here in Brisbane is some of the best in the world, why don’t we find a way to elevate that, shine a light on it and remind ourselves of that?‘

You know, let’s make sure we’re celebrating it like others would be celebrating it. Because, it’s fantastic.

When you launched WTF2014, you told a story about being asked what you wanted to do with World Theatre Festival and being absolutely stumped. What did you eventually decide you wanted to do with the festival?
Well, it was really early on. We hadn’t even moved here yet. It’s funny. Some of my early responses to WTF speak a little bit about the kind of programming that I want to do with the Powerhouse. Because, what I found really weird when I was looking at this festival, was that we were talking about it like we didn’t offer this kind of work very often. And, we do a lot of stuff like this all year.

You know, this festival is not the only opportunity Brisbane has – and we are certainly not Brisbane’s only opportunity to see – international work of a very high standard.

So, what I actually thought this festival would do a great job of would be to distill down a lot of the contemporary performance stuff we do throughout the year, shine a light on it, celebrate it and give it its moment in the sun. In the same way we do with something like the Brisbane Comedy Festival. You know, it’s not about doing it for ten days a year and never doing it again. This is just a beautiful taste of what we like to showcase throughout the year.

One of the reasons we’ve really been pushing WTF, as opposed to the World Theatre Festival, this year – apart from the fact that it’s a great acronym; I think it’s the perfect acronym for an arts festival – is that theatre has become such a funny thing.

Everyone creating for the theatre these days, especially with the stuff we do, is influenced by things like dance, contemporary music, the soundtracks of their childhood. It’s very rare, nowadays, to find someone making theatre where it’s just a dude who wrote a play. People have so many different influences. Throughout our lives, we have so many different influences.

I think this festival is a great example of what contemporary theatre practice is. I think this festival is a great example of the kind of theatre stuff that we prize. If you look through it, there’s a chunk of stuff that’s like dance-theatre meets video and storytelling; there’s stuff that much leans towards music theatre kind of work; there’s interesting solo work focusing on extraordinary performers and performance-making; there’s stuff that’s actually from a much larger, grander scale that’s very visual.

The diversity of it all is a nice way of speaking of the diversity of art. And, really, that’s what I wanted it to serve.

I’d like to talk briefly about a disconnect some might put on your career. Prior to the Brisbane Powerhouse, you were perhaps best known for your work in musical theatre; things like being the Australian director for Wicked. Now, you’ve gone from that massive musical theatre world to the hard-edged and contemporary world of the Brisbane Powerhouse. Typically, people would view those worlds as mutually exclusive.
I was surprised, coming back to Australia, how big a divide still seemed to exist between things that are perceived as commercial theatre and things that are perceived as subsidised theatre. There still seems to be a bit of a ‘and never the twain shall meet‘ vibe to it in Australia. Which, admittedly, a lot of people are working quite hard to change. But, you really don’t see that kind of perspective overseas.

With my career, musical theatre has probably been the most visible thing that I’ve done – but my work has never been about ‘I like musicals’. It wasn’t like I grew up with jazz hands. My personality is that I never would have been a good novelist. I would never have been very good at painting portraits. I like conversation. Collaboration. I like big groups of people. I like saying ‘Look at that thing over there! Let’s all do that!‘ That’s always been my nature. Musical theatre has just been the most tangible expression of that.

But, when I was in Sydney a couple of years ago and doing a lot of work on Wicked, I was also doing a lot of work founding the Sydney Fringe Festival. And, they were two very different worlds. Very different muscles to flex. But, in some ways, they appealed to very similar parts of why I like to work in the theatre. I like big problems. I like variety [laughs]. I like things that take a lot of people to solve.

Festivals take a lot of people to solve. Musicals take a lot of people to solve. Venues of this scale – with the diversity of what we do – take a lot of different influences.

My tastes are very diverse. There is no one thing that I like. You know, I resist the idea that bad opera is better than good musical theatre. I resist that idea bad Handel is better than good hip hop. I just don’t think that’s true. Bad novels aren’t better than good comics.

I think there are things that people are aspiring to create and, within that, there can be good and bad, better or worse ways of achieving what people are aiming to do – but I don’t think there’s a sense that there are some things that are more worthy to aim for than others. There’s just, you know, expressing the story that speaks to you and succeeding with what you’re attempting to do or not.

I don’t believe in high art and low art. I’ve certainly had no problem wandering back and forth, randomly and absentmindedly arse-backwards, through my career. I’ve just done stuff that looked like fun. It never seemed weird to me to wander from Wicked to the Sydney Fringe or from large-scale musicals to the Brisbane Powerhouse – because that’s always been my taste and persona.

Will you still be able to maintain that diversity of interests while running a venue full-time?
That’s a good question. I think I’ve always wandered between things. It’s interesting now having the structure of an environment like this. There’s so much variety here in what happens that it actually appeals to wanting a lot of distraction. Which is partly what’s motivated me in the past.

I think the ideal thing for me has always been to have a couple of large things I’m working on and a couple of smaller, personal things I’m working on. And I don’t think that will change. I’ll probably just balance that in a different way.

I certainly think one of the things that will be a great opportunity here is the chance to launch other projects. Which is not to say they’ll be as personal as ‘oh, I want to do that and I have a venue so I’m going to‘ – but a lot of background has been about identifying things. ‘Oh, there seems to be a need for that, let’s see if we can step in and help make that happen’.

I think there’s a lot of opportunities hopefully with that in the future. Of identifying needs. Things that will suit the venue and suit Brisbane. ‘Why can’t we do that? Well, let’s do it, then.‘ I’ve really enjoyed doing that in the past.

I don’t think it will be something I’ll be doing in the first six months of the job, of course, but I think there’s an interesting rhythm to running a venue in that, at the same time, you’re thinking very long term and very immediately as well.

A lot of it is going to come down to balance. Once or twice a year, I might have to just get back into a rehearsal room working on shows – just because I don’t ever want to lose touch with that, you know?

I don’t need to do nine shows a year but I want to make sure I’m back working with actors and I still keep in tune and I’m still thinking about those things.

Getting back to WTF, I’d just like to talk briefly about the politics of it all. You’ve got a work like Black Faggot from New Zealand. You’ve got a work like Wedhus Gembel from Indonesia – when Australia is really having a difficult time with Indonesia. At the same time, your words about Brisbane are coming at the same time that the artistic sector of Queensland at large seem to be feeling ill-supported by their government.

Keeping it broad; what role does politics play in your work at WTF and the Powerhouse?
That’s also an interesting question. I think art is either completely political or apolitical. I don’t think you hover in middle. Most of mine, to be honest, has been apolitical. It’s not something that has really motivated me wanting to do something.

It’s an interesting question because, I’ll be honest, it genuinely never crosses my mind. With the Black Faggot stuff; of course, at its heart, that show has a very strong political message. But, the reason I thought it was funny and interesting and great, was that there are two amazing performances speaking about how issues of sexuality and politics and gender affected these people.

It isn’t just a flag-waving exercise and isn’t preaching to a choir. It’s actually taking a very personal and particular story and telling it in what is both a moving and funny way. And that’s what appealed to me. There’s probably a version of that show that had different aims and intentions and I would probably find that less affecting.

I’ve always felt if you decide to wait around for politicians to pass a law that says ‘you should be making something’, you’ll a. be waiting a long time and b. probably be making something that isn’t very interesting. You’ve just got to kind of go and do it.

I think the act of making something should be a maverick act. It should be something that has a bit of risk involved. It should be something where you have a bit of skin in the game. And complaining about not having enough funding or waiting around until you do is really just setting yourself up for disappointment.

I always think you’re better off just charging down a path and eventually government and stuff just catches up with you.

The Indonesian work is interesting because it takes a very fantastical, mythical approach with a lot of layers – but it’s actually about what does it mean for a culture like that to change into a modern time. So, the politics about it are largely politics of finance, change and economic power. And I think that’s a very interesting aspect of the work. 

I think there’s definitely political content throughout... Certainly, there’s a big political component to Colman [Domingo]’s work [A Boy and His Soul]  – which is basically just about growing up. Like Black Faggot; which is ultimately about growing up and coming out. That honesty to self.

You know, I was reading an article recently about what people say on their deathbed. And, you know what? There’s a lot of stuff we can talk about politics and culture and all that sort of stuff – but, at the end of the day, most people just say ‘I wish I’d just been more honest with myself about who I was and what I wanted and what made me happy’.

A lot of the stuff that I find really fascinating about the shows in this program is about this deeply character-based stuff about people searching for that self-knowledge. Ultimately, some of the very big questions that we all ask our stuff. Questions of politics aren’t actually dramatically interesting questions, really.

Questions about why we hurt ourselves and others are much more interesting things to dramatise, I think.

Peripherally related to that; do you think artists are too negative? You seem to push a lot of ideas of inclusivity and positivity in your work.
[laughs] I think quite often it’s very easy in the arts to paint ourselves as being victims. We were talking recently about the language that funders use that we artists end up using ourselves – this weird way of co-opting the language of our oppressors! We feel so powerless a lot of the times in the arts – but I think that’s something we ultimately do to ourselves.

There’s actually no-one saying ‘you’re not allowed to make that until I give you permission’. That’s actually very rarely true. But, we sort of take these victim-y positions a lot of the time – instead of just saying ‘Well, I’ll do it because I want to do it. I’ve chosen to do it and I like making it and I feel happy and fortunate that I’m in this position to be able to do stuff like this. I get to work with friends and make things we think are awesome. I don’t actually need someone else to validate that. I actually don’t need someone else to tell me that it’s good. Actually, the fact that I make it and think it’s good and the people I respect and work with think it’s good. That’s actually reason enough.‘

Because we’re often in this position of needing someone to fund it or support it or cast us in it, we always feel so powerless – like this external person is going to say ‘now what you’re doing is good and you are better than those other people’. Which is such a ridiculous thing to stand around waiting for because it’s completely false. It doesn’t exist in any real way. In actuality, we empower ourselves. Because, all we’re doing is making stuff. We are the ones who make it – so just make it. Stop waiting for people to tell us to.

I think that’s where all the negativity comes from. It’s very easy to get worn down. But, I don’t think that stuff really exists. I think, for the most part, stuff like stress and things like that doesn’t really exist. They’re choices we make. They’re choices we make to believe that, until someone gives you money and tells you otherwise, what you’re doing has no value. That measurement is not a valid one. It’s not a real thing. We need to try and work past that.

Have you always had that perspective or is that something that’s come with time?
Oh, I don’t know. Talk to me in three weeks and I might say something completely contradictory [laughs]. I don’t even know if it’s a real perspective.

I do certainly feel that anyone who works in a creative forum knows that what we do is very difficult. It’s very easy to be wracked with self-doubt. It’s very hard to know whether it’s working. It’s a very difficult thing to step away and say ‘oh, well, fuck it. I like it’.

I think Noel Coward once said something like – ‘When you work in the arts, you can only do what you like and if audiences like it, you’re a director. If they don’t, you’re a plumber.’ Or something like that. All you can do is be true to the stuff that you like. And if enough people like it with you, that’s great.

But, you know what? If not that many people like it, that doesn’t mean it’s worse. It doesn’t really mean anything. You need to find a way within yourself to be happy creating the way you do because, again, it’s always very hard to know whether it’s succeeding or not.

As a bit of a left-turn, given your admitted tendency to rant and that your opinions could change in three weeks, were there any nerves about taking on your role at the Powerhouse – where your words could be under a bit of additional scrutiny?
...That’s an interesting question. Do you mean like me saying something off-the-cuff in an interview and having it quoted back to me later and finding I don’t agree with it?

Or having your words taken out of context. That sort of thing.
I think that’s going to happen. Twice recently, I’ve done an interview with one of the local arts writers, who has since become a good friend, and I’ve gone to read it and gone ‘Ooooh, I sound like such a dickhead!’ [laughs]

Charles Barkley had a thing where someone read back something he’d written in his autobiography and he said ‘I was misquoted then’. He’d misquoted himself in his own autobiography! And I’m sure at some stage that will happen to me as well!

I do speak off-the-cuff a lot. I don’t think opinions are something you wake up with one morning, you get a T-shirt printed and live by them for the rest of your life. I firmly believe I’ll flip-flop a hundred more times. I’ll change my opinion based on different influences. I think being fluid is just a way of being honest.

You need to be open and responsive to different points of view on stuff. I’ve certainly changed my opinions on things over and over again in my life and will continue to do so into the future.

I actually like when people point it out. You know, it happens in rehearsals. God knows in rehearsals, I’ll have some deeply felt, long-thought-through opinion on something and someone will go – ‘well, wait, doesn’t that contradict that thing you said yesterday?‘ and I go ‘...Well, yes, it does. So I’m either wrong then or I’m wrong now!‘ Probably both of them! [laughs]

And I think being open to that is cool and fine. So, I don’t mind my changes in opinion being pointed out to me.

A final curiosity. Do you think people in the arts take themselves too seriously?
...That’s an interesting question. I think self-seriousness doesn’t really have a place in the arts. I think that’s a different proposition from ‘too many people in the arts take themselves too seriously’. I think too many people take themselves too seriously – and the arts is hardly immune to that – and I don’t think that’s a very helpful thing for anyone to do.

You know, I don’t think it makes the stuff that’s honest and open. Doing stuff because it’s ‘worthy’ and it’s going to ‘change’ people and it’s going to ‘teach’ people about themselves... I don’t think that ever really works. Funnily enough, I think it’s just another barrier or filter that gets in the way of being honest about stuff. I think that’s a very heady, processed, filtered way of looking at stuff.

And, I don’t think that’s bad, necessarily. I just don’t think it’s very interesting. At least to me. From my perspective, that self-seriousness just creates a duller conversation. I think being a bit irreverent is a really healthy thing. I think it’s good and it helps us to get to where we need to a lot quicker. And that’s a really good thing for theatre to do.

The Brisbane Powerhouse WTF2014 (World Theatre Festival) runs from 13-23 February 2013. Further information

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