Ella Caldwell, Artistic Director of Red Stich Actors' Theatre, is a woman of passion, determination and optimism. When we meet during a lunch break in the middle of final rehearsals for the opening night of The Honey Bees I'm also impressed by her eloquence but then, as she says, she's had lots of practice at selling Red Stich to the wider world.
Nineteen year old Ella auditioned in the very first intake of ensemble members back in 2001. Growing up in a small town she had always dreamed of being an actor. Whilst studying creative arts at Melbourne University she worked in Fringe theatre and the idea of a company of actors blew her away, sounding like a dream come true. In her experience the special thing about an ensemble is that the work is 'so extraordinarily challenging and fulfilling'; you are part of a family of artists, a family that reaches out to include guest artists, staff and the broader community who come to see the shows. The whole becomes a creative hub, something that young Ella had not anticipated, and for her this creative hub has grown more and more exciting over the years.
As an ensemble member you have the chance to consistently work on and hone your craft in a way that is not possible for a jobbing actor who is not part of a company. The actors come to know each other very well; everyone knows 'your little tics as an artist' and they are able to give you constructive feedback. 'It's a really delicate balance to find people in the theatre, and in your life, that you can do that with'. You also have a voice in what is programmed, something that is very rare for actors, yet they are the people who bring the work to the audience. The rigorous debate that occurs when programming a season 'really gets you thinking about what needs, to be on. That's what I love … and the fact that the INK Program has become such a huge focus for us … something I'm really passionate about'.
When Ella took on the role of Artistic Director in 2013 she had two main focuses: to increase artists' wages and to offer more support for the development of new Australian writing. In 2015 she launched the INK Program. A new writing program had been running since 2007 but the INK program reaches beyond the local to the national, inviting applications from writers across the country. Playwrights who are passionate about an original idea for a new play and who are interested in collaborating with the Red Stitch ensemble are encouraged to pitch a first draft, or an idea with some scenes and a brief. Whilst such an open process creates a lot more work Ella is convinced that it is well worth the effort – 'you not only get conversations with the writers you know about, but with all the writers who are thinking and dreaming out there … It has been a huge leap'.
Red Stitch also has a Graduate Program which has been operating since 2007/8 and a Schools and Touring Program. The Graduate Program started by offering a new graduate actor the opportunity to join the ensemble for a year. They work as a full ensemble member but the benefits are mutual because they bring 'this new voice into the company on a day to day basis'. Their availability and enthusiasm usually means that they perform in about four plays over the year, working with the ensemble and guest artists. Some hundreds of graduates from schools such as VCA, National Theatre, Howard Fines, 16th Street Studio, audition each year and every second year the focus turns from actors to directors and designers. Red Stitch is currently involved in at least three different conversations about touring Jurassica, which grew out of the INK program and premiered last year to strongly positive reviews. The script is currently available for purchase, whilst The Honey Bees this year's INK offering, currently having its premiere season, is on the VCE schools list.
The major challenge for the company is to maintain a balance between sustainability and support of the artists' work, between 'making something happen because you're passionate about it and having to walk the line'. Passion was and remains the driving force behind the company who have always shared the profits, and the hard work, evenly. But the sacrifice is that the artists are subsidising the work: 'everyone who works here is doing it for not enough money'. Inevitably this means sometimes difficult compromises have to be made. Every production is given a five week rehearsal period but if an actor is offered a fully paid job, even a week before opening night, then the company 'just has to work around that'. The passion for the work may remain but the financial argument is hard to justify.
Despite having an annual subscription season and a venue, Red Stitch are not as financially secure as other larger and more established companies. Recognising a need to shift perceptions the company launched the Kindred Program in 2014. People are invited to make private donations which are then used to increase artists' wages. Thanks to the generosity of their supporters there has been a 200% increase over the past eighteen months. Ella admits that 'it's always a bit daunting talking about money' but people can't help if they are unaware of the company's needs.
The Australia Council Funding which has just been withdrawn was crucial in enabling the company to take a major step forward and actually appoint a small staff: a General Manager, a Venue Manager, a 'very part time' Box Office Manager and a 'very part time' Administrator. These staff provide support and offer specific skills that the actors don't necessarily have. They are able to help with the administrative requirements of programs like Kindred, INK and the subsciption season. 'It's all bread and butter stuff that needs to happen … the General Manager is much better at some things than the actors, that's why she's in the job!'
When the funding cut was announced Ella immediately worried that the INK Program would be at risk but, a grant from the Malcolm Robertson Foundation came 'just at the right time' to allow them to maintain the writing program and keep up the momentum. What is of major concern is the artists' wages increase which the company is committed to. 'Basically we have to, in all our fundraising this year, fill an $80,000 gap before we can step forward with artists' wages again. A staff cutback is not an option for Ella as it would mean taking a step back instead of continuing their vision. The choice is that they just have to try to raise more money. The hope is that their 15th Anniversary fund-raising campaign will succeed in filling the gap.
Asked about highlights rather than lowlights, Ella immediately mentions Jurassica. 'It was the first play developed and produced through INK with me as Artistic Director, and I believed in it with everything I've got. I was overwhelmed and delighted, not only by the outcome of the process, but with the response from the community … I'm an actor first and foremost and I genuinely have to say it was one of my favourite opening nights ever. (laughter) Even though I wasn't on stage to experience the warmth and response to that production'.
Ella is similarly excited about The Honey Bees which opened recently and runs until 16 July. This is the world premiere of a play written by Caleb Lewis and developed through INK and has already received positive reviews. Ella loves the way the work 'simultaneously talks about really big themes, universal questions, very topical and current … but is also a really great character drama … it's family and female driver with terrific roles.'
Red Stitch have come a long way from the 'little lounge room' of old. A 'few DIYs have upgraded the venue and although the stage remains small 'sometimes the constraints can trigger different types of creativity'. The company has established itself as an active seeding ground for new talent – you only have to look at the qualifications and experience (not to mention awards won) of ensemble members past and present to see this – and as a organisation devoted to nuturing and expanding the skills of established, new and emerging artsts.
Happy 15th Birthday; and here's to your 30th.
The successful writers for this year's INK Program have just been announced.
The Honey Bees is currently playing until 16 July