Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In support of Union House Theatre.


To Whom It May Concern,

As an alumnus of the University of Melbourne and as a member of the international Theatre Industry I am distressed to read of the proposed changes to Union House (UHT).
This is a response to specific sections of the paper in relation to the proposed changes to UHT under the new management. It aims to address the misinformed assertions of the document against the existing model of Student Theatre at the University of Melbourne as well as the problems with the proposed restructuring. I would argue that the paper actively indicates not only a clear misunderstanding of the operations and management of UHT but also of the many Student Theatre Companies and the way they operate. This letter aims to address these assertions.

The University of Melbourne has unique student theatre structure in that it is formed of a central theatre company that has a core staff that operates and maintains the theatres, as well as mounting productions and continually liaising and working with many smaller student theatre companies. 
Below is an extract of my summary report to the University of Melbourne Theatre Board after attending the Festival of Australian Student Theatre organising conference (21st-22nd August 2009, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane).

The FAST Conference was essentially an initial consultation with the wider student theatre community to develop the idea into a realised proposal that will become the impetus for next years Festival. Universities represented at the conference included University of Melbourne, Latrobe University, Queensland University of Technology and Queensland University. There was also written submissions tabled from Sydney University, the Artistic Director of the National Student Theatre Festival in the UK and a phone conferencing session with Charles Sturt University
After initial introductions we spent time going through how student theatre was run at each represented University. The following is an excerpt of what I had prepared:

“At the University of Melbourne student theatre is essentially run through Union House Theatre – a theatre company in its own right (with paid staff) that produces shows but also offers discounts, venue hire, advice, services etc to affiliated student theatre companies. In this way student theatre is vibrant and varied – yet is coordinated and streamlined by UHT. Student groups that are non-affiliated are welcome as well to perform on/off campus but they do not receive the benefits or priority in UHT venues.”

I also talked about the state of Theatre Studies; the current situation at the VCA; MUDfest11 and a little bit about how the funding for UHT comes through University of Melbourne Theatre Board and UMSU. It became very clear that system in place at the University of Melbourne to support student theatre is an incredible resource for students – this was highlighted when contrasting models were presented to the group. Most Universities have one or two student theatre groups that may receive partial funding through the Union but essentially are struggling to survive.

What I further emphasised was the diversity of student theatre companies. No other University in the world can boast of such variety.

“Due to the variety of smaller affiliated groups – there tends to be a lot of different specialist theatre groups. Ie. Musical Theatre, Chinese Theatre, German Theatre, Classical Theatre, interpretive dance works, Farce, Shakespeare, experimental. Colleges tend to do one musical and one play per year.”

Any fool can see that the diversity in theatre companies allows not just a wide selection of theatrical presentations in the student theatre spaces but for diverse student engagement.

The University of Melbourne is also home to the largest student run bi-annual arts festival. At the 2009 FAST planning conference this is an extract of my presentation in relation to MUDFEST opportunities:

“Festivals on campus like MUDFEST11 offer unique opportunity for everyone to perform, however expansive an idea may be – we currently have several performance pieces that are staged across campus.”

At this stage, MUDFEST was coordinated by outside staff. In response to funding issues, internal politics etc MUDFEST has since become an example of the arts returning to student hands. In many ways the resulting success might look on the surface to support the recommendations of this report. Upon closer inspection the result actually reveals a parallel situation to how UHT currently (and successfully) works with student theatre companies.
In many ways, the MUDFEST 2011 production team worked in a similar way to an affiliated theatre company, receiving considerable mentoring and support from UHT in the running of the festival. I would highlight in particular Gus’ assistance with the production management of venues across campus. As a minor member of the MUDFEST Production Team I acknowledge that UHT staff were integral to the production process and operations of the festival.
This is an example of how Union House Theatre is an invaluable resource, whilst MUDFEST technically returned to student hands; these hands were duly supported when necessary by experienced professionals who worked closely to ensure a successful festival. In the same way as student theatre groups are not led by UHT staff, neither was MUDFEST 2011 but that doesn’t mean that they are not involved. It is precisely because team are not outsiders and yet are a fully operational theatre company that they are able to provide such support.

It is a fine line that UHT manages between facilitating theatre and creative output of student theatre companies and maintaining itself as a credible theatre company. It however achieves just this but continually working with students on both accounts and never separating out each role from the other.
I actually find it considerably offensive that the working document suggests that UHT moves to a model of “doing to enabling.” It is clear from both the mission statement of the company and the day-to-day running of the company that it prioritises working with and supporting students.
What the report seems to take issue with is that UHT doesn’t exist just to mentor and support student theatre companies and their independent productions but actively creates student theatre itself in mounting two productions a year. However, the main focus and point of the production of UHT’s own works is still the students. As a company UHT consistently produces excellent theatre – and every single production remains student focused.
There is no wall between the staff and students in these productions. Not since the production of White with Wire Wheels have has a UHT show sourced outside actors for a show[1] and this 2009 production of the Jack Hibberd classic did involve student crew, designers and members of the production team. Under the Artistic Direction of Tom Gutteridge UHT has moved even deeper into student involvement on every level of UHT productions. There has been considerable support for new original student writing and a tendency towards devised and workshopped performance pieces that have pushed boundaries and redefined what student theatre can be.
The collaboration with International Cabaret/Butoh performer Yumi Umiamare for Trans-Mute is an example of how an internationally renowned industry professional collaborated with UHT and students to create a truly dynamic work. This piece would not have been possible had it not been for UHT. UHT functioning as a host company also acts as bridge between student theatre and industry.
Apart from anything else UHT shows are fertile ground for collaboration between students from different groups. You will get performers from Musical Theatre groups working with those who love Shakespeare and with assistant direction from the head of the Chinese Theatre Group. There is truly an extensive student theatre community at the University of Melbourne but its heart beats in UHT – as demonstrated in the annual awards celebrations.
To separate the doing from the enabling is a ridiculous assertion that serves to highlight just how much this proposed document fails to understand the operations of UHT. 

An on campus fully functioning theatre company that actively produces student work is unique in Australia. La Boite in Brisbane (QUT) comes close, but it is a separate professional company that does not have a huge amount of interaction with the sole campus student theatre group Vena Cava. Just about every single working theatre space has a host theatre company, it is as much about running and maintaining a working theatre as anything else. With the Guild Theatre and Union Theatre (and to a lesser degree The Open Stage) the University is blessed with great theatre venues.
Under the proposed model, who is to support and manage the technical crew for the on campus theatres? Who is to provide the specialised training, inductions and supervision of the spaces? The suggestion that “facilities and infrastructure” personal from the Union could partially fulfil this role belies the fact that maintaining working theatres is a full time job – it isn’t some part time casual nod as part of another one.
The people in these jobs, know these theatres like the back of their hands, they have unparallel years of experience in maintaining the spaces – they can patch a light, work the flies, train casual theatre workers as well as providing technical support to student theatre companies and shows. In fact it would be a considerable risk to student safety to under-staff the theatre spaces. The phrase in the proposal: “shift in the focus of operations” is a complete joke. There simply will not be a fully operational theatre space if there isn’t the staff there. It wouldn’t be a safe environment.
“Increased student participation and engagement” does not start with money handouts to student theatre groups; it begins with investing in the theatres themselves and UHT is the best investment both the Union Theatre and Guild Theatre have.

The assertion in this proposal that the University of Melbourne moves towards more of “a student led model of student theatre” painfully demonstrates the lack of understanding of student theatre at the University of Melbourne. Individual theatre companies are almost entirely made up of students, but they are able to draw on the invaluable resources of UHT. In an attempt to support the restructuring other University models of student theatre. The report details:

“At the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales student theatre productions are staged through a single student club or society.  There are no staff in the relevant student organisations dedicated to the support for, or production of, student theatre performances.”

This Club and Society model at the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales models is completely impractical for Melbourne University. UMSU already supports a separate Clubs and Societies system and it would be disastrous to try and incorporate student theatre companies into that. The author’s of the proposed document have little understanding of how the underwriting system of Student Theatre Companies works at the University of Melbourne. I would suggest that future consultations begin with understanding the current system before making comparisons.

The other example raised in the report runs as follows:

“The Monash Student Association operates Monash University Student Theatre
(MUST) and engages an Artistic Director and a Technical Manager to support its
operations. ‘MUST encourages and mentors students to expand their knowledge and enhance their uni experience with the creation of art and performance.’”

Whilst nominally this example seems commendable, it doesn’t exactly explain why this model is preferable and different to the current UHT model at the University of Melbourne. On the surface the inclusion of this statement appears to be alluding to the fact that Monash student theatre is student focused and employs less staff – whilst potentially insinuating that this is not the case with UHT.
This completely disregards the fact that the Monash Student Theatre is essentially run and cultivated through its Performing Arts degrees. The groups are formed from the Performing Arts students, many of the performances in the space are actually assessed work and whilst there is a dynamic and thriving theatre community it does not have the variety of the University of Melbourne student groups – or the capacity to support the overall participation numbers.
Monash University Student Theatre also, whilst having a rather neat small black-box theatre and access to a larger space (also hired out externally and available for lectures etc) does not have two fully operational theatre spaces available to students for the full academic year.
After the closure of Creative Arts (and the subsequent graduation of the remaining Heritage Students) the University of Melbourne does not have any campus based performing arts students left. Even before this department closed the majority of participating students were not performing arts students. You would find companies of Law, Science, Maths, English, Engineering and Commerce students on the Union stage. This was and currently is actively “expanding” and “enhancing” the experience of many students across different courses. Members of student theatre companies are continually “creating art and performance” whilst being mentored by the staff at UHT.
In fact this extract of the mission statement from MUST is so closely aligned to the existing model of UHT its inclusion in this working document is almost irrelevant unless it is supporting the wider general aims of student theatre. Also it bears mentioning that the two staff members that do support the running of the MUST are that of Artistic Director and Technical Manager, two of the roles currently being proposed for termination.

Throughout my time as a student at the University of Melbourne the Student Union facility I used most (when I voluntarily paid my Union fees for four years, and then one year as an alumni Union member) was Union House Theatre. I was involved on stage, backstage and in the production teams of student theatre companies throughout this time however in terms of professional development support it is in my capacity as a playwright that UHT has supported (“enabled”) my professional development.
In 2009, it was UHT with Finished/Unfinished that produced my very first rehearsed reading, my short play Dora’s Tears. This play was since performed in 2010, at the Short+Sweet Melbourne Festival, Directed by Joseph Appleton at Chapel Off Chapel; and in 2011, in Short+Sweet Sydney, Directed by Sadashivam Rao, Newtown Theatre. It was also later reworked into I Am Not Your Art which directed by Ariel Navarro was performed as part of the Norwich and Norfolk Arts Festival in 2012.
The 2010 O-week program at UHT included a 24hrPlayProject. It was also the first time I had seen saw my work performed. In 2010, with UHT support I also attended the inaugural Festival of Australian Student Theatre as a writer and producer. In 2011, having completed my degree, I was supported in producing the staging of three original pieces for MUDFEST 2011. All of these works have built the professional development of my writing. Plays don’t exist in a vacuum – it needs people and if some of those people are professional and part of an established and working theatre company, all the better.
Artistic Director Tom Gutteridge also wrote Letters of Recommendation in support of my applications to various Masters Courses in Scriptwriting in the UK. He has also been a willing and excellent referee on other applications.
I doubt that I would have the capacity or the skills to have co-founded a play reading group without my dealings with UHT or had the confidence to independently produce my contribution to the Norwich and Norfolk Arts Festival. This year I completed my Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, during which I dramaturged UHT’s devised work The Fury. This was rewarding and a welcome practical application of my growing dramaturgy skills. I am now living and writing in London.
In the time since I have left, UHT have facilitated writing programs with professional writers, commissioned students to write shows to produce and have continued to provide additional platforms for short student written works. I have maintained contact with the company would work with them again in a heartbeat.  

In conclusion, this working proposal document is short-sighted and clearly is from the perspective of people who have never worked closely with the student theatre community of the University of Melbourne. I would strongly urge a consultation with the actual community the Union is representing before any of the suggestions are taken to the next level. The University of Melbourne prides itself as being the best University in the country. It currently has the best of the best in UHT and is seriously risking the quality and quantity of student theatre. Let’s not forget that Melbourne Theatre Company grew out of student theatre at the University
But you know something, part of me wants to thank the consultancy firm that provided the impetus for these absurd proposals – it has prompted me to reflect back on my time at the University of Melbourne and how UHT was such an important part of that. They always were reliable, there and willing to listen and support. It heartens me that they exist and that I am not alone in my shock and dismay at the ill-informed proposals of this report. Out of these reactions perhaps a constructive dialogue can be entered into about how to best continue this tradition under the new UMSU management.

It is most important that we all remember that the UHT door is always open not just to students but for students. And you know something? That’s family.

Yours Sincerely,



Tilly Lunken

Writer – Dramaturg
London, England.



[1] In this particular case it was an anniversary production of a show that was initially performed at the University of Melbourne in 1967 and then UHT Artistic Director Susie Dee brought a unique retelling of the play into a contemporary student space.

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