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Slingsby theatre: After the chop

Theatre

Sadness, fear and anger are just some of the emotions felt by the founders of Slingsby when they learned their federal funding had been axed. But the Adelaide theatre company will fight to survive, writes artistic director Andy Packer.

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In the end the blow was delivered in the most innocuous of ways. A mobile phone call, delivered in gentle words as we stood in the litter-strewn alley behind our office.

“I’m afraid I have to have a difficult conversation with you,” the voice said.

And that was that. After seven years of enjoying the annual confidence of the Australia Council our little company’s luck had run out.

Chop.

The expected cycle of emotions began. Numbness, sadness, fear, then anger, sadness, fear. Then champagne. We’d agreed before the call that whatever the result, we would have champagne. A toast to ourselves for being in this thing, for creating Slingsby, in the first place.

But then what? With our federal funding gone by the end of the year, a tiny staff of less than two already wearing too many hats, what could we do? Close the door?

Heads were in full throttle now, entertaining options, strategies, partnerships. We could cut this, stop doing that, try to do more of this, shut the office, focus on projects, cut, stop, end, just tour, don’t tour anymore and a thousand other variations.

We grieved as we saw the wreckage around us, too.

So many outstanding Australian performance companies who also missed the leap across the gap; exquisitely painful company to keep.

We grieved also for our strategic plan and four-year artistic program, well-laid plans slipping into the longest, slowest fade to black.

But among the carnage there twinkled some light. Brilliantly sparkling hopeful light. As word made its way across social media and through the press, our community responded. Audiences and colleagues sharing in our pain deluged us with messages, posts, emails, phone calls and gifts sent to our office (more bubbles). It filled our hearts with hope.

Emails, messages and calls – coming daily, hourly – from so many people in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and more across Australia and from around the world. There were messages from 42nd Street, New York; disbelief from swearing Scottish legends; folk from Ireland who had seen one of our shows two years ago shared memories of its lasting impression.

Some of Australia’s leading artists took the time to call and share their disbelief and sadness. An eight-year-old boy was moved to tears at the thought of no more Slingsby shows, then proposed his own fundraising campaign.

Adults who had seen our work, but whose children are now too young to experience it, lamented the fact that their little ones would never experience the joy of a Slingsby production.

In the arts we talk about the impact of our creations. How moments in the theatre can sustain people through their daily lives. We craft marketing copy and grant applications about this ability. These words are not hollow. It is what we set out to do; it appears we’ve done it.

Theatre is a dance between audience and artist. Over this past week our audience has stepped in, lifted us up and taken the lead.

The path ahead now will be tough. We will need to do more with less. Work smarter, harder and find a way to share our existing productions whilst gathering resources to tell new stories. We’ll need the courage to ask for help and not be embarrassed by this.

If we try and fail, will we regret that we didn’t just rip off the bandaid, pull the plug right now? Well, this is what we do in the arts. We breathe in ambiguity and fear and risk and plough on.

And to repay the sustaining embrace of our audience in this past week, we must at the very least try.

We’ll keep you posted each step of the way. It’ll be a journey.

Thank you.

Andy Packer is artistic director of Slingsby, and this article was first published on the company’s website.

Slingsby hopes to create and premiere a new work in 2017, as well as continuing to tour its 2016 Adelaide Festival hit The Young King. The company this week launched a crowdfunding campaign to support its plans (details here).

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