Ahead of their 2018 season, we sat down for a chat with one of the people behind bAKEHOUSE and KXT.
Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) is not really like any other theatre in Sydney. For starters it’s on the second floor of a pub, and second of all, it’s helmed by a woman whose impressive CV belies a kind and gentle individual, who champions the diverse communities that make up Sydney but are rarely seen on its stages. While Suzanne Millar has worked with some of Australia’s top playwrights and actors and has seen shows that she has developed play to sold out audiences and then tour internationally, her real focus is much more local. As Artistic Director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company which in 2018 is starting its third season KXT, where Millar is also the Creative Director, Millar is set on doing things very differently to the rest of Sydney’s theatre scene.
Unusually for theatres in Sydney, KXT is in the traverse, where audiences sit on either side of a rectangular stage. For Millar, this is not a way for her to be a particularly flamboyant director, but rather forces audiences to engage deeply with the performances on stage. “You are sitting on either side of the stage and you're immersed in the world,” described Millar. “You have this opportunity to understand the bigger context of people's lives and to see their experiences through that context, through the prism of the world that they come from.” At KXT there is no air of the imposing thespian or dictatorial director, but rather a vantage point into the myriad lives of contemporary Australia.
Thinking back to what began her drive to rectify Australian theatre’s one-sided depiction of our community, one particular experience stands out to Millar. While working in arts education Millar met a young refugee from Sierra Leone whose promise as an actor had been noted by other teachers. After casting him in a play, Millar recounted that the performance was “amazing, he was just phenomenal.” Six years later, Elijah Williams, the now not-so-young man from Sierra Leone was the lead in Black Jesus which premiered at KXT in May 2016.
The value of this kind of work that realistically depicts modern Australia on the stage has been recognized within the theatrical community. Millar has opened up KXT to more than just bAKEHOUSE productions and in 2016 received 75 submissions for the 2017 season. This year, for the 2018 season, KXT received over 150 submissions. Millar attributes this first and foremost to the tenacity of theatre makers in Sydney as well as the graduates from drama schools across the state but then adds, self-deprecatingly, “also perhaps we didn't bugger things up too badly here.”
Though it’s not like Millar and bAKEHOUSE haven’t taken any risks. In March next year, for the second year running KXT will give itself over to 15 young artists, who they will support to develop never-before-seen works showcased in the Step Up program.
Millar terms this work and others like it across the season “theatre to provoke social change.” This involves not only supporting the emerging theatrical community, but also marginalised and at-risk communities. However, rather than writing works about these communities from the outside, through her work Millar again demonstrates her selflessness.
“My approach is always, ‘we have a stage, we have a platform’ but what would you like to say, what would you want to do with it?”
This has led to a myriad of unexpected outcomes, and in 2018 KXT will collaborate with Cana Community, a charity which helps at-risk individuals who may have experienced homelessness, incarceration or addiction, to produce StoryLines.
StoryLines will exist in a season alongside new works written by world-renowned playwright Justin Fleming and this is what is takes the work of Millar and KXT beyond just community-based theatre. In past plays such as Jatinga and The Laden Table, first time actors worked alongside established stars of the stage while at the same time telling culturally diverse stories that no other theatre would put on.
For Millar the value of her work is when audiences can identify with the production. “What that is really about is theatre can speak to and of the world that we're in,” and to do this, notes Millar, “audiences will continue to come when they see themselves on stage.” This aim mirrors the belief among younger and culturally diverse thespians that Australia has not been accurately depicted on stage. In 2014 indigenous playwright Nakkiah Lui asked in The Guardian, ‘Is Australian theatre racist?’ (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/australia-culture-blog/2014/jun/12/is-australian-theatre-racist) and the answer in 2017 is a pretty definitive yes, according to statistics compiled by Melbourne-based writer and performer Kim Ho. https://dailyreview.com.au/ Ho found that less than one fifth of works in major Australian theatre companies are written by people of colour. Millar identifies this disparity when she notes that “theatre should look like the bus” and has put this into practice through her work with diverse communities.
The democratization and diversification of theatre that Millar and bAKEHOUSE have driven has contributed to this accomplishment. As Millar notes, “theatre succeeds if the purpose or intention of your play is very clear to your audience and if someone sees themselves on stage, that becomes a really easy stepping stone.”
To this end Millar has also sponsored queer writing for the stage as well as exceeding gender parity in the shows programmed for 2018 with eight female to seven male directors and 14 female to five male writers. This leads to theatre that Millar describes as an “empathy engine” and something that is only amplified by the intimate setting of KXT. As Millar reflected, “You know we all read the headlines, we all listen to the radio and we have all the information, but when you sit in the theatre you sit there for sixty, eighty, ninety minutes with people I think you feel you get to know them, and when that happens it’s very hard to walk away.”
Tickets are on sale now for the 2018 season. Pick them up at early-bird prices at www.kingsxtheatre.com/2018