The point at which a fresh water river meets a salt water harbour contains some of the highest biodiversity in any aquatic ecosystem. The Riverside Theatres, home to the National Theatre of Parramatta (NTofP) sits just above that point on the right bank of the Parramatta river. As estuarine waters allow for the proliferation of fauna and flora, the NTofP is seeing its own confluence of diversity. For the past two years this theatre company has staged important and dynamic theatre, and as it embarks on its first circumnavigation of New South Wales the NTofP is part of a wave of performance that challenges the homogeneity of Australian stages.
Testament to the vigour and willingness to experiment is the programs of the first three seasons at NTofP. By the end of 2018, the company will have staged fourteen shows, all but one of which are Australian works. Notably, all the plays produced by NTofP in the 2017 season were world premieres.
Describing the impetus behind these productions, Executive Director Joanne Kee noted “we wanted to put on works that had a resonance with the people in the community around us and actually to be about presenting works that reflected the streets that we walk in.” As Western Sydney emerges as a young and diverse region with Parramatta at its heart, the natural choice was to produce and perform new Australian theatre.
However, NTofP did not just leap out of a drought of artistic expression. Many playwrights who have had their work staged in Riverside’s Lennox Theatre have grown out of an established artistic pond of organisations such as Q Theatre in Penrith and Westwords, based in North Parramatta. As Kee described, NTofP was able to provide the opportunity for these written works to meet the stage.
“What we decided for our playwriting, rather than going ‘Let's start with beginning playwrights,’ we went ‘Ok there are people here who have been writing plays and have got expertise. Let's actually try and pitch it at people with expertise who might not have been able to get to the point where people want to produce their work.’”
This led to initiatives such as Playwrights of Parramatta and ongoing partnerships with the Australian Theatre for Young People and Playwriting Australia enabling NTofP’s philosophy of creating pathways and opportunities to develop.
While NTofP’s tagline might be “putting the nation on stage” built into that is the understanding that while the audience may see those on stage, it is the multitude of professionals who work behind the scenes who are as fundamental to staging any performance work.
As NTofP began formulating its niche in Sydney and Australian theatre it identified that for there to be a meaningful diversity of faces on stage there needs to be diversity in production managers, stage managers and creative workers who enable a production to go ahead. Seeing through this change will enable a more thorough representation of Australia as a nation.
“It became obvious that yes we're talking about diversity and what's on the stages but when you actually look a little harder it's really quite hard to find that diversity back stage as well,” noted Kee.
In achieving these aims NTofP has shied away from instituting quotas or mandating parity, instead embracing a broader understanding of diversity which encompasses gender, race, ability and much more. This fundamentally enables a greater focus on the stories that are being staged, for, as Kee explained “the ultimate end goal is that it's about stories and it would be a great world that it didn't have to be the Asian people are doing an Asian story; it should just be these are great stories for the theatre.”
This kind of approach unlocks writers, performers and technicians from being pigeonholed in their diversity, as Kee recalled, putting this approach into practice, “I met up with a creative person, from a diverse background, and I said ‘So what do you want to do?’ and he went 'Oh! Nobody's ever asked me that question!'”
Having had two successful seasons at Riverside, this year NTofP is expanding further afield, taking Stolen on tour through regional NSW in June. These kinds of collaborations with other venues and theatre companies will most likely continue, as in 2017 the NSW state government and the City of Parramatta committed to a $100 million renovation of the Riverside theatres. It’s unclear when these renovations will start, however in the meantime NTofP maintains its open door policy along with yearly open auditions.
Such a willingness to be surprised by an unexpected turn of events is part of what Kee sees as the strength of the company and its process of evolution. Just as the river winds its way towards Sydney’s CBD and is joined by more tributaries, “everything's not linear” mused Kee as she charts the future trajectory of NTofP.
Stolen premieres at Riverside Theatres from May 29 until June 1 and will then tour NSW through June. Find out more and book tickets here https://riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP/show/stolen-2018/