Above — Petra Kalive

Even with the barest of media cycle insight, the news each night can feel as shameless as seeing that infamous Wizard behind the curtain. In Australia, and possibly more so in Melbourne, sport has become the news and so much so that the opening moments of any bulletin will consistently offer deference to the sports desk irrespective of world events.

Even in the absence of a match, the sports industry continues to enjoy astounding media privilege. Without some awareness of agenda, one could easily believe that only a footballer is kind enough to send his Mum a Mother’s Day message or that banal domestic chores can only be undertaken in the presence of a camera while wearing club colours.

The challenges of an elite sportsperson to remain performance ready are surely no more difficult or interesting than the challenges faced by an elite dancer and yet, it is abundantly clear that mainstream media is less prepared to tell these stories.

How is it that an industry, reported to contribute 6.4% of Australia’s GDP and with ticket sales exceeding the combined attendances of Australian Football, Rugby League, Cricket, Soccer, Basketball, Rugby Union, Tennis, Netball and Baseball can be so woefully underrepresented in the media?

While the nightly news serves as a neglectful reminder of our people doing it tough, perhaps we should reserve our exasperation and shift our enquiry from questions of why to questions of how. One doesn’t need to be a fan to admire how sport manages to remain at the forefront of our thoughts thus keeping so many hungry for its return.

While those of us in the Arts know that the stories and sense making of this extraordinary time are unlikely to be told on sports fields, we need to do more and indeed, all we can to ensure viability through visibility. Our stories more than ever need to be told and this 'Arts in Isolation' series is part of that challenge.

After five years as Artistic Director of Union House Theatre, Petra Kalive joined Australia’s oldest professional theatre company in early 2020 having previously directed BeachedMelbourne Talam and Hungry Ghosts for the Company. Petra offers her extensive experience as a director, writer and dramaturg of new works and as you will see in her following remarks, she holds an incredibly passionate, thoughtful and insightful regard for our industry. I could not be more thrilled that MTC’s extraordinary Associate Director Petra Kalive agreed to share her thoughts with me.

What is it like being isolated from the company at this time and how are you remaining connected?
It’s very strange. I miss the hallway chats – the quick ‘what do you think about this?’ moments. I miss being able to read body language in a meeting, sensing the shifts in mood and picking up subtlety and humour – as much as I try, I can’t do this with Zoom. I miss the natural flow of conversations and being able to brainstorm and talk over one another as the energy of an idea grows. And most of all I miss being in a rehearsal room.

I’m staying connected by regularly videoconferencing, phone calls and physically distant walks with colleagues – these walks outside with proper conversation and laughter have been exceptionally good for the soul. Additionally, I’m reading articles, plays, novels and watching films – coming up with ideas and dreaming about the stories we will need in the future. I’m also staying connected by sending out messages of solidarity and encouragement to my friends and colleagues who have lost work, overloaded with work with the transition online, or making very difficult decisions about the future of their organisation. Talking to them and hearing their stories about how this affecting them is keeping me connected.

Have you discovered any new ways of working that you intend to carry forward?
I don’t have a printer at home, so I am using less paper. That is definitely something I will carry forward. I have been loving the walking and talking with colleagues – I think I am going to have more ‘walking meetings’ into the future. I am getting better at reading plays on screen (still far more difficult than reading on paper).

These are challenging times for everyone but what particular challenges do you feel artists face and what advice do you have for staying positive and remaining prepared for a return to work?
Performing artists are used to working with instability and creativity often thrives when there are significant limitations or boundaries to push against. But this situation is entirely different, and artists are struggling. The performing arts was one of the first industries to be impacted by the pandemic and will be one of the last to ‘return to normal’.

Artists often work long hours, from project to project, sometimes with months break and are used to the rollercoaster of work coming in and out – but when there is nothing to audition for, to perform or design or stage manage it is like being thrown into an abyss. There are some incredible initiatives and online projects that are emerging during this time, such as MTC NOW, born of a need to connect and continue to tell stories and imagine into the future – but it cannot replace the live experience.

The loss of work, the lack of structure and an industry in crisis have had a dramatic impact on artists’ sense of value. Especially when in the arts what you do is so inexorably tied up with who you are. It is ironic that during this time of isolation people have turned to films, novels, television and music to support us through this crisis, while the federal government failed to recognise the unique workflows of a $111 billion-dollar industry when creating worker support schemes. This means that many creatives have slipped through the cracks and find themselves with no income. This lack of demonstrated value, and the impossible decisions theatre companies are needing to make to stay afloat, is contributing to an already anxious artistic community.

The only thoughts I can offer is to say that creatives cannot forget their intrinsic value to community – the importance of storytelling, reflection, refraction, distilling of ideas, to speak truth to power, the ability to bring people together to feel something – this is going to be incredibly important in the future. This is only a small pause to recalibrate and tune in – to hop off the treadmill and think about what is necessary. The industry is too small to fight amongst ourselves – as much as we are hurting from job losses, instability, a precarious future - we must work together as an industry and lobby for what it is we need and want (just like other industries do). We have a great opportunity in the future to create work that helps us redefine what it is to be human in a post-pandemic world – how has this event changed us and what have we learnt about ourselves in the quiet? Who do we want to be? And how are we going to achieve it? Artists are the best placed to interrogate and begin conversations with these questions.

Why do you believe the arts, and in particular theatre are going to be so important beyond this difficult time?
Being in this moment of ‘great pause’ is demonstrating very clearly that we are social creatures who need to be in the presence of others and in each other’s spaces. We revel and thrive in communal sensory experiences. There is something about the shared experience of performance, feeling the collective energy in a room change because an actor is inhabiting something that can only be experienced live. To witness the virtuosic or spectacle. To have every cell in your body vibrating with the experience of witnessing something very real happen in the moment. It is a different experience to watch something on a screen.

In the future, theatres – sites of mass gathering where we come together to share in stories, to laugh, cry, heal and connect in the same space – will be more important than ever. We will need stories to reflect and process what we have experienced and cry and laugh together as we figure out how to move forward. Theatre is a place where we interrogate what it is to be human, what makes us tick; it imagines and plays out possible futures or alternate realities. It nourishes something very primal in us: the need to physically share in the telling of stories. That’s why it’s important 2020 and beyond.


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