Telum Talks To... Richard Watts, National Performing Arts Editor, ArtsHub

Telum Talks To... Richard Watts, National Performing Arts Editor, ArtsHub

You were recently awarded the Facilitators Prize for the Sidney Myer Awards. Can you tell us a bit about the award and what it recognises?
The award was voted on by a panel of judges made up of members of the performing arts sector from across the country, which makes winning the award even more of an honour, because they are people whose work I know and admire. It's awarded annually as part of the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards presented by the Sidney Myer Foundation. It is an award that recognises somebody for their work behind the scenes in the arts, so every year they present a prize to an artist, an individual artist, and a prize to an artists' collective or an organisational group. But then every year somebody who works behind the scenes such as a producer or a facilitator, in some other way, wins the prize.

This year, they gave it to me in recognition of my arts journalism at both ArtsHub and Triple R, and also in recognition of the volunteer work that I have done for many years and continue to do in the sector.

At the moment, I'm the chair of La Mama Theatre, which has been keeping me rather busy because we were defunded by the Australian Council recently. We lost our four-year funding, so I've been very busy working on media releases and speaking to other journalists and, most importantly, supporting our staff. As well as La Mama, in the past, I've been on the boards of the literary journal, Going Down Swinging. I was on the board of Melbourne Fringe for seven years, including three festivals as Chair, and was a volunteer with the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on their programming committee, including time as Programming Convener. I've done a lot of work behind the scenes, and the prize is in recognition of that and it is a huge honour.

Is there a project that you are working on with the money received from the award?
One of the best things about the Facilitators Prize is that it's not attached to any particular outcome.

As well as all the work you do in the arts industry, you have been part of the Triple R family for most of your career. Why do you think community radio is so important to the arts industry?
Community radio is a way in which artists who don't already have a significant profile can get some publicity and media attention. The mainstream media, and particularly the commercial media, tend to be a little more focused on entertainment rather than art. This means they tend to be more celebrity-focused. It may be easy for a high-profile actor to get an interview about the play they're doing or the book that they have written. But. if they're a high-profile author, for somebody who's a first-time author or a young theatre company who are doing their first-ever production, it's a real challenge to connect with an audience. That's where community radio comes into the picture. The audience particularly, say, the audience of Triple R, are very keen to find out about new innovative things, things that are exciting and provocative or challenging be that in music, theatre, film, or literature.

I think one of the reasons Melbourne has such a fantastic live music scene, for example, is because of the Melbourne music scene and community radio like Triple R, PBS, and other stations. We have kind of grown up together, so they have fed into each other and supported each other, in a way, and the arts I think, similarly. Melbourne is widely recognised as the capital of independent theatre in Australia. I know a lot of artists who have moved here from interstate because they know there's already a community that they can connect with and there are theatres in which they can present their work. There is a kind of symbiotic relationship in some ways between art and independent media. They support each other, they feed into each other.

What do you think the biggest challenges the art industry is facing today due to the COVID 19 pandemic. How is the arts industry handling this crisis?
The big fear at the moment is the number of artists and art workers who are out of work. Whether they are working on big main stage productions, through to the independent stage managers who might work with eight different companies across a year. These people are currently not eligible for the JobKeeper payments, because the system is not set-up to recognise people who work in the one career for years on end, but have 18 different employers across that time. So it'll be interesting and possibly slightly frightening to see who's still standing at the end of all this.

There is a real financial blow at the moment and accompanying that is the blow to people's sense of wellbeing and identity. If your identity is tied-up in the work that you do as an artist and you suddenly are denied the opportunity to perform to audiences for six to 12 months, that's not going to be great. When people are stuck at home and are frightened, lonely, and scared about how they're going to pay next month’s rent, the toll on their emotional and mental health is significant. One of my real concerns over the next few months is the mental health impact this is going to have on the entire Australian arts sector. It's certainly something that I hope the government is considering as well.

Art is nurturing and sustaining, so something I hope will come out of this, is that Australians will have a newfound appreciation for the arts and artists, and this was something that helped get them through a really hard time. Rather than thinking sometimes that art is just for the elitist, highbrow, and that it isn't important to me in my life.

What does the word art mean to you?
Art means life. That's a really simple answer. Art teaches us what it means to be human. Through art, we learn empathy. We learn to walk in somebody else's shoes, understand their thoughts, learn, and be challenged by different cultures and experiences. Art takes us out of the every day. I'm not religious, but for me, art is at its best, an encounter with the sublime, and great art can make me weep with joy. It can make me weep with melancholy. It's one of the most powerful expressions of humanity that I can think of. As a result, it's one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about the work that I do because I want everybody else to be able to have those opportunities and those experiences as well.

Where did your passion for the arts come from? Was there a moment or person that inspired you to spend your professional life working in this industry?
Part of the credit goes to my parents who took me to see theatre, musical theatre and art galleries when I was a little kid. Through them, I discovered great books as well. When I was in my twenties, I was going to see bands and dabbling in spoken word and poetry. I got head hunted to do a gig at the Next Wave Festival to coordinate their text programme for the 2000 Festival. That really kind of opened the door for me. Before that, I knew I loved the arts and I had seen some amazing performances over the years, but it was part of my life and not something I was dedicating a large chunk of my life to.

Campion Decent, who was the Artistic Director of the Next Wave Festival, had heard about me and invited me, I just thought it was for a chat, turned out it was a job interview. I got to start programming the festival and after that, I moved on to working at Express Media, a youth arts organisation, which opened the doors to so many other things. Through that, I was invited on the board of Melbourne Fringe, and I did some volunteer work for the National Gallery of Victoria with their youth arts programming, and so forth.

There was no deliberate career move or career step, it has all kind of been accidental, but I guess it's just being fuelled by a lifelong passion for the amazing things that artists' can do.

In your role at ArtsHub, how can arts organizations and PRs work with you and what types of stories are you on the lookout for right now? Do they have to have a COVID-19 spin on them?
I'm already a bit sick of writing COVID-19 stories, so if somebody has a good news story, I'm definitely interested. At ArtsHub, because we're an industry publication, we're the arts industry, talking to the arts industry, so our focus for stories, and what we look for, tends to be a little different from what might be the case for a journalist or the art editor at The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald or elsewhere.

If somebody is doing something very different with an art form - and in the coming months we're going to see a lot of people adapting what they're doing - it will probably become one of the trends that we write about in the coming months. How people are not just taking their work online, but perhaps how visual artists transforming their front windows on their homes is going to become a trend. For example, suddenly you walk past the suburban street and you notice that the house down the street has turned all their windows into a temporary art gallery.

To answer the other half of your question you asked about what we'd be looking for from PRs. I might write something if there are four different shows on in the same month in three different capital cities that are all looking at the theme of the Australian Gothic, suddenly that's something that I might write about. What I tend to do, is keep an eye on what different publicists are sending me press releases about, and will say to them, "Well that's not a story on its own. If I hook it up with this and that, then suddenly, I've got a trend," and that's worth writing about.

If you were stuck on an island with one person from the art industry, who would it be?
Oh, that's an almost impossible question to answer because there are so many of them that are fascinating and wonderful, but at the same time, we might drive each other crazy if we were stuck together on a deserted island. I will say, Wesley Enoch, the theatre-maker and Artistic Director of Sydney Festival. He's one of the great thinkers of the industry, he's a real leader. He's incredibly thoughtful and I think if we were trapped on an island together, the conversation would be, without doubt, absolutely stimulating. I would learn so much about him, about me, about our environment, about the island itself.

Coffee, lunch, or drinks if someone was to ask for a meeting?
Coffee and drinks tend to be the same thing as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's after a certain time of day. So, somebody says, do you want to catch up for coffee? I might have a glass of wine. They might have a coffee or vice versa. For me, there's something about the relaxed nature of a coffee date slash catching up for a drink that suits my mood and quite often my schedule as well.

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