It’s spring, and time to harvest some sorely needed funds at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Hotel 60-seat theatre in Woolloomooloo. Paul Capsis reads a poetic letter from the depths of Oscar Wilde’s despair. Heather Mitchell draws from Virginia Woolf’s landmark feminist polemic about having a room of one’s own.

Chamberlain LoveLove / Chamberlain. Photo © Pier Carthew

This series of solo performances is raising money for Red Line Productions, which has relied on philanthropy and donations as well as box office revenue since taking over the theatre as resident company in 2014. It’s a microcosm of the innovation smaller theatre and music companies need to embrace to survive.

Ongoing government funding is needed for Red Line, a vital generator of new works and talent development in the Sydney theatre ecology. Operating with a skeletal staff of four, Red Line must come up with about $333,000 a year just to run the space, says Artistic Director Andrew Henry, including rent, overheads, printing, theatrical licensing, building sets and making costumes.

Project funding from federal, state and local government is too limited, he says. Rather, core operational funding is required. “It’s very hard to find funding for the boring stuff,” says Henry. “Stuff like printing scripts, subsidising rent, paying our box office staff and giving ourselves personally a little bit of money so we can keep running this small theatre. The boring stuff is actually the most important stuff, because we’ve got the artistic stuff covered.”

In August, 250 small-to-medium arts companies across the country were informed they had missed out on long-term Australia Council funding. While the major performing arts companies receive guaranteed ongoing federal funding and are much more likely to attract corporate largesse, the small-to-medium sector struggles, lacking political friends in high places more attracted to the buzz of black-tie opening nights at the big arts end of town.

Bureaucratic red tape and high rents also continue to leave these small to medium theatre and music organisations suffering a lack of performance venues across the country, with what is on offer often lacking front and back of house operations. Some cities suffer more than others. “When you compare Sydney to the mecca of fringe festivals in Australia – Adelaide – the environment we operate in is much more prohibitive here,” says Sydney Fringe Festival chief executive Kerri Glasscock.

Sydney’s giant, sprawling geography hinders the quest for clusters of performance spaces, while the city’s lockout laws – now tipped to be largely lifted by the end of the year – are widely regarded as having harmed the night-time economy. Urban development, rising property prices and the cost of negotiating planning, building and liquor licence approvals have together reduced creative spaces and employment, according to a City of Sydney submission last year to the NSW inquiry into the music and arts economy.

“It’s still challenging, but we’re seeing a momentum now that wasn’t there six years ago when I started doing Fringe,” says Glasscock. “There is a focus from all elements of government that need to be worked through – very dense and big issues that take time.”

Yet on the funding front for those long-established smaller companies the Australia Council recently snubbed, time is running short. In Melbourne’s St Kilda, Theatre Works chair Ros Willett told The Age: “We’re looking down the barrel at whether we can remain viable. It is that dire.”

Bridget Mackey’s new play Love / Chamberlain, which makes connections between how the public treated rocker Courtney Love and Lindy Chamberlain after the deaths of their loved ones, is about to premiere at Theatre Works. In development since 2016, small theatre company Moral Panic applied for “all the grants”, Artistic Director Cathy Hunt tells Limelight, “none of which came through”. A public campaign launched online through the Australian Cultural Fund reached its target of $2000 to finance the set, however.

Hunt remains mystified about Australia’s funding processes. “We applied this year through Creative Victoria,” she says. “We did a good application and we had many letters from key people in the theatre industry supporting Bridget as a writer, me as a director and the team as a whole. We were unsuccessful for that grant, and when we got feedback, they said our budget was good [but] it was just a very competitive field.”

Ongoing government funding is no guarantee of survival, however. In May, the renowned vocal ensemble The Song Company, which has operated for 35 years and receives multi-year funding from the Australia Council and Create NSW, was placed in voluntary administration. Artistic Director Antony Pitts says the company remained in administration for about five weeks, and then started trading again. “It was a nightmare period that didn’t really need to happen,” he says. “We did get some extra funding from an individual donor, but that was outweighed by the cost of administration itself.”

Since July, The Song Company has gone through an “incredible period of transition”, rebuilding its office team and creating new projects with singers. But he concedes the long-term financial challenges of presenting wide-ranging innovative programs of chamber vocal repertoire across the country remain. “Part of our mission is to do the less-well-known, the brand new where you’re always taking a risk,” he says. “We’re just made 19 commissions from Australian composers for our next tour, which starts in October, and that takes a lot of convincing of audiences to just come and listen.”

In September, the Omega Ensemble cancelled a concert, Mahler One and the world premiere of a Clarinet Quintet by Gordon Kerry, at Sydney’s Recital Hall. General Manager David Boyce said the cancellation was caused by “some committed corporate funding that didn’t materialise”. The ongoing challenge for Omega is that any government funding is very “project and short term-focused”, he says. Omega receives no ongoing federal or state funding.

“You might build a project, but it really doesn’t help build stronger foundations for smaller organisations to create the muscle behind those projects, to continue and grow,” says Boyce. “Small-to-medium arts organisations should really be considered in the way that start-ups are considered; in that world, a lot of the funding is designed to give organisations enough runway to pursue whatever great idea it is, but also build the foundations, so that they build a sustainable business.”

Omega’s two main venues are at the Opera House and Recital Hall. “Many organisations comparable to ours have left those venues to some degree, or are not performing there to the same degree, but we are very committed to those venues. It’s to do with the quality of the venues and the audience experience. But it is a challenge with the costs – those venues are very expensive to run, so there’s only a certain degree they can support a smaller organisation.”

“I can only speak to Sydney, but definitely there is a gap between the larger venues and the very small community venues, and [the need] for a space that would be suitable for our art form – a space that needs to be specific to non-amplified, acoustic music.”

Ensemble Offspring Artistic Director Claire Edwardes at Kontiki Racket at Paddington Town Hall. Photograph © Christopher Hayles

Finding performance venues in Sydney is a challenge, agrees Ensemble Offspring Artistic Director Claire Edwardes, for whom City Recital Hall is too big. “The only other option you can hire is the Utzon Room [at the Opera House], which is on the small side, and Carriageworks, but Carriageworks is a curated program now, so you can’t hire Carriageworks, because they have to co-produce.” The music workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium is a “beautiful” room with “great acoustics”, but by its nature is tucked away.

Having received some recent City of Sydney funding, Ensemble Offspring recently presented a music micro-festival called Kontiti Racket at Paddington Town Hall. “That’s not an easy room to present in because of its size, and because you have to bring everything in. There’s nothing in there, because it’s not a music venue,” says Edwardes. Because the two-day event had “festival” in the title, the Ensemble, with its limited resources, was forced by council to pay for a security guard to stand out the front. “The guard was like, ‘This is the easiest gig I’ve had in my whole life.’”

If Sydney is falling short of venues for the small-to-medium sector, in other cities there appears to be a gradual acknowledgement that the big arts end of town needs to provide a hand up. Queensland Ballet’s Executive Director Dilshani Weerasinghe says the company’s new West End theatre of 350 to 370 seats, due to open in late 2020, will be shared. “Small to medium arts companies are exactly what we’d like to host,” she says. “We are in early discussions with three companies about what we’re playfully calling ‘home company’ status.”

In Melbourne, the planned creative hub at 1 City Road in Southbank will include studio space for the creation, rehearsal and presentation work on the site, says Arts Centre Melbourne chief executive Claire Spencer: “That will be a facility we hope will be heavily used by the small to medium end of the sector. We know they crave that kind of space here in the arts precinct.” Construction is yet to commence, however, and a timetable has not yet been nailed down.