Polly has been working as literary manager at the Sydney Theatre Company for four months. In this position she is responsible for scripts coming into the company. She has worked as a freelance dramaturg for the last few years in Sydney and has done readings for various awards, competitions and publishers.
What is happening in the theatre industry in Australia at the moment?
It’s a small industry, but I’m optimistic about the future. There have been some exciting appointments within the industry which are indicative of change, and the prominence of creativity at the upcoming 2020 summit suggests that, as a society, Australia is really embracing arts and culture.
Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett’s appointment as co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company will inevitably have an impact on the direction of theatre in New South Wales. I don’t know if that will necessarily mean growth, but it will mean change and new opportunities.
As literary manager, I am involved in decisions relating to the upcoming programs at the company. I read a great deal of plays – including new works by artists from both Australia and overseas – and assess them. I then make recommendations to the co-artistic directors and let them know if I think there’s something that we should consider programming.
I’m also involved in developing plays that have been commissioned by the company. I follow their progress and help writers develop their work. My role is to work with the playwright on each draft and suggest changes that need to be made. It’s not prescriptive like script editing in film or television – I’m there to guide and challenge the playwright rather than to dictate changes.
It depends on where the production will be shown and how it will fit into our season. The Sydney Theatre Company’s work is currently performed at The Wharf’s two theatre spaces, the state-of-the-art Sydney Theatre and the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. There are 12 plays in our subscription season, but we also do a number of plays as part of our education program, ‘add on’ shows which are sold outside of the subscription season, and a season through our development arm which is currently known as Wharf2Loud. For each of these there are different selection criteria.
When planning a season we consider how the season will look overall – if we are a little heavy on comedy, we might add some dramas, or if there is a lot of international work, we will look to incorporate some more Australian plays. The aim is to create an eclectic and coherent season for commercial as well as artistic reasons. I am currently only able to read plays that have been solicited by the company – these usually come from agents, playwriting organisations, overseas agents and theatre companies. I also scope for new Australian work by following the careers and progress of writers emerging in the independent sector.
I work quite long hours, but that’s my decision. I do it because I love my work. I usually come into the office at 8 am and work until quite late. Part of my job is to watch shows, so I’ll usually be at the theatre three times a week. On top of that I often do reading in the evenings or on the weekend.
In my four months at the Sydney Theatre Company, I’ve already spent approximately four weeks away from home. I spent two weeks in Brisbane at the National Play Festival, I was in Adelaide for a week at the Adelaide Festival and I’ve also spent some time in Melbourne.
I’m in the process of helping program the Sydney Theatre Company season for 2009. Although it seems a long time away, we need to plan for next year fairly early so that various departments within the company – marketing and production, for example – can make the necessary preparations.
I did a Bachelor of Arts in Drama, English and Education Studies and a Master of Philosophy in Playwriting Studies. These degrees were definitely beneficial for my career. My masters’ thesis was a full-length stage play as well as three academic dissertations. Through this work I have gained essential dramaturgical skills that I currently use for my work with the Sydney Theatre Company.
Dramaturgs read and assess plays, work with playwrights, attend rehearsals and ensure that a production honours the play text. In Australia dramaturgs usually have the same skill set and perform similar tasks to literary managers, but there aren’t many literary manager positions in Australia – I believe that I am the only one working full time in the country at the moment.
In other countries the role of a dramaturg is very different. In Germany, every director will have their own dramaturg working with them. In Australia plays are developed in the theatre, whereas in Germany play are developed with publishers, and playwrights spend little or no time in rehearsal room.
One way to establish a career as a dramaturg is to firstly do some formal training and then approach theatre companies to see if they need readers. You may need to be prepared to work on a voluntary basis initially, as do many actors and directors, but it’s an important way to develop a professional reputation.
You can also read for publishers and organisations that run playwriting awards. They usually have a lot of plays submitted to them so they need freelance readers to get through them all.
Not at the moment. I think what tends to happen is that the role of a dramaturg is fulfilled by other artists. For example, playwrights or directors may have dramaturgical skills and adapt this knowledge to undertake dramaturgical tasks. Because the theatre industry in Australia is so small, people tend to be adaptable and work in different roles.
I think it’s important to see a lot of work and to immerse yourself in a broad range of theatre. One useful piece of advice that I received several years ago was from a British playwright called David Eldridge. He said that I should talk to people. He would approach playwrights or directors who he spotted in Royal Court bar and introduce himself. I think networking like that is a really useful thing to be able to do, as long as it is done in a positive way. It’s important to make yourself known and be proactive while being aware that networking can also work against you – be confident and seek advice but never, ever be a pest.
The theatre industry can appear hard to break into – it’s very competitive, and it helps to develop a thick skin, but if you’re genuinely passionate about the work, a career in the industry is achievable.