Spaces for Playwrights to Feast On: Phil Spencer On Bondi Feast and Sydney Theatre

Spaces for Playwrights to Feast On: Phil Spencer On Bondi Feast and Sydney Theatre

“The problem with this town, and lots of people know it, is that there aren’t quite enough arts spaces for the number of people who want to make work. But part of me feels like we can get around that by activating spaces ourselves,” says Phil Spencer, the associate artistic director of Rock Surfers Theatre Australia’s leading independent theatre company which now resides in the iconic Bondi Pavilion Theatre at Bondi Beach.

Bondi Feast is the theatre’s winter program, tempting Sydneysiders to the seaside theatre through the promise of warm food, mulled wine and good shows on cold nights.

“What we’ve done is try to create festival environments, to sort of take the producing pressure off artists, to just literally let them make some work – things that might not work at the box office but can work artistically,” Spencer tells us.

Traditional theatre is not the only thing played. The first night kicked off with Penguin Plays Rough, a storytelling collective who converged this month around the theme of food. Other acts include comedy and live music as well as a showcase of 12 new short plays from Australian playwrights.

Spencer encounters challenges in programming a large, 230-seat theatre like the Bondi Pavillion so as to efficiently use the space while accommodating small productions. “It’s pushing us to diversify how we go about engaging artists, because not everyone is going to be able to fill a 230-seat theatre for a month, that’s just not necessarily plausible.”

Yet small productions are in no way viewed as lesser. “The most amazing shows I’ve ever seen have been in a car park, or someone’s bedroom, or a derelict theatre that you’re not supposed to be in. How that translates to an audience might be more complex. It’s hard to get an audience through the door but the more we reclaim space, pop-up theatres and alternative venues, the more we’re going to train an audience to look out for these sorts of things.”

Drawing an audience into the Bondi Pavilion is something Spencer has thought about a lot, and tells us that audience engagement is definitely something that’s “difficult” and takes time to establish. “[A]udiences want to trust that the artistic quality will be good before they pay to go see it. We have to make the space open to artists, and then turn our attentions to activating a local audience.”

Spencer is open-minded towards all forms of theatre – from the large to the small scale.  “I think it’s great that venues can be popping up and running for a few months and then if they cant keep on top to the administration,  just stopping up and going somewhere else. Personally, I would rather see someone put a show on for four nights, and try it out, and if it fails it fails. At least you got the opportunity to see it.”

Prior to working on Bondi Feast, Phil Spencer has worked professionally as a writer, performer, festival director and creative producer in both the UK and Australia. His most amazing show was seen in Glasgow,“in a place, much like Carriageworks, there were seats scattered around for the audience, and the actors just walked around through us.”

While he hasn’t lived in Sydney all his life, Spencer is aware of the local and national arts spaces: “Bondi is a cult-like place to have a cultural hub,” he says of the Bondi Pavilion.  “Slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction, convincing an audience that we have a quality equal to the Sydney Theatre Company. There aren’t any big tricks to it; it’s sort of a trust thing between you and your audience.”

Spencer believes that the cultural scene in Sydney can be developed to be on par with the Melbourne arts scene. “Obviously I’m an outsider but I’ve heard about the whole Sydney/Melbourne dichotomy and yeah, the reality is that Melbournites are more used to going to the top of a pub to see a show that’s on for a few nights. But there is a shift towards that in Sydney. I think the city is an exciting place to be right now.”

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