The Show Must Go On

0 Posted by - 16/04/2014 - Arts & Culture, Featured, Long

This is a story about Lynne Ellis. You might not have heard of Lynne, or her theatre-loving gang of student actors. They are often hiding out in the Link Arts & Culture office, doing theatrical things like pretending metal sieves and plastic tongs are breasts and genitals. Plus, you would know if you had met Lynne because when you do, you feel like you’ve just scored a new BFF. This is her story: the story of a battler on the fringes of RMIT, fighting for an oddball group of students and the place they call home—the Kaleide Theatre.

Act One: Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes

When Lynne first came to RMIT in October 1988, student theatre was in danger of becoming dominated by student reviews. “There was a strong feminist feeling at RMIT at that time,” says Lynne, “and the girls were sick of donning heels and lipstick and kicking their legs about for a few hours.” The antidote? Some Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes.

Sue McClements, then in charge of student theatre, had secured the rights to the Roald Dahl poems, but needed someone to weave them into a narrative. She knew of Lynne through La Mama Theatre and invited her to come on as a director. Dahl came to see the show, even though he was sick and had already cancelled half his book tour in Australia.  Lynne told The Age in 2012 that “he loved it and said, ‘It makes my tour look like a mausoleum. When I’m writing my books this is how I imagine it would be’”.

Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes was the first of Lynne’s kids’ shows, which ran every year for 25 years until they ended two years ago. Lynne adapted countless children’s books for the stage and paid RMIT students to perform for thousands of kids over the Christmas holidays. In 2012, Lynne adapted Andy Griffith’s Just Doomed series for what was to be the last ever kids’ show. Griffith later said that Lynne’s “amazing, anarchic energy” heavily influenced his writing. Holly Clark, an RMIT student who acted in Just Doomed, said that it was “one of the best experiences of my life”.

Act Two: Changing Hands

Lynne, now 62, was born in England and trained at the well-known Dartington College of the Arts. She’s worked in every theatre in England (including the West End), she was a performer in the infamous Kiss International Theatre Research Ensemble and has directed more than 50 new Australian plays at beloved Melbourne institution, La Mama Theatre. From 1988, Lynne has thrown herself into her job as RMIT student theatre director. Her shows welcome anyone who wants to perform, and harness the skills of students from all RMIT courses, from sound design, film and fashion, to photography and architecture.

Her achievements have been possible largely because of easy access to the RMIT-owned Kaleide Theatre, which sits opposite the Link Arts & Culture office on Swanston Street. Until 2007, the only fully-equipped theatre space on campus was run by the RMIT Union, a now non-existent body that once employed more than 300 people to not only run the Arts and Sport & Rec programs (now under Link Arts and Culture), but also subsidise the cafeteria, lawyers and dentists among other things. Its sole focus was improving the student experience. The Union employed someone to run the Kaleide Theatre full time and Lynne had a key, which both physically and symbolically gave her autonomy over the space. 

But after 2007, things began to change. The RMIT Union was disbanded after the Howard government abolished compulsory student union fees, and the fate of the Kaleide was unclear. Lynne calls this the “grey period”. Management of the theatre fell first into the hands of the university’s Property Services and, while Lynne stopped having direct control over the theatre, she kept the key and still had first preference.

Then in 2012, the theatre changed hands again, this time coming under a new university division called University Events and Venues, also known as Events Management. According to their webpage, the division is responsible for “the planning, management, implementation and publicising of major events hosted by RMIT University”. Basically, they look after the schmoozing and boozing of high profile deans. They have no obvious connection to student theatre, nor does their focus lie with student wellbeing.

Act Three: Robots on Campus

When Lynne returned from a holiday in England in August 2012, something was wrong. “I had a pile of costumes thrown in the office that had been in a space in the theatre. Events Management had been created and all the rules had changed.” She would now have to pay $100 per hour to use the space, and at all times be supervised by a technician. She was no longer permitted to have a key. When she later calculated the costs for an upcoming show—including rehearsals, dress rehearsals and set construction, it came to over $50,000—it was too much for the Link Arts and Culture budget.

The effects of this change became clear when rehearsals for Rossum’s Universal Robots, which was staged in the second half of last year, began (I acted in this production, my first with Lynne). We rehearsed mostly in the Link Arts and Culture office and sometimes in a small room next to the theatre. During most of these rehearsals the Kaleide was empty, but Lynne no longer had any rights to the space. When we finally did use the Kaleide—four days before opening night—we quickly reworked the performance to accommodate a larger, less forgiving space. Lynne says, “students, many of whom had never performed before, were up there with a bunch of props they’d never acted with, navigating a backstage they didn’t know.”

It became impossible for students to use the space for their own creative initiatives. “Holly and I decided it would be cool to put on a show ourselves while Lynne was away,” recalls Kayzar Bhathawalla, a recent RMIT Photography graduate, now studying Communications Design.  At the end of 2012, he contacted the university about using the Kaleide and was told they would “have to book it out like anyone else” and pay the full fee. “I then asked if there were any rooms available for us to rehearse in, and apparently no spaces could be found to accommodate us.”

During the same period, the university cut funding for the kids’ show. Tim Smith, the senior manager of the RMIT Link program at that time, said that it didn’t encourage enough student participation.

On the final night of Rossum’s Universal Robots, Lynne made a speech. Broaching on tears, she told the audience that she worried universities were beginning to view students as robots, as a means to an end, rather than valuing and nurturing them as human beings.  How could Lynne show them what she saw—individuals who needed a place in the university to be themselves?

Act Four: Dear Mr University

Lynne was once in the running for a similar position at Melbourne University.  Not only was there a much larger salary, but the job also included a full time technician, lighting designer, props manager and set designer, plus the opportunity for student workshops and internships, and many free theatre spaces. But when asked why she wanted to work at Melbourne University, Lynne realised she didn’t want to take the job. “There’s just something special about RMIT students. They’re unique, not just academic but doers with real practical skills, exciting and risky. I love that—I couldn’t give the RMIT students up.”

And she wasn’t going to give up on them this time either, so she developed a plan with the best tools she had—creativity and a touch of crazy. Late last year, Lynne sent a message to past students and asked them to write a letter outlining the impact student theatre had on their university experience. Lynne received over 30 letters in response.

Robert D. Jordan, who studied a BA in Animation and Interaction Media and now works for the theatre as a sound designer, summed up many when he wrote of the theatre: “it changed my life”. Many said the skills they learnt helped them get jobs in a variety of professions. One student, who under Lynne’s guidance created her own RMIT theatre collective, now earns a living running art projects. “I learnt how to independently produce my own works, to lead teams, to design budgets, to meet deadlines, to market myself.”

What these students gained from the theatre program. they simply couldn’t find elsewhere at RMIT. Megan Harwood (BA in Advertising, 2012) said the university was “very disappointing in terms of building any kind of community spirit”. Holly Clark (BA in Professional Communications, 2013) said she felt lost until she met Lynne and “could be myself again, loudly and proudly”.

For these students, the Kaleide became a “refuge from the anxiety and structure of tertiary education” and a “haven from the bustle and chaos outside in the city streets” (Jack McLardie, BA in Photography, 2013). What they studied varied—from engineering to information technology to social work—but the Kaleide brought them together as a “theatre for anybody who wants to be a part of it” (Jane E. Thompson, BA in Fashion, 2006). It was the depth of experience they had with Lynne that made student theatre matter.  And it was the Kaleide Theatre that enabled that community to work.

Lynne took these letters to a meeting late last year and argued her case against the $100 fee, and for greater autonomy over the theatre. The meeting was largely successful. The university won’t confirm it changed its policy, but told Catalyst in a statement: “RMIT registered student clubs and societies can book the Kaleide Theatre at no hire cost during normal operating hours. The charge for use by clubs outside these times is to cover staffing costs …and is lower than the commercial hire rate.” This was a big change for Lynne. The letter campaign had—it seemed—succeeded.

Act Five: There’s No Place Like Home

But things are still far from perfect. The theatre is still controlled by Events Management. When Lynne books rehearsals she has no guarantee the space will be free, or that any space will be available. Most other universities—including Monash and Melbourne—offer free and accessible theatre spaces.

All this brings up a broader question: does the university invest enough into the student experience outside the classroom? Do they value programs like Lynne’s, and if so, wouldn’t it be better if these programs were invested in appropriately so they could make a larger contribution to the university experience?

When I ask Lynne what her vision for the theatre is, she overflows with enthusiasm. “I’d love to start up a mentoring program. Interested students could work with set designers, sound engineers, and costume makers—gaining valuable experience in their field of study.” She’d also love to help students put on their own plays and theatre programs. She recently did a workshop with international students using theatre techniques to help them improve their confidence and presentation skills, and would love to do more of them too.

Most of all,Lynne wants to re-establish the theatre as a place where more students can escape from the formality of day-to-day university life.  “It is not enough to assume that university life totally revolves around the brain, a small table, a computer and interaction through a mobile phone,” says Lynne. Creative freedom and expression are things Lynne values above all. They may be difficult to measure, but—if the letters are anything to go by—they matter too.

By Beth Gibson

Now in its 13th year, Snatches is a medley of short works written mostly by RMIT students and student alumni and performed by RMIT students. The show will run at the end of May. For more information visit www.rmit.edu.au/students/arts-culture or visit Lynne in person at the Link Arts and Culture office, Building 8 Level 2

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