Nick Atkins – The Joan
One of the most impressive buildings standing in Penrith is The Joan – a building that inspires, impresses and slight intimidates. Take one step inside and you find a state-of-the-art facility quietly turning out productions that go onto to play on stages all over Australia and the world. We recently spoke with Nick Atkins, a producer at The Joan, who is in charge of The Q – a specifically designated division for developing and producing theatre “in and from the heart of Penrith”. Nick and The Q are instrumental in making the arts accessible to a region that is seriously under-funded and under-represented yet bursting with talent and local stories to tell.
We make theatre for and from the heart of Penrith.
The Westies: Tell me about your role at The Joan?
Nick: My role here is Producer – Q programs. The Q is the Joan’s, theatre-making arm. Just to clarify The Joan is that great building, it presents dance, and music, and theatre and a bunch of wonderful stuff. My job, and the role of The Q, which sits inside the building, is to produce and develop professional local theatre. We make theatre for and from the heart of Penrith. We respond to what the local community wants to see, whilst also ensuring the voice of this community is pushed out into the world. We get to export stories as well as import them.
My job is to develop local talent, and also to bring in the best from all around the country, and the world. It is a delicate mix to make sure that we are committing resources and energy to making sure that our local artists are getting opportunities and also attracting some of the best minds that we can.
The Westies: How did you get into Theatre?
Nick: I went to McCarthy Catholic College in Emu Plains where I did drama and enjoyed it. I went to the old Q Theatre, where I saw my first work when I was in Year 11. It really excited me, I knew I had some kind of spark going on with this thing and I was really excited by the sense of community but I had never done external drama classes or anything like that. I went to the University of New South Wales following high school, because Western Sydney University no longer had their theatre program and UNSW was the closest program still running a practice-based theatre course. I wasn’t interested in acting colleges like NIDA, I just knew that it wasn’t my scene. I liked acting, but I didn’t want to commit that much time to just one discipline. So I went to Uni and studied media, with a major in theatre, and really gravitated towards all the practice based courses, whether it was video making, or sound production, or theatre making.
The traditional way of theatre is very white, and very Western, and very European…
The Westies: What productions do you have coming up in 2017?
Nick: We’ve got Black Birds coming up in late March, which is a new work that’s in development right now. It is by Emele Ugavule and Ayeesha Ash, exploring what it means to be a woman of colour in 2017 in Australia, it’s their personal stories. The traditional way of theatre is very white, and very Western, and very European, which clashes with their experience of the world.
Our other major production for this year is a new play called Daisy Moon was Born this Way. It’s really super cute. It is Emily Sheehan’s first major work. Emily is an up and coming playwright with this really lovely kind of acidic but quirky tone about her. She recently won the Rodney Seaborn Award, and we will be the first company to give her a main stage commission, which is a big deal. This particular work is about Daisy Moon growing up in a small beach town where she is the president of the Little Monsters Fan Club (Lady Gaga’s fans) she holds meetings in the bus stop out the front of her parents place – she’s also the clubs only member.
It’s about a young person growing up in a suburban context, experiencing that sense of isolation, and drawing on pop culture to survive and thrive. What I love about Emily’s work is that she takes characters or voices that are often treated as flippant or silly, and gives them a real strength, and points out that obsession with pop culture isn’t just a silly phase and isn’t something that we should be dismissing but celebrating.
The Westies: The Q is quite pro-active in developing new work, can you tell me about the programs you run?
Nick: Sure. We have an artist in residence program. We offer four two-week residencies in our studio. So it’s two weeks space and $2,000 in financial support, and well as drama support and a bit of my time – where I offer an outsiders perspective, along with technical support from the centre. The artist gets to pitch us their idea and we assess them against a set of criteria. It’s really important for us to ensure someone like me isn’t the only one coming up with ideas. It’s a way of welcoming in the community and their different voices.
We also have Propel, which is a play writing program, for 16 to 25-year-old emerging playwrights, in partnership with Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and WestWords.
Originate is also for 16’s to 25-year-olds. But it’s more for performance majors and actors. It’s an ensemble project. Eight artists are brought together over 2 ½ to 3 months and 2017 is extra exciting because they will actually be creating their own work.
This year we have a new project called Highway 234, which is another residency program, it’s in collaboration with PYT in Fairfield and PACT in Erskineville. The objective is to see how can we not just empower performers here, but link them in with other centers – because as an artist, it’s great to have your home, but you need to start linking in with other networks.
The first and most fundamental thing of theatre is to rock up, turning up is what it’s all about.
The Westies: Why do you think is a place like The Joan so important?
Nick: I think it’s really urgent that the community has a platform from which to express themselves. It is really urgent, and really important. There’s a bunch of reasons we can talk about social cohesion, vulnerable communities and priority communities in our areas. We can also talk about economic arguments, we can talk about the turnover, the trade, the tourism, the markets that local production stimulates, but then there’s also just the arts for art’s sake.
There’s this really brutal statistic released a couple of years ago, that 10% of Australia’s population lives in Western Sydney, and the region receives less than 1% of Commonwealth Arts Funding. So 1% is being used to try and open up a platform for this 10% of the population to have either some experience in culture, or express their culture. And so it’s not a difficult leap to make, to assume that a lot of people in that 10% aren’t getting serviced.
That’s why the programs we run are so vital.
The Westies: So how can the community get behind you and support the work of The Q and The Joan?
Nick: The first and most fundamental thing of theatre is to rock up. Whether that is coming to see a show or just to rock up to rehearsals, turning up is what it’s all about.
The second step would be, if they are a really passionate audience, tell us about it (and your friends) – we can always use champions and advocates. And please come along to Daisy Moon and Black Birds, as well all the other shows in the season, which are pretty cool this year.