Help the performing arts recover

10 September, 2020

 

Dr Kate Rice is the inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow. Her Fellowship commenced in March 2020 but due to COVID-19, Kate had to quickly change her plans for researching the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

As is the case for many of us, 2020 isn’t quite turning out the way I expected.

In January, I was thrilled to be awarded the inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellowship. My chosen project was to uncover some of the stories contained within the Australian Performing Arts Collection and present them in a series of creative docu-drama podcasts that would breathe new life into performances of the past. I looked forward to spending hours in the Research Centre located in Hamer Hall, sifting through boxes of treasure, surrounded by piles of precious scrapbooks, scripts, programmes and photographs. The beauty of it was that not even I knew what I would find.

 

Cover of scrapbook owned by singer Ruth Wallace

 

Cover of scrapbook owned by singer Ruth Wallace, who performed in touring vaudeville productions around Australia in the late 19th century.
Gift of Mrs Dudley-Smith
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The very first day of my Fellowship, 16 March, was the first day of state government COVID-19 restrictions. No physical access to the Collection. I wasn’t even allowed in the building. Over the course of the first few weeks, I worked with research service coordinator Claudia Funder to develop an entirely new approach.

Browsing was impossible; following tangential sparks of interest was difficult. I would have to start each area of inquiry with specific targets. Claudia could then run searches on the database and provide reports from the Collection; I could then identify which items might be of interest. If they were already digitised, as most of the photographs are, she could send them through. If not, as most of the scrapbooks, scripts and programs are not, she could go in and digitise them – by taking photos of pages, one by one. The organic process of skimming through material looking for inspiration became a mechanical two-person undertaking that took more than twice as long. Unproductive searches would now waste Claudia’s time as well as my own. Inevitably, the research process would be affected by the practical limitations on access.

 

Cover of scrapbook owned by actress Marian Dunn, aka Marian Marcus Clarke

 

Cover of scrapbook owned by actress Marian Dunn, aka Marian Marcus Clarke, who performed in touring theatre productions across the USA in the early 20th century.
Gift of J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, 1978
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Yet the impact on the project has mostly been positive. The extra pressure and limited access has pushed me to be creative and stay open to unusual possibilities. I have been forced to squeeze as much value and story as possible out of all the treasures Claudia finds for me. (I have also been inspired to research the impact on the performing arts of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, a topic that has attracted little scholarship or creative attention.)

Four months later, I have almost completed two of my docu-drama podcast scripts, and a further three are in the pipeline. The process is indeed giving life to performances of the past, via a particularly challenging present, that is affecting the project in surprising ways. But research and the creative process is nothing without the element of surprise, and the best way forward is always to expect the unexpected.

 

Cover of scrapbook of theatre newspaper cuttings from the Spanish Influenza period

 

Cover of scrapbook of theatre newspaper cuttings from the Spanish Influenza period,1918-19.
Transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library, Sydney Opera House, 1997
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Dr Kate Rice is the inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow. She has a background in playwriting, specialising in creating work based on real events and ethical creative process.

Find out more about the Frank Van Straten Fellowship and applications for 2021.

 

Dr Kate Rice, inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow

 

Dr Kate Rice, inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

Go to the top