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What makes an actor move to another country? Is it the perception that there is more work elsewhere? Does English or American training make you more employable in Australia? Is it just the fashion of the day that dictates where the best place to practice your craft is? Is the Australian entertainment industry a slave to fashion, or do we have the talent, and the courage, to stand alone in the world of global entertainment?
Being part of the Aussie entertainment industry has been a really great and challenging experience for me since, in 1981, I arrived in Australia to assist with the staging of Elvis the Musical. This was a time of renaissance in the industry here. For many years Australian entertainers had deemed it necessary to make their way to the United Kingdom to further their careers after making a name for themselves in Australia, many with the help of such famous Australians as the redoubtable Doris Fitton or JC Williamson. John McCullum (who married Googie Withers), June Bronhill, Lewis Fiander, Keith Mitchell, John Bell, Barry Humphries, Zoe Caldwell, James Smillie are just a few of the more successful ones. Some stayed overseas and made their homes in the UK or America, others returned and brought home new-found skills to the Australian industry, while some again even got famous enough to gain an international reputation and continue to work both at home and abroad.
So prevalent was this “head overseas” mentality that the West End would have come to a grinding halt if the chorus line of any show did not have its fair share of Australians in the chorus – or occupying the lead roles.
Coming to Australia was a real culture shock. There was such a wide range of talent in Australia with few opportunities to utilise it. British imports were still considered more worthwhile than a home-grown production. However, the ‘80s saw the commencement of a period when Australia started to really come into its own and produce talent on-shore rather than off-shore. The ’90s followed suit with the rise of the likes of Cate Blanchett to the international stage and screen almost immediately following her training at NIDA. We can quickly draft a list an arm’s length long of actors who, during these and following years, would become Australian legends: Hugh Jackman, Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Jack Thomson, Paul Hogan, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, Judy Davies, Jacki Weaver, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Richard Roxburgh, Heath Ledger, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Naomi Watts, Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Naomi Watts, Sam Worthington, Joel Edgerton, Simon Baker, David Wenham…
The Australian film industry was thriving and making some very good films.
Jump forward to 2014, and the location has changed from the UK to America. To have a chance these days you have to dive into the American industry with a focus firmly on film as opposed to stage. It is now seen as a rite of passage. It has, for some time, been perceived that our industry is second rate and that it is always better to work overseas. Our home-grown TV products are at last getting some air-time overseas – although we still tend to frown upon such classics as Neighbours and Home and Away, despite them enjoying enormous success overseas.
Recently we have started to produce really imaginative and saleable products the likes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, The Secret Life of Us, Rake, Packed to the Rafters and Serangoon Road. We are also producing musical theatre, some of which, to my mind, is far superior to productions I have seen in The West End and on Broadway.
We still have some of the best training for actors in the world, but are we training for an export market? Even the teaching reflects the popularity of working in America over working in Australia.
As it becomes more and more difficult to get anything produced that has been written and developed in Australia, we continue to import directors, actors and crews from overseas. And anything that comes from overseas is still considered to be a better option at the box office than a home-grown production. We still have some of the best training for actors in the world, but are we training for an export market? Even the teaching reflects the popularity of working in America over working in Australia.
“No prospects here,” is what I hear it all the time.
We seem to have reached a point where our more successful actors get their most high-profile work overseas and it is perceived that going overseas has more likelihood of success than staying at home. If you look at the scale of work available there is obviously a wider range of opportunity overseas, but there are also more actors vying for the work. Not more work, just more opportunity. We have very talented actors in Australia, but lately it seems that the media focus is geared towards the actors who have made a profile for themselves outside Australia. The many talented actors who haven’t played a leading role in a musical overseas find themselves waiting in queues at auditions unable to catch the eyes of the producers or casting agents, as their profile isn’t an international one. If you get cast in one of the more high-profile Australian TV shows, you make your way to Hollywood as soon as your contract has expired and you have a show-reel to tout around the Hollywood scene, while you do endless yoga/workout classes and take expensive acting coaching to keep yourself visible, and occupied, as your savings dwindle away. You still have to work hard to get a visa/work permit for both America and the UK so it isn’t easy-going to work overseas. If only our immigration policies did not make it so easy for foreign actors to walk in and be cast in our Australian shows; the dismantling of the union system in Australia has not served the actor well.
It is no wonder our artists are joining the ever-increasing band of dissatisfied people who, seeing no future in Australia, are seeking fame and fortune (or just a decent wage for the right amount of work) overseas.
All in all it is really interesting to observe that with a greater range of high-quality performers coming out of our extraordinary performing arts courses, we see a greater number of artists jumping on a plane to the States to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. With the policies of the new government unlikely to assist arts funding in any way, it may be the Australian entertainer’s only option to go overseas to find work. A healthy Arts industry equals a healthy society but as things stand at the moment the Arts is far from healthy.
With the exception of a handful of organisations that get help from a few wealthy and generous philanthropists to top up their dwindling government funding, the Arts is chugging along like a bunch of refugees in a leaky boat. It is no wonder our artists are joining the ever-increasing band of dissatisfied people who, seeing no future in Australia, are seeking fame and fortune (or just a decent wage for the right amount of work) overseas.
I wonder how long it will be before fashion/government policy dictates a turnaround and all our actors head home.
And when/if this happens, do we have room for them?