Case Study: NORPA

Based in the regional centre of Lismore in the Northern Rivers NSW, Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA) is renowned for presenting a Season of curated and home-grown works that are both challenging and accessible to regional audiences.

Increasing access to the performing arts is at the core of NORPA’s artistic program, embracing the diversity of the region, and engaging with the community in relevant and dynamic ways. NORPA is a great example of a regional Australian performing arts centre, that creates exciting contemporary performing arts and speaks with an authentic voice of regional communities.

In 2007 Julian Louis took over as Artistic Director and immediately set to work continuing to forge an original identity for NORPA in the support, creation and development of new Australian work.  Louis has always believed in the generation of creativity through connection, collaboration and exploration.

Julian has also spent some time in Western Australia and understands the WA ‘landscape’ well. Julian has worked on theatre projects for Southern Edge Arts in Albany and directed a 24 hour theatre project throughout the Pilbara for the IPAF and loved his time in Western Australia and the “amazing country” here.

Julian’s work now is focused through NORPA managing the performing arts centre in Lismore, as well as being inspired to create professional theatre works in the regional centre through their ‘Generator Program’. Julian explains that  “Generator is NORPA’s program for developing new work. We develop our theatre from scratch – fresh and local…. We collaborate with community groups, leading theatre companies and professional artists across Australia”

Julian is passionate about challenging the notion of what quality theatre is and is excited by sharing, creating and exploring the voice of regional communities.

Recent Generator works include Railway Wonderland (2015), My Radio Heart (2014), The Home Project (2013), Railway Wonderland (2012), Beautiful Bones (2012), Open House (2011) and Engine (2010).

Work is currently underway for Julian and NORPA’s most recent production in development Dreamland.

“Dreamland is our new site-specific devised work celebrating the special place small halls occupy in regional communities across Australia. Local halls are gathering places that carry the marks of how our communities have changed, and are changing.”

Hear Julian talk about the creation of this work here…

We interviewed Julian regarding his and NORPA’s creative practice and his thoughts of creating theatre in regional Australia.

Q: Please tell us a bit about the work you do in creating theatre in regional Australia and why you love it so much?

A: I make theatre that the community can own – work inspired by local places, characters and stories that are connected and relevant to our region. That doesn’t mean our work is only about the northern rivers, or is only for local audiences. Great stories have universal themes.  Our work reflects contemporary Australia while also helping shape contemporary Australia with a regional perspective. The work is built from the ground up. In conjunction with performers and artistic collaborators, our works are devised. We don’t start with a text based script, which for me as a theatre maker creates room for physical theatre, music and spectacle.

Our audiences love our theatrical adventures – our home grown works are always the most popular in our annual season – because NORPA work takes us and our audiences to daring places. Our work is even performed outside the conventional theatre space – a disused railway station; ancient community halls; or an old local house.  Our sources of inspiration arise from the world about us now and can touch back to the time of indigenous creation. It isn’t possible to create these shows in a five week rehearsal period; it can take two or three years in the creative process for the essence of the story to emerge and be formed.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your work in development, ‘Dreamland’ and what drew you to tell these stories set in the regional ‘town hall/s’?

A: Dreamland is a work that takes our research into the communities surrounding a small community hall in Eureka – which is in the Byron bay hinterland. I live near here and drive past this hall everyday to work in Lismore. We have had hours of recorded conversations with the local people about the role of the hall in their lives, its history, and its current function as a place for gatherings and community events.

This is an amazing site for a work, and we hope that the work can perhaps tour to small halls in the northern rivers and small halls anywhere!?

Our mission is to create a work inspired by these characters and stories. We will then tell these stories through scenes that will cross time – we love shows that can be multi generational – and we do this a lot with music and shifting with the characters into other eras. We apply these stories to an outdoor site like an old hall, and then people bring their nostalgia, their ideas and experiences to that place. The audience provides a backdrop for the show with their memories – that’s a very beautiful way of working. We also use dance and physical theatre so the works are highly entertaining.

We are also currently working on Journey to an Unnamed World. It is an immersive work for school aged children, which is being supported by the Catholic Schools Office. Also in creative development is Three Brothers – inspired by a Bundjalung creation story –it is a story of family legacy and cultural identity, which will be expressed through dance, song, storytelling and imagery.

Q: Can you explain the concept of ‘bigger sky thinking’ and how it relates to the work you create at NORPA?

A: I am talking about bigger sky thinking as a way of building a larger view of what quality theatre is, as well as, what it can be in the future. It is the idea that the theatre industry needs to venture outside the capital cities and discover more regional stories and perspectives. That venues and regional towns are not just places to tour work to but are places where we can collaborate and build new Australian theatre.

There is incredible richness and depth in indigenous stories and culture and I would like to see more resources and focus placed on artists living in regional areas. I can really imagine the amazing stories that would come out of that shift in resources and can envisage international works that could reflect Australian theatre with more stories told from the bush. I live and work in a very diverse and highly cultural place – the ‘regional’ demographic continues to change and evolve.

At NORPA our theatre is connecting to more and more people. We have built trust in the work NORPA creates, and as that trust grew we were able to take more risks. Those creative risks are paying off and our audiences are engaged.

Q: What are some of your key challenges in presenting work, running a regional arts centre and creating performing arts works in Lismore?

A: I think it’s that trifecta, we are so many things and it is challenging. Perhaps that’s why funding bodies aren’t sure where to place us. It is pretty amazing however when these three business units can compliment and work for each other. We are the full package. Our new works builds audiences for national touring works, and vice versa, our venue, which we manage for Lismore City Council, provides us with a home and we provide a cultural hub and community facility.

Q: What are the three most amazing projects you have worked on and why?

A: The recent work I directed Railway Wonderland played three weeks of sold out shows at a disused railway station. This was a return Season from our 2012 Season of a week) Even during the most violent storms I have ever witnessed, there was no one who shied away and our audiences loved the show! Certainly this show is the highlight of my career so far and built with a versatile and talented cast, local choir and with wonderful collaborations.

My Radio Heart is a beautiful work by a mixed abilities ensemble of performers and in creative partnership with Urban Theatre Projects.

Open House which was a wild circus show set in a real house in north Lismore.  – It was so much fun to surprise, from the bus that took the audience to a secret location to full circus rig in the backyard. This was an anarchic show and totally immersive for the audience.

Each of these works had appeal for audiences of all ages – I guess we make works that are accessible for a broad audience while still being adventurous – that’s what makes them amazing.