27/04/2017 - 14:20

Funds shortage keeps puppeteers on a string

27/04/2017 - 14:20

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The need for more funding and resources in WA’s creative sector, and changes to student loans, could be compromising the state’s ability to deliver the training needed to nurture emerging talent. 

Funds shortage keeps  puppeteers on a string
Philip Mitchell says more investment in pathways is required to keep creative graduates in WA. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre artistic director Philip Mitchell is passionate about fostering the next generation of performers and artists, so it comes as no surprise that the Fremantle-based company offers the nation’s only bachelor-accredited puppetry course.

Now in its third iteration, the unit is run in collaboration with the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts as part of its bachelor of performing arts qualification, with students exposed to the specialised art form over 13 weeks.

“Spatial and body awareness is very important in manipulating a puppet, sometimes you’ve got an eight kilogram puppet on your hand,” Mr Mitchell told Business News.

“But puppetry’s not just about the puppet, it’s about visual storytelling through metaphors and allegories.

“That’s what we hope we’re producing, a new generation of performance makers who are thinking about visual language.”

In addition to learning about visual dramaturgy, part of the course involves students working with the company’s production and technical team to create a show in a professional environment.

“Through allegory, we teach these young people that you can talk about universal themes,” Mr Mitchell said.

“It’s about nurturing the emotional intelligence of understanding resilience, empathy and death, to make us stronger and better people.

“We wrap that in entertainment where you can make work appeal to a five year old in the same space as an adult; they just look through a different lens.”

He said the unit had also exposed the company to a wider audience of prospective interns for its First Hand Emergent Training program – an internship in puppetry open to four artists each year.

Although this had provided the company a steady pipeline of new talent, Mr Mitchell said the capacity to take on more interns had been undermined by funding and resources.

Previously funded through the Potter Foundation, Spare Parts was now financing the $3,000 grants from its own core operational funds.

“Students are coming into a sector that is hungry, starving for money and resources,” Mr Mitchell said.

“We are constantly faced with the sad situation where we have to say ‘no’ to projects and partnerships and we are limited by how many interns we can take on.

“In WA, there’s a challenge in retaining artists here, which is why companies like Spare Parts need to be resourced.

“We need to invest in and find pathways for these artists to stay here in WA.”

Training

The number of people engaging in creative arts and culture-related training through institution-based training subsidised by the state government has declined by 39 per cent since 2012, according to data from the Department of Training and Workforce Development WA.

In the space of five years, course enrolments in creative fields, including entertainment, music, screen and media, have dropped from around 4,100 in 2012 to just over 2,500 last year.

While these figures follow a national downward trend in the overall training and apprentice arena, the federal government’s new VET Student Loans scheme, which came into force in January, could further affect the capacity of creative training and the local workforce.

The state government wants the creative sector to provide 8 per cent of WA’s total employment by 2031, almost double the current workforce participation rate (3.7 per cent), as outlined in its ‘Strategic Directions 2016-31’ for the arts and culture sector.

Of the 70 creative arts courses funded by the previous VET Fee-Help student loans scheme, only 13 are now eligible, including diplomas and advanced diplomas of screen and media, graphic design and visual arts.

Two courses offered by the WAAPA – the diploma and advanced diploma of dance (elite performance) and diploma of screen performance – are now ineligible for funding.

And although the federal government provided the opportunity for training and education provider representatives to respond, WAAPA has not had any success to date in having more of its VET courses included in the eligibility lists for student loans.

In an announcement outlining the changes last year, Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham said the revised course list was determined by the country’s ‘skills needs list’, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) objectives and employment outcomes.

The industry manager for creative industries at FutureNow, the WA training council for the creative and leisure industries, Ann-Marie Ryan, said while it was difficult to build careers in the creative world, most graduates were self-employed.

“Getting experience can be difficult; some of the lowest-paid workers are in the creative industries,” Ms Ryan told Business News.

“But it’s not necessarily the case that people will go from a visual arts degree into a visual arts career.

“The demand for the skills that people get from these (creative) qualifications is growing hugely; people want people with visual communication skills across a broad scope of industry now.

“Those skills are very transferable, and highly employable.”

Ms Ryan said web content, which utilised skills such as visual design and strong written communication, was something that almost every business needed.

One recent Australian study, conducted by AlphaBeta Advisors, analysed more than 4 million job advertisements over the course of three years (2013-15).

It found a 212 per cent increase in jobs demanding digital literacy, a 158 per cent rise in the demand for critical thinking and a 65 per cent rise in roles demanding creativity.

“Nobody has a job for life anymore so you need to package your skills,” Ms Ryan said.

“And right at the top of this is tech and creative skills.”

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