Mark Howett is pushing for Perth to think internationally. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Regional route a funding play

Having spent years working overseas in Europe and the UK, director and lighting designer Mark Howett is acutely aware of the need for art to appeal far beyond its own cultural base.

That’s particularly the case when it comes to securing federal funding, he says, given the arts’ growing role as what he calls soft diplomacy.

With a career that started at the old Playhouse Theatre in 1979, Mr Howett is now artistic director of the Ochre Contemporary Dance Company in Subiaco.

Mr Howett said his time in the UK solidified a commercial understanding of theatre production.

He recalls working with West End producer and Everton Football Club chair Bill Kenwright, who, despite spending millions recruiting soccer players, would give a harsh rebuke for even small excesses in the production budget.

“It’s all those little things that add up to you breaking your back on a show, you’ve really got to keep it under if you want to make money on a commercial level,” Mr Howett told Business News.

“Yes, it’s an artistic venture, but it’s a financial and commercial one as well.”

A common West End practice that Mr Howett has implemented at Ochre is the regional development of shows.

“In the UK they develop regionally and make corrections the whole way,” he said.

“Then, when the show’s ready, they bring it onto the West End.

“It’s been a bit of a battle convincing government [in Western Australia] because it’s been the other way around – you make the show in Perth, then you get funding to take it out regionally.

“But this show, for example, I’ll have already done three times before opening because we’ve taken it regionally.”

Mr Howett’s upcoming venture is Kwongkan, a collaboration of Ochre and India’s Daksha Sheth Dance Company, for the Perth Festival.

Meaning ‘sand’ in Nyoongar language, Kwongkan addresses the large number of climate catastrophes affecting the planet, and was cross-culturally developed over three years.

Mr Howett said touring the production regionally had given it a stronger case to apply for government funding.

“Everything has to go incredibly well for you to make a show that’s critically well received in the short amount of time you’re given now – especially with the cuts that have come into government funding – that you can then on-sell,” he said.

“Whereas if you’ve already performed it multiple times, you’ve done corrections.

“All of those things really help you create a work that has a chance of standing on its feet.”

Federal government is increasingly aiming to use the arts as an international political endeavour, Mr Howett said, meaning shows must prove their ability to appeal beyond Australian culture.

“If you want to survive as an arts company in Australia, you need to have an international touring profile, because that’s how you attract federal funding,” he said.

“That’s really what the government want, because really it’s soft diplomacy.”

Mr Howett's upcoming Perth shows include Kwongkan, beginning February 16, and The Line with Co3 Australia, premiering May 15.

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