A strong arts scene is recognised as one of the elements that attracts and keeps people in regional centres, and a key person in arts leadership in our region is Peter Ross. He brings experience, passion and a creative outlook to the role – if you’ll pardon the pun. A relative newcomer to the city, in his roughly 10 years here he has ‘changed the direction of theatre in Tamworth’, according to one nominator, raising the bar on locally produced shows; bringing outstanding artists to perform in our larger venues such as TRECC, the Capitol Theatre and the town hall; increasing audiences; touring shows to smaller venues in the council area; and even securing an international company to premiere its national and global touring show, The Unbelievables, right here in Tamworth. We sat down with Peter just over a year ago to learn more about his work and what it takes for the show to go on.
PETER Ross admits he’s a man who likes analogies. During an hour-long chat behind the scenes at the Capitol Theatre, there are references to ducks, plates, rivers, icebergs and mountains. It’s a colourful conversation, perhaps to be expected from a creative person.
But the most striking comparison he makes is between the theatre community and the church.
Even for a non-churchgoer, it evokes images of people gathering in a special place and – depending on which way they’re facing – either hoping to experience something out of the ordinary or wanting to contribute to the social fabric of the community. Most of all, it evokes images of believers; in this case, believers in the power of the arts.
Background: What’s this ‘Faces of Tamworth’ all about?
REASON FOR THE SEASON
We spoke a few days before the launch of Season 2017 at Tamworth Regional Council’s three entertainment venues: the theatre, town hall and TRECC.
As their manager, Peter is responsible for curating the season, which next year will be a record 34 local and touring events.
Planning can start years before the show ever makes it to a Tamworth stage.
“A lot of people don’t quite get the depth it takes to a. put on a production and b. put on a whole season of shows, and the long-term planning and seeding of ideas for that production to land here as a performance piece,” he says.
“Our audiences will come and see it, we might have three shows and then it’s gone, but it could have been three or four years in the making.”
Peter says promoters will often contact him about touring to the city, but he also attends conferences and “arts markets” to peruse what’s available.
“Producers come and pitch their shows; they might talk about it for couple of minutes, show a video or do an excerpt … sometimes during festivals so you might actually get to see the show,” he says.
“If I’m away for work, I’ll try to see some stuff – I want to know that what I’ve said is good, is good, so that the audience trusts what we offer here.”
An all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment, creativity and new ideas. Sounds like a sweet gig.
But a personal passion, once it becomes a career, takes on a different angle. Peter says he finds himself evaluating everything from the car park to the foyer carpet to how the ushers work.
“People say it must be so glamorous. It is, but … I suppose you’re always ‘on’, so it is hard to be ‘taken away’ as much any more,” he says.
“But it does happen, and I find myself sitting there in tears or something because I’ve just been blown away and forget about everything.
“That’s great to still have that, because I know, ‘What I’m feeling now is what audiences will feel’.”
Peter says sometimes venue managers from a few different places – maybe Tamworth, Dubbo, Cessnock and Port Macquarie – “might get together on a product that we really want, approach a producer for a mini-tour”.
TEN PEOPLE, THREE VENUES, MANY SHOWS
Peter and a team of another nine people keep the shows ticking over in the three venues: an operations production co-ordinator, who looks after non-ticketed events such as conferences and trade shows; a ticketing services co-ordinator, who also covers other venues including AELEC and the community centre; a marketing co-ordinator to “get bums on seats”; a client and customer service officer – “the first port of call for the public and tour promoters”; a senior venue technician; and one part-time and three full-time techs.
“That sounds like a lot [of technicians], but when you have multiple events across the three venues, sometimes one venue will need two of the venue techs,” Peter says.
“Also, you’re not only working on the event now, the person for next week is ringing you up and wanting to know stuff. I call it plate-spinning [here he does an entertaining mime of the circus art that, unfortunately, wouldn’t translate well into a written medium).
“Of course, you want to make sure the event you’re working with now thinks that’s all you're thinking about, so it is like that classic analogy of the calm river – or the iceberg – or the ducks.”
Peter says the team members have worked really hard to establish relationshps with major promoters and producers.
“Like any business, you can’t relax on that,” he says.
“We have this great saying in the industry: ‘You’re only as good as your last show’, which is so true.
“You’ve got to keep on your guard, keep on your ball, keep delivering, because it’s just so important.
“We have a very strong reputation; you only have to look at how busy we are and the amount of promoters who do come to us and say, ‘We want to put on a show here’ – and they keep coming back. That’s confidence not only in us as a venue but in the region as well.”
However, while metro dance, theatre and drama companies see the benefit in exporting their creative product to Tamworth, Peter reckons we have a lot to offer, too.
“Regional areas also make quality work – and that’s not to be forgotten.”
Peter says his team works hard with all the community groups that use the venues, to help them with anything from marketing to staging. He says it helps to keep the “ecosystem of the performing arts” healthy.
“The theatre is like the church and they’re part of the parish,” he says.
“You can’t not connect with people who are part of the passion and the belief of what the theatre can do.”
Then there’s the infrastructure, accessibility, lifestyle and affordability a place like Tamworth has for newcomers.
“A lot of artists are moving to regional areas, but also a lot of small to medium theatre companies in the major capitals are quite intrigued by the idea of maybe coming to do a residency to workshop a piece away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney, tapping into those regional thoughts, ideas and feedback audiences, and then potentially coming back again and premiering a new work in a regional theatre,” Peter says.
“I’m talking to a producer about doing that in a couple of years … regions can be great to create, the lifestyle is much better.”
But don’t you have to be tortured to be an artist? Peter answers with faux wholehearted agreement for humorous effect.
“Well, you do, you do. So you get tortured by going, ‘I wish there was better coffee in town’ … although in Tamworth we have very good coffee.”
And he sips from his takeaway cup, much-needed caffiene after a late night preparing the launch of another big season of entertainment.
POWER OF THE ARTS
We talk a little about Broadway, which leads into the surprising and volatile political situation in the US [Donald Trump had recently been named president-elect].
Peter, whose background is in musical theatre performance, stage management, vocal teaching, direction, production and arts management, says “the arts are always in a good position when things are unstable”.
“The arts can come out strong, really, because I think communities look to the arts for either escapism or to help process what’s going on,” he says.
“Quite often theatre especially, films as well, are a voice for the way people are feeling.”
And he says that, no matter what the zeitgeist, society’s fabric would be impoverished without the arts.
“Nothing makes you feel like live theatre or live entertainment.
“Movies are great, but there’s some extra-special dimension about being in a theatre and watching a show that you know is only going to be the same that night.
“Even though it’s the same show, the next night is different.
“There’s such a live relationship and performing-wise that’s what I love. I love that the audience is so important.
“Theatre can be … a great crutch, I suppose: you can escape into a musical when you’re down.
“I get so many audience members come out going, ‘Oh, I was just needing something to pick me up or make me feel better or take me away’.”
Education and family works even have the power to bridge generational divides, Peter says.
“Grandparents might take their grandkids, and it’s a great conversation-starter after the show, rather than heads back down into iPads and phones and computers.”
He says he feels “very privileged” to be in a job “where I can feel that what I’m contributing to a community is making a difference”.
“It’s bloody hard work, so that just helps you get up in the morning and keep going – because you know you’re making a difference.”