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darlinghurst theatre company : glenn terry hands over to amylia harris

Amylia Harris and Glenn Terry. Pics Clare Hawley

As Darlinghurst Theatre Company prepares for its 30th anniversary, it has unveiled a new two-pronged leadership team to future-proof the company’s growth trajectory. As a result, current Co-Artistic Director Amylia Harris has been appointed sole Artistic Director of the company, while founding CEO Glenn Terry will take on the newly created role of Executive Director. This restructuring is accompanied by Terry’s announcement that he plans to retire in early 2022, signalling the start of a search for his successor. 

“This is a huge moment for us, with our founder and leader stepping aside,” Chair of the DTC Board, Vicki Middleton says. “Glenn made his intentions clear to me some time ago, so it’s a day we knew would come and have been working towards.”

“We arrive at this point following a period of exponential growth under Glenn’s leadership,” Middleton continues, “In order to continue to facilitate this growth, strengthen our company, responsibly manage our artistic and business priorities and look after our people, we are transitioning to a new dual leadership model, under an Artistic Director and Executive Director of equal rank. In Amylia Harris we have an exceptional and worthy successor as our new Artistic Director, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”

In 2020, Terry handed the creative reigns to Harris and it was her ground-breaking programming that allowed ‘Darlo’ to successfully weather the impact of COVID-19 and be one of the first theatres anywhere in the world to reopen after the first lockdown. Beginning with Red Carpet Cabaret in June last year and the subsequent Bloom Festival, Harris reactivated the theatre space and uncovered new ways of engaging artists and audiences as government restrictions on public gatherings eased. In doing so, she transformed their home – the Eternity Playhouse – into a scalable cultural hub combining live entertainment with indoor and outdoor dining in a truly immersive experience. 

Prior to the most recent lockdown, productions in this year’s season continued that trend with a three-day body positive burlesque festival titled Big Thick Energy; the transformation of the downstairs foyer into a New York-style piano bar and the birth of Sydney’s newest jazz club with Darlo Underground and open-mic Thirsty Thursdays; a variety show cum visual statement The People of Cabaret: We Are Here celebrating the diversity in the cabaret industry; and the smash-hit Australian premiere of jasmine lee jones’ seven methods of killing kylie jenner. 

The formula worked, earning Darlinghurst Theatre Company the title of Best Theatre in City Hub’s ‘Best of Sydney’ listing for 2021. With a program that boasts everything from cabaret to newly-developed Australian works and innovative new productions of well-known musicals, such as the smash hits Once and A Chorus Line, the company has also taken a stand for radical empowerment and inclusion, committing to a diversity of representation across its entire structure.

“We want all humans to see themselves represented at Darlo. We’re working to build safe spaces where audiences and artists can be brave and curious.” Harris states.

For Glenn Terry, this has been a long time coming, and the culmination of many years spent searching for the right person to whom he could entrust his legacy – someone who understands that social inclusion is part of the Darlo DNA.

“It’s all about the ethics I’ve tried to instil for years – what a company is and what it should do,” Terry explains. “Amylia really gets what the heart and soul of Darlo is and, more importantly, she can take it to the next level.” 

In a typical act of self-contradiction, Glenn Terry proclaims, “Theatre isn’t a religion, but it is.”

“There’s an ethical side to it and it requires people who are willing to come on board and run with it. Amylia is just that type of person and she’s demonstrated incredible leadership by employing artists to plan and expand a future for the company we want to become.”

Terry continues, “While others tried to come to terms with the lockdown and the ever-changing restrictions, Amylia got on with the job. Not only has she figured out ways to keep producing, but she’s also led the way for the development of our cultural policy. In many ways, it’s a crystallisation of the Darlo ethos, which is as it should be, given that Darlinghurst really is the birthplace of inclusion in Australia.” 

Inclusion has been a hallmark of everything Glenn Terry’s done, starting with the establishment of Darlo Drama, a performance based acting school for adults of all ages and from all walks of life. Next year it will celebrate its 30th anniversary. This was followed in 1993 by the first performances of Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the old Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. The inaugural production was a staging of Waiting for Godot with an all-female ensemble. Samuel Beckett’s estate took exception to the casting and forced the show’s cancellation after just one week of performances. Incorporated in 1996 the company produced 28 productions over 6 years, including new Australian plays, which were largely funded through Darlo Drama. 

In 1999 a storm destroyed the Wayside Chapel’s roof and the company took up residence at the Reginald Murphy Hall in Potts Point, which was kindly offered by the South Sydney Council. Glenn Terry set about transforming the space into a theatre using seating and equipment salvaged from Her Majesty’s Theatre, which was being demolished at the time. The first production staged at the new venue was William Mastrosimone’s The Woolgatherer starring Marta Dusseldorp and Alan Flower.

Shortly thereafter, Terry founded Milk Crate Theatre, which this year marks 21 years of theatre making specifically by and with people who have lived experience of homelessness, mental health issues and disability. This was followed in 2005 by the establishment of Critical Stages Touring, which has delivered outstanding independent productions to every corner of the nation, engaging audiences from Bundaberg to Bunbury and beyond. 

In 2009, the City of Sydney invited Glenn Terry to collaborate on the design and construction of a brand-new world class artistic venue within the walls of the former Burton Street Tabernacle, a 129-year-old heritage-listed building in the heart of Darlinghurst. Thus the 200-seat Eternity Playhouse was born, named by Clover Moore after the work of legendary Sydney artist, Arthur Stace. Darlinghurst Theatre Company moved into the playhouse in 2013, while its former home went on to house the Hayes Theatre.  

With all these achievements behind him, Terry is confident he can finally hand over the artistic reigns to a new Artistic Director and begin the process of transitioning out of the company he’s spent the last thirty years building. 

“It’s all about getting all the pieces in place, like our documented cultural policy,” Terry says. “Amylia’s arrival six years ago was the final piece of that puzzle. She gets the people and the building. That was the clincher – to find someone who got the building and understood that it was meant to be a platform for inclusion.” 

Terry faced an uphill battle when it came to the redevelopment of the Burton Street Tabernacle into what would become the Eternity Playhouse. As he puts it, it was originally going to be a concrete bunker and he had to push for a return to the first principles of Greek theatre and the creation of a democratic space, in which the audience and the stage were integrated. 

“Now the theatre really is a meeting point in which an exchange of ideas can take place,” says Terry. “It took a lot of trial and error, and thankfully Amylia came along and understood how every facet of the building could be activated in support of our company ethos.” 

For me the theatre is about joy and communal celebration,” Amylia Harris says. “Through joy you can promote resilience and I’m really focussed on how to use our medium and industry to bring us out of this difficult time.”

“Joy is also an act of resistance and I keep coming back to entertainment as a way of joining the revolution and making positive change,” Harris continues. “Radical change can be achieved through art, but you’re not going to do it on your own or by doing it the way it’s been done before.”

Producer and Head of New Writing at Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Leila Enright, has worked with Amylia Harris for over two years and throughout the entire pandemic. She describes Harris as impact driven rather than form driven.

“There are thousands of ways to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be text based or the way it’s always been told,” Harris agrees, acknowledging Enright’s description of her. “I’m all about impact and values. ”

“I like to surprise and be surprised,” Harris continues. “I don’t want our audiences to be apathetic or indifferent. When you come to Darlo you might see a work that challenges you, but it should trigger a shift in perspective.” 

Harris cites the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart as an example of this approach to programming. “If you build trust with your artists and your audience,” she explains, “you can deliver an experience unlike anything that’s gone before.” Harris adds, “I’ve developed my high curatorial standards from continual learning. 

As the newly appointed Artistic Director, those curatorial responsibilities will fall squarely on Amylia Harris’ shoulders. Fortunately, she has the complete confidence of Glenn Terry and the Board. 

“Amylia has a really good artistic eye, from the exploratory to the commercial,” Terry says. “None of her choices are just about her – she’s not in it for her own glorification. She’s all about the people.”

“I want to offer audiences works that extend beyond my personal lens,” Harris says. “By seeking out many perspectives, we can make a greater contribution to our theatre ecology. I see my role as Artistic Director as more curatorial,”

How will Harris ensure she upholds the curatorial standards needed to gain the trust of artists and audiences alike?

“It’s all about being connected to different communities and understanding trends,” she says. “Through respect and deep listening, I can find myself invited into spaces where it’s possible to discover new trends developing. If a work is being lauded by community leaders, that is something I must take note of. Often these new ideas can develop and inspire cultural shifts and artistic movements. I like to expose myself too as many different ideas as possible and select those that will be celebrated by a broader audience.”

“As Glenn said, I recognise commercial appeal and I can cater to the mainstream while challenging ideas and form,” Harris continues. “It’s about knowing your audience and exploring the Zeitgeist. I see what artists on the fringe are doing and I watch how audiences respond. Sometimes I’m even surprised by my own reaction.” 

Does this mean an end to the more commercial titles, which have broken Darlo’s box office records time and time again?

“By no means,” Harris replies. “We’ve added so many strings to our bow and those shows are part of our roadmap. You could say they’re our tools of survival. After all, they fund what we do. For example, our playwright development program is funded by our commercial revenue. We also need to develop a sustainable economic model. We don’t want to be reliant on government handouts for the rest of our lives.”

“That’s not to suggest that we produce these commercial musicals just to make money. We’ve made sure the titles we program always fit our ethos. Take Once and A Chorus Line. Both have challenging ideas – cultural inclusion being just one of them – and they’re exceptional works produced by artists of the highest calibre.” 

What does Harris see as the hallmarks of her vision for the company?

“Connection and community are at the core of everything we do. We’re building a theatre for everyone and to do that, we must be unwavering in our commitment to champion inclusion and belonging while consciously working to reduce barriers. My message to everyone is, ‘Come as you are! You will feel celebrated,’ and that applies to both artists and audiences.” 

In delivering this message, Harris has the full support of the Board behind her. 

“Amylia is a visionary, creative, deeply generous artistic leader,” says Vicki Middleton, “and she will continue to shape the company under her own vision in its next era, whilst staying true to the values and ethos instilled by Glenn that makes Darlo so special; a legacy we look forward to celebrating and upholding.” 

Few people can claim to have given a city two brand new theatres and founded four unique performing arts organisations that continue to thrive decades later. Glenn Terry has done just that. His is a well-earned retirement, secure in the knowledge that the future of his pride and joy – Darlinghurst Theatre Company – is in safe hands. 

Does Terry have any parting words on the way out the door? Trying to suppress a grin, he quips, “I told you so.” |

Amylia Harris will lead the 2022 artistic program and planning process. More details regarding the search for a new Executive Director will be made available on the Darlinghurst Theatre Company website in mid-October. 

Featured image : Amylia Harris. Pic Clare Hawley

http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY JANSSON ANTMANN  WHICH HE HAS KINDLY GIVEN SYDNEY ARTS GUIDE  PERMISSION TO PUBLISH.

 

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