Quick Chats: Interview with Anne Marie Heath from The Art House, Wyong
The second interview in our new online series, Quick Chats is Positive Solutions Director David Fishel speaking with Anne-Marie Heath, Executive Director at Arts House Wyong. Quick Chats are short, sharp, bite-sized interviews with our peers in the hope that the ‘all in this together’ slogan can be put to work and deeply connect with people to foster conversations about the future of our sector.
Anne-Marie is Executive Director at The Art House in Wyong on the NSW Central Coast. Her performing arts management career previously included executive roles at Merrigong Theatre Company and City Recital Hall Sydney amongst others. She is a board member of Terrapin and Performing Lines
Being the first Manager of a brand new theatre is a rare opportunity, and challenge. What are the key learnings you have taken from the first few years of operation?
There was no established audience and no database. Building from the ground up led to some very determined thinking about audience development. We have put special energy into building a younger audience, and seem to have succeeded with the 35-55 age group. The education program has gone really well – teachers are now hungry for the work. But it’s been a painstaking one-on-one process building up relationships and demand.
We are searching for new audiences all the time, extending beyond comedy and tribute shows and – beyond program choice – focusing on every customer interaction, at the box office, bar and elsewhere.
Our program development investment has led to the establishment for three new arts organisations locally. We are concerned to build the professional sector, complementing an already-strong amateur scene.
Beyond the theatre we have also had an impact on the local economy – with new cafes having started up, a new sense of vitality in the town.
The arms-length not-for-profit model has worked well for The Art House. It has given us the ability to negotiate with hirers and to be flexible on fees and charges – vital in a changing world. Staff terms are based on the industry award, not on the local government award.
Another learning – the design of new venues needs to involve experienced theatre managers at an early stage. Retro-fitting changes just isn’t practical.
More broadly, what are the main industry changes you have seen in recent years?
Presenters are shifting from receiving houses or ‘halls for hire’ to generating more of their own work. They are also seeking deeper engagement with producers, and investing in new shows. Performing arts centres are evolving into cultural hubs.
Out-of-town try-outs are a good way to go in the future. The challenge of being so close to Sydney (as is Merrigong at Wollongong) can be turned to an advantage. It would be the same for other theatres near capital cities.
Both of these trends highlight the need for rehearsal facilities in performing arts centres – both black box studios which can be used for rehearsals and developmental work, but also dedicated rehearsal space.
What medium-term impact do you think the pandemic will have on the theatre/arts industry?
I don’t think there’ll be return a return to ‘normal’. There will be more transfers, more flexible working, and a need for more nimble and agile organisations.
2021 will probably be a big year for available product as no companies will yet be going overseas. That’ll change in 2022 if international travel opens up, and if Government tightens the purse strings to begin reducing debt. Longer term, the large, long tours may have had their day. More work will be generated through collaborations and partnerships. As an industry we aren’t doing enough of this yet.
At The Art House we may seek residencies, and engage in more outreach work, especially in the field of education. We need to figure out how best to support artists locally – helping them develop schools programs, for example. Ideally we’d have people like that on our team. We will also be programming parks, open spaces, and be less focused on the hard infrastructure.
What are the key words of advice you would give to someone entering the field of arts/theatre management now?
- Find mentors – as many as you can
- Work in a small organisation first, and learn everything – you become a more valuable asset later
- Work in a regional venue – see diverse product, build networks, work in close community engagement
- Work out why you are in the sector – what does the arts mean for you