‘Patrick White once said to me, “Paint your own landscape”.’ Celebrated actor, Robyn Nevin, took White’s advice to heart and has been creating her own canvas ever since—and what a big picture it’s been.
Considered by many to be the doyenne of Australian theatre, Nevin was just 16 when she entered the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in its very first intake.
Three-time winner of the Sydney Critics' Circle Award for her theatre work, she has also won several Logies, was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the performing arts in 1981, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Tasmania in 1999 and gave the Australia Day Address in 2004.
Nevin’s career has also been enormously influential behind the scenes, as Artistic Director at Queensland Theatre Company from 1996 to 1999, and subsequently at Sydney Theatre Company until 2007.
A life as it’s best lived, as she said recently at an AMPAG event in Canberra, through engaging with the action of our times, ‘dark and difficult as it might be’.
In addressing a room full of politicians, she drew the comparison between the two occupations: ‘Artists and politicians share that focus on life as it’s lived—and as it might be lived. We both shape and wrestle the great truths, the great debates and drama of our time.
‘And the comedy.’
Nevin mentioned two recent projects she’d been working on—one filming a new ABC comedy series calledStories We Want to Tell you in Person, written by Lally Katz, in which she plays an 80-year-old Hungarian woman; and the other filming a new movie calledRuben Guthrie, written by Brendan Cowell.
Both projects began life in Belvoir’s tiny Downstairs theatre.
‘The reason I mention these two projects is not because they are my most recent accomplishments but because they offer a very vivid example of successful long-term development in Australian artists, in Australian stories and in the role played by Australia’s major performing arts companies.
‘I saw these two writers when they were brilliant young Turks and invited them into the STC when I was running it because I wanted my company to shine more brightly.
‘So they were given support at the crucially right moment of their careers by the STC, with funding from federal and state governments. And those writers now are both successful film, television and theatre writers—so the dividend is there for all to see, from that long-term investment, in their success in the marketplace.’
She said there’s a long and growing list of celebrated artists, such as Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh, who share the same narrative, having learned their craft on the stages of our subsidised theatres.
‘As did I—I am an absolute product of the government’s subsidised system and very proud to be saying so.
‘You could go on, naming ballet dancers, opera singers, designers, directors, composers, musicians, arts administrators, all of them with careers shaped by funding from federal and state governments—and all of whom contributed to the expression of our culture throughout all of the electorates, throughout the country, and across the world.'
As Nevin said in her 2004 Australia Day address: ‘As a result of decades of subsidy from the enlightened we are represented globally by high visibility Australians who use their own voices, or not, as needed. But they still sound as they used to in the school ground. They haven’t had to shed their origins in order to be accepted.
‘They have an ease about them. They can work anywhere. Now, as Melvyn Bragg observes “Australians sound the world over like a people unself-consciously proud and totally confident in the way they talk”. Subsidy shaped our contemporary history.’
At the Canberra event she made the point that not only did the 28 MPA organisations employ 9000 people last year, they continually invest in the nation’s future by developing the artists and audiences of tomorrow ‘through the extensive and thoughtful access that they offer through schools to students’.
‘Those very early experiences are crucial in the intellectual and social development of our children and thence of our nation.
‘And then there’s the touring—we [the major performing arts companies] go everywhere. Outer suburbs, outer regions. We establish important relationships with locals which we maintain by returning on a regular basis thanks to our federal and state government funding.
‘So we are in the happy position to claim that Australians want what we make for them.
‘They want our stories, whether in the form of theatre, dance, music or opera. They keep coming—they buy their tickets, they book their babysitters and they come to see us and hear us—last year, 4 million of them.’
Nevin said so many of our young, mid-career gifted artists are lured to countries where resources for the arts are greater, where traditions of support and acknowledgement of the arts are greater … ‘and then of course there’s Hollywood’.
‘We want to ensure they stay. We want to ensure our future vibrancy by encouraging them to stay, by renewing and extending our creative output.
‘We want to work with government … to ease the way for the private sector, the philanthropists and donors—those wonderful angels who enrich, deepen and extend the government’s support we already receive.’
‘My final word is a repetition, but I think it’s worth repeating, from the Australian people in that recent report by the Australia Council, in which it was declared that 85 per cent of us said that the arts made for a richer and more meaningful life—so the people have spoken. Thank you.’