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The Brandis effect on regional Australia? Just look at Bathurst

To write off towns outside of Sydney and Melbourne as being bereft of culture is an arrogant falsehood. Briony Osei, Eve Beck and Jack Griffiths in The Bacchae. Photo taken by T J Lee

Since Senator George Brandis launched his arts funding bombshell there has been much discussion and debate – and even dancing protests – around Australia.

Plans are also rumoured to be underway for a national day of action on June 18, as artists and cultural leaders call the government to reverse the diversion of $104.7 million from the Australia Council to fund a contentious new body, the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.

One particular conversation that struck a chord with me was broadcast on Guardian Australia as a podcast on May 27. Vivid Ideas and TedX curator Jess Scully and musician Jake Stone spoke about the devastating effects of Brandis’ cuts. In Stone’s words:

Have you seen what it’s like living in regional Australia? It’s fucked, it’s not great there. You know what could make it better? More arts, more culture, more fun stuff to do. Things to do beyond drinking and going to some shit nightclub that plays Top 40 on Saturday night – that’s the reality of living in regional Australia, whether you want to accept it or not.

Living in regional Australia I found these comments to be not just untrue, but also unfair. To completely write off towns outside of Sydney as being bereft of culture is an arrogant falsehood. It also unfortunately upholds a divisive opposition between the city and country.

There is a whole lot of landscape beyond of the metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne, which means there are a wide assortment of artists practising in many different areas from big country towns to smaller communities and remote villages.

Tracey Callinan’s Conversation article from earlier this year acknowledges the diverse range of places that could be identified as “regional”. But, for the moment, let’s look at Bathurst, in New South Wales.

In the last week of May, two extraordinary plays were performed in this ostensible outpost.

The first premiered on May 22 at Bathurst’s Memorial Entertainment Centre. It was supported by Local Stages, which is funded by, among others, the Theatre Board of the Australia Council.

Some $2,300 was put aside in developing Invisible Body, much of which went to the lighting, sound design and venue. The artists were given a modest sum, hardly covering the innumerable hours devoted to script writing and hand-sewing costumes.

Invisible Body, backed by this small pot of money, is a simple yet powerful drama about the truth of our fragile and flawed existence. Three women bravely put their bodies on stage in narrating the subjective experience of living in their own skin.

Movingly, they disproved the false division between the mind and body.

Invisible Body. Fiona Green and Chai Palila. Image supplied

Whether through ageing, sickness or the inevitability of death our bodies gradually become invisible. Women’s bodies in particular are sites of contention. Terrible crimes are enacted on them and through them.

Honour killings, genital mutilation, and sexual slavery are extreme examples. Domestic violence, we know, is a serious global problem. Some 34 women have been murdered so far this year in Australia allegedly by their partners.

Social, political and religious ideas have also violently traversed and shaped our bodies – sanitising their dirt and concealing our animality. Nonconformity can be particularly painful if one’s gender is fluid. Our sexuality, like our minds, should be open and complex, but conventional society tells us otherwise.

Invisible Body encourages us think about these things and more. In a regional town such as Bathurst, a place that according to some is off the cultural map, this experimental drama was embraced.

In late May, another innovative production took place in Bathurst, this time at Charles Sturt University’s Ponton Theatre. The director, Adam Deusien, worked in close collaboration with his undergraduate Theatre/ Media students in re-writing Euripides’s Greek tragedy The Bacchae.

Careful stagecraft transformed the ancient Greek landscape into a mirror-laden runway where the Chorus and lead actors strutted in tight leggings and black leather. The drama meditated upon the dangers of narcissism, another important issue in contemporary society.

Invisible Body. Fiona Green, Chai Palila and Tracy Sorensen. Image supplied

In Euripides’s original, the conflict is between Dionyusus, the God of excess, and the sensible King of Thebes, Penetheus. In this production, the distinction between the two is dissolved as both are caught up in the fascination of being seen.

This fresh take on The Bacchae provided a penetrating analysis on the dangers of social media, where narcissism and exhibitionism trump introspection and self-reflection. In this play, selfies abound and to be offline is to not exist.

This new interpretation of Euripides is only one of many examples that could be chosen to show the presence of cultural intelligence, sophistication and talent in regional Australia.

While metropolitan commentators and urban funding bodies fret over their futures, regional artistic communities and individuals have always struggled over their existence both in a financial and symbolic sense. Jake Stone’s comments reinforce city-centred attitudes that dismiss country folk as backward.

Bathurst is punching above its weight and it continues to do so by fostering all kinds of talent. During this years Sydney Writer’s Festival, the town hosted local events over [three days](http://]( Authors spoke on panels, and aspiring writers and book lovers came in droves.

Keeping the arts alive are hardworking people such as Kylie Webb-Shead, whose projects involve bringing experts from Melbourne University’s Victorian College of the Arts to town to enable local students to develop their skills in dance, drama and music.

Without the kinds of initiatives funded by the Australia Council it would be very difficult for regional artists to sustain a living.

Furthermore, BMEC’s tireless efforts in attracting world-class acts to Bathurst, such as the acclaimed international pianist Avan Yu earlier last month, cultivates great community spirit.

In a 2014 [Conversation article](http://(http://, Sarah Scott addressed the everyday difficulties regional artists have to face, including the problem of having less infrastructure and money as established, city-based artists and institutions.

Apprehension over the Coalition’s recent decision to expunge $104.7 million from the Australia Council’s budget is understandable. It is especially worrying for regional towns such as Bathurst, who care a great deal about the arts and heartily engage in experimental theatre, proving the arts are not the exclusive domain of urban Australia.

See also:
Brandis is waging a culture war: artists must take direct action
The arts minister has wrenched our culture away from the artists
Philosophy vs evidence is no way to orchestrate cultural policy
How Brandis plans to insulate the arts sector from the artists
Arms length? Forget it – it’s back to the Menzies era for arts funding

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