Lowdown and the New Millenium: 2007-2009
A history and commentary by Tony Mack
Jane Gronow, Lowdown’s next Editor, brought considerable national experience and online expertise to the position. As National Project Officer for Community Arts SA she had been responsible for two national projects: Artwork Magazine, the national community cultural development (CCD) journal; and ccd.net, the national CCD website. As Project Manager of Applied Ideas, the position she held before coming to Lowdown, she had developed an online ecommerce portal linking designer-makers to manufacturers and markets.
Gronow had many attributes associated with Lowdown’s better Editors. Like Ian Chance, she came from a community arts background and had a national outlook. Like Belinda MacQueen, she had an infectious sense of humour and her gregarious nature made her a natural networker. And while, like Jo Shearer, she would place great emphasis on the visual appeal of the magazine and take production standards to a new high, it would not be at the expense of content. Lowdown featured some of its most insightful and comprehensive policy articles during her tenure, into subjects such as arts in the national curriculum, arts funding in Queensland and New South Wales, and the development, implementation and effect of the Make it New? restructuring of the funding policies of the Australia Council’s Theatre Board.
Gronow produced two strong focus issues during the rest of 2007. Her first issue explored the place of young people in the Australian music industry, featuring events and organisations such as: the NSW Government youth entertainment initiative, Indent; Tetrafide Percussion’s Advanced Performance Program in WA; the Sound Circles project in Cairns; Carclew’s Off The Couch program in SA; the Victorian Government’s Freeza program empowering young people to deliver their own music gigs throughout the State; Canberra Youth Music; and the Sydney Youth Orchestra.
This issue also announced that there had finally been a response to the crisis in theatre that Lowdown had been profiling. The Australian Government was committing $19.5 million over four years for small to medium-sized performing arts companies, ‘constituting an annual increase of more than 60%’.
In the October issue the focus was on emerging artist and innovation. Finegan Kruckemeyer profiled Frank Newman’s radically innovative experiment in puppetry and animation, Explosion Therapy, produced by Tasmania’s Terrapin Puppet Theatre. In the ACT, emerging theatre artists were profiled in the Canberra Youth Theatres Ensemble program. And in this issue Lowdown would provide the first media coverage of the ASSITEJ 2008 Congress Next Generation program, which would bring generational change to world youth arts in the coming years, sparking Next Generation programs and events in every continent and helping to launch the international careers of artists like Australian playwright (and Lowdown writer) Finegan Kruckemeyer.
Gronow faced a number of challenges throughout 2007. Assistant Editor Anna Held had been lured to a position at the Edinburgh Festival in the UK and Bridget Briscoe, who had been in charge of advertising, marketing and design, was headhunted by an Adelaide advertising firm. Carclew’s designer Yannick Bowe was brought in to design the magazine for the rest of 2007 and the first issue of 2008, while Gronow used the staffing changes as an opportunity to rework Lowdown’s staffing structure and production processes.
By April 2008 the new team was in place, just in time for the Congress in May. Samantha Ryan was the new Assistant Editor and design was outsourced to Irene Previn. The immediate result was a bumper 68-page April issue in colour, packed with content, superbly designed and with great visual appeal. As a Lowdown/Australia Council initiative, this was distributed at the ASSITEJ World Congress with a sister publication, The Lowdown Guide: Australian Performance for Young Audiences. With a focus in this guide on tour-ready Australian performances for young people, the magazine had created a new Lowdown Guide format that could be used in future to profile specific areas of youth arts, either at a state or national level.
Once again, an ASSITEJ World Congress in Adelaide would have a dramatic effect on Australian and world youth arts, and once again Lowdown was on hand to cover it. The June 2008 issue featured 16 pages of reviews and commentary on ASSITEJ 2008, the 16th World Congress and Performing Arts Festival for Young People.
With a program of 33 productions, two conferences, twelve forums, three Playwright Slams and numerous other workshops, activities and events, the Congress attracted thousands of national and international artists, artsworkers and delegates, including 480 registered delegates from 47 countries. Large delegations from Korea, Japan and the USA underlined the fact that the Asia Pacific relationships begun by Michael FitzGerald in the late 1980s had not only survived, but thrived.
The Congress worked with the ASSITEJ Executive Committee to respond to two major international themes – a focus on the next generation of practitioners and the rise to prominence of theatre for the very young – and these were prominently featured in the program. The Next Generation project was a ten-day artistic leadership program running throughout the Congress, with 23 people from18 countries on six continents taking part. Each had been nominated by their peers around the world as a new leader in their field. Artistic Director Jason Cross programmed five productions that sat within the Theatre for the Very Young category: Surprise from Dschungel Wein in Austria; Christine Johnston’s Fluff from Queensland; Cat and The Green Sheep from Windmill Performing Arts in South Australia; and HalliHallå from Sweden’s Teater Tre.
As promised in Adelaide’s 2005 bid document, Asia Pacific and indigenous productions also had a prominent focus. Six works fell into the Asia Pacific category, three coming from island cultures. Play BST’s Gamoonjang Baby was based on the traditional songs and dances of Jeju Island, off Korea’s coast. The Voyage (or Michi-nu-sura, from Kijimuna Dance & Music Troupe) showcased the traditional dance and music of the Okinawa Islands. From New Zealand company The Conch came Vula, a beautiful visual theatre performance exploring the sensual and spiritual relationship between Pacific Island women and the sea. Korea also had a second inclusion, the powerful Korea/UK collaboration of The Bridge, and two works from South East Asia were included. Thailand’s Never Say Die (or Mahajanok, from Makhampom Theatre Group) combined traditional Thai dance-drama with contemporary politics and physical theatre, while Chaos in Unison from Hands Percussion Team in Malaysia used traditional Malaysian drums in a contemporary performance that explored the relationship between the drum and drummer.
The festival program, however, was only part of a greater aim – to create opportunities for each delegate to establish intense connections with other delegates, artists, academics and theatre practitioners and be challenged, inspired and entertained by the ideas and practices of different cultures. This was evident in the structuring of the human environment of the Congress, an environment that facilitated people coming together not only in the formal sessions and as audience members, but in the free time, spaces and presentations of the entire ten days.
Apart from the networking and tours created, the legacy of the Congress continues to influence world youth arts. As mentioned, the Next Generation program model first covered by Lowdown has since been replicated at events and festivals around the world, and consolidated a place in international arts events for emerging and independent artists. The Congress also featured the first International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network (or ITYARN) Conference, with subsequent conferences and forums in four continents since. The Playwright Slams, featuring 22 writers from 15 countries reading excerpts from their work, were expanded in the 2011 Congress in Copenhagen and Malmo, becoming the first official event of a new world playwrights network, Write Local. Play Global. This was founded by Kim Peter Kovac, Tony Mack and Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas in 2011 and in 2013 had over 460 members in 43 countries. With its website, writelocalplayglobal.org, and its Slams, Shorts and Sparks programs worldwide, the network promotes and supports writing for young audiences and is the official ASSITEJ playwrights network.
While Lowdown was an influential media partner for the ASSITEJ Congress, key Lowdown staff also attended and profiled a host of other major events in 2008. The 20th UNIMA World Congress and International Puppetry Festival was held in Perth, the first time a UNIMA Congress had been held in the Southern Hemisphere. It too featured an international festival and workshops, masterclasses, forums, a One Million Puppet Project – a Guinness World Record attempt at having the most amount of puppets in one site – and a Puppet Caravan that traversed the country over four and a half weeks. Lowdown was also at Queensland’s Out of the Box Festival, the National Writers Festival, Newcastle’s This is Not Art festival, the Regional Arts Australia Conference in Alice Springs and YPAA’s NSW Youth Engagement Showcase.
If there had been something of an emphasis on performance for young people in the first half of the year, the second half balanced coverage nicely. Profiles of performance by young people included the Crash Project in the Tambourine Mountains of Queensland; Westside Circus in Melbourne; the bilingual cross-cultural rock musical Once Upon a Midnight, an Australian/Japanese co-production that premiered in Okinawa; Young Writer’s Ink, a national youth playwriting project; and the Australia Council’s new Sparks mentoring schemes.
Meanwhile, YPAA had packed up its office and moved to Brisbane in mid-2008. Its new Executive Director, Lenine Bourke, was a dynamic Queensland youth arts practitioner and the YPAA Board welcomed the chance to increase YPAA’s national profile by locating the national office in another State. There was also a new ASSITEJ representative, Noel Jordan, this time based in NSW. For the first time in the decade it appeared that the responsibility of maintaining national and international networking was not resting solely with Carclew and South Australian youth arts.
As this history documents though, the physical separation of the YPAA and Lowdown offices, Australia’s two national youth arts organisations, was usually followed by a crisis at YPAA. This time history played out in a different way. In October the new-look YPAA, in its Brisbane office, was successful in its application for triennial funding from the Australia Council as a National Service Organisation (a new category created under the Make It New changes), giving it three years of stability in its new home.
Unfortunately, Lowdown’s application as a National Service Organisation was unsuccessful.
It was a bitter blow at the end of a busy year of achievements. For decades, national organisations like Lowdown, YPAA and the Australian Script Centre had been advocating that the Australia Council should look after its own – that is, look after the national service organisations for the arts that could partner with the Australia Council to effectively deliver services on the ground. Ironically, when Lowdown could finally position itself as the service organisation it was rather than a pseudo-theatre company, it lost its federal support.
Discussions continued throughout the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 about the future of the magazine. Meanwhile, Lowdown continued as before. The February 2009 issue articles included young playwrights in Africa, theatre for the very young in Dresden, the disappearance of arts in the proposed national curriculum and Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island Festival. In April, Lowdown coverage included the collaboration of the Come Out Festival and the Italian company TPO on Children’s Cheering Carpet – Saltbush; Carclew’s key flagship event for the Indigenous community in South Australia, Blak Nite ’09; the Tasmanian Circus Festival; and the Australian Script Centre’s new online resource for Australian playscripts, australianplays.org.
Jane Gronow’s editorial in the June ’09 issue indicated the new direction for Lowdown:
‘The big announcement for this issue of Lowdown is Lowdown Online – the national online information and discussion resource for youth performing arts in Australia. Lowdown will transition over the next six months to online delivery.’
As with the staff changes of 2008, Gronow was embracing change to ensure not only the magazine’s survival, but also a chance of future growth. The costs of printing, design and distribution would be slashed from the budget, and an online resource would be created that would not be limited by a print format or bi-monthly deadlines. More coverage of performance and industry related news, more reviews, more critical dialogue and feedback would be delivered with an immediacy that a print publication could not replicate.
Moreover, Lowdown Online clients would be able to access web hosting services and become part of a national and international online community, sharing content and interacting with each other.
However, in partially supporting the online transition over two years, the Australia Council’s heavy emphasis on impending financial self-sufficiency for Lowdown Online created potentially competing objectives. Like Google or Facebook, the success of Lowdown Online would be measured in web traffic. Opportunities to create income streams from the site – like advertising or web hosting – would be dependent on this traffic. To succeed, Lowdown Online needed the youth arts community of the world to interact with the site and help to create its content. For Google or Facebook, this kind of success was achieved by creating useful interactive tools and content for users that could be easily accessed for free. Almost imperceptibly, income began to be created by the volume of traffic and the choices of users through targeted ads and commercial relationships.
In hindsight, maintaining an emphasis on paid subscriptions as well as advertising for Lowdown Online seems a significant handicap. As this history shows, the paid subscription model for Lowdown began as a pragmatic device – a de facto membership fee for AYPAA (the forerunner to YPAA) and later ASSITEJ Australia to satisfy the rules of their constitutions. That is, by subscribing to the magazine the subscriber automatically joined a national and international network.
The paid subscription model quickly became a hindrance to Lowdown, as it reflected only a portion of its readership. Free arts publications like RealTime could sit in venues in Australia, read or unread, with each print copy distributed claimed for the purposes of advertising or reports to stakeholders. Lowdown, however, was bought by schools, libraries, funding bodies, performing arts companies and passed around to numerous readers. Reader surveys consistently found that each copy was being read by an average of about seven people, yet subscription figures made it appear to funding bodies and advertisers that its readership was seven times less than the actuality.
Having disadvantaged Lowdown as a print magazine, the paid subscription model was in danger of restricting the very thing that Lowdown Online needed – visitors to its site and visibility for advertisers and clients. Rather than allowing an open community to grow over a period of years, as venture capitalists had allowed with Facebook, visitors would have to pay immediately for entry.
Over the next, and final three issues of Lowdown the magazine gradually reduced in size, from 48 pages to 20 pages, as it migrated its regular columns online. Shorn of the text-heavy state and territory news columns, which were indeed more suited to an online database than print, these last three issues elegantly encapsulated Gronow’s approach. Each is beautifully designed, with meaning created not only by the text but by the careful selection and placement of the accompanying colour illustrations. A design unity even appears to extend to the full page ads, which seem to enhance, rather than jar, with the format.
The content continued to reflect key Lowdown focus areas: Gronow reported from the 39th Festival for Children and Young People in Ballerup, Denmark; Sandra Gattenhof continued to document the fight to position arts in the national curriculum; the 2009 Australian Theatre Forum; arts for the very young in Australia and Bologna; the value of dramaturgy; and Theatre for Young People in New Zealand.
Once again, at the end of a decade, Lowdown faced an uncertain future. For thirty years, every two months, it had produced a new issue and distributed it to Australia and the world. And although Lowdown Online promised a bright future, it must have been with some sadness that the Lowdown editor signed off with ‘curtains close’ to the last print issue.
 Lowdown V.29.3. Adelaide: Carclew, 2007.
 ‘Get the Lowdown’. Lowdown V.29.3, p3. Adelaide: Carclew, 2007.
 Lowdown V.30.3, p29-47. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 Frank Newman and Sarah Cooper, ‘A Review in Dialogue…’. Lowdown V.30.3, p12-13. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 Andrew Wright, ‘Crash!’, Lowdown V.30.4, p19. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 Karla Dondio, ‘Westside Story’, Lowdown V.30.4, p13. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 Ursula Beaumont, ‘Once Upon a Midnight’, Lowdown V.30.5, p6-7. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 Ashley Walker, ‘Young Writer’s Ink Seeps Into ASSITEJ’, Lowdown V.30.5, p16-17. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 ‘Sparks Fly!’ Lowdown V.30.6, p16-20. Adelaide: Carclew, 2008.
 Lowdown Editors before this time had to apply for Theatre Board under the same criteria as a theatre company submitting a season of productions.
 ‘Editorial’, Lowdown V.31.3, p3. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Jane Gronow, ‘Danish Delights’, Lowdown V.31.4, p3-5. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Sandra Gattenhof, ‘Positioning the Arts in the National Curriculum’, Lowdown V.31.4, p6-7. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Lucy Evans, ‘2009 Australian Theatre Forum’, Lowdown V.31.4, p10-11. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Sally Chance, ‘An Elaborate Dance’ Lowdown V.31.5, p8-9. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Tony Mack, ‘Arts for the Very Young’ Lowdown V.31.5, p16-19. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Saffron Benner, ‘The Value of a Dramaturgical Education’ Lowdown V.31.6, p4-5. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.
 Stephen Blackburn, ‘Theatre for Young People in New Zealand’, Lowdown V.31.6, p10. Adelaide: Carclew, 2009.