Lowdown’s Legacy – The 2010s
A history and commentary by Tony Mack
The end of the first decade of the 21st century was a difficult time for print publications. The Fairfax classified ads – its fabled ‘rivers of gold’ - had migrated to online sites, and many of News Corps’ leading papers were haemorrhaging money. Subscriptions for small journals and magazines were declining as niche content moved to online delivery, and there was a patchy history of successful migrations of print publications online. Lowdown Online had to make its way in a difficult environment.
Lowdown Editor Jane Gronow re-cast the magazine as ‘an online information and discussion resource for youth performing arts in Australia’, aiming to provide ‘responsive and interactive resource that print publication cannot deliver’. Apart from the regular feature articles and reviews, subscribers would be able to discuss reviews and upload information about their companies, locate events through a What’s On calendar and access regular updates about news in their state or territory. Gronow also envisaged growing Lowdown’s online presence to be the centre of a youth arts community, offering web hosting to youth arts companies using the content management system of Lowdown Online.
While much of Lowdown’s content had migrated online through the last half of 2009, the official launch of Lowdown Online was in February 2010. Soon subscribers were getting monthly emails alerting them to new content, such as features on Jute Theatre in Cairns, the transition of Canberra’s Jigsaw Theatre Company to an artistic directorate or the Adelaide Indigenous company Kurruru. Gronow reported from on the ground at the 2010 Young People and the Arts National Symposium, Changing Habitats, and took subscribers behind the scenes to look at planning for the upcoming 2011 ASSITEJ World Congress in Malmo, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark.
Throughout 2010 and the first half of 2011, Lowdown Online continued to profile and review youth arts companies as it had done for decades. It also profiled other news and events such Newcastle’s Crack Theatre Festival, WAAPA’s 30th birthday, Minister Kate Ellis’ National Strategy for Young Australians, Australian Theatre Forum, YPAA’s Incubator, Right Act 10 – Theatre for Social Change Conference, the 2010 Victorian Youth Arts Market, the SA Theatre Forum, regional youth dance in WA, Australian Poetry Slam 2010, Adelaide Fringe 2011 Youth Engagement Program and Youth Arts Queensland.
In June 2011, with Lowdown Online three quarters through its transitional funding agreement with the Australia Council and no further federal support in sight, the Carclew Youth Arts Board was faced with a difficult decision. Since the early 1980s Carclew and its staff had supported both YPAA and Lowdown even when there was little or no support at a national level. It had acted to save the magazine from extinction in both 1980 and 1990, and employed staff with strong management skills like Rachel Healy and Belinda MacQueen in the 1990s to create a new financial stability for the publication. However, the steadfast refusal of the Australia Council in 2010/2011 to countenance any future support for Lowdown meant that South Australia would have the responsibility for supporting this national magazine in the future.
On 7 June 2011 Jane Gronow forwarded a message from Carclew Director Tricia Walton to all subscribers:
‘The Carclew Youth Arts Board has reviewed its commitment to its national project Lowdown Magazine Online.
‘In 2008 Carclew Youth Arts, publisher of the long running Lowdown Magazine, was unsuccessful in its application to the Theatre Board of the Australia Council as a national service organization to continue this magazine publishing project. However, Carclew was successful in attracting initiative funding to transition the publication into an online information and discussion resource to support youth performing arts nationally. Since 2010 Lowdown Magazine Online has become a unique online resource for this sector.
‘This project is, however, ineligible for further national funding through Theatre Board at this juncture. The Carclew Youth Arts Board has decided that continuing to deliver a national project without national funding support is no longer part of its core work.
‘Carclew Youth Arts is in negotiation to find the project another home and will inform subscribers, members and clients of outcomes of these discussions. In the meantime you will continue to get the service you know and love.’
While Lowdown Online continued, numerous discussions took place over the coming months but to no avail. On 23 September 2011, Lowdown Editor Jane Gronow announced that Lowdown was closing its doors forever.
By a strange quirk of fate, one of the last articles ever published online by Lowdown, in September 2011,was an obituary of Anne Godfrey-Smith OAM by Margaret Leask. As described in this commentary, it was Leask who had started the newsletter that became Lowdown, and Godfrey-Smith who steered AYPAA and its newsletter through difficult years in the late 1970s. Godfrey-Smith’s travel marathon around every corner of Australia in the mid-1970s had mapped the incredible diversity of Australian youth arts for the first time – the youth arts sector that Lowdown would dedicate its coverage to for over 30 years.
In 1983 Lowdown Editor Andrew Bleby outlined three key roles for the magazine, which were to guide its future direction:
This commentary provides numerous instances of how the magazine’s pursuit of these three roles has influenced Australian youth arts, leaving a lasting legacy.
Lowdown’s intermittent direct action campaigns appeared effective in a numbers of cases. Sharp Lowdown criticism in an interview with the minister on NSW art policies in 1982 was followed by significant funding increases in 1983 for NSW youth arts companies (some almost doubling their funding) – and a NSW arts minister who championed youth arts and Lowdown. At a critical time in Queensland youth arts history, Lowdown covered the 1988 Queensland Arts Festival and interviewed key arts figures, including the Premier, about pressing issues for Queensland practitioners. While progress was slow, over the next few years a number of the issues published in Lowdown were addressed.
In 1991 a fiery Lowdown protested cuts to youth theatres, published the Carclew Concensus on young people’s theatre, and covered the storming of Australian Federal Parliament by over 200 young people from Canberra’s youth theatres. Within a short time the Australia Council had adopted some of the Carclew Consensus recommendations and the Keating Government pledged $3 million to the establishment of a young people’s festival.
In 1995 Lowdown’s examination of peer assessment processes was followed by a change to Australia Council peer assessment guidelines the next year, in line with Lowdown recommendations. In 2002 Lowdown again criticised the Australia Council on its provision of arts experiences to children in NSW, claiming there was ‘no philosophical justification for not investing in the arts at the same levels for children as for adults’. Shortly after, the Theatre Board of the Australia Council began to re-examine its role as a body passively receiving and assessing applications and explore a more proactive role in ensuring access to the arts for all Australians.
As a permanent record of the ideas and events of Australian youth arts, Lowdown continues to be a valuable resource. Through the pages of Lowdown, many incoming artistic directors have been briefed on the history of their new company. Indeed, the magazine provided the only media coverage of some companies throughout their existence. Lowdown has influenced publications like TYA Today in the United States, had articles reprinted in numerous other publications and is still used as a reference in libraries in Germany and in US universities like Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Austin.
Highly attuned to its readers, Lowdown provided vital information to the Australian youth arts sector as well as critical examination of the work of practitioners. Lowdown would not only identify and cover key national and international events, such as YPAA conferences and ASSITEJ Congresses, but often provide background to assist in travel planning and reportage from on the ground. As described in this commentary, its reviews of productions met with early resistance but were eventually accepted as essential to the artistic development of a company, and Lowdown reviews were often more searching and critical than mainstream media. The magazine would regularly lead critical debate in Australia, curating discussions and ‘for and against’ articles on important ideas, such as the TIE debates of the 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, Lowdown would identify areas of need in professional development for Australian companies and commission new resources to help, with articles such as ‘Critical Quality’ (about the critical development processes of Danish children’s theatre) or ‘Zen and the Art of Selling Shows’ (the art of pitching to presenters).
The culmination of these three roles is perhaps Lowdown’s greatest legacy. Lowdown fostered a unique philosophical tradition in Australian youth arts that constantly responds to changes in youth culture and the world, and is informed by our growing knowledge of the development of children. Whether it be art for young people or art by/with young people, this has helped to develop a distinctly contemporary Australian ‘brand’ that is known throughout the world.
In the mid-2010s, this brand is evident in Australian Theatre for Young People companies (such as South Australia’s Patch Theatre, Windmill Theatre and Slingsby Theatre Company) that now regularly perform at the New Victory Theatre on Broadway, the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and at prestigious venues and festivals in North America, Europe and Asia. It is also evident in Australian developmental youth arts practice in remote regional and Indigenous communities and in developing countries like Vanuatu, East Timor and Kiribati.
It is evident too in its practitioners, and the high regard they receive internationally. In 2015 Dave Brown, the iconic Artistic Director of South Australia’s Patch Theatre, was awarded the ‘Mickey Miners’ lifetime achievement award, one of the highest awards in North American Theatre for Young Audiences. Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer (and former Lowdown writer and Next Generation participant at the 2008 ASSITEJ World Congress in Adelaide) has had 70 commissioned plays performed on five continents and translated into five languages. In one year alone, 16 of his works were presented worldwide, with seasons in Argentina, Australia, England, Germany, Ireland, Norway and throughout the United States. As of 2011, Australian companies had received more ASSITEJ Honorary Presidents Awards than any other country, with WA’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Victoria’s Arena Theatre and NSW’s Zeal Theatre all receiving the top international award for outstanding and innovative artistic practice.
However, with the demise of Lowdown in 2011, and the de-funding of Young People and the Arts Australia on 31 December 2012, the national infrastructure that enabled Australian youth arts practitioners to constantly interact with each other has now largely disappeared. Social media has filled the gap to a certain extent, and the Australian Theatre Forum now plays an important role in curating debate.
But will the next generation of practitioners receive the advantages that Lowdown and YPAA provided and that helped to build Australia’s international reputation in youth arts? Will they develop by constantly interacting with a national community of like-minded practitioners, by being involved in industry debates about issues, and by receiving both critical feedback and regular professional development opportunities?
Only time will tell.