Black theatre company Nitro has recently opened a sister company in Sydney, Australia. Felix Cross tells how it has all been possible.

Image of Bankstown Arts Centre, Sydney
Bankstown Arts Centre, Nitro's home in Australia

Karl Sharp

When, in March 2011, Nitro received the news that we had been unsuccessful in our application for National Portfolio Organisation status and our Arts Council England (ACE) funding would be cut to zero, little did we know that within two years we would have four new plays in development, a series of community engagement projects and we would be ready to open a second branch of Nitro in Sydney.

Sydney is a tale of two cities: the famous Sydney and Western Sydney. The famous Sydney is the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, Bondi Beach, barbeques, sun, sea, surf and sand. Whereas Western Sydney has a parallel meaning to that of ‘urban’ in England, when people want to talk of black inner-city culture but are afraid of a potential racist connotation: so they say ‘urban’. Well in Sydney when they say “Western Sydney” they really mean the part of Sydney where all the diverse communities live, the economically challenged parts (though this is rapidly changing), the brown parts, the black parts. It also happens to be where all the interesting artists are, where all the interesting cultural projects are and now, specifically in Bankstown, where Nitro is based.

The challenge of course is running two sister companies 12,500 miles and 11 time-zone hours apart

We are Britain’s oldest black theatre company, formed in 1979 as Black Theatre Co-operative, and changing our name to Nitro in 2000. In England, given its colonial and post-colonial history and the subsequent immigration patterns, we are clear about our artistic and cultural purpose. Australia is a different matter. It has an indigenous population that defines itself as ‘black’ and that is one of the oldest in the world. The level of suffering, persecution and racial oppression that the Aboriginal communities have endured is perhaps signalled most clearly by the astonishing fact that up until 1975 they were officially classed not as full humans but alongside flora and fauna. So the idea of Nitro walking in and attempting to produce work from an Aboriginal perspective or even claiming to understand their cultural nuances is clearly absurd.

However, Australia is a country of immigrants and Western Sydney is remarkably diverse, with strong South East Asian, Indian sub-continent, African and Middle Eastern communities. Bankstown, just a short drive from the city, is home to many communities including Aboriginal, Vietnamese and Lebanese. It is also home to Bankstown Arts Centre, which houses Bankstown Youth Development Services (BYDS), a remarkable organisation working on many levels with local diverse groups. BYDS has kindly given us office space. The building also has a number of rehearsal rooms, a theatre and a gallery. It is a well-planned arts centre.

Indeed, our first project here, in partnership with BYDS is to co-produce ‘The Prophet’ (based on the book by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran), a site-specific promenade show, performed throughout the arts centre. It will feature the work of a number of local artists of Lebanese heritage, as well as others, and will take place in March. In May we will be again collaborating with BYDS and the Aboriginal music duo Stiff Gins on another promenade show called ‘Young Days’, based on an Aboriginal Elders oral history project.

Other responses in Sydney have been very welcoming and encouraging. Some may have seen our festival ‘A Nitro at the Opera’, with the Royal Opera House, a number of years back. Well, our challenging relationship with that artform continues with a project for a number of venues in Sydney called ‘Opera in a Pub’. It does what it says on the tin but with a slice of Nitro thrown in.

Meanwhile in England, Nitro is busy developing four new shows under its ‘Tales from the Edge’ programme, commissioning and producing a new series of Nitrobeat festivals and making new partnerships with communities up and down the country. We are looking forward to the first Nitro North, Nitro South co-productions appearing in both England and Australia.

The challenge of course is running two sister companies 12,500 miles and 11 time-zone hours apart. Interestingly, the systems needed to achieve this evolved from us being cut by ACE. To cut costs, we vacated the building that had been our home for over 12 years. We began to meet once a week in the free wifi café at Rich Mix. It is remarkable how much can be achieved in one highly focused three-hour coffee and cake-fuelled session. With the exception of myself, the rest of the team are employed on a part-time, freelance basis and occasionally one of us could not make this weekly session, so we began to use Skype. And with Skype it does not really matter whether you are across town or across the globe. So when the opportunity for Nitro in Australia came up, we felt less daunted with a system already in place. Now, thanks to Skype, emails, Facetime, text and every other communications device known to mankind, we are talking on a daily basis, with a weekly full-team meet plus scheduled one-to-one sessions.

So far so good. I am not pretending this is easy or that it works faultlessly all the time (time zones are the bane of my social life, with 10am in London equalling 9pm in Sydney), but it really helps having a good team and a supportive board, with everyone energised, ambitious for the company and wanting to make this work. The Australia Council and the British Council here have been incredibly helpful, introducing me to a wide range of very useful people and organisations. This seems to be a new idea that has captured their imagination. Meanwhile, I am living between two distant cities and my personal carbon footprint will be the size of an overgrown yeti. And do not talk to me about jet lag…

Felix Cross is Artistic Director and CEO of Nitro Theatre Company.

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