Melbourne Theatre Company's Abe Watson on working in the arts – and why it matters

Bendigo-based Abe Watson wears many hats: he’s Production Manager at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), President of the Bendigo Theatre Company, and a current Master of Arts and Cultural Management student. Here, he shares his views on the value of the arts and arts education, talks about his work with the MTC, and reveals what studying online has been like this semester.

Abe Watson

I was cast as the littlest orphan in Oliver! when I was eight, and after that I was hooked. In hindsight, I think I just loved how it made me feel – and I loved how it made other people feel. It was a sense of community that was so strong, and I wanted so much to be part of it.

I performed for a number of years but also became really interested in the technical and business side of things. I realised that it takes so many skilled people and interesting roles to make up a theatre production. I think that’s why I’ve ended up as a Production Manager – because I just so badly wanted to learn it all.

To this day, I’m a member of Bendigo Theatre Company, the same company I joined when I was eight, and my years in community theatre taught me important skills I use daily in my career.

I’m one of three Production Managers working at MTC. I describe production management as the intersection between the art and a business – we make creative concepts a reality. We’re given a production budget and a list of parameters, and from that point on, it’s our responsibility to steer the team ensuring the show is delivered safely, on time, and within budget.

We usually have three or four different productions on our plate at any one time (all in different stages), so our days are extremely variable. We may be at our desk writing risk assessments and schedules, or running a tech rehearsal in the theatre, or organising design presentations, or chairing production meetings, or helping to pack the truck at a bump out!

COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on my work, and the sector more broadly. We were the first sector to shut down and arguably will be the last to reopen fully. While I’ve lost work and income to an extent, I count myself extremely lucky to be in a permanent role – most of my friends are not so lucky due to the ‘gig economy’ of our industry.

A huge percentage of the workforce in our sector are either employed casually or on short-term contracts, so when COVID-19 hit, a large proportion of our industry lost up to a year’s worth of work basically overnight. As most companies run to break-even budgets, it will be a long time before the industry is fully back on its feet.

Economic arguments for the value of arts are tired. Australia’s creative arts sector alone generates over $14.7 billion to GDP. It employs four times as many people as the coal industry, and just as many people as the finance industry – and yet it isn’t enough to attract serious policy attention of governments.

Instrumental value is also a fragile argument – this is when the arts provides value for something else, like “the arts is good, because it’s good for mental health” or “the arts is good because it’s good for tourism”. The problem with instrumental arguments is they can be challenged methodologically: what gives the same output with less effort?

We need to talk about the intrinsic value of the arts, because it has value in and of itself. What is it through the connection between a work of art, or performance, and its audience that changes them? And then through them, changes their society?

I always knew I was passionate about theatre and the arts but studying the Master of Arts and Cultural Management has reinforced in me why I continue to do what I do. It has also inspired me to try to educate people about the importance of arts and culture.

The student cohort is very multicultural and diverse, which is one of the University’s superpowers. Tutorial discussions are engaging because people bring their own perspectives, formed by their own experience. It’s fascinating learning about how things are different (or similar) in all different corners of the globe. It’s a great environment for learning.

Studying online this semester has been fine – to be honest, I found it more convenient given my distance from the University and my other work. Of course, I missed the in-person elements and chatting with my peers and tutors, but once we got through the first few Zoom tutorials it was good.

I would hope to see the University retain some of these online elements post-COVID, as I would imagine it goes some way to increasing access to study for those who, for myriad reasons, may not be able to physically attend the campus.

The world today is a pretty crazy place and we’re seeing fear and division permeate society. I truly believe that theatre is about more than just role-playing, or having fun; it is about learning varied, versatile and transferable life skills that matter. I come from a community theatre background – that’s how I started my career. Community theatre bonds people together and teaches them the importance of understanding, accepting, and celebrating difference.

Given everything happening in our world, I’m not sure we need anything more, right now, than that.

Read more about MTC’s production managers

View some of Abe Watson’s work on his website

Photo caption: Abe Watson at work with @willowvonruff at the MTC
Photo credit: MTC.