A business arts partnership with staying power

Western Australia's Black Swan State Theatre Company and global mining and metals group Rio Tinto have now been in partnership for 20 years, with Rio Tinto providing over $3.2 million to the theatre company. Here's now the mutually beneficial partnership developed.

 

DustThe union between Black Swan State Theatre Company in Western Australia and global mining and metals group Rio Tinto has been one of the state’s most enduring and successful business arts partnerships, which celebrates a milestone 20 years in 2017. 

In that time, Rio Tinto will have invested over $3.2 million to Black Swan, with the partnership acknowledged as central to Black Swan’s growth and achievements.

The partnership has evolved from a sponsorship-based relationship to a deeper, mutually beneficial partnership. Rio Tinto provides support for a wide range of artistic and audience development initiatives which has added value and broadened access and engagement for the company and the state-wide community. 

The partnership commenced in September 1998 between Rio Tinto (formerly known as Hamersley Iron) and Black Swan, with a vision to bring Western Australia’s predominantly Perth-focused theatre arts industry to the Pilbara – where a significant number of employees live and work – for the benefit of the local community and employees.

In 2000, the partnership won Rio Tinto the Best Industry Initiative Patron at the Stage Arts Sponsorship Scheme awards and in 2001 Rio Tinto and Black Swan won the national 2001 AbaF Business Arts Partnership Award in the Large Business category.

It was a fertile period which saw much engagement in the Pilbara area with acclaimed Aboriginal play Bindenjarreb Pinjarra touring the Pilbara and Black Swan cast members holding drama workshops for primary and secondary schools in Paraburdoo, Tom Price, Karratha and Roebourne. Black Swan also collaborated with the Pilbara Writers Group and Walkington Theatre to produce an evening of short plays written by local Pilbara residents.

In 2004 with the help of Rio Tinto, Black Swan performed their production of Yandy, ‘on country’ at Yandeyarra Station. Also in this year, Black Swan ran the first Operation Pilbara residential theatre workshops for secondary students in the Pilbara.

Rio Tinto becomes principal partner

In 2005, Rio Tinto became the principal partner of Black Swan under a new four year, $100,000 per year agreement providing support for all Perth and regional touring productions. A special commission of Neill Gladwin’s Red Dog was undertaken in 2006 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rio Tinto’s operations in the Pilbara.

The production was highly successful in Perth and went on tour the Pilbara, where the story originated. Other plays that have toured to the Pilbara include Bran Nue Dae, Jandamarra, One Destiny and Torrez and the recent education and community tour of Shadowboxing, which looks at social media, the online world and identity.

State company status

In 2008 when Kate Cherry joined as Artistic Director, she and previous Rio Tinto Chief Executive Iron Ore, Sam Walsh, worked closely together to rebrand Black Swan with 'state company status'. The move into the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia in 2011 as a resident company represented a significant change for the company, and changed the business model and the sustainability of Black Swan significantly.

Black Swan is now recognised as an industry leader in Australia and increasingly, internationally. Its work has been seen across the breadth of Western Australia, from as far North as Broome, South to Esperance and East to Kalgoorlie with touring productions, the annual live broadcast to regional WA and special touring education productions.

The company’s work has been shown interstate and internationally and in 2016, the company enjoyed their first international collaboration with the National Theatre of China in the successful season of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The 20-year partnership with Rio Tinto has focused on the growth of Black Swan and the development of a more sustainable business model. This support has formed an important contribution to the viability and longevity of Black Swan’s future, by contributing to developing a quality core program of work both in the Studio Underground and on the main stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre of WA.

Black Swan engages with RioTinto residential and source towns across the state, which includes Karratha, Pannawonica, Paraburdoo, Tom Price, Geraldton, Busselton, Carnarvon, Broome and Albany with workshops, main stage, education touring productions and community consultation.

The Rio Tinto Black Swan Commissons

In 2009, Black Swan created the Rio Tinto Black Swan Commissons, a commissioning program of new Australian work from emerging and experienced playwrights.

To date, the Rio Tinto Black Swan Commissions have produced nine works: The Red Balloon (2015) by Albert Lamorisse, adapted by Hilary Bell, Suzie Miller's Dust (2014), Aidan Fennessy's National Interest (2012), Hilary Bell's The White Divers of Broome (2012), Hannie Rayson's The Swimming Club (2010) and The Damned (2011) by Reg Cribb and Aidan Fennessy's The House on The Lake (2014). 

In 2017, Black Swan is proud to produce the World Premiere of the WA story The Lighthouse Girl, by Hellie Turner based on the novels of Dianne Wolfer. The production will highlight and celebrate a significant piece of history from regional WA, celebrating the real Lighthouse Girl on Breaksea Island, who featured in PIAF’s spectacular opening event “The Giants” in 2015.  The play will open in Albany as part of ANZAC Centenary commemorations for 2017.

The Rio Tinto $20 Tickets initiative

There has also been a focus on building audiences for theatre with the launch in 2015 of the Rio Tinto $20 Tickets initiative - a new low cost ticketing scheme available to all Western Australians.

This is the first time such a scheme has been offered in WA and is designed to assist Black Swan to meet its audience development goals to attract new audiences by breaking down the price barrier. Through the scheme, an allocation of $20 tickets are offered throughout the year for every main stage Black Swan show. The subsidy for each ticket equates to at least 70% and provides access to a wide range of seats in the Heath Ledger Theatre.

The initiative has proved immensely successful, with the Rio Tinto $20 Tickets selling out in under an hour for most productions. Surveys have shown that a high percentage of patrons who accessed these tickets were new audiences to Black Swan.

Kellie Parker, Rio Tinto’s Managing Director of Planning Integration and Assets, says, “Our long association with Black Swan has been characterised by a real sense of partnership, providing the foundations for an innovative new program such as Rio Tinto $20 Tickets to piloted and implemented.” 

Having a shared vision with Rio Tinto of introducing communities across WA to high quality theatre has enabled Black Swan to expand its regional engagement program. The program aims to embed quality theatre experiences into the lives of all Western Australians, regardless of where they live.

High-definition broadcasts

In 2011 Black Swan was the first theatre company in Australia to undertake live broadcasts in high definition throughout regional WA. The live broadcast of theatre performances is an opportunity for thousands of regional Western Australians who cannot attend Black Swan performances, because of distance or financial constraints, to share a state-wide ‘live’ experience within their own home or community. 

Black Swan has presented six live broadcasts to date and remains the only state theatre company to present an annual broadcast. Black Swan also runs a Regional Ambassador Program with regional representatives in Broome, Busselton, Denham, Carnarvon, Esperance, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Karratha, Mandurah, Margaret River, Merredin and in the Wheatbelt region.

Creative Partnerships Australia National Regional Award

In 2013, Principal Partner Rio Tinto and Associate and Regional Partner Water Corporation won the Creative Partnerships Australia National Regional Award, which recognised the joint commitment to reach Western Australian’s regional audiences with workshops, live broadcasts (with additional support from Lotterywest) and unique high quality theatre experiences. 

The support enabled the Company to premiere the new Australian mainstage work, Signs of Life, by acclaimed author Tim Winton in Albany before embarking on a five-week tour to nine WA regional communities and then the State Theatre Centre in Perth and the Sydney Opera House.

Black Swan’s Executive Director, Natalie Jenkins, reflects that, “In 2014, Rio Tinto renewed its Principal Partner status for a further three years in support of Black Swan’s core program, as well as supporting our new ticket subsidy initiative Rio Tinto $20 Tickets.  

"We are very grateful for the support Rio Tinto has shown us over the duration of the partnership, especially these past three years. The resources sector is a key contributor to Western Australia’s economy and as the state’s economy moves through cycles, all elements of the business and community sectors are impacted.

"We are extremely fortunate that as a key investor in the community in Western Australia, Rio Tinto takes a long term view of its community investment and understands that sustainability for arts and community organisations like Black Swan is critical. We are infinitely proud that this significant milestone will be reached in 2017, marking 20 years of partnership and acknowledgment of the support for the value of arts and cultural organisations to the Western Australian community."

Image: By Gary Marsh Photography.