Not Bard for a Risky Business

Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 12:32

From a one-man band almost 22 years ago, Bell Shakespeare has grown into a national icon, writes Amy Birchall.

John Bell, artistic director and founder of Australia's only national touring theatre company, Bell Shakespeare, says: "It takes a certain stubbornness to not give up.

"In the first six or seven years of this company it was a real struggle. Every one or two weeks the board would say 'Can we afford to go on, can we find the money, can we pay the wages', and I would say 'Oh yes, we must go on. Let's find a way'."

Bell Shakespeare's "dirty, radical brand of Shakespeare" as described by ABC's Talking Heads host Peter Thompson, first graced Australian theatres almost 22 years ago.

Bell has been instrumental in growing this brand from one full-time employee and no government funding into a national icon.

Actor to artistic director

When he founded Bell Shakespeare in 1990, Bell had almost three decades of acting experience under his belt, including several years with the Royal Shakespeare theatre company in Great Britain.

While he successfully founded the Nimrod Theatre Company some years earlier, he knew he was limited by a lack of finance, management and fundraising knowledge.

To combat this, he surrounded himself with people who complemented his strengths and offset his weaknesses, leaving him to focus on two of his passions: acting and directing.

His ability to delegate tasks in areas in which he is no expert quickly became one of his management strengths.

"I'm comfortable being wheeled out as the front man to help fundraise, but as for the actual workings of finance or fundraising I couldn't handle any of it," he says.

"It's important to surround oneself with experts who can do all of the things you can't. I've been very fortunate in that respect."

Indeed, even within his family, he is surrounded by dramatic talent. Bell's wife, Anna Volska, is also an actress. She has appeared in many of the Bell Shakespeare's productions over the years. They have two daughters, Grass Roots actress Lucy Bell, who is married to Australian comic/presenter James O'Loghlin, and playwright Hilary Bell. Lucy is set to play the lead role in Bell's next production.

Bell says perfecting his directorial, people management and leadership skills during Bell Shakespeare's formative years was a learning curve.

"As an actor you are in your own little cocoon. You do your own performance and that's all you're concerned about. If you're directing your own company of actors, you have to be inside all of their heads... there's a lot of management of people and personalities."

He believes leadership doesn't come naturally to most people, including himself. He developed his leadership and management styles by observing other actors and directors.

"I know what it's like to have been badly directed, so I've honed my skills so I know what to do and what not to do... most directors don't have that advantage of seeing other directors at work.

"Leadership doesn't mean being histrionic or demonstrative, but being confident, calm and inspiring people in a quiet sort of way to do their best and collaborate with you."

While he takes a laid-back approach to managing employees, Bell is less relaxed about unsustainable growth. Bell Shakespeare employs about 30 full-time employees, which he thinks is "manageable" for now.

"Some big organisations grow too big too fast. People feel neglected or marginalised, or they're aware they're doing shoddy work they have no respect for," he says.

"Everybody in this organisation has respect for the work we do, and the attempt we're making to do it well."

Funding and partnerships

Bell Shakespeare was originally bankrolled by the late businessman and philanthropist Tony Gilbert, but now relies on government funding, philanthropy and corporate partnerships to stay afloat.

"There's a very healthy arts culture in this country, but it's always precarious," Bell says.

Corporate and private support is expected to contribute to about 29 per cent of Bell Shakespeare's 2012 revenue. Among these supporters are long-term corporate partners Optus, BHP Billiton, Wesfarmers Arts, Yalumba and Jansz and Sofitel.

Unlike philanthropic donations, which are spent as the recipient pleases, corporate partnerships allow organisations to use the Bell Shakespeare brand to leverage their own.

"It's well beyond a logo here and a couple of tickets there. It's about showing how we can help drive their business," Bell says.

For major sponsor BHP, Bell Shakespeare takes its work to mining communities. It's an experience people in those communities would otherwise be unable to access. Similarly, Bell Shakespeare's youth and education partner Optus supports a team of actors that travel to more than 300 schools and indigenous communities each year.

"Optus likes us because we do work they believe in. The fact we're national and travel all over the place is also attractive."

Attracting partners

Bell Shakespeare actively seeks new partnerships, but is also approached by companies looking for high profile exposure.

"We attract a lot of politicians and senior business people to our opening nights. The arts are in the public eye. It can be a good way to get your organisation out there."

In the case of attracting new partners, Bell says it's about convincing them the arts are an essential part of a healthy and intelligent society.

"A society that has no arts culture is a very dull one, and people are not attracted to it. We go to London or New York to see the theatre, the opera, the ballet.

"In Europe you go to the cultural centres... these become the identity of the country.

"A country that has no cultural identity is one you've never heard of."

On success

Bell Shakespeare now tours up to 35 locations each year, runs education programs that are transforming the way Shakespeare is taught in schools, and attracts corporate partners on a scale many arts organisations could only dream about.

Some would label this as success, but not Bell. "You never say 'Yes, we've secured it, now we're successful'. You just don't," he says.

"Some of the best arts companies in the world have lost their funding and sponsorships and gone under. It's a very fickle and risky business.

"Our greatest strength is we are doing good quality work. We're doing Shakespeare, and there are no dodgy plays there."

Career highlights

1962: Graduated Sydney University.
1963: First professional acting role with the Old Tote Theatre Company.
1970: Co-founded Nimrod Theatre Company.
1978: Awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
1989: Approached by Tony Gilbert to establish a national touring organisation presenting modern Shakespeare plays.
1990: Founded Bell Shakespeare.
1997: Named by the National Trust of Australia as one of Australia's national living treasures.
2003: Awarded Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Cultural Leadership Award by the Australian Business Arts Foundation.
2009: Awarded Officer of the Order of Australia.