June 24, 2019
Arts & Culture

Curtain call: the local philanthropists who support SA theatre

What does a philanthropist look like in 2019? Meet the everyday people who believe in State Theatre Company’s mission to deliver the magic of theatre to the far corners of South Australia.

Donors and philanthropists Jane and Trevor Mudge, Jodi Glass, Roger and Helen Salkeld, Sandra Velgush and Darren Wright take to the stage in the theatre company’s temporary warehouse.

Walking through a warehouse of props and set pieces at State Theatre Company headquarters instils an odd sense of nostalgia. Objects from ancient Egypt gather dust alongside a collection of lounge chairs and coffee tables, dozens of suitcases, a telephone box, a replica “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and a human-sized Statue of Liberty. Mothballed since their moments on stage, they seem to be patiently waiting for a producer to pluck them off the shelf for a chance to shine once again.

“A lot of what we do is about upcycling and repurposing … it’s rare that we’ll throw items out,” says State Theatre Company executive director/producer Jodi Glass.

Jodi’s job is to ensure the various divisions of the company work like a well-oiled machine. But in recent years it has been a case of musical chairs for the departments, which have been housed in separate locations across Adelaide.

The warehouse is a temporary home for the company’s set and wardrobe departments, which have been displaced by renovation work at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Jodi has a dream to unite State Theatre Company under one roof in a single facility that would also contain a performance venue. “I think would be transformative, not only for our company but to the arts in South Australia,” she says. It is a big dream for a company that makes up much of its income from philanthropy and sponsorship.

State Theatre Company’s annual turnover is about $8 million. “Less than 50 per cent of our income comes from government, the rest of it we make up from ticket sales, philanthropy, sponsorship and other activities,” Jodi says. It is support from the community that allows the company to keep producing theatre, and doing so in new and inventive ways.

“The people who are giving philanthropically love what we do and what theatre is capable of. Philanthropy is a gift. If you are moved enough and feel the cause is a powerful part of your life, you want to give something to help.”

State Theatre Company executive director/producer Jodi Glass has a dream of uniting the various departments of the company under one roof, which would require significant philanthropic or government contributions.

Recent donations have allowed State Theatre Company to reach further into regional South Australia than ever before. In 2019 plays will tour to Lameroo, Ceduna and Streaky Bay for the first time. Two plays that did extremely well for State Theatre in 2018 were both stories written about regional South Australian communities.

“I’d love to see more artists getting work from us and more storytelling from local artists,” Jodi says.

South Australians are realising the importance of live theatre, and more are donating to the company than ever before. Even just 15 years ago, donations to the company were modest. Today, the number of donors, and the amount they are giving, has increased, however a gift of $5 is just as important as a much larger donation.

Despite these budgeting and venue challenges, the company is reaching audiences with new and challenging works. In 2017-18 the company produced 347 performances, reached more than 120,000 audience members and employed 65 actors. Their complex dramas and comedies are often challenging.

Although it may not compete with the touring blockbusters for audience numbers, local theatre can be life-changing. Jodi was first exposed to theatre in her home town of Geraldton, Western Australia.

“The first show I ever saw was in my school gymnasium and it transformed me. From that moment I knew I wanted to work in the arts and I was probably about 10 years old.”

Live theatre is a key part of modern society, for both audiences and performers.

“You’re dealing with human vulnerability at all times, asking actors to open up their hearts and be raw in quite powerful moments again and again. Through philanthropy the artists can continue practising their craft, and for me that’s an extraordinary thing.”

WRIGHT ON THE MONEY

Darren Wright’s resume of charitable work and donating is remarkable. In his 34 years, Darren has contributed more to society than many do their entire lives. He is charitable with both his time and money, from running the New York Marathon to raise money for Mission Australia, donating to various charities and organisations, volunteering with youth organisations and working with Operation Flinders. He once spent a month in Vanuatu to help renovate a hospital.

In his sixth year subscribing with State Theatre Company, Darren is the organisation’s youngest donor. But because of his working hours, between the Army Reserves and his social work with teenagers, it’s rare that he can attend opening night.

Of all who donate to State Theatre Company, Darren Wright is the youngest, and says he believes in the importance of the art form.

“Most of the opening nights are on Tuesdays, which is when I’m at army, so I never get to go to them,” says Darren, who gives without expecting anything in return.

Although he doesn’t work full time, he’s an expert at budgeting. He saves enough money to travel overseas every year, while still giving to numerous organisations.

“I’m that guy who has numerous bank accounts and throws all of my income into one and it disperses so I don’t have to think about it. I literally have a bank account for my phone bill,” Darren says.

It was a visit to the Dunstan Playhouse that triggered the idea to invest in the work of State Theatre Company.

“Everything I do is about South Australia. State Theatre is an ever-growing company that puts our state on the map, and I’m very happy to invest in something that builds SA’s brand.”

An aspiring author, he’s written 19 books and two plays, many of which are set in South Australia and inspired by Agatha Christie. Although his genre of writing is unlikely to be picked up by State Theatre Company, he is excited to support the work of local playwrights and actors.

THE ART OF GIVING

Helen and Roger Salkeld are devout supporters of the arts in South Australia. The couple give philanthropically to State Theatre Company as well as The Helpmann Academy, Windmill and Slingsby theatre companies and The Adelaide Festival.

Helen and Roger have missed very few opening nights at State Theatre since subscribing to the company five years ago.

“I think South Australia punches way above its weight in the arts and is an incubator for young people to get a start and go on to all sorts of wonderful things around the country, if not internationally,” Roger says.

Through donations the couple have helped the company to reach more audiences. They are particularly inspired by State Theatre’s focus on regional touring, having both lived in the country for about 40 years, Roger being a retired farmer and winemaker.

“It is so difficult for people in the regions to access live performance and to be able to expose young people to theatre is fantastic,” he says.

Various local arts organisations are able to continue their work thanks to the passionate support of Roger and Helen Salkeld.

Behind-the-scenes access to the actors and creative staff has given Roger an understanding of what it takes to put on a show.

“What we really enjoy about subscribing is going to opening night. You meet the actors and the production crew, which is really nice. It is like a family.”

Roger and Helen are often left thinking and talking about productions for days after a show.

“We love the fact that they commission new work, which we also support through philanthropy. We think it’s so important to tell our stories.”

Last season they attended Port Pirie’s opening night of The Gods of Strangers — a play about South Australia’s Greek and Italian migrants, written by Elena Carapetis.

“The audience were blown away that someone had written and performed their story, it was really moving. It was a marvellous production and it could well become a classic.”

Roger’s mother introduced him to live theatre and ballet at a young age. “You can tell stories to young people through theatre that can change their lives. A complete society must support live theatre as part of its makeup.”

A GLIMPSE BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Sandra Velgush developed a love of theatre during high school. An inspirational English teacher, who moonlighted as an actor, took Sandra’s class along to shows, particularly Shakespeare.

“They were amazing productions. I was very impacted and just fell in love with it from there,” Sandra says.

Raising three young children and working in real estate has meant less time to indulge in theatre, but in recent years Sandra has rekindled her love of the art form. She has also introduced her three youngsters to children’s theatre.

Captivated by theatre in her youth, mother of three Sandra Velgush supports the performing arts through her subscription to State Theatre Company. She says the magic and romance of live theatre needs to be preserved for future generations.

“I love that it’s real and raw … not something that’s cut and edited on television. The power of theatre is in its story telling and ability to draw you in,” she says.

Sandra and her husband Victor have donated to State Theatre Company for the past three seasons and believe live performance arts deserve greater support.

“I fear that it doesn’t get the funding it needs. It’s an art form that I would hate to see disappear, which is why I support it.”

Sandra often purchases extra tickets to invite friends and clients along.

By subscribing with the company Sandra has gained a glimpse behind the curtain. Meeting the actors at opening nights has given her a deeper appreciation of the art form.

“Night after night it’s a tough gig and they do it well, I’ve got so much respect for their work,” she says.

“It’s a means of expression and shining a light on different issues and topics. Whether it’s good or bad, it has the power to make you think. When people start thinking and talking, that’s when things can happen to bring about change in society.”

ONE OF LIFE’S JOYS

Retired obstetricians Jane and Trevor Mudge have been going to live theatre since before they met 30 years ago. But it is since Trevor underwent a kidney transplant that he has gained a new appreciation of life’s joys, particularly theatre.

“I believe you should live every day as if it’s your last because one day it will be,” he says. “I think the breadth of experience you get from theatre is helpful in counting your blessings.”

Although they give to various other causes, the couple are long-time financial supporters of theatre.

“It adds so much to the moral compass of one’s existence. It’s hard to imagine life without it. There are lots of causes, but theatre should be supported too,” Trevor says.

It is interesting to compare the practice of philanthropy in Australia to the United States, which has a strong tradition of giving huge sums of money to the arts. Despite the top one per cent of Australians collecting the majority of wealth, philanthropy is nowhere near the same level. The arts can be a lower priority for governments against health, education and welfare. But there are many like Trevor and Jane who are quietly doing their bit.

“People think the government should step in. But if we can afford it we have some sort of obligation to do something, which is why we like to help,” he says.

Retired doctors Jane and Trevor Mudge have been State Theatre Company subscribers for 25 years and see the company’s work as a contribution to the fabric of South Australian communities.

Trevor believes the major challenge facing State Theatre Company is the engagement of young people.

“Having young actors is part of the solution, but the board needs to think about other solutions too. You have to look after your donors and try to encourage others,” he says.

In his palate for theatre, Trevor has a conservative taste for the classics. But in recent years he’s warmed to more contemporary productions, thanks to State Theatre Company.

Trevor and Jane have walked out at interval on occasion, but that’s part of the charm of theatre.

“Exposure to innovation has been a pleasure and probably good for me. If you only put on the much-loved plays, you’re not really doing what you should be doing — testing people’s limits. In my opinion theatre needs to challenge your cultural norms and expectations.”

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of SALIFE.

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