Carly Sheppard, attending 2016 ISPA in Melbourne

Two weeks ago Blakdance gave me the opportunity to attend the 98th International Society of the Performing arts forum, and to also, preceding ISPA, to attend the two-day Anthony Field Academy, an ISPA program dedicated to developing the next generation of talent. It is an intensive arts administration program for new and emerging leaders. The Academy is named in honour of long-time ISPA member Anthony Field, who was instrumental in establishing the first Academy at ISPA’s Stockholm congress in 1998.


To be perfectly honest, I had never in my life heard of ISPA or Anthony Field, so I was intrigued and excited to be immersed in an important part of the legacy of the sprawling and diverse field that I work in. 


I fronted up to the first day of the Academy feeling out of my depth. It had been a while since I had been in the world. I had been hibernating and looking after family, looking for a solid job, and dealing with my mental health. There is a ‘back stage’ and an ‘on stage’ as far as my creativity goes, and I had spent much of the last few months adamantly clinging to the back stage. I wasn’t ready to meet producers, artists, presenters and performing arts gentry from all over the world. So I found my people, Playwright Kamara Bell Wykes and musician/ all - rounder Naretha Williams, both from Ilbijerri Theatre Company, and we teamed up to experience it all together. 


REIMAGINING was the theme of the week. The first thing that struck me was the lack of any proper Welcome to Country at the Academy. There were beautiful acknowledgements from the likes of Angharad Wynn Jones and others, however I could see no Indigenous representation on the panels for the two – day academy. I swallowed that, a little embarrassed, knowing that we were hosting First Nations people from around the world, expecting them to engage without being properly welcomed to the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri lands of the Kulin Nations. Not my country, but this was clearly not the right way to do it. 

Compounding that, we listened to white panellists and speakers talk about diversity, cultural censorship and essentially shifting the paradigm and enlisting diversity at the foundations of our institutions. 


I realised very quickly that this was not for me. I would find nothing of value listening to this. Here I was, a low hum of panic vibrating in my guts, wondering idly how the hell I was going to pay rent that Sunday, when I had prioritized this opportunity over the mail room work I had been offered, while listening to the well-paid gentry talk to me about diversity. I couldn’t believe it. The irony was astounding. 


So I decided that I would use this time to shove these realities on to the list of things to discuss. I put my hand up and asked about the lack of Indigenous representation in the Academy panels, the lack of Welcome to Country, and the reality that the really diverse voices can’t actually afford to be in this room. 

It cost Blakdance about a grand to buy my ticket. Artists can’t afford that. What kind of relevant conversations can be had in a room that actual artists can’t afford to get into? What kind of reimagining were they trying to curate? 


So, these were all of my immediate thoughts for the Academy. I was told that it would open up once ISPA had started on Wednesday. Which was true, it did. I fought with myself between being a little poor black artist upstart, and being a silent observer of the whole thing before opening my mouth. I kind of did both. 


Merindah and I had some great talks on all of this, and she helped me to learn how to figure out why I’m there, and what the purpose is for me, and that that everyone there has their own purpose. Thank goodness for her. I quickly found out that these events are more about the opportunity to meet people you would otherwise not have met. It was about whom you met in the crowd, at the bar, over coffee, in the foyer before and after talks. Serendipitous conversations that were sparked by a work you both saw, a comment someone made, a panel conversation. I met some incredible people, had wonderful conversations and connections, which I hope can grow in future. 


Not all of the panels were irrelevant in my books. There was one during the Academy called Diversity in Cultural Leadership, which was fantastic, (even though there was STILL no Indigenous representation on this panel) with Robyn Archer AO, Tania Cañas, Jade Lillie, Sudeep Lingamneni and Phloeun Prim. I sat fidgeting with passion in the back row, clicking my fingers and throwing my fist in the air, because of the actual relevance, the challenge, the honesty. This was one of the only panels in the Academy that represented actual diverse life, cultural and artistic experience, specifically from diverse artists working in Australia. What does the word diverse even mean, in this context, right? Who gets to choose that definition and then curate a whole International event based on it? Who gets left out? There’s something about an exclusive vernacular, too, that makes these places, talks, events inaccessible to those who don’t speak it. Language, race and class. I’m lucky, I had a solid education on the English language. I grew up white. I am able to get by in these spaces, just. So what happens to the mobs who don’t have those privileges? Even if they could afford it, sometimes it’s just plain offensive to be in those spaces. 


On the Thursday and the Friday, the panels began to actually hit the mark for me: Reimagining Access and Transformative Practice with Josh Pether,  Rebecca Dawson and Alice Nash,  Reimagining Protest and Activism with Natalia Kaliada, Penny Arcade, Richard Frankland and Mallika Taneja, and Reimagining Permanence with Airileke Ingram, Rachael Maza, Santee Smith and Deborah Cheetham. 


I got to go. Most people I know and work with didn’t. But I felt like, even though my nametag represented myself as a singular, I really wanted to be a mouthpiece for artists that would never get a look in on an event such as ISPA. It’s always dangerous to assume oneself as representative of groups of people, but it kind of came naturally. I was outraged for myself, my dire financial circumstances, the artists I know who have no homes, no resources, but band together to create some of the most relevant, challenging and ‘reimagining’ works I have ever had the pleasure experience. I would have never even known about it had Merindah not asked me to attend.  I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity. I learned a lot. It really challenged me to see what part of the Performing Arts ‘body’ I was attached to, what afforded me that right, privilege, how completely out of touch this body was to parts of itself, and mostly, how can I help to use my privileges to bridge these synaptic gaps.