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John Sheedy appointed chief executive of Theatre Works

Sydney Morning Herald

Dewy Cook

February 16, 2016

It’s been a “long, round” journey across Australia for theatre director John Sheedy but, finally, he’s landed a job that brings him back to Melbourne after 14 years.

The director of the Helpmann Award-winning opera production The Rabbits, and former artistic director of Perth’s youth theatre company Barking Gecko, takes over as chief executive and creative producer at St Kilda’s Theatre Works in March. He inherits an organisation that has seen turnover increase 171 percent in the five years his predecessor Daniel Clarke was there and which has established itself as a breeding ground for some of the city’s most innovative independent theatre productions.

“Theatre Works has a 35-year history of creating works, working with independent artists and established artists – it’s worked with some of the best in Melbourne. And over the last five years I think Dan has done a great job of lifting its profile, lifting the quality of the works here as well. For me the organisation has been placed beautifully to lift it into its next chapter,” he said.

A scene from the production The Rabbits in the Perth Festival.
A scene from the production The Rabbits in the Perth Festival. Photo: Toni Wilkinson
Most recently, Sheedy comes to Theatre Works after five years with Barking Gecko in Perth where his productions of Shaun Tan’s The Rabbits and Australian children’s classic Storm Boy both won national acclaim. Prior to Perth he spent nine years in Sydney, attending NIDA and working with local companies including Belvoir Street and Sydney Theatre Company, but grew up on the Victorian coast, at Torquay.

Although he enjoyed the creative freedom of working in Western Australia, away from the scrutiny of larger theatre markets, “I’ve missed having the access to the varieties of works that go on,” he said. “Melbourne is a huge creative hub of some of the best artists in this country so having them at your fingertips three times a week is quite thrilling.”

He’ll keep his hand in directing occasional Theatre Works productions and aims to push it towards becoming “a producing house and moving away as a venue for hire”. He also has his eye on festivals and theatre companies overseas, in London, New York and Berlin, as potential homes for touring work.

Rory Potter in Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s production of Colin Thiele’s classic Storm Boy.
Rory Potter in Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s production of Colin Thiele’s classic Storm Boy. Photo: Brett Boardman Photography
Theatre Works under Clarke became known for the partnerships it created both locally and internationally with emerging directors and actors, something Sheedy hopes to build on even as government funding for the arts becomes tighter in the wake of cuts under former federal arts minister George Brandis and again under current minister Mitch Fifield.

“With the “Brandis effect” I think it’s more important than ever now with theatre companies that we do support each other,” he said. “While people say my god, it’s a very precarious time to be taking over a company in the arts, that is something that we’ve always had to do. It’s not a new thing. You have to work with what you’ve got, you’ve got to have a very savvy approach to how you can create these works, how you can get a program out and how you can get the money in.”

Theatre Works’ Directors Lab program, launched last year with the Melbourne Festival, was an “amazing” initiative that will be offered again, he said, while another of his plans is to expand Theatre Works’ residency program to give up to six companies a year more time and financial support to workshop and produce work.

Clarke, who leaves Theatre Works to take up a position as a producer of performing arts at Arts Centre Melbourne, praised his successor.

“I think the board have made a really great appointment, I feel like the organisation is in really great hands,” he said.

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