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'Death of a thousand cuts': theatre degree closures could wipe out future generations of Australian performers

Mabel S Uganda

Oct. 22, 2020

Teachers are warning that the future of the Australian arts and entertainment industry is under threat as theatre degrees are cut across the country.
Among the wide staff and course cuts prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic , multiple theatre and performance degrees have been closed or suspended indefinitely in recent months.
The 44-year-old theatre major at the University of Newcastle will be suspended next year, with no new enrolments allowed, while the highly-regarded theatre program at Monash University in Melbourne has been closed.
The peak body of arts educators has warned that this could wipe out future generations of Australian entertainers and disproportionately affect regional students.
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Actor and director Jonathan Biggins, who is an alum of Newcastle’s theatre program, said his degree was “pivotal” to his career and young students now would miss out.
“It has been a death of a thousand cuts over many years – the whole push against the humanities in general by the government, and the kind of way universities are running scared from those kinds of subjects,” he said.
The chair of the National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE), Dr John Nicholas Saunders, said the changes at Newcastle university, which serves a large area, was especially devastating to regional students.
“Students in the Newcastle area will have to look further afield for universities outside of their region – away from home,” he said.
“This is a key issue for students from regional areas who may feel more comfortable attending a university closer to their home, family and friends. As we move into a recession, this may also impact families’ abilities to support their children to live away from home in order to undertake tertiary study.”
Saunders said there would be a knock-on effect on the arts and cultural scene in Newcastle more broadly, leading to a lack of jobs in regional New South Wales and a concentration in the cities.
Biggins agreed, saying the heyday of the theatre degree at Newcastle university turned the city into a “hotbed” of creativity.
“Any town that has got a university is much more dynamic and culturally rich. When the drama department started it saw this explosion of creativity across the whole city.”
This month, Monash University also confirmed it will close its drama program – known as the Centre for Theatre and Performance – and its musicology subject, which was first taught in 1965.
Matt Luton, the artistic director of the Malthouse Theatre, said in a statement that the closure would erase “new voices and new ideas” at a time “when we need them more than ever”.
“We’ve had a long connection with Monash University and the Centre for Theatre and Performance. We’ve worked in collaboration with many of the students over the years and then seen those students go on and create work around the country.”
Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a playwright and director who has taught in the drama school for 18 years, said Monash’s theatre program was the most successful theatre degree in Australia and had been ranked 20th for performing arts globally.
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“It’s got more engagement from the industry than any other,” she told industry publication Aussie Theatre . “As far as we’re aware, we’re the only program that commissions work and provides that degree of intensive study.”
The NAAE said this closure would “drastically reduce opportunities for students”. “In turn this will have a significant negative impact on both the arts sector, the arts education sector and ultimately the wellbeing of the Australian community.”
The arts body said Australia’s creative arts contributed 6.4% of the country’s GDP . “The demand for creative skills is growing across multiple industries,” Saunders said.
Biggins said it was a misconception that university drama and theatre degrees were just about training actors. “The irony is that all the arts graduates have a much higher employment rate than any other faculty.
“Sydney University, the Sydney Theatre Company, have devised all these ways to use drama in maths, science and English. There are any number of people who have gone on to use it as a teaching degree. It would be great as an adjunct to a law degree.”
Biggins said that fellow graduates from Newcastle’s theatre department such as artistic director David Berthold, comedian Mikey Robbins, sports presenter Tony Squires and actor Susie Porter “all have very disparate careers”.
“My career isn’t just acting, it is writing, radio, television – that kind of depth you get from doing a university degree,” Biggins said. “I think it is very important.”
Newcastle university has confirmed that the theatre major will not be taking new students next year, and it is unclear what will happen in future years.
A university spokeswoman said “nothing will change for currently enrolled students for 2021” – but did not respond to questions about other students or other years.
A spokeswoman for Monash said the cuts to the theatre program were part of a slate of redundancies that was negotiated with staff and the National Tertiary Education Union.
“No student will be prevented from undertaking studies in theatre performance or in music, but the range of units on offer in these fields will be reduced,” the university said.
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“For current students there will be no changes to units for 2020, and any changes made will not affect completion of any studies.”
Saunders said he was worried this would be the start of widespread cuts to theatre across the country.
“We fear that the changes announced by [University of Newcastle] and Monash are only the beginning of drastic course reductions in the creative and performing arts.
The NAAE chair warns that the Coalition’s recently passed university funding changes – with the support of Centre Alliance and One Nation – “will only make the current situation more challenging, as students wishing to study creative and performing arts courses will now face higher fees and this will likely lead to other tertiary institutions deciding not to offer creative and performing arts courses”.
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