Director Kate Cherry takes the helm at NIDA with a vision of the school not just as an incubator of dramatic talent but of the nation’s cultural future. By Peter Craven.

Kate Cherry takes centre stage

Kate Cherry
Kate Cherry

While everyone knows that the theatre is a world that has its exits and its entrances, and that the dramas backstage can be dark and crooked, it was boggling earlier this year when the newly appointed head of the Sydney Theatre Company, Jonathan Church, departed, and it’s possible to think of the Australian theatre at the moment as a world in which administrators can jostle for power and do their best to defeat artists. So, in this context, it is encouraging that the National Institute of Dramatic Art has appointed Kate Cherry, late of Black Swan, Perth’s premier theatre company, not only as director, but as chief executive.

Here at last is a performing arts organisation, far and away the most famous drama school in the country, that has placed the administrative and financial reins in the hands of the woman who will also be calling the shots artistically and will be in charge of charting the overall direction of teaching the many skills that make up the business of creating theatre.

It makes sense. Kate Cherry, with her famously quiet manner, has the theatre in her blood, and she is superb at going out and getting talent. She is not the kind of director who thinks the theatre is about nothing but herself.

Back in 2000 when she put on the first production of Life after George, Hannie Rayson’s play about the maverick professor, with Richard Piper as the academic, Julia Blake as his wife, Sue Jones as the tough villainess, and the then novice Asher Keddie as the daughter, you had the feeling – rarer than it should be – that a significant piece of contemporary drama was being brought to life with maximum precision and with the closest possible attention to the centrality of the actors and the primacy of the text.

It was Kate Cherry who gave Melbourne audiences the production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, with the late Wendy Hughes as the old star Alexandra Del Lago and Guy Pearce as Chance, and A Glass Menagerie in 2004 with that great actor of insinuation and mock naivety Ben Mendelsohn in the Tennessee role of Tom and Gillian Jones as Amanda. And it was Kate Cherry who at Black Swan in 2014 did a production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Sigrid Thornton, which had an engulfing desolate quality that was unrivalled.

Cherry is the daughter of the theatre legend Wal Cherry, who brought modern American theatre to Australia in the 1950s akin to the transformative power of antibiotics. What will she do with NIDA? Well, she won’t burn it down, as some people might like.

“I see it as a hub of intellectuals and practitioners, designers and directors and actors,” Cherry says, weighing her words, “all in one place, stimulating each other and working together and bouncing off each other.” She cites Stephen Sewell, the playwright who is the head of writing for performance, and Michael Scott-Mitchell, the head of design.

Cherry is good at the collaborative business of theatre because she’s been watching it since she was in her cradle, with a mother who was an actress and a father a director, and with legends such as the great Zoe Caldwell as part of history within reach. 

Of course, Perth and Black Swan put her at the heart of the goldmine of artistic patronage. “The past nine years for me,” she says, “have been about negotiating between business people and government in order to further the culture.”

She talks with fondness of Janet Holmes à Court and Alan Cransberg, the former head of Alcoa.

“I found it all quite enlivening and exciting,” she says with sober understatement. “They showed me the different ways people can collaborate and contribute to a city.”

She emphasises the way the philanthropists of the West, the Janet Holmes à Courts and the Twiggy Forrests, existed in a context that was rich with artists.

“In the West they were often practitioners in solitary art forms,” she says, instancing Tim Winton, though she did succeed in doing plays with the nation’s most popular literary novelist.

In her days at Black Swan there was also a close relationship with the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), which has always been seen as a drama school that punched above its weight – not least because the place that produced Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman and Frances O’Connor has never forsaken its emphasis on skills. Cherry talks about Black Swan’s sponsorship of the rising star Rose Riley, who was so striking recently in the Belvoir–Malthouse production of Menagerie as a very beautiful and sensuous-looking Laura.

“There’s a classic example,” Cherry says. “We had identified her as someone who was seriously exciting as an actor, and then we conscripted Chris Isaacs of Rio Tinto and made her part of the bridging company as an emerging artist. We succeeded in getting the legendary speech teacher Kristin Linklater, who I knew in America, who taught for years at Columbia and has a phenomenal track record, to work with her. She identified Rose as a serious talent, and she helped to hone her skills.

“I haven’t had time to drill down and put my feet under the table at NIDA, but I do want to empower artists in this way, and allow them to collaborate with people who are outside the building. I think NIDA can be a tremendous, empowering hub for artists and artisans who can enter a terrific collaboration between history and innovation. It’s the transformation we could get by doing that which I would like to put at the top of my agenda.”

One of the things that is most striking about Kate Cherry as a director is the skill with which she casts. Sir Peter Hall, the man who invented the Royal Shakespeare Company, who did the first English-language production of Waiting for Godot and gave the 26-year-old Peter O’Toole his gig as Shylock opposite Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s Portia, said once that a fair fraction of directing was casting, and no one in this country has a better record at it than Cherry. She tells me how as a student at UCLA she was part of the Mark Taper Forum, and saw the kinds of decisions that were taken apropos casting, particularly the work of Oskar Eustis at the Public Theatre at Astor Place.

“I sat in on the casting sessions, and witnessed the incredible exchanges which went on in the casting office. You wouldn’t necessarily agree with all of them, but I watched how major American casting works, and it influenced how I set about things. They had a very powerful sense of their purposes. And I must say I feel such gratitude for the actors here who have taken such huge chances with me. People like Guy Pearce and Sigrid Thornton…”

I mention Ben Mendelsohn, who won an Emmy this week for Netflix’s Bloodlines, and she melts. “Oh God!” she says, “what a marvellous actor he is.” The conversation shifts to Helen Morse, who featured in Cherry’s production of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in Perth in 2009, and who has been one of the legends of Australian stage and screen since she made Picnic at Hanging Rock with Peter Weir 40 years ago.

Cherry almost shivers when she thinks of her. I say how remarkable – and how remarkably different from her everyday self – Morse was as the establishment matriarch in the TV mini-series of Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda.

“She’s someone,” Cherry says, “who can seem to literally change her DNA.”

It will be fascinating to see if Morse ends up playing the role of Patricia Highsmith in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, which Black Swan has scheduled for 2017, and which Cherry may direct. One of the things she should be able to do as both the artistic and administrative head of NIDA is to moonlight as a director, to keep her own hand in as a maker of plays on the Sydney stage.

“Well, Sydney is certainly an exciting place,” she says. “It would be good for me to be able to educate and to bring people together, while also doing my own practice, but not doing my own practice all the time.”

She’s certainly keen on the fact that NIDA will necessarily throw her into contact with the young. “I’ve just hit 50,” she says, “and it’s been fascinating to me working with young people on a student production of Angels in America in Queensland.” She’s recently done Tony Kushner’s epic in Perth, with a cast that included the veteran John Stanton as Roy Cohn, and with her husband, the African-American actor Kenneth Ransom, as both Belize and Mr Lies.

“One of the things that strikes me about students these days is that they’re so fearless, and so interested in illuminating the world, and boy, with Angels in America, those kids do get it. They’re so fiercely engaged with the text and they’re 30 years younger than me, and it’s very strange for me to be looking at it again through their eyes after nearly 25 years.”

Cherry talks about the horror at the heart of the play, the apprehension of the tragedy of the young facing death. It seems a humane and civilised perspective for the top theatre teacher in the country to have, and it tallies with the loftiness of her sense of what NIDA can achieve, as well as the personal modesty with which she speaks. But there is nothing modest about what she wants the institution to achieve.

For Cherry, NIDA’s overall function is to be “an artistic hub which can create culture and take us into the future. It has vast potential because it presents so many people engaged with different aspects of the same work. It can create its own ecology, an ecology which is necessarily a generous ecology”.

In a world of self-generated auteurship, of amateurism and iconoclasm, NIDA seems to have shown great canniness in making its top administrator and its supervising artistic intelligence a woman who is not so much interested in what can be done to the theatre than what the theatre can do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2016 as "Centre stage".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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