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The best ideas often seem obvious in hindsight. When Gannawarra Shire Council, in Victoria’s north, wanted to reinvigorate their ailing performing arts program, the answer was simple – get the community more involved. But Arts and Culture Officer Kirsty Orr could not have predicted how successful her experiment in community partnership would be, or that the Council would eventually pick up the Arts Animates award at the National Awards for Local Government for their new programming model.

Gunnawarra Cows

It all started back in 2015. Kirsty was looking at the vibrant arts programs of nearby regional centres such as Swan Hill, Bendigo and Echuca and wondering how Gannawarra, with its small budget, with no dedicated arts facilities and its population of little over 10,000 people spread across 3,732 sq km could ever compete - and why they were missing out on the top touring shows.

“We were waiting for shows to come to us, and then we’d book them,” says Kirsty. “The quality of the shows was pretty ordinary, and there was no overall program curation. It was short-term programming, and it was exhausting.”

Around that time Kirsty and her colleagues discovered Showcase Victoria, an annual performing arts marketplace run by Regional Arts Victoria and the Victorian Association of Performing Arts Centres where programmers, bookers, producers and more can learn about the range of performing arts shows that are available to tour. Kirsty’s boss made the pilgrimage to Melbourne to check it out and was inspired by what she discovered. But it took another year before they came up with the award-winning plan.

“We sat down and thought, what are our assets? And they were the strong community leaders that we have,” says Kirsty. While many local council arts officers would simply go to Showcase Victoria themselves to select a program for the coming year, Kirsty decided to put together a small team of people from the community to help choose shows to bring to towns like Kerang, Cohuna, Lake Charm and Leitchville.

Some were tapped on the shoulder, while others nominated themselves. What they had in common was a strong network they could go back to and discuss programming possibilities and drum up an audience.

“The people we take are connected,” says Kirsty. “Some are linked with art, some aren’t. But everyone comes back and is inspired and talks amongst their own network. It helps build an audience from an early stage.”

One such person is Angela Hird, who was one of the first to join the initiative. A self-confessed football and netball nut from Kerang, when she first got involved Angela didn’t know much about art, but knew what she liked. Angela has been part of the group of four or five community members who travel to Showcase each year since 2016. These days she adds performing arts to her list of passions.

“I’ve been to trade shows, and I expected a lot of walking around and networking, talking to people with a heavy theatre background and not being able to speak their language,” Angela says. Instead, the group discovered they would be sitting in an auditorium for two days seeing five- or ten minute-long grabs of around twenty shows a day, ranging from traditional narrative theatre to music, dance and circus. Angela thought the others in her group would be more arts-inclined than she was, “but we were all green as green and we learned from each other. By lunchtime we kind of sounded like we knew what we were talking about.”

“They don’t believe me before we go down that they’ll be tired,” says Kirsty. “But they are by lunchtime on the first day. Most people up here haven’t seen a lot of theatre, and they don’t know what they like or don’t like. But if you sit them down in Showcase they work it out pretty quickly.”

The marathon viewing experience at Showcase is only the beginning of the consultation process for the team from Gannawarra Shire. The group then go back to their respective communities to talk about what would be a good fit in each town. Council set up a Facebook poll so people can watch video previews of possible shows and vote on the shortlist. They also run regular art salons which are open to all, where everyone can enjoy a glass of wine and nibbles and have their say about upcoming programming decisions.

Some of the choices made by the community have taken Kirsty by surprise, like the raunchy cabaret The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez, which visited Cohuna.

The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez

The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez

With each community now invested in the shows that will be touring to the area, the community group gets involved in making them truly spectacular. A performance by Hungarian gypsy-folk-tango trio the Stiletto Sisters was held as a pop-up picnic at a secret location, organisers having transformed a school basketball court into a romantic European market stall.

For a production of Dinosaur Time Machine on the school holidays in Leitchville, shops windows were full of dino dioramas, a nest with dinosaur eggs appeared outside the hall, and bones from the local butcher were buried in dirt for months to make them look aged before planting them in the school sand pit for a paleontology dig.

“It’s up to each community to put their own stamp on it,” says Kirsty. “And it means that if you go and watch that show there, you won’t get that experience anywhere else.”

Where performing arts in Gannawarra once struggled to find an audience, there is now a thriving, community-led program that not only draws a crowd but also draws out creativity and celebration from the public. The Arts Animates award is designed to recognise ‘excellence in building vibrant and resilient communities’, and with every show the Shire outdoes itself once again.

And Kirsty’s favourite show? What has been the highlight?

“Well, that’s always the latest show,” she says, in all seriousness. “Because each time we seem to be getting better.”