Opinion //

Who would win? The USU or culture

On the need for USyd’s performing arts scene to hold the USU to account.

Photo credit: USU

At the end of last semester, hundreds of students attended a protest against the proposed dissolvement of several Arts departments, including the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS). Amongst this crowd was a solid contingent from USyd’s performing arts scene. 

It’s rare for the performing arts crowd to collectively throw its weight behind these issues. Another prominent example that comes to mind is the USU election. The rush to support the ‘performing arts candidate’ has become a yearly occurrence for the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS), revues, and occasionally the Conservatorium. Sadly, these candidates’ promises of enhancing this aspect of campus culture often go unfulfilled. Directors have little sway over the USU’s decision-making, compared to USU management and the ever-controversial Senate-appointed Directors.  

The situation for performing arts groups on campus has not seen substantial improvements in recent years – in fact, it’s arguably gone backwards. Back in 2019, a new model was lambasted by clubs and societies (C&S) executives after it was introduced a week before Welcome Week. History repeated itself in February 2021, when C&S executives were informed of a proposed funding model only 4 days before, with no details of what it would entail. What’s more, funding for clubs and societies decreased by $37,000 from 2020. 

In addition, the room booking system, which performing arts societies must navigate to find spaces for rehearsals, is fucked. Multiple C&S executives noted that rooms are often double or triple booked, and payment is occasionally required. This is made worse by the USU prohibiting bookings past 6pm and on weekends (unless societies are given a special exception); times which are ideal and don’t clash with classes and work shifts. 

Elliott Miller Studio is currently the only suitable ‘dance space’ on campus, despite there being four separate dance societies, and is frequently used for other rehearsals. Furthermore, the USU’s promises to redevelop the Holme Common Room and Manning Bar as a rehearsal space have gone unfulfilled, though the pandemic can shoulder some of the blame.

Likewise, performance spaces on campus have been culled substantially over the last 20 years. The Footbridge Theatre has not hosted live music and dramatic performances since the USU sold most of the building to stay afloat after the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2005. Hermann’s Bar’s refurbishment in 2017 effectively killed the emerging comedy scene there. Manning Bar saw a slower death, ending up a husk of the hub of student life it once was. That has left two options: the Cellar Theatre, and the Seymour Centre, which seems to be consistently trying its best to detach itself from student culture.

Then there’s PopFest. When it was known as Verge Festival, it was a multi-day celebratory showcase of student culture, and was given a large tent on Eastern Avenue. Now, the USU outsources activities and panelists, and is met with lacklustre engagement over a mere two-day run. 

So what can the performing arts as a collective do, other than curl up in a ball? Mid-lockdown, the answer is: probably not much. With more losses expected this Semester, C&S funding could see another, more devastating overhaul soon. Additionally, it’s likely that all performance-based events will be cancelled or postponed. 

But one need only look back a couple years to see what is possible. In 2019, then-SUDS President Lincoln Gidney assembled a ‘Student Cultural Union’ with the heads of nearly every creative arts group on campus. Gidney conducted extensive research into “how societies and groups were being screwed by increasing prices and lack of availability.” Amongst his more disturbing findings was that funding changes in 2019 effectively halved funding for events.The cost of using the Seymour Centre had increased on average by 11% a year, and producers and directors were using their own money to cover costs. To address these findings with the USU, a forum was held. 

Following this, the University created a Creative Arts Working Group. “There were big ambitions,” said Gidney. Its members included society representatives, academics, the coordinator of Verge Gallery, a USU representative, and a student from St Andrew’s College on a music scholarship. The group was meant to have a lifespan of two years, but only held two meetings before it was disbanded by the University, due to the campus’ closure in Semester 1 of last year.

Despite quashed efforts and slow progress, student creatives should advocate for these issues before and after election season. They have the capacity and desire to mobilise for relevant causes – and not just for election campaigns – while prioritising a collectivist approach that includes the entirety of the performing arts scene on campus. Maintaining pressure on and having discussions with the USU is necessary and achievable, and may help the policies of ‘performing arts candidates’ come to fruition.