Neon – the independent buzz

Today, Melbourne Theatre Company validates the work of dynamic independent theatre makers by announcing NEON – a festival celebrating Melbourne’s independent arts scene.

Lawler Studio MTC
Lawler Studio MTC

Featuring five ten-day seasons of new works in the Lawler Studio by leading Melbourne-based independent companies The Hayloft Project, THE RABBLE, Sisters Grimm, Fraught Outfit and Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, this diverse program promises to be thrilling, confronting and entertaining.

Bethany Simons caught up with seasoned independent theatre makers Emma Valente of THE RABBLE, and Benedict Hardie of The Hayloft Project to chat about what this news means for them and other Melbourne independents.

Founded in 2006 by Emma Valente and Kate Davis, THE RABBLE is known for its visual and physical translations of well-known texts. Using imagery, symbolism and the actor’s body and physicality as a primary resource, they take stories that people are familiar with and translate them into their own abstract language.

Valente says, “I’m so excited that the landscape of independent theatre has changed so much in the fifteen years I’ve been working, that a company like ours can now work inside the MTC. This opportunity is a chance for us to push our practice, have our work exposed and reach a much wider audience.”

The Hayloft Project. Image Patrick Boland
The Hayloft Project. Image Patrick Boland

Bursting onto the scene in 2007, The Hayloft Project has spent the last few years cementing their place in Melbourne’s independent theatre community. Known for their slick, intelligent and passionate theatre making, this group really is a leading creative force. Artistic Associate, Benedict Hardie, spoke about what being selected for NEON means to the company.

“Often we’re funding work ourselves, so it’s an opportunity to be supported. It also feels like an opportunity to take more of a risk in our work. We’re part of an exciting wave in Melbourne – there’s a lot of young theatre makers wanting to challenge the way we tell stories.”

MTC’s Artistic Director, Brett Sheehy, has spoken about this significant initiative, saying it’s a celebration of our thriving independent landscape and artists. NEON is devoted to presenting only Melbourne companies – but, why else does Valente think THE RABBLE have been selected for the program?

“MTC have done their research. I think they’ve looked at what would be good to program together in terms of diversity. If you look at those five companies, there is a real breadth in style. It’s a really diverse program with a diverse range of works, but it’s also a list of companies who have been at it for a long time and have established themselves on the independent theatre scene in various different ways. It’s a real showcase of Melbourne talent and I think people will look at that nationally and see what Melbourne has to offer.”

It seems that the mission being accomplished by the introduction of NEON is to open up the MTC to all of Melbourne, making it a place of connection and accessibility.

Valente says, “It’s great for MTC to have opened their doors to people that have been around them for a long time. People that have grown up watching their shows now suddenly have a chance to be part of the company. In previous decades that hasn’t been possible.”

Hardie agreed saying, “It’s great to put the independent stuff alongside the commercial. Sometimes it feels like there’s a difference between one type of work and the other, but they’re both equally valid.”

NEON Fraught Outfit. Image by Pia Johnson
NEON: Fraught Outfit. Image by Pia Johnson

The sense of validation and belief that this announcement from MTC brings is a huge nod to the hard work that occurs in the independent world.

Valente explains, “The fact that Brett has left it open for us to do whatever we want…we’ve really taken that to its extreme. Our work is very far from anything MTC might program on their main stage, so that kind of trust and openness is really exciting.”

Hardie added, “It’s a really fantastic situation in which the lines can be blurred between the commercial and independent. They really do feed one another, so it’s nice to acknowledge that a bit more and bring independent work into a larger space. For us it’s an opportunity to reach new audiences and will provide a platform to evolve our theatre making practice.””

Along with the NEON theatre season, MTC has also announced a program of diverse activities to actively engage both audiences and arts industry practitioners. NEON EXTRA will feature forums, workshops, networking events and mentoring opportunities with industry commentators and leading creatives such as Wesley Enoch, Andrew Upton, Lally Katz and Ralph Myers. Open to audiences and artists alike, these free events are designed to tackle themes that will get the creative juices flowing. Valente and Hardie both agree that these are exciting opportunities for growth and networking.

Valente: “The theatre community is often split in two – main stage productions and independent theatre. This is really an opportunity for both of those groups to come together and exchange ideas and talk to each other. That doesn’t happen enough and I’m really excited that MTC is heading that up.”

[pull_left]I think it will foster a deeper engagement with the community. It’s one thing to have an excellent independent theatre scene, but the seminars will really deepen the experience[/pull_left]

Hardie also believes NEON EXTRA will be of great benefit, saying, “I think it will foster a deeper engagement with the community. It’s one thing to have an excellent independent theatre scene, but the seminars will really deepen the experience. Plus, if the audiences come along with a greater knowledge of the work then they will make greater demands. Artists should be pushing the boundaries, finding new ways of working, and surprising their audiences.”

Speaking with Hardie and Valente, I was inspired by the passion they have for their work, whether it be officially full time or just a full-on commitment. So, apart from the pay cheque, what makes independent theatre different to the commercial scene?

Hardie: “Independent theatre is an opportunity – a terrific playground for ideas, professional development and aesthetics. I don’t see it as being beneath commercial theatre. Some people look at it as a step up into commercial work – well sure, but I don’t think about it that way. Independent theatre is where I want to be. It’s where I feel the greatest creative freedom and get to work with people I’m excited to work with.”

NEON The Rabble - Image by Guy Little
NEON The Rabble – Image by Guy Little

Though it may be a place of great vitality, there’s no denying independent theatre also requires great courage and resilience. Sometimes doing what you love is risky, which is why a program like NEON and NEON EXTRA is such a crucial opportunity for theatre makers such as Valente and Hardie.

Valente summed it up when she said, “From every experience you just hope you get a chance to do another one. But, more than any selfish hopes for our company, I really hope NEON is the beginning of something in Melbourne. For our state theatre company to take a risk like this shows a lot of good faith. I hope that NEON goes really well and that it continues to be a pathway for more independent artists, because I think that’s really important.”

MTC’s NEON festival will run between May and July 2013 at the Lawler Studio, Southbank.

For full program and booking details visit
or follow on Twitter #mtcNEON

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