All Stitched Up – AD handover at Red Stitch Actors Theatre

Ella Caldwell
Ella Caldwell

From original ensemble member, to leader of the pack, Red Stitch’s Ella Caldwell talks with Bethany Simons about landing the role of Artistic Director for Melbourne’s most prominent independent theatre company.

When a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old Ella Caldwell auditioned for Red Stitch Actors Theatre, it never occurred to her that more than eleven years later, not only would she still be performing with the award-winning ensemble but she would be stepping in to take the reigns. Caldwell was studying creative arts at Melbourne University and doing Fringe theatre when an opportunity arose to form the Red Stitch ensemble in 2001. “About three hundred people auditioned on that first day. Miraculously, I got in. We didn’t know what it was going to be, but it sounded exciting. Melbourne was just crying out for it at the time, the culture then was drastically different to what it is now.”

Red Stitch Actors Theatre operates in an ensemble lead structure that sees the Artistic Director as a voice or guide more than an authoritative presence.

“The company always was, and always will be, lead by the group. It’s very much a democracy – which does involve a lot of passionate debate – but that’s one of our strengths.”says Caldwell

This same robust democratic approach was used to appoint Caldwell following David Whiteley’s incredible contribution as Artistic Director since 2004. “It was put to the ensemble to decide. I threw my hat in the ring and was very lucky to have unanimous support in that regard. We discussed other options – it was a good time to reflect. It came out that we are very committed to our ensemble driven model.”

Though she officially commenced the role of Artistic Director on 1 July, Caldwell continues to work alongside Whiteley in an extended handover period as he performs in the company’s current production, Foxfinder.

It’s evident that Caldwell plans to remain true to the original vision of an ensemble lead company, but there are also areas of the company’s practice that she hopes to develop further. “I’m keen to find ways that Red Stitch can genuinely engage with local writers. We have had a program called Red Stitch Writers since 2007 that sat alongside our body of contemporary work from all around the world. We basically invite two writers per year to work with the ensemble and our resident dramaturges. It’s something that really excites me – investing time and energy with writers and seeing what stories we can tell.”

In terms of investment in the company, Caldwell’s has always been one hundred percent. She is proud to have learned on the job, having done the majority of her acting training from within the Red Stitch ensemble. “I have always felt extremely committed to Red Stitch. I have a great love for what we do and the people we do it with. That’s always been there, but now there is an added responsibility”.

Aside from the daily battle of trying to send administrative emails with a two and a four year old crawling on her lap, Caldwell’s first major achievement as Artistic Director will be the launch of the 2014 season program in November. So integral is the self-governing nature of the company that all works are selected based on the level of interest and passion from the members of the ensemble.

“We are open to directors pitching shows to us, but at the same time we are very active in sourcing our own material. We are all doing this for free, so the ensemble obviously selects works they are passionate about on a number of levels. It’s not a matter of the AD having the final say. We all come up with ideas. When reading, there will often be a role that a few of us want. There is a degree of fairness – we basically audition!”  explains Caldwell

Though not an annual event, Caldwell confirmed that the company do occasionally hold general auditions if there is room in their ensemble, or if they are trying to cast a specific role. “Auditions are really useful for finding great people to work with. We do them to keep in touch with actors that are around. There are great artists who are really developing their own craft.”

In reflecting on her journey with Red Stitch, Caldwell also commented on the way in which the Melbourne independent theatre sector has taken off over the last decade. Does she think this development has had a positive or a negative impact on the Red Stitch program?

“I think it’s good for everyone when people are engaging with theatre and when exciting things are happening within the industry. We can all learn from each other. Sure, sometimes people will see one of the other shows instead of our show, or vice versa, but most of the time, if you have got good work on, people are going to come along and see both. I know I do.” says Caldwell

Foxfinder runs until 17 August
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Rear 2, Chapel Street,
St. Kilda East

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