Robyn Archer, Deputy Chair, Australia Council
by Mary W Maxwell
Ah, the power of One. This is a report of a career-retrospective presentation made by Robyn Archer at the Bendigo Writers Festival, August 13, 2016.
So Robyn starts life in Prospect, a suburb of Adelaide, the only child of a seamstress mother (which comes in handy for costumes) and a singer/stand-up comedian father. A low-income “and sometimes insecure income” family.
She goes to uni and participates in Revues. (Actually she had been performing since age 4 in Daddy’s shows.) Says all her opportunities thereafter came by invitation – including one in which she sang at a festival of arts and was asked the next day “Would you like to be the director of this festival?”
(As opposed to the five interviews she has attended over the years and did not win any of those jobs. So don’t be discouraged, Folks!)
We Adelaideans know Robyn best as a cabaret singer. She brought that genre to our city in the 1980s and it is still going strong. She also produced – maybe it was a one-off – a festival of accordion players.
I think of her also as a protestor. Not a particular one, as in Bob Brown trying to save the Franklin River. More like protesting for protesting’s sake. You can see why I love Robyn.
She Makes It Happen
I’ll name just three of the cities in which Ms Archer has started a festival from scratch. Her current one is Gold Coast. She says, however, that she is out of her comfort zone in Queensland, as she likes cold weather.
(She even likes – I bet she’s lyin’ – “scraping the ice of the windscreen in Canberra.” Actually, she said that with a look of rapture on her face so maybe she’s not lying.)
Well, how do you get people interested in having an arts and culture precinct, as she calls it — and which takes $75 million or so) in their town? The Gold Coast with 600,000 peeps is the sixth largest city in Australia (surprising, right?)
“You learn the lifestyle of the locale. The sun rises early up there; people go for a walk or a swim at 5am, and at night they hit the bed early. So you don’t invite them to a darkened theatre at 8pm.”
You set up some stuff in the mornings to attract them. You also find out what the many Japanese tourists there would like to see in the way of art and music. You find out what would provide jobs for young people in the area. (“Gold Coast isn’t just retirees; lots of families.”)
Ten Days on an Island, and the National Capital
Another state that invited her to do her thing was Tasmania, with the stipulation that it not be just Hobart but also Launceston.
Robyn said one of the things that makes an Adelaide festival easy is that the venues are all close to one another. But Hobart is not close to Launceston. (A few million sheep intervene, I noticed recently.) This gave her the idea to tell the premier she would instead do it all over Tassie and call the festival “Ten Days on an Island.”)
Although she was laughed at, it worked. She also decided the “stars” from overseas would have to be from islands. See – that wasn’t so odd– it included Staten Island, NY, Ireland, Madagascar and many places you could find just by looking at a map. Easy peasy.
In Canberra, Robyn was pleased to find that “everyone there is not a greedy federal bureaucrat.” Hmm. I though they were. Well, that was silly of me. Musical talent, passion for dance, etc, is going to pop up in every place isn’t it? Not only that but a desire to be in on something new, which calls for teamwork, is also an incentive.
Got a Disability?
Here I might mention that a “disability” of Robin’s – if you could call it that – is asthma. She mentioned that she had it bad as a child. It caused her parents to wish mainly for her to be healthy and happy; they placed no burdens on her. Indeed she said she had no goals until her 20s.
She also told us that her asthma went away at puberty, as it often does, but later she was in a bad motorcycle accident, and the asthma came back 3 week later. Researchers, take note.
Ms Archer also mentioned that when she no longer had asthma she lost her treatment for it which was intravenous adrenalin. Deprived of that stimulation, she found a great substitute – fear. I was pleased to hear that “there is nothing that can scare the shit out of you like walking out on stage.”
(But you’d never know it. She is a famously daring performer.)
The Brecht Influence
One of Robyn’s teachers introduced her to the poetry of Berthold Brecht.
(Note: Robyn named many names of mentors and colleagues, but I omit as I could not be sure to get the spelling right. By the way, boy oh boy was this Gumshoe reporting job easier than “The Inquests Stakes.” I don’t actually care if I have slightly misquoted the speaker. Let her sue me, at least she can’t arrest me.)
Robyn told us that there is so much in Brecht that she is still learning and won’t be able to cover it all in her remaining years (she is 60-something).
I’d like to pass along the main point she came to when he was describing her setting up of new arts-and-culture precincts. She ponders “I can’t accept that my life is better than yours because you don’t have a love of the arts. But I think you might find if you try it that it enriches your life. So I want to share.”
Believe me she is love-of-the-arts wrapped up in a ball.
At the end there were questions. A lady got up and said “My 18 year-old daughter is a really good singer. Would you please make some suggestion as to what she might study?”
The great singer, Robyn Archer, did not hesitate. She said “Your daughter should go to university and do a double degree. She should major in music and orthodontistry.”
Well, that brought the speech back to reality. A guy then raised a topic — Dee McLachlan’s favorite lament – that the film industry sucks. But Robyn did not have time (or possibly the know-how) to address it. We all had to make tracks after one hour as the next presentation was bout to begin.
The Bendigo Writers Festival, complete with book sales (I tried to rent a table to no avail) was pretty tightly organized. One of the morning speakers, Helen Garner, did not show up. Heck if I had known I’d have loved to be a substitute.
A good time was had by all. (I might make an exception for having to pay $23 for a meat pie.) The very competent interviewer of Robyn at today’s session was David Lloyd.
Next year I can cover the Gold Coast Festival of Arts and know it’s all down to a comedian’s daughter from Adelaide.
— Mary W Maxwell will be taking leave from Gumshoe soon to study orthodontistry.