Robyn Archer is a lot of things. Her bio lists her as a singer, writer, artistic director and public advocate for the arts.
For five years she was Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra 2013. She won the prestigious Helpmann Award as Australia’s Best Cabaret Performer of 2013. She is Deputy Chair of the Australia Council, a member of the Council for Australian and Latin American Relations and of the European House of Culture.
But the single thing she spends half her working life doing, is accelerating arts and culture on the Gold Coast’s. Her brief sees her working on that in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games. Before she started working with Council, she’d never been here. She’d never been to a theme park. She tells me she didn’t know we were the sixth largest city in Australia or even that we had a hinterland.
I don’t know what it would have been like talking to Robyn then, when she first arrived, but it’s obvious now that she’s quite excited about the cultural offerings of the city.
We spoke for more than an hour about her life travelling the world for the arts and her perception of the Gold Coast – both before and after her arrival. We spoke for so long that this story will be one of a three or four part series.
I started our conversation by talking about Robyn’s biography. It’s pretty big and squarely focused on arts and culture. But I asked Robyn, when she meets someone for the first time, how she describes what she does.
“Well taxi drivers often ask,” she said. “When I’m in the back of the cab anywhere in the world, eventually they say, what do you do – what I normally say is that I’m a singer. And I do performances, and I direct arts festivals and I talk about the arts.”
“There’s not one thing, but if there’s a first thing, it’s a singer,” Robyn said.
“And that’s because I think of singing and have often spoken about singing in a kind of arcane sense – that a singer is a story-teller. You know, in the ancient village, it’s the singer that brought the news – there was no newspaper or any media, you had to get the travelling minstrel to say …, Old John Rally he just up and killed somebody la la la la la.”
“I kind of feel like in any job I’m doing, that’s what I’m doing, whether I’m actually singing a song or writing a song or in a show, or faciliting others to tell stories.”
“In a sense, it’s all about, communicating the views of the world and probably alternative views of the world, the ones that aren’t so mainstream and obvious, or the ones we’re persuaded to say is the mainstream, because if you dig into the mainstream there isn’t one.”
“People are so quick to throw a blanket over us and say we’re all the same – and that makes it difficult for things that are obviously not, whether that be mental health or disabilities or genius, any end of any spectrum.”
“So I love that people have the opportunity in any art medium – and art is the best medium – for telling the story. But the point about the art as opposed to a limited life news story is that when you tell a story through the arts in whatever way, you’re actually doing it in a quite often gentle way, even if it’s tough stuff – you’re not actually injuring the person.”
“There’s this phrase I use that art is the best place for a dangerous conversation – you know, that you can pitch yourself, you can tell your story, tell someone else’s story, put your audiences into a situation that they’d never get into, hopefully – a dangerous situation where they’re really challenged to think about what their ethical position is or what they think about something but they can do it in complete safety. And at the same time if the art is good it will also be uplifting even if it’s dealing with a difficult story.”
Robyn has travelled the world performing and working behind the scenes in festival and arts direction but she’s only just about to make her stage debut on the Gold Coast.
This month she will join the cast of The New Black where she plays Judge Hawkshire, a white judge in Adelaide who presides over the deaths in custody case. Robyn says the judge is tough but fair.
Given Robyn’s previous comments on singing the arts beign able to convey these challenging topics I ask her whether she needed to research the issue of black deaths in custody prior to taking on the role.
“I know a great deal about deaths in custody,” Robyn told me. “One: through the work of Richard franklin. But also through people working in the law in Adelaide.” She said she didn’t actually need to know a lot about the issues for the role itself though. “I just need to know for this little role, how to be like a proper judge,” she said.
The production is being hailed as the next Bran Due Dae. Appearing alongside Robyn, who only has a small part, is Ernie Dingo, Elaine Crombie, Scott Irwin, Leonard Donohue and Peter Cool.
Leeroy Bilney plays Jim – a young, bright, education Aboriginal man on the way up at a prestigious Brisbane law firm. But his Aunty expects him to represent her at an inquest and Jim is caught between his aspirations and responsibilities.
It’s a musical, so expect comedy, drama, song, dance and spectacle. Robyn says her’s is a small role as she didn’t have a lot of time to commit to rehearsal.
Robyn was starting rehearsals a few days after we spoke – following the others who’d already been working together for a couple of weeks.
“That’s in Sydney,” she said. “We’re there for a couple of weeks and then we’ll come up here.”
“This is the off-Broadway try-out,” she said. “Which is a very good thing for the Gold Coast to do. There’s such enthusiasm for musicals here, that I think it’s a great idea to bring it here and try it out for a couple of nights.”
“I think Marcus Corowa is a terrific songwriter and I think the music sounds fantastic – it’s really up and bright, it’s got lots of humour and great songs as all musicals should have, but underneath it, it’s a quite serious issue.”
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This story is the first of a three or four part series where Robyn Archer talks about her perceptions of the Gold Coast before and after working here, as well as what she thinks is the secret to building our arts and cultural strength ahead of the Commonwealth Games.
The New Black will show at The Arts Centre Gold Coast for just two nights: Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 May at 7.30pm. To get tickets or for more information visit theartscentregc.com.au.
Our feature image was very kindly provided by Mercedes-Benz Gold Coast.