Panned: Is NIDA Critique Plain-Speaking Or Villainous Betrayal?
By Stephen CrittendenSeptember 21, 2012
In a video interview, a former board member argues that there are some things rotten in the state of Australia’s most famous school of drama: cultural cringe, leading staff leaving and a blinkered board among them.
Few politicians or former politicians have a better knowledge of the inside workings of Australia's arts and cultural institutions than Chris Puplick. The former New South Wales Liberal senator was shadow arts minister in the 1980s. Since leaving politics he's been a trustee of the Australian Museum, a member of the theatre board of the Australia Council, chair of the Griffin Theatre Company, and chair of National Film and Sound Archive. He's also twice been a board member of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, NIDA, from 1994 to 2000 and again from 2007 to 2010.
Founded in 1959, NIDA is Australia's most prestigious national training institute for students of theatre, film, and television, based on the campus of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Many of Australia's best-known actors are among its graduates, including Judy Davis, Colin Friels, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and Essie Davis.
The Rotten State of NIDA
For some time, there have been rumblings suggesting that NIDA is not a happy ship. When John Clark, NIDA's artistic director for 35 years, left the company in 2010, he accused the board of lacking transparency or the ability to engage with the significant educational and artistic issues faced by the institute.
Now Puplick has lifted the lid on what he alleges has been an extraordinary level of dysfunction and unhappiness under director and chief executive Lynne Williams, who was appointed in 2008. In Changing Times at NIDA, an essay in the quarterly Platform Papers series, published this week by Currency House, he outlines the processes by which "nearly all of NIDA's senior staff were pushed, squeezed or, as at least one claimed, bullied out of NIDA".
Lynne Williams is a former primary school teacher (1968-75) and lecturer in education and performing arts at the University of Wollongong (1977-82), where she specialised in voice training. She came to the top job at NIDA from the UK, where she had been working in various arts-management positions for more than two decades.
Williams's appointment, over a strong field that included NIDA artistic director Aubrey Mellor (who was reapplying for his own restructured job), NIDA deputy Peter Cooke, and Emmy Award-winning director Gale Edwards, was "one of the defining moments in the school's history", according to Puplick, who says it split the then board of which he was a member. The appointment also went ahead in spite of pleas and petitions from leading theatre-industry figures including Neil Armfield, John Bell, Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis and Mel Gibson.
Puplick says Williams simply did not have the relevant experience required to lead the nation's premier performing-arts-education institution, yet she was appointed. "Her CV makes it clear that Williams has never directed a significant theatre performance; taught acting students; supervised theatre training or auditioned students for placement in a training institution, or ever earned a living in the professional theatre," Puplick writes. "None of her positions has involved providing a 'strong artistic or educational vision' nor sustaining or improving standards of artistic excellence."
He argues that the NIDA board also made a mistake in deciding to combine the roles of artistic director and general manager into a single role at the time Williams was appointed. This was done in imitation of a similar recent experiment at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the UK, an experiment that Puplick says was an inherently bad idea, and failed within 18 months, at which point the two roles were split once more.
Puplick is also highly critical of the appointment last November of an American, Jeff Janisheski, as head of NIDA's acting department. Puplick argues that, while from all accounts Janisheski is an accomplished teacher, the point is that NIDA needs Australian, not foreign, leaders. "This is an Australian institution, where there needs to be a focus on learning our own work, promoting our own work, establishing familiarity not just with Shakespeare, Chekov, Miller and anybody else, but with Australian plays, Australian playwriting, particularly this new wave of Indigenous playwriting. Where you get that from somebody who has no experience in the Australian repertoire is, I think, very challenging."
Since Williams's appointment there has been a string of senior staff departures. NIDA had 76 staff members when Williams arrived. By 2012, 21 remained including just two of the nine core teaching staff, Puplick says. (That is a massacre in any language.) "The past four years are littered with the remnants of shattered members of staff, collegiality sacrificed on the altar of corporatism," he writes. "Some of the longest serving, most dedicated and talent members of staff were summarily marched off the premises and told they were no longer of any use to the school."
Examples of that corporatist approach include a move to short-term teaching contracts, a practice that Puplick says is extremely detrimental to teacher development, and the increasing practice of hiring out NIDA's purpose-built Parade Theatre for commercial uses.
Puplick also claims that since Williams's arrival there has been a deterioration in the institute's relationships with some of its most important private donors, including the Seaborn, Broughton and Walford Foundation (SBWF) and Sydney television personality Mike Walsh.
NIDA director Lynne Williams was unavailable to speak to The Global Mail. However, the chairman of the NIDA board, Malcolm Long, has released a statement refuting Puplick's claims and describing him as "an apparently disaffected" former board member. "His paper is a biased essay, the foundations being riddled with errors compounded by the selective use of source material," Long writes. He adds, "Mr Puplick's three years (2007-1010) on the NIDA board were marked by conflict with the overwhelming majority of members over many issues… In his paper, Mr Puplick completely discounts the recent achievements of NIDA, its staff and students. Almost no positive word can be found."
However, Long does not address any of the specific issues Puplick has raised in his essay, including concerns to do with the operation of the NIDA board itself.
For his part, Puplick says board members have a duty to be troublesome when necessary. He says Malcolm Long has given "unqualified support to Williams throughout her tenure and must shoulder much of the responsibility for what has occurred at NIDA".
He says the NIDA board has been "AWOL" during the internal upheavals of the past five years. He cites as examples the board's failure to investigate a public written statement by a departing senior staff member, librarian Christine Roberts, who had worked at NIDA for 29 years, alleging that she had been "intimidated and bullied", and also the board's failure to respond to a student "climate survey" that revealed widespread student concerns, including concerns about student privacy during grievance and assessment hearings.
The online survey was conducted by Year 2 Acting students in 2011. More than 50 of NIDA's approximately 70 students responded. Sixty-four per cent of students said they lacked confidence in NIDA's leadership, 84 per cent expressed concerns that their privacy was not adequately maintained in grievance or assessment proceedings, and 84 per cent said they were worried about NIDA's reputation declining in the professional community. "The students sent a copy of this survey to senior figures in management, and to various members of the NIDA Board and Board of Studies," Puplick writes. "Not one person responded."
More seriously, Puplick alleges he was prevented from carrying out his statutory duties as a board member. He says Williams and Long sought and received a board ruling that made access for any board director to any non-public event at NIDA entirely a matter for the discretion of the board.
"I sought legal opinion which confirmed that a Board Director had the right to inform him/herself of the full range of school activities, provided this did not interfere with the running of the school and was done with the permission of the teachers/students involved," Puplick writes. "The Chair then produced a contrary legal opinion."
Thereafter, he says, all his requests to be allowed to view non-public student performances were turned down by the board. "Every single request made by me for access (following invitations from staff and students) to view these non-public events was refused."
Puplick describes the NIDA board as a "closed shop" that is essentially self-selecting. Board members are elected by the NIDA Company whose membership is controlled by the board itself and limited to 50 people.
He is also highly critical of the fact that there is no Indigenous representation on the board: "I think it's not only unusual, it's bizarre." He also says that as more Indigenous and Asian students have entered NIDA courses, the institution has failed to engage adequately with Indigenous theatre or theatre from the Asia-Pacific region.
Chris Puplick concludes his essay by calling on federal arts minister Simon Crean to hold an independent review of NIDA: "I think that review should be looking at whether the Commonwealth is satisfied that the teaching standards are being properly maintained, that the industrial relations within the organisation — that is to say, the way the staff are treated and why you have one of the highest staff turnovers imaginable — is in fact consonant with best employment and best educational practice," he says.