We all like choice, except sometimes when we are asked to choose. Because some choices can be tough, others easier to avoid.
Yet, it’s all in day’s work when you head up a nationally accredited arts school — when you regularly meet rooms full of young hopefuls and are tasked with selecting the handful you think have what it takes. Fortunately, star performer and school founder Todd Patrick has decades of experience to call upon and, come audition season, he now has a clearer sense of what to look for.
“You have to have a sense of ‘what is this person going to be like’ because we’re going to be working together very closely,” he says simply. “So, you’re looking for a group of kids that are really cohesive but, above anything else, for me, it’s work ethic.”
The inner Melbourne institution that bears his name, Patrick School of the Arts (PSA), is entering the final phase of its annual audition run. Having seen dancers, singers and actors from Brisbane, Sydney and Perth, the school is preparing for a series of dates in Adelaide, New Zealand and Patrick’s hometown. It’s a lengthy and detailed process and, as such, the school’s approach is meticulous and hard-nosed.
“When we’re auditioning people, we’re looking at them and going, ‘In two or three years time, am I going to be able to get you a job? Are you going to finish? Are you going to start getting through and eventually making final rounds and getting booked?’ But, that said, if you’re not quite right, but you have the work ethic, then I’m not worried about that.”
PSA makes no excuses for their ‘job ready’ focus. The arts industry is notoriously competitive, especially in small domestic markets like Australia and New Zealand. Talent alone is rarely enough.
Hence, Patrick’s work ethic prism. As he explains, “Whether you’re the best in the room, or the worst, I want you. Because it’s a hard place to train at PSA. You’re surrounded by such great talent. I mean, the kind of talent that are attracted to my school are very driven. They’re athletic, they’re passionate, and they really do have a sense what my school is about. They know that our main goal is to get them jobs. In fact, that’s all we want to do.”
This sounds fine in theory, but, when confronted with a surplus of eager bodies, how do you choose? How can you tell? Patrick emits a wry chuckle, before declaring, “I can smell it in the room.”
He pauses briefly before elaborating. “I mean, next year is our 19th year of having the institution, and I can just tell. We watch them dance, listen to them sing and do their monologues, but I like to ask them questions,” he reveals. “So, we might ask them how they’d feel if they found themselves in a room full of people who were all better than them.”
(NB: Although he did supply us with the preferred answer, we will leave it to you to work out.)
Beyond physical ability, the bywords are maturity, attitude, desire and application. “And also, don’t take yourself too seriously,” Patrick advises. “I mean, at the end of the day, it’s a musical, or you’re going to be a showgirl. We’re in the arts industry, we’re not curing cancer.”
In a space too often obsessed with its own significance, it is a salient perspective. This is not to downplay the role of artistry and storytelling in the human social fabric, rather, to remind ourselves that nothing truly lives in a bubble.
For Patrick, this entails another choice, one more serious than selecting next year’s tertiary course intake. Although it would be simpler, and less controversial, for PSA to avoid the issue, the school is continuing with its Artists of Colour (AOC) scholarship initiative.
Likely, this will rile some readers. Accusations of tokenism will surely fly. However, it will perhaps surprise many that Patrick would concur. Indeed, the ‘for show’ nature of much of the posturing in the diversity space is part of what drives him.
“I 100 percent understand why people say it’s token,” he states. “I mean, I have an agency [Patrick Management], so I get the audition briefs and I read that they only want BIPOC performers and I’m like, ‘Well, hang on a sec, shouldn’t it just be whoever is the best artist in the room? Why are you just trying to tick a box?’ So, my issue with everything that’s going on there is that it appears that that’s what companies are doing, and that is not a way to solve the problem.”
If under-representation is an issue, he argues, it begins with the problem of access. Communities without the means generally do not send their children to dance schools. Moreover, many such communities do not even have such schools within easy reach.
To illustrate his point, Patrick says, “I have not had one single African Australian come through my school who started doing ballet when they were two.”
Significantly, he has also experienced another troubling aspect of the diversity drama. “I have had artists say to me, ‘Did I just get that because I’m Asian?’ And that’s a reasonable question for someone to ask.”
Truth is, these are complex issues and are not best addressed by either virtue signals or oppositional histrionics. Neither will tabloid shock and tick boxes do much to remove the various economic and cultural roadblocks, nor address the numerous biases, unconscious or otherwise, that skew the playing field in favour of some over others.
Knowing this, Patrick makes his choice. Do something rather than nothing, and be prepared to wear the criticism if it comes his way.
“Ticking boxes makes white people feel good, and companies feel good about themselves, but ultimately you have to put money into it by offering opportunities to these artists to be able to train and develop themselves so that they can walk into an audition room and feel like they are getting the role because they are the most talented.”
To that end, PSA will once again be offering scholarship places to BIPOC performers, a virtue that costs the bottom line and represents a genuine reputational risk. For a school that prides itself on getting graduates gigs, the AOC initiative could well be regarded as an expensive luxury.
Clearly, this is not how they see it. The PSA position is that change begins at the roots, and that in the performing arts, this means early access to training.
“The moaning on social media about ‘representing’ just does nothing for me,” Patrick states. “If you really feel passionate about it, do something. Go out and teach in a school in a place where the kids don’t have the same kind of advantages that you have.”
More broadly, issues of entrenched privilege and inequality are bigger than any one school or sector. “I don’t believe the full responsibility lies with the industry and that the expectation that they alone bear the brunt of a full pivot is unrealistic and unreasonable,” Patrick concludes. “Change needs to start at the grassroots level, and that is education from the tiny tots ballet to the graduates of all tertiary colleges.”
But of course, this would involve an act of choosing we may prefer not to accept; and thus, the decision, as ever, is ours to make.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.