NIDA CEO Kate Cherry: ‘Everything Has a Narrative’

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On writing the performing arts school’s future.

Kate Cherry, CEO and director of NIDA

For Kate Cherry, CEO and director of NIDA, the future of Australia’s performing arts industry starts at the dining-room table. The former director of Black Swan State Theatre Company, WA, began her role at the helm of Australia’s highest profile acting school in December 2016. Six months into the job, she moved her own table into her office, along with the table prototypes she envisioned in the school’s foyer. But more on that in a bit.

If you walk into that foyer at present, you’re likely to see a number of things: students in costume, groups discussing scripts, ads for new plays and posters featuring the school’s alumnus: Cate Blanchett, Mel Gibson and Sarah Snook, to name a few. Kate envisions the foyer as a place where artists and academics alike discuss stories over long, high tables. “I want them all out in the foyer, having the tables built so students can jump up on them, so we can break bread together. So it’s all about, how do we cross-fertilise?”

“NIDA’s looking at resilience, because a student in the dramatic arts is going to require a lot of resilience.”

The third-generation theatre-maker has memories of growing up alongside eccentric and exotic guests (“It was amazing. And mad!”), all of whom were invited to her mother’s table. “There was a Bedouin man who taught dance for my dad,” she says, “and he would make this incredible Turkish coffee.” That was when her father, theatre luminary Wal Cherry, set up the drama program at Flinders University, where he taught in addition to his international directing.

Now, she’s returning the favour – inviting artists, patrons and corporates, businesses and government, to have a seat at the NIDA table. She admits that having a drama professor and theatre director for a father influenced her decision to take the top job at NIDA. “I had this amazing view from childhood of the profession and the training mixing together,” she explains. “I watched how he always included both worlds.”

Kate, too, has ventured in and out of both worlds, alongside her husband, actor Kenneth Ransom. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in New York and her Master’s at the University of California, Los Angeles, and found that in the US, practitioners more readily mix with educators. In fact, all of her teachers from UCLA were also practising artists. She followed this pattern, teaching in the US and Australia (at WAAPA, QUT and VTC) alongside stints directing in and out of house. These included roles as associate director at her father’s alumnus Melbourne Theatre Company, and artistic associate at Playhouse (now Malthouse) Theatre.

“I had to start learning how to have conversations with people who had a very different political bent from me.”

Before taking on the role at NIDA, Kate led Western Australia’s mainstage theatre company for nine years – and saw it rise to state-company status. She’s attributed with reinvigorating the company: during her term, subscription and single-ticket sales doubled, sponsorship numbers tripled and philanthropic contributions increased four-fold. She established artistic development programs including the Rio Tinto Black Swan Commissions and The Bridging Company with West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

While Kate successfully forged relationships with government and corporates in the development of such programs, she admits it took time to learn their language. She remembers taking a leadership course in her late thirties where her fellow students were “very different” to the people she interacted with at her mother’s table. “I had to start learning how to have conversations with people who had a very different political bent from me,” she says.

Managing stakeholders at the state company meant making political decisions about the works she staged. “I made the decision that I would do what I believed in, but whatever I did, I needed to be able to defend… I learnt to find middle ground,” she says. “Not by compromising the work itself, but learning how to discuss things. I thought that would be a really difficult thing to do, but what I found out was it was just another collaboration.”

And it is that collaboration that Kate keeps coming back to, and which she envisions as the key to success for the performing arts school’s future. “We are a group of people who thrive on experts coming together to create something they couldn’t do by themselves,” she says. “So for me, everything has a narrative. The table is a narrative. I love a story that unifies.”

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“We’re rediscovering narrative and how it can underpin so many other things. And I feel that’s my particular talent to contribute,” she says. The director has expertise in narrative (she’s received Helpmann nominations (La Traviata for Best Opera, Coronation of Poppea for Best Opera Direction, and Life After George for Best Direction). Narrative has power to travel beyond theatre, Kate believes, and is what will keep the company thrumming throughout a changing industry.

“NIDA’s looking at resilience, because a student in the dramatic arts is going to require a lot of resilience,” she says. “Right now, there are people losing their jobs, but we are going to have expertise in narratives that provide comfort and reassurance and verbatim storytelling about communities that need resilience.”