Meet our new member: Queensland Theatre

Fri, 17 May 2024 Estimated reading times: 4 minutes

In the first of a regular series, we’ll be introducing new members who have joined Philanthropy Australia in recent months. It’s interesting to see where the breadth of philanthropy’s work reaches across all sectors of the community. Philanthropy’s ever-evolving nature is reflected in our members. Here, we kick off the Q&A series with Queensland Theatre. The answers have been provided its Executive Director, Criena Gehrke.

1. Welcome to Philanthropy Australia. Why did you decide to join us?

At Queensland Theatre, we believe in the power of theatre and storytelling to make a difference in the world. Theatre brings people together to explore new perspectives and ideas, to be entertained or challenged, to laugh and cry, and better understand humanity. And when we partner with philanthropists, we achieve so much more together because we find that we share the same values.  Humanity is our currency. Why would we not want to join Philanthropy Australia?

A scene from the production Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like.

2. Tell us about your organisation – what do you do and what’s its scope?

Queensland Theatre began 53 years ago, thanks to the fierce determination and vision of the creative community of the time who believed that Queenslanders deserved a state company and access to outstanding theatre across this diverse region. In its very DNA (and by an Act of Parliament) the company has a deep commitment to Queensland stories, young people and the arts, regional engagement and creating great theatre. What this looks like is an annual season of productions, one of Australia’s most respected youth and education programs, regional touring, developing and presenting new works and elevating First Nations culture and storytelling. 

Every year we welcome more than 60,000 audience members into theatres, 5,500 young people engage in our programs and we are one of Queensland’s largest employers of creative talent in the state.

Vietgone, produced in 2023.

3. Share a great story with us that showcases your impact.

In mid-2021 when many theatres and borders were still closed, Queensland Theatre presented the world premiere of Boy Swallows Universe in collaboration with Brisbane Festival and Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Adapted from the smash-hit novel inspired by Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood and powered by a remarkable circle of committed arts philanthropists, we developed this landmark production that smashed box office records. It is Queensland Theatre’s best-selling show in its five-decade history. About 25% of the audience was new. In 2023, the same donors came along with us to create Vietgone with a world of helicopters, motorcycles, hip-hop ninjas, and brought the truth of displacement that author Qui Nguyen knows to life in Brisbane.  With generous support, we are aiming to reach the next generation of artists and audiences when Round the Twist the Musical opens in Brisbane later this year. The extraordinary feedback from audiences and communities tells us these stories resonate and leave people seeing the world differently. Audiences are transported to the gritty streets of suburban Brisbane, they dive into the complexities and trauma of the Vietnam War or feel nostalgic for our childhoods and the simpler times of Round the Twist. 

Audiences have returned [post-pandemic and floods], but it has been slow, and they are craving different experiences and stories now. It’s like we are getting to know each other again after a long absence.

Criena Gehrke, ED, Queensland Theatre

4. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead for your organisation?

The 2022 flood event, hot on the heels of a global pandemic and dark, empty theatres was a big challenge. We weren’t alone in that. As a company, we are optimistic and forward-looking, but I sometimes wonder if the arts sector (and the world at large) has underestimated the time it will take to recover from those events. Audiences have returned, but it has been slow, and they are craving different experiences and stories now. It is like we are getting to know each other again after a long absence.

We are excited to have recently announced that Isaac Drandic has joined us as Associate Artistic Director, First Nations. This reflects the importance we place in First Nations storytelling, truth telling and self-determination. Our First Nations productions, engagement and strategy will be First Nations-led. Together with government, community and philanthropy, and coupled with bold ambition, we want to develop and sustain a long and creative pipeline, including sharing stories created on Country in the Far North Queensland space.

Our decade-long Scene Project – a collaboration with schools and educators grew over five years from eight to 130 schools, thanks to philanthropy, and now half of the 1,600 young participants live regionally. It is challenging to respond to demand, so no young artist misses out on the joy of theatre making. And even more than that, ensure that through theatre, young people feel connected, have a greater sense of wellbeing and develop life skills that make them stronger and more resilient for years to come.

And in what is both a challenge and opportunity, we truly believe Queensland Theatre belongs to the people of Queensland. Across the state’s vast breadth and diversity, there are so many incredible places, communities and stories to be told. How can we get to everyone!

Actors reading scripts from the Young Playwrights Award.

5. What is the most interesting trend you see emerging in the not-for-profit and philanthropic sectors?

The collaborative and long-term approach between philanthropy and arts organisations is exciting. Multi-year philanthropic funding to build capacity is a game-changer. It means we can plan properly and manage risk more effectively. It creates space for learning together, trialling new ideas and offering our expert team time and space to grow and develop new skills. It is also very helpful when many voices advocate alongside us.