Northern exposure: Why state’s talent trail no longer goes through cities

Thanks to interactive tech and passionate teachers such as Karen Crone, talented Queenslanders have many options for learning and practising their craft, writes Brett Debritz

Apr 23, 2020, updated Apr 23, 2020
Acting teacher Karen Crone on stage in Alice in Wonderland, produced by Ethan Walker for Rapidfire Productions

Acting teacher Karen Crone on stage in Alice in Wonderland, produced by Ethan Walker for Rapidfire Productions

For too long, the common wisdom was that “going south” was the pathway to success in the arts. For those in the north and west of the state, Brisbane was where you wanted to be. Those already in the capital were looking to make the big move to Sydney and Melbourne.

Even under the special circumstances brought about by measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, geography really isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a hindrance to creating a successful career.

While there are excellent tertiary programs in Brisbane, including at Griffith University’s College of Art and Queensland Conservatorium, both at South Bank, and QUT’s Creative Industries precinct at Kelvin Grove, it is also possible for students to train as actors, dancers or musicians – and to perform professionally – in regional centres.

Many actors who are well known on the Brisbane stage, and have worked in theatre and on television interstate, studied in Toowoomba at the University of Southern Queensland. And the Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Mackay has been the starting point for musicians across many genres, from opera to folk.

This year, there is a graduating class of acting students at the Cairns campus of Central Queensland University, where one of their teachers is popular actor and director Karen Crone.

Rockhampton-born Crone is well known to Brisbane theatregoers for her performances with La Boite and Queensland Theatre over the past three decades. She appeared in the television series Medivac and Pacific Drive and played Ida the brassy barmaid in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. As a director and choreographer, her work has taken her from the Woodford Folk Festival to local musical productions across the state, always “banging the drum” for regional arts.

“You name it, I’ve been there,” she told InQueensland.

What she has found in her travels is that as much as visiting artists are appreciated, the backbone of local arts is “people who choose to live in the country”. Many of these are professionals who have decided on a lifestyle change, or retired artists who still want to remain active and engaged as performers and mentors.

Cairns is no exception. Crone acknowledged the work of Box Jelly Productions, a company set up by Rachel and David Terry, who moved north from Sydney after 20 years of performing in theatre and on television series including All Saints, Water Rats and Heartbreak High.

Crone also noted the thriving arts scene around the Cairns Performing Arts Centre, the Tanks Arts Centre, and Bulmba-ja, formerly the Centre of Contemporary Arts, which houses JUTE Theatre Company, NorthSite Contemporary Arts, Miriki Performing Arts and The Pryce Centre for Culture and Arts.

“There are a lot of performers there, and they’ve done some great stuff,” Crone said. “The artistic community is very, very lively. The opportunities are there.”

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Karen Crone with CQU Cairns’ first graduating actors from the Bachelor of Creative Arts course. (Photo: supplied)

In her job, Crone is overseeing the development of a new generation of performers, although the coronavirus restrictions have changed the way the program is delivered – especially the physical side of acting.

“It’s heartbreaking, but we’ll still be teaching,” she said. “The acting side will be delivered online, which is something I’m coming to terms with. I’m getting myself au fait with the technology. All of my classes are Zoom classes now, but we’re still getting the students up on their feet; we’re doing a warm-up every day. It’s a big change for all of us.

“But the more we go online, the more we can offer these creative units.”

While she is supportive of other acting programs closer to Brisbane, Crone pointed out one big advantage for her students in the far north.

“The students have been very lucky because of my long-term connections,” she said. That has meant access to The Kransky Sisters’ Annie Lee, acclaimed actors Eugene Gilfedder, Steven Tandy and Jason Klarwein, and Queensland Theatre artistic director Lee Lewis.

While Crone is optimistic for her graduating students, she acknowledged that the arts are exceptionally competitive, and it’s not just talent that will see them through.

“You’ve got to be bold,” she said. “If you really want it, you’ve just got to go and get it and take it.”

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