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Creative Space

Claire Marshall shares her experiences in developing a new enterprise to help sustain her practice as an independent choreographer and producer…

Mill Street Studios came about very quickly in December last year, and it wasn’t something I was planning to do. I had always dreamt of how great it would be to have my own space, but as an independent artist there’s no way I could afford it. I was aware that I’d needed to work out a long-term solution to making my practice more sustainable, particularly because of my increased focused on making high quality projects, rather than ‘commercial’ freelance work.

In short, Mill Street Studios came about because: – I was at the right place at the right time – I saw the potential in the situation, and – I had an existing long-standing connection with the local dance community.

My independent projects require a significant financial commitment. As an independent artist, I could not sustain renting a studio space all year. Ausdance Qld has greatly improved this situation by subsidising spaces, but there is a limited number of spaces, and timing can often be a problem. For example, rehearsals for my dance film Ward of State were held in seven different locations, and one venue cost more than $100 per hour to hire.

Why was Mill Street Studios established? There was demand – I had taught at the dance school for 8 years and had built a great relationship with the students. However, in November the studio principal announced that she was closing the school. A few students asked if I’d consider taking over the school. Initially, I didn’t think it was the right idea. Teaching is a big responsibility and although teaching is something I enjoy, I wasn’t prepared to give up my practice as a choreographer to take on the role of a full-time dance studio principal. That said, I had a very strong desire to continue teaching and remain connected to the students.

I needed rehearsal space – In October I started looking for rehearsal space for my work SlowDive, which was performed at the Australian Preforming Arts Market (APAM) in February 2014. Most spaces were very expensive and could not accommodate the props and large set pieces used in the show.

I needed storage space – After 15 years, one acquires a lot of props. Four years of storage space hire for SlowDive cost more than the funding I had to make the work. It’s something no one thinks about when they submit a funding application. Unlike most independent artists, a company usually has a base and some storage space. Mill Street Studios provided the much needed rehearsal space and an on-site shipping container meets most of my storage needs for just $2.20 a day!

Light bulb moment- About a week after the announcement of the closure of the school, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment. Maybe I could lease the space for my own projects and continue to run the dance school – leading it, rather than teaching all the dance classes. I could re-shape the school and apply my industry experience in terms of the content and context of learning, and select a diverse team of high-quality teachers to teach a variety of dance styles. Mill Street Studios aims to connect dance with the local community, as well as the dance community. I’ve observed that the dance school world can be disconnected from the professional world and vice-versa. For example, the SlowDive rehearsals at Mill Street Studios were viewed by some of the older dance school students which was a fantastic experience for them. The other benefit was that the professional dancers in town for SlowDive rehearsals, taught various guest classes for the students. That was a win-win situation – additional income for the dancers, as well as a great learning experience for students.

In terms of sustainability, taking on any new business poses a risk. There were two risks that concerned me most were 1: the school might not have enough enrolments to support having such a space, and 2: I might not have enough time to commit to my own practice. However, so far, both of these have not been a problem. The numbers of the school have doubled over the eight weeks it’s been open – growing from 42 to 85.

I’m a bit reluctant to offer advice to others, but I believe it is important to trust your instincts and to look for the potential in every situation. It’s often about thinking differently, seeing the bigger picture and carving your own niche. Patience is also important. It’s about building long-term relationships with people, listening and understanding the communities and industry you are working in. That’s advice someone gave me, and I’ve applied it to everything I’ve done since – including Mill Street Studios.

Claire Marshall is a Brisbane-based independent choreographer and producer. Claire is a graduate of QUT – Bachelor of Arts (Dance). Her choreographic work covers a broad spectrum; from independent contemporary dance projects, dance on screen projects, music videos and TV commercials