The world’s largest directory of Australian stage performances is under threat as financial support for its ongoing development becomes tenuous in an uncertain funding environment.
AusStage, an online index of live performances by Australians since the 18th century, is the only repository of Australian performing arts in the world and the most comprehensive record of Australian live theatre ever compiled.
The database not only includes live performances that have taken place on Australian soil, but also stage plays that have been written, directed, produced or performed by Australians overseas.
It even includes the first theatre production staged in Australian history, which was performed by convicts in a mud-wall hut in 1789 and attended by Captain Arthur Phillip.
Created in 2000, AusStage now contains more than 250,000 records and is managed by a consortium of Australian universities, government agencies, industry organisations and arts institutions.
“The importance of AusStage cannot be underestimated,” says Ms Jenny Fewster, who helps maintain the server infrastructure for AusStage from Flinders University, alongside colleagues Professor Julian Meyrick and Emeritus Professor Julie Holledge.
“Not only does AusStage enable unprecedented access to the history of Australian live performance, but it also generates crucial social networks and acts as a barometer for the nation’s cultural vitality.
“Australia stages some of the most ambitious, innovative and socially significant live events in the world, and without AusStage, there would be no central record of these for audiences here or overseas,” Ms Fewster says.
To date, AusStage has been funded by grants from the Australian Research Council under a ‘research infrastructure’ scheme, for which the project team has been immensely grateful.
“Regrettably, as AusStage continues to mature and grow, the original research funding that helped launch it becomes less and less appropriate, while the availability of alternative schemes for a project of this scope and purpose are rare,” says Professor Meyrick.
“We are now looking at ways of sustaining the future of AusStage outside of traditional means, as there are no specific funding grants for database management or upgrades to server technology, which are fundamental to the success of the AusStage platform,” he says.
The project team is determined to avoid restricting access to AusStage via a subscription wall, as according to Professor Meyrick, “this would undermine the spirit of access and education that inspired the creation of AusStage in the first place.”
Instead the project team have invited university libraries across Australia to make a financial contribution as part of a “plan of shared action” to maintain the AusStage database in 2018.
To date AusStage has received major gifts from the University of Melbourne Library, the University of Wollongong Library, the University of New South Wales Library and Flinders’ own Central Library.
Donations have also been received from individual members of the community.
The team has yet to make the $200,000 necessary to maintain AusStage annually, but is delighted to have made a significant dent in the target amount thanks to the generosity and goodwill of the higher education sector and its desire to share culturally-significant resources Australia-wide.
“Maintaining AusStage as an open-access resource is necessary in order to communicate our creative passions and achievements to the world, and to encourage collective record-keeping,” says project manager Ms Fewster.
Over the past 18 years, AusStage has proven to be a crucial resource for thousands of scholars, artists, students and theatre enthusiasts, who have used the resource for a myriad of purposes, including comparing periods of theatrical history, researching the evolution of Australian theatre companies, and following the career trajectories of Australian actors, playwrights and directors.
“One of our researchers used the AusStage database to undertake a social network analysis of Australian performing artists and discovered that there was only 3.6 degrees of separation between them,” she says.
“Another of our researchers has used AusStage to geographically map different corroboree performances in the 1800s and link these back to specific tribal and language groups.
“So much cultural history has been captured by AusStage, and so much new knowledge generated by it, that it is incumbent upon us as cultural custodians to maintain its breadth and reach across the full arc of Australian performing arts,” says Ms Fewster.