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Meet a CEO: Jodie Wainwright, Milk Crate Theatre

The Milk Crate Theatre is an organisation that features and highlights the marginalised voices in our society. We sat down with CEO Jodie Wainwright to discuss their important work. As featured on The Big Smoke.

Hello, Jodie. You’re the CEO of the Milk Crate Theatre. What makes it so unique?

Milk Crate Theatre is the leading arts organisation working in the unique intersection of the arts, homelessness, disability and mental health. We have the vision to effect social change through the power of performance.

We provide opportunities for under-represented voices, supporting them to build skills, confidence and connections to share their bold and resonant stories they create with audiences, in order to break down barriers and create a society with more connection, belonging and humanity.

Our community of collaborative artists are generally living with, have experienced or at risk of homelessness; living with mental health or disability support needs; domestic violence survivors; or come from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Our skilled professional arts practitioners work alongside collaborative artists to create and hone works that are crafted in the words of individuals working on a project, carrying the nuances of language and concept that are particular to their life perspectives and backgrounds.

I had the great privilege of joining the Milk Crate team in the opening week of Natural Order, our 2019 presentation. This immersive performance took audiences on a strikingly real (yet humorous) journey through the nightmare of bureaucracy that impacts our community. This gave me the opportunity to see the team in action and experience firsthand the impact of our work on the collaborative artists and the audiences alike.

How would you describe your own leadership style? And what did you do before joining the Milk Crate Theatre?

I am definitely a duck swimming – all calm on the exterior, with my legs paddling a million miles an hour!

I see my main job as setting the team up for success. This ranges from ensuring we have sustainable funding in place to providing counselling and mentorship to team members. Our skills-based team works collaboratively to deliver projects with everyone having their own areas of expertise. I am extremely lucky to have a team that is so passionate about our work and our community.

I transitioned to the not-for-profit sector in 2006. I have worked for the Cancer Council, Sydney Opera House, Australian Red Cross and Camp Quality in a variety of marketing/fundraising and business development positions. Prior to joining the Milk Crate Theatre, I was with Holdsworth Community for five years as Head of Marketing, Fundraising and Business Development.

During that time, I established a partnership with Sydney Theatre Company to deliver a supported drama program, and worked to launch a home share program in New South Wales which mutually matched community members who needed housing with older people who lived alone.

How do organisations like the Milk Crate Theatre help reframe issues like homelessness?

Homelessness and disadvantage can generate feelings of invisibility and voicelessness which impacts the life potential of the individual and erodes their sense of community, humanity and belonging. Organisations like the Milk Crate Theatre are so vital to driving this type of societal change. The power of our performances and storytelling enables audiences to put themselves in the shoes of another and begin to understand what life might be like from their perspective.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced since you started at Milk Crate Theatre?

It’s hard not to just say 2020! The biggest challenge for Milk Crate Theatre is ensuring that we have sustainable funding going forward. Government funding has been steadily decreasing, which means we are increasingly having to look to other sources to support our work. We have been very lucky to have strong support from the philanthropic sector, but we can’t expect them to be able to provide continuous growing support. We were building a portfolio of fee-based programs prior to COVID, but unfortunately, we had to put this on hold.

We hope to grow this area in the future and have exciting plans in place.

COVID-19 escalated the pressure on welfare and funding demands. How did the theatre navigate these challenges?

Last year was such a difficult time. Health restrictions rendered us unable to deliver programs in the community, which meant we were unable to deliver on existing funding contracts or fee-earning programs. I was thankful for the support of a strong board, as we spoke to our funders and reviewed operations and expense budgets to ensure we survive through an extended period of lockdown.

We were able to secure JobKeeper, and our funders were incredibly supportive as we moved to transition to online facilitation.

We were lucky that we were a small team and we already had laptops and a mostly cloud-based system so we were able to continue working from home. That doesn’t mean it was easy, as the team took reductions in hours across the board.

Reflecting back, I’m amazed at what we were able to accomplish, which speaks volumes about their courage and resilience.

Organisations like the Milk Crate Theatre are so vital to driving this type of societal change. The power of our performances and storytelling enables audiences to put themselves in the shoes of another and begin to understand what life might be like from their perspective.

As the team transitioned our workshops and creative programs to an online platform, amazing things started to happen. New characters and work started to develop through the online workshops. Beautiful work, not directly focusing on all the goings-on in the outside world, but sharing their unique perspective of our community.

One new work, Dust Storm, was performed online via Zoom. Our collaborative artists really brought their performance level to new heights. It was truly a delight, and it reminded us why we are all here.

Like many companies in 2020, we took the opportunity to review our strategic plan and really look at what success would look like for both us and our community. This led to a new strategic plan for the next four years – it’s big, ambitious and exciting. We are looking to both grow the number of community members that we work with, and the audience that see our works.

What does success look like to you, personally?

I’m a dreamer. So for me, success is that our work changes the world for the better. Societal change isn’t always fast, but I have definitely seen some great changes in my lifetime. We have the great privilege to see personal changes on a daily basis; whether that be a collaborative artist growing in confidence or learning new skills, or the changed perception of an audience member after they see our work.

What is the biggest value Milk Crate Theatre provides to both participants and audiences?

Milk Crate Theatre is a place of belonging and joy for the members who take part in our programs. For many people in our community, there is little opportunity to participate in creative activities where ideas are heard and valued. There is also great joy in creative ‘play’ and by incorporating artists and social workers into a team, creating a safe and accessible environment for them to connect and personally develop through creative practice.

Milk Crate Theatre performances attract broad audiences. We offer free accessible tickets to community members connected to our social purpose partners; offering a performance space that enables audiences living with mental health issues or disabilities to enjoy the work free from judgement.

We also sell tickets to the general public. The impact of our work on audiences is often profound and lasting. By offering the opportunity to see stories from different perspectives and backgrounds, we are able to bridge differences, break down barriers and build empathy.

Which Milk Crate Theatre story has captured your heart?

Dust Storm, which we created during COVID, has definitely captured my heart. This story is quite a departure from our previous works, as it doesn’t have a focus on social justice.

During the lockdown, anxiety and fear levels were understandably high. So, although our community wanted to talk about COVID, (Artistic Director) Margot Politis established a space for the group to expand, flex, and create – exploring narratives that had nothing to do with the current state of the world in a pandemic. The themes are incredibly evocative of the real-life issues that the pandemic manifested for all people, whilst not discussing it directly. Dust Storm is a true testament to the creativity of our collaborative artists.

I am so excited that we are now undertaking further development to share this work with audiences in 2022.


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