From Black Swan to NIDA: Q & A with Kate Cherry

By Kate Cherry and Jenny Wilson

At the end of 2016, Kate Cherry moved from a successful nine-year role as Artistic Director and joint CEO of Black Swan Theatre to take up the role of Director and CEO of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).  In a Q & A conversation with NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson, Kate shares her perspectives on the move from professional arts to tertiary arts leadership

Q What influenced you to follow a career in the dramatic arts?

My father was a huge influence on me. He was a theatre director and teacher. He set up Flinders University’s theatre program and ran their Humanities program. He was probably my first mentor, but both of my parents were teachers – my mother was an English Professor. I was very influenced by Oskar Eustis, now the Director of the Public Theatre in New York who also teaches at New York University (NYU). He has such a brilliant mind.

Q: You joined NIDA from a successful leadership position in an arts organisation. What was your previous experience in tertiary education?

I did my Masters in Fine Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and taught there, and I directed and taught at the American Conservatory Theatre and Colorado College.  When I came back to Australia, I directed students at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), as an adjunct. I also directed and taught at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAPPA), NIDA and Queensland University of Technology (QUT), so I have kind of had parallel careers going – directing professionally and directing and teaching at universities.

I spent a lot of time in the States where artists tend to go back and forth between the professional world and the academic world – the arts conservatory programs. I like that because there are times when it is great to be ‘doing’ and times when it is good to be reflecting and analysing.

I spent a lot of time in the States where artists tend to go back and forth between the professional world and the academic world – the arts conservatory programs. I like that because there are times when it is great to be ‘doing’ and times when it is good to be reflecting and analysing. That is what my mind needs and for me it is simply a change in emphasis. This year, I am directing Madame Butterfly for the Seattle Opera with an Australian team. Now that I am running NIDA rather than a professional company and occasionally stepping in to the teaching role, I have kind of swapped my priorities.

Q What prompted your interest in the NIDA leadership role?

There has been such a massive shift over the last three or four years in theatre that it is really interesting to go back into a practice-led organisation that cares about education and arts, and reinvestigate where I think theatre will be heading – to think ahead into the future rather than thinking three or four years ahead for your business. I actually want to be thinking about what is the next step for theatre, film, television, virtual reality and gaming, and have the opportunity to think about what skillsets are needed to thrive in the future.

Q What differences have you noticed in leading a professional organisation to leadership in a tertiary setting?

One thing is that I am a lot less ‘operational’. Leading a theatre company of limited resources meant that I was going down into the rehearsal rooms to direct three or four shows a year. That was the heartbeat; the driving force of the theatre company. Now at NIDA, I am a strategist and a team builder, as I was at Black Swan, but I am also engaging in the commercial side of things and the show business side of things as well as artistry. Those are all the same skills that I used at Black Swan, but what I am able to do now is contribute to shaping future cultural leaders. I am using the same skills but I have time to think about what the future might be and to support the future makers, the future innovators.

Q: Do you find that you have as much time for your own personal artistic endeavours?

No I don't, but I have SOME time which is important for me and the NIDA board. They are committed to having arts practitioners running NIDA so I can step out of the NIDA role and direct something occasionally, and my work as a practitioner feeds in to NIDA.

Q: What do you see as the future for dramatic arts training?

There has been such a massive shift over the last three or four years in theatre that it is really interesting to go back into a practice-led organisation that cares about education and arts, and reinvestigate where I think theatre will be heading – to think ahead into the future rather than thinking three or four years ahead for your business

We are looking at skillsets these days and in a way ‘everything old is new again’. The idea of not training specifically into one thing, but training for a series of skills. It is about performance, financial sustainability, storytelling, empathy, imagination – whether we are training corporates in how to take empathy into their culture or engaging with best practice actors in the country. I think NIDA’s strength has always been in identifying talent, empowering talent and ensuring that there is a future for that talent. 

Q: Given that there is that uncertainty in the future, how do you determine which way to go and what to prioritise as a leader?

I think that in everything that we are doing, we are thinking of ourselves as global leaders.  If you walk into a room as an actor, you are trained in best practice and your understanding of how to be in that room and how to engage professionally. To ensure that your understanding of yourself as a creative individual within a highly creative environment is really clear, we are determined that we offer excellence in acting, directing, design, presentation and content, and that our students are flexible and adaptable. They recognise that there is a broad variety of mediums that they may be engaging in, but also have a classic understanding of having a multi-layered voice that can see in a tiny situation, like a web cam or a huge theatre. We want our people to be adaptable and critical thinkers so that when they are reading a great text they know how to take it apart and put it back together, and that they know how to be a driving force in the room. We are very proud of the fact that we train professionals. We want all our students to leave with a sense of financial sustainability for the industry they are going into, as well as their personal financial sustainability.

Q: What do you feel that a graduate gains as a practitioner from an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification?

There are some great actors who haven’t done that, but I think that in this day and age, having the opportunity to build your resilience as an artist, to know yourself well before you enter the creative arts industry and to have a strong sense of what you do and don't believe in is a valuable system. I think that is all really helpful before you go out into a tough but wonderful industry.

That is what I love about theatre, you have to hit a series of outcomes. You have to be seen and heard, sometimes seven times a week if you’re in a big theatre space.  All those things mean that the better trained you are, the more likely you are to have a sustainable career.

Q: The work that staff do as practitioners is outside their NIDA ‘paid’ role unlike universities where it is considered to be part of their research role. Are they able to maintain their own practice?

They certainly are! For example, I just had someone who has spent the morning talking about the impact of performance practice and critical thought on how we want to teach to prepare students for the years to come. We are moving more towards more and more holistic practices so that there really aren’t too many barriers between the work you do at NIDA - as a teacher, an educator, a student – and the work you are doing outside these walls. We have people like our Deputy Director/CEO and Head of Design for Performance, Michael Scott-Mitchell, who is teaching, designing and developing ideas for NIDA while designing work for Opera Australia and Sydney Theatre Company from time to time. I just think it is a brilliant model.

in this day and age, having the opportunity to build your resilience as an artist, to know yourself well before you enter the creative arts industry and to have a strong sense of what you do and don't believe in is a valuable system. I think that is all really helpful before you go out into a tough but wonderful industry.

Myself and most of the people that I am surrounded by are galvanised by continuing to do our own work and this is reflected in the quality of the conversations we are having, the level of engagement, the fact that we all get fired up by hearing about what someone else is doing professionally, and making it a centre point for the students. It can be part of the teaching. Michael, for example whenever he is working at the Sydney Theatre Company he is taking students on secondment. I think because a lot of us are professionals, we get fired up by these opportunities. We are all interested in the same thing – we are passionate about the students and the art form. By its very nature, the art form is collaborative so we are people who by our natures, are excited by possibilities that are opened up through networks and connectivity. We like sharing ideas and challenging them and our work practices mean that it is important for us to see what two or three or four people can do together.

Q: Do you think that the tertiary setting can have an impact on the type and quality of art that is produced?

I think it gives students the opportunity to define what they believe in. They are very influenced by their contemporaries. It gives you networks. It gives you a common language and shared spaces and the opportunity to react personally and politically within a collective.  Sometimes you’ll have a group of students who catch fire because they have all shared a brilliant teacher. Strictly Ballroom, for example, came out of a work that Baz Luhrmann and some of his fellow students did at NIDA.  

Q: Are there any negatives to the contribution that the tertiary setting can make to the arts?

Yes, I think that can be an issue if tertiary sees themselves in opposition or superior to the industry.  We acknowledge that the industry is under a vast amount of pressure and we want to support and empower it. But also of course we’d like our graduates to shape it.

What are your hopes and fears for the creative arts in Australia?

My hopes are that Australian culture, as well as our understanding and collaborative natures, will continue to thrive, and that our celebration of ourselves and other people will be driven by the heartbeat of empathy and imagination. My fears are that in an increasingly automated society, we will need to keep reminding people of the importance of humanity and empathy and narrative. Sometimes I worry that it will be hard to go against the tide, but I am also determined that our survival is dependent on our storytellers, our empaths and our innovators. We need resilient theatre makers to contribute and guide our journey into the unknown: the story of what is to be human.


Coming from three generations of Australian theatre artisans and directors, Kate Cherry is a passionate arts leader and accomplished theatre director. She joined NIDA as Director/CEO in December 2016, having previously served as artistic director and co-CEO of the Black Swan State Theatre Company from 2008–2016.Before this, Kate was a freelance director across theatre and opera, and associate director at Melbourne Theatre Company from 1999–2005. With teaching experience in Australia and internationally, Kate has stood as visiting professor at Colorado College and the University of California Los Angeles. She has taught at WAAPA, VCA and QUT, and worked with NIDA students as a guest director.

Jenny Wilson is DDCA’s Research Officer and Editor of NiTRO.  She is an independent consultant to universities and academic bodies and an Honorary Fellow of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses upon higher education policy and its relationship to academic ‘tribes and territories’, particularly creative arts disciplines. Her book ‘Artists in the University: Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education’  will be published by Springer in 2017.