LONG-DISTANCE VOYAGER: Civic Theatre manager Vanessa Hutchins talks with Scott Bevan over lunch at the Happy Wombat. Leaning across her lunch and talking over the thrum oftraffic on Hunter Street, Vanessa Hutchins recounts how she was recently in Tonga and met the kind of people who intrigue her: middle-aged couples who sell up everything, buy a yacht and sail away.
“For me, one of the most dangerous concepts would be to be in the middle of the ocean, not knowingwhat weather’s going to hit you, not knowing the parameters of where you are – and embracing that,” she says.
And yet, in a way, that is the life Vanessa Hutchins has been leading.
She may be in her hometown now, as the manager of the Civic Theatre, but for the best part of three decades, Hutchins rode through creative tempests and typhoons, been becalmed at times,and found herself in someextraordinary and inspiring places, as she journeyedaround the globe.
“I’ve virtually lived a sailor’s life – without the boat,” she muses, while sipping on a craft beer.
Only Vanessa Hutchins has had a boat – the theatre.
PASSIONATE: Arts advocate and manager Vanessa Hutchins. Picture: Simone De Peak
AS a Novocastrian, Vanessa Hutchins was born in a harbour town, but shewas very much her father’s daughter in setting her life’s course for over the horizon.
Hutchins was born in 1971 and grew up in Shortland. She is bemused by how much the perception of her childhood suburb has changed. Now Shortland neighbours an internationally renowned wetlands.As a kid, she was considered to be living next to a swamp. But that environment inoculated her for future challenges, when she was living and working in the Top End.
“When I went to Darwin, the mosquitoes never got me, because of my breeding,” Hutchins says. “I was already toughened up. I’d tell them about the Hexham Grey . . . this monster of a mosquito, and they’d be like, ‘No, you’re kidding me!’ ‘Nope, it’s a mosquito that could take your head off!’”
Her father, Bill, was a merchant seaman, who had grown up in that other Newcastle. While in port here, he met a girl from Mayfield, Robyn.
“So Newcastle on Tyne marriesNewcastle on Hunter,” laughs Hutchins.
Bill and Robyn Hutchinshad three girls; Vanessa was the youngest. Bill Hutchins gradually left behind his life at sea, if not the memories.
Vanessa Hutchins recalls how for her 30thbirthday, she travelled to the Greek island of Rhodes. She phoned home.
“And I get my Dad on the phone, and he said, ‘Oh, Rodos! I might have spent a night in somebody else’s company in Rodos’,” she laughs. “‘No, Dad, don’t tell me the story!’.”
As a teenager, Hutchinssays, she clashed with her father because they were so much alike.
“In my late 20s, I actually started to get a real comprehension of what my Dad had given me in life as those bedded-down skills,” she says. “And it was creativity, it was expressing myself and not being afraid to express myself. And it was also the technical, it was the bits and the bolts.
“And that’s how we’d clash, because when I was a kid, I’d get into his garage, and I’d pull apart his lawn mower and try and put it back together again!”
Young Vanessa found other ways to express her creativity. At Jesmond High School, she loved art classesand being part of the large theatrical productions. Yet her passion was not to be on the stage but to be helping create the world that exists on it.
“I observed the people who were always front and centre on the stage,” she recalls. “And then I observed – and thought this was more interesting – the quieter creative process.”
She did everything from helping paintthe sets to being a stage manager.
HISTORY: Vanessa Hutchins with playwright John O’Donoghue at the Civic Playhouse.
Hutchins carried those backstage interests to the University of Newcastle, where she studied drama, while being involved in productions for Freewheels, Footlice and the Hunter Valley Theatre Company (HVTC).
To further her studies and knowledge in the technical side of the creative arts, Hutchins went to Wollongong before returning to Newcastle and her first paid job in the theatre, with the HVTC, in 1993. These were tough financial times for the HVTC, and Hutchins’ stay was short-lived, but thatdidn’t dissuade her froma career on the fringe of the stage.
For a time she worked as part of the technical crew for concerts at the Sydney Entertainment Centrebut found it didn’t suit her: “Little love, little time, get the show up, get the job done.”
Hutchinsjourneyed backto Newcastle and recalls sitting in her bedroom in Shortland, thinking about how she could find creative expression, work in the arts, and connect with a community.
“What was a really strong interest for me were the First Nations people of ,” Hutchins recalls. “It was something I hadn’t investigated, and I hadn’t been associated with. I realised that in Newcastle I hadn’t had a lot of contact with First Nations people.”
InWollongong, she had worked on a Welcome to Country ceremony, which she loved. What’s more, “there was the context of my Dad and the sailor and wanting to have my own odyssey”.
Hutchins, as production manager for the Bangarra Dance Theatre, in 2004.
In 1994, Hutchins moved to Darwin.
“It was a journey into the unknown, but that journey was very much focused on how you use the tools of the creative industries and put those tools into people’s hands to express themselves,” she says. “And I guess I had a really fast journey for the next four years.”
It was also a journey deep into the heart of , touring shows and plays that connected art with life. For instance, Hutchins oversaw a show that explored a road safety message in Aboriginal languages, and which was taken to remote communities.
The experience shaped how she views the value of art:“When I think about the outcomes of what we do.How strong is the message? How do we get a voice to commit to a message that makes change?
“That’s where I also learnt touring, and I think that’s why I became such a good tour manager, because on those types of tours you had to have everything.”
As a result, when she left the Northern Territory, Hutchins was sought for big-scale theatrical and musical productions. Those skills also took her to London, to work with the acclaimed theatre company, The Wrestling School.
But in 2001, “a little internal bell sounded in me” and she felt the need to travelhome just before Christmas. Hutchins was not long backwhen her father had a massive heart attack. She performed CPR, a skill she had learnt for tours. But this was the first time she had ever had to use it.
“Why that was me was because I was the one who had learnt how to not panic, how to work with fear, that had learnt how to work with what’s completely unexpected,” Hutchins muses. “I was the right person on the day for that gig.”
Her father died shortly after, but she was grateful to be there:“The beautiful thing was at the end of that, it almost felt like he had stage-managed or got me on his path.”
For the next few years, Vanessa Hutchins was production manager for the Bangarra Dance Theatre, which took her into iconic performance spaces from China to the United States, as she helped take indigenous stories to the world.Then she worked on largefestivals before being seduced back tothe Northern Territory. Hutchins directedthe 2007 Arafura Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, and she toured with NT performing artists.
While she loved helping communities projecttheir voices and stories, Hutchins found she was getting caught in a cycle of working ferociously then burning out. She needed more stability. And she felt the need to be close to her mother, whom she attributes with teaching her the value of strong human relationships. She wanted to be “close, reliable, all the things I hadn’t been able to do”.
And then: “Bang! The right job turned up at the right time.”
Hutchins in 2016, after being appointed manager of the Civic Theatre. Picture: Simone De Peak
Last year, Hutchinswas appointed manager of the Civic Theatre, a job that allows her to stay “on the national agenda while still being able to work out how to unearth community”.
In her spare time, Hutchins, who is single, walks her pet poodle, bought by a former partner to keep her at home more –“it didn’t quite work”.
“I don’t see it as I’ve chased a career, I seeit as I’ve been passionate about some focus points,” she says. “But with that, unfortunately, you do leave people behind.”
Hutchinsdesires to return to the Top End at some point, because “Ihave so many connections there now, and it still artistically intrigues me”. She also has other travel destinations in mind and perhaps even go long-distance sailing. But Newcastle is home. And she has a passion to develop the city’s cultural character, and to showcase what Novocastrians can do on the stage.
She believes Newcastle’s culture ishealthy and will continue to produce great artists, but that Novocastrians should proudly promote that beyond the city limits.
“What I would like is we advocate a bit more as to what our strengths are to the national industry,” Hutchins enthuses. “I think there’s that great barrier, ‘If I didn’t see it in Sydney, it didn’t really happen’. Or it’s not validated in some form.
I just want the validation we deserve.”