BEST TEACHER: Julian Meyrick

Highly accomplished in both the theatre and academic worlds, it was only a matter of time before Professor Julian Meyrick was nominated as one of Flinders University’s Best Teachers. He sat down with ET editor Simone Corletto to chat about the theatre, the cultural value of the arts and the benefits of a varied career.

Professor Julian Meyrick is a Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, as well as holding a position on the Artistic Counsel for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and a Chief Investigator on two ARC Linkage Projects, and a lecturer of Dramaturgy and Cultural Policy.

Julian explained that he originally trained as an economist, before completing an MA training degree in the US and getting into stage directing. Since then he has worked in Sydney and Melbourne, holding various positions in the theatre industry, including director, historian and academic, publishing widely on the Australian theatre, performance theory and practice, contemporary dramaturgy and cultural policy.  Before coming to Flinders, Julian spent 6 years as an Associate Director and Literary Advisor at the Melbourne Theatre Company, and held an honorary position at La Trobe University. When he arrived at Flinders three years ago, Julian was made a Strategic Professor of Creative Arts, as appointed by the last Vice Chancellor in a number of what he described as Strategic Chairs within the faculty. ‘When I first arrived, the position had been mis-written as a Professor of Strategic Arts’, he jokes, which sounds to me more like some sort of military position.

Julian-Meyricck

As a strategic professor, Julian is situated between four areas at the university, whether through their research or teaching. These areas are drama, screen, media and creative writing, as the major streams, which form the creative arts group within the school of Humanities. Through this Julian does his research primarily on cultural policy, cultural value assessment and other economic issues relating to the creative arts, and where this sits within the contemporary economic landscape.

As a teacher, Julian teaches courses in Dramaturgy and Cultural Policy, which reflects the two focuses of his career. He describes Dramaturgy as the love of his life, where he teaches students about understanding how scripts and plays work; useful theory for any hopeful writers, actors or directors hoping to get into the theatre. As a result, these classes primarily cater to creative arts students, unlike Cultural Policy where he gets to teach students from a variety of faculties, from film and media, even law. He remarks that it’s a boring name for an interesting topic, with a lot of scope for students to find their own research interests.

Julian notes that the best part of his role here at Flinders is working in such an extremely friendly environment, surrounded by a myriad of interesting people. It’s easy to see how, with his office up on the second floor of the Humanities building, clustered between academics of a variety of disciplines, from creative writers and editors, to poets and philosophers, and even language specialists. Julian remarks ‘you can’t find that mix of people anywhere, except at a university, and at Flinders it’s very convivial. People are extremely open and love to talk, and talking at the university is a form of collaboration, so it’s a good thing.’

Julian says the worst part of the job would have to be paperwork and navigating the complicated systems the University runs on. Also the parking situation, as the true equaliser between staff and student which everyone seems to struggle with. (Being on the pay role doesn’t guarantee you a fancy spot near your office, unfortunately.)

The journey into teaching was almost a natural one for Julian, having turned to teaching and research throughout his theatre career, after returning to study in the early 1990s to get his PhD. However he never gave up on the theatre, continuing to direct at least once a year, even now. Being able to balance working in the industry he loves and enjoying the financial support of teaching may be the dream of many drama majors, but Julian warns it isn’t easy. ‘It’s difficult to pull off [the double act] and the balance is really hard to find,’ he remarks, ‘and often I wish I got some recognition for just that.’ He doesn’t believe he does any of these roles amazingly. ‘I think there are greater artists than me, and greater scholars without doubt, but I think to bring the two things together has been a real achievement in my life. God knows it’s been hard enough.’ During our interview we were interrupted several times by people needing to talk about one thing or another, which really just stands as a testament to how busy and hard-working Julian is. On striking the balance, Julian replies that he very much relies on the support and good will of those around him, especially his work colleagues and the dean and executive dean.

A poster from Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatre Laboratory, for their show The Constant Prince.  It was given to Julian by one of the actors in that famous company, after he had completed some research on their early work.  ‘He told me never to frame it!  I hope he doesn’t look at Empire Times!’
A poster from Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatre Laboratory, for their show The Constant Prince. It was given to Julian by one of the actors in that famous company, after he had completed some research on their early work. ‘He told me never to frame it! I hope he doesn’t look at Empire Times!’

When asked what his students tend to go on to when they finish their degrees, Julian confesses that he doesn’t know specifically as he hasn’t been here long enough. He’s known a number of his old students to head into dedicated art form roles, such as acting and film making. A larger number of students go on to what Julian calls portfolio careers, where they go on to do a variety of different roles which is basically what his own career has been like, having taught, directed, adapted, and even worked as a journalist. Julian says this variety has made for a rather fun career, and that there’s a lot of opportunity these days for those who are adaptable into different arts jobs. It’s a work style that seems natural for people with a creative arts background, since the skills taught tend to be transferrable into a many different roles.

This same versatile, generalised nature of the arts is what some people look down upon. Julian puts on his economist hat to interject that it’s a cultural misconception that the Arts isn’t as economically viable as other industries. ‘I always give this statistic; agriculture returns 3.9% of GDP, just under 4%. The cultural industries are 3.6%. So within the next 10 years, maybe even sooner, those cultural industries will be larger than the agriculture sector,’ he says. He goes on to note that media and video game production especially are key emerging industries in our economy, so people shouldn’t be so dismissive of studying in those areas if they’re interested.

While he might not have much spare time, Julian says that one of his other great interests is history. ‘I’ll look at anything old and dead,’ he remarks. ‘My idea of a good time is stomping around a ruin or learning about Tudor history or ancient Rome.’ I remarked that it must have been great being in England, with so much history and all their castles, to which he replied he’d even lived in a couple of them.

On advice for students looking to go into the theatre, Julian replies that if you want to be a creative artist, you should imagine how you might feel if you got to his age (roughly fifty), and had a life that was full of variety, but not necessarily rich or famous. ‘Some people in the industry are rich and famous, but some people are rich and famous dentists,’ he replies. While some find great success, it’s a ‘freak occurrence’, and most people who go into this industry just get by, so you really have to be driven by passion. If you just love what it could bring you, in terms of money or fame, it won’t be enough. But if you love the work then it will be a satisfying and socially significant role (someone has to create all the art and media we consume on a daily basis). Julian advises to look into your heart and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, good advice for every student in any faculty, really. No matter what you graduate from, it’s about making your education work for you. Julian is a big believer in education for the arts, saying ‘I think that if you’re going to be an artist, being a thinking artist is the way to go.’

Words by Simone Corletto