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Ticking the Boxes: Interview with Richard Watts, national reviews editor of artsHub and presenter of SmartArts on 3-RRR

June 21, 2012

   Richard Watts meets me for lunch in Little Lonsdale Street, around the corner from the office where he works as national reviews editor for arts news website artsHub. This is just one of the many roles Richard has played – and continues to play – in the Melbourne arts community.

It all began with an interest in the performing arts during high school. ‘I’m the classic failed actor,’ he jokes, ‘but I never had the fortitude and perseverance to go through with that, so I channeled my energies into writing.’ Needing a creative outlet, he became involved in spoken word when some friends alerted him to a poetry reading at the pub one night. This led to him organising other gigs as well as performing his work, including support spots for punk rocker/spoken word artist Jello Biafra and riot-grrrl band Bikini Kill.

Richard’s profile as a performer and event organiser led to a job offer from Next Wave, a biennial festival for young and emerging artists and focusing on new media and hybrid art forms. In 2000 Richard was appointed to coordinate the text program, involving ‘a weekend of panels and discussions around different forms of literature, from the traditional novel to zines and comic books, spoken word performances, workshops, that kind of thing.’ Having programmed the festival, he resigned from Next Wave for personal reasons, a decision that indirectly freed him up to apply for the role of artistic director at youth writing organisation Express Media.

Serendipity seems to play a part in many arts-related careers, I observe. Richard agrees:  ‘I think there is a great deal of luck and chance involved, and the challenge in this industry is to capitalise on these opportunities when they arrive.’

While at Express Media, Richard programmed a zine fair inspired by his earlier experience at Next Wave: ‘I recognised that there’s clearly a need for more opportunities to talk about zine-making and … independent publishing generally.’ For its third year, with funding from the City of Melbourne and Arts Victoria, Richard broadened the zine fair’s scope to create the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

One reason for this change was to create a broader public forum for new writers. ‘Express Media … was very committed to working with writers under 25, and I was aware that the notion of being an emerging writer can happen at any age … If you’re 55 and you’ve taken an early retirement and you’ve decided finally after years of working as a plumber that you want to be start being a poet, opportunities for older emerging writers are limited.’

Another factor was Richard’s growing frustration with existing writers’ festivals: ‘People like Steve Grimwade at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival have started to change the culture a little, but for the most part the big writers’ festivals are celebrations of readers, and opportunities for publishers to promote work … There’s not really an opportunity to talk about the craft of writing and to learn from other writers.’ After a year as the EWF’s artistic director, Richard appointed another director and bowed out, ‘but the festival itself has flourished.’

After five years at Express Media it was time for a new challenge. Richard began work at gay and lesbian newsletter MCV, eventually becoming editor. He also began reviewing the Melbourne Comedy Festival for The Age. This experience led him to being head-hunted by artsHub where he began as arts editor, working as a staff writer on three to four features a week. Two years later he moved to editing and coordinating reviews.

Throughout his career Richard has also been involved with Melbourne public radio station 3-RRR FM; from hosting a spoken word and poetry program in 1999, then as a film reviewer and, since 2004, as host of the SmartArts program.

For the past eight years Richard’s creative energies have been mainly devoted to journalism – reviews, interviews, features, and editing others’ work. Although these activities have taken the place of the short stories he used to write and publish, he is not unhappy about this. ‘It’s still creative in its own way. I enjoy interviewing people enormously. I find it really rewarding to watch somebody open up, to have a discussion and then to translate that discussion onto the page.’ Criticism can also be an art, he argues: ‘To not only write something that is good writing in and of itself, but … is informative and lucid and successfully identifies strengths and weaknesses and conveys those … to people reading the review.’

Richard recently took three months off from artsHub to start researching a non-fiction book on the Melbourne Fringe Festival, another organisation dear to his heart (he spent seven years as a board member, including three-and-a-half years as Chair).  ‘It’s not a chronological history, but a thematic history … something a bit more creative than “and then this happened and on another date this happened.”’ Nonetheless, the book will cover the Fringe’s development from its inception in 1983 to the present day. The book’s genesis was the death of Richard’s friend and Fringe colleague, Ralph McClean. ‘With him Melbourne lost an enormous amount of cultural history and knowledge … that actually made me think, somebody should have written down his stories … I went back to Fringe and contacted the general manager and said, “Well look, the Fringe’s 30th anniversary is coming up, there’s no official history, how about I write one?”’ The book is planned for release in 2013.

Another book in the pipeline is Richard’s novel, the first draft of which he completed in 2000. ‘I describe it as “Queer Noir”. It’s a crime novel set in Fitzroy in the 1940s with a working-class gay male protagonist. It’s been sitting in a drawer for about five years now. I keep meaning to get back to it and do maybe a fourth and final draft and find a publisher but I haven’t had time of late.’

Is there a dream job he hasn’t done yet?
‘Hm,’ he says, mulling this over. ‘At different times I’ve called myself a writer, I’ve been an artistic director, I’ve been a festival director, I get to host a radio show every week and meet fascinating people, I enjoy working at artsHub … and I’ve been a freelancer and a newspaper editor, so no – I think I’ve ticked most of the boxes.’

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