Women in Innovation: Liz Lea

"Canberra is a city of dreams. I'm struck by what a fertile place it is to tuck yourself away, work hard and build opportunities for yourself."

We interview women in our community about innovation and what drives them to make a difference in their industries. This week we spoke to Liz Lea, Artistic Director of The BOLD Festival (among many other things!). She shared her journey through the worlds of dance, accessibility in the arts and Canberra as a centre for everything.

Tell me about your enterprises and how they came to be.

I’m a freelance dance artist and have been performing and choreographing for over 30 years. I was based in the UK until I returned to Australia in 2009. As well as touring, I’ve been commissioned in India, the UK, Australia, South Africa, Kuwait, Singapore and the USA.

I was honoured to be named the 2017 ACT Artist of the Year and Australian Dance Award for her direction of Great Sport! at the National Museum of Australia. I direct two Festivals — DANscienCE, where dance and science meet, and BOLD, which celebrates the legacy of dance across all identities.

In early 2020 I was touring in the UK and working as a Movement Director in Kuwait when COVID-19 hit. Loosing all my work meant I needed to rethink, upskill and review ways to move forward. I began training in Audio Description and will be launching Auditum All, a business offering Audio Description and an App facilitating the service in 2022.

I direct a small non-profit, The Stellar Company, and we relaunched early this year with a focus on enriching the culture of Australia through the mentorship of emerging artists, of all abilities. We also advocate for the access to and accessibility of arts in contemporary living. We’ve just launched Canberra’s first inclusive dance company, the Chamaeleon Collective.

Tell me about being a Female Founder, and the unique approach you’ve taken to your endeavours.

I’m not sure my approach is unique to being a woman – I’m deeply mindful, though, of all of the support I’ve received over the years from mentors of all genders, and I tend to have a lot of female-identifying collaborators. As a soloist my work is uniquely female in focus, and that’s how I’ve built a profile of strength for my work in the different areas I work in across art forms and institutions.

What Canberra Innovation Network programs, connections or facilities have helped you along the way?

I regularly attended First Wednesday Connects online during lockdown; I’m happy on a stage but tend to get overwhelmed in person meeting people (always the one in the kitchen at my own parties!), so I need to get with the program and join in-person connections when they start up again. I’ve attended Female Founders lunch talks, which are brilliant, and I love being in a room of like-minded women who I might not know at all but know we’re all there for the same reason – to learn, share and grow.

I’m also very lucky to have been shortlisted for an ICON grant, and the mentoring we received allowed me to secure a grant to build the App for Audio Description in theatres that don’t have the technology. Through CBRIN I also learnt about Millhouse Ventures and am currently on their GRIST program, which is mind-blowing (and where we’re focusing on Chamaeleon Collective).

What did you see as the need in the market?

In the arts industry there are so many needs! In terms of creating work that sells and excites, there’s so much scope to create new and innovative work, and that will never change. The work, or product, always needs to be professionally produced and presented, and this is where companies can gain an edge.

In terms of access and inclusion, which is where my focus is in terms of the AD business, Auditum All and The Stellar Company/ Chamaeleon Collective, there are so many needs. Need for awareness, understanding, action, infrastructure and education.

Covid lockdowns really highlighted the inequity in the access field while also shining a light on ways in which access can easily be incorporated into everyday life, such as captions and sign interpreters for news bulletins around the world. I say “easily” because that’s how it appears – perfectly normal, and yet there have been years and years of work, time and investment to bring us to the point where access is being considered as a necessity rather than a second thought.

What do you bring specifically to the industry?

30 years in the dance arts business brings a bucket load of experience, but one needs to remain current. That means constant upskilling. I bring a strong understanding of cultural protocols and a deep commitment to working towards full access and inclusion where possible. I’m also deeply involved with community dance practice and committed to empowering people through dance.

Why is innovation important to you?

Innovation is fundamental to our developing world and economy. Respect for tradition is also!

As artists we have to constantly innovate, find new ways, new avenues and approaches. Within innovation we’re also forced the think creatively, and then creatively make new ideas become reality. I’m constantly surprised and inspired by people around me with their ideas, passion and commitment to developing ways to support their communities, and each other.

Auditum All has arisen from a need to ensure Audio Description can be made available in a market which is evolving, so we’ve taken an innovative approach to ensure this can happen. Chamaeleon Collective has a strong focus on different areas of science innovation, which brings a point of difference to our profile.

What drives you to make a difference?

Through the various projects I run my team and I strive to make the strongest work possible in the arts, and in doing so we want to bring new and unexpected experiences for audiences, artists and collaborators. Treating people with respect and being treated with respect makes a huge difference in developing a sound model for a company and nurturing the most powerful outcomes.

Do you have any advice for newbies to innovation?

Think, think, think. Talk with people and draw on their sharings so you can open your practice. Try your ideas and explore your dreams, but be as practical as possible – you need to make the magic happen through ensuring they can. I like to say I’m eminently impractical but entirely practical in my impracticality. Great advice I received 25 years ago still guides me, and being open to new advice, podcasts and listening to younger entrepreneurs always keeps me on my toes.

What are the big, scary barriers you face?

The depletion of arts funding and the devastation of the arts industry during Covid has been shattering. This is a constant, and making dance is expensive! As is ensuring access and inclusion imperatives can be met.
Auditum All is a market starter in the ACT, and Australia – we’ll offer both the App and the Audio Description service so we have to forge a new path to facilitate this. Hopefully this brings some freedom. As with Chamaeleon Collective, there are attitudinal barriers that need to be identified, faced and addressed.

Tell me about Canberra as a city of, and for, entrepreneurs.

In many respects Canberra is a city of dreams. I’ve been working here since 2000, and when I first based my work here in 2009 I was struck by what a fertile place it is to tuck yourself away, work hard and build opportunities for yourself. The change between London and Canberra was huge, but Canberra offered a space to nurture my work … and still travel! Over the past 12 years I’ve seen the city grow, and we are so incredibly lucky to have such a supportive and innovative environment to conceive and develop ideas. CBRIN plays a huge role in this capacity. Minister Chenye’s Statement of Ambition for the Arts is a bold intention, and artsACT have been doing a huge amount of work to support artists across the board, particularly since Covid. I believe ACT artists are absolutely placed to meet the ambition, especially within the wider ACT business environment we work and create in. Grants for business development from the ACT Government are also incredibly rare and supportive.

What’s next for you and your businesses?

My team and I are working on some projects for International Day of People with Disability, 3rd December. This involves performances at the National Portrait Gallery and Garema Place by a range of ACT-based artists who live with and without disability. We’re also continuing our Audio Description training project for a range of artists with First Nations, disability and CaLD backgrounds, developing our App for Audio Description and programming the BOLD Festival celebrating the legacy of dance in all cultures, which opens on the 2nd March 2022.

Follow Liz Lea on LinkedIn.