Tony Mack AM: Generosity=Legacy

18 May 2020

A note of gratitude from Andy Packer, Artistic Director

Tonight, Tony Mack AM stepped down from the role of Chair of the Board of Slingsby Theatre Company Limited. This draws the curtain on thirteen incredible years of service to the company.

I first met Tony in the late 1990s when, as a young artist in my twenties I started to orbit around Carclew Youth Arts, applying for small grants and soaking up the positive energy. Tony was based there as editor of Lowdown Magazine, a national publication celebrating and reviewing youth arts across Australia and around the world. Now and then I would find myself at the end of Tony’s desk, chatting with him as he shared his deep knowledge of the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) movement around the world. I felt my horizon expanding as Tony wove a tapestry image of national and international companies and artists, independent but interconnected and mutually supportive. Through Tony’s infectious enthusiasm, I grew hungry to be part of that fabric.

Tony commissioned highly respected, insightful reviewers to scrutinize the work of artists around Australia for Lowdown. When my own small ensemble theatre company Ricochet received positive reviews in the magazine, we felt like we’d joined part of an international movement.

A few years later I was employed by Carclew and became a colleague of Tony’s. He continued to reveal a deep generosity, sharing his knowledge, giving his gentle and supportive critique of my work and how I handled myself in meetings, steering me towards new positive opportunities.

Through these years I was a young father and new to being a husband and balancing the confusion of early career opportunities and family responsibilities. I saw how Tony balanced these parts of his life, and sought to model myself on him.

From 2002-2008 Tony was Vice-President of ASSITEJ International (the peak organisation for Theatre for Children and Young People). This international leadership role grew Tony’s enviable reputation amongst international peers and connected him to the leading artists, thinkers and presenters around the globe. He used this position with incredible generosity, providing myself and so many other artists with introductions to his influential contacts at organisations including the Kennedy Center, Okinawa Festival, Imaginate Festival, Teatercentrum Denmark and so forth.

In 2007 when Slingsby established its first Board of Directors, with the support of Susan Benham-Page at ABaF we bravely built a Board of business leaders, none of whom we knew personally but who seemed intrigued by our vision. The one exception to this ‘new to me cohort’ was Tony Mack. I knew that if we were to build a successful new TYA company from scratch, we would need his guidance, scrutiny, insight, honesty and encouragement. Tony has been there for the past thirteen years, doing all of that and so much more.

When Slingsby started we had good intentions, a pretty clear vision, a team of incredible artists, excellent management skills in our small part-time team and a secret weapon – Tony Mack. If at any time the Board of Directors was unsure of a new national or international opportunity we’d turn to Tony, who could furnish us with why, yes, this really is a great invitation, or yes, interesting, but we should proceed with caution.

In May 2017, our brilliant, connected and dedicated inaugural Chair of Slingsby, Nigel Smart, stepped down after ten years in the role. I was delighted that Tony stepped into that void.

2016-2020 has been the most challenging of times for many arts companies in Australia. We’ve seen the ongoing devaluing and defunding of the Arts at a federal level, and Slingsby has not avoided those challenges, losing ongoing funding from the Australia Council since 2017. However, through this period Slingsby has actually gone from strength to strength, moving into our home in the Hall of Possibility, doubling our turnover and tripling our audience. Much of this comes down to Tony’s calm leadership and continued trust and enthusiasm for what the artists and small management team do strategically and on a daily basis.

Several times in the past few years Tony has taken phone calls from me when there is bad news about some funding outcome or other. He’s quietly listened as I’ve said “I think it is over Tony… it might be time to look at how we wind the company up…”. And each time Tony has listened and not disagreed, but given me space to keep talking, gently and warmly allowing me to process the situation. We have emerged from these conversations with action to take, that has bought time, that has given enough breath for the next small win, and the next, and the next, until we are all buoyed enough to see our way out of choppy waters.

Given another less patient, generous and experienced leader at the helm, we may well have closed the company in 2017. I’m so glad we didn’t.

I sometimes wonder if I had not found myself at the edge of Tony’s desk all those years ago, where would I be? Would Slingsby ever have existed? And still be afloat? Actually, I am pretty certain none of this would have happened without wonderful, genial, loving, knowledgeable, generous Tony Mack AM.

But you don’t become a Member of the Order of Australia just for helping out one schmuck. No, I am just one in a long line of artists and arts workers that Tony has shepherded toward opportunity and success.

I am sad to see Tony leave Slingsby, but I know it is time for him to push us out into the wide ocean, and for him to apply redoubled energy closer to home. To his family and his own business.

I still seek to shape who I am on his gentle guidance. I hope I can find it in myself to be half as generous to other artists as Tony has been to me. I have a responsibility to ensure that his legacy continues through Slingsby, the audiences we perform for and the artists we meet in the world.

Thank you, Tony. You may be stepping down but you’ll forever be a part of our company; we’ve renamed our office The Tony Mack AM – Situation Room. I hope we do you proud.