Take Two: Screenworks’ Ken Crouch and Lisa O’Meara
Ken Crouch and Lisa O’Meara.
Screenworks is a not-for-profit that supports regionally-based screen practitioners. Over the past five years, CEO Ken Crouch and programs and operations manager Lisa O’Meara have grown the organisation’s focus from NSW’s Northern Rivers to the whole of regional Australia. They talk to IF about working together to achieve that ambition.
I first met Lisa before I officially started. We went to a Gods of Wheat Street screening, held in Casino with the local community and representatives from Create NSW and the ABC. I knew that I was getting into something special because there was a real community feel. There was a drive and connection between people; Lois Randall who is a producer of Gods of Wheat Street but who was also chair of Screenworks, my predecessor Jill Mooney, and Lisa were all there. It was a real eye opener to see what I was actually getting into – it was almost like a baptism of fire to see something so big.
The first 12 months [of my time at Screenworks] were really interesting because it was about a month after I started that the 2014 budget took place and then Screen Australia cut funding to all of the screen resource organisations, which is how we saw ourselves at the time. In having that funding cut we had to make significant changes. I realised that this was going to be quite a challenge. Lisa and I needed to form a relationship to be able to take that on together.
The first six month of creating our relationship was really rocky (laughs). But it was really just the two of us at the time and we were thrown into a small room together. We were literally sitting one to two metres away from each other every single day for long periods of time, and challenging each other on a regular basis, trying to figure out “What are the problems?”, “How can they be solved?”. But once we started to get an understanding of where we could benefit and both support each other, that was when things started to fall into place.
Lisa and I have always been passionate about helping people and supporting people within their careers. Every single thing that we do is always driven by: how can we actually make real change in the lives of the people that we’re supporting?
When I first started it was Northern Rivers Screenworks and it was solely Northern Rivers-focused. Our vision was to build up people within the region to be competitive with people operating in metropolitan hubs. It’s always been about supporting and lifting people up, about building people’s skill base and capacity up. That same vision is still within everything that we do. We just do it on a bigger scale now.
Our relationship is a really strong relationship. To be honest with you, it’s kind of like a marriage; constant communication and having an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We’ve built up trust and respect over time and just kept on communicating, to the point where we talk about everything.
Over time, as the organisation’s grown we’ve had to change as well. We’ve needed to take on more leadership roles and help guide the team through what it is that we’re trying to achieve, and use our experience, expertise and our strength to help lead rather than just getting in there and getting our hands dirty all the time.
Both of us have had robust conversations about different things that we’re both very passionate about. What I love about our relationship is that we’ve both been able to convince each other on many occasions to come with the other person on a journey – or that the other person was wrong (laughs). That’s where it’s very much like a relationship, because there is a negotiation about different things that you both want to achieve within the time that you have. What has always been great is that we’ve both always been really flexible and able to pivot. That was particularly important when we were facing hard times with funding cuts.
What I enjoy about working with Lisa is that ability to sit down with her and get her perspective on things. Sometimes her passion will spark a fire in me and vice versa. If we’re both passionate about something that can just fuel a fire that can’t be contained.
What I admire about her is her integrity and her empathy for others, her understanding of what other people’s needs and challenges are and how they might be overcome. All of the programs that we run here are driven from an understanding of the needs of the people that we support.
Her ability to design and deliver industry development initiatives and programs is just first class.
When Ken first started we worked in a very small office environment. He had come from a slightly different background, so there was a lot of testing one another initially just to establish commitment, industry understanding and expertise.
But within six months we built a really lovely mutual respect for one another and we both felt really committed to supporting regional creatives in achieving their dreams. And as soon as that became evident, it soon became obvious that what we were doing had application to go further.
The thing that works so well for us is that our visions are really aligned. We both feel really committed to supporting regional practitioners; enabling them, empowering them to pursue their creative and career dreams. That’s where we connected.
When he first started I used to call him “the enabler” because he was so good with process, governance and so pragmatic.
Through putting systems in place, addressing governance and helping with resources, within six months we were able to achieve some really strong targets in terms of supporting regional practitioners and the people in our area. We set up three programs. [The first was] Inside the Writers Room, where we sent our local regional screenwriters to sit in the writers rooms of some of Australia’s leading production companies – that’s something that we’d been wanting to do for a long time. We set up our Regional Producer Elevator program: we were able to send two emerging early career producers to the Screen Producers Australia conference, connect them with mentoring and give them some money towards achieving their career goals, studying and professional development. Then within 12 months we set up the Directors Pathway Program as well. To be able to do that for people in the Northern Rivers was really powerful.
Then we started to realise that we had the opportunity to do it for regional practitioners Australia-wide. The first program that we did that was really powerful in that scope was the Athena Project. We brought in participants from all around Australia, women that were challenged with living regionally, women that were trying to get back into the workforce. We brought them together with Gillian Armstrong, Debbie Lee and Felicity Packard and had a fabulous few days supporting these women to get back into their careers. It’s made a difference. We’re seeing them out there actively working and reigniting their careers. That’s one of the most exciting things: to see those changes and outcomes, and see we’re making a difference to people’s lives.
We do collaborate a lot. We talk through ideas, we sound out ideas, we give feedback. I think that’s what makes Screenworks so strong; we do tend to interrogate what each other is doing in a supportive environment. That comes from the days of when Screenworks was small, and it was just Ken and I. We were both working in such a small office; we were pretty much sitting at the same desk. Everything the other was doing we knew about, because we were working so closely together.
We would collaborate a lot then, always sound ideas out with one another, get one another’s feedback and really test and interrogate our ideas before we put them into practice. That was really valuable. As we’ve gotten larger that collaboration and interrogation tends to be a little bit more formal rather than random because we’re no longer sitting at the same desk – we’re sitting in separate offices. But I feel sorry for anyone who comes between us because there is a lot of yelling down the [hall] “What do you think of this?”
What I enjoy about working with Ken is his enthusiasm and positivity. To me that’s really important because there are a lot of challenges that we face. We went through some really rocky times with funding. He’s always positive and visionary; not afraid to try something and really pragmatic too. He can just get in and make things happen in really practical sense. They’re really strong, great attributes to be working with.
An original version of this article appeared in IF #190 August-September.