SA Weekend: Nick and Sophie Dunstone put $10m of their own money into “big crazy plan” to transform live and artistic performance

SA Weekend: Nick and Sophie Dunstone put $10m of their own money into “big crazy plan” to transform live and artistic performance

An Adelaide couple has embarked an a radical plan to transform the future of live performance through the use of LED and hologram technology, where you could “feel like you’re able to see Radiohead, with 200 people in a room”. And they’re using $10m of their own money to bring their vision to life in a building in Light Square.

It’s also not as far-fetched as it sounds; when Swedish pop legends Abba released their first album in 40 years in late 2021, they announced they would play shows this year, as holograms of their younger selves. A hologram of Frank Zappa also played a sold-out show in New York in 2019, and a hologram of Whitney Houston was a hit in London and Las Vegas in early 2020.

So what could it mean for South Australia?

Nick Dunstone admits it’s a “big crazy thing”. Maybe even a $10m gamble. But it’s a price he and wife Sophie Dunstone are willing to pay to bring something that they view as transformative to Adelaide.

“You have to accept when you’re doing something new that’s pushing the boundaries, that there is an element of risk,” Nick says.

“And it’s hard at times. But the flip side, or the other side of the coin, to creativity, is risk.”

What we are talking about is Light.

It opened in February last year in the middle of a global pandemic as a combined hospitality and arts venue, with the aim of delivering to artists and performers the opportunity to use cutting-edge audio and visual presentation.

There is $1.5m in LED screens alone in the venue.

The $10m set-up cost has come from the Dunstone’s own pocket, and Light is run as a charity. The ultimate goal is for the hospitality side of the business to fund the artistic.

The 48-year-old Dunstones are dreaming big. Sophie Dunstone laughs and says maybe it’s “blind naivety or optimism”.

“We had to take lots of risk to set this up and get it going,” she says of starting the venture during a pandemic. Even though, she says, Covid was part of the reason why Light was started.

“Because we knew people would be struggling, particularly in the arts,” she says.

There are now discussions underway to start similar operations in other Australian cities, as well as London and Austin, in the US.

Nick says technology such as used at Light will change the future of performance. He predicts eventually technology will advance to a stage where music lovers will come to places such as Light and watch holograms of some of the biggest bands in the world performing live, beamed in from elsewhere on the globe.

“The future will definitely be hologram technology inside those LED spaces that will bring those artists to life,” he says.

“So you feel like you’re able to see Radiohead, with 200 people in a room.

“And then you know, you’re moving and you’re physically connected with each other as an audience, having a very visceral connection with the technology because it’s all around you, and you’re standing 10m away from (Radiohead lead singer) Thom Yorke.”

The venue is in Light Square in the city’s West End and housed in what was a neglected building that has been around since 1880 and has collected a colourful history as a tobacco warehouse, a brothel, a gym and as squash courts.

The Dunstones are Adelaide-born and raised but returned to the city in 2018 with their four children after 20 years of living in London, Sydney and Hong Kong.

It is clear they have done well for themselves.

Sophie works as a clinical psychologist, while Nick is a partner in a Hong Kong company that specialises in corporate reconstructions.

Essentially, it means they take over companies that are struggling and try to turn them around and sell them for a large profit.

Despite working in what Nick calls the “sharp end of capitalism”, he defines himself as “left leaning”. He was interested in philosophy and politics at Adelaide University before studying law.

Nick and Sophie, who met in their first year at uni, also sang in choirs. Nick even had a crack at being a pop star.

He was in a band called Wishbone, singing and playing guitar, when it won the SA edition of the national campus bands competition, beating the now international superstar Sia Furler into second place.

In the national final, Wishbone came second to Jebediah, a band that has enjoyed national success and is still performing.

But Nick came to the conclusion that while he was “having a great old time” playing and touring, and the band was being played on Triple J, it wasn’t a sustainable way of life.

“I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my life for my art,” he says. He looked at other bands, the ones that were headlining shows or being played more often on the radio, and decided they were “no better off” than his band.

“They were staying in the same motel, eating the same shit food, and you go “so that’s the rung of the ladder that I’m aiming to as a golden success?” “And it ain’t really materially different.”

The love of music never really left him. When he was travelling and working in places such as London he would often go to concerts, and eventually the genesis of an idea took hold. It occurred to him that touring for big bands had evolved into mostly playing in 50,000-seat arenas. That was just economics, but some of the connection between band and fan was lost in such a vast crowd.

“The artists weren’t very happy, the punters weren’t all that happy, but they were there to take selfies. And so the whole industry sort of comes to be kind of weird in some respects,” he says.

On the other hand, while small venues were more intimate, sight lines could be awful and sound quality not all that good. He also thought that all the setting up and then dismantling of those giant stages was a terrible waste of time and resources.

“So what if you had permanent, really hi-tech infrastructure and you put it in an intimate space, and you utilise the best of the emerging digital technologies to be able to create wondrous experiences that really will augment the performance?” he asks.

Nick and Sophie returned to Adelaide as their eldest two children moved into high school. Nick is still a partner in the Hong Kong-based Asia Research and Capital Management and before Covid closed the world, he was commuting back and forth.

“Adelaide was a perfect place to give our kids the chance to grow up in the environment that we grew up in,” he says.

But he also says he sensed a change in Adelaide in the years since he and Sophie had left.

“I would say Adelaide’s level of dynamism in the last five to 10 years, our sense was that it increased dramatically. And that it would become much more of a young person’s city here than it was when we were growing up.

“There was a sense of rejuvenation about Adelaide as a place to be … and not just to retire to, but actually to be creative, to be dynamic; and that it’s our city, it’s a young person’s city.”

Nick says the idea for Light came out of Covid. That in the middle of the pandemic, “people were crying out for hope”.

Sophie says as a clinical psychologist “my natural interest is in people and looking after people and understanding how to support and help people”. In London, she worked with youth offenders and in disadvantaged areas. She believes those who have done well in life need to put back into the community.

“I do think that those of us who have been super lucky are obligated to provide opportunities for others in our community because essentially, that sense of connection and engagement and being a part of a community is what gives meaning and purpose in life,” she says.

The couple has four children, Oscar, 18, Georgia, 15, Matilda, 13, and William, 9, but Nick says the point of money is not to create great “estates” to pass on to the next generation. He says his life in high finance has exposed him to the downside of having pots of money.

“I have seen wealth, extreme wealth in my working life, extreme wealth, and I’ve even seen moderate wealth, and it never does any good to the family. So I’ve seen that being more often a destructive force,” he says.

“I’m not talking about money to be able to look after kids and send them through uni and school. I’m talking about whether there’s enough wealth that they don’t need to do anything, they just want to inherit the business.”

What he wants for his children is to “create their own thing. And get the personal satisfaction that comes from being in charge of yourself”.

Before Light, the Dunstone’s first foray into philanthropy was to establish a fund to send under privileged children to Pembroke, one of Adelaide’s most exclusive and pricey schools.

Light has been a flurry of activity during the Adelaide Fringe, hosting shows most nights. There have been 100 shows in the past 12 months, but Covid has made it tougher than the Dunstone’s expected. “Hospitality in the city has been smashed, arts have been smashed,” he says. “When we started it, obviously Covid was in existence, but nobody expected us to experience the last 12 months.”

There has been a $200,000 grant from the federal government’s RISE fund, which will be used to pay artists to perform at Light, but Nick says the idea in the long-term is for the venue to be “a self-sustaining arts project unshackled from the vagaries of government funding and philanthropy”.

“It’s a f–king massive dream that I can tell you is really, really hard, but that is the ultimate dream that Sophie and I have.”

Light includes the Aurora restaurant, Little Mission coffee shop, Beags outdoor bar and The Lab.

The Lab is the performance space which has 50 sqm of LED screen. The Lab is also hired out for commercial use it has hosted a variety of company launches, and the idea is that the revenue from those businesses fund the artistic side. It can be used for board meetings and uni lectures. It’s even been home to “immersive” dining experiences.

Nick says the main purpose of The Lab is to encourage artists to find new ways to incorporate new technologies in performance.

“I’m convinced that the tools that we’re experimenting on are going to be the tools that artists will need to use for future experience,” he says. “You can argue whether it’s going to be five years or 10 years, but the wonder of this technology is not to take away from an artist performer and a grungy band room, but actually to enhance their capacity to engage and to story-tell. It’s the way of the future.”

The word Nick often uses is “immersive”. That you are not just looking at more screens, you are surrounded by then, almost part of them. He calls it a kind of “collective virtual reality” but with one important difference.

“In virtual reality, you’re very isolated,” he says. “The power that you have when you’re experiencing something together with other people magnifies the experience and the learning from that process dramatically.”

Another performance space is being developed on an upper level and another bar is in the planning. Nick is also looking for others to come onboard with funding as he takes the idea of Light global.

There is also a need for another $10m to continue to build Light’s money Nick wants to come from a combination of philanthropic donors and commercial capital.

The Dunstones have already won the Emerging Philanthropy Leadership Award from Creative Partnerships Australia, an organisation that aims to foster investment in the arts.

Nick says he will be looking for other corporates or individuals to invest, but not based on the idea they will make a financial return from the money.

One of the things that we really rely on is that people that want to co-invest with us, or come on board with us, have to recognise the philanthropic and the social enterprise nature of this is not about a primary focus on making money,” he says.

But, he believes, there are companies out there who believe in investing for the social good, sometimes before the profit motive. Although, as Light is a charity, donations are also tax deductible.

Nick says he wants Light to attract people from all over Australia.

“I think this is going to be truly seen as the creative epicentre of not just Adelaide, but also as a recognised creative centre of significant value across Australia,” he says.

“We want to be a reason for people to come to Adelaide beyond just food, but actually come and have the culture and the arts, and have something they can’t experience in Sydney and Melbourne, which is an immersive performance.”

If the Dunstones pull off this “crazy big thing”, and it already employs 65 people, they will leave a significant mark on Adelaide. But Sophie says it’s not about leaving a legacy.

“I’m not sure Nick and I are very much into legacy, but we just really are into engaging with people and providing opportunities that they might not have otherwise had. And that is more important for us than the actual legacy aspect.”

Read the full article by Michael McGuire for SA Weekend here

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