Monday, April 15th, 2024 #MEAAEquity News
MEAA Online

MEAA’s Federal President Michael Balk talks about his life as a performer and the path that has led him to his new role.

When a young Michael Balk gave away university to pursue a career as an actor, his parents were not amused.

Balk was two years into an arts-law degree at the Queensland University of Technology when he decided he wanted to follow his dream of performing full-time. He waited half a year before plucking up the courage to tell his parents.

Two decades later, the gamble has paid off and his parents have become reconciled with his career choice, which also led Balk down the path of activism in his union culminating with his recent election as MEAA’s new Federal President.

One of two boys, Balk says he learnt music and acting as a child in a supportive household on a cattle property on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, but it was an uncle who worked in the screen industry who encouraged him into the industry as a young adult.

Although he has experienced the common ups and downs of the life of a freelance performer, Balk has no regrets about his choice. He says he has always seized opportunities when they have presented themselves.

“In the arts, you have to be opportunistic,” he says.

“When the wind blows in a particular direction unless you’re attached to a project, it’s probably wise to fill your sails and head down that path. And I think that’s why I’ve worked so much. I’ve been very open to taking the path of least resistance.”

First break

His first break was working on a Hollywood produced war-action film being shot on the Gold Coast called The Great Raid. He played several small roles, and the experience also allowed him to see up close how a film is made.

While he loves working on stage, most of Brisbane-based Balk’s career has been spent in front of a camera.

For the past decade, he has mostly worked in children’s television on the popular series Dirtgirlworld, which continues to screen in about 100 countries, and a spin-off, Get Grubby TV.

Balk’s involvement in in MEAA traces back to his earliest days as a performer, and again he credits his film-maker uncle Philip Hearnshaw for instilling union values in him.

“My uncle, who worked and lived in that world of story, thought that I had the talent and probably the constitution to stick it as an arts worker.

“And one of the first things that he gave to me when I left home, was a collection of books that he recommended that I read, and one of them was an Equity handbook.

“And part of that conversation led to if you want to do this professionally, and you want to be taken seriously, you need to be a member of your professional organisation.

“And that was the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance … In hindsight, joining the union was the best decision I ever made as an arts worker.”

It was not long before Balk had to call on the union to help him in pay and contract disputes.

From there he became active in the union almost without realising it.

He first joined the Queensland branch committee, then was elected Queensland Equity President, which gave him a seat on the National Performers Committee.

In 2020, he was appointed Queensland representative on the national MEAA Board to replace his good friend Jason Klarwein, who had been elected Federal President of Equity.

When Simon Collins decided to retire after eight years as the union’s Federal President, Balk was again encouraged to run for the position.

He credits several Queensland performers, including the late Carol Burns for mentoring him as a union activist.

“It’s funny, reflecting on the trajectory of my union activism, at the time I didn't notice that it was a trajectory. It was all very organic.

“But yes, I was probably earmarked by a couple of my colleagues or comrades, and may have been nudged in a particular direction, but I had no idea at the time … and I don't feel like it's been that long, or that much distance covered between me being a delegate in Queensland as a young performer, to now.”

Ambitious future

Balk takes over as Federal President at a time when the union has articulated an ambitious and expansive future.

But he says it is also important for him to maintain continuity of the stability built during Collins’ time as Federal President.

He is excited about the union’s future potential and involving its 16,000 members in achieving that.

“With a strong membership, and growing numbers of members, we’re going to start to be able to tackle things we’ve never even dreamed of.

“I’m very confident that there is a direct link of impact between the work we do and what happens in our communities. So as storytellers, I think we can start to be a bit more bold in the strategies we take.

“Because what we do in our workplaces, it actually affects and impacts our community. And if we get it right, it has a positive impact.

“We’ve got a strong leadership team, we’ve got a growing union membership. And with clear strategy and good execution, anything is possible in the next five years.”

Recently-retired MEAA Federal President Simon Collins.

In the immediate future, the union is grappling with how to deal with the rise of Artificial Intelligence, which Balk says will impact on every corner of the media, entertainment and arts industries. He suggests AI is not necessarily “a death sentence” for the creative industries.

“AI is a challenge because we don’t quite understand it yet. No one does: it’s a new world.

“This union is very alive to AI, we are working across our sections and with other stakeholders in industry to get a good understanding of what AI is, how it is being used, how it could be used, and what will impact us if we’re not aware of it.

“So while it’s a challenge, it’s not going to blindside us, we’re on the front foot.”

Still in his early days as Federal President, Balk is keen to get around Australia and meet as many members as he can across all sections. And he will not shirk from encouraging non-members to join their union.

“The question I’ll often be asked is: What does the union do for me?

“Well, I could list you 100 things the union does for you. But that’s not the most powerful part of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance. The most powerful part of what we do as an organisation is what the members can do for … our industries, and for our communities.

“And that’s ultimately why I’m a member. It’s to affect change and have impact in the world that I live in.

“And if anyone’s on the fence about joining, know that the more members we have, the more power we have, the more impact we have.”

He is keen to break down any remaining barriers between different sections of the union so that members can work together for change, regardless of their actual job.

“We’re all in the business of story,” he says.

“And there’s nothing more powerful than a well told story.”