Paul O'Byrne: LA brings about a sense of optimism

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Like many Australians, Paul O’Byrne relocated to Los Angeles from Sydney after following a “sense of adventure”. A senior creative entrepreneur, Paul helps companies conceive, lead, deliver and evaluate major change programs, turning business problems into long-term assets.

Formerly working as the Director of Community & Corporate Partnerships at the Sydney Theatre Company, Paul helped realise the dream of then Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, a US$4m transformation of a historic wharf on Sydney Harbor. Planning only to set off for just a couple of years, Paul has now happily established his life in LA and has no plans to leave any time soon.

Any creative Australian expats considering making the move to LA take heed: Paul dispensed some invaluable advice for living in the City of Angels, including his favourite ways to spend downtime, how to dispel stereotypes and the best way to make driving on those infamous freeways seem less intimidating.

What drew you to LA initially?

It was really a sense of adventure that drew my husband and me to LA. It was, I was about to turn 50 – which some might call it a mid-life crisis – and we decided that we wanted to have an escapade. And so, we planned to set off just for a couple of years. That was the initial idea, anyway!

And so why LA?

My husband worked in TV so it made a lot of sense for us to go there. I'd also been to LA a couple of times the year before and fallen in love with it, plus I'm not very good in the cold weather! It seemed like a perfect middle ground, and it's basically one flight to everywhere – a huge advantage.

Was it hard to leave your position at the Sydney Theater Company?

It was. We had an amazing time and under the leadership of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, it was a golden era. We did a lot of really great things, from environmental sustainability to social impact to innovative corporate partnerships; but for me, it was time to move on to the next chapter in my life.

What are the most important things that perspective expats should know before they move to LA?

I think the most important thing about LA is to just get out and explore. You can easily just stay in your own little neighbourhood; places such as Venice, West Hollywood or Downtown, but there is just so much out there to explore, and I think you've got to just jump out and get amongst all the incredible villages that LA has to offer.

Driving in LA is a daunting concept! Was it difficult to master?

I definitely had a first week of being white knuckled while I was learning to drive. About three weeks after we moved, we drove from LA to Canada, where we were easing ourselves in on country back-roads, so then coming back to LA wasn't too bad. But even still now, getting on a freeway at night and going from zero to 65 miles an hour in 5 seconds is always a little bit terrifying.

What does your current position at National Arts Strategies involve?

I am a senior consulting director, and the role has three parts. The first is guiding clients through a strategic review and planning process. The second is opening up new relationships with clients on the west coast, and in some instances, internationally, which involves tapping into my arts and culture networks back in Australia and in the UK. Lastly – and it always comes back to this – fundraising and revenue.

Is there anything you learnt from the Sydney Theater Company that you’re applying to NAS?

The risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit that Cate, Andrew and Patrick McIntyre really instilled in the DNA of the STC was really formative. It was also a demonstration that the arts and culture sector can influence certain things like climate change or social impact. A lot of people have said to me that moving to the States and into a different work environment was going to be a complete culture shock but the transition has actually been quite smooth.

What are some parallels between cities like Sydney and LA?

Both are creative hubs, so a lot of creatives gravitate towards those cities. The climate is an obvious one and I think that it really brings about a sense of optimism. Looking out the window and seeing blue skies – you can’t help but smile! The amazing thing about LA is that people are incredibly polite and there is very little road rage, contrary to popular belief! I find it a very easy city to live.

Are there any other misconceptions about LA that you’ve noticed?

I think all the stigmas of LA stem from the optics of Hollywood. It’s a city of 20 million people; it's incredibly culturally diverse and those cultural pockets run very, very deep. For instance, Korea Town has the largest Korean population outside of Seoul. I find that diversity really interesting and Hollywood is just a tiny little pocket, but a place that sucks up all the oxygen in terms of the media.

Perhaps 30 years ago, everyone may have been working in the entertainment industry but now there are many people are coming here to work in many diverse industries, such as food innovation, social enterprise or gaming – a lot of tech is moving down from San Francisco. I think LA has an incredibly bright future, certainly leading up to the Olympics in 2028.

After a tumultuous 2017, is the culture in the entertainment industry in LA, one of empowerment or one of unease?

I wish I had an answer but because I don't work in that field, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, the feeling in LA and across America is one of change, and that change can happen if a few powerful people stand up and speak out, and I think that's incredibly exciting for women the world over. And that’s empowering.

When you were working for the STC you were privy to amazing Australian actors and actresses that were making names for themselves. Do think that LA is a really necessary step to 'make it’?

Without a doubt, Australia has a very rich cultural ecosystem that fosters incredible talent, and I think that the really talented people are curious about what's on offer around the world. But I think the really interesting thing about LA, is that there are so many industry crossovers that are possible here. You can do TV, you can do film, you can do voiceovers for gaming, you can be in lots of different things, and I think the collaborations that happen here are particularly appealing for young creatives.

Is there anything that you recognize Australia doing really well in your industry or otherwise?

I think Australia is doing a fantastic job with social progression and equality. Especially after the recent voting in same-sex marriage, the country is demonstrating how progress can happen and that people want it. The work that is being done in Australia to empower indigenous people, the work that has been done around disability, the work that was done around education and creativity in education, there is so many great things about Australia, and I think it goes about it quietly and gets the job done regardless of the government in power.

Do you make back there often?

The first year we were here we went back four times, the second year, twice and this year, I went back one time, so it really just depends on what we have on. Now that same-sex marriage has been legalised, there might be a deluge of marriages, so I might be going back multiple times next year!

What are your favourite things to do in LA?

I'm a keen hiker so I love going out and exploring California. One of the first things I did when I first arrived was a wilderness training course that taught me how to survive in desert and snow and with bears and everything else – not that I think I would ever survive with a bear! That was really fantastic because it opened up the incredible riches of California and the diversity of its landscape. We have an incredible desert, Joshua Tree, just two hours away, and Yosemite is five hours away; there are so many incredible things to explore, and I love that.

Do you plan on staying there for a while? Is LA very much home now?

We love it here. I think we will be here for another three or four years at least and then we will see, but we really miss our family and friends in Australia, that is the hardest thing. But apart from that, we are still having an adventure and we decided that if we stopped having fun, we will go home.