WHAT IS POLITICAL THEATRE?

AiWeiWei

image credit: “Fuck Off” (2001) Ai Wei Wei

All theatre is political, due to the implicitly ideological nature of representation, and its relationship with the societies surrounding it. However, this notion of ‘political theatre’ as a specific aesthetic approach to performance has emerged over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and this essay will identify formal markers used in the process of critically reading and responding to the ‘political’ within theatre forms. These forms manifest across a matrix of performance content, in aesthetic and contextual aspects which occur as an event-based media. As such the ‘political’ attributes of a theatre composition are fluid, shifting even within the day-to-day presentations of a single production, as the relationship between the work and the society surrounds it is also subject to transformation. There are structural, societal and aesthetic systems through which power is disseminated, which date back to the origins of Western Drama right into contemporary theatre practice. Linking these systems to specific key works from Europe in the 20th Century; Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, a thesis will emerge regarding the ephemeral nature of political theatre as resistant to any formal or ideological boundaries, instead examining the context for these works as phenomenological spaces which bear a specific relationship within the cultures they inhabit.

To begin, it is important to acknowledge the limitations from which this paper must adhere. Cultural and ideological biases are inherent to the hegemonies from which this analysis of theatre takes place. The essay will trace the emergence of drama into contemporary performance practice in broad terms from Ancient Greece into Contemporary Europe from the perspective of a white Australian male artist. The essay must therefore recognise that notions of ‘political’ are contentious within the context of a colonised country, and limit commentary to reflect a strictly Eurocentric view, in order to develop a theoretical framework which can be applied to postcolonial and intersectional approaches to cultural, social and political theory and apply this framework to engage a geographically specific approach to political theatre for the Australian context. Without discounting the significant contributions made by First Nations Artists throughout the region to the field, the essay will not be discussing these factors directly, instead drawing parallels between the politics of European performance work to extrapolate an approach which is appropriate for the Australian milieu. There is no ‘general theory’ of political theatre, however this essay will submit that it is possible to gauge the politics of performance work through a matrix of phenomenological analysis, combining aesthetic, cultural, contextual and socioeconomic facets on a case-by-case basis.

The long record of theatre as a political instrument goes back to its origins in Ancient Athenian Society. As a major public event, theatre was a representation and reflection of the society which surrounded it, as such it has a fundamentally political aspect. Pavis observes that conflict and drama are inextricable “The life of the polis, the city is punctuated by conversations, wars and compromises” (233) and theatre operates to engage and understand (or denounce) the systems through which these events take place. War – that inimitable crux of political discourse, provides the subject matter for almost every major tragedy of the Ancient Greek canon, and as Aristotle states in his Poetics; the tragic form is “an imitation of an action, and the action is performed” (11). It is therefore inevitable that both politics and theatre be examined as phenomena, or event-based systems. War occurs as a result of political calamity, and tragedy proffers to imitate this such that the events of real-life may elicit some deeper truth by way of representation. Lehmann, observing Aristotle’s notion of anagnorisis conflates this ‘moment-of truth’ with the invariable unknowability of the cosmos (40) – a function of plot central to Aristotelian form – reflecting a much wider paradox which the intersection of theatre and politics locates. He concludes that if mythos is the framework, then “(representability) transcends the frame… by no means contradicts the insight that human reality can only be dealt with under the premise that it remains unrepresentable” (173). By accepting the impossibility of the task – the unfathomable breach between the reality of phenomena such as war and the limits of representation, it is then possible to identify where and how ‘political theatre’ takes place; as that gap must be filled in the mind of the audience. In the case of Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane, the ‘unrepresentable’ aspects of violence, the scale of which was unprecedented in their respective regional junctures, is found through formal innovation, that is: The aesthetic qualities of the work (also unprecedented) aim to represent the unfathomable horror occurring around them. Just as Sophocles left the bulk of the action occurring offstage, for Beckett and Kane, there is as much ‘meaning’ to the work generated in what the spectator does not see unfold as what they do.

This metaphysical tension between the subject and its depiction manifests several ways during theatre events and we can trace the dynamics of representation across the experience of the spectator. This journey begins before a play has begun, sometimes months or years in advance – theatres are cultural and socioeconomic systems whose survival is linked to the act of self-promotion. For example, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presented Waiting For Godot in November 2013, however the publicity for the show would have begun over a year earlier; audiences would have enjoyed the prospect of the iconic lead roles to be played by renowned actors also known for their participation in Hollywood action films. While the text and staging may not be greatly altered from its original iteration; the event of this performance, at a glamourous harbourside theatre in an affluent city is very different to one witnessed in Paris in 1953, a city still rebuilding from Nazi occupation and the aftermath of World War II. The STC’s own publicity celebrates the play’s notoriety offering something of a blithe understatement that the play “caused a lot of fuss” and as actor Richard Roxburgh (playing Estragon) more astutely observes:

“Perhaps more than any other modern play, it changed things. It re-imagined the very architecture of storytelling in theatre, and challenged all prior expectations of narrative, plot and dialogue” (2013).

It is this re-imagining which is central to understanding the spectator’s journey – sixty years earlier, the audiences’ expectations of theatre were as yet unchallenged. The formal reinventions which Beckettian theatre heralded could not possibly have been promoted months in advance because they remained unknowable. Therefore the relationship which a theatre event bears to the society which surrounds it is a key to the politics of representation, as Barthes observes these languages of creativity occur within historic circumstance and are thus conversant within a specific cultural framework from which the events take place (Pavis, 85). To offer a similar understatement in response to the unnamed STC publicist: for a Parisian in 1953, notoriety was nothing to celebrate.

However stringently director Andrew Upton adheres to the text, the choices behind presenting Godot in this specific manner are informed by the economics of managing a flagship theatre company with corporate stakeholder responsibilities to maintain, many of whom are indifferent to the philosophical implications of the work. But it is these philosophical implications – despite the very different historic and material circumstances surrounding this production -with which the hypothetical spectator becomes concerned. If we are to accept Adorno’s assertion that Beckett “obliterates the meaning that was culture” (Zazzali, 2016) – then context is moot, it matters not who performs his plays or where or when – only the space between the representation and the unrepresentable is foregrounded, in the mind of the hypothetical spectator, as they grapple with a confluence of events in an unspecified theatrical landscape “a road, a tree, a mound (etc)” (Beckett, 12). Aristotle’s mythos is eliminated in favour of a bleak and boundless reality. Beginnings, middles and ends are inconsequential, time is distorted and history is a few remnant scraps of dust scattered throughout the dialogue. These fragments are all the framework an audience has to position the work: geographical features put the players somewhere in Europe, occasional biblical references offer the possibility of some remote morality amidst a prevailing wind of abject destitution, suffering and violence – the scale of which was unprecedented during wartime Europe – history itself had become terminal in the eyes of artists who rejected conventional dramatic form (Jurs-Munby, 2006).

What, then, is left for the spectator to interpret? This paradoxical (in)action of waiting manifests as a variety of empty behaviours “distractions in the form of word games, play acting, and anything else that can divert their attention” (Zazzali). Further, the performance will generate a range of comedic gestures; passing of hats, boots, pants falling down, profanity and cursing all drawn from vaudeville and slapstick traditions (Frost, 2013) but arranged specifically as a deviation from the omnipresent looming violence and systemic hopelessness the play operates under. The events of the play oscillate between laughter and despair, and this constant flux of the human condition is what Beckett’s distorted reality purports to embody. With everything else in decay, we remain undeniably human, and the unknowable truth of our mortality is what Waiting For Godot offers its audience to consider.

In Brechtian terms, this process occurs through Gestus, which Mumford describes as a confluence of physical expression, a meeting point between the behavioural ‘self’ as a product of material circumstances (172). It is the locus of representation between performer and audience, however small or large, it is the means by which a theatre event unfolds. Walter Benjamin describes “this strict, frame-like, enclosed nature of each moment of an attitude, which, after all, is as a whole in a state of living flux, is one of the basic dialectical characteristics of the gesture” (3). For the characters in Godot these gestures and frenetic diversions result from the systematic violence they endure as a result their woeful situation. Arguably the suffering is universal as human experience, and therefore not in spite but by virtue of a lack of narrative structure, an impossible truth about human society is exposed. It is the absence of ideological explanation which endures – and recognising the experience of ennui which Beckett is representing without structural clarification or context; the spectator must make up their own.

Examining the STC production of Godot within this framework allows the spectator to situate the event across a matrix of formal, aesthetic and systemic hegemonies, to observe where along the spectrum it occurs as ‘political theatre’. The internal representational dialectics of the work as it resists conventional form gives audiences one axis from which to position their reading. It is a revolutionary play which marks a seismic shift in formal theatre aesthetics. Paradoxically, it is this very quality which has driven the work into the mainstream, and the production, while largely true to Beckett’s text, has a distinctly commercial relationship with the society and culture which surrounds it. As Zazzali notes, bringing Hollywood actors into the mix as a drawcard is something of an anathema to “Beckett’s refusal to partake in the culture industry”. This is not an isolated tendency within the company to co-opt politically subversive texts as a box-office attraction. As Hamilton argues of their vaunted production of The Maids in the same year, the use of celebrity casting is “a cultural development entangled in commodification” (2018, 445) and therefore upholds the hegemonic structures to which the work ostensibly intends to undermine. The protagonists were described as “too comfortable? Perhaps” (Frost, 2013) and this perhaps is the ultimate reflection on the socioeconomic and cultural milieu from whence this production came.

Understanding theatre as a phenomenon therefore means that the hegemonic systems in operation at the juncture of the event are inextricably linked to its reading. These hegemonies fluctuate, working across military, socioeconomic, and aesthetic systems in a variety of ways too complex to address in the context of a single essay. Foucault argues history itself has its own hegemonic structures delineating language systems, educational platforms and course content, through which the subject matter of this essay is no exception. As mentioned earlier, a discussion of ‘political theatre’ made at an Australian University which deals entirely with European content is entwined with semiotic systems which favour a Western perspective. To interrogate this question is in the realm of a privilege deeply rooted in patriarchal and colonial military histories with which Australian culture is still coming to terms. As Pavis observes: “the question is whether the theatre serves the status quo” (234) and this question can be applied to all manner of hegemonic systems. In the case of Beckett, what was a total disruption to aesthetic and formal convention in 1953, now serves the status of the European Canon and the prestige of those who seek to preserve it.

From within this cultural hegemony, and acutely aware of its implications, the playwright Sarah Kane emerged in the 1990s. Where Beckett’s dramaturgy offers expressionist landscapes where systemic violence is largely hidden but always present; Kane’s are expressly violent representations of militaristic power systems, framed without the aid of Aristotelian mythos. In the case of Blasted, bereft of context from which to locate the violence the spectator is left exposed like a raw nerve to the brutal legacies of war. The sexual violence is hyper-explicit, as are characters’ cannibalism, and a range of other horrific events which occur in a postdramatic framework  (Bicer, 76, 2011) – it is not intended to be realistic, but rather a representation of the violence which is real – finding form for the unrepresentable, to return to Lehmann. The playwright notes:

“For me the form did exactly mirror the content. And for me the form is the meaning of the play, which is that people’s lives are thrown into complete chaos with absolutely no warning whatsoever. (Bicer, 77)

The director Thomas Ostermeier observes her work resists both social and psychological dramatic systems but neither do they allow the director to “return behind the postdramatic horizon” (180). In phenomenological terms, Kane’s text upends aesthetic conventions so irreparably that his method, appropriating the “relentlessness” (17) of the everyday into ‘new-realism’, reaches such an extreme that systems of dramatic or postdramatic are inadequate descriptors. He adds “everything that has happened in dramatic literature between Shakespeare and Beckett and Kane has only been an aberration of bourgeois theatre” (181), an observation which implies (if little else) he regards Kane as the only significant playwright of her era. It’s a difficult observation to reconcile, given the categorical rejection Kane’s ouvre makes regarding systemic patriarchy, and representations of male violence across the theatre aesthetic canon and broader cultural media paradigm.

“Blasted and its deployment of shock provide an allegory in the role of proximities and boundaries in their figuration of the adjudication of sexual violence… the aesthetic argument is that the horrors of ‘foreign’ violence in the play feed back into the audience’s experience of ‘domestic’ violence in ways that demonstrate the artificiality of these boundaries” (Van Rijswijk, 114, 2012)

Eyes gouged, hands amputated, children eaten, these are not new events in the theatrical trope. But the violence is not tragic, it is not a part of a wider narrative or self-contained plot, it cannot be reconciled, equivocated or made into symbolic peripeteia. There is no grand revelation which it signifies. It simply is. The playwright is interrogating the perception of, and the dissonance which surrounds the narrative of violence, foreign or domestic; it is the very representation of this violence at issue – whether through ‘canonical’ narrative-based theatre or mass media news broadcasts – and Kane literally (and figurately) seeks to explode the cultural systems by which this process occurs.

It is notable that Australian theatre companies have shown a marked resistance to staging Kane’s plays. She rejects the status quo wholly, and the Australian performing arts sector has (at best) a fractious relationship with its place in colonial narratives and the violence implicit to them. A company like the STC, heralding corporate partnerships with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Commonwealth Bank, does not have the luxury of being unequivocal about the status quo; when such companies have a direct stake (via the logic of capitalism) in political and socioeconomic inequity of which colonial violence is a cornerstone. Their flagship venue partner, The Sydney Opera House, is sponsored by Honeywell; which also has contracts with the US Department of Defense and the Israeli military including drones and missiles used against civilians throughout the Middle East.

“the company describes its Jet Reaction Controls as providing ‘unmatched agility, maneuverability, and end-game lethality to tactical missiles and precision-guided munitions’.” (Quackenbush, 2014)

It is difficult to imagine how an Artistic Director might reconcile this kind of promotional copy with their own. Even the most self-interested and cynical artist might baulk at presenting Kane’s ardent conflation of ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ violence under such an overwhelmingly hypocritical circumstance. Should the spectator become aware that their production of the iconic play Blasted were sponsored by the very manufacturers of military hardware the author so vehemently eschews – it may, to borrow a phrase: ‘cause a bit of fuss’.

The spectrum of formal & aesthetic values of the ‘theatrical event’ pitted across a shifting socioeconomic background contextualising the society and culture within which the phenomena of theatre takes place suggests locating a generic ‘political theatre’ framework is not possible.  What is highly political at a premiere in Paris or London becomes less so if presented decades later at the edge of Sydney Harbour, the very site at which the unfathomably violent legacy of Australian Colonial History began. While we may learn from and borrow the aesthetic and formal systems from the European tradition; to continue them as if they are implicitly resistant to the status quo by virtue of their authorship– compounding the legacies of colonial violence by re-asserting European traditions as a canonical or structural certainty is naïve and insulting. Understanding and engaging with this violence, and our place in it is therefore the primary function of theatre as a political event, and one which therefore must incorporate First Nations perspectives as appropriate to the lands on which we would hope to stage a uniquely Australian Political Theatre.

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Aristotle 1996, Poetics, trans. M Heath, Penguin, London.

Aston, E & Savona, G 1991, Theatre as a Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance, Routledge, London.

Bakhtin, M 1928, ‘Literature as Ideological Form’ in P Morris (ed.) The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov, Edward Arnold, London.

Bernard-Donals MF, 1994, Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bıçer, AG 2011, ‘Sarah Kane’s Postdramatic Strategies in Blasted, Cleansed and Crave’, Journal of International Social Research, vol. 4, no. 17, pp. 75–80, viewed 10 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=70239589&site=eds-live>.

Boenisch P & Ostermeier T, 2016, The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier, Routledge, London.

Booker, C. 2018, ‘A particular thread of neo-Marxism took hold in 1968 and its outraged mindset is still with us’, Sunday Telegraph (London), p. 20, viewed 5 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=8Q3137735140&site=eds-live>.

Della Porta, D. 2017 Global diffusion of protest : riding the protest wave in the neoliberal crisis / edited by Donatella della Porta. Amsterdam University Press (Protest and social movements: 11). Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03332a&AN=uow.b2879033&site=eds-live (Accessed: 5 November 2019).

Dentith S, 1995, Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader, Routledge, London.

Feuer, LS 1960, ‘A Neo-Marxist Conception of Social Science’, Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy, vol. 70, pp. 237–240, viewed 5 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pif&AN=PHL1004888&site=eds-live>.

Graver, L 2004, Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot / Lawrence Graver, Landmarks of world literature, Cambridge University Press, viewed 9 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03332a&AN=uow.b2842775&site=eds-live>.

Ingram, D. 1999. ‘Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy: Continental Philosophy, Neo-Marxism, in Columbia History of Western Philosophy. Columbia University Press, pp. 721–730. Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=36086970&site=eds-live (Accessed: 5 November 2019).

Lehmann, HT 2006, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. K Jurs-Munby, Routledge, London.

Pavis, P & Brown, A 2016, The Routledge dictionary of performance and contemporary theatre / Patrice Pavis ; translated by Andrew Brown, Routledge, viewed 6 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03332a&AN=uow.b2372115&site=eds-live>.

Quackenwash, M 2014, ‘Badhoneywell makes its Nationwide Debut’, Truthout, published August 31, viewed November 7 <https://truthout.org/articles/badhoneywell-makes-its-nationwide-debut/>

Van Rijswijk, H 2012, ‘Towards a Feminist Aesthetic of Justice: Sarah Kane’s Blasted as Theorisation of the Representation of Sexual Violence in International Law’, Australian Feminist Law Journal, p. 107, viewed 10 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshol&AN=edshol.hein.journals.afemlj36.9&site=eds-live>.

Zazzali, P 2016, ‘Trying to Understand Waiting for Godot: An Adornian Analysis of Beckett’s Signature Work’, European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, vol. 21, no. 7–8, pp. 694–704, viewed 9 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsmzh&AN=2017390425&site=eds-live>.

 

09/12/2019 at 8:27 am Leave a comment

SAD REACTS ONLY PLS

Was going to write a response to Andrew Bovell’s latest family melodrama Things I Know To Be True down at Belvoir when this whole Playwriting Australia clusterfuck broke out like a rancid batch of facial eczema on the mouth of homegrown theatre. And it’s a tropical turdstorm unmatched since I can recall, leaving the industry reeling and playwrights apparently left to freeze in the wilderness like some noble but otherwise doomed Antarctic Expeditors.

While one cannot speak for all of us; I’m sure my sentiments toward the PWA Board and their touchy public attitude towards the current all-stop sinkhole of inept management shown in recent weeks may ring true for many, that is to say: Fuck This Absolute Shitpile With Your Open Fist.

But before I get to the crux, let us rewind a few months, when the PWA Directorship reins were handed to the eminent and respected playwright Lachlan Philpott under circumstances which in retrospect can only be described as puzzling. This is no disrespect to his suitability for the role, far from it, but given the comprehensive collapse of the organisation in such a short time – something was seriously rotten in Hickson Road before he had even begun.

The recent Artshub article described former Artistic Director Tim Roseman’s exit from PWA as “abrupt”, an odd term to use given his five-year tenure and all-round respect within the playwriting community he has built for the organisation. Roseman’s legacies include the steady continuation from inaugural director Chris Mead’s tutelage, a growing emphasis on promoting diversity within the sector, and a largely consultative method of working across the impossible tyranny of distance which the geography of this country will amply provide. A remarkable feature of the few times I was able to attend the National Play Festival was his approachable and generous demeanour, with a practical attitude towards delegation of decision-making processes; he let playwrights take the lead on the issues that were most important to them, provided the space to tackle some very complex problems and in essence, took us at our word as to the best way forward.

So when Roseman stood down from the AD position it was perhaps surprising for some, but not “abrupt” – five years or so is a decent innings for the contemporary artist, who, after all may have other ambitions; it seemed appropriate to pass the baton onto someone of Philpott’s demonstrable expertise in matters of craft. It also seemed like a bold operational move. Philpott as a writer has been outspoken in service to institutional reform and unafraid to stay in the face of controversial issues when they’ve arisen. At the time, it felt like a really positive step towards a peak body to be run by playwrights, for playwrights.

But that phrasing still haunts me “abrupt resignation”. Like something went on behind the scenes that wasn’t entirely transparent. Like he was pushed. The author of the piece Alison Croggon is hardly someone who minces her words, but it feels like a few pieces of this puzzle have been swept under the carpet. Another article intimates something of a “power struggle within”. I mean… fucking obviously.  You don’t get mass resignations and two patently qualified leadership positions made redundant unless there’s some Shakespearean-Level-Shenanigans going on. I mean we’re Theatre Artists – reading between the lines is our goddamn bread-and-butter.

As power-struggles go, there’s only a small cast of central players from which we can choose to lay blame. The PWA board is only eight members deep, including just three actual theatre artists: Andrew Bovell,  Angela Betzien, and David Berthold. The other five are various CPAs, lawyers and from what little we can gather from their Linkedin profiles, professional board members. You know, the type; they get installed to a theatre board in like 2017 and swan around at opening night guzzling free champers and hors d’oeuvres while congratulating themselves on how great a job they’re doing for everyone. I personally don’t rate this sort of thing, why companies insist to stack their boards with folks who until only a few years ago had perfectly good resume in the field of property management, or agricultural affairs or something. Sorry but who exactly are you “Sally Basser; Government and Policy Specialist” and what the fuck do you want with us?

Let’s rewind even further for a second to examine the George Brandis shaped elephant taking a massive shit in the corner of the room. Now I don’t know who appointed whom to the PWA board or why, but it seems like a pretty massive fucken coincidence that certain members of various boards only seem to pop up on the theatre scene since after the aforementioned pile of Steaming BrandisCrap™ got shat upon the performing arts sector at great velocity. There’s been a dark triumvirate of government policy, corporate meddling and cowardly obsequiousness from certain AD’s allowing the theatre game to become a sort of multi-award-winning joke, at which many have stopped laughing since the ‘Brandis Wars’ took place circa 2015. It’s been a dark time for artists, especially those in freelance or small-medium companies, as the rug and subsequently floor, walls and ceiling got pulled from everywhere around us. Major companies may do well to express “consternation” at recent developments in Australian Playwriting but for those of us left huddling under what was the only literal home for writers around the country? We’re fucking livid.

Because this is not some isolated set of misfortunes occurring at the only organisation dedicated to the support of playwrights at a country-wide level. It’s a symptom of a broad decline in the national conversation around what playwriting is and why it’s important. It’s a decline which has been taking place for decades and despite PWA’s role in many positive steps in asserting the significance of Australian Plays, this decline has been exacerbated by systematic abuse of funding powers, a lazy approach to public debate and criticism, and institutional mediocrity from publicists and MPA Directors cocooned by corporate sponsorship, advised by boardrooms who have next to nothing in the way of real-world theatre making experience, and cowed by subscription driven bottom lines which bewilderingly insist on middle-road adaptations of “classic” plays as their core business.

Brecht would fucking roll in his grave, right?  Do you think down at Company B they’re rehearsing some parable for the fate of the modern artist? Or is their flagship production a nice, comforting reassurance for their base about how I don’t know, climate change is real or whatever. I’m not convinced that Eamon Flack carries enough self-awareness to recognise his personal crusade of mastering “the classics” has probably contributed more to the alienation of Australian Playwrights than Brandis could ever have dreamt. And spare me your feeble rhetorical whimsy about how adaptations qualify as “new Australian plays”, it’s precisely that fuckery that’s enabled a vast undermining of artists who actually do seek to create original work, watching the Andrew Uptons and Tom Wrights and Simon Stones wallow in glory, hoarding the tiny amount of paid work to themselves with an endless parade of Chekhov & Ibsen rewrites  for the Australian vernacular. Piss on that.

Yep, I regard any non-artist on a Theatre Company Board with grave suspicion. It’s just too fucking convenient this takes place under their watch, this steep and devastating collapse of artist’s values, this erosion of trust, this whittling of the public conversation down to nil, that all that’s happened so smoothly while you’re sitting on the board of directors.

J’accuse – corporate finance motherfuckers – you have my attention.

Because here are some things that I know to be true: I stand with artists. And if you know anything about us, you wouldn’t have made the mistake of fucking up our shit.

TO BE CONTINUED

11/08/2019 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment

a poet, not a political

This is one of those plays that will reach out and grab you by the throat with it’s poetry, dominating all who come near it. You must submit, do not attempt to tame this creature, it’s a seething, heaving, snarling poetic leviathan with a diamond soul.

TCP-1

Julia Christensen as the mercurial Sally Banner.  image Bob Seary

The play is unique in the Australian landscape.  Contradictory, irreverent and with just a hint of lewd – it is rarely performed and as such audiences should not take chances to see it lightly. The New Theatre production is solid, the cast committed, and the play does the rest.  Much will be said around contemporary parallels with modern feminism, repression, war, socialism and cultural cringe.  I could rabbit on about the quality of performances, the primal simplicity of the set, the musical direction and chorus work. It’s all there for the picking and better writers than me (if they attend) will cover that comprehensively to be sure. Better still, go and see the thing, figure it out for yourself.

TCP-12

‘friggin in the riggin’ image Bob Seary

Instead I want to ask a question.  It’s a question I’ve asked before: some years back at a playwriting event in Rozelle.  It was the end of the day and a few working industry types were up on a panel discussing their favourite plays. One of those writers was Kate Mulvaney, who championed The Chapel Perilous with characteristic verve, as an important, powerful work (etc), a play she wished was done more often and, in a wink to the two gentlemen on the panel (who at the time held positions of influence in Sydney theatres, let’s call them EF and SS) suggested she hoped a major company would put it on soon.

Later the audience were invited to ask their questions.  My hand shot up:  “Why don’t people do Chapel?  Is it too hard?

My question was directed to Ms Mulvaney, but I was looking at the men on her left and right, whose faces sort of dropped like ice-cream cones on a summer’s day.  Of course they had read it, of course they had considered directing it, it would be impossible for them to reach their positions without knowing the work. The play lures all comers. But if you’re not worthy it will spit you out. Ms Mulvaney, in a cheeky stage whisper prompted the idea “because [Sally Banner] might be a lesbian” …  one wonders if there are enough pearls in the standard STC audience for clutching, and should we break out the emergency rations.

I can’t say for sure why Chapel hasn’t been done at any of our major theatres for the past twenty years (or more?).  You’d have to ask the men in charge.

Fortunately state-sponsored corporate theatre is not the only game in town though, and we have the jewel on show for a few weeks at least.  Get to it.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS by Dorothy Hewett, directed by Carissa Licciardello, featuring Courtney Bell, Alison Chambers, Julia Christensen, Meg Clarke, Jasper Garner-Gore, Brett Heath, Madelaine Osborn, Tom Matthews and James Wright, presented by the New Theatre April 25 – May 27th, 2017.  

07/05/2017 at 10:47 am 2 comments

CLOSE OF A LONG DAY

DISCLAIMER

One had taken a weblog hiatus for several months, after six years of digital criticism-as-performance, one had closed the curtain. One took no bows, asked for no applause. One had a mind to extraction from the sphere of ‘theatre criticism’ entirely (one does not wish to get bogged down in reasons why).

And yet one cannot refuse an invitation unto Beckett.

Always Beckett what drags one back. Beckett where it all began, Beckett what defies the critical word.

One does not simply write criticism of Beckett.  One simply absorbs and exhales.

And so, with some disclaim. This is not criticism. The purpose of The Fifth Wall was to bridge ideas (the work) and understanding (the audience). With Beckett, one might almost suggest the reverse dynamic is true. The audience is the work.

gloriousthing

image: Stephen Godfrey

METAFOUR

Rarely performed short-works by the modernist master, cheekily arranged with amusing (if silent) asides from the writer himself (one could almost describe this show as a retrospective).

I               QUAD

It sets an absorbing tone to the evening, built from a repetitive rhythmic and movement exercise it captures the driven day-to-day futility so prevalent in Beckett’s writing. His major works (Godot/ Happy Days) are famous for their ‘nothing-to-be-done’ approach to universal ennui. But this one is what you might call “boiled-down”. No music-hall comedic charm to gild the existential lily with these, just the yearning chasm looking back at you, prettily.

As the four players engage in the dance, it hypnotises and leaves one alone with one’s thoughts. Whatever one had brought into the room becomes the subject of the play.   So if you find it boring, that’s your deal.  What I saw was beauty within futility within purpose within colour within nature within a shroud. You might see something else. That’s how Beckett rolls, so settle in and you’re in for a treat.

II             COME AND GO

The most impenetrable of the works, made up of fewer than 130 words and iron-clad mixed-in-concrete stage-directions. Of the four works it predates the others by twenty years and as such one can say with confidence it is classic Beckett. We must see this to approach an understanding of all Beckett’s writing. We must perform it to know him better.  The cyclic elements, the pointless secrecy, the familial and Shakespearean allusions all hallmark what more educated critics might preclude in Beckettian semiotics.  Beckettesque?  Beckettarian.  Being less epistemic in one’s approach to dramatic form, one might call these people idiots. One does not simply use a made-up word to capture an entire system of dramaturgical thought.

III            ROCKABYE

This piece from the twilight of Beckett’s career is less ambiguously a direct closing of the loop between Birth and Death. Even the title links to sleep and the rocking chair motif extends across from infancy to the frailty of the very old.  The structure, with discrete visual and aural elements enhances the discord one imagines Beckett is reaching to inhabit with the work. It draws on his wordsmithery in that stream-of-consciousness technique made famous by Lucky’s speech in Godot.  But it is a severe error to assume the words are selected at random. The language of Beckett is steeped in linguistic pun. Words are chosen that may sound different in French and therefore set up unique meanings as one chooses to hear and interpret them.  He uses the technique throughout his canon, as in-jokes, entendres and question marks. Not always easy to spot, but crucial to his dichotomy of symbols. It makes listening to what one critic might call “unremarkable” – into a fascinating game of words and images.  Nothing is there by accident. Everything has its place.

One is reminded of an anecdote in which the two Irishmen Samuel Beckett and James Joyce happened upon each other. More likely Paris, but for the sake of imagery let’s say it was in some wintry pub in Dublin.  Over a pint of Guinness, Joyce asks the younger man: “How many words did you write today?”

Beckett, grimacing: “Well. Not a bad day today. I managed seven.”

Joyce’s eyes light up:  “That’s good, for you – seven. That’s very good.”

To which Beckett shrugs and says: “Trouble is though, I haven’t figured out what order to put them in yet.”

Never underestimate what Beckett is up to. Less is always Most.

IV            CATASTROPHE (For Vaclav Havel)

The three words in the subtitle/ dedication for this work tell all.  For the uninitiated, Vaclav Havel was a playwright in the former Czechoslovakia who was frequently kidnapped and tortured by the totalitarian government of the day (at the time of writing he was in prison for dissidence). He continued to write and became President after the fall of the Communist Party in 1989.

And so Beckett makes a powerful vignette about the artist vs visible power structures, not pulling any punches with parallels within the theatre context, as it represents the ongoing existential struggle of the individual prevalent in all his work. And for Sydney, Australia, here and now? It’s not quite Brandis 2015 but hey, not exactly far off, either.

Insofar as the Brandis Wars go, this production is crowdfunded excellence. The work is honest and true to the author’s vision. Straight-up and neat, a rare chance to see a 20th Century master in action.  You may not see its like again.  We suggest you go.

METAFOUR, By Samuel Beckett. Featuring Aslam Abdus-SamadBodelle de RondeGideon Payten GriffithsPollyanna NowickiSophie Littler and Victoria Griener. Directed by Erica Brennan, playing at PACT, Sydney until August 15th.

05/08/2015 at 6:36 pm 1 comment

NOT THE AUSTRALIAN THEATRE FORUM #ATF2015

Tonight at the Seymour Centre, an engaging talk awaits on “Art and Democracy”. It’s as broad a subject one might hope to transgress (short of “Some Things That Happen”), but this correspondent is greasing up his chops for some sparkling post-panel chatter.

This is in lieu of being able to attend the Forum itself, with only one-hundred independent spots made available (the rest are allocated for theatre companies) one might be forgiven for a spot of jealousy surrounding the semi *exclusive* nature of the impending series of talks over the next few days.  The delegates are neatly fit into three categories: 100 independent artists, 100 small-medium companies, and 100 representatives from the “Majors” (as well as a handful of industry barnacles, ozco junketeers and the occasional arts journo).

It should be noted that the author submitted to attend at the reduced “independent” rate way back in August or something, was refused with a slightly backhanded quip about “missing out on the opportunity to network”.  When one receives bad news and a clueless consolation one refrains from sending a nasty email suggesting that using the ATF as an opportunity to cosy up to the big players is COMPLETELY MISSING THE FUCKING POINT.

Before I elaborate – here’s a couple of thoughts.

Economics of scale aside, the number “100” is a feeble representation of the diversity and scope of our National Sector. There are thousands of independent theatre makers in Sydney alone. Tens of thousands nationally. For whoever is responsible for allocating these delegate positions is effectively saying:

“Here’s your national conference. Only 1% of you can attend. Enjoy.”

This number feels familiar somehow…

99% of our creative artists and performers left without a voice, without a presence, without a place at the national table. Is this good enough? Would we settle for 98?

It comes down to a matter of funding, of course.  Which is a matter of priorities.  And if the point of the ATF is a chance to network – then it follows that about 100 independent artists in attendance is about as much as the industry could bear. It’s not as though the eight companies filling their seasons could manage more than a few independent productions each year, so if *the point* of the ATF is to help these companies reach out to the smaller players then sure… the other 99% are going to have to figure out “Making It” on their own steam anyhow.

A conference of about three hundred is probably all we can manage for now, given these things are run on the whiff of canapés and the sweat of an oily volunteer. But what if the point of the ATF is not about schmoozing and junkets, but something else entirely. What if the point of the ATF is about figuring out who we are as a creative community, and concreting foundations for a more accepting, expressive, diverse and lively sector. If reports on last year’s event are anything to go by, this seems to be the more impactful raison detre of such a thing – the actual, real impact of developing practical ways to address cultural protocols within a diverse community.

Consider this. The eight or so major companies who are highly staffed and resourced, also have a range of platforms with which to engage with the theatre community at large throughout the year. Some of them, if they wanted to, could run their own four day theatre forum. If the people who run them really wanted to make a real effort to engage across the sector, and not just network with the people privileged enough to attend this kind of event, at a bare minimum, some of them, if they really wanted to, could join twitter.

It’s what I would do.  The word “Forum” even implies that this conversation needs to be bigger, more inclusive, more open ended. I’m not an historian, but did the Romans only meet four days a year? And yet there is no permanent place for this to take place in a meaningful, inclusive, productive way. Is there live streaming? Will there be podcasts? Is this Australia, 21C? I’m still waiting for answers on these questions from last year.

Notably, the ATF crew have made an effort to select the delegates based on a cross-sectional paradigm so as not to exclude specific cultural groups.  A good thing too – although this could lead to a kind of complacency around issues of representation. It would be churlish to think “oh we have a Muslim in the audience, a disabled person, a gay …(etc) therefore we have all these voices represented.” It’s not as though the gay writer goes back to all their gay writer friends and reports in.  It’s not like the UN or something. If the UN was gay.

Besides, defining people strictly by their heritage or queerness or gender is pretty fucking crass, let alone patting yourself on the back for your largesse in giving a brown person “the opportunity to network”. Good intentions are fine but no medal just yet, please.

….

So I just left the panel event on opening night and the vibe is pretty hot. Some really excellent discussion and a fascinating Keynote address which delved into the history of Indonesian Theatre and some of the aesthetic and radical choices being made in the name of resisting a particularly notorious authoritarian regime. The take home message is that Australian Theatre is not political, that we’re at heart a bunch of luvvies with a chip on our collective shoulder about being *good enough*. Meanwhile people are dying.

We’re gonna need a Bigger Forum.

sancz out.

20/01/2015 at 9:53 pm Leave a comment

PROBLEM CHILD

WOLF LULLABY
presented by the New Theatre, August 2014

There’s a lot going on in Hilary Bell’s deceptively simple Bedtime Mystery, not least of which the gripping plotline, but more importantly the questions the play brings to the fore about human behaviour. None of these are answered satisfactorily (if that’s your thing), or if an answer is attempted, it raises further problems.

The deepest questions touch on the vexed issues surrounding depression; with the potency of the “wolf” motif throughout looming just out of reach, just a stone’s throw from the more familiar image of the Black Dog found in the discourse du jour. For those who may have family, friends or who suffer from it themselves might find these kinds of symbols useful. In my case they are inadequate, only a partial representation of the “swallowing” effect a foul mood can have. For in the end, one is solely responsible for their thoughts and feelings, and especially the actions which may follow. The poetic image of the outside Wolf or Dog as a manifestation of the darkness we feel denies our own culpability and ability to control our choices. But that’s just me.

It may be that Bell is pointing to the deficiencies of questions surrounding ‘intrinsic evil’ (to borrow a phrase from the Currency House blurb), by framing it in an almost supernatural tone: were perpetrators of heinous crimes “swallowed” or possessed by otherwise inexplicable darkness would this exempt them? Or does this merely exempt us as a society from a tacit complicity in criminal behaviour?

This is the microcosm that the play presents, and the blame shifting that occurs surrounding the family and events of the play echo all manner of sophistry we might hear in the public discourse surrounding violent crime. The play is set in Tasmania and writ around the time of the horror of the Port Arthur shootings in 1996. It was said ad nauseum that was the day “Tasmania lost its innocence” (with the usual hand wringing speculation on the murderer Martin Bryant as “monstrous”). To set the record straight, this was far from the first of violent crimes committed in the area, it’s what we don’t talk about which is most revealing about the denial of our collective social conscience. I refer to the massacre the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and theft of their land by what amounted to the governing power in the day.

We as a nation are in the process of reconciling these crimes and I mention it in the context of this play because it relates directly to the notion of taking responsibility for our past actions. We may have committed them in the shroud of colonialism, a kind of formative cultural innocence – but we cannot deny them forever.

This production is aided enormously by the performances, and we will break tradition by examining the cast in some detail. The work they do is a significant element in the impact of the play, both drawing us in and repelling us to complement the script.

If you haven’t seen or read the play, plot spoilers may follow. It is at its heart, a mystery, so I recommend seeing it for the greatest impact.

At the centre of the piece is a nine year old child Lizzie Gael played by Maryellen George. Her portrayal is a conundrum, nearly pure innocence with flickers of childlike mischief belying the horror of what she is accused. When she refers to the “wolf” – it is a truthful fear of being swallowed up. More horrifying is that no-one wants to listen. This contradiction of guilt and naivety is a very nuanced performance that betrays the surface of childish simplicity.

The surrounding adults give almost no indication of a response to these cries for help. They will see her in the simplicity of appearances and facts. The eponymous wolf of her imagination is nothing to be taken seriously, instead they lurk and linger around the edges of what for Lizzie is the explanation they so desperately seek. The exasperation builds from the parents in the face of their daughter’s litany of explanatory secrets and lies. Lucy Miller and David Woodland give a truthful and moving account of this mounting tension and frustration and guilt shifting and eventual estrangement as they consistently fail to find an answer. Only in the final moments do we get a sense that the Wolf is real, with the darkness now consuming the parent as it did the child.

Peter McAllum brings his mellifluous vocal skill to the role of the Police Detective undertaking the thankless task of assessing the young girl’s guilt or innocence. The tensions in his characterisation – manifested from the early scenes where he’s almost bullying Lizzie inside a gaol cell, to their final scene where he’s far more soothing and gentle toward her, having taken an adoptive parental role (if not in officially, at least symbolically on behalf of the state) – capture much of what the play is asking us.

I don’t think there’s much value in the question most of this play’s commentariat seem to be drawn to about “inherent evil” and such. Reading the various responses and even promotional material surrounding the play it’s a recurring theme. Maybe there is such a thing, and maybe there isn’t. The debate will go on for years to come as it has for millenia past. More pressing, as raised by the rather frightening picture of the girl Lizzie taken away from her parents, and condemned to a life of confinement and misery – if an otherwise innocent child commits a crime – what can we do about it? Our systems of justice and rehabilitation in this context seem woefully inadequate.

This play is a dark path, but one worth exploration. Powerful performances highlight a difficult, compelling script and the play is as good as its reputation precedes.

Wolf Lullaby, By Hilary Bell, featuring Maryellen George, Peter McAllum, Lucy Miller, David Woodland. Directed by Emma Louise. Playing at the New Theatre until September 13th 2014.

26/08/2014 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment

Playwriting Festival: 1

Saturday June 14, 2014

I was privileged enough to duck across to the Seymour Centre for something of a unique gathering of playwrights – there have been a few similar gatherings over recent months and years but this was unique in the loose formality of the structure of the event, such that it enabled a much wider scope and was driven towards empowering the playwright voice.

To elaborate: separating this and previous gatherings is that non-playwrights were discouraged from attending. That is to say – certain industry folks who may have liked to come were asked not to prior to registration. I found this confusing at first but I retrospect it might have hampered the flow of discussion had known producers been present.

I say ‘might have’ – there is no way of knowing but this was very much about enabling the lowly playwright to have a proper chat, and regardless of their intention, someone with a position of programming power (or veto) might alter the course of discussion simply by being present. In any case the outcomes of the three-hour session should be published in some form down the track, so it’s not as though we were plotting a world takeover or anything like that. Much.

Another major difference was in the format. Rather than the set-piece of “established” industry writers helming a panel-style discussion (like every other writers’ event, everywhere), we were given the opportunity to set the agenda on the topics we each thought were important. A list of twenty or thirty sessions were compiled based on suggestions by the group, and those who found that topic interesting could split off into sub-groups for set half-hour chin-wags, or come and go between conversations as we pleased. It was a bit rough-and-ready but on the whole allowed for more robust and inclusive debates.

The sessions I attended included one about theatre-for-social-change (in fact I was able to host this one); followed by a dense chat about how we can engage in a constructive debate about craft and the hottest subject of the day by far – writing what we “don’t know”. Hopefully more comprehensive notes will be available but for the purposes of reportage – here’s the gist.

The Big Question for writers in 2014 seems to revolve around issues of cultural appropriation: when is it OK to write about cultures outside our own experience? How can we do this in an era so tangibly fraught with racial tension, systemic abuse of white-privilege and in some cases wholesale war-on-other? Particularly contentious is the question of Aboriginality. What can a non-Aboriginal writer do in terms of representing the Aboriginal experience in their work?

I don’t have all the answers but what I have been able to do is listen in to a lot of conversations about the nature of exclusion and vilification in Australia 2014.

I will say this. Aboriginal Reconciliation is not an abstract idea. It’s an ongoing process, and every day we must work at it in some fashion. As artists and theatre makers the onus is on us to bring it to the rest of the community through our work. Let me be clear: the process of Reconciliation is not a means-to-an-end, it is the end in itself. So rather than worrying about whether what we’re doing is right or best just know that we can’t do nothing. If we make mistakes (and we will) we must learn from them. That too is part of the process. And most of all – without putting too fine a point on it, whatever it is we do – just don’t be a dick about it.

With that in mind there are a few tips I have managed to pick up about the vexing issue of writing the “other”. Please be assured, I use the word advisedly…

Don’t let your character’s “otherness” be their defining characteristic. There is no singular experience of being Muslim any more than there is of being White. Think of your own life, would you like someone to define you by any one of these characteristics? “Oh he’s the mentally-ill writer.” It’s debasing, not to mention clunky and clichéd.

Nakkiah Lui wrote a very good account of how this kind of thinking can actually enable the kind of racism we are trying to be rid of. I feature in the comments section with diminishing patience but the upshot is that by defining “otherness” through the specific lens of white-male-normative paradigms, we will perpetually stay in this false binary logic of “us-and-them”.

There is a paradox at play here. Which is of course that Aboriginal Cultures do have a very specific set of experiences, through millennia of shared knowledge, familial systems, the time and place in which they are born, not to mention the acute dispossession of land (et al) suffered over the last two hundred and twenty-eight years. This are not things you can sort of guess about. So do the research. Find out the protocols, talk to the people about what you’re trying to do, be prepared for the fact that you might have it completely wrong.

While Lui’s point remains – let’s not define her work by her inherited culture – at the same time it’s not something we can just forget. So make your character Aboriginal if you want, just don’t make it all they are.

I saw Jada Alberts’ play Brother’s Wreck at Belvoir recently which crystallised a lot of the debate for me – it’s a tremendous piece of writing and a really well-made work of theatre – the core truths of the play are universal, yes it’s about a specific time and place, and the family it surrounds are Aboriginal and this is evident by various references in the dialogue (“blackfellas” etc). But the difficulties it presents for the central character could be the same as any young bloke. There is an epidemic of young men in Australia facing an inability to deal with grief and anger and this is something to which we can all relate. Yes it’s a story about an issue particular to young Aboriginal men. Or men in remote areas, or working class families. I have a brother too, and thus it could be me.

As such it’s a moving work that captures a lot of humour and tragedy of Australian life, acknowledging without dwelling on the characters’ heritage and background. “It’s all about the suburb you’re from” … says one character, cheekily mocking the middle class origins of the bloke opposite. In this moment we are shown just two refractions of the diversity of the Aboriginal experience. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoiling some of the play. All I can really suggest is try and catch it before it’s over.

I will try and write up about some of the other sessions I was able to catch a bit later on.

sancz out

16/06/2014 at 3:06 pm 1 comment

HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN NINE ELEVEN

WHY TORTURE IS WRONG AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM
presented by The New Theatre, June 2014

This 2009 post-modern farce by Christopher Durang features a highly sophisticated stupidity unique to the realpolitik of the U.S.A. – the venomous satire managing to out-do itself at every turn, ridiculing a world that already verges into calamitous absurdity. What more can be said to ridicule the kind of culture in which the purchase of aerosol cheese is a regular event? The play is beyond parody, veering between darker and darker shades of reality in all the colours of the nightmarish rainbow. Blood Red. Jaundice Yellow. Pustular Pink. Bourgeoisie Beige. Paranoid Purple.

The script is rife with zingers, clangers and WTFs. Admirably cast for deliciously over-the-top Yankee accents with soap-bubble portrayal of its slimy inhabitants delivering a mile-a-minute comedy with a lewd edge, shrewdly leading us down into the rabbit hole of bad-to-worse choices that seem to define the modern psyche of the U.S. Media cycle: Sex and Ammo, War On Terror, Axis of Evil Marching Band, Sarah Palin on Fox News. It’s worth noting the timeline of the play’s inception, post-Bush, post-Guantanamo, post-Abu Ghraib, the writer demonstrates a immeasurable disdain for the politics of patriotism and the rhetoric of war, acidly venting at the feverish media participation in the perpetual mythology of heroism.

Nothing is unscathed here, music, film and theatre jokes abound, slut-shaming, pornography, racial profiling, sexual violence, alcoholism all feature in Durang’s repartee. It’s not a play for the faint-of-heart, but rather one that rails in a delirious snarling bout of Theatrical Tourette’s. This production delivers with spades, folding in pop-culture motifs with the self-awareness of the script, like the TV-Studio set or casually visible vocal warm-ups between scenes suggesting a host of hidden ironies and inter-textual wit. You can spend hours unpacking all the subtle references and meta-gags at play, or just strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of outrageous and kinky myth-busting.

Dangerous writing, almost certainly offensive, and wicked. If you like Homeland, you’ll never look at it the same way again.

WHY TORTURE IS WRONG AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Melita Rowston, featuring Peter Astridge, Romy Bartz, Ryan Gibson, Terry Karabelas, Alice Livingstone, Ainslie McGlynn and Annie Schofield
Playing at the New Theatre until June 28,

07/06/2014 at 5:32 pm Leave a comment

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT PLAYWRITING, AUSTRALIA

Caveat: this is not a response to Jana Perković’s recent essay published at AustralianPlays.org, rather a post I have been thinking on and drafting for some weeks, now revised to incorporate some of the arguments presented there as they will parallel, contradict and crossover my own.

So here’s the thing.
Playwriting has a serious branding problem in this country.

Let us be clear. Within the performing arts world – nothing could be further from the truth. Outside the immediate community? Not-so-much. Talk to a non-theatregoing punter at the cafe or local gym and when you say “I’m a playwright” watch their eyes glaze over. Drop in at a Writers Festival, and check the percentage of theatre based events in the programme.

Not many, if any.

Even our very own National Playwrights’ Conference has shrivelled down to just a “Festival” of just a few days. Fifteen years ago when I attended it was a full two-week run of readings, workshops and forums, late-night talkfests and croaky morning coffees. There was an actual intensive Studio where any aspiring writer could pay a reasonable fee and spend a week refining their craft. There was even a talent show (I did “The Lorax” with no rehearsal in front of Australia’s finest directors and never worked again).

These days we turn up and by the time we’ve had a chance to introduce ourselves the thing is almost over. Everyone politely says their goodbyes and trundles off home in time for Masterchef. Whatever the outcomes, next week’s event will pale in comparison to the seeded friendships, passionate debates and drunken midnight passes made at playwright festivals of old. The culture surrounding these events is somehow more corporate, cleaner, dare I say afraid-to-get-its-hands-dirty.

Even the grungy hipster cousins to the mainstream events are leaning into a kind of industry-savvy paradigm. The same people on the same panels, modelled off a tried and true format of topical discussion, where a group of “experts” talk around the same subjects for an audience who are there to listen, and ask questions, not contribute. Top-down leadership, just like we were taught in school. Rinse, repeat.

Programming these events has become like a rote system, where anything unpredictable or out-of-the-box will be sidelined as too-hard-basket. Shunted to the graveyard slot, or worse, ignored in favour of a more popularly-cultured audience sensibility. Comedy Debates, Dating Shows and Spelling Bees at festivals devoted to Emerging Writers. So long as those emergent are in the audience, not on show…

The trend to pad out our festivals with high-profile-names belies the belief that we have what it takes to lead our theatres into a new era. It says deep down, despite the hundreds of writers and new works cropping up around the country, we need to be reassured by the lucky industry few that we’re doing OK, to pat our hands and say “you can do it”. These fawning invitations to speak on expenses-paid panels expose a nerve of inadequacy that is perhaps self-fulfilling. By defining our successes on the terms of those ahead of us we admit defeat to the status quo. For there is no success in the shadows of expectation.

Which brings me back to Branding, and That Article

The points raised by Ms Perković in this essay are many and varied, with each worthy of its own detailed response. I just want to allude to a few in the context of where I see the problem for our writers. I agree with some, am sceptical of others, and dispute the remainder – but on the whole, am glad to be provoked by her thesis. There is a lot more to it than this of course and I hope to return to the subject soon.

The first and most difficult premise is, as Perković states in section 5:
“Australian theatre is Western theatre and the dramatic text at its heart is a highly specific form, a product of socio-historical forces. “

Leaving aside the obvious rebuke about the Euro-centricity of this statement for one moment, it’s worth teasing out some implications here.

Theatre is not a language of words, it is a language of conventions; that knowingly or otherwise the vast majority of Australian playwriting falls within an historical discourse of creative form but in particular the industrial infrastructure which surrounds how and where we meet with an audience. For example the convention of the Apocalypse, met with such disdain, is a part of a chain of theatrical tropes that date back to Oedipus Rex or the pestilent City of Argos, through to Beckett’s scorched landscapes or the claustrophobic bunker of After The Fall. You will need to know all of these forms intimately before tackling that particular setting in your work. It’s why the example resonates, more often than not you’re writing in the convention of cliché.

This being said, Western Theatre is everything from Aeschylus to Albee – you could spend twenty years reading and not be fully informed on tens of thousands of variations in between. What Perkovic refers to are the dominant Western conventions, namely the tragic principles of the Ancient Greeks, the high farce of Moliere / Wilde, the realism of Ibsen / Chekhov, the return to the epic didacticism of Brecht and the loosely bunched absurdist experiments of Beckett / Kopit (et al). Not to mention Shakespeare.

These are layered conventions, each experiment driving the next. You need to understand the principles of Greek Tragedy before you can tackle Godot, and so on.

But more importantly, socio-historic forces are happening right now. Lest we forget there are active movements within Australia to re-shape the way we define ourselves, through Reconciliation, through acknowledgement of diversity and a broad shake-up of systems of democratisation, social justice and law-making. Cultural influence is not static, and neither are our systems of expression. For Australian Playwrights to sit and take-instruction from our past is to deny the potential of our influence on the future.

This is what I mean about our fear of irrelevance, our reliance on established systems to ensure our place. It’s heavily conservative, a desperate cry for acknowledgement from our cultural forbears. One only need glance at a list of leadership roles at our major playwriting institutions – almost every one has made their career in a country other than our own. This is not parochialism, it’s a fact – and one that influences every detail of our industry from the false neo-realism Ms Perković laments to the top-heavy systems of management our MPA’s lurch from year-to-year. Conservative Programming, conservative plays.

As I stated at the top of the article, we have a branding problem in Australian playwriting. The audience thirst for rich, original entertainment has never been higher. We’re educated, media savvy and cashed-up. But the public conversation about theatre says nothing about what audiences can expect. Look at the publicity on any current play – it will talk about what the writer is trying to explore or achieve, the actor’s names, maybe something about the director, it’s all inwardly focussed and frankly, audiences don’t give a shit. They want to know what’s in it for them.

When I look at the marketing for our festivals it’s the same. How can we expect to attract audiences when we’re so insecure about our work we have to constantly push how fantastic we are?

I dunno. Seems a bit… desperate for attention?

If we want to have people take notice of our work we need to be ready for them to be offended. This means stop advertising ourselves as beautiful, and start owning it. Perković really hits the nail on this when she talks about the Australian identity being trapped in the polite, especially in bourgeois circles.

I’m not saying we need to be rude, but… be ready for anything.

more to say on this later.
see you at the Seymour next week…
sancz out.

05/06/2014 at 4:30 pm Leave a comment

A BETTER ARTIST THAN YOU

SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, May 2014

Lucy Miller (the artist) as Galactia (the artist) photo katy Green Loughrey

Lucy Miller (the artist) as Galactia (the artist) photo Katy Green Loughrey


For those unfamiliar with Howard Barker’s work, it’s an unusual blend of narrative and image theatre into a stricture of social commentary and investigation. It’s not simply plotline-with-tidy-resolution to keep us in attendance until home-time. That is not the nature of his work. There is a story, and stakes are raised, and characters are tested – to be sure, but any ensemble presenting will be met with the severest of inclined text, each level providing steep challenges; layering complexity of language, subtlety in characterisation, clarity of metaphor, boldness of costume and design, fluidity of composition, philosophical reach, truth-seeking, wickedness in humour… The kinds of things one expects from a powerful night at the theatre.

On a technical level – these are the multiple competing texts found in theatre which make the form so compelling for artist and audience alike. A three-dimensional canvas of word, sound, voice, music, gesture and image to shift beneath such tectonic elements as plot, setting or character. The story is a cracker, but the challenge of the artistry is found in the underlying tensions in form, the convex mirrors enable its imagery to take on a kind of megalithic cultural significance. Objects may seem larger than they appear. A great play such as this is not merely a set of events, or a set of characters, or even a set of ideas; it is a blueprint for a visual and aural and verbal assault on the mind and soul of its audience.

To say “this is a good play” or “it is well done” is not enough. To say “I could have been better” is just shallow (disclaimer: one should announce when one auditioned for the play at hand, but was refused! Alas). Let us be clear – quibbling about issues of performance style, vocal technique or lighting design will be on the agenda for some, but amount to a selfish vindication of the critic’s role. We will not flatter the artist with a false praise either, but admire their ambition. There are difficulties in a play as complex as this. They can be overcome. The ensemble, on the night I saw the play, are still rising to the challenges of the language. It is a muscular script and demands slavish attention to enunciation, tone, rhythm, and detail. Nothing less will suffice or it will beat you down like a Greco-Roman wrestler with a grudge. Certain scenes are spectacular in delivery, others are still finding their depth and lustre but I have no doubt this will happen – such is the commitment of the cast. Let us not dwell but instead focus on a far more resonant concept – that of value.

“Value” is not an idea to throw around lightly in the arts – despite publicist’s best intentions it is not a well-priced ticket or the discounted laksa-and-a-show (for which the Old Fitzroy is famous) – we must abandon such pettiness (however delicious and affordable) when we speak of such things. Value for audiences is found simply because the art is there. We may value some art higher than others, we may see a particular work as representing a set-of-values and thus pass a moral or aesthetic judgement on it. Lord knows there’s plenty of that going on. But these amount to “I am a better artist” or “he does not occupy a prominent enough position” (and so on) precisely the point that Barker is attending; to engage with art one must seek value outside the frame as well. It is there, it is poetic, therefore it has value.

To extrapolate: the painting at the centre of the drama, one single frame, contains multitudes of values for its audience. It has value as a thing of beauty, demonstrating mastery of technique, and years of training one must undertake in the discipline. It has value as an historical document, capturing the moments of the battle it depicts, the pain and suffering of war. And it has value as a unique object, an individual expression of the artist, unlike any other.

That it is also imperfect does not matter. That it does not satisfy all the requirements for its entire audience does not reduce its value. If anything, the opposite, it inspires discussion, philosophy, it makes us weep or tingle as it dials into new paradigms. Imperfection is in fact art’s defining grace.

The controversy surrounding the events of the play are apparent when these values compete for prominence. Each character places a different weight on different aspects of the work, to the point where the artist is literally sidelined and we are left with a kind of clinical dissection of meaning, of the art-as-social-construct. Such as it is with an audience of fifty, at an opening night, with fifty sets of competing evaluations reflecting fifty people’s reaction to a particularly complex set of ideas and representations thereof. Look Further. In the face of a political evisceration of public funds for Creative Industry (see last Tuesday’s Federal Budget) – where is the independent, self-funded theatre sector on the scale of things-we-think-are-important?

Do we value something more or less when we know it is run by volunteers or those who are paid to be there?

Art is in fact so influential that political power will perpetually attempt to control and dominate its will. Yesterday’s Doge of Venice is today’s Board of Directors or Australia Council, slaving for their corporate sponsor masters, ensuring ______ is prominent enough in the frame, that ______’s friend gets a particular role. This is nothing new, the corrupt influence of the powerful over the artist has peppered history, even shaped it. Let us be adult about it. Even critics become notable because they are favoured by certain companies, reputations gather reputations and we celebrate fame while our most revolutionary talents die starving, unknown, ignored.

Through the annals of time we have become so obsessed with the notion of artist-as-philosopher-shaman we have forgone much of the value of the art. We are less concerned with the art than we are the personality behind it and as such the Value of art has suffered. Witness shrinking coverage in mainstream press. Witness increasing “profile” type coverage consistently replacing in depth discussion of context. Audiences will turn up to see a play purely on the basis that ______ is in it, and this is a perfectly acceptable corporate strategy to engage a significant box-office return.

PLAYS WILL HAVE LINES OR SCENES CUT BECAUSE THEY MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO THE POLITICIANS OF THE DAY.

Witness the Australia Day fiasco at the QTC just a few months back.

This is not Moliere vs The Catholic Church in 1664.
This is not Diego Rivera vs the City of New York in 1933.
This is Australia 2014.

And art is still being consistently devalued to the point of simplicity, a transactional tool for profit. An apolitical distraction for the masses. But as the play aptly demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

If you have any doubt about this please engage with the discussion below. But first, go and see this play. It’s a brutal, sexy, and confrontational mud-wrestle between art and language, with some of the most visceral and funny dialogue on offer. It’s not perfect, but who cares, it’s a rare chance to see and hear one of the great moderns in flight from one hell of a cast and as a great man once said: “the supreme vice is shallowness. Everything realised is right.”

SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION by Howard Barker
presented by Tooth And Sinew and SITCO
directed by Richard Hilliar, featuring Lynden Jones, Mark Lee, Peter Maple, Brendan Miles, Lucy Miller, Katherine Shearer, Jeremy Waters and Nicole Wineberg. Playing until May 31st at The Old Fitzroy Hotel

FURTHER READING
The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock directed by Tim Robbins explores the history of art and political censorship, including a fictional account of the Musical of the Same Name and the aforementioned Diego Rivera scandal in the City of New York.

See also PEN International http://pen.org.au/ an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression and which lobbies for the release of imprisoned writers and artists worldwide.

16/05/2014 at 4:07 pm Leave a comment

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