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.


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.


‘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



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.


image: Stephen Godfrey


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


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


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


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.

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


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

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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