Harry Potter in Nude Horse Play
This is a two-part post looking at the culture of theatre programming and production in the context of the recent debate around gender inequity. I made a post here recently describing the clear imbalance as a symptom of a much wider issue in this industry – that of nepotism. The more I think about it the more I can see this is everywhere – and it is something which impacts the development of the craft on a global scale (I’ll leave out judgement on whether this impact is positive or negative). The fact is the culture of favours granted through personal intimation is so ingrained in the arts community you cannot avoid its reach. In the coming days I will be examining this in detail, beginning with the question that was the catalyst for a national debate. Who gets to put on shows and why?
‘On Merit’ pt 1: Celebrity Direct
Internationally over the last few years it’s ever more fashionable for well-known actors to establish their chops with legit theatre work. (I use the word “legit” broadly, as my cheap tabloid headline might imply). The movement between film, television and theatre is a tradition of show business but never before has the relationship between the west-end, Broadway & Hollywood been tighter. At home, the mainstream audiences might not make quite the same distinctions; but all the same Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Stephen Soderbergh and Liv Ullmann are all established international artists given the reins to direct at the Wharf, and we’re seeing established actors of an ilk as William Hurt, Hugo Weaving, Marton Csokas gracing our theatre more and more. The shift has not been sudden, but certainly recent developments make it more pronounced. The Sydney Theatre Company is trending towards becoming the playground for the Hollywood credibility machine.
I think it’s great to see new and classic works being presented by formidable talent, but I find the near fetishisation of fame in this area at odds with my understanding of what theatre is. The STC has obviously developed as a part of its mandate to produce big ticket Event-Theatre in their season, drawcard shows to balance the productions with less marketing pull. So the Ullmann-Blanchett Streetcar goes gangbusters so the Residents can work out whatever freaked up biblical shit they’re pulling in time for Christmas. It’s a balancing act. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by audiences (or marketers) that big names spell out sell out shows as subscribers swarm for celebrity stagecraft. It’s clear that the people want to see this kind of stuff, so bring it.
Critics, on the other hand point out how offshore directors are taking opportunity away from our home-grown talent. Why can’t an Australian direct the world premiere of an Australian play (such as Riflemind)? Who is this Hoffmann guy anyway and why can’t he direct shows in New York? There’s precious little opportunity for emerging artists in this country without giving away prime directorial spots to your Hollywood mates; Box Office be damned. Fucking Soderbergh, what? Without the cache of Damon, Pitt & Clooney in the execrable Ocean’s movies he’d be another B-Movie auteur remaking Tarkovsky in the mediocre fashion of the times. Not exactly first in line to be given carte-blanche a whole year in advance for – what, exactly is he doing down there? An Untitled Project?? Wow, seems like some people don’t even have to pitch an idea, their name alone is enough to earn a place in the programme. Of course, such an attitude is very parochial, we should be thankful for the work and international exposure to our thriving scene.
But it’s too easy to write-off the appointment of cinema royalty to direct our theatre shows as simply damn-good-marketing. Why do so many established actors make the leap to directing? There has been significant chagrin surrounding the question but one thing is clear: Nobody is able to understand the actor’s process better than someone who’s been through it. I don’t care where you’ve been, what films you’ve done, who you’re fucking or what books you’ve read – until you’ve been up in front of 300 people trying to recover a comrade’s dropped line while maintaining emotional integrity and without missing a beat you have NFI what it’s like. A non-actor trying to explain the process would be like me trying to explain what it’s like being a woman. So I reckon Cate or Judy or Liv or Robyn know something that no amount of training or theory can provide: what happens in a rehearsal room is sacred. Because nothing can prepare you for the experience of performing live theatre.
Theatre is collaboration, it is not a director’s big idea, it is not the set, or even the script – it is a communion between actors and audience. Without either of these two elements we are not engaged in theatre, we are doing something else. Directors are a critical part of this but make no mistake: your show is your actors and your audience together; nothing more, nothing less. Everything else is just there for the sake of convention. Actors who direct will understand this implicitly, and strive to keep themselves invisible in the process. By that I mean you will not let anything distract from the shamanistic ritual that is a performer taking on their role.
Years ago I was talking to a designer about his set for The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved in The Former Soviet Union and he remarked something along the lines of how if you notice a set designer’s work, they’ve failed (with apologies for the paraphrase). Similar sentiments have been expressed to me by sound designers, composers, lighting operators, cinematographers, editors and directors. The reason for this approach is that invisibility allows the actor’s work to flourish and the audience to suspend their disbelief more easily. So you don’t direct your show, direct your actors – they are your show. Far be it for me to tell Messrs Soderbergh or Hoffmann how to conduct their business but this is just one theory, the virtues of which are perhaps subject for another day?
The epic War of The Roses would be an example of a show that was full of these kinds of distractions, virtually seamless with the ensemble cast. It defies the logic while also demonstrating what I mean: Twelve actors standing almost stock still while thousands of teensy gold flakes cascade down on them for ninety minutes. Distracted yet? Those f**king bits of gold distracted everyone! They would land in the actors mouths while they spoke, the audience were dazzled but I found myself needing to look away, and as for the crew? Hated them. The technology was specifically designed for the show and I have it on completely unsubstantiated rumour that the process of building the machine to spec has driven the engineer to swear ‘Never Again’. But if for whatever reason the technology failed one day? Those same twelve actors would have stood in their positions and done the gags anyway. Actors – Audience. Nothing else matters.
My understanding of theatre as communion does not abide notions of celebrity. To be truly effective an actor must submerge their public persona beneath the choppy waters of their performance. Four hours a day, six nights a week, plus matinees. So no matter how good you are, it’s really not a help for your audience being instantly recognisable as Captain Picard or Gandalf when you’re taking a turn in Waiting For Godot. I would keep expecting Didi to end the play with “Make it so”. Or possibly when Pozzo arrives, Gogo could stamp his authority by claiming “You shall not pass!” But I digress. My point is that even the very best actors will have to deal with being perceived as their public persona rather than the character they are performing. Of course, the best actors will transcend and commune their characters with an audience no matter what the odds.
Similarly, directors create a public persona and programming can become about putting on a Kosky or Soderbergh or Williamson rather than thinking about it in terms of the actual content of the show. It’s contradictory to the notion of theatre being all about the work – Theatre is funny like that. But it’s not like you’d say: “oh we can’t put William Hurt in our show this year, people might recognise him.” That would be just be silly.
All of this may seem obvious to anyone who has spent any time at all thinking about the live theatre industry – and I use the word here to refer to the shows that are programmed in major venues with a very high commercial stake in the success of their seasons. The independent theatre sector has no such luxury as to pick and choose their directors. By the same note neither are they hampered by the need to please sponsors, shareholders or boards of directors. So when Neil Armfield defends his choices for the 2010 season as being made “on merit” – he means a combination of commercial and creative benefits. Choices that were made about established directors, working with established writers, many of whom are closely associated with the company already. So “on merit” is a way of saying “safe”. It’s taboo to suggest creative choices are made for commercial reasons though, so we use awkward euphemisms that only work to obscure the currency of the debate.
But when we’re talking about this – when we point out a significant gender imbalance and list all the examples of male directors, writers, artistic directors and (I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned) dramaturgs getting paid; it’s murky at best! Who appoints the AD’s? Corporate boards accountable to sponsors, shareholders and Government funding bodies. If you’ve ever worked in this sector you’ll know how much goes into dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for the massive scoping and budget reports this world demands. If you think it’s hard standing up in front of three hundred audience members – try facing down a boardroom with a $300 000 project proposal! I can only imagine the same goes in the theatre world as well. So for every Untitled Project we’ll get an Our Town. If you’re able to pitch your show on the conservative side of the scales then you’re more likely to get it on. While there are certainly fewer established women directors to draw upon it’s entirely possible that the work they’re putting up is simply too interesting or risky to get a Guernsey.
But I’ve said it before that people are in the habit of giving work to their friends, or more specifically: people they feel they can trust. So it’s no wonder it looks like a ‘club’ from the outer. Just don’t be fooled into thinking such a trait is specific to men. Robyn Nevin, Annette Madden or Lyn Wallis are just as capable of programming or casting work from people they know can pull it off. Everyone does it. I know for my next show I’ll be looking toward people I know I can work with first. Nepotism’s not a dirty word when there’s money at stake. Just know that aversion to risk – as an artist – is equivalent to death.