17/02/2010 at 8:51 am 6 comments

I’m still taking in the sheer breadth of last night’s lesson in the history of experimental theatre movements of Australia. In 1976, Mike Mullins, returning from a Grotowski workshop in Poland with the master’s words in his ears urging him to find a theatre that was his, set on a journey that has fundamentally shifted the theatrical landscape in Sydney, indeed; Australia. It’s a path that traverses the murky political landscape of the late-era Cold War, the ANZAC Myth, the Republican movement, Indigenous history and other fundamental questions about who we are as a nation. I can’t say for fact – but I’m pretty sure they don’t teach this stuff at NIDA.

The compulsive archivist has put together a multimedia lecture compiling his experimental works between 1973 – 1986, charting what should be mandatory viewing for anyone with a stake in the future of theatre in this country. For without knowing where we’ve been, and why, we will find it hard to know which way we need to move forward. The detail is staggering, as he developed a style of performance combining conventions of theatre and sculpture into something else, and makes for a fascinating study with rare footage of a theatre which until then was unheard of on the Australian scene.

But Mullins doesn’t just present us with an academic look at an otherwise unwritten history of experimental performance. There’s an ongoing thread with which he weaves a compelling narrative about Arts funding; especially which doors are open and which are not, and to whom the welcome mat is extended. The massive controversy around “ceiling funding” in this era is probably one of the most important steps Australia has taken in terms of asserting the arts as culturally significant. Whether you agree that Australian theatrical identity should compile of, say, re-interpreting classic European and American works ad finitum – or something else; is not the point, until then nobody had even asked the question.

A young society in an ancient country, Australian culture is like a self-conscious child in the shadow of our older, more confident brothers and sisters, Mullins argues, and hauling money at what is effectively a mimickry of British and American culture will only serve to perpetuate our collective adolescent self-loathing. It’s a broad, complex thesis through which he outlines the case for a long-term cultural policy where investment in the arts can yield returns which are neither specific or immediate, but unmistakably our own.

Emerging and experimental artists take note – a lot’s changed since all this took place; The Performance Space which Mullins founded in 1981 on a budget of nought has grown to a respected fixture of the fringe theatre, dance and multimedia performance landscape. But the argument has not shifted too much. Flagship companies command the lion’s share of arts funding and while there is some emphasis on new work (notably The Residents at The STC), these exceptions are few and far between. Independent artists still struggle to gain access to funding and the system is just as top-heavy as it was thirty years ago.

The debate still rages, albeit now through forums like facebook and Peter Garrett’s recent National Cultural Policy website. Marcus Westbury’s been not-so-quietly questioning our cultural priorities for a while now, but many of the current generation of emerging arts workers are having this discussion outside the context of what happened in the mid-eighties. For this reason alone Mullins’ presentation is invaluable background for how the established arts bodies got to where they are today in terms of funding philosophy and how we define Australian culture.

The more things change, the more they stay the same – it seems we’re still content to import experimental works from overseas for our festival circuits (and laud their ingenuity) but if an Australian wants to develop an experimental form of theatre without a demonstrable result they can pretty much go fund themself. The crux of the argument is this: how do we think these imported artists are able to create such fresh creative product? Through experimentation, of course. The nature of experimentation is such that no specific outcomes can be predicted, but New Work in this country is only funded when it demonstrates an intended result. Thus the flaws in arts funding are exposed to the core of mediocrity they perpetuate.

Mullins cites a litany of examples to demonstrate his point, including archival footage of the launch of Performance Space at the old theatre on Cleveland St (still running, under new management of ACTT), and an incredible 16mm film of his still controversial Lone ANZAC performed at Circular Quay, Australia Day 1981 (during which he was arrested). It culminates in an in depth case-study of his collaboration with Peter Carey at the 1986 Adelaide Festival; a work titled Illusion. The show was critically reviled, and Mullins takes this stepping point to examine the concepts of creative failure & success. He emphasises the development process of the production between the pair, and the challenges of creating a unique performance style under the pressures of financial investment, intellectual property and the opening night deadline. How can such a thing be considered truly experimental when these factors are in play?

While Mullins deserves recognition as a great innovator in the performing arts, it’s of some note that nary a jot of his work has made it into the established Sydney theatre mythology – at least not in the way similar innovators overseas have. It’s obvious that over the years he’s rattled more than a few cages, and this presentation makes it clear he’s not about to disappear, either. One gets the impression the arts establishment are about to have a few old wounds re-opened…

At about two hours in length, it’s a slog; but a fascinating and vital addition to our cultural history. A must see for any artist aspiring to work outside convention, or for that matter, any arts patron interested in creating an Australian culture we can truly call our own. The Politics of Change is tantamount to a call to arms for artists to reclaim the keys to the funding gate. His intent, according to the program notes is to begin an intergenerational dialogue about arts practice and funding. Mission accomplished, at least in establishing a preamble. Bay 20 was packed out for the lecture – and afterwards the crowd response was many and varied… the discussion, we hope will continue for generations to come.

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre PROCESS. Tags: , , , .


6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. anvildrops  |  18/02/2010 at 5:40 pm

    post script:

    I am still processing a lot of this information and in the spirit of continuing the intergenerational dialogue will soon prepare a more complete response. watch this space!

  • 2. Basil  |  18/02/2010 at 7:10 pm

    Having witnessed the 2 hour slog , I concur with your piece totally. Let the dialogue begin.

  • 3. Timothy Pascoe  |  19/02/2010 at 1:04 pm

    Having attended Mike Mullins’ presentation at Carriageworks and read the (anonymous) review above, I’d like to congratulate Mike for reminding us so effectively the other night of what he’s been trying to do across his career – and, what he should keep on doing! I’d also like to thank the author of the article for drawing attention to the main strands of Mike’s thesis in another forum.

    Lest either Mike or his commentator become too concerned about lack of evident outcomes or presentation of Mike’s work in conventional places and spaces, I’d like to highlight the following. Many artists historically (and activists in other areas – from politics to business) have had few overt successes but by the consistency and force of their endeavours have shifted the locus of debate. And, kept the debate alive long enough for others to join the fight and help achieve a more overt mainstream impact – whether in arts funding or artpractice itself.

    Mike: thanks and keep up the good work. To vary a well-known quote: I hope that the reports of No-one’s death are greatly exaggerated!


  • 4. William Yang: MY GENERATION « 5TH WALL  |  24/02/2010 at 11:00 am

    […] which Yang has undertaken his craft that these stories can be told with humour and empathy. Like Mike Mullins’ presentation last week, it’s also a vital record for the new crop emerging through to see […]

  • 5. Surviving in the Mainstrrrm « 5TH WALL  |  09/03/2010 at 11:06 am

    […] for years and years, some of which I touched on in the review for Mike Mullins’ presentation Politics of Change a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be looking at Cate Blanchett’s speech to the APAM and the […]

  • […] presentation at Performance Space earlier this year. His call for a shakeup of Arts funding Politics Of Change is a thought provoking condemnation of our priorities in throwing vast sums of cash at big ticket […]


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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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