I had no idea playwrights were all so good looking…

18/05/2010 at 3:03 pm 6 comments

An excellent evening of celebration an protest at Not The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, with some rousing speeches and an atmosphere of camaraderie and openness that’s quite the treat on a rainy Monday night. It’s a little tragic that it takes an appalling travesty of a decision to bring us together like that, and I mused over the course of the evening that one option for Playwriting Australia to spend this new ‘grant’ money would be to provide a space where writers can gather socially and discuss their work. It felt as though providing a communal space (such as the opulent upstairs room at the MacQuarie Hotel) did more for my motivation as a playwright than all the courses, classes and workshops combined.

It’s a great help just knowing there are others out there like me who suffer the same frustrating process of crafting stories, who battle through the same fears and blockages. We are so isolated in this process, one writer remarked to me that he had no idea that playwriting collectives even existed! And it’s a good thing they do, for without the solidarity of the group who put the night together I wonder whether all these writers might not have found a place to voice their combined dissent. It’s true that on an individual level it seems difficult to wage any movement against the rising tide of ambivalence toward new Australian drama. But in this group, it is starkly obvious that there is a real anger about how little support there is for us as the cutting edge of a definitive Australian theatre. Because let’s face it, without new work, the Australian arts scene is condemned to constant reruns of ‘classic’ American or British plays, with the occasional Ancient Greek mashup to keep things lively. So someone has to write the bloody things, yeah?

I talked about this in my response to Mike Mullins’ 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 international productions, which go on to dominate the arts conversation in the press (watch them drool over William Hurt next month). Meanwhile, local writers get scarcely a scrap of attention and when they do, it’s usually for saying or doing something controversial, rather than for their work.

It’s a vicious cycle which perpetuates what some have identified as a “culture of negativity” in Australian theatre practice. But it’s not just about our cringing tendency to compare our work to overseas product, or the subsequent imbalance in programming across the funded companies – what’s also in play is the marked indifference that the press show towards our arts scene. There is very little depth in the analysis given, theatre coverage for the most part has been reduced to a cosy setup for comps and champagne in exchange for a light and fluffy publicity piece at the back of the weekend edition. That is of course if there’s an arts section left in the paper at all. Newspaper editors will tell you that they reduce arts coverage because people aren’t as interested in theatre as they are in say, sport. My response is that people aren’t interested in reading theatre coverage that reeks of craven, shallow and futile summaries of plot. So they flip to the sports page, where the analysis is of a higher quality, from former players no less, not some self appointed ‘expert’ in the game who’s never set foot on the field in his life.

As such the impact of a dull public conversation about Australian theatre (at least in the press – the online conversation is quite lively) puts out a false perception that our theatre is not worth talking about. This perception filters through the public arena, to the funding bodies, theatre managers and programmers, and eventually it’s a part of the unwritten mythology that Australian work is a lesser beast. It’s just one symptom of a wider malaise that we end up with illiterates judging a $30,000 prize for playwriting. The currency of writing for theatre has been devalued through a lack of any decent public discussion. And that’s where we come in.

The sixty or so writers, directors, actors and well-wishers present at last night’s gathering share a passion for the performing arts. The sense of outrage was palpable, and I recommend anyone to look at some of the terrific speeches made when the video gets posted. I know I will. It was a great night for theatre, and had a sense of a beginning about it. What was lacking for me, however was a call to action, besides the petition and general air of we’re-not-gonna-take-it – I feel as though we need to rally beyond this one incident, and defend new Australian theatre across the board. It was a prime opportunity to put forward some strategies about how this might occur. There is a danger that the wonderful energy and solidarity we have found will dissipate.

I hope not. The discussion at Cluster is a great resource to keep the momentum, and I for one will continue to contribute my thoughts on performing arts culture here and on other community blogs. Because it is the public face of theatre, the public conversation about the work that can change the perception to how new Australian theatre is an equal to any artform, anywhere in the world.

So let’s talk.

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Entry filed under: Criticism FAIL, Sydney THEATRE.

I KNOW WHAT I LIKE “It’s not America. Is it?”

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rebecca Clarke  |  18/05/2010 at 8:08 pm

    Hi! It’s brilliant that you came along and thanks for this really thoughtful write-up and the really vital questions that you pose.

    For last night, we definately wanted to focus fairly singularly on the issue at hand and as a result we have come out with some excellent feedback and requests to give back to the NSW Premier’s Literary Award organisers. We have continued to get e-mails from playwrights today, which we will pull together with the petition and feed back to the Ministry very soon. Also stay tuned for Currency Press’s follow-up on this.

    Of course, we were very tempted to go broad last night, but we figured that this would happen via the combined talent and energy in the room and in ways that we can’t even anticipate at this point.

    But in the meantime, I do have some broad questions, but unfortunately no answers as yet: A question for playwrights – what can we do at an individual and collective level to stay creatively inspired and learn and grow in the context of our existing history and our contemporary concerns? For programmers – what is our mandate on Australian work, how is it realised and does it need an update and re-communication? For commentators – where is the media excitement and engagement of the ye olde Push and is it possible that there is a new Australian renaissance brewing, springing out of our rich history, and waiting to be uncovered? For developers and educators – is there room for more engaged, critical debate and advocacy around Australian play and playwrights and what are the timely, creative, left-of-field ideas to make that happen? And finally, how can more people come to understand, in structured, pragmatic and rigorous processes, ways in which our plays can be most successfully imagined, written, read, enhanced by dramaturges, directors, actors and creative teams, produced, curated, funded, launched, critiqued, discussed in broad public forums, awarded and toured nationally and internationally? These are not easy questions but that are all worth asking of ourselves, repeatedly, until we find that we have created a very different kind of paradigm, one that’s busting at the seams with all kinds of possibilities and clear actions; one that we create together.

    Little actions first though – from which big things can grow.

    Reply
  • 2. James Waites  |  18/05/2010 at 11:29 pm

    Well said ….

    Reply
  • 3. Alison Croggon  |  19/05/2010 at 4:51 am

    I’ve written a piece on this question for the next Australian Literary Review. Due out in a couple of weeks, I think.

    Reply
  • 4. anvildrops  |  19/05/2010 at 10:57 am

    thanks Rebecca, but trust me, turning up was my pleasure, the least I could do!

    those are all excellent questions worth addressing in detail, and it demonstrates the complexity of the issues that perhaps a forum following the speeches might have been more vexing than productive (especially given the contingent’s commitment to fulfilling the bar tab requirements!) i can understand the reasoning there…

    so it wasn’t really a criticism of the night, only a minor concern that yes, we’ve made a point about this incident, but where to from here? It’s clear though that others are looking for further action to take in the coming days and weeks.

    Like I said, keep talking about it (that’s obvious), there’s a Writers Festival happening right now – go down and chat up five writers and tell them what’s happening. A follow up forum in a month is a great idea to start unpacking some of those broader issues being raised.

    Looking forward to seeing Alison’s take on it! I’m actually meeting with a Melbourne comrade this Friday, where I am sure the subject will come up. Let’s get out there and own this 🙂

    cheers
    SZ

    Reply
  • 5. Rebecca Clarke  |  19/05/2010 at 1:18 pm

    I’m also looking forward to Alison’s views on this.

    We’ll summarise everything that has spiralled out from the play award omission this year (including the ongoing pain and passion of Aussie playwrights in a general sense) and also get it through to PWA and people in the theatre industry who will hopefully feel compelled to be a part of a follow-up forum. We’ve already had one offer of space (no bar tab needed!) from a fantastic supporter of Australian plays…so the supportive energy is absolutely there.

    Thanks SZ!

    Reply
  • 6. Alison Croggon  |  19/05/2010 at 1:41 pm

    My take is really a summary of the vexed relationship between plays and “literature”, pillaging freely from the discussion that’s taken place over the past month. I think what’s significant is that it will appear in a place called the Australian Literary Review. I’m a little tired of how little literary types know about theatre.

    Reply

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