critic watch: NO GENDER – NO AGENDA

08/05/2012 at 3:07 pm Leave a comment

We told you this conversation wasn’t over. With the release of the Women In Theatre report from the Socialist Arts Collective known as The Australia Council for The Arts, it seems ripe to use this time to pour some of my reflections onto the screen on the subject since last I pondered issues of representation and equality out loud in my public speaking voice. To recap: women want a fair shake when it comes to theatre programming, and (broadly speaking) are asking men in the industry to take a moment and exhume the context of their privilege.

This is not a difficult concept for anyone with a remote grasp on modern political dialogue, that privilege is neither natural or inherent, and must be set aside if we are to make the change that reflects our collective industry consciousness. Which for all its faults is clearly quite aware of the disparity at play. Yet we can only truly keep watch on our own backyards, it is hard to imagine too many directors in the process of lining up gigs for the 2013 seasons saying to an Artistic Director at a funded company; “Sorry I would love to direct my three hour post-modern adaptation of The Bacchae at the Sydney Opera House starring _______ _______ & _______ (you read it here first), I really would, but I’m unpacking my gift horse in the mouth right now.” Nobody would do this. Would they? In any case nobody can *make* the privileged artist become suddenly self-aware of the nature of their advantage, let alone resist the benefits that come with having access to the kinds of resources funded theatre companies can provide. So no individual can be blamed for wanting to self-actualise their ideas, but they can be questioned on their role in perpetuating a system that does feed imbalance.

With that in mind, we think it’s worthwhile to address how the audience participates in the cycle; critics and punters, other artists alike. After all, we are the majority stakeholder in this business of show! Personal creative targets notwithstanding; indicators such as subscriptions, Box Office return and critical responses to season programming are by far the largest influence on an Artistic Director’s measure of success in decision making.

Example 1: recent public congratulations and joy over the financial year surplus at Company B; to be sure, vindication of some controversial policy changes and from a business perspective, consolidation of Ralph Myers’s tenure as AD with Brenna Hobson as GM both keeping the lighthouse burning strong. Reports say subscriptions make a large part of this and the works singled out (by the SMH article here) are, naturally, Benedict Andrews’ The Seagull, Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck and Neil Armfield’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It would be remiss (meaning inadequately performing my duty) of me to suggest these productions’ successes correlate with the coincidence their writers and directors are all men, when major audience drawcards for two of the productions were the women who took on the key roles, whose respective stage legacies outstrip any director we could care to name. Point of Fact: it’s important to distinguish between seeing artists as artists or seeing artists in terms of their gender, to know when we do this, and to endeavour to understand Why. We mention all this because as a diligent critic-watcher it would be remiss (there’s that word again) of me to ignore comments in the Women in Theatre Report released last week such as:

Women who operate in a very male-dominated environment are forced to be part of a very masculine culture. The male recruitment bias of the mainstage creates a culture that is very masculine and sets up expectations of what the mainstage requires.

and

‘Boys clubs’ are seen as cheeky, sexy, rock’n’roll, hot shots. Groups of women (even young women) don’t have the same symbolic imagery available to them, they’re seen more as PC or ‘mumsy’, or as a bunch of whinging girls.

It begs the question; what roles exactly does the audience play in perpetuating this mythology? What role for the media? Do critics discriminate by gender(consciously or otherwise), and if so, how? Try as we might to view the work as distinct from the artist’s gender, it is impossible; so long as we are given some context of who the artist is. This context frames our reading of the work, and the nature of theatre publicity is such that we know before we go in exactly who is responsible for this particular production. What’s more, there is evidence of an industry undercurrent that is mindful of gender and identity politics when producing work. From the sceric of an excerpt we’ve heard, Rick Viede’s upcoming play A Hoax deals exactly with this subject. Simon Stone recently commented on Strange Interlude that it was a woman’s story (as opposed to the man’s story in Salesman), demonstrating an awareness of the balance required in theatre programming. Benedict Andrews’ play Every Breath alludes to gender identity and art being a two-way reflection between artist and audience alike. There are events titled Women, Power & Culture expressly drawing attention to work written and directed by women, and public forums held sporadically around the country, not to mention the public report from the aforementioned Socialist Public Arts Collective down at Elizabeth Street. The topic seems to be publicly revisited every ten years or so (Dorothy Hewett is quoted from 1983 “All we ask is that we are able to do this in conditions of complete equality”). [FYI OZCO: “Hewett” is spelt incorrectly in the quote from the report. What does that say?] None of these male writers or directors are going anywhere, BTW. Except maybe to Berlin, where the funding models actually allow for them to work in conditions of complete equality (hey, it’s lonely at the top, right?)… but we digress. That’s perhaps an issue for another day.

If artists, funding bodies, directors and writers are all so mindful of gender, why not audiences? Why not critics? Despite our assurances we might view a work the same way irrespective of who wrote or directed it; we cannot say with certainty at the back of our minds we are making subconscious value judgements before we have even turned up. One might even say it’s quite normal. We thought about this in the context of a couple of very different, but quite similar productions recently gracing our stages. Both plays are brutal and finely tuned in execution, dealing in revenge tragedy, cannibalism and betrayal; Titus Andronicus directed by Kate Revz and Thyestes directed by Simon Stone, written by William Shakespeare and ‘after Seneca’ respectively. The differences are immediately apparent, with Stone’s play commissioned by Malthouse and with a much higher marketing and production budget than Cry Havoc, the independent company behind Titus. The other key point is that while one is ostensibly a new work while the Shakespeare is obviously the five-hundred odd year old interpretation of what amounts to a variation of the same myth; both imagined differently for the stage in recent months, coincidentally by two theatre directors in the first five years or so of their careers with strong track records. And yes, one of them happens to be from planet Melbourne but let’s not make a big deal out of that, OK?

{SPOILER ALERT}
Key events in the tragedies include the revenge act involving a dinner of human flesh (typically the children of those being revenged upon). Where the two tales wildly defer is in the framing of that revenge act, and the striking difference in results mark what one might call (if one were looking for folly) distinctly feminine and masculine *gulp* visions exploring the question of what drives someone to such insanity. But these are individual artists’ visions too, representative of exactly one person’s creative pursuit (not discounting their collaborators), so we’re stuck between separating the art from its maker, or accepting it all as a piece. So when we see the cause for Titus Andronicus to take revenge on his daughter’s brutal assault, we are glad he does it, because we saw what happened to her; indeed the sequence was the centrepiece of the play, with barely a word of Shakespeare uttered. The ravages of sexual violence are laid bare and by the end of the play you know where you stand, and you laugh at the villains’ misfortune to be captured, cooked and eaten. How can we separate this vision from the fact that it is a woman who conceived it?

Similarly, Thyestes‘ revenge act – the climax of the play – occurs contextually as a result of a sexual snub, and while the depth of the betrayal felt cannot be underestimated when one is a raging egomaniac, it is but a trifle compared to the events of Titus. Revenge here is treated as a form of psychological sport, like modern warfare can be portrayed sometimes, like an imaginary plaything. Even the female characters in the play are like toys and plastic girlfriends, as the microscope lens is pointed inward. This is a severe critique on masculine culture, written and created by men, in a way that probably only men could.

Without getting bogged down in which-bits-of-what-play-are-how-feminist-is-your-backyard-type-situation, the similarities and differences here are drawn to point out that these two styles of theatre received vastly different amounts of publicity and audience response. It isn’t just having Malthouse/Belvoir backing that gets the gravy train of interstate touring funds, surely? Because that’s two-for-the-price-of-one (and if anyone’s counting self-started rumours Mr Stone has a mind for [3] three distinct project slots in next year’s season booklets – that’s three more you won’t be getting). En passant , I know which production I preferred, but cannot separate them in quality, why are we not getting behind a new artist in the same way we have with another of a similar ilk? Is it because we’re not quite ready for what she has to say? As an audience culture, are we just as willing to listen? These questions and more will be explored next week: On Planet Venus.

Next time you go and see a play, don’t check the titles or the program or the papers on the wall to see who’s who. Just go.

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Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.

CRITIC WATCH: I’ll Be Watching You critic watch: LESSONS FROM THE MASTERS

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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