WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT PLAYWRITING, AUSTRALIA
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…
Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.