Playwriting Festival: 1

16/06/2014 at 3:06 pm 1 comment

Saturday June 14, 2014

I was privileged enough to duck across to the Seymour Centre for something of a unique gathering of playwrights – there have been a few similar gatherings over recent months and years but this was unique in the loose formality of the structure of the event, such that it enabled a much wider scope and was driven towards empowering the playwright voice.

To elaborate: separating this and previous gatherings is that non-playwrights were discouraged from attending. That is to say – certain industry folks who may have liked to come were asked not to prior to registration. I found this confusing at first but I retrospect it might have hampered the flow of discussion had known producers been present.

I say ‘might have’ – there is no way of knowing but this was very much about enabling the lowly playwright to have a proper chat, and regardless of their intention, someone with a position of programming power (or veto) might alter the course of discussion simply by being present. In any case the outcomes of the three-hour session should be published in some form down the track, so it’s not as though we were plotting a world takeover or anything like that. Much.

Another major difference was in the format. Rather than the set-piece of “established” industry writers helming a panel-style discussion (like every other writers’ event, everywhere), we were given the opportunity to set the agenda on the topics we each thought were important. A list of twenty or thirty sessions were compiled based on suggestions by the group, and those who found that topic interesting could split off into sub-groups for set half-hour chin-wags, or come and go between conversations as we pleased. It was a bit rough-and-ready but on the whole allowed for more robust and inclusive debates.

The sessions I attended included one about theatre-for-social-change (in fact I was able to host this one); followed by a dense chat about how we can engage in a constructive debate about craft and the hottest subject of the day by far – writing what we “don’t know”. Hopefully more comprehensive notes will be available but for the purposes of reportage – here’s the gist.

The Big Question for writers in 2014 seems to revolve around issues of cultural appropriation: when is it OK to write about cultures outside our own experience? How can we do this in an era so tangibly fraught with racial tension, systemic abuse of white-privilege and in some cases wholesale war-on-other? Particularly contentious is the question of Aboriginality. What can a non-Aboriginal writer do in terms of representing the Aboriginal experience in their work?

I don’t have all the answers but what I have been able to do is listen in to a lot of conversations about the nature of exclusion and vilification in Australia 2014.

I will say this. Aboriginal Reconciliation is not an abstract idea. It’s an ongoing process, and every day we must work at it in some fashion. As artists and theatre makers the onus is on us to bring it to the rest of the community through our work. Let me be clear: the process of Reconciliation is not a means-to-an-end, it is the end in itself. So rather than worrying about whether what we’re doing is right or best just know that we can’t do nothing. If we make mistakes (and we will) we must learn from them. That too is part of the process. And most of all – without putting too fine a point on it, whatever it is we do – just don’t be a dick about it.

With that in mind there are a few tips I have managed to pick up about the vexing issue of writing the “other”. Please be assured, I use the word advisedly…

Don’t let your character’s “otherness” be their defining characteristic. There is no singular experience of being Muslim any more than there is of being White. Think of your own life, would you like someone to define you by any one of these characteristics? “Oh he’s the mentally-ill writer.” It’s debasing, not to mention clunky and clichéd.

Nakkiah Lui wrote a very good account of how this kind of thinking can actually enable the kind of racism we are trying to be rid of. I feature in the comments section with diminishing patience but the upshot is that by defining “otherness” through the specific lens of white-male-normative paradigms, we will perpetually stay in this false binary logic of “us-and-them”.

There is a paradox at play here. Which is of course that Aboriginal Cultures do have a very specific set of experiences, through millennia of shared knowledge, familial systems, the time and place in which they are born, not to mention the acute dispossession of land (et al) suffered over the last two hundred and twenty-eight years. This are not things you can sort of guess about. So do the research. Find out the protocols, talk to the people about what you’re trying to do, be prepared for the fact that you might have it completely wrong.

While Lui’s point remains – let’s not define her work by her inherited culture – at the same time it’s not something we can just forget. So make your character Aboriginal if you want, just don’t make it all they are.

I saw Jada Alberts’ play Brother’s Wreck at Belvoir recently which crystallised a lot of the debate for me – it’s a tremendous piece of writing and a really well-made work of theatre – the core truths of the play are universal, yes it’s about a specific time and place, and the family it surrounds are Aboriginal and this is evident by various references in the dialogue (“blackfellas” etc). But the difficulties it presents for the central character could be the same as any young bloke. There is an epidemic of young men in Australia facing an inability to deal with grief and anger and this is something to which we can all relate. Yes it’s a story about an issue particular to young Aboriginal men. Or men in remote areas, or working class families. I have a brother too, and thus it could be me.

As such it’s a moving work that captures a lot of humour and tragedy of Australian life, acknowledging without dwelling on the characters’ heritage and background. “It’s all about the suburb you’re from” … says one character, cheekily mocking the middle class origins of the bloke opposite. In this moment we are shown just two refractions of the diversity of the Aboriginal experience. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoiling some of the play. All I can really suggest is try and catch it before it’s over.

I will try and write up about some of the other sessions I was able to catch a bit later on.

sancz out

Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.


1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. lisathatcher  |  19/06/2014 at 1:31 pm

    This was a great write up.
    I was unable to make this event, so I’d love to read more about it.
    I think casting “non-whites” for roles that are not immediately race relevant is important as well.


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