Festival nannies ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Festival nannies

Miriam Cosic, Arts Editor for the Oz, writes waspishly today of the handwringing apparently going on over Kristy Edmunds' MIAF:

POOR Melbourne. Sometimes it doesn't know whether it's coming or going.

The Victorian capital prides itself on its cool quotient: all those funky laneways, the designers' designers, the innovative alternative theatre and contemporary dance.

And yet its idea of what constitutes an arts festival can be positively nanna-ish.

It seems that the "tabloids" (aka the Herald Sun) and the talkbacks have been doing the "call this art?" tango, while Toorak matrons are bewailing the lack of 19th century opera. Cosic bracingly points out that young people pay taxes as well - and she, too, has noticed the packed houses that I've seen at every show I've attended.

Sigh. Sometimes I wish this parochial angst were not so bloody predictable. It would be nice if the claim that Melbourne is Australia's "cultural capital" - bruited by those busy being appalled and disgusted by said culture - could be allowed to be more than an advertising slogan.

Note: Chris Boyd takes Cosic (and me, for "echoing stupid remarks" about the Herald Sun) to task in the comments for exercising "heresay (sic), at best. Vivid imagination at worst". Far from beating up a non-story, Cosic is clearly responding to Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt's full-frontal attack on Kristy Edmunds' programming of MIAF. Bolt is also, as it happens, a guest on talk back radio, where I expect he continued to make his claim that MIAF is a "crime against the arts" and that the Melbourne Festival is "dead".

Chris also suggests I'm running a "line" on festival audiences, and cites his own observations. Fair enough. We're clearly going on different nights. The shows I've seen, with a single exception (in a small theatre), have had full houses, although of course I can't swear that means they've been complete sell-outs. The canard that nobody is going to MIAF - which was claimed about last year's well-attended festival as well - is directly contradicted by my own experience. Obviously it's partial - I'm not at every performance on every night. But if nobody is going to the festival, who are all these people obscuring my view with standing ovations (two so far, Ngapartji Ngapartji and I La Gaglio)?

Finally, and the only thing I take exception to: Chris implies that I am soft-pedalling my critical responses. "I thought you've been showing distinct signs of turning into one of those critics that like everything! " That is simply not true, as a quick look at recent reviews will show: in fact, I've had reservations about four of the past nine things I've seen (five out of ten, if you count the book review).

Chris and I seem to differ on almost everything we see, and that is fine: one of the things that has been missing in discourse about Melbourne theatre is the ability to civilisedly and intelligently disagree. And TN welcomes dissenting comments. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will be very aware of my taste in theatre, and I make no secret of the fact that I am an advocate for certain kinds of contemporary work that I consider exciting and important. But to imply that I am not calling things as I see them is at best presumptuous. At worst, simply offensive.


Chris Boyd said...

You should be a bit more circumspect before echoing stupid remarks about the Hun, Alison. (Not a single quotation or attributed remark to the paper. Not a single radio broadcast or show or even station mentioned. Sounds like heresay, at best. Vivid imagination at worst.)

Miriam Cosic's beat-ups are so frequent, and so bizarrely Harbour-centric, I have coined an expression for them: Cosic fan tutte... (Okay, so it's crap Italian, but you get the point!)

The Herald Sun's Festival coverage has been great. I haven't been reading the letters pages, I confess, or Herr Bolt's column, but the coverage in the Arts pages has been generous, enthusiastic and discerning... if I say so myself.

I also have to question your line about "packed houses" at "every show" you've attended.

You might not have been to Monumental in the Playhouse (tumbleweeds blowing down the aisles) but you have been to I La Galigo... The stalls were half empty -- I mean half full -- on first night.

Blessing the Boats also far from full. Tulse Luper less than a quarter capacity. The shows that were sold out were in small venues.

BTW, I was relieved to see you has reservations about Communism. Not that I thought the show deserved a negative review (I saw early in its B-Sharp run at the Seymour Centre, I was a bit ho-hum)... but I thought you've been showing distinct signs of turning into one of those critics that like everything! (LOL)

Alison Croggon said...

So you think Miriam Cosic was making it all up? Heaven forbid. I thought it was only the blogs who did that.

The Herald Sun did in fact run a story on the festival, about the fuss over use of police uniforms in Tragedia Endogonidia and commenting on the public money spent on it here, opening thus:

"A PLAY depicting police brutally bashing a bleeding victim has outraged Victoria's police union.

Tragedia Endogonidia opened on Thursday night as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which has received $5.5 million from the State Government."

Several audience members at the CUB Malthouse in South Melbourne were shocked when two actors dressed in locally hired uniforms, which were strikingly similar to standard Victoria Police issue, staged a horrific bashing of a suspect."

As to your other points: I saw Il La Gaglio last night - it was full (a number of walkouts, but they came). I saw Camille - also full. I saw 1984 - full. Ditto Voyage. Ditto Tragedia. Ditto Ngapartji Ngapartji. I wasn't imagining it: I know what a full theatre looks like. Maybe those empty seats you saw were the media tickets.

The only show I've been to that wasn't full was the Foreman show, which was also in the smallest theatre.

Talking about checking your facts, lately I haven't liked Debris, 1984 and Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty (check down the sidebar). Three negative reviews out of eight shows, and I like everything? I would say rather that I prefer to make thoughtful responses to those shows that I do see, especially if it has clearly been thought about by the artists who made it. I take art seriously, and I dislike the kind of reviewing that shallowly dismisses stuff out of hand. If the artists are doing their work, every decision on a stage is made on purpose.

Alison Croggon said...

PS You might also want to check out Bolt's column Box Office Poison. Poisonous indeed and no doubt what Cosic was talking about. Perhaps Cosic's point about the various ways of projecting box office figures is well made. It's a piss-off of mine that people say that nobody is going when I see lots of people going with mine own eyes. They did the same thing last year.

Chris Boyd said...

Oh, I like that. A beat-up about a beat up! Thanks for the links. (I don't think the Sunday Herald Sun -- er -- counts.)

A very poor house, tonight, in Hamer Hall for 51st (Dream) State. Shame. Those who went loved it. One more performance left.

Glad to hear I La Galigo is filling up. Probably word of mouth. (There were hundreds of empty seats in the stalls on Thursday. Not house seats.)

I agree that there were lies told last year about attendances. This year, those accusations hold considerably more weight.

Alison Croggon said...

Having seen more than one classic beat-up artist at work in my time, I can't see where the mixmaster is at work...Police roundsman John Silvester used to be famous for his regular "Mafia at the market" story, a febrile fiction of hidden knives and furtive looks. Geoff Easdown, who was sent out to cover floods in Gippsland and told his editor that he was "standing up to his waist in water in the main street", causing much panic on the news desk because they had no pictures - until the photographer got on the line and told them it hadn't rained there for a week.

Did Cosic make up Bolt's comments? Did I make up Cosic's story? All this stuff is about the court of public opinion.

And if what you say about houses you've seen is true, then it's a real shame. Perhaps the fairly constant campaign against Kristy Edmunds from various quarters - not just Bolt - is beginning to bite. How often do you have to say "contempt for audience" or "elitist" before GP people start to think it's not for them?

Chris Boyd said...

Good to see your sense of humour is returning, AC. I hadn't seen the additional remarks you added to the body of your post 'til now.

I won't spend much time responding, we're all too fucking sleep depraved here. It's definitely affecting my typing/spelling/thinking. ('Heresay', tho, I kinda like!)

I was teasing about you liking everything, Jeez Louise! It's not often I get to question your judgements. (Dumb Type was a dog!)

My apologies, tho, for the lazy accusations that the shows you went to weren't full. What I meant to challenge was your assumption that all shows were just as full as the ones you had attended.

Anyway, I've got work to do.

Chris Boyd said...

P.S. Communism sold out two weekends in a row, I believe. Fluid hug-hug was maybe 2/3 full. Lucy's piece was fascinating. Some of her shorter works are being re-staged and toured in the not-too-distant.


Alison Croggon said...

No worries Chris. No doubt I'm a little frayed. It's not bad now and then in any case to post a "statement of intent" ... though I was thinking afterwards that I left out that, in any case, liking something or not is the least of it.

De gustibus non dispudandem. I have thought further on dumb type, and I still like it. Not a patch on the Castelluci, a thing of surfaces rather than depth charge, but it's stayed with me. It had a shape, but it was its own shape.

Geoffrey Williams said...

The sooner someone gives you two a radio program the better. Two of my favourite theatre reviewers/commentators/observers on the one site! They do it for the movies, why not for the stage ... or laneway ... or ...

Chris Boyd said...

Thanks all the same, Geoffrey, I'm not really sure I want to play Margaret to Alison's David. We could very well kill one another! (Still, that could be entertaining. Radio of cruel tease...)

John Branch said...

One of the interesting questions I see being discussed here is that of how well attended these festival shows are. It's hard for me to judge, since there seem to be conflicting reports. But if some of the houses are half full or less, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's something of value in the mere presentation of these shows, isn't there? Surely one point of a festival is to give people an opportunity to see things that aren't ordinarily available to them.

To go out on a limb, another interesting question I see here is the question of what Melbourne wants, what its taste is, what it's willing to see and consider. I lived for many years in a city that broadly speaking never learned to trust its own taste. (A city called Dallas, Texas, to be specific.) Its opera company and its art museum were pretty well supported and attended; its ballet company, many of its theater companies, and many of its visual artists struggled, and still do to the best of my knowledge. What this added up to was a population with a large upper-class and upper-middle-class component that would welcome things that had been approved elsewhere (which is what they found in the opera and the art museum) but often had trouble deciding what to make of its own artists. It sounds to me as if Melbourne is a couple of steps beyond that; if it's staging an international arts festival, it's at least giving itself a chance, in a much broader way than ever happened in Dallas, to learn what people are doing elsewhere, and also to judge them for itself. But it also sounds as if there's still some uncertainty. And there's still the question, which maybe belongs outside the nitty-gritty reviews of the MIAF, of how it responds to its own artists.

Forgive me if there's anything unfair in my presuming to guess this from a distance.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John

Well, my tally went down the other night: Bill T Jones was maybe 2/3 full in the stalls.

Re Melbourne and its taste: there are lots of claims made about what "Melbourne" is supposed to like or dislike. And you are right, it is absolutely connected with the reception accorded local artists. The first thing to note is that this discussion is entirely between "talking heads" in the media (including us in the new media). The other thing to note here, with MIAF, is that the argument is generational. The people who condemn the festival (I don't mean dislike parts of it - of course we all like and dislike bits - but wholesale condemnation as happened in the media when the program was announced) tend to be an older generation of baby boomers, established and very comfortable cultural pundits, while those who are attending and enjoying the events here tend to be younger. And possibly a product of a much more globalised world. T

Those who condemn the festival are also negative or at best indifferent about the very interesting new work being done here. Which is, in fact, a major reason for this blog. The problem with a festival like this for the conservative talking heads is that by bringing in this kind of work it legitimises practices that they dismiss as "fringe" or marginal. So audience figures (imaginary or real) become part of the rhetoric - the festival is dubbed "elitist" and it is claimed that "nobody is coming". Which is why I've been so adamant about the full houses I have seen, because in the eyes of some commentators, these full houses don't exist.

Younger artists tend to move between Melbourne and overseas, and it's not at all uncommon for an Australian artist to have more notice somewhere overseas than here (me, for instance: I have had more recognition of my poetry in Britain than here in recent years, but there are many more famous examples). 30 years ago, such artists would have simply emigrated: they don't do that any more, but a lot are very peripetetic. Some of us hope that perhaps the general cultural conditions might change. I'd say it's a 50/50 gamble myself. In certain moods, 70/30 against...

Chris Boyd said...

I'm a bit more sanguine on this score than you Alison.

It always baffled me that Cliff Hocking spoke of Melbourne as a city of "middling" sensibilities. "There is a very large potential audience for things that are not always catered for within the annual programming of the major companies," he told me when he was Festival director. "It is easy to miss the middle audience. I'm not saying it's middle class as such, or that the tastes are ordinary but maybe Melbourne doesn't have the enormous sense of adventure that you get in Adelaide or Perth at festival time."

Times change, of course.

And, while one wishes there were champions of 'non-middling' arts in the broadsheets (I typed boredsheets!) it's no longer essential to their reception and (at least moderate) success. That, to me, is a sign of a mature culture... one that doesn't need the imprimatur of 'critics'. Griping and bluster might slow the reception, but that's all.

The shriller the opposition -- I reckon -- the greater threat is perceived to be by that middling status quo. Indeed, the shriller the opposition to new work, the less relevant the mainstream press becomes. Which is why TN has so many devoted (and relieved) readers.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Chris. Ahem. I suddenly feel the need for the deflection effect of one of those individualised smilies...

I have always thought that the influence of critics is exaggerated. If what critics said had direct effect, Cameron Mackintosh would be a very poor man. But all the same, the (lack of) discussion around theatre in particular does have cumulative effects, which is why the lack of diversity in the msm, to use that ugly acronym, can end up being a problem. I guess to be an even bigger problem if Murdoch ends upp buying Fairfax...