Back to regular programming... ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 18, 2007

Back to regular programming...

A couple of things I've been meaning to note, to clear my desk before I catch up with the reviews that were sidelined in my frenzied burst of inspiration last weekend (the reviews are Enlightenment and Othello, if anyone's wondering, which I hope will be up by tomorrow night).

1. There are now enough theatre bloggers in Melbourne to create a blog party. So we're having one. It's being organised by Matthew over at Esoteric Rabbit, and he's a classy sort, so the venue is the Gertrude St Enoteca, the date is Saturday July 14, and the time is 1pm. Matt is booking, so get over to the Rabbit here to let him know you're coming. All Melbourne theatre/bloggy types welcome - as Ming says, and I couldn't put it better: "Set aside the squirming and the Oooh, gawd. I dunnos, and come and get head to head with the other strange, nocturnal creatures who've been stalking your comments box. Can't hurt. Physically. (I think.)"

2. This comes under the heading "I probably shouldn't, but I can't resist". What is Joanna Murray-Smith thinking? She makes Little Alison, a screaming narcissist if ever there was one, feel like a shy and retiring violet.

Murray-Smith's The Female of the Species has been picked up by Michael Mayer - who last week won a TONY award for Best Director/Musical for the hit musical Spring Awakening - for a season on Broadway. Now that is hunky dory, and all due credit to Murray-Smith: I'm not one to begrudge success or recognition. Besides, despite myself I enjoyed the play, though it may have been simply that I was off my head on cortisone at the time.

What raised my eyebrows in the Age interview was this:

Yet despite the demand and acclaim for Murray-Smith's work, the Sydney Theatre Company is yet to produce one of her plays, save for one co-production of Nightfall. STC artistic director Robyn Nevin was offered The Female of the Species — four other productions of the play are planned for Australia and abroad next year — but declined it.

Last year Murray-Smith took the extraordinary step of writing to the STC board to highlight the importance of staging new Australian work, and to also "draw the board's attention to my belief that (Nevin) was sabotaging my career, which I still believe"...

"It really makes me sad that when I'm overseas I'm regarded as an Australian playwright, but I can't get my plays on in Sydney," says Murray-Smith.


Gracious. Can she seriously have done that? And then talked about it to a daily newspaper? Let's get some perspective here. For example: Kath Thomson is an extremely successful NSW playwright whose work is very seldom seen in Melbourne. Has she been bombarding the MTC Board with similar complaints, I wonder? Or to think further ... consider that between them, according to Australia Council figures, Joanna Murray-Smith and Daniel Keene account for half of all overseas productions of Australian playwrights.

Now, Keene has a couple of significant productions coming up in Paris next May - a production of Half and Half at the Théâtre de la Ville, which attracts the biggest audiences in Paris, and which will be in fact the third time his work has been presented by that theatre; and a production of Five Men at the Cartoucherie, at the Théâtre de la Tempête, a sister-theatre to Mnouchkine's Théâtre du Soleil. (At the same time, he'll be seeing the touring Ouvre le Chien production of Elephant People, a 600,000 euro "sideshow opera" with text by Keene that opens this October). But until the Griffin Theatre put on The Nightwatchman in Sydney earlier this year, his work had not been seen in either Melbourne or Sydney for several years. And it has certainly never been produced by a State Theatre Company.

I know - due to my intimate relationship with this Keene fellow - that he has not once written to any Board claiming that anyone is sabotaging his career. He just thought that some people didn't like his plays, or thought them unsuitable for their purposes; and although he would always prefer people to fall over in extravagant admiration, the fact is that people have every right not to like them. (He weeps copiously, but that's ok.) No one is obliged to like anybody's art. Not even mine. Perhaps this is a concept with which Murray-Smith should become acquainted...

13 comments:

David Williams said...

mmm, yes, very humble.

she does however raise (albeit inadvertently) another serious issue, namely the severe dearth of female playwrights being produced at STC. Last year there were a big fat zero, and this year there's only The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee that has a female author, apart from a Lally Katz play being produced at Wharf 2. Me thinks there's a bit of under-representation there... just a teeny bit.

dw

Alison Croggon said...

Fair comment, David. I know very little about how the gender issue works in Sydney theatre - (and it's not only a problem there) - can you give us some background?

It's a very fraught area, because I am very ambivalent about the idea, for instance, that work by women should receive positive discrimination, even knowing the structured imbalances that exist, or that there ought to be unofficial "quotas" (as in the old days of the Playbox). And there are endless complexities. When I was editing poetry for a magazine at the National Library, for instance, the amount of poems submitted (they kept meticulous records) was 1/3 women, which of course meant that the gender balance of the poems published were roughly the same, which could unfairly give rise to accusations of discrimination.

I'm not suggesting the STC programming reflects this, but gender is, all the same, an incredibly problematic question with toothed traps on all sides. I had real problems with Hannie Rayson's and JMS's plays in the 90s, for instance, because I thought they confirmed all the comfortable stereotypes about women rather than doing anything to question them, thus confirming all the assumptions that kept women (except for, perhaps, a few privileged women) in their place. In questions of gender, is it enough to have "enough" women, or are there tougher questions to think through? that might, for example, impinge on questions of class or race or sexuality or any number of other structured problems?

Well, I think you can see where I'm going here; but it's certainly a question I have thought in several circles over the years...

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Alison

If Robin Nevin and the STC are sabotaging Murray-Smith's career then I figure there must be a global conspiracy sabotaging mine.

I was hoping you could use your considerable influence to organise marches and picket lines at major theatrical institutions (in London and New York for starters) to redress this terrible injustice.

Nicholas Pickard said...

This problem is not only within the realm of playwriting.
A quick glance through the list of female directors at the STC and Company B shows over 2006/7 - out of a total of 39 productions, only 8 were directed by women.

If this is the type of representation occuring at a high level in both writing and directing, there must be something a little bit more to the story.

It would be interesting to see what role the education insitutions are playing in this. What is the intake at NIDA etc? What is missing in the development of female practitioners that is there for men? And more importantly - who are the present gate keepers and what is their agenda??

Ming-Zhu said...

In my opinion, programming ought to have far less to do with quotas (often a necessary evil, but one that nonetheless makes me squirm), and rather, be all about the quality/artistic merit of the work, full stop. I think the REAL problem here, as Nicholas begins to point out is of representation. I've been racking my brains for a while now about why there are truly far fewer women than men in this country who are actively driving theatre forward. And I don't mean administratively.

I wonder whether there's an inherent fear to put one's balls on the block so to speak, perhaps, precicely because we don't posess the organs in question, and therefore, in the spirit of true gender-stereotyping, it would feel an act that was somewhat against our nature...

As I've previously pointed out on my blog, there seems to be a high female drop-off rate on the acting end of things, but just as equivilantly, I don't see anywhere near enough young female writers and directors being as pushy and demanding as their male counterparts in the name of getting what they need to get ahead, or at least get their work seen! And I just want to tag onto that, that pushy and demanding in that context are not negative qualities to employ. Perhaps that's the diagnosis - women are still afraid of not being liked. And perhaps they have every right to be: It's much easier to negatively stereotype a woman in the public eye for putting her neck out. Be it for her methods, style, syntax... Pushy is not a concept we like to associate with females.

But perhaps your comments box is not the place for this rant, Alison. I'll continue it in one form or another over at mine at some time in the not too distant future.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ming - my comments box is perfectly hospitable to such rants. And in fact, I think you've put your finger on the problem, which is as much about self-censorship as any exterior factors. About, in fact, the success of feminine socialisation. But that's incredibly complicated...

Paul Martin said...

But that's incredibly complicated...

Fuck yeah! And almost impossible to debate in a public forum because people get hysterical when you raise certain issues. And because socialisation is so deep that people refuse to see certain truths.

(Pardon my French)

David Williams said...

Hi Alison et al,

Sorry to drop such a contentious comment in and not stick around to follow it up. Had to run around dealing with printery issues, but now the monster is submitted.

I don't think Sydney is an anti-female town in any sense, and there is certainly excellent representation of women in key arts organisations round town, in admin and creative roles (eg. Sue Hunt at Carriage Works, Fiona Winning at performance Space, Robyn Nevin at STC, Virginia Hyam at The Studio, Tanja Liedtke at Sydney Dance, Sophie Travers at Critical Path, Sandra Bates at the Ensemble. I'm sure that there are others). Nor are we short of regularly working female theatre directors. Lee Lewis, Marion Potts, Kate Gaul and Robyn Nevin all spring immediately to mind, and there are no doubt others. Its cold and wet and my brain is working slowly. And yet there clearly is an issue with programming plays by women as part of the mainstage at the biggest theatre company in town. I'm not stuck in the idea of it having to be Australian women either, nor would I like there to be a quota, official or otherwise. That can be useful as a temporary corrective measure, but can also be a bit demeaning.

anyhow, I'm not suggesting that we must program our humble friend, nor that we need to do the Caryl Churchill back catalogue, but surely there is good work out there by female writers. Admittedly, not all the regularly working Australian writers such as Noelle Janaczewska and Lally Katz would suit, and Katherine Thomson and Alana Valentine can't churn out more than one or so a year, but surely there's more out there!

Quota or no quota, it seems wrong that a major theatre company with an international profile has one work with a female author in a 2 year period. This to me is the sign of a major problem somewhere. Maybe I'm going crazy.

x David

Alison Croggon said...

No David, you're not going crazy. (Although sometimes pointing out the obvious can seem like that). It seems like a perfectly sane observation to me. Any thoughts on why?

Alison Croggon said...

PS Congrats on the thesis. I expect you're like me, kind of light-headed with relief...!

Anonymous said...

I think it would be inetersting for someone to research the programming of Rosalba Clemente's Artistic Directorship at the State Theatre Company of South Australia a few years ago. She was AD for about 5 years I think. Largely equal numbers of male and female writers and directors I seem to recall. (Suplemented with some major roles for female actors.) The company didn't go under financially and so the punters must have liked it. Who'd have thought eh?

Noëlle Janaczewska said...

Probably missed the boat here and entered too late in the debate. But in case anyone's interested I've got a few comments on this issue--and a view from Sydney--on my blog: http://outlier-nj.blogspot.com
Noëlle

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Noëlle

Thanks for the pointer to your fabulous blog (and that very interesting post). Them's fighting words!