Sunday sermon ~ theatre notes

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday sermon

For the past few days TN has been a dull bunny indeed. I lay prostrate on my chaise lounge feeling sorry for myself and canceled all my theatre tickets. So no reviews: I hit the wall this week and was barely able to stir out of the house. On the other hand, having plenty of time on my feeble hands, I've been thinking. The big picture. That kind of thing.

These meditations were further prompted by a couple of things. My one outing this week was to participate in a forum hosted by Theatre@Risk as part of their New Writing Season, which included a stimulating conversation about the possible futures and various presents of theatre in Australia. And this morning, Diana Simmonds alerted me to some editorialising of her own on Stage Noise, where she has written a stinging summation of the first two years of the STC's Actors Company.

Simmonds's feature might be read as a companion piece to my reflection earlier this week on the Actors Company. In retrospect, that post may have sounded a little like a phone conversation with half the dialogue missing. Simmonds provides the other side of the conversation, and pretty much summarises the criticisms I've heard from Sydney.

Asking "what's the point?", she compares the Actors Company with the repertory companies that have long died out in England. She articulates the - I would say, rather Australian - resentment that comes with the formation of any elite group (unless it happens to be a group of sports people). The logic runs that the full-time employment of 12 actors in a high profile company shrinks the pool for other, equally able, actors.

Rather than the English rep (or, as it was once charmingly named by a cadet journalist in the Herald, the "old rope" system), a more accurate comparison might be with the Comédie-Française. The only state company in France and one of its few full-time ensembles, the Comédie-Française was formed by Louis XIV in 1680, and so has had rather longer to establish itself. Of course, it is also a by-word for theatrical conservatism in France. Quite rightly, we expect more of the Actors Company. But can we really expect it to be reaching its full flowering after only two years' work?

It's a little difficult to follow the argument that the Actors Company is swallowing up jobs for other actors. It is, after all, only one of the STC's activities, which includes this year seven other main stage productions and the studio activities of Wharf 2 Loud. It is more than likely that, should the Actors Company ultimately disappear, so would the opportunities that go with it; which is to say, its disappearance wouldn't free up any jobs, but would rather make the whole pool smaller.

More damagingly, to my mind, it would shrink the nimbus of possibility created by the existence of such an ensemble. There is a larger self-interest at stake here than the narrow question of professional jealousy or competitiveness: some people might find this hard to believe, but in the arts, the success of others makes one's own success more possible, whereas failure - especially of ambitious institutional enterprises - is a loss for everyone.

Australia's theatre history is littered with the wrecks of possibility, with enterprises of great pith and moment whose currents turn awry, smashing against the rocks of indifference or conservatism or simple envy. More than anything, we are suspicious of ambition.

In his 2002 Rex Cramphorn Memoral Speech, Nick Enright noted Robyn Nevin's then fruitless attempts to raise the funding for a full-time ensemble. It's worth remembering what he said then:

Actors are marginalised in our culture, and the development of new work suffers for the lack of the resources of a permanent ensemble. And so our national repertoire is increasingly solipsistic - we are the land of the one-person show, the small cast play, the domestic issue.

Twenty years ago, Jim Sharman at Lighthouse in Adelaide created an ensemble which, in the way of these things, seems more remarkable now than it did then... Would a program and vision like Jim's be possible now? Not likely. Would the 1980 Shakespeare experiment be possible in 2003? Even less likely...

Sharman's transformation of South Australia's state theatre company into the Lighthouse lasted a mere two years before it collapsed, leaving a teasing glimmer of what might have been. That gleaming possibility was, of course, one of the influences behind the formation of the Actors Company. And it occurs to me that if we're not careful, we'll end up in 20 years' time making much the same noises about the Actors Company as are now made about the Lighthouse.

Too often in this country, criticism is either a knife or a cushion; our commentary either puffs work up beyond reasonable expectations, providing the "supportive" criticism demanded, for example, during the Playbox years (still an overriding desire in some quarters); or, like bored children destroying sandcastles, it kicks the whole edifice over. In neither case does it seem very concerned with the examination of a work - or, most crucially of all, a process, for art and culture are living things - which is, after all, the real work of criticism. Rather, the point seems to be to measure against a reductive and arbitrary binary of total success or total failure.

To make things stranger, we have a weird glitch in our cultural memory: things that were attacked fiercely in their time become hallowed emblems as they fade into the past. A classic example is how Age feature writer Robin Usher used the "heritage" of former MIAF artistic director John Truscott as a stick to beat the present incumbent, Kristy Edmunds. I remember very clearly how Truscott was attacked in his own time, for exactly the same reasons that Edmunds is attacked now.

Let me be clear: I think there are legitimate questions to be asked about the ensemble, and no one is or should be above criticism. I am no friend of empty praise, which I think is as damaging (and perhaps ultimately more damaging) as sensationally destructive criticism. But is it true or fair to say that, as Simmonds claims, the Actors Company "has been sold a pup"?

A company that in its first two years produces an epic experiment like Barrie Kosky's The Lost Echo and a reconsideration of a classic as brilliant as Benedict Andrews' The Season at Sarsaparilla isn't, in my view, doing too badly. Two years is a very short time for any serious artistic enterprise. In employing directors like Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews amongst an admittedly ill-mixed bunch, Robyn Nevin has obviously imagined radical possibilities for the Actors Company. And while the question of the company's vision and purpose is now urgent, next year's challenging program may well go some way to addressing this.

"What has been totally lacking in the Actors Company," says Simmonds, "is an over-arching, questing creative imagination. What this idea needed to make it truly worthwhile were theatrical minds and ambitions such as are to be found (or were found) in the likes of Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, Ariane Mnouchkine, Nikolai Akimov, Darko Tresnjak, Craig Walker, Deborah Warner and Peter Sellars. This is a partial and personal list of creative minds and the sharp-eyed will have spotted no Australians names on it; no youthful names either. If you can add directors/creators whose names it is possible to link with a description of 'visionary, experimental, questing' - please do."

I heard similar plaints at the forum on Saturday, probing other contexts. But let's get real for a moment. If Ariane Mnouchkine were running the Actors Company, they mightn't even have premiered their first work yet, because she makes a new show every two or three years. Imagine the screams if the STC countenanced such a timetable! The outrage about the waste of public money, the self-indulgence of artists!

Here in Australia, we are impatient. We have little time for the idea of process. We look at companies like Théâtre de Soleil and wonder why we don't have an equivalent here, forgetting that it is the product of literally decades of work that has taken place in a culture that supports its theatres with generous funding and is proud of what its artists achieve. In France, the death of a great philosopher or composer is literally front page news, not a paragraph on the arts pages. In Germany, the education system turns out young people who are musically and theatrically literate, and who therefore enthusiastically patronise their culture. We expect results straight away, with neither the funding levels nor the educational support, and if they're not forthcoming we send out the long white envelopes. And then we all enjoy a spicy glass of schadenfreude.

Art doesn't work that way. Cultures don't evolve overnight. If we want artistic vision - and sometimes I really doubt that we do - we have to be prepared to nurture it, to give it both time and money; and we must take the time to be properly critical, which includes seeing virtues as well as flaws.

A culture that is dazzled by novelty rather than by achievement, that throws away a toy when it is bored and then complains that it has nothing to play with, betrays its parochiality. If we do lack artistic vision in this country, then it's our fault for not wanting it enough. It's our fault for not understanding that - for example - learning to write well takes more than a couple of months of masterclasses and a nice author photo. (Along with other things, such as ability and suicidally stupid determination, it usually takes about 30 years of hard and mostly ill-paid work).

My question is: what in Australian culture supports the nurturing of ambitious visions? For years I've watched as talented people battle on stubbornly in obscurity. Robert Draffin is one name that springs to mind; others are Tim Maddock, former artistic director of The Red Shed in Adelaide, whose last big show was the 2000 world premiere of Howard Barker's gigantic epic The Ecstatic Bible, or Margaret Cameron. There are many more. Yes, we have people of vision here. I'm not sure that they've been especially encouraged.

In all but the toughest cases, artists finally bow obediently to the pressures of the "arts industry". They face "reality" and dutifully turn out what they are told is required. Some give up, realising the cost is too great; some end up broken and cynical; some find other ways of working in the culture. A lucky few get out of the country.

Is this the kind of culture we want? When I look at young artists like Ming Zhu Hii, now in the middle of exhilarating self-discoveries, it's hard not to wonder what the future will open up to them. I wonder what they will be offered besides discouragement. I wonder if their refusals to compromise, their ambitious desires, will find any purchase or recognition. And it seems to me that there is a direct link between what happens on our main stages and what becomes possible in the loungeroom of a young artist, or in the tiny venues on the edge of town. A culture that hasn't any space for the larger enterprises will scarcely countenance the smaller.

Of course it's tough to be an artist. There are ways in which it should be tough: art is a demanding and rigorous discipline, and it's not for everyone. But being an artist in Australia - "in the cold," as the poet Michael Dransfield said so memorably, "of something as pitiless as apathy" - has particular challenges of its own; here it seems too often that artistic ambition, as opposed to the smaller ambitions linked to a "career", is considered a disability, an embarrassment. In other places, this isn't necessarily so: the unconventional, the stubborn, the difficult, the questioning, can attract attention and even admiration.

Is it any wonder that a director like Barrie Kosky chooses to base himself in Europe, where he can find the resources and intelligent critical recognition that are so thin on the ground here? If Daniel Keene can get gigs on the biggest stages in France, where he is hailed as one of the most significant contemporary playwrights in Europe, why should he be bothered that mainstream Australia has ignored his work? It's not, after all, his problem. But it is our problem, and ultimately our loss.

At the moment there are some seriously interesting developments on our mainstream stages. The Actors Company is one of them; others are the Malthouse Theatre, and the Melbourne Festival as it has evolved under the artistic directorships of Robyn Archer and Kristy Edmunds. Interestingly, all three of these are roughly contemporaneous. All these institutions have the potential to enlarge the possibilities of our theatre culture, and offer us a vision of a cosmopolitan, sophisticated and diverse Australia, an Australia that can be a unique part of the continuum of international theatre practice. For Australians do have something unique to offer the world.

But sometimes I wonder if these developments will fade and pass, leaving only the ghosts of unrealised potential behind them. And whether, in two decades' time, we will be having the same conversations we had in the 1990s. It seems to me that if we don't recognise and embrace what is possible now, if we don't perceive those possibilities and extend them, that could be very likely. And it will be all our fault.

And here endeth the lesson.


Jonathan Shaw said...

An excellent post, Alison. There's an allied ailment, where we keep seeing the birth of a true Australian drama being hailed, as if each generation has to start from scratch. You're probably more familiar with this than I am, but The Time is Not Yet Ripe (1911), The Touch of Silk (1920), The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (195?), then Buzo-Hibberd-Romeril were greeted by the critics of the day as beginnings ex nihilo. Amnesia has been around for a while.

Matthew said...

As I'm sure you've noticed, I've e-mailed you my thoughts. Well, sort of. Twice.

If this is the sort of thing you come up with when you cancel tickets, maybe you should cancel them more often. (Though not too often, of course...)

Avi said...

Alison, when I read your blog I get smarter.

Thank you for giving me the kind of education I will never get at any kind of institution.

Very grateful to have taken even gone to one lecture at the Alison Croggon University.

Thank you.

Ming-Zhu said...

You are a National Treasure, Alison. Thank you so much for caring - thinking, analysing, and articulating. You inspire. You honestly do.

demosthenes said...

I agree completely and think Simmonds misses the point by dwelling on how the inclusion of some actors means the exclusion of that not what happens with every resident company in every theatre in the world? She is right about the wonderful Hayley Mac--it has been thrilling to watch her grow from her first deaf mute in "Mother Courage" to commanding the stage in the "dream." Proof enough for me of the value of such a company. It is also somewhat comical to imply that greater talents were not invited to the company because of anyone's fear of looking inferior--I think the roll call of Australian and international theatrical lions that have been coaxed out here proves otherwise.

Alison Croggon said...

Thank you all for the nice comments! I felt a little hesitant about posting this, in fact, fearing it would simply be a rant. I'm glad it comes across as more than that.

demosthenes said...

I do hope if you contact Simmonds you can provide her with a list of the extraordinary writers, directors, actors and designers that have passed through the portals of the STC in the past nine years to show her how ridiculous the argument is that only the second-rate have been asked. What a terrible insult to those deeply creative people.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, it's a little strange to dismiss Andrews and Kosky, for example, and then want to know where the Australian directors with vision are...! But this isn't a personal attack on Diana (who happens to be my old boss, and who stood up for me bravely when I was under severe attack as a critic). She's not alone in her criticisms and, as I said, I've heard those criticisms from quite a few quarters.

Diana Simmonds said...

On the contrary, Alison, I have no problem with the concept of an elite group – how else are excellence, innovation and originality to be achieved? But my argument is that, in reality and as it has panned out over two years, the STC ensemble falls far short. Taking your snide reference to sports people a little further: an elite group is generally recognised as having a higher purpose – Olympic gold, the FIFA World Cup or Wimbledon for instance. There is no point gathering an elite group to train, practice and play in order to stay pretty much in the same place and not achieve something special. Do that and the fans (aka audience) will soon be bored and start voting with their feet.

Boredom and disappointment are the two words that have come up over and over in responses to what I wrote about the actors company. Again, contrary to your next snide comment on matters of self interest, professional jealousy and competitiveness, actors I’ve spoken to might be sore about being excluded but their generosity towards peers and hope for better things outweighs that; what they are really ticked off about is that so little real ambition and creative thinking is evident in the company’s work. I suspect a lot of people (and I include myself in that) thought that Lost Echo/Kosky would be the norm rather than the exception. Otherwise I return to my original question: if you gather 12 people together to do pretty much what they’d be doing anyway except on a longer and harder treadmill – what is the point?

Geoffrey said...

I'm not sure I can find any evidence of "snide" references or comments in this post. Can anyone else help me out? I must be missing something.

Anonymous said...

Diana as an actor with experience in both models of working I have to say that the “habits” ,”limitations” and “schtick” that you refer to are far more likely to manifest for actors in a jobbing context than in an ensemble which is actively developing performance languages and theatrical discourses unique to them.What great, even good theatre has been created without obsession, discipline and a profound shared understanding of the freedoms and constraints of the particular material and the art form itself?Can’t do it in a four week tryst-or in two years.The “closed shop”, “elitist” argument is in part responsible for turning our companies into bureaucracies for managing cultural product or for closing them down altogether.
But I think youre suggesting that the approach so far has just created more of the same:
That the STC ensemble was put together from all over the country with actors trained and practiced in various methodologies which privilege different global and historic movements and approaches to performance (or, much worse, from training and performance cultures tailored to suit the “industry”) may mean that it will take longer for a house-style to emerge or for the riches that come from emphasising process to become evident.I think the best ensemble work we’ve seen in this country have tended to emerge from the training institutions where people are more likely to inhabit a similar imaginative / theatrical landscape,have common methodologies of the body and voice and broadly shared desires for exploring certain kinds of work.Either that or from relationships developed through many years of working together in various configurations(as seemed to be the case with Lighthouse).
Bringing Annabel Arden out to do a show wont create a Complicite but it introduces the possibility of working in ways so far removed from the current commercial models that I can only see it as a much desired beginning…. . Complicite ,for instance, has a distinct approach to on-going training of the actor and their physicality developed through their past work with Monica Pagneaux and the Feldenkrais method. They seem profoundly committed to solving theatrical problems through the actors’ bodies which is fully integrated with verbal text and this distinguishes their work. Its nothing new to say that such work-and just one example-requires time, discipline and shared vision.
Too often our four-week rehearsals/ short seasons model with a cast where there may be little shared obsession invites actors, particularly without inventive and rigorous direction, to come up with “the goods”-intelligent readings, crowd-pleasing solos…survival! And for the audience the anything goes approach (I kind of think about it as the artistic version of the “free market”)can too often be a stylistic, discursive and aesthetic mish-mash.
I’m surprised that you expected all the work to be of the quality of “Lost Echo”-I’m with Alison when she points out that that work is the culmination of decades of laboratory-style experimentation and development(and support he got in another country). That our actors were equal to the task gives me great hope and heart.
Cheers all, Eileen

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Diana - I guess I'm saying that what I've seen on stage with the AC looks very very different indeed from the job-to-job model; the virtues of having an ensemble - the play between the actors, the familiarity that permits a freer exploration of performance, etc - seems very evident in what I've seen on stage, and surely is its own justification to the question of why?

Otherwise, what Eileen said. What you want the company to achieve, and are disappointed that it hasn't instantly created, is something that takes a while longer than two years.

go away said...

Unfortunately Simmonds doesn't allow comments on her own site so the only way to address them is here. She's been bored, has she? Yes I suppose the works of Benedict Andrews, Barry Kosky, Jean Pierre Mignon, Edward Dick, Annabelle Arden and others doing everything from an astonishing re-working of the myths of Ovid to Shakespeare to a world premiere of a devastating depiction of the war in Iraq isn't enough for the rarified tastes of the former critic for the Sunday Tele, where "Dusty" was hailed as the heights of theatrical art.

st genesius said...

Eileen--whoever you are we need you and your kind of thinking. I pray you are working in a position of influence in the theatre. If not, apply for one!