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. 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. 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. 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.
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:
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.