A series of digressions ~ theatre notes

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A series of digressions

Little Alison is still in reset mode. On Wednesday night she saw Lucy Guerin's Aether, a work of exquisite complexity and beauty, but can she find the words to describe it? (The audience is expected to shout out: "no, she can't!") It takes a certain answering complexity in the mind to respond to work, and for the moment - I live eternally in hope of tomorrow - TN has the aesthetic sophistication of a shoelace. This lack of creative brio must be why I find myself coming over all editorial. What the hell. It's Sunday, the newly cleansed house is sparkling, and I'm sure you've got a nice cool beverage by your elbow. Right then.

This week, for example, the Short and Sweet Festival is back again at the Victorian Arts Centre, apparently bigger and better than ever. Now, in blogland Short and Sweet has a controversial history. Some of you will remember the wrath visited upon Ming-Zhu last year, when she blogged as a participant in the 2006 season (Chris Boyd's useful summary here, my commentary on the commentary here, and my review of some plays here.)

Patrick White winner Patricia Cornelius is one of the participating playwrights this year, and she was in the Age last week doing the PR thing. Though I noticed Cornelius seemed to argue against the idée fixe that audiences now have the attention spans of the above-mentioned shoelace. (Wherefore the wowed audiences at Ariane Mnouchkine's six hour epic Les Dernier Caravanserail, I wonder? surely if theatre is considered exciting in itself, it doesn't have to be marketed as something that won't hurt for long? - but I digress...) It is this attention span that, it seems, necessitates such festivals, which provide "access" to the arts.

I have all sorts of problems with the word "access". For a start, in my experience the demand for "accessible" art usually comes from people like Andrew Bolt. I am all for community arts, an aspect of culture that was sidelined by the Australia Council's restructure under the Howard Government, which saw off the Community Arts Board and left institutions like La Mama struggling to carry the slack. But I'm hoping - given that S&S organiser Alex Broun has been very active organising arts policy forums for the new Labor Arts Minister, Peter Garrett - that S&S isn't seen as a model for a brave new accessible arts world, because I think it is, at best, harmless and, at worst, a way of seeming to support emerging artists while actually doing very little of substantial worth.

(Aside from good community theatre programs - of which I think organisations like Big hArt are a model - I actually think that the best thing that could be done for access to theatre would be to make tickets cheaper. In Paris, you can pay 10 euro to see Pina Bausch at the very comfy Théâtre de la Ville, whereas a ticket to The Madwoman of Chaillot in Melbourne will set you back almost $80. But again, I digress...)

The short play festival concept is at best a dubiously scattergun way of nurturing new work. But it's attractive in many ways - it's very feelgood, and it's cheap. Participants volunteer their services for a chance at the prize money, thus removing at one stroke the major problem in performing arts budgets: the wages bill. There's something strangely circular about it. As I said in my review of one of last year's shows:

There's a whiff of the MFA creative writing circle here, a phenomenon common in the US, where aspiring poets (for example) learn how to write poetry in an MFA program, are published because they have an MFA, and go on to become creative writing teachers who run MFA programs...a rather pernicious professionalisation, as many have suggested, which explains the smooth edges of so much contemporary American poetry. Short & Sweet has its own version - aspiring S&Sers can enrol for the Short & Sweet playwriting course in early 2007, where they can presumably learn how to write plays for the festival.

It's almost, as a quick look at the website will verify, a small industry, and it's expanding rapidly: there are now S&S festivals for dance and music theatre. On the face of it, as I said, it's mostly harmless. But if Short and Sweet is embraced as a way forward for theatre, I worry.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about at all.

What caught my attention in the Age was a comment by Patricia, where she talked about the "desperation" felt by many writers about the lack of outlets for their work. I don't argue with the desperation; we have all - those of us of literary dispositions - felt this at one stage or another. "There are so few avenues for people wanting to write for theatre now," she goes on to say, "especially with the exclusion of Australian work from our major theatres."

This is where I do a double take. Which major theatres "exclude" Australian work? Even the MTC, which is surely among the most backwards of the major companies in this area, has this year programmed new works by David Williamson, Joanna Murray-Smith and Justin Clements (it has a rather better record in previous years). I can't say I'm excited by the Murray-Smith/Williamson duet, but there's no arguing that it's new and it's Australian.

Cornelius is by no means the only person to say this - it's a common perception. The formation of PlayWriting Australia out of the two former bodies, the Australian National Playwrights Centre and Playworks, is a new attempt to address the difficulties playwrights face. There's an organisation mooted called Melbourne Dramatists which, aside from having the worthy aim of getting playwrights to talk to each other, aims to mitigate the prejudice theatre companies allegedly hold against Australian work. There are playwrights' conferences all over the map, there are workshops and masterclasses and competitions. Playwrights, it seems, need all the help they can get.

I do not doubt that it's hard to get new plays on, despite the support of champions of new writing like La Mama or Griffin Theatre, nor do I wish to dismiss the concerns of writers. But I will point out that it was ever thus. I only need to ask my husband, who is now approaching (or even in) his third decade as a full-time playwright, a "profession", if it so might be called, which combined with my own, means that we do not own a house, a car, shares in Telstra, a country estate or any of the other material accoutrements considered necessary for a comfortable bourgeois life. (Although we do own a lot of books, cds and dvds). And he's successful, accounting - according to the Australia Council anyway - for a quarter of Australia's entire literary exports.

Yes, there's no doubt that it's tough - though equally, it's tough for directors and actors and all those other parts of the industry that face the prospect of 90 per cent unemployment. But is it really as bad as claimed? Do major companies really ignore Australian work?

Robyn Nevin, former artistic director of the STC, addressed this head-on earlier this year. "There's been a perception out there that I've been unwilling to program new Australian plays. Obviously there have been new Australian plays that I've not produced. I've rejected them. Perhaps that's what has generated this criticism because the facts tell a different story."

In fact, says Nevin, the 2008 STC season includes seven Australian plays. "Forty-seven per cent of the plays done over my time here have been Australian," she says. "Thirty-five people have been commissioned and next year we're doing seven Australian works."

The company that gets most schtick for ignoring writers is the Malthouse Theatre. Rodney Hall was one of the first to accuse it of "abandoning" writers, just after the new team took over from Playbox in 2004, and it's been a constant bone of dissatisfaction ever since. The Playbox, the story goes, programmed playwrights, and the Malthouse doesn't. I've heard this so often that I think it's worth looking in detail at the facts.

The past three years' programming doesn't bear out this assertion at all. In 2004, the final Playbox year, the Playbox produced six new Australian plays, its total work for the year (the previous year, the Playbox presented eight). The following year, the new writer-free Malthouse put on, in a season of 11 works, seven new Australian plays - and I mean, plays, texts written for theatre - by Wesley Enoch, Tom Wright (two), Lally Katz, Patricia Cornelius, Margaret Cameron and Ben Ellis. Plus a production of Patrick White. There were seven plays- plus a literary adaptation - in 2006, as well. Since 2005, it's mounted new works by Stephen Sewell, Gareth Ellis, Michael Watts, Ross Mueller, Lally Katz, Tom Wright, Rebecca Clarke, Melissa Reeves and Peter Houghton.

It beats me how that is abandoning writers, although there's no argument that the Malthouse is programming a broader vision of theatre. But the perception that writers are ignored persists, despite the facts. Are writers simply responding to the fact that there are many more plays than stages to put them on? (And perhaps I have answered the S&S question above - is it a place for the overspill, a kind of valve to let the pressure off some dangerous cultural steam?) But it seems to me that these persistent complaints are actually part of a deeper and more complex conflict about the place of writers in contemporary theatre. Which is, actually, quite an interesting discussion.

But now I'm hot and I have to move my desk (only writers know what this means). So I'll leave it to others to tease that one out...


Jen said...

you are quite right in your assessment of the Malthouse's programming, but i think there are two different arguements at play here. While Malthouse Theatre does program Australian writers (and in fact commission them) it is not open to new playwrights and untested works in the same way that Playbox was perceived to be (I wasn't in Melbourne during Playbox's time so I am loath to make assertations about how Playbox ACTUALLY worked). But if you look at the list of playwright's you've mentioned above, Ross Meuller's work was originally rejected by MT, programmed elsewhere and then picked up off the back of that success (a story he won't hesitate to share), Gareth Ellis's work was already critically acclaimed, Lally's work was done with Stuck Pigs Squealing and most of the remaining names are well established drawcards in the industry.

Now I love Malthouse Theatre, what it does and its place im the Australian arts scene, but I think most of the criticism it receives on this topic is not so much because of what MT does, but because of the hole it left when it replaced Playbox.

In short, the two conflicting arguements are: 'Nobody programmes Australian playwrights', which is clearly not true and 'Nobody takes risks on Australian Playwrights' which i think is an arguement with much more bite to it and is as much about the notion of fostering new playwrights as it is about honouring established ones.

As for S&S, one of the great things about it (in my mind) is that it is a zone in which you can take risks, lots and lots of risks with minimal loss if they fall flat on their face. Now whether people DO take those risks or not is up to the individual creative teams, but I think that's a wonderful thing in an industry that is increasingly caged by financial imperatives.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jen - thanks for that great comment. Yes, you're right about the perceived hole: but the Playbox model of workshops, commissioned plays that weren't performed etc wasn't working either, esp when added up to an average (was it?) 30 per cent box office.

Supportive as I am of the Malthouse, I do think they've turned away from a writer-led theatre (not the same as abandoning writers). Given the Playbox model of a writer-led theatre - Rayson, Gurr, etc, though they did do also Matt Cameron (what's happened to him?) - I think that's understandable. It's a moribund way of thinking. But that's doesn't mean that "text-based theatre" or plays have had their day. Writers in the theatre have to think better about it or - as they in fact are in France - face being sidelined. This is where it gets interesting, I think...