Blowin' in the wind ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 21, 2009

Blowin' in the wind

Even gale-force winds couldn't stop the theatrical event of the week: to wit, the Save VCA protests, which culminated in a 1000-strong march this morning to Parliament House, where the troops were rousingly addressed by Geoffrey Rush and Julia Zemiro. (Ms TN, alas, could only be there in spirit). As Crikey's Ben Eltham reports:

The University seems to have badly under-estimated the strength of feeling about the proposed changes to VCA. The protests are now starting to garner broader media attention, owing to strong feelings in Melbourne’s tight-knit artistic community and the high profile of Rush and Zemiro. Now three prominent members of the VCA Advisory Board have quit in what looks suspiciously like a protest.

The situation has been exacerbated by the University’s ham-fisted attempts to spin the issue. The embattled new Dean, Sharman Pretty, who has become the lightning rod for student and staff discontent, was initially held back from all but hand-picked media appearances, until this strategy started to look like arrogance. When she finally fronted up to be interviewed by the ABC 774’s Jon Faine this Wednesday, it was deer-in-the-headlights stuff as Faine took her apart on air.

The strength and feeling of student, staff and community protest about the VCA course changes appear to have surprised senior executives at the University, who perhaps thought the VCA could be successfully integrated without too much fuss.

Instead, it seems to be turning into something of a PR disaster for the University of Melbourne and Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis. And certainly for Dean Pretty, whose evisceration by Jon Faine can be heard here. Save VCA is calling for the Federal Government to fund the VCA as a national training institution, as it does NIDA and other institutions.

Photo: courtesy of Twitter


Anonymous said...

ben elton? not quite, tis ben eltham.

Alison Croggon said...

Eek. Who would want to be mistaken for a man who was recently voted one of the 50 smuggest people in Britain? Will fix forthwith.

richardwatts said...

You missed a great rally, Alison - one of the most upbeat and enjoyable protests I've ever participated in. I attribute much of the good vibe to the brass band, which had even the coppers tapping their feet to the rhythm at one point... Henceforth I think that every rally should have a brass band.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, an upbeat protest with crazy dress theme and a brass band. That'll show 'em!

What were they protesting again...?

Andrew Bovell said...

Congratulations to the VCA students waging this campaign. Their cause is just. They have the right to demand an education and training that is focused and specific to the art form they seek to practice. Liberal arts degrees are a dime a dozen in this country. I studied at the VCA and went their seeking to go deeper into one area... theatre... not broader, not to tinker at the edges of being an artist but to commit myself to a particular discipline. The college shares a legacy with the APG and La Mama that is unique to Melbourne and responsible for its diverse and thriving theatre culture. I wonder if the people responsible for making this decision really understand what they are messing with. Thanks for the coverage of the campaign, Alison.

paul said...

Anon 2: yeah, silly artists used their imaginations and artforms to get people's attention. I wonder whether exchanging puppets, costumes, dance and oscar winners for rocks and flame throwers would've proved more original and effective? i dare say that would've been as general as a breadth degree.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Andrew. And absolutely on the knocker. You get the horrible feeling that Melbourne Uni has no idea what it's got there, or how important it is in Melbourne's culture; but the higher reaches of MU has often been sadly out of touch with the wider cultural life of the city.

And yes, those brass band and cossies - and Rush's speech - got the Save VCA issue sympathetic coverage in all the mainstream media, Anon 2. Which is quite smart, actually. (Aren't they artists? Oh yes, they're artists...)

I'm very curious now to see what happens next.

Anonymous said...

Actually I disagree.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for saving the VCA. But if the best an entire school of artists can come up with for their protest is "crazy dress theme" then I find that slightly concerning.

It did get media coverage, but for the wrong reasons. On friday evening I had several people say to me "Did you see that protest in the city today, it was crazy". However, none of them actually knew what the protest was about, they were too distracted by the mankini's.

One article I saw on the Age website (it might have been in print too, not sure) spent the first three paragraphs talking about mankini's and the other costumes that were worn on the day. Then it got to what the protest was about.

Sorry, but that's not using your artform to protest, thats just shooting yourself in the foot. Did they really think they wouldn't come across as just a bunch of immature art students? Especially to those making the decisions? They had an opportunity to make a huge statement- and they blew it.

Here's an alternative- everyone dress in formal black. Have the production students build a giant coffin that has R.I.P VCA down the side. Have the muso's play marching funeral procession music, have the actors grieving. One thousand people marching through the centre of Melbourne, ramming down its throats what Melbourne Uni is doing to its city's culture. This would have been a statement. This would have carried the anger and frustration of the VCA student body and the artistic community. This would have made people listen to what they were actually saying. But instead they went for crazy dress theme and trumpets.

I also have issues with the fact that two of the main people who spoke on behalf of the Save the VCA party last week, Rush and Noni Hazlehurst, didn't even go to VCA. They're both great actors, but so are many graduates of the VCA. But of course they weren't chosen because of where they trained, but because they are celebrities. This seems to me like the VCA student body rather missing the point. VCA has never been about producing stars, its about producing artists. There are many successful artists working in the industry who have graduated from VCA, who could have spoken, but of course getting on the news was more important. Chunky Move, KAGE, Ranters... JULIA ZEMIRO! It just seemed rather hypocritical to me.

I hope VCA can be saved. Its contribution to Australian art is undeniable. However I feel that the students, after doing nothing about it for three years, have stuffed up their last chance to save their school. I can't help but feel, Alison, that what happens next will be exactly what Melb Uni was planning on doing anyway.

Alison Croggon said...

I saw two tv news reports that were canvassing the hard concerns, so however they did it, they got their grievances on tv, out to a mass audience. Where it's certainly not been before.

Maybe you could organise the next protest, Anon?

Felix said...

anonymous party pooper,

i think it is you who misses the point. getting on the news is EXACTLY what a rally is about. getting celebrities to attend is one of the best things you could do (not to mention the fact that geoffrey rush is not only famous but also one of the most respected artists in the country). what is the point of having a quietly successful artist who no one knows speak at a rally? i could have spoken. i have some great ideas. you probably could too. but no one except us and our mums would give a shit, would they?

it's not a sombre q&a session, it's a PROTEST, darling. loud. colourful. attention grabbing. MEDIA SEEKING. people see it, think "what's this all about? so many people care so much and yet i don't know the backstory. i better find out because it's clearly an important issue."

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying they shouldn't be trying to get on the news, but getting rush and noni to speak so that you can access a popular audience screams "we havn't produced anyone famous so we called in a movie star and noni from playschool" .

Felix, are suggesting that if some of melbournes leading artists spoke no one would care? What's the point of saving the vca then? The only people's attention who rush and hazlehurst would have grabbed that a vca grad wouldn't don't care about the arts anyway. I don't think many people are rushing home from a show at the malthouse to catch city homicide. Again, I'm very much a supporter of the vca, and therefore am bit annoyed that they felt the only graduate worth holding was Julia zemiro, and that they had to call in outside help.

And yes it is a protest, not muck up day at high school full of "look at me!" teenagers, which is what they looked like. A protest should carry the anger and emotion of the issue, not through violence as is often the case, but through the power of the image. The march on Friday actually appeared more like a celebration than anything else, and I feel the seriousness of the situation was lost on anyone who didn't know the problem already. I recently witnessed a protest of Indian students block the flinders swanston intersection for an entire day, a vastly superior statement to mankini's and trumpets. And people noticed, they had no choice.

Again, I really hope vca can be saved, but I feel the students efforts last week will have had little impact. Melb uni just had to withstand the attack for a week, and now the students will no doubt return to doing nothing about the problem, as has been the case for 3 years.

Anonymous said...

anon, i think I know you...did we have burgers today?

Alison Croggon said...

I think bringing in people like Rush shows that the concern stretches beyond the school itself, which is a fair reflection of fact. Re everything else, I also fear it's rather late in the day. A whole bunch of mechanisms are in place and protests won't necessarily change anything: otherwise the biggest protests in history would have stopped the Iraq War.

That's why I'll be watching whatever happens next with interest.

Anonymous said...

anonymous ten milion here, also watching with interest as anonomouse fifteen hundred and ninety decides that watching indian students protesting could make a good film and convinces the board of swinburne film school, RRR, channel 31 and vcam and the national gallery art school to put all their resources into saving said indian students because if they don't, then we will never produce another indian student who is prepared to protest again!

Hurrah! I've done it!
Try and beat that one all of youse!

and my word verification word just here says 'novel' :)

Anonymous said...

Other anon, no we didn't.

Alison, I get what you mean about Rush, but the fact that the only vca grad to speak was zemiro is pretty dissapointing, and says a bit about the campaigns values.

As it is outlined on the save vca website, the traditional graduation ceremony has now been removed, with the final ceremony taking place earlier this year. At that ceremony, where students were presented with their degrees, only one student made some sort of protest. The current drama students then sung what seemed like some sort of joyous traditional African song in the foyer. This was their protest at the removal of one of vcas great traditions, and a symbol of melb uni's takeover.

I just worry that if that example, and last week, are how they respond to their school being taken away, how will they respond to something like war or human rights abuses when they are practicing artists? Come on guys, do something bold and make them listen. The protest has to be something more than one week.

Alison Croggon said...

Notice to all the masked men out there: why don't you invent some pen names, so we can be less confused about who's replying to whom, etc?

andrew said...

Maybe the argument about whether the tactics used in the protest were successful of not is a distraction. I understand your point anonymous. I don't agree with it. But you've made it. Back to the Melbourne Model and its implications on arts training in Victoria.

Why can't we hear the views of the VCA staff? Pro or con. Their insight would be invaluable. I find it disturbing that they would be gagged for fear of losing their jobs. Is that tolerable in a democracy.

The word is that Kristy Edmonds supports the changes. If so then let her argue her case in public.

Michael said...

PETA has shown us all that to get mass media coverage for your cause nothing beats nudity. Indeed I remember Rachel Griffiths standing bare breasted outside Crown casino to protest its opening and all it represents. She may have failed in stopping that monstrosity, but I admire her for having the guts to make sure her voice was heard. I think the protest was a great idea, and I would have suggested Rush, Rabe, and a few other Melbourne theatrical luminaries on the dais and a solid phalanx of starkers VCA students as their honour guard. Global coverage guaranteed.

Anonymous said...

hey, peta complain about rabbit fur on, my dad has actually gotten to love the dog he's been lumped with cos this dog gets down their burrow and bites them up and down the spine...then little rocky just cruises off to find the next one, happy as a little chihouha foxy cross...then the little blighter hangs out till a bird of prey comes along, swoops down and eats little myxo rabbit down.

And lets not get onto the chooks. I mean, what's wrong with killing a dirty rabbit? If it's wrong then don't use the fur for something practical, and if it's wrong, then how about cane toads? and should we let blackberries just be? Or how about european wasps? I mean come on.

The same is to be said for VCA. If Kristy Edmunds actually supported the changes it would probably mean that's because she wants to bring us more dross from the mother land, or maybe just another pest from the father land. Ah Australia, assailed at every turn by imported species...which leads me back to the melbourne university private, full fee paying students and the opening of the ian potter gallery all those years back when vca students marched up swanston street in the nude, yep in the nude. More fuss was made frankly when snuff puppets had boobs in the moomba parade.

And kennett went but the rabbits stayed, and the coloured girls go...

and now my verification word is ousne

Tom C said...

Anon- What the Save the VCA protest did was not only present a clear opposition to the changes happening at the VCA, but also provide a platform to celebrate the creativity at the VCA. The University of Melbourne would have loved the protest to have been a wake, coffins brought along. Admit defeat. However, we have not given up the fight yet!

On the subject of who spoke at the rally, VCA graduates were certainly asked to support the campaign and come along. Many of those who replied to the Save the VCA campaign sent letters supporting the Save the VCA cause, but were unable to commit to speaking at the rally.

In terms of the "song" performed at the Graduation ceremony, it might have "seemed like some sort of joyous traditional African song in the foyer", but it was actually a very strong form of protest. For many years it has been part of the VCA tradition to invite the whole School of Drama to the Graduation to sing (the song we sang in the foyer) from the audience. This change was one of the ways the VCA Graduation ceremony was dismantled. We sang in the foyer without permission of the university, or the staff. It was certainly not a song celebrating the change, but, rather, our way of making sure that the graduating students received the appropriate send-off. Of course, there were other things about the ceremony that were changed that were perhaps bigger tragedies... but just wanted to clarify what that was about. While it was very clear to the new Dean of VCA and the University of Melbourne, I can imagine it must have seemed confusing to the general public.

It is heartening to hear that you are supporting the fight at the VCA (even if you don't necessarily agree with how the fight is being done).

Anonymous said...

No vca graduates were available to speak at the rally? Please...

I assumed the song had some relevance, my point was that under the circumstance it was a pretty weak response that the general public, as you pointed out, would have overlooked as silly arts students mucking about. Same goes for fridays protest.

Also, I extremely doubt melb uni would have loved a giant funeral procession through the city. For reference sake, it was the same protest used by artists when the pram factory was closed. It's not admitting defeat, it's reaching people with a strong image relevant to the cause.

Anonymous said...

the point is that people don't really care for seeing doom, gloom and anarchy. It bores people and they just turn off. There's a protest every week in this city and they're all the same. If you want to make people aware of your cause, do something colourful and exciting. But i dare say we are avoiding the main issue here...