The Green Rooms (& some Airplay) ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Green Rooms (& some Airplay)

Ms TN is not a morning person. I was supposed to be at Footscray Hospital bright and early this a.m. so I could be injected with radioactive isotopes and put on a treadmill (don't ask) but yesterday I entirely forgot about this appointment and drank a vat of coffee, thus invalidating the whole exercise. So I had to heave my carcass out of bed early so I could phone the Department of Nuclear Medicine, confess my idiocy and cancel the medical experiment.

So perhaps I was in a slightly misanthropic mood when I studied the Green Room Awards press release listing 2009's winners, announced last night, which slid into my inbox first thing this morning. But I suspect that even had I bounced out of bed with a happy cry and greeted the dawn with rapture, my sunniness might have been a little eclipsed. It is a duty to disagree with awards, but it's been a while since I've felt so at odds with their results.

Awards in the arts are always contentious. They depend, for a start, on committees of people agreeing on something, and in areas like the arts, perceptions of quality are inevitably - and in my view, necessarily - subjective. Even so, the conservatism of this year's theatre awards is notable. Not that conservatism is, in itself, a bad thing - I don't have many quibbles with Robyn Nevin's gong for Best Female Performer, for her extraordinary performance in August: Osage County, nor for Simon Phillips' direction, his best for years. But When The Rain Stops Falling as best mainstage production? And that script the best new writing of last year?

Michael Kantor's Malthouse production of Happy Days - one of the shows of last year, and Kantor's best direction yet - didn't even make the shortlist for production or direction. (And yet the Malthouse's indifferent production of Knives in Hens was up for both direction and best production.) Equally baffling is Daniel Schlusser's superb and thoughtful Life is a Dream losing out in the indie best direction to Bagryana Popov's disappointingly banal take on Chekhov, Progress and Melancholy.

There are, of course, worthy winners among them. You can't miss the target all the time. But I might drink another vat of coffee today, as I reflect on the world's folly and resistance to quality.


On a cheerier note, I hear that ABC Radio National's Airplay is broadcasting Corvus, a beautiful script by ex-Melburnian and now Berliner Jasmine Chan. Featuring Bojana Novakovic and Ming-Zhu Hii, it will be worth twiddling the dial to hear this one. It goes to air on Saturday, March 28. While I'm at it, look out for Paul English reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet on ABC Radio's First Person, airing from May 24-28. Now, that's writing.


the anvil said...

how strange, i just posted something dissecting the Sydney equivalent. although perhaps less diplomatically...

just for comparison, who is involved/what is the selection process for Green Room nominations? is it as shadowy and aloof as the STArs seem to be?

Personally I have no problem in recognising excellence, but why can't we simply nominate the best show. it's absurd that one in particular should be singled out. But I'm guessing that comes down to the perfect excuse to send out invitations to rub shoulders with the rich and special, with apologies to Stephen Berkoff.

awards = elitism. there's no escaping it!

Alison Croggon said...

The GRA's are much more transparent - the panels are quite big and diverse and mainly consist of industry peers.

I don't have a problem with elitism. Some things are better than others.

the anvil said...

Like me, for example? I'm better than others... of course the difference is that i don't just think it.

further apologies to Steven Berkoff for spelling his name wrong. how embarrassment.

Also it should read "invitations on embossed cards to rub shoulders with the rich and special"

i'm far too young to be getting sloppy in my old age...

The Sydney Tom Wright said...

I didn't see enough of the nominations to get a sense of justices or injustices.

But if the set for When The Rain Stops Falling was the best piece of stage design seen in Melbourne last year then we have a big problem with our design culture.


Alison Croggon said...

And yet design culture is one place where we don't have a problem. An embarrassment of riches, surely?

Chris Boyd and I are in strange unison recently - perhaps the planets are in an odd alignment. And both of us are harmonising in shock at the new Australian writing gong, because the shortlist was anything but weak or dull. Aside, that is, from the winning play.

the anvil said...

It shows the absurdity of award ceremonies that while Happy Days didn't make the cut in Melbourne, it did in Sydney.

An excellent play, in my humble opinion, but should we assume that overall the standard in Sydney was so poor that we had to import one of Melbourne's critical rejects to fill out a shortlist?

Or maybe it's just apparent that critics are inclined to be in a constant state of disagreement, therefore nullifying the significance of any award, anywhere!

i wonder which is closer to the truth...

Anonymous said...

I wonder which razor is closer, anvil?

Alison Croggon said...

It works both ways. As I recall, last year the STC's production of Season at Sarsaparilla by Benedict Andrews was totally snubbed in Sydney and swept the board here.

Alison Croggon said...

...btw, I don't see how disagreement "nullifies" anything. It can be the foundation for interesting articulations. Maybe it's the insistence that they be about agreement that is the principle problem with awards.

Anonymous said...

Alison, did you see the Alice in Wonderland that pipped Life is a Dream to the post? I'm having trouble finding any reviews or writing about the production at all...

the anvil said...

fair point. i'll admit i'm just being obtuse...

these awards are anything but worthless, but they do perpetuate a cult of celebrity and glamour which is a distinctly un-Australian approach to showbiz. Not in the JWH-PC sense; but directly imported from our northern cousins.

I'm not sure Australians actually *like* glorifying our high achievers individually!

Anonymous- that's a very odd thing to say! whatever do you mean?

Andrew Bovell said...

I want to stand by my work publicly, in the context of Alison's questioning of its worthiness to receive the new Australian writing award at the Green Room Awards last night.

The play makes no great claims. It arrived in 2008 with no fan fare and no hype. It began humbly and continues to be a rewarding collaboration between a group of theatre artists who are as passionate about theatre as many of the readers of this blog.

It has captured some peoples' imaginations and left others cold. It has had good reviews and bad. The diversity of opinion is fine and healthy.

I disagree that it is pretentious and trite and dull as you have claimed here and on twitter.

It is just a play... one in a rich landscape of recent Australian plays.

And I'm proud of having received the Green Room award last night.

Andrew Bovell

Alison Croggon said...

I don't know about glamour, Mr Anvil, but part of my ambivalence about awards is that on the one hand, it's an excellent way to recognise good work, while on the other it creates a competitive culture of "winning" that is ultimately inimical to what art is about. If awards were about shortlists rather than winners, I might feel quite different about them.

Andrew, thanks for coming here and standing by your work. I can't agree with you, but I do appreciate your doing so. And also note its courage, since doing so is too easily misconstrued.

Dismay said...

I think twitter is the death of dignity and mystery.

I think you're all mean.
You're all desperate old people or pompous young people and I don't know what's worse.

I wasn't crazy about When The Rain Stops Falling, but you're all shits.

Ditch twitter Alison, it's lame.

And may the internet die a death.


Alison Croggon said...

Gracious. I'm sorry for any hurt feelings, but frankly the GRA claim to be arbiters of excellence, and if I and others disagree with what they claim is the "best", we are perfectly entitled to say so, in whatever way (bar ad hominem libel) that we like, just as others are perfectly entitled to disagree. It's not about being "mean"; it's about what you believe art is, and what you want from it.

That you think those reactions are about being "mean" suggests that you believe that the GRA are all about having a lovely self-congratulatory party, which is just how the tabloid columnists think the arts community spend their time. Art's never been about warm fuzzies for me; you put stuff out there, you take it on the chin. Yes, twitter is fluff, but it is often also a useful information tool. I take it as seriously as it deserves.

I suppose I come under the "desperate old people" label, since I'm certainly not young. Good to see you leading by example in your quest for dignity and mystery, tho.

Snow said...

Alison, are you not a GR panelist? Seems like a wee bit of pique that you should so publicly air your disagreements with the awards. As a panelist dont' you feel embarrassed and ashamed to be whining about how you didn't get your own way? It would be lovely if you could only have a bit more respect for not only your fellow panelists and the votes that they cast, but also for the greater theatre community and especially the winners this year. Start your own awards. Then you'll get your own way every time. Unless, of course, you find yourself waking up on the wrong side of bed on voting day and in a fit of childish pique decide to vote against yourself.

Alison Croggon said...

Childish pique and a desperate old woman? I guess if you divide it in two, you get to my proper age.

If you bothered to read the sidebar, which is full of handy info - or indeed, if you read the blog - you would know that I resigned from the Companies panel at the end of 2008 and had no part in the 2009 awards. And maybe if you followed the links to my reviews of the shows I mention, you'd find out that there are actual reasons for my "pique". I don't comment about stuff I haven't seen and thought about. I only wish my critics were as respectful.

Dismay said...

I didn't call you a desperate old woman.
I said desperate old 'person'.

Didn't mean you personally. I'm older than you. And more desperate.

I was lashing out, Alison!
I hate 'warm and fuzzies' and I hate the Green Rooms

... don't you get tired, Alison, of all the opinions? And all the art? So much art... I'M SO WEARY...

remembereringgiap said...

it is little wonder that such mediocrity as mr bovell seems to produce at regular intervals should be lauded because it is a country which worships the execrable explications of mr williamson, the stupid sophistry of alex buzo, the banal borrowings of louis nowra & those sorrowful serials from hannie rayson

mr bovell does not need to defend his work their are armies of impoverished intellectuals willing to do that

it is sad that the one person capable of wiping the dramaturgic floor with these people is the really gifted writer, mac gudgeon who has been lost to the vagaries of australian film & television. he writes in the classical tradition where there is a self evident fusion of o'neill with odets nut transformed to australian realities

bovell & his ilk can only imagine writing like gudgeon in their dreams

the sadness of these riters is their total ignorance of what has really happened in theatre whether it is grotowski, brook, or kantor but they write like those developments never existed - what is worse however they ignore in real terms both technically & morally what are the lessons to be drawn from contemporary australia & they ignore them still

the pretentiousness of these exercises that pass for theatre in a reduced world are exasperating but mr bovell need not worry because no one is interested whether the emporer has clothes or not

remembereringgiap said...

if the natural sciences or even the social sciences ignored the kind of lessons that theatre & other arts regularly & systematically ignore - we would be in a worse state than we already are

it seems, from where i am & i am very far from the concrete realities of australia - i have not lived there for over 20 tears & have no desire to ever return - but i do read & read voluminously, thanks to friends & comrades & thanks to a means of communication hich allows me to 'witness' what some excuse for public intellectuals call ' a national conversation' & if i remember anything about australia i remember this - 'conversation' can only really be talked about in ironic terms

i am unconvinced by alison's advocacy of howard barker but eben the most feeble of his works takes account, technically & morally of what world he lives in -edward bond always transcended it in a way that seems unimaginable today & it is quite certain that this most englishfellow was completely aware of the slighest developments taking place in theatre whether they were taking place in lodz, or brazil or damascus - his work is from a very great mind but a mind that homds ungeratti & adoni in perfect tension. in brief he is not a fool so he undersood that for each breath he wrote words for needed to be informed by the technical innovation brought to theatre, mostly by the dispossessed

bovell is small potatoes in the real movement of literature so should not be demonised - he is simply the logical conclusion of a certain type of ignorance

if only a writer like phillip motherwell had the courage to write instead of escape & an australian audience had the capacity to comprehend the implacable & uncomfortable truths of their world - then there would be some possibility of innovation - real innovation

i imagine that task in australia is still a lonely work - a work of having to undermine one's own last instants

the moral fibres of western culture have been so broken this last decade - i wonder if it is capable of creation in any fundamental sense of that word

Anonymous said...


I didn't mean to be odd or mean. I just missed the producation of Alice and am curious to find out about it, given it scooped the indie awards. I thought maybe Alison had seen it herself or read about it somewhere and could point me in the right direction.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi, Anon farther up - missed you in the sturm und drang. No, I didn't see Alice in Wonderland, though I remember it being on. One of the many I missed last year, and now - as ever - I'm sorry I did.

No, I don't get tired of art, other Anon, although sometimes I just get tired. Which is why Andrew Bovell's graceful defence of his work is a nice change. Although he is the one most nearly interested in my comments, he refrained from calling me any names at all.

And hi, Remembering Giap. Two decades is a long time, and things change. 20 years ago I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly; now I see a lot of good reasons for being here, including a lively and interesting theatre scene. And I have no shortage of conversation, in private at least (it can be a bit of a struggle on the blog sometimes, but I am ever hopeful). That's a reflection of larger poverties. The one real gap in this country's culture is quality public discourse: most of the time it's either, as Australian poetry was once described, a knife-fight in a phone box, or it's about nothing at all. You feel it sharply when you return from Europe: ok, we can't do anything about the Herald Sun arts vendetta &c, but how about at an individual level doing enough work to take it seriously? I was reading the Sight & Sight website yesterday and I just sighed.

the anvil said...

good morning!

I meant the oddness of the other Anonymous comment which repeated what i said except adding the word 'razor' to the question. Ockham's razor perhaps? an oblique reference to Battlestar Galactica maybe?

Alison, yes, it is the culture of 'winning' which i referred to as glamour/celebrity that irks me about this stuff. and the alternative is awarding shortlists or something similar.

But then how would we generate such lively discussion if everything was so uncontroversial! Besides, Mr Bovell should be proud of the work regardless of winning prizes or whatever. it's the audience that matters.

most critics are just bottom feeders whether they like the work or not... Can you imagine what would the writers of the Herald Sun do
without us?

Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic but perhaps not. I was struck by a recent piece in The Age mentioning how many years it has been since a Prime Minister of Australia has set foot in the Arts Centre to see a performance of ANYTHING--not an opera, concert, play or dance piece. Nothing. Zero, for at least fifteen years. No doubt the same could be said about the Opera House in Sydney. That coupled with the recent press about the "humiliation" of Peter Garrett being reduced to being merely Minister for the Arts, as though that were the wooden spoon of Canberra. When we live with political leaders with absolutely zero regard or appreciation for the performing arts (are they afraid they'll be accused of being poofs if they walk into a theatre?)there is no hope that the broader community will feel what we do is of value. Compare that to European heads of state who are regularly seen at opening nights, offering their implicit support. Even the Obamas go to the theatre--what is wrong with us?

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the conversation but was pleased to see such great competition in the Design for Independent Theatre category. The nominees were all strong and the field could have even been expanded with a number of shows not listed but worth honorable mentions. It is clear design culture is actually thriving in the independent scene.

Alison Croggon said...

(How about some nom de plumishness, various anons?)

The political ignorance - amounting to hostility - towards the arts is one of my bugbears. It runs in both parties - shamefully, since the demise of Don Dunstan and Paul Keating's retirement, the Liberals generally have a better track record than Labor, perhaps because Liberal ministers are more likely to go the opera. Although that then does defines what they think culture is.

During the Henson debacle, the only politician who said anything remotely sensible was Malcolm Turnbull (it turned out that he owned a Henson landscape). Not one other pollie did anything but play to the public gallery; and Garrett - supposedly our advocate in the government - had the moral courage of an amoeba. And you're right, they set the example, which others follow. The media plays its part, too; here I don't mean the arts pages, but rubbish sensationalist stories like that Herald Sun attack on council arts funding.

Political traction depends on an arts minister with a personal interest and - more importantly - some knowledge of the arts, and the belief that culture is important enough to fight for. They're pretty rare beasts. I wish Kim Carr were arts minister, because he's the only person there who seems to have any idea of the bigger picture. But he's not, because culture is seen as a "soft" job. Consequently, the entire discourse take its cue from that.

Still, that doesn't absolve artists and commentators from our own responsibilities.

Anon #2 - absolutely. I think design culture here is one of our real strengths; we have brilliant people working in both mainstage and independent. And that applies to all its aspects - set, costume, sound, lighting.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alison Croggon said...

You know something, anon above? There's been enough dumb trollishness here.

Snow said...

My apologies, Alison, for getting that wrong. I haven't read your blog in a while (2yrs is probably about right) and I was directed to it after your tweets and post about this year's GRAs.

The main issue that I take with you on your response to the awards is that I feel you've rather unfairly attacked the winners ("that" script - Bovell/ "banal" - Popov) for simply being awarded a prize. Surely it would be more reasonable to say that the GRs have got it wrong in certain categories not because the winners are rubbish but because you believe
there were more worthy candidates. It's mean spirited to attack these people/productions who deserve even our surprised congratulations whether or not you agree with the GR panel decisions.
You have, in effect, held the winners responsible for the failures of the GR and the failures of the industry at large. They have already suffered your reviews and it is entirely unreasonable to blame the winners for winning. Whether this is what you meant in your post is beside the point. It is how it reads.

The other issue I take with you is that you seem to want your toast buttered on both sides - "conservatism good/ conservatism bad", "subjectivity good/subjectivity bad". This all reads so holier than thou. It reads to me as "My" conservatism and "My" subjectivity are good and everyone else is bad. Can't you simply say what you mean rather than hedging your bets so? I think its the hedging that gets some of us so riled up when reading your posts. Because it sounds smug. Whilst you are an authority you are not the only authority. Nor are you always right. You claim it is your duty to disagree. Fair enough. But please do so with some grace and a clearer idea of what you are disagreeing with and without slinging mud at those who don't actually deserve your vitriol.

Consider your own folly and your resistance to difference.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm sorry, Snow, but you are effectively saying: don't criticise, because it's not nice. Have you read the job description on this blog?

Since when have I ever claimed to be the "only authority"? Precisely never. But I certainly do have the authority of my own views. And I would strongly suggest that if any mudslinging has been happening in this discussion, it's certainly not been coming from me.

I totally fail to see where I "held the winners responsible for the failures of the GR and the failures of the industry at large". A careful perusal of my post will demonstrate that I said no such thing.

I did say: "It is a duty to disagree with awards, but it's been a while since I've felt so at odds with their results." Which seems quite uncontroversially straightforward.

And I did say:

"Awards in the arts are always contentious. They depend, for a start, on committees of people agreeing on something, and in areas like the arts, perceptions of quality are inevitably - and in my view, necessarily - subjective. Even so, the conservatism of this year's theatre awards is notable."

Which is, again, a straightforward critical observation. Saying that conservative theatre isn't, per se, something to be condemned isn't precisely a difficult concept either. It's a statement that means things are not binary. I don't do binary criticism. It's one of the things that, in fact, I work hard to avoid.

My particular comments are backed up in more detail in my reviews (which have been "suffered through". Well, negative criticism is never pleasant, but it goes with the job, mine and yours). The real problem here seems to be that some people don't want a critical culture at all. And frankly, I don't think that's ok. You can disgree with me all you like, but closing down discussion is quite another thing, and something I will never agree with. It's what has been wrong with this place for years.

Instead of insisting I have no right to think what I think, while at the same time demanding that I say what I mean (wtf? Isn't that the problem?) it might perhaps be more useful to actually make an argument. You think When The Rain Stops Falling is a worthy winner? Why not say why? You think that the theatre awards didn't demonstrate conservatism? How about saying why?

In any case, try playing the ball, rather than the woman.

Anonymous said...

Shoot the bloody judges. There are wide brown plains of opinion about theatre in Victoria; there's a lot of room to reasonably disagree. I saw most of the nominated productions and some of these winners aren't even on the critical map.

As far as I'm concerned, it's an an abdication of responsibility on the part of the judges.

Being a GRA judge isn't just about the free lamingtons. It's srs bsns.
You're wearing a critic's hat, more or less, and you're under the same obligations: to form strong opinions based on knowledge of the art, and to be able to defend them. Anything less does a disservice to the theatre under consideration.

Paul K said...

I rather liked Progress and Melancholy, and in fact preferred it to Life is a Dream as the latter had the feel, to me, of a drama exercise devised for the participants rather than the audience whereas the former warmly and delightfully engaged and interacted with us.

I thought both were quality performances in their own way but would side with the GRAs in preferring P&M.

I say this not to spark a debate about the relative merits of the shows, but just to add a small voice of support for the way the awards went.

Carry on.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anon - quite. Respect is surely the act of taking the work and the art seriously? Srs bsns as you say.

And thanks too, PaulK.

Anonymous said...

i just had to google srs bsns and found this.

it says more about the art of criticism than anything I have ever read:

Alison Croggon said...

Hmmm. I thought Jonathan Jones's Guardian piece rather more interesting. where he points out that criticism is just the specialist edge of what artists do all the time. I've always thought the supposed fundamental conflict between art and critique is rubbish, because art is itself an act of critique - on other art, on the world.

Unless, of course, one thinks it is primarily self-expression. In which case, buy a sandpit.

Anonymous said...

Late I know but I'd like to stick up for the works you target. Andrew Bovell is a thoughtful, highly self-critical and considered artist, he is on a craft level one of the better writers in Australia with a mastery of structure - the shaping of When The Rain Stops Falling is beautiful, witness the image of the red dressing gown - an ability with dialogue which provides many layers of information in few words, and an awareness of form that means he can't be dismissed as a conservative 'naturalist' - check his plays "Ship of Fools" and "Distant Light From Dark Places". He is also emotionally courageous in a way that many writers are not, and is prepared to explore territory which is exposed and which - perhaps - leaves him vulnerable to criticism of being sentimental or too obvious; but he is no populist manipulator. As for 'remembering giap': "total ignorance of what has really happened in theatre whether it is grotowski, brook, or kantor but they write like those developments never existed - what is worse however they ignore in real terms both technically & morally what are the lessons to be drawn from contemporary australia & they ignore them still", this is so wide of the mark regarding Bovell that what it really underlines is the danger of forming an entrenched position and then sticking grimly to it for 20 years.

And as for Bagryana Popov's production, I would again defend it vigorously in terms of skill and craft. I saw a production that was genuinely the result of a thoughtful process, where the performers were clear and committed to the aesthetic of the piece, and where the form was sophisticated and confident - i.e. an awareness of the audience on at least two levels, a use of dance and movement in a text play that felt integrated and engaging (except, I felt, for one moment) and a gentle and un-cliched meta-theatricality in the way the Chekhov play was adapted.

While I admire and value Theatrenotes as a really vital part of Australia's cultural 'conversation' (yes, remembering giap, we are having one!) I am picking up Alison, that you really don't like works that wear their emotional commitment overtly - like these two. I'm hoping we can throw up a critic who is your equal in terms of research and background knowledge who will stick up for this stuff!

Tom G

Alison Croggon said...

Fair enough, Tom G, and many thanks for posting such a robust defence. I'll not repeat my own criticisms; for instance, what I thought of the red dressing gown is in the comments on the review itself. But I will beg to differ on your observation that I "don't like works that wear their emotional commitment overtly".

It's a difficult point to answer, since it's not about my work per se and more about me. But surely the many reviews here don't actually bear this out? If overt committed emotion did not affect me, I doubt I would have been moved by any of Shakespeare, or Mnouchkine, or Blackbird, or Food Court, or indeed the artists in Wrong Skin the other night, to mention a few things that moved me.

I guess I am not quite sure what you mean. If you are saying I respond badly to sentimentality, you would have a point: I do. (I define sentimentality more or less as Milan Kundera does - it is for me a generalisation of feeling that at times adds up to its absence - he uses Charles Dickens as an example). And I don't think stating an emotion is the same as expressing it, if that's what you mean by "overt".

But if you are saying I don't respond to overt feeling expressed in a work, that seems simply incorrect: I am always seeking feeling, and am moved by commitment. I do think the accurate expression and communication of feeling is a difficult business. In fact, I think it is much more difficult than most people realise.

remembereringgiap said...

i wonder if the 'national conversation' extends to christmas island & villawood

& though there's 20 years & 20000 km - what is happenign in australia, thanks to blogs like these & comrades in australia - i am not totally ignorant

& theatre practice is no stranger to me here or elsewhere in europe, especially scandinavia but i am in the end unconcerned by what you may think, alison's instincts seem to be measured & very far from my fanatic heart