Well, how about that ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 07, 2011

Well, how about that

Quick pointer this morning to Peter Craven's latest peroration on the Evils of Postmodernity in this morning's Age. Which gives me an excuse to mention the recent announcement of Brett Sheehy's appointment, after months of feverish speculation, as the new artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Sheehy's appointment was certainly a surprise to most of us, but it's been warmly welcomed: his solid background as literary manager for the Sydney Theatre Company and artistic director of some of our major festivals means that he brings to the job both a proven talent for fund-raising and a wide appreciation of theatre (including, clearly, "text-based theatre": after all, Sheehy was responsible for programming Daniel Keene's Life Without Me, which Craven liked so much, as part of MIAF). And it suggests a welcome opening of the horizons for the MTC, perhaps modelling itself on the diversity that the STC has been exploring with such success over the past few years.

What Sheehy has never been accused of, until now, is radicalism. Craven expresses alarm that Sheehy's appointment might spell doom for "traditional theatre" and the "well-made play": he claims that "this appointment is remarkably consonant with a world where the recently appointed head of Belvoir Theatre in Sydney, Ralph Myers, is a designer and where the wing of the Sydney Theatre Company most articulately represented by Tom Wright is ambivalent about the viability of what gets referred to as text-based drama". And he makes a forlorn plea for Sheehy to renounce the "smoke and mirrors of post modern moves" and retain "a faith in the play as the thing". Frankly, the only smoke and mirrors here is Craven's argument: straw men are flying in the wind like nobody's business. Still, an amusing start to the week.


TheatreGoer said...

I, too, think the MTC Board has got this appointment wrong, though for very different reasons to those expressed by Peter Craven. I think he's way off the mark, as you rightly point out Alison.

I can’t think of any theatre company of note, anywhere in the western world, that is not led by an artist. These artists are not always directors, and nor are they always the company’s CEO. But their leadership is fundamental to their company’s ongoing artistic character and ethos. So it’s troubling that the MTC Board has chosen to appoint a non-artist.

The MTC Board, I can only speculate, wanted a CEO who would bring much needed business partnerships and enhance the company’s international connections. Fair enough. But it need not have used the critical position of Artistic Director in order to achieve this. If it felt it needed someone such as Brett Sheehy, then why not appoint him as Executive Director, or to a similarly new position, even incorporating CEO authority, suited to his skills and the company’s perceived needs? Why not appoint, side-by-side, an artist to lead, shape and feed the company’s artistic life? It has used the position of Artistic Director to solve a separate problem, and that speaks to me of poor governance and poorer imagination.

MTC is a theatre company. It is not a festival, and nor is it a civic cultural centre. If MTC were the Victorian Arts Centre, for example, one might applaud the recent appointment (just as we applauded Judith Isherwood’s appointment to that institution). A theatre company is, and should be, a very different kind of place. My fear is that after the initial backslapping we will see the cracks. There will be new sponsors, there will be international tours, there will be interesting individual projects from time to time, but we will sense something missing – a leading artist guiding, shaping, inspiring, mentoring and bringing to the company a sense of an integrated artistic life. We will notice, bit by bit and with growing dissatisfaction, that MTC is without a true artistic heart. An administrator, even one as talented and appreciative of artists as Brett Sheehy, cannot ever be expected to provide one.

Alison Croggon said...

Interesting points, TG. I confess my mind went totally blank when people asked me who I thought would lead the MTC after Simon Phillips; if it went for more of the same, I think it would have been very bad news for Melbourne, but it was hard to think - beyond the obvious candidates - who they might appoint. Given the conservatism of its subscriber base and corporate structure, it obviously wasn't going to be someone who frightened the horses. (Except easily frightened horses like Craven).

However, I must confess that it's hard for me to see how an AD who is an administrator (if Brett is simply that, which I think is not quite the case) makes any substantial difference: the MTC hasn't had much of a sense of being an artist-led company in any case. The AD has been effectively an administrator for many years, focused on balancing the books, even if he directed a few shows a year. And a good producer can be just as visionary as an artist.

Anonymous said...

I work at MTC and can advise with some authority that Simon Phillips could NEVER ever be called an administrator and he has NEVER balanced books - instead he has other talented managers to do that for him. He is absolutely an artist and has very little to do with admin matters.

The reason he directs so few shows a year is because he spends the rest of his time working on commercial shows, going o/s to see plays and do research and programming the next season.

TimT said...

Alison - I've been meaning to email you this. I suspect you might be heartily amused by it...

(Not really OT, etc)

Alison Croggon said...

Hello Anon - point taken, and apologies - I framed my comment carelessly. I didn't mean that he was working as an accountant, but that it's been hard to discern an artistic direction that isn't predicated on commercial demands (although given SP's outside interests, his aesthetic is, I guess, commercial theatre). This is vastly different from, say, Pina Bausch's direction of her company, which shaped the whole aesthetic of what she did, and was the comparison I was making. I don't mean anything judgmental in saying this: the MTC, as we all know, gets very little subsidy, and tickets must be sold if it is to survive. Nor do I mean, at all, that this means that it doesn't create any art. It obviously does.

And thanks for the link, TimT: I had missed that. It is very funny and seems a fitting epitaph to the whole kerfuffle.

Jel Pappas in Seddon said...

I don't really discern a 'true artistic heart' at MTC at the moment, TheatreGoer. Where is it? Where's the commitment to theatre as an 'art'? What's artistically coherent about MTC? What 'integrated artistic life'? If anything, the place has become a production house, a sausage factory, in recent years. (That's not at all meant as a criticism.) Maybe MTC ceased to be a 'theatre company' a long time ago.

And why can't a dramaturg (as Brett Sheehy has been in the past) be as good a leader of artistry as a 'director'? In fact, possibly better?


TheatreGoer said...

Hi Jel,

I didn't say that MTC currently had a 'true artistic heart', only that it has passed up, I believe, the opportunity to develop in that direction. If, as you suggest, MTC ceased to be 'theatre company' a long time ago, then it's even more disappointing that it has not used this rare moment to correct that.

I think Brett Sheehy stopped calling himself a dramaturg about 20 years ago.

I hope it all turns out well, but I do worry about the corporate displacement of artists from positions of leadership.

Anonymous said...


I worry that you are being very narrow in defining where artistic practice exists, and what kind of work can result in classification as an 'artist'.

By his own definition Marcus Westbury isn't an "Artist" and yet witness his massive cultural impact, across Australian arts practice and at every level of government.

Of course Brett Sheehy and Marcus Westbury are very different beasts; but in a way, both seek to create environments in which artists and audiences meet and thrive. Brett's appointment means many more opportunities for Directors to direct; the interim Artistic Directoriate means an ensemble of key creatives establish strong programming links with the company.

I think it's exciting.

Born Dancin' said...

You have to admire Mr Craven's rhetorical tap-dance here, though:

A bunch of non-directors leading theatre companies is worrying.

Rather than scrutinise their actual programs, let's instead have an old dig at Michael Kantor, a director.

The non-director types have, admittedly, done some stuff of which I approve.


Ergo: we have cause for concern.

*drops smoke bomb, exits through trap*

Alison Croggon said...

Totally agree, last Anon.

BD, here's some Gene Kelly to remind you what true sure-footedness looks like.

Jel in Seddon said...

I've never worked at a (big) theatre company so I admit I'm coming from a position of ignorance.

But, why exactly should the job of artistically programming a big organisation like an MTC be best fitted by a director? When these jobs come up it's director's names that get mentioned. But what do they actually do, day to day, month to month, that makes a director a better option than a lighting designer or a writer or an actor? I know that Michael Gow got the Brisbane job and a company up in Sydney appointed a designer. So why not an impresario, or a dramaturg, or festival director? What exactly do artistic directors do? I'm assuming it's programming a season, making sure there's a balance in the season, making sure there's a combination of emerging artists and older hands, supervising casting and so on. Choosing pamphlet images. Offering support to shows that are in rehearsal perhaps? It sounds like curating; overseeing, choosing, comparing, contrasting, setting up a discussion ideally. And that needs vision and leadership, which anyone can have, or not have, regardless of which discipline they come from. I'm still not getting my head around why having Brett Sheehy in charge means that he can't lead shape and feed artistic life?

Actually, from my admittedly limited exposure, MTC does resemble a year-long festival, and the Sydney equivalent even more so. Presumably a 'company' (as opposed to a festival) has some continuity, some character that exists in its shows that gives them a unity, a house style. I sort of felt that at Malthouse. But what's the company character of MTC? What curatorial style can a theatre that big have, when it has to do new Australian plays and classics and musicals and comedies from the States and Williamson and Lally Katz and Raimondo Cortese and McDonagh and Keene? Maybe his festival skills are a perfect fit, he can actually have a more objective overview.

I take seriously TheatreGoer's concerns because it wouldn't be great for Melbourne if our theatre companies lose their way and become artistically weak. We lose enough talent to Sydney and overseas as it is.


Neil P, NSW said...

I'm with TG.

The weird thing is that Brett isn't starting according to the original timeline, a temporary committee is going to run the company until he's finished at the festival. So they must have really wanted him. You can see why some ready, willing and able directors who were passed over for someone who actually can't do the advertised job might be a bit nonplussed.

It can only mean that MTC now see the job as bigger than just artistic direction, and that they don't trust any of the applicant artists to deliver the goods.

As you can probably pick up I'm a friend of someone who applied. And I have no personal axe to grind with Brett, I just wonder if the goal-posts were shifted in the middle of the process.

Sydney Tom Wright said...

"...the wing of the Sydney Theatre Company most articulately represented by Tom Wright is ambivalent about the viability of what gets referred to as text-based drama."

I'm not ambivalent. I'm bored by the distinctions, by the terms of the debate, by the terminology, by the tone, by the assumption of absurd binaries, by the belief in High Art, by the belief that theatre has to be uplifting and edifying, by the way we all fall for it every time.

From where I sit all theatre has a text. All drama is text based. Distinctions beyond that get less useful every year.

We're living in a vibrant, fascinating age of theatre. Technology and a shrinking world are generating divergent work all over the place, and one of the hallmarks of recent years has been how that heterogeneity cross-fertilises and strengthens other forms and disciplines. It's a great time to be doing theatre. Hopefully Brett can bring some of that energy to his stages, and surely we can be confident it won't be at the expense of the 'play' being 'the thing', whatever the hell that means.

I don't understand why my home town falls into these sloughs and tries to make energising opportunities into re-runs of yesterday's arguments.

The Unambivalent Sydney Tom Wright

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks TG, Jel and Neil - I guess it comes down to various ideas of what an artistic director does. It's not as if there's a single way to (as I saw it expressed somewhere recently) artistically direct a company: companies come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of different ambitions, and the means of leadership are potentially as various. I actually don't understand the concerns expressed here by virtue of Brett's being a producer rather than a director (or a writer or a designer). Why should that be a priori any less full of possibility, especially in a company like the MTC? Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and with everyone else I shall certainly be curious to see what emerges. I don't think it represents a corporatisation of the company, which is, after all, already a corporate entity. And one presumes that he got the job because he had ideas the company thought were exciting.

Tom, ditto all the way down. Especially on the iterations of "yesterday's arguments".

the scorpion said...

If we don't get a single adaptation for the entirety of his tenure he will be doing something right.

Down with adapting old texts and down with bagging someone before they've even started.

And down with putting on dumb plays. It's called the Melbourne Theatre Company Petey, you might like to think of theatre from somewhere starting with say, sitting round a fire talking, to punch and judy, to the endless parade of television sexpots, muscle men and glitter e-streamed to your kitchen table where sitting round a table talking the form changes always has.

The plays the thing is it Pete? You would have been smashing stuff up if you were reviewing the first production of Waiting for Godot. You would have been and I bet you'd love it if Australian actors still had to have the plum in throat yeah?

You'd love it because you sap from this world, you come across as all high and mighty, but really, a series of inconsequential arguments dressed up as authority.

Oh and Brett's not able and your mate didn't get the job? Yeah, sorry, that must mean the entire selection process was flawed and your mate has been severely disadvantaged right?

Perhaps Brett Sheehy may bring something profound or perhaps he may safely steer the company to a position from where it can continue in its journey. Perhaps he will do little but balance the books. But the fact is he has the job and there is but one thing to say now.

Congratulations Mr Sheehy, and welcome to Melbourne!

PS: Don't do anything outlandish and don't do anything conservative. Easy. Your time starts now :)

Eileen said...

The role of ‘artistic director” has always been relatively fluid in flagship companies in Australia and in many small to mediums. In SA John Gaden and Rosalba Clemente were mostly known as actors when they took the helm as artistic director. Christine Westwood was primarily a producer and entrepreneur. In the independent sector many companies reframe the idea of artistic leadership as a collective function. And Marcus Westbury is most certainly an artist.
But it’s just as problematic to eradicate the distinctions between artist and administrator that can also happen in this debate as it is to be too narrow in defining who can lead artistic processes. Anything goes, everything stays.

The producer model is a mode of production. Yes it began quite some time ago ( in Thatchers England in Western, subsidised theatre ) and it hit our shores many years past. Conservative programming, bottom-line imperatives, a managerial class holding most full-time positions in the arts and the majority of artists reduced to a casual labour force…. all part of the pattern. The tendency is to cull small to medium companies in favour of festivals and events, or turn them into “hubs” (run by producers) or to so radically under-fund them that they are unable to pay artists a decent wage. One-off projects abound within this system and so its difficult to develop the art and the artist. But if they’re willing to get their show up for nix or little then a producer may just cherry-pick them for their programme or festival or tour and then they may get paid (if they’re lucky) and get their work to an audience.

I have no opinion on this specific appointment but I think it’s imperative for artists to see the rise of the producer generally (whether prefixed by “creative “or not) as part of a bigger direction in government policy which is becoming more naked by the year: towards the continuing privatisation of art, a reduction in subsidy for the labour of artists and the compulsion for larger bureaucracies-ie corporations and governments- to create smaller ones in their own image.

And not to eliminate the more positive aspects of globalisation and developments in the art form but surely whether it’s a good time to be making theatre or not is dependent on where you are in the hierarchy, your age , your gender , your class , your race and your artistic proclivities…….. as it has always been.

Anonymous said...

It is true that Brett Sheehy didn't even apply for the job at the MTC and was approached by the board. Upon thinking that he wasn't available due to his Melb Festival commitments, he was asked, what if we make it work for you?

It was a board decision through and through.

I personally am excited about the prospect of a producer-led company, a real change in the landscape of the MTC that will perhaps extend its appeal for future generations of audiences. And with a producer at the helm surely there will be more opportunities for freelance directors. I am not going to knife Brett before he has begun... boring as I find his festivals!!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Eileen - the producer model is actually much older than Thatcher (the producer/director/actor was a fixture in English rep theatre, eg). And like everything else, the role morphs with the times. Whenever there's this sort of argument, I think of Robert Musil's observation that managers are utterly crucial: it's all very well to have people fizzing with ideas and visions, but if they are to make any difference in society, someone has to create the structures that make their manifestation possible. We all know of nightmare producers who are merely interested in the bottom line; but equally, what about people like Stephen Armstrong, who was just as important as Kantor in shifting the ethos of the Malthouse, and who (quite rightly) was given the Myer award for his contributions to theatre?

Fascinating titbit, Anon. And quite. Let's see what happens before crying doom.

Eileen said...

But English rep was largely a commercial enterprise with horrendous conditions for practitioners and many roles completely unpaid. I'm talking about subsidised theatre, established in that window of a more Keynesian economic model. The advent of Thatchers neo-liberalism began the dismantling of such a system. And clearly I'm not suggesting doing away with producers , I'm pointing out their dominance in the dialectic which I think needs to be reversed.

Robyn said...
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Alison Croggon said...
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Alison Croggon said...

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