Australian Theatre Forum ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 16, 2011

Australian Theatre Forum

The Australian Theatre Forum. Where to begin? For the past two days, I've been locked in a box with 260 theatre makers - performers, directors, designers, composers, writers, critics, arts funders, bloggers, producers. They came from all ends of Australia, from the regions and the capital cities, from the major companies to tiny independent outfits, descending on the Brisbane Powerhouse by the river to talk, drink, socialise, exchange and plot as only theatre makers can. They're still talking as I write, as the final day is today.

This is the second national forum. The first was held at the North Melbourne Meat Market in 2009, and was a similarly intense experience. Perhaps the first value of such gatherings is outside its formal proceedings, in the countless intimate conversations that happen between. Nothing breaks down hierarchical barriers with such inexorable force as the maelstrom of encounter. But it's not just what the French call a "gas factory": theatre makers are practical people, and practical outcomes came from the first, such as Wesley Enoch's idea for a National Indigenous Theatre Forum which is now mentoring young Aboriginal artists from remote regions. I'm certain others will emerge from 2011.

For those who can't be there, there's plenty of documenting. Augusta Supple and Jane Howard have been blogging on the run, reporting sessions as they happen, and there's an active tweetstream. The video below of Angharad Wynne-Jones's presentation during the introductory Postcards from the Future session gives a flavour of what it was like to be there.

I can't begin to note every idea that was discussed, even from my partial view. People talked about micro-touring, about new writing, about women in theatre, about new ways of collaborating, about environmentally sustainable practice both front and back stage, about technology, rethinking funding, cross-racial casting, queer theatre, rethinking corporate and company structures, theatre for young people, about failure and risk. And more. But what was palpable was the air of generosity and optimism with which these ideas were approached. There were frustrations and differences, but they were all part of the creative flux. For me the keynote was struck in the introduction by new Theatre Board chair Stephen Armstrong. "Theatre might not save the world," he said. "But let's imagine it might."

Cameron Woodhead and I flagged a lively session in the Open Space that debated the place of and space for criticism. I'm particularly concerned about how critical discourse (of all kinds, not merely reviews) can be nourished and sustained in a context where there is absolutely no incentive for young critics to learn this difficult, laborious and rewarding art. Mainstream spaces for arts are diminishing: most recently, for example, the ABC has cut all its in-house arts programming. And as things stand, the ad hoc nature of the internet can't pick up the slack. I think this is a problem that going to get worse, not better.

These thoughts are in part sparked by my recent meltdown(s), and in particular by a conversation with my colleague James Waites about the challenges of sustaining a critical output over the years that are required to create continuities and perspective. We all know that as theatre is a temporal art, the discourse is crucial as archive as much as it is as dialogue. It is a major connection between an art and its public. And as with every aspect of culture, its health depends on its diversity. In particular, I'm worried that so many new voices - the next generation of critics, who are there, who are writing now - have nowhere to develop their skills and knowledge, and nowhere to go. (I hurriedly add that I'm not concerned, or at least, not at the moment, with financing this blog.) Is it time to think, as some people are in wondering where quality journalism is to come from, about subsidising our critics?


I was part of a panel on the first day with Amitesh Grover (an independent artist from India), funding theorist Cathy Hunt and Indigenous literary critic Sandra Phillips. We were asked to speak for ten minutes on innovation. Which was a curly one, frankly. As a final note, my response is below.

The New and the Old

Thinking about innovation in the abstract is difficult. It’s one of those things which you know when you see it. It's word that is routinely written on funding applications. As artists we accept as a Good Thing. We know that without it, a culture grows stale and dull. But what is it?

I come from the poetry world, where poets tend to flinch at the various phrases – innovative poetry, alternative poetry, the avant garde - which are used as shorthand to describe exploratory or experimental practice. Mostly they’ve dropped the phrase avant garde, which has an early 20th century feel, quite aside from its militaristic connotations. As Ionesco pointed out in his imitable way, the problem with the avant garde is that you don’t know it’s the avant garde until it’s all over, because it can’t be ahead of a movement until the movement has actually happened. And, of course, that doesn’t happen until the avant garde has stopped being avant.

Poets tend to be pedantic and sceptical about language, and as they point out, such labels can be so general as to be almost meaningless. All the same, we need labels to describe things, however misleading they can be, because they point to something real. 

As is my wont, I went to the dictionary. Websters is quite straightforward: it defines innovation as 1: the introduction of something new. 2: a new idea, method, or device. Another definition caught my eye, from the online business dictionary, which says innovation is “the process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay.” That second meaning might seem particularly inapplicable in the arts, where so often the new is precisely the service or good which is least commercial; but artists do ask people to pay, in attention and time, and most especially with new work.

When I think of cultural innovation, I think of old things as well as new. The new is only recognisable in relation to what isn’t new. More importantly, the new is not possible without the old. This paradox is explored by one of my favourite critics, Viktor Sklovsky, who was part of one of the greatest explosions of artistic innovation in history. His peers were some of the great modernist artists – Malevich, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold – who emerged in the intellectual, artistic and political ferment of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the early 20th century.

In his book Bowstring, Sklovsky describes the contradictions of innovation well. “Art cognises by implemeting old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterpreting old structures, and yet at the same time it seems to be static. It changes fast, not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.” So much of art, it seems to me, is about perceiving and negotiating difference.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another great innovator at the centre of another artistic revolution, Romanticism, said something similar in describing imagination as a force which “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create”. You see this impulse in all truly radical art. Elfride Jelinek takes the assumptions of classical art and subjects it to fierce re-examination in plays like Clara S, opening jarring new perspectives, creating new ways of thinking about language. Bill Viola takes the contemplative art of the Renaissance and remakes it for a godless world in a new medium, video. Every artist you can think of creates his or her tradition, looking back to destroy and to remake, opening the new by responding both to the art that inspires them and to the times in which they live.

Given this, it seems to me that the first condition for an innovative culture is a diversity of stimulus. The broader the range of forms and practice and technology available, the more the new is possible. The greatest threat is to the new is homogeneity, a culture in which dominant forces obscure the variousness of experience in an ever-narrowing circle of self-confirmation. The other side of that equation is that innovation is also self-confirming, as I think we’ve seen over the past few years here in theatre: innovative art sparks more innovative art.

In a culture like ours, perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining diversity. Out of a sense that opportunities are limited, we are very often presented with either/or choices: we can either have new writing, for example, or we can have "classics". Yet just as a culture that only values the old and canonical will stifle itself without their constant reinvention, a culture devoted only to the new will remain shortsighted, trapped in an ever-decreasing and ever more homogenous present.

The real challenge is how to sustain as much variousness as possible, to broaden the bases of our culture in a time when we face real difficulties. The good news is that everything we need is already to hand. We live in a time when our resources in every direction, from our environment to our funding, are under critical pressure. The one resource that is infinite is our imaginations. And that's first thing that must be nourished if we are to face the challenges ahead.


Lastly, on a personal note, I'd like to thank, truly heartfeltly, the many people who have told me over the past few days how much they value Theatre Notes. It matters. I do it for you.


James Waites said...

I value Theatre Notes too! And thanks for mention. I do share your concerns about where seat-warmers like you and me are going to come from in the future - and how they might get skilled up.

J-Lo said...

Thanks for links to live bloggers - I heard a bit about 2009, and would be interested in reading an extended 'review' of this event and its implications / flow-on effects: do you know who does what afterwards, or if anyone does forum final report?

[and +1 on the here-here for this blog!]