Jetlaggish meditations ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jetlaggish meditations

Your faithful blogger is back is town, with a baroque case of laryngitis incubated on the long-haul flight and an even more spectacular dose of jetlag. Yet for all such minor discomforts, I feel refreshed and revitalised. I had a fantastic time, which reminded me of some important stuff that is all too easily eroded in the hurlyburly chaos loosely known as my life.

I spent the final few days of my visit at the SoundEye Festival of the Arts of the Word in Cork, a completely brilliant and unique event which showcases, if showcase is the word, some of the most exciting things happening under the radar in contemporary poetry in Ireland, the UK and the US. There simply isn't an event in Australia like it (I'm not sure there's an event anywhere like it). It's one of the most intense, exciting and fun engagements with the possibilities of language that I've experienced. I plan to blog Soundeye a little more fully, to see if I can give you any sense of what it was, so watch this space theatrenauts, especially if you're interested in performance and language together. (And no, I'm not talking about performance poetry, but poetry as performance, which, I earnestly assure you, is quite different).

Some thoughts sparked by the festival are gleaming through the fog of jetlag, colliding with further thoughts emerging from the conversation under my review of Chris Goode's ...Sisters, which seems to have melded with attacks on Dan Spielman and Max Lyandvert's Manna, (on this week at the STC). And these thoughts then wandered on further and bumped into other thoughts which have been circling for some months now about the literary and intellectual culture in this country, and how unfruitfully it meshes with our theatre.

I have long suspected that our writing is the weakest part of our theatre, and it strikes me that the reasons for this go much deeper than a simple analysis of institutional structures and practice can reveal. Although I'd claim proudly that many elements of our theatre - performance, visual and sound design, technical skills and so on - stand with world's best practice, writing is too often like a poor, rather dim cousin on the fringes. And this has deep and worrying implications for everything else.

I'm not alone in my concerns about Australian theatre writing, although my thoughts are of a different timbre to most. On my desk when I came home was this month's Platform Paper by Chris Mead, artistic director of PlayWriting Australia, from Currency House: What Is An Australian Play: Have we failed our ethnic writers? I've glanced through it, and will give it a proper read in the next week - I hope - (on my floor is a huge boxful of scripts that I have to read this week as part of a panel for the RE Ross Trust Playwrights' Awards). But superficially, Mead is addressing the Anglocentric focus of Australian theatre culture, and how it marginalises minority writing. It looks interesting, and certainly deserves close attention.

But I suspect my own concerns go deeper than Mead's. It seems to me that any writing that steps outside a lamentably narrow paradigm is marginalised here, at a cost which is felt most deeply in our mainstream, but which reverberates all the way through the ecology of literature and theatre. The marginalisation of ethnic writers is only one of the symptoms. This is because the writing that kicks a culture alive is always the work that is rigorously doing something different, that questions basic assumptions, that won't fit - whether or not it exploits recognisable formal attributes - with what has gone before it.

We (excuse the rhetorical "we" - blame the jetlag, but I'm going to get stentorian now and shout in generalities) think in cliches, and this is where we betray most seriously our colonial mindset and stamp out most enthusiastically all signs of cultural diversity. Because literary thought (and I mean literary thought) in its broadest senses is marginalised in our culture, we lack an intellectual context in which new writing of any kind might be recognised. We are frightened (or simply ignorant) of the possibilities of language. And without a rigorous intellectual context, we will be stuck with half-baked experimentation or half-baked realisations of conventions, because any writing, conventional or not, that passionately addresses the possibilities of theatre will be greeted with hostility or, which is worse, total indifference. And this applies to Henrik Ibsen as much as to Sarah Kane, who is yet to have a mainstream production of her work in this country.

Can we find that context in Australian literary culture? I greatly fear that we can't. Theatre's where much of the most exciting Australian art is happening, and the more interesting reaches of our own contemporary writing are basically invisible, drowned in the sludge that here passes for literary culture. We're hamstrung in so many ways by what the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger tapes as the inevitable link between "mediocrities and delusions". That why we can't distinguish genuine experimentation from sheer wankery, or even recognise a good play, and turn to tired Anglocentric modes of writerly practice with timid squeaks of relief. If we want our theatre to matter, we have to be smarter. That means a lot of things. But maybe the first thing is to address our own incuriosities and illiteracies.


Geoffrey said...

Welcome home Ms TN! We missed you.

Anonymous said...

Yes...the distinction between genuine experimentation and sheer wankery...and the delusion that tries to believe the latter is actually the former. That does seem to be the vortex in which we are trapped. No doubt you will crash to earth with the same feelings of despair most of us get returning here after a stimulating time in the Big World. And then, before long, mentally lower the bar to stop from going mad.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Geoffrey. And hi St Genesius - I think I'm well past that despair, which I hit pretty hard about a decade back. For some years now, I've found enough exciting stuff around to keep me from suffocating, and to feel that there's a context, both locally and internationally, in which there are some interesting minds at work, and in which interesting art makes sense. Fuck lowering the bar or going mad! The real deadliness happens when you forget to look at what's happening where you live.

Chris Boyd said...

Yes. FUCK lowering the bar. Going mad doesn't seems an unreasonable option... But go see Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea first. :-)

The 'logosphere has ground to a halt (Born Dancin' the shimmering exception) in your absence.

Anonymous said...

If ONLY wankery was more prevalent, dear theatresphere, for that would mean enough common interest in experimentation to generate quality. If only nobody was afraid of being labeled a wanker, for that would mean there is respect for experiment. Fail again, fail better. Yes.

I agree with you, Alison, most Australian theatre practitioners are highly skilled, and actors/dancers/performers in particular are excellent across the board (it may be the long tradition of circus). I've noticed there is a form of schooled death that so many ensemble members, career actors, succumb to around here (Croatia). A director I've read an interview with recently blames it on the fact that national theatres were instituted for the citizenry, as a form of enlightening education, cutting off all ties with vernacular theatre, public festivals, etc. I am missing Australian performers, their dazzling, untamed energy.

But I would say Australia is a culture where talking about unhappy things, in the most general sense, is taboo. There is ethnic theatre, here, as a feel-good fairy tale. Whatever niche you look into, I'm sure there's a song-and-dance sort of fluff being created right now. Or we are trapped within the formally safe denunciation of wealthy and educated elite, or inconsequential ills, posing as left-wing theatre.

It all ties in, somewhat, with the Great Debate of Regietheater that the English are having, with their own tired leftie forms looking for possibilities elsewhere. But, I suppose, it would be a fine world if we only had British tired forms ;)

Anonymous said...

These considerations aren't limited to Australia; there's a similar mindset even in New York, and believe me, a wealth of experimentation doesn't necessarily lead to a healthier theatre either. (Many small guerilla-like companies are also interested in fluff; formal experimentation isn't that meaningful if ultimately the perspective is trite and superficial.) Jana's diagnosis that "Australia is a culture where talking about unhappy things, in the most general sense, is taboo. There is ethnic theatre, here, as a feel-good fairy tale ..." and right on through to the end of that paragraph is just the same here: theatre as a celebration of itself. But what is that? A little more searching meditation and a little less celebration may be a better place to start.

And welcome home, Alison!

Anonymous said...

And I'll look forward to the comments on the Soundeye festival. Thinking a lot about the relationship between language and performance myself lately and interested to hear what the Corkeyes had to offer ...

Alison Croggon said...

Heh. I saw Nick Cave on tv once being asked why he didn't live in Australia, and he said he didn't want to live in a place where it's a crime to be sad. I agree Jana, there's a vitality and energy here that's brilliant. Equally we have these huge cultural inhibitions, one of which is a general fear of making a fool of oneself. Something, it has to be said, that has never stopped me, as should be abundantly clear by now...

I've seen too much real madness to think it's an option, Chris. A chaotic sanity is probably the best that can be hoped for!

Andrew Haydon said...

That said, you could all live in England where happiness is considered slightly suspect and joy and/or exuberance is openly frowned upon.

- quite rightly, of course :-)

Alison Croggon said...

I'm sure there's a balance somewhere, Andrew. Mind you, in England excess of any kind causes discomfort. Though it seems to me not quite the land of Larkin these days...

Casey Bennetto said...

Yes yes yes, but did you follow Doctor Who through to the end of the season?

(Welcome back...)

Alison Croggon said...

I did indeed. The final showdown is a pearler, indeed, epic. I'm convinced Series 4 is pure opera.

Casey Bennetto said...

Doctor Who... the opera...


(spoiler alert for non-UK viewers)


"London Again" - The Doctor
"The Fat Just Walks Away" - The Adipose Singers
"Who Is The Doctor?" - Donna Noble
"O My Children" - Miss Foster
"The Fat Just Walks Away (Reprise)" - The Doctor & Donna Noble
"Cassandra" - Rose Tyler
"The Heart Of The Volcano" - The Doctor
"Give Them Hope/Let Them Burn" - Donna Noble & The Doctor
"Difficult Man" - Donna Noble
"We Live To Serve" - The Ood

... and so on. Worth it for the credit:
(spoiler alert for non-UK viewers)

"Featuring Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Davros".

Alison Croggon said...

You're the man for the job, Casey B, if anyone is. I hate to admit that nearly all the time I was in the UK i contrived to spend my Saturday nights near a television, and my major meltdown occurred when I realised after part 1 of the finale (I mean, the cliffhangers are shameless) that I would be in Cork being all seriously poetic, or maybe drunk, but in any case nowhere near a screen. Luckily the BBC has these handy podcasts you can stream for a week after screening...

Anonymous said...

Yes there is a foundational problem with theatre writing. Two legacies help explain. One is the prevalence of naturalism in 70's nationalist revival, and its spillover into so called television drama( look at the legacy of that in the thin, sentimental dialogue of most tv drama, including abc, still adopt). The second legacy is the 30 year old strange institutional marginalisation of the writer in terms of theatre workshopping. One result of this legacy has been a house style of australian writing which does rely on familiar phrases, cliches and stock characters, and dumbs down (and finally alienates) the audiences it seeks to cultivate. The second legacy is deeply entrenched: the patronising attitude of many actors and directors seeking endlessly to instruct, dramaturg, develop, co-write, mentor and guide the poor writer who really knows little about the form they write for. I wont begin to suggest answers, and Alison is spot on drawing emphatic attention to this now perennial issue.